Wow, first, thank you so much for all the amazing reviews on the last chapter. It's incredibly cool to receive such a response! I know I'm taking a risk with this plotline and that I might lose some readers but I hope some of you will stick with me.
Secondly, apologies for not updating on Tuesday. It's been a crazy week - genuinely crazy and next week might not be any better but if I don't update on Tuesday again I will definitely update on the Saturday. I'm also aware I've got a lot of fics to catch up with but keep writing guys, the more fics the better! Reviews will be on their way! : )
Thirdly, this chapter tries to deal with some emotive issues which may be upsetting to read about. I've done my best to research and write the subject matter in a sensitive manner. I'm not an expert but I would say to anyone who is experiencing or has experienced something similar to Scarlett's issues then do reach out for help. Much love to everyone out there. I've also got a companion one-shot for this chapter 'Responsibility' also going up today which explores the beginning of Charlie and Scarlett's friendship.
Fourthly, (yeah, I am totally going for the longest A/N ever), this is the last chapter before this fic gets rated up to 'M' so you have been warned!
Thanks for reading!
Downstairs in the dark warmth of the cellar, surrounded by flickering bars of lilac light, Bertrand lifted his head to the sound of raised voices. As a door slammed violently in the silent aftermath, he allowed himself a brief congratulatory smile. Well, that had been easy - almosttoo easy. His fingers remained cupped protectively over the bite wound on his neck. The skin was already healing, sealing Vlad's blood inside him, binding them together for what could be an eternity.
His work could finally begin.
There wasn't enough blood. There never could be enough blood. There was never enough damage. No cut was ever deep enough to stop her picking up the razor again and yet she hated the scars covering her body. They were a reminder that she wasn't like other people. She was a freak. An unnatural freak who didn't deserve to be loved, who deserved everything bad that she got but was too weak and pathetic to cope with it.
Scarlett wished she could explain why it was necessary to cut herself, why she was so full of self-loathing and hatred that she felt she deserved this. The words were always too difficult, the emotions choking her as her tongue tried to form the thoughts in her head. In the end, she would settle for turning her head away from the person in front of her whether they were a school teacher, social worker, doctor or even a friend.
Sometimes she felt angry and defensive. Why was it so wrong for her to do this? She wasn't hurting anyone but herself. What about the other ways in which people self-harmed? What about Jessie's drinking habit? The way her lawyer friend turned to a bottle of vodka for consolation wasn't exactly healthy. What about Charlie's secret passion for KFC? Her slender friend could pack away an entire family bucket when it came to a particular time of the month. Or the way Tamara used sport to vent her frustration at the pressure her family put her under? Why was her coping mechanism so wrong compared to theirs?
Tears trickled down her face, the salty fluid running across her cheeks and falling onto the soaked pillow. Staring blankly up at the ceiling, Scarlett let the sharp blade fall from her hand onto the floor below. She didn't blame Vlad for what he had said or done, it wasn't his fault. He was right. She was less than nothing.
Despite deflecting blow after blow, Nancy could feel herself being edged backwards. The assassin was utterly ruthless in his determination to reach the intended target. Nothing seemed to hold him back for long, even her hardest and most vindictive kicks and punches failed against this perfect specimen of vampirism. Worse of all, he seemed to be positively gloating at her behind his impersonal demeanour.
She snarled fiercely as she felt the power of his mind probe none too gently at hers, that moment of desperately trying to maintain her telepathic barriers cost her dearly. A hand of cold steel encircled her wrist and suddenly she was being thrown to the ground as if she were nothing more than a ragdoll to be childishly disposed of. Temper flaring; Nancy grabbed the edge of the assassin's cloak, a thick, heavy mixture of leather and satin, in her left hand. Tugging violently, she brought the vampire down onto the floor with her, the shocked gasps and murmurs of those watching, barely registering. A soft hiss of pain escaped her lips as the vampire partially fell upon her, the weight of his body would have knocked all the breath out of her body if she had any. As the assassin fought to regain his balance, Nancy's fingers inched out across the dusty surface of the floor. Curling her fingertips around the smooth wooden surface of the stake, she raised her arm to strike a deadly blow to the assassin's heart.
Before she could even realise what was the hell was happening, she felt the sharp tip of a stake pressing against her heart. Gazing up into the cold, merciless eyes of the Grand High Vampire, she couldn't for the unlife of her figure out how he had managed to flip their positions.
The Grand High Vampire rose gracefully to his feet, his face impassive even as he reached out a polite hand to her. Begrudgingly, Nancy placed her hand in his and allowed him to help her up. If it had been any other vampire, she would have told them to flap off. It was hard enough being a half fang let alone a woman in the vampire world. Her way of dealing with the all the jibes and jeers sent her way was to work twice as hard just to prove she was their equal. Perhaps he didn't realise it but Vladimir Dracula had just undone all her hard work by making her appear weak and feeble in front of her fellow recruits.
