Title: Preview
Author: Jordanna Morgan (librarie@jordanna.net)
Archive Rights: Please request the author’s consent.
Rating/Warnings: PG for vampire angst.
Characters: Zero, Cross, and a few vampire hunters of my own creation.
Setting: Anime. A week after Zero was first bitten.
Summary:
The recently-bitten Zero encounters a glimpse of the future he faces.
Disclaimer: Not mine. I’m just playing with them.
Notes: Written for the prompt of mutation/transformation at Genprompt Bingo. It’s been a while since I properly watched “Vampire Knight”, so hopefully I’m not in error with the practices of the Vampire Hunters’ Association that I’ve depicted here.

 

Preview

 

A week after Zero’s entire world was taken from him, the wound on his neck had long since vanished… but he still felt the crawling, phantom fire of the bite in every inch of his veins.

For the most part, Kaien Cross had let Zero alone for the first several days: allowing him to grieve for the loss of his family, to absorb the shock and horror of his own unspeakable violation. He was faintly thankful for that, at least. For a while, every moment was a terrible waking dream, an unreal haze he wandered through with little attention to what was going on around him. It took time for the nightmare to solidify in his soul as a cold, hard fact.

He had been bitten by a Pureblood vampire, infecting his body and soul with a slow poison that was just as deadly as the violent murder of his parents—and far more merciless. In time, he himself would feel a vampire’s thirst growing inside him. He would become the very thing he hated most in the world… and when the urge for blood finally drove him mad, he would die, released from his torment at last by the hand of Cross or another hunter.

Rage and resignation were strange emotions to feel together, but they were the ones that gradually settled within Zero’s heart. Deprived of his family, his home, and his future, he had nothing left to lose. As his humanity trickled away like sand in an hourglass, he would wait patiently for the deliverance of death; and in the meantime, he would focus every ounce of his strength and will on becoming a hunter, to avenge himself on as many vampires as he possibly could.

After that first week, when Zero had become a little more responsive, Cross gently informed him that they had to visit the headquarters of the Vampire Hunters’ Association. It was necessary to file a proper report on the attack. For that purpose, Zero would be asked to recount exactly what had happened on that terrible night.

Reliving the horror in his mind was the last thing Zero wanted to do, but he submitted to his new guardian’s instructions. On a bright morning, they set out for the Association headquarters.

When they arrived, Zero was acutely aware of glances and whispers. Clearly, the news of his parents’ deaths had already spread; both of them were skilled hunters, his father a descendant of one of the most renowned bloodlines in their profession. It would be considered a great loss to the entire organization. Ordinarily, as the last survivor of the Kiryu family, Zero would receive the utmost care and respect…

But not now. Not when the other hunters learned—if they hadn’t already—the abhorrent secret that was burning in his blood.

With a vampire’s taint in him, he would be looked upon at best with pity, and at worst with suspicion and contempt. Even hunters who were kind to him would always observe him warily, prepared to defend themselves if he should suddenly lose his senses and attack. Others had less sympathy for the bitten, considering it only a sign of weakness when a hunter fell prey to this fate, and they would treat him as little better than a diseased animal. They would argue that he should be put down quickly, long before the awakening of vampiric urges made him dangerous.

Zero would be perfectly content to accept such a judgment. Although he felt slightly better about the time left to him when he thought of the vampires he would kill, the other people he would spare from this evil… the truth was, he would much rather have felt and thought nothing at all anymore.

And yet, Zero was not the sole focus of attention at the headquarters that day. He began to realize that some people were clustered together, speaking in grim whispers, before they even saw him.

Cross paused to ask one man what had happened. The fellow looked sideways at Zero, more uncertain than disapproving; but after a moment, he answered the question.

“Old Tamuro is losing his fight—and fast. He tried to attack Doctor Koshin yesterday, during a medical test. They have him locked up in the cellar now.” The man shook his head morosely. “It’s hardly been eight months since he was bitten. As tough as he was, I thought he’d be able to hold out for at least a year.”

Zero’s heart skipped a beat. It was chilling to hear that even a strong and respected hunter, once bitten by a Pureblood, had lasted for so short a time before the compulsions of a Level E overtook him.

“I’m sorry to hear about this,” Cross said solemnly. “Tamuro was a fine old comrade… It should never have happened to him. At his age, he shouldn’t have been doing such dangerous field work anymore. He couldn’t react as quickly as he used to. The risk was too great.”

