Title: The Lateness of the Hour
Author: Jordanna Morgan (librarie@jordanna.net)
Archive Rights: Please request the author’s consent.
Rating/Warnings: Mild PG for vampire angst.
Characters: Cross and Zero.
Setting: Around the very beginning of the series.
Summary:
Zero was growing ever more restless in the hours of darkness.
Disclaimer: Not mine. I’m just playing with them.
Notes: In the first episode, Zero is shown napping in the stable when he should be in class. I thought there must be a flipside to that behavior at night. This story is an attempt to explore that idea, as well as to write parental!Kaien, which is one of my favorite overlooked aspects of the series.

 

The Lateness of the Hour

 

The hinges of the library door had needed oiling for weeks, but Kaien Cross found excuses for not getting around to it.

Often now, when he lay in his bed at night, he would hear the squeak of those hinges downstairs. He knew what it meant, and his heart ached a little more each time. It was such an innocent sound in itself; but with its increasing frequency, it had become a new sign of the painful descent within the boy he cherished as a son.

Zero was growing ever more restless in the hours of darkness.

It was impossible to say exactly when this development arose. Zero must have fought his sleeplessness for some time, but as it became a losing battle, he had begun to rise and wander the school grounds in the dead of night. He may have been doing this for weeks before the Headmaster learned of it. His new habit was only exposed when Kaien received a polite but chilly complaint from Kaname, after some sort of confrontation between Zero and a Night Class student.

Fearing Zero’s hatred for his vampire schoolmates might get the better of him next time, Kaien urged him to come to the Headmaster’s quarters on sleepless nights instead, and quiet his mind with reading in the private library. The boy was plainly unsatisfied by the thought of trying to still his restlessness between the pages of a book, but he submitted to his benefactor’s wishes.

A month had passed since then, and those nocturnal creakings of the library door were now Kaien’s measure of Zero’s insomnia, giving him to realize just how serious it was.

More troubling still, there were recent reports of Zero leaving classes early. Although Kaien hadn’t yet confronted him about this lapse, he did speak of it to Yuki. At first she tried to cover for her fellow Guardian, but she finally admitted that he would sometimes disappear to the stables and sleep in the afternoons—a worrisome counterpoint to his difficulty sleeping at night.

After several long minutes of consideration, Kaien rose from the bed, reaching for his spectacles on the nightstand. He shrugged into his robe, found his slippers on the floor, and quietly made his way downstairs.

Inevitably, Zero would be pacing and brooding in the library, instead of reading. Kaien would usually not intrude; he could do nothing to ease what the boy was going through, and Zero was not one to appreciate useless sympathy. Still… tonight, Kaien felt more disquieted than usual. After four years of watching the creeping changes in Zero, he sensed that a true darkness was closing in at last, and time was growing terribly short.

At any time now, Zero could lose his struggle against the vampire hunger within him.

As a human who had survived the bite of a Pureblood, that horror was his inescapable fate. It was miraculous that he had endured for this long already. He had a strength of will Kaien had never seen the likes of before—but no matter how fiercely his mind and heart resisted the urge for blood, he could not fight his sheer physical need of it for much longer. Somehow he had managed to suppress that need for all this time, long after it would have driven others mad, but now his painful attacks of blood-hunger were growing far more frequent and intense.

In hopes of easing those attacks at least a little, Kaien gave Zero blood tablets. He had objected vehemently at first. In his eyes, that synthetic substitute for blood was loathsome to him, the sustenance of creatures he despised. In time, however, the pain forced him to reconsider—only to find that his body itself rejected the tablets. Far from giving him relief, they only sickened his stomach to the point that he coughed them up again, and in his frustration he had all but given up trying to take them.

Now, he simply endured the agony. When he felt it coming over him, he would slip away on his own, and Kaien knew he went to hide himself in some lonely place until it passed. He would let no one else see him as he was then, gasping and shivering from the pain, weeping silently from the terrible fear of what was yet to come.