She gave the Grand High Vampire a curt nod of acknowledgement. As she stepped back into line with the other recruits, she couldn't resist peeking at him from beneath her eyelashes. He was so young that it was startling. He barely seemed old enough to vote let alone rule an entire race of bloodthirsty vampires. She felt old and foolish for just admiring the cut of his cheekbones and the plumpness of his lips. She had to be at least eighty years older than him given that she had been bitten during the Second World War.
He glanced at her as he spoke and it was a struggle not to duck her head and feign feminine modesty like she was some air headed vampette.
He looked away from her, his gaze returning to the tall, imposing vampire by his side. "Grade Zero," he said decisively before gliding onwards to the next group of recruits.
Standing in line, frozen to the spot, Nancy tried to quell the urge to breathe rapidly in and out with panic; it was a breather habit that she seemed unable to shake. Grade Zero? What did he mean Grade Zero? Everybody knew that there were only two grades! Grade Two referred to the lower guards, those who would accompany the Justices, perform general guarding and policing duties. Grade One referred to the small elite who would have the honour of protecting the Grand High Vampire. Not that this particular Grand High Vampire needed any protection against a stake... Did Grade Zero mean that she had just failed the most important test of her unlife? Nancy forced herself to stare straight ahead not daring to blink in case a treacherous tear would escape and expose her inner turmoil.
"Grade Zero," the recruit next to her whispered. "Grade fogging Zero!" Nancy resisted with difficulty the urge to punch the smug leech in the face. "You know what means," the recruit continued in an undertone, something close to awe entering his voice. "You're part of the elite. The super elite."
"What do you mean?" Nancy hissed out of the corner of her mouth.
The reply was as quick as it was unexpected. "Only the very best are assigned to protect the Dracula clan."
Nancy's eyes widened in surprise. Without even intending to, she found her head snapping back in the direction of Vladimir Dracula. What kind of Grand High Vampire put the protection of his family before his own?
To say that slaying was a hazardous occupation was very much an understatement. The majority of slayers died young, only a few ever reached retirement age. Thomas's father had been one of those lucky few. His old man had retired at sixty and now spent most of his days researching the genealogy of the family, pottering around his beautiful garden and whittling the occasional stake when his wife wasn't looking. Unlike most slayers, Thomas had been confident that he too would one day retire peacefully and hand the reins of the Oxfordshire division over to one of his twin daughters. It was common knowledge amongst the slayers that Oxford was unusually low in vampires even after accounting for the undead's dwindling numbers.
Given his current circumstances, Thomas was having serious doubts about reaching retirement age. Unforgiving steel was rubbing painfully against the delicate skin of his wrists, he anticipated his flesh would be red raw within hours unless the handcuffs were loosened. However, he knew his wrists were the least of his problems. Here he was, captured and tied up in his damn headquarters. The knowledge made him seethe with fury, the anger giving him something to hold onto as he tried to figure out how many hours or even days had just passed. Time had assumed a rather illusory quality, between the darkness and the chloroform; it was difficult to keep account of what exactly was happening to him. He supposed he should be grateful for the chloroform; that he was being knocked out rather than sitting in the darkness waiting for the telltale tread of his captors' footsteps, Dave's being so much heavier than Jonno's, but truthfully it was much more frightening. Every time one of them entered the cell with a damp handkerchief, a spasm of terror would pass through his body because he didn't know what he was going to wake up to.
The Grand High Vampire's new portrait was creating quite the stir, Ingrid noted sourly as she strode into the Council chambers. Despite being a few minutes late - Wolfie had wanted to show her his latest alchemy experiment - it was clear that she hadn't missed anything important. Council members were still milling around, a few of them still staring at the latest addition to the chamber walls. Ingrid had time to notice the Count's expression of absolute outrage before her eyes flitted upwards to the portrait which causing such a stir. Briefly, she wondered what Vlad had done this time to shock the Council. She wasn't prepared for the sight that greeted her. A tiny gasp of surprise escaped her lips as she realised that the haughty, beautiful face staring out of the painting was her. Resplendent in her crown and glittering ballgown, holding the sceptre of skulls traditionally associated with the office of Grand High Vampire, Countess Ingrid Dracula gazed disdainfully down upon her subjects.
Ingrid had to quickly raise a hand to her mouth to stop herself from giggling. No wonder her father was fuming! Suppressing her smile of glee, after all showing such emotion would be undignified for the uncrowned Queen of Vampires, Ingrid turned around to face the rest of the Council. "What?" she asked them all with wide eyed innocence, she gestured upwards at the stunning portrait. "I think it's his best yet."