“You know Tamuro. Couldn’t keep him away from the job… and anyway, we all know the risks.” The man’s eyes narrowed as he finally looked at Zero again, with a grave significance. “Not just to ourselves, but to everyone around us.”

Zero paled and dropped his gaze, feeling sick.

After a few parting words with the man, Cross placed his hand on Zero’s shoulder, and gently guided him away. They continued on down the echoing, almost medieval hallways for a few moments before Zero quietly spoke.

“The man he was talking about—this Tamuro.” He drew a deep, unsteady breath. “I want to see him.”

Cross froze in his tracks. His hand slipped down from Zero’s sleeve.

“I don’t think that’s wise. If what Ota says is true, Tamuro is in no condition for visitors.”

Zero scowled. “It’s not like I’d have to talk to him. I only want to… see him. Just for a minute. I want to see…” He swallowed hard and looked away, his fists clenching tight at his sides. “The way I’m going to end up too.”

“You’ve seen it before already, Zero.”

The words were very quiet, but utterly brutal—because they were true. He still remembered all too well the school nurse, the gentle and lovely creature who had become a monster before his eyes… and what his mentor, Toga Yagari, had lost in protecting him from her.

But that case had been different. The nurse, an innocent outsider, had probably never known what was happening until the bloodlust overcame her. She wouldn’t have spent months in full awareness of her condition, fighting against its onset, the way a trained hunter would. Zero wanted to know how it was for someone who knew he was going to change, and tried to resist for as long as he could.

He wanted to know how much more it hurt to resist.

Cross refused to say anything further about the matter. His hand returned to Zero’s shoulder, leading him forward again.

The interview they had come for, conducted by half a dozen high-ranking hunters, was as difficult as Zero expected. Self-consciously seated in front of them, he slowly recounted his now-hazy memories of the attack, guided by Cross. His audience listened intently, sometimes asking him questions of their own, while two of them took notes. The only woman among the six was gentle when she spoke to Zero, but a few of the men looked at him with dark gazes and hard-set jaws, as if he was an unclean thing whose very presence offended them.

When he had told them everything he could, the note-takers gravely closed their notebooks. The most surly-looking man stood, taking a breath as if to launch into some kind of preemptive argument; but Cross cut him off by turning quickly to Zero. He took his young charge by the arm, and steered him almost brusquely to the door.

“You’ve done all you need to for now. I’d like you to wait for me outside this room,” he said, as he practically pushed Zero into the hallway. When Zero twisted back to protest, Cross raised a stern forefinger and added warningly: “Don’t wander off.”

With that, the solid door closed, shutting Zero out of the proceedings. At once he heard the muffled sounds of conflicting voices on the other side.

He didn’t bother trying to make out their words. He could guess exactly what was being said. A few of the hunters, like that last man, would be arguing that the corrupted child should be given the mercy of a swift death—or at the very least, caged like an animal. Meanwhile, Kaien Cross was insisting upon his own plan: to keep Zero in his home, bearing the responsibility of watching over him, until the day came when he could no longer control what lurked inside him.

The thing was, Zero didn’t even know which of those fates he would choose, if the decision was left to him.

He wasted no time in disobeying the Headmaster’s command. Turning on his heel, he set off to explore the vast, almost cathedral-like building that housed the Association headquarters. The adults he passed by frowned at him, disapproving of a boy roaming unattended, whether or not they knew of the curse upon him; but strangely enough, no one hindered him.

It was probably a long shot… but he wanted to find the cellar Ota had spoken of, where the Level E named Tamuro was being kept. Regardless of Cross’ forbiddance, Zero would not be able to rest until he saw with his own eyes how a hunter paid the ultimate price for his work.

Ten minutes or more must have passed as Zero slipped from one room to another, searching for any stairs that might lead downward. He found many locked doors, but these were clearly labeled as things like armories or high-level offices, which would surely not contain what he sought. He continued on, feeling a little more urgent as time went by, wondering when Cross would begin to look for him.

Just as he was peeking in through a door that proved to lead only to a supply closet, a heavy hand fell on his shoulder.

Zero spun sharply, his fist swinging upward. He couldn’t have helped the reaction if he wanted to. Still too fresh in his memory were the hands of that woman, delicate yet strong as steel, clutching him tightly as her parted lips caressed his neck…

The blow never found its target. Zero’s fist was caught by a second strong hand, as the first hand grasped his upper arm and gave him a slight shake. The firm gesture snapped him back to his senses, clearing the blood-misted haze of memories from his eyes, and he found himself staring up at the skeptical face of Ota.