Especially not Yuki. Zero’s desperation to show her an illusion of normalcy was perhaps the saddest part of all.

She couldn’t be sheltered from the truth forever. Kaien didn’t know how to tell her any more than Zero did, but she would have to know soon. She would have to know that if things went too far—if Zero lost his grip on himself without warning—she might be forced to protect herself or even others from him.

There was little comfort in the thought that, by that point, Zero would no longer be the boy they knew. When the beast growing in him finally conquered and consumed his soul, all that remained of him would be a pathetic shell, driven solely by animal instincts of hunger. Like any other victim of a Pureblood’s bite, the adopted son Kaien loved would be reduced to a Level E: a tragic, monstrous thing, for which destruction was a merciful release.

When that time came, surely Kaien would find the strength to do what was necessary… but not yet.

Please, not yet. Just a little longer.

The door of the library stood ajar. Through its gap, Kaien saw Zero on the far side of the room, dressed in casual clothes rather than his school uniform. The teenager stood by the window with his back turned, gazing out at the moonlit night.

His hand was clasped with deceptive lightness over the tattoo on the left side of his throat. The taming crest: the seal he bore in the very place where that woman had bitten him, tearing his humanity from him when he was only a child. With that mark, his bitter secret was written on his skin, to be plainly read by any vampire hunter who understood its meaning. It was for his own safety, as well as that of others… and yet, how cruel a reminder it was of the fate that awaited him.

When Zero pressed his hand to his neck that way, Kaien knew the invisible scar of the bite was aching. From past memories of pain… or from fresh pangs of craving for blood.

“Did I wake you?”

Zero’s voice was soft in the stillness. He spoke without turning from the window, and his only movement was to lower his hand from his neck, letting it fall to his side.

His awareness of his surroundings, so keen but so outwardly casual, was a little frightening. Soundless as Kaien’s slippers were against the carpet, somehow the boy had still heard him—or perhaps even smelled him. Or sensed his presence in some other way that Zero himself might not have been able to explain.

Chagrined at having been noticed, Kaien smiled wanly, and pushed the door open a little farther to step across the threshold. The creak of the hinges sounded different than when Zero entered—louder, more strident, like a scold—and the Headmaster was faintly amused by the idea that the room did not welcome his intrusion, either.

“Oh, not at all. I was only going to the kitchen, to make myself a cup of hot chocolate. Would you like to come have some with me?”

Kaien’s voice dripped with the honey-sweetness of his doting-father persona. Zero found that demeanor patronizing, and perhaps its lightness was misplaced when the boy was in pain; but his adoptive parent couldn’t help it. So little time might be left to be close to him, to let him know he was loved in spite of all he had suffered, and Kaien only wanted…

“No, thank you.” Zero’s answer was terse. Not cold, exactly, but just a little impatient.

The rebuff made Kaien wince. “Alright, Zero… but I do hope you’ll try to rest soon.” He hesitated a moment. Then he ventured further, veiling his quiet concerns beneath a gentle, unreproachful wryness. “Maybe you should try sleeping in the stable at night, if you sleep better there than in your own warm bed—”

“Don’t be funny!”

Zero almost turned with those harsh words, but not quite. His fists clenched at his sides with a tightness that made them tremble. After a long moment, he lifted his right hand to press his fingertips against the window, as if the panes of glass were the bars of a prison cell.

The prison, perhaps, that his own body was becoming to his soul.

“You know what this is.” Now his voice was low, taut, half-whispered. “Why I’m tired during the day, but at night I can hardly sleep at all. The instincts wired into my brain chemistry are changing. My body is trying to become nocturnal… like them.”

Underneath the revulsion and anger in Zero’s voice, there was a fear and despair that tore at Kaien’s heart.

The Headmaster closed his eyes with a sigh, and laid aside his tenderly coddling demeanor. Zero needed him now as the legendary hunter of vampires he had once been, the authority he still was, the man who knew as much about that race and its victims as any human alive…

Yet Kaien the hunter was a more fiercely loving father than even Kaien the teacher could ever be.

