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Monico Episode Nine: My Brother's Keeper

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  • Monico Episode Nine: My Brother's Keeper

    Episode Nine:
    My Brother's Keeper

    Disclaimer: Oz isn't mine, but everybody else is. I'm writing for my own amusement and enlightenment, since no one would pay me to do it.
    Feedback: Ah, go on, you know you want to, really...please.

    With thanks to Sue, beta-reader extraordinaire.

    Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

    (At Buffy's seventeenth birthday party, Oz sees a vampire dusted for the first time, and his eyes go wide.)
    Oz: "Hey, did everybody see that guy just turn to dust?"
    Willow: "Uh, well, uh... sort of."
    Xander: "Yep. Vampires are real. A lot of them live in Sunnydale."
    (He gestures between Willow and Oz)
    "Willow will fill you in."
    (He walks off)
    Willow: "I know it's hard to accept at first."
    Oz: "Actually, it explains a lot."

    Previously in Tales from the Monico:

    Charlie: "My mother was a vampire?I mean, not when I was born, obviously. She was turned when I was eight?And then my dad went nuts and took off to go demon hunting all by himself, so we ? the kids ? all got farmed out to a load of different relatives? every now and then, she'd remember that she had kids and come looking for us. So we had to keep moving."

    Emma: "My Mom called earlier."
    David: "Oh God."
    Emma: "She was talking about maybe coming over for a visit."
    David: "Oh God again."
    Emma: "Don't be like that. We were thinking maybe for Thanksgiving? we could make an occasion of it. Invite the others."
    David: "You think that would be a good idea? Your parents and our friends in the same room? Something weird would happen. You know it would."

    Charlie (grumbling): "I don't think Mat's ever going to make a move."
    Oz: "Well, maybe you should do the first-moving thing, then."
    Charlie: "No. No, I don't want to be the move-maker. That's his job. It's how I know for sure he's interested."

    (Sitting together on the beach, Oz and Elli almost kiss?but then pull back.)
    Elli: "Now that was a dangerous moment. Blame it on the moon."
    Oz (slowly): "We're good friends."
    Elli: "Yes. We are. Our friendship is really important to me. It's one of those attachments I'm not supposed to have?maybe that friendship is a good enough reason for not getting into something else that I don't think either of us is really ready for."
    Oz (nodding): "Not ready." (He hesitates just for a beat.) "But?getting there."

    Mat: "I was just wondering. Did you want to go out for a drink? Someplace else ? change of scene."
    Charlie: "I thought you'd never ask. When?"
    Mat (grinning with relief): "Now, before I lose my nerve."




    Eternal youth was a wonderful thing.

    He stood in the shadows and watched; secure in the knowledge that no one would query his seemingly benign presence. He knew how harmless he appeared on the surface ? his innocent and youthful appearance had stood him in good stead many times in the past, and would continue to do so long into the future.

    This prey, however, would not be fooled by his appearance. She knew him of old, from the time before his current existence, even ? from the days when he was still a person. That was a large part of what made it so much fun.

    He watched as she went into a caf?, close enough to the university to be a regular haunt. Nodding to himself, he smiled. It would soon be time for a confrontation ? and then the fun could truly begin.


    "Well, I still think we should change the name," said Charlie.

    "We can't change the name," David protested. "People are just starting to know us."

    "Shot in the Dark?"

    "Shot in the Dark." David nodded. "What's wrong with that?"

    "You don't think it could be considered slightly tactless?" Her eyebrows were raised. "Given that our lead guitarist actually was shot in the dark?"

    "Oz doesn't mind," David pointed out. "So why should you?"

    Charlie wrinkled her nose. "It just doesn't feel right."

    "The name stays," insisted David. "Too late to change the publicity now, for one thing. Can we get back to talking about the gig?" He leaned against the counter, studying his 'to do' list for anything he might have left out. "The more people we can cram in, the better. Good for business, and good for the band. We need to build up a solid reputation."

    "You've mentioned that before," said Charlie, sat at the other side of the counter picking at a blueberry muffin. She was beginning to look bored, which suggested to David that maybe he was starting to repeat himself. But getting the advertising right for the band's latest upcoming gig was important. They'd had too many false starts already, what with one thing and another.

    Speaking of false starts and the reasons behind them, he glanced up to see Oz coming out from the kitchen just then, bearing a plate of light salad and wearing a slight frown.

    "Let me guess," said David. "Shanei."

    Oz looked from David to Charlie and back again. "Something I should know about?"

    "She broke up with Mike," Charlie explained.

    One eyebrow lifted, ever so slightly. "Again?"

    "I think they actually mean it this time," David told him.

    "Didn't they say that last time?"

    "They didn't behave like this last time," said David.

    "Point taken." Oz took the salad across to a woman sitting at a table by the window, and then returned to the counter.

    "You put those fliers up at the university, didn't you?" David asked him.

    "All fliered up," he confirmed. "And then some."

    "The more publicity the better." David was even starting to bore himself, repeating the same thing over and over. He just couldn't seem to help himself. "But word of mouth is best. You've both been telling everyone you meet about the gig, right?"

    Oz and Charlie exchanged glances.

    "Shanei's best for that," said Charlie. "Girl's got bells on her teeth."

    "Shanei's not in the best mood right now," David reminded her.

    She rolled her eyes. "Tell me about it. Mat says Mike's pretty much the same. As in, hopeless."

    David eyed her with deep curiosity. "At risk of sounding like Emma ? how is Mat? In the, uh, you-and-him sense of the word."

    Charlie smiled happily at the reminder of her new romance. "Mat is?being very romantic. I'm waiting to see how long it lasts."

    Stung on behalf of his gender, David had to ask: "You don't think he can keep it up?"