Crouching slightly, Robin set the bottles of soy blood just inside the circle of light which surrounded the prisoner. His hand darted between the flickering bars as quickly as possible yet he knew that if Bertrand had truly wanted to snap the bones in his wrist, he could have caught him effortlessly. The vampire was watching him solemnly, wordlessly as he conducted his caretaking duties. He felt rather than saw how Bertrand's gaze scanned his throat hungrily, he could sense the vampire's burning contempt for the stake clutched in his hand. Vlad's tutor was unlike any vampire Robin had ever met. There was a watchful stillness about the tutor, a quiet intensity that made Robin's heart pound much faster than any threatening hiss or snap of fangs.
Vlad had been going on for weeks about how dangerous this Bertrand du Fortunesa was and now as he tended to the recovering vampire, Robin was beginning to realise that Vlad hadn't been exaggerating; he had been holding back.
It had been clear for some time that the Grand High Vampire was not listening to Ramanga's speech. The youngest member of the Council seemed to be off in an entirely different world, his feather quill doodling aimlessly on the parchment before him, an expression of complete disinterest resting upon his features. Being full of his own self-importance, it had taken Ramanga longer than most to notice the disdain with which he was being treated. Finally, however, the vampire's patience snapped and he slammed his hand down upon the heavy oak table causing everyone, except Vlad, to start slightly.
"Is something the matter Your Highness?" The sarcasm in his voice was pushing at the boundaries of what was considered acceptable conduct in Council meetings.
The Grand High Vampire didn't even bother to raise his eyes from the parchment laid out before him. "I'm bored" he replied simply as the feather quill continued to scratch against the thick creamy surface of the paper.
There were a few titters of laughter at Vlad's answer; they faded rapidly as Ramanga glared around the table. "Do matters of state bore you then?" His tone was verging on uncivil, Ramanga knew that there was only so far he could push Dracula before the vampire child snapped but right now his famously hot temper was blinding him to this fact.
"No." Vlad set aside the feather quill and leant back on his throne with deliberate slowness. Pressing his fingers together in a temple, he regarded Ramanga with an icy stare. "You bore me."
A shocked silence greeted his words; it was unprecedented for Vlad to be so openly rude and direct to one of his Council members. Normally, he played them off against each other with the sort of skill and cunning that left most of them wondering what the blood and garlic had just happened and why they had agreed with so little resistance to some crazy scheme thought up by a teenage boy with far too much power and influence.
Vlad tilted his head slightly to one side as he cast a scathing glance over his most violate Council member. "Sometimes I look at you and I wonder if I wouldn't be better off just slaying this entire stinking, miserable Council and starting off again with my own half fangs."
Ramanga glanced around at his fellow Council members; all raised eyebrows, panicked smiles and squirming discomfort at Vlad's threat. He couldn't count on them for support in this confrontation. Nonetheless, he squared his shoulders and gave the Grand High Vampire his most intimidating stare. "We would stake you." He could sense how the rest of the Council shrank away from him at these words – the snivelling cowards.
Vlad scoffed with apparent amusement. His eyes glittered with dark depths as he met Ramanga's faltering gaze. "You could try."
Charlie ran a loving hand over the golden hair of her best friend, trying to ignore the way her heart wrenched at Scarlett's unresponsiveness. Usually when she was upset, Scarlett would snap or flinch at being touched. Now, she lay curled up in a small ball beneath the duvet, her eyes swollen and glazed over, an occasional tear wandering down her raw, salt coated face. Charlie supposed that the best word to describe Scarlett's current condition was catatonic. It grieved her so much to watch her best friend suffer like this. Not for the first time, did Charlie curse Vladimir sodding Dracula's name. That damned vampire seemed determined to wreck everyone's life. Abandoning her poor Robin like that when they were kids, rocking up to Oxford without a care in the world, bringing all sorts of dangers into their lives – slayers and four hundred year old vampires for a start, breaking her best friend's heart and when he got his stupid, bloody source what would he do then? He would flit off back to whatever hellhole he came from, leaving her to pick up the pieces as Robin's heart shattered once again.
Charlie leant over and wrapped her arms around Scarlett's motionless form in an awkward hug. "You get twenty-four hours," she whispered. "OK, just twenty hours to cry over that bastard. And then it's going to get better. We are going to make it get better. I promise you this: I'm going to drag you out of this bed and I will make you have fun." Charlie tightened her arms around Scarlett in a comforting squeeze before sitting up again. "I'm always here for you." In a maternal gesture, she tucked the duvet more securely around her best friend. On her way out, Charlie picked up the half empty bottle of pills on her friend's desk, sneakily tucking them under her cardigan. Scarlett may have achieved so much in the past year in terms of confronting her personal demons but Charlie would prefer to remove all temptations. Unlike Vlad, she wasn't one for taking chances with her best friend's life.