“That may be true, Zero,” he answered. Quietly, unflinchingly. “If it is part of your change, it isn’t going to get any easier to resist… but it may not be that yet. I know how great the stress has become for you. Maybe what keeps you awake at night is still only the strain and worry you’re going through.”

Zero shook his head slightly, but he still did not turn. His left hand rose slowly, to rub long slim fingers across pale lips, and Kaien wondered if the hunger was so bad tonight that his fangs were out.

Several months had now passed since the fangs first emerged. It had happened when Yuki cut herself in a small kitchen mishap, and for the first time, Zero was not completely able to suppress his body’s response to the smell of blood. Although the incident was successfully hidden from Yuki, Kaien had witnessed the terror and self-loathing it caused Zero to feel.

That day was a turning point—a dark milestone in Zero’s fatal journey. Ever since he was bitten, he had understood with painful clarity that he would one day become a predator, but his fangs were the first obvious physical change to drive home that reality. From that moment on, he not only had the growing urge to taste blood, but the abhorrent means by which to take it from the veins of another person… and nothing could ever be the same after that.

No matter the secrecy, Yuki surely knew something was changing, too. Over time, she had watched Zero grow from the traumatized orphan boy she’d first met. To all outward appearances, he had relearned how to live something like a normal life, and even opened up to her in some ways. He became a friend and foster brother she cared deeply for—even if he could be temperamental. Yet in these past months, as Zero increasingly distanced himself to conceal his suffering, Yuki must have felt she was seeing him inexplicably take steps back from all his earlier progress.

Kaien hated the hurt this tragedy brought to both of his children.

He glanced back at Zero, and realized the boy had discreetly wrapped his arms around himself. His head was down, but his shoulders were stiff and his body tense, braced against a fresh wave of pain.

Aching himself with a feeling of helplessness, Kaien could offer only one feeble suggestion. “You should take a blood tablet. Even if you can’t keep it down for long, you might absorb enough to help at least a little.”

“Already tried. It’s no use.” Zero’s voice was faint and ragged. He bent forward a little, letting his forehead rest against the windowpane, and Kaien could easily imagine the look on his face. The way he closed his eyes against the darkness beyond the window—and within himself.

“I just want… to see the sun rise.”

Those soft, trembling words were nothing less than a plea, and they caused a lump to rise in Kaien’s throat.

Contrary to popular myth, sunlight was by no means fatal to vampires, but it could be uncomfortable to their night-adapted eyes and sensitive skin. If Zero was beginning to feel those effects too, he had not shown it, and Kaien was unsurprised. Of course Zero’s heart would cling ever more dearly to the day, even as his body yearned for night. Living his life beneath the sun was one more way to assert that he was still human, and not one of them.

“There are hours yet before morning,” Kaien murmured, and was forced to swallow hard to steady his voice. “It would be easier if you slept. If you want to keep living the life you’ve chosen… you have to try.”

The words were hard enough to make Zero wince, but Kaien knew he understood. The Headmaster had to think of others as well as Zero, and as the boy became less stable, his position in the Day Class grew more tenuous. The secret of his condition could not be exposed to the human students, much less allowed to endanger them. That meant he had to fight to maintain even the most ordinary human habits—such as sleeping at night.

Zero drew a deep breath, and finally turned to face Kaien. His expression was a grimace of pain, and there were deep, weary shadows under his eyes; but those eyes were violet instead of crimson, and there was no visible glint of fangs behind his slightly parted lips. That was good. Even now, his self-control was still impressive.

“You’re right,” he conceded quietly, and began moving toward the door. “I’ll lie down, at least. Even if I can’t sleep.”

With an approving nod, Kaien watched Zero cross the room. He drew a breath to say good night—but the words died on his lips when Zero gasped and stumbled, seized by a particularly violent spasm of pain.

“Zero!”