“…Easy, kid.” Ota slowly released him. “You’re safe enough here… for now.”

The for now was a frightening postscript to the statement. It twisted Zero’s gut to think that one day—perhaps sooner, rather than later—the people whose cause he wanted to serve more than anything else would see him only as an enemy.

“I—I was—” he stammered, not even sure what he was going to say, but Ota brusquely cut him off.

“Yeah. I heard what you asked Cross earlier.” Ota turned and took a few steps, as if to walk away… but then he paused, glancing back over his shoulder. “What you’re looking for is in the medical wing. When you get there, take the stairs behind the unmarked door at the end of the main hallway.”

Ota continued walking then, and Zero stared after him in astonishment.

“You’re not going to try to stop me?”

Another pause broke Ota’s stride. When his reply came at last, it was quiet, and very simple.

“You have the right to know.”

Zero waited then. He waited until the door of the room closed, until Ota would have had time to disappear down the hallway beyond. Then he went out himself, to set off immediately toward the headquarters’ medical wing. He knew where to find it, because they had passed the doors leading there earlier, and it was unmistakably more modern than the rest of that history-shrouded labyrinth. In fact, it was a highly advanced facility, where hunters wounded in the line of duty received treatment… and where the effects of the Pureblood bite were studied.

Scientific minds among the hunters had been seeking a way to cure the bitten for as long as the Association existed. They were no closer now than they had ever been—and Zero did not believe for a moment that the answer might be found before his time ran out. He knew the only real cure for vampirism was to exterminate every Pureblood from the face of the earth. If they no longer existed to bite and to breed, that alone would seal the fate of the entire vampire race, and free mankind at last from the horrors they inflicted.

Cross was surely insane to want to work with the vampires instead. Zero was convinced of that; and yet, it also seemed that Cross had no wish to obstruct his charge’s ambitions as a hunter. In any case, at least for now, accepting the man’s protection was the only way Zero could move forward with his plans. If he had no advocate, those who now saw him only as vampire himself would have their way with him.

It would make no difference personally to Zero… but it would simply be a waste. Because if he was put down while his mind was still his own, there would be vampires left alive that he would otherwise have the chance to kill.

Quickly and quietly, Zero made his way down the sterile-white main corridor of the medical wing, grimacing at its sharp antiseptic odor. It was so strong that it made his eyes sting, and he wondered—with a painful clench of fear in his stomach and chest—whether his sense of smell was already becoming sharper.

Eventually, he would be able to smell the blood beneath the skin of any person he met. The scent would arouse his body against his will, entice flesh-piercing fangs to emerge in his mouth. It would make him want to seize that person and—

No.

He violently shook the image of his future out of his head. If he thought about it now, he would lose the will to fight, even while he had the time to do something meaningful. The death of just one Level E by his hands would save an untold number of lives. If he could carry out the work of a hunter for a matter of months, perhaps a year… then the remainder of his life could yet serve a good purpose. He might not live to see how his battle would save others from suffering, but he could still know that it would.

Finally, Zero reached the door at the end of the long hallway. As Ota had said, there was no sign to indicate what lay beyond it. Made of steel, it was large and heavy like a fire exit, causing Zero a moment’s hesitation. However, no alarm sounded when he cautiously pressed his weight against the bar and pushed it open.

As promised, at the end of a short landing, he saw a stone staircase that led downward. The stairwell was unlighted and dim, spared from total darkness only by an artificial glow of fluorescent light that crept up the steps from some source down below.

Zero let the door behind him slowly swing shut. He took a deep breath, and began to descend into the shadows.

At the bottom of the staircase, there was nothing but another door. This one had a transparent window set into it, from which the light spilled. His pulse quickening, Zero drew closer to look through the pane, and saw a well-lit white room—a far cry from the dank image conjured by the “cellar” name Ota had labeled it with. Instead, it was every bit as clean and hospital-like as the medical wing upstairs. There were shelves full of neatly labeled binders of research data, counters arranged with clinical equipment such as microscopes…

And racks of test tubes—each of them filled with a liquid of the same dark ruby-red color.

Sudden nausea churned in Zero’s stomach. He shut his eyes and turned his face away from the window for a moment, gulping hard before he looked again.