Tracing her fingers softly over the delicate gold italics R. Branagh, Ingrid found herself closing her eyes and inhaling deeply. The scent of oil paint still lingered upon the canvas; it was a smell that had become oddly familiar to her, one which had often surrounded Branagh. If she sniffed more deeply, she almost imagine him standing here beside her, goofy grin on his face, eyes of such warmth despite their darkness... With a scowl, Ingrid regained control of her imagination. Whatever devils she had provoked in the past, this had to be absolutely the most disgusting thing that they could have retaliated with. A crush on a slayer was humiliation enough but a crush on Branagh? The geeky, annoying, little brat who used to follow her around with a sappy grin? Tearing her fingers away from his signature, Ingrid descended downwards, back onto the stone flooring of the Council chambers. With a determined set to her jaw, she shook out her cape and began stalking towards the door. The sooner, she tried to crush these revolting feelings, push these sickening thoughts out of her mind, the better. Shutting the chambers door firmly behind her, she hastened towards her own set of private chambers where a perfectly chilled bottle of Duke 1837 awaited her.
It was with surprise that she halted suddenly outside her brother's chambers, watching as he strode towards her, a posse of beautiful vampires following in his wake, all giggles, heaving bosoms and playful pouts. Her stomach recoiled in disgust. That anyone could find her brother remotely attractive had always bewildered Ingrid. But it was more than that. It was more than knowing her younger brother was getting off, it was knowing what lay behind it all. That it was all essentially a power struggle, that every vampiress who fluttered her eyelashes at Vlad was doing it for advancement, screwing their way into his favour, seeking privileges that others had to fight for. Ingrid was no stranger to using her charm and beauty for advancement, she still couldn't resist smirking to herself when she thought of how she double-crossed Ramanga. And that was where the differences began. Ingrid played men, she twisted their words and intentions, she lured them in and then left them with nothing whilst she gained everything. She did not submit, she did not resort to desperation, to begging, to demeaning herself like these fools.
She stood in the middle in the corridor, folding her arms stubbornly across her chest, a sneer playing upon her glossy lips. "Well, doesn't your heart mend quickly?" She cast critical eyes over Vlad's companions, her lips curling back even further from her fangs as she noticed Sarah Holmwood and Katerina Volkodlak in their midst, both of which she had aided and abetted in their quest for power and glory. To think that they would betray her like this, lower themselves to using sex to secure wealth and privilege rather than their intellect, infuriated her. For her part, Sarah at least had the shame to look away from Ingrid's accusing eyes. Katerina, on the other fang, smiled with mocking sweetness even as she ran a hand up Vlad's arm in a gesture purely intended to goad her former accomplice.
Vlad waved his hand, causing his chamber doors to swing open, he gestured at his companions, with exaggerated politeness, for them to enter before him. "Go ahead ladies. I need a word with my sister."
The vampiresses filed past one by one, Ingrid glared at each and every one of them, hating them all for betraying her cause of vampiress liberation. Both she and Vlad waited until his chamber doors were shut securely before speaking.
Vlad looked at her sharply, fangs grazing against his lower lip. "Have you got a problem Ingrid?" he asked heatedly.
"Damn right I do!" Ingrid exploded. "Don't you see what they are?" She gestured fiercely at the closed door. "They sleep with you for power and influence, none of them even like you let alone care about you. Do you really think you would be getting so much if you weren't the Chosen One? You're a flapping idiot if you can't see it! Or maybe, you're choosing to pretend it's not the truth." Ingrid felt a stab of fear hit her heart as Vlad's eyes darkened against the greying pallor of his face.
For a very long moment, Vlad merely studied her, his black eyes burning into hers, then he spoke quietly, maliciously. "What makes you so different from them?" He ignored her gasp of indignation and continued speaking. "You got your position purely because of me, because you're my sister." He shrugged nonchalantly, "You're still receiving power from a man rather than gaining it on your own merits. So I'm going to ask you again." Vlad stepped closer, his larger frame dominating hers, "What makes you so different from them?"
Ingrid was so vexed that she could barely get the words out. It was only when her brother's hand turned the door handle to his chambers that she managed to spit out her reply. "I may have gotten my position because I'm your sister but I work damn hard for it."
Vlad turned to her, a cruel smirk creeping across his lips. "What makes you think they don't?" With that final parting shot, he closed the door in her face.
Chapter 48 teaser
'That's treason. Grand High Treason to be precise.'