There was no reply; under the renewed assault, Zero’s breaths were heaving too harshly for him to give one. He fell to his knees, wracked with shudders that were little short of convulsions. A sharp groan escaped between his tightly clenched teeth, and he curled into himself, clutching at his chest and throat.

Many months ago, when this pain first began to strike him, Zero had tried to describe it: deep and throbbing and fiery, squeezing his chest and burning in his veins, like a heart attack and suffocation and intense pangs of hunger all at once. Even before then, Kaien had seen it too often, as a vampire hunter whose sword had released countless victims from that torment. Yet in spite of all his experience, as he watched his adopted son endure it time and again, the reality of it became so much more clear… and so very, very personal.

Kaien knew from the beginning what Zero’s fate would be, and what he would one day have to do. He knew, and he had taken the boy into his home and his heart anyway—but perhaps he had never thought the reckoning would take so long to come, or allow his love for a doomed child to grow so deep.

Nevertheless, it was the choice he had made, and he would not turn away from it now.

Without hesitation, Kaien stepped forward. He sank to his knees, and his firm, steadying hands came to rest on Zero’s shaking shoulders, drawing him so close that it was almost an embrace.

There was nothing he could do to lessen the pain; but this time, Zero would not suffer it alone. If a warm and caring presence meant anything at all to him—if it could reach him through the bitter standoffishness he used as a shield in his fear of hurting others—then at least he would have that much.

Rather surprisingly, Zero did not resist the contact. He had crumpled onto his hands and knees, gasping, but at Kaien’s touch he flinched and pushed himself upright. His trembling hands almost blindly felt their way up Kaien’s arms to his shoulders, to cling tightly and steady himself.

He uttered a soft moan. It was a sound of warning mingled with longing, two conflicting impulses that were both equally driven by an agony of desperation… and then his grip turned suddenly to steel. He sagged forward against Kaien’s shoulder, and in that brief instant, the Headmaster saw a flash of scarlet eyes and glistening fangs.

A hot, shivering breath hissed out against the soft skin of Kaien’s neck, and the teacher slowly closed his eyes.

“Do this if you must, Zero.”

For a single moment, Zero was still. Then his fingers clenched even tighter on Kaien’s shoulders, and in one violent motion he shoved himself away from the older man, collapsing onto the thick softness of the carpet. He curled up tightly on his side with his back turned, still clutching at the pain in his chest, but the tremors that coursed through his shoulders now were silent sobs of grief.

Kaien didn’t move for a few moments longer, because it took him that long to absorb the enormity of the words his own lips had whispered.

Zero had been a mere heartbeat away from biting, and Kaien did not resist it. More than that—he had heard himself literally give permission for the boy to sink fangs into his throat, to take a little of his life, if it would quiet the beast within. To willingly offer one’s blood to a vampire was the most forbidden of deeds, yet he had cast that taboo asunder without the slightest thought.

He had truly meant it… and he realized, with a strange feeling of detachment, that he still meant it.

Even if Zero’s urges could be calmed with a voluntary offering of human blood, at best it would only delay the inevitable. His hunger would continue to grow until his will could no longer withstand it. A time would still come when his soul slipped out of reach, and destruction was the last kindness he could be given; but until then, Kaien now realized there was no limit to what he would give for his son. If his blood could buy Zero one more day, he would provide it without hesitation. As long as it was possible, no taboo in the world would keep him from preserving a life so precious to him.

Reaching out, Kaien rested one hand gently but firmly on Zero’s shoulder. The boy dug his fingernails into the deep carpet, muscles tensing as if to move, but he failed to find the will—or perhaps, for the moment, the mere physical strength—to twist himself out of that grip.

“Please… just end it…”

The entreaty rasped out between barely-suppressed sobs. Kaien grimaced and glanced away, hating those words with all of his being.

It was by no means the first time Zero had asked, had pleaded for death. At each one of those milestones past—when he was branded with the taming crest, when the pains first came, when his fangs manifested—he had begged for release from traveling any deeper into this nightmare. It was never that he was asking to be spared from his own suffering. His spirit was too strong for that. He wished only to be eliminated as a threat to others, before he ever truly became one.