There was no one to be seen inside, at least within Zero’s view. However, the space was much wider than it was deep, which meant he couldn’t see the ends of the room on either side. Perhaps there was another door leading to the containment area, where bitten subjects would be treated and observed as the Level E madness consumed them.

After a long moment of battling with his faltering courage, Zero opened the door, and stepped through it.

To his left, there was only more of the same laboratory paraphernalia. But to his right, at the other side of the room…

Zero caught his breath. A closely-spaced row of thick iron bars spanned the far end of the room, closing off what could only be described as a prison cell. Inside it, the three walls, the floor, and even the ceiling were lined with steel plates. The furnishings were simple and colorless: a cot, a table and chair, a small bookshelf scattered with a few personal belongings. A glimpse of the necessary plumbing fixtures was visible behind a narrow partition that extended from one wall.

A figure was lying on the cot at the rear of the cell. His back had evidently been turned to the door when it opened, but he quickly rolled over to appraise his visitor. He was dressed in plain, light-gray clothes, and his unkempt hair was only a few shades darker.

The first thing that struck Zero was the way the man moved, as he slowly slid off of the cot. He should have been tall; but as his slippered feet met the floor, he did not fully straighten. Instead, he remained in a slightly crouched posture, like a wary animal. His hands curled in toward his chest, fingers twitching, as if he was fighting the urge to close his fists in defensive readiness. He stood frozen in that pose for a long moment, allowing Zero ample time to study his face as well.

Beneath the fringe of unruly gray hair, the man’s skin was like parchment, deeply lined and terribly pale. It clung gauntly over a fine-boned face that may once have been almost regal, but was now hollowed and sunken. His dry, cracked lips were set in a hard line, and several days’ worth of stubble covered his jaw. His brown eyes were narrowed, staring out at Zero with a feral intensity.

His tongue flicked over those rough lips. He swallowed and sniffed the air, and something more terribly calculating crept into his eyes.

…I smell vampire blood in you.

Zero’s stomach instantly heaved. He was barely able to reach the wastepaper basket under a nearby counter before he vomited.

There was a long moment’s silence then. Zero sat hunched over on his knees, still gripping the edge of the trash receptacle to support himself. He gasped and trembled as his now-empty gut continued to clench, and the terrified pounding of his heart made his head throb painfully.

Even a newly emergent Level E could already tell that he had been marked as its own kind…

“I’m sorry,” the caged figure whispered behind him at last.

With those words, the man’s voice had changed. The gruff, animal edge it possessed before was gone, leaving it infinitely softer. Zero dared a glance over his shoulder, to see the man looking at him with eyes that were no longer wild, but instead filled with pain and regret.

“You’re Tamuro,” Zero breathed, but it was not exactly a question. In coming down here, he had found only what he was given to expect.

“I am… Or at least, a part of me still is.” Tamuro shuffled closer to the bars, his now much clearer eyes scrutinizing the youthful face that was half-turned toward him. “And you must be the Kiryu boy. I see it now. You look so much like your father… and your mother, too. She was—a lovely woman. I’m sorry for what happened to them.”

Zero blinked. “You… you know about that?”

A black, bitter trace of a smile twisted Tamuro’s mouth, but there was shame in the way his eyes turned away from Zero’s face.

“The news about your family was what finally made me lose my grip. I’d felt myself slipping towards the edge for days, but when I heard of the attack—all I could think of was… the Pureblood who killed your parents. Standing over their bodies in a pool of red…”

A strange shudder passed through him as he closed his eyes; and when they opened again, they burned a luminous scarlet. His lips parted for a rasping breath, exposing the sharp white points of fangs.

“I thought of your beautiful mother’s life bleeding out of her… About what it would feel like to—to—”

As Tamuro confessed to that horrific fantasy, a fresh surge of bile rose in Zero’s throat; but even as he choked in horror, he heard the sudden way Tamuro cut his own words off. The Level E fell to his knees and curled into himself, groaning heavily, both hands pressing upon his chest. Zero could see the tremendous exertion that strained through his entire body, as if he was forcibly pushing the alien monstrousness of his urges back down into the depths of his soul.

Forgive me,” Tamuro gasped. The words were a muffled half-sob as his hands moved higher, covering his face.

Zero didn’t want to forgive—but he realized, with a feeling of despairing wretchedness, that he could not do otherwise. He was unfit to judge the corruption within Tamuro, because in time, those same impulses would claim his own body and mind… and perhaps his resistance would be even weaker.