A part of Kaien, the part of him that knew what still lay ahead, that dreaded to see it and would give anything to keep Zero from experiencing it, was tempted each time to grant his request… and yet…

“I can’t, Zero. I’m sorry… but I can’t.”

Something about Zero was different. In the past four years, as he matured—and as the vampire taint in him took deeper root—he had shown no sign of the slow physical degeneration other bitten humans suffered. To the contrary, an almost ethereal beauty and grace had emerged in him. It was the same preternatural allure the born vampires of the Night Class possessed—and that should have been impossible.

Perhaps there was merit to the myth of the Cursed Twins, after all. Zero had already been something different since the day he was born, and if that difference slowed the onset of his vampirism, or even changed the nature of its progression…

It was reason enough for Kaien to hope, and to fight for every moment of life and sanity that was left in Zero. Fighting for time to see the end result of his uniqueness; time to understand exactly what it was and why it was. Even if the answer could not save Zero from the fate of a Level E, the knowledge might hold some key to helping others in the future.

Zero knew nothing of those motives, or perhaps excuses, that the Headmaster clung to. He would have disdained them if he did.

With one sharp, despairing shake of his head, Zero jerked his shoulder away from Kaien’s grip. He curled into himself more tightly, hiding his face behind his arms, and wept in silence.

Kaien sat beside him, saying nothing, because there was nothing to say. He only watched as Zero’s shivering gradually subsided, listened as his soft gasps of pain relaxed into steadier breaths. He watched, and he ached, and he loved the boy more than he ever had before.

After a long time, he reached out, brushing Zero’s bangs away from his face… and now, Zero no longer shied away from the touch.

So Kaien sat for the hours that remained of the night, gently stroking Zero’s hair: moonlight-colored, fine as spider-silk, damp with the sweat of physical strain and emotional stress. Zero did not move, and his painful breathing eventually lengthened into repose. He looked as peaceful as a child then, while sleep granted him its brief, precious respite from the hurt and the fear.

Shortly before dawn, Zero shifted without waking, turning toward his teacher. Kaien devoted himself to studying every line of his deceptively delicate and untroubled face, trying to capture it forever in his memory.

When the time came, he wanted to remember Zero like this.

Daylight was just breaking when Zero awakened. He did so in quiet stillness, long lashes flickering against pale cheeks, violet eyes dark with a pensiveness that was all too keen for a morning’s first thoughts. He breathed deep, stretched his long limbs, began to turn his head… and froze as he felt the hand that still rested on his hair.

He darted a glance at Kaien. Mixed emotions crossed his face, and he pulled his head away from Kaien’s hand as he moved to sit up—but not with the vehemently offended quickness the Headmaster might have expected.

“Do you feel better?” Kaien asked gently.

Zero’s cheeks darkened slightly. His eyes shifted away, but he seemed calmer than Kaien had seen him in a long time.

“…For now.”

How neatly and terribly those two words summed up all that Zero had. Now, the present, this moment…

At least this was one moment he had permitted Kaien to share with him.

Slowly Zero stood, to flex the kinks out of his muscles from sleeping on the floor. Then, after a slight hesitation, he reached down: his slim hand extended to his teacher.

If things had been just a little different, Kaien would happily have wept at that small gesture—but not now. Zero had given him this moment, and he would accept it on Zero’s terms, without the sentiment that so greatly embarrassed the boy. He grasped Zero’s hand firmly, allowing his foster son’s unexpected strength to pull him to his feet.

Zero released Kaien’s hand at once, and moved quickly toward the door. However, he paused at the threshold. He did not look back, but he lightly swept his fingers through his tousled hair, as if he could still feel Kaien’s touch.

“Thank you,” he said faintly, and disappeared into the hall.

Kaien let his tears spill over then—but at the same time, he smiled.

“Always, Zero.”


© 2012 Jordanna Morgan