He knew then what a mercy the imprisoning iron bars were for Tamuro. He knew how gratefully he would welcome them himself when his own time came—and how much more eagerly he would await and embrace the one ultimate solution.

“Why are you still alive?” he demanded, but the words carried no hatred or bitterness. He genuinely wanted to know the answer. “Why should you go on suffering like this any longer?”

Tamuro slowly sat back, leaning his elbows on his drawn-up knees. His fingers slipped down from his eyes, just a little. The crimson fire in them was gone, faded again to a sorrowed and entirely lucid brown softness.

“For the ones that come after me—like you.” He lowered his hands completely then. He was still breathing heavily, but his lips were curved in a sad half-smile, even though the fangs still glittered behind them. “All this time, I’ve known there’d be no chance for me. But if the doctors can learn anything from my body, even through this pain… maybe there could still be hope for you, or other children like you in the future. Do you understand? …Just living is the only way I have left to be a part of the fight—and I’m going to do it for as long as I can.”

Zero’s breath caught. He gazed at Tamuro in wonder, struggling to process the man’s extraordinary declaration.

He had always thought the best choice for the bitten was to die swiftly, to cut short their own anguish and the risk to others. Never before had he looked past that ruthlessly merciful ideal, to consider that mere surrender might also help perpetuate suffering for future victims. If others in the past had not sought the quicker way out, scoffing at the seemingly impossible hope of a cure, just as he did… then perhaps he and Tamuro could even now have faced an entirely different fate.

To resolve to survive… To endure the pain and madness to the very end, because it might one day help others even after they were bitten…

Behind him, the door of the room opened, and he turned to see Kaien Cross enter. The Headmaster’s eyes held a rare hardness, a look that was not anger, but… a great disapproval, and also disappointment. He frowned wordlessly at Zero, before shifting his gaze to Tamuro.

“I’m sorry,” Cross said, and it was difficult to tell whether he was referring to Zero’s illicit intrusion, or Tamuro’s condition, or both.

Tamuro climbed wearily to his feet. When he smiled at Cross, the expression was somewhat warmer and more peaceful than before, no longer showing any glimpse of fangs.

“Don’t worry, old friend. It’s for the best.”

It was an answer Zero thought he could understand now, either way.

With a glimmer of new courage, Zero stepped closer to the bars of the cell. Tamuro shied back uncertainly, prompting him to stop just beyond arm’s reach; but there was nothing fearful or unkind in his eyes as he looked up at the old hunter. All he felt was a mingled sense of sadness and respect.

Cross made no move to intervene, and after a hesitant moment, Tamuro’s tense muscles relaxed. He faced Zero fully, resting his hands on the bars that stood between them.

“You’re stronger than you think you are, boy. Remember that.”

“…I’ll try.” Zero breathed deeply, and dipped forward in a slight bow. “Thank you… and goodbye.”

He knew he would never see Tamuro again. The old man’s suffering would not continue much longer, no matter how it was finally brought to an end. However, the memory of these few minutes would remain for whatever time Zero had left.

Zero turned then, and stepped to Cross’ side. The displeased firmness had vanished from his guardian’s eyes, replaced with something soft and thoughtful. For a moment, he looked as if he wanted to say something, but he never did… and somehow, Zero knew then that Cross would never ask what had passed between himself and Tamuro.

It was enough to know that it had mattered.

“Come on,” Cross said gently, as his now-familiar hand settled on Zero’s shoulder. “It’s time to go home.”

Home.

Zero wasn’t sure about that yet. His home that once was had been too recently lost, and he still believed Cross and the Headmaster’s adopted daughter were both more than a little crazy. It would take time and greater trust before life with them would feel anything like a home again… and by the time it really began to, they would probably be the ones losing him. Perhaps he would be returned here eventually, to spend his last days in the very same place where Tamuro was, when Cross and Yuki’s bizarrely insistent care was no longer enough to hold back the darkness in him.

But in the meantime…

You’re stronger than you think you are.

Those words would be solidly tested. Zero had no illusions that even one day of his remaining life would be easy. When the changes began to creep into his being, when the pain found him and the blood-hunger awakened, he would discover just how strong he really was.

And for as long as he could, he would find a way to devote that strength to something that could still have meaning.


© 2014 Jordanna Morgan