    Charlie simply raised an eyebrow, and smiled to herself, and Oz looked amused.

    He'd walked right into that one. But speaking of romance and thinking of what it could lead to reminded David of a more pressing matter he'd been trying hard to forget. He sighed. "Of course, we're putting all this effort into the gig, but before we even get that far, we all have to survive dinner with my in-laws?"


  • #2

    Part One:


    "How's that?" David called out.

    Oz looked up to where David was perched precariously on a chair, fiddling with the wide-screen television he'd just installed in the caf? and trying hard to get it tuned in properly.

    "News," he observed. "Police chase."

    "Ooh. Is it?" David hopped down from his perch to watch the chase.

    "Since when do you have a TV in here?" a voice behind them inquired bemusedly.

    Oz didn't need to turn around to see who it was, having already known who was coming before hearing and recognising the voice. One of the things about being a werewolf that was cool ? most of the time ? was the sense of smell, being able to tell just by that who was approaching. He turned his head anyway, to see Elli looking askance at David's antics.

    Since pretty much now," he told her.

    She wrinkled her nose. "Whatever happened to musical ambiance?"

    "Turned into newsical ambiance," Oz blithely suggested, feeling the corners of his lips curling upward as she rolled her eyes but couldn't quite hold back an amused smile. It was kind of nice, having someone around who actually got even his lamer jokes.

    "It's for the sport," said David, ignoring the exchange as he climbed back up onto the chair to continue his tuning of the TV.

    "Sport?" There was a sarcastic note in Elli's voice. "Of course. Because that's why people come here: for the sport."

    "There's a game on," David calmly explained. "I want to see it."

    "You installed a TV in your bar because of one game?" Elli shook her head and sighed. "I'll never understand the male mind."

    "Probably best not to try," said Oz, watching in quiet amusement as she wandered around behind the counter, helping herself to food and a drink.

    "It's not just for one game. It's for any game. Every game?" David also spotted the pilfering. "Don't you have any food over at your place?"

    Elli shook her head. "I need to go shopping. This is quicker. Relax ? I'm going to pay."

    "You're not still playing with that TV, are you?" said Emma, coming into the caf? from out back. "Don't you have customers to serve, or something?"

    "We're barely even open yet," David pointed out.

    Emma pointed to the door. "Look. Customer."

    On her way into the caf?, Charlie stopped dead, a suspicious look creeping across her face at the sudden attention. "What?" she cautiously asked.

    "Nothing," Emma shook her head. "You're still coming over for Thanksgiving dinner, aren't you?"

    "Will I be safe, as the lone Brit among all you colonial types?"

    "We gave up cannibalism, you know," David absent-mindedly remarked, still concentrating on his TV. "For Lent. How's that?"

    Oz looked up at the TV. "Oprah."


    "I'm still coming, yes," confirmed Charlie. "I mean, Mat asked me to dinner with him, but?"

    "Oh, don't feel you have to come if you'd rather be with Mat," Emma instantly told her.

    Charlie shook her head. "I was glad to have the opt-out clause, to be honest." She wrinkled her nose. "Mat's great, but?the invitation wasn't an us only thing. And it feels a bit soon to be meeting the entire family ? especially for something like that. The way he tells it, Thanksgiving is a huge deal for them. The entire clan gets together, and there's just so many of them. I can't keep track of any of the names and?" She sighed, rolling her eyes. "Dinner with a few friends feels much safer at this stage."

    David nodded. "Sounds fair enough to me," he observed. "Avoid the in-laws at all costs, especially when they aren't even in-laws yet. You can help me fend off mine instead?Ouch!"

    Emma had lightly smacked his arm as she turned to Elli. "Elli?"

    "Wouldn't miss it."

    Emma smiled, but then frowned and eyed the otherworlder suspiciously. "Tell me you know what Thanksgiving is."

    "I know what Thanksgiving is," Elli obediently told her. "More or less. Is something wrong?"

    That last question was directed at Charlie, who kept glancing back toward the door with a slight frown.

    "I'm not sure," she murmured. "Probably nothing. I just had the strangest feeling on the way in ? like someone was watching me. It was probably my imagination," she called after Oz, as he instantly rounded the counter and went to the door to have a look.

    Oz peered outside for a moment, but then turned back with a shrug. "Nothing standing out of the ordinary."

    David and Elli had followed him over, but likewise could see nothing wrong outside.

    "I told you," said Charlie. "I was imagining things. Hey, guess what."

    "What?" Emma asked.

    "I got dragged off to do that rock-climbing thing yesterday. It was fantastic! I'm feeling very adventurous now. "

    The phone in the hall behind the caf? rang before she could go into any further detail about her exploits, and Emma turned. "I'll get that," she said, heading back out. She returned moments later looking puzzled. "Charlie, it's your sister."

    "Which one?"

    "No idea," said Emma, still looking bemused. "Why would your sister be calling you here?"

    "They kept complaining I was never home when they called," said Charlie, heading around the counter to take the call. "So I gave them this number 'cause I'm always here."

    "Cheek," David muttered, still trying to tune the TV in. "Is that okay now?"

    Oz looked up at the TV yet again. "If purple dinosaurs are your thing, then yes."


    Charlie let out a long, shuddering breath as she put the phone down. Her turn again. She looked back toward the caf?, hearing laughter drifting along the corridor, and tried to decide what to do.

    Hanging around out here all day wasn't going to help anyone. Steeling herself against a myriad of emotions, she went back through to join the others.

    "What's up?" asked Emma.

    "Oh, good news." Charlie automatically put on a smile. After all, there had been good news as well. "That was my sister Becky, to let me know that Suzanne had the baby."

    Emma looked delighted. "Congratulations, Auntie Charlie. Details, please."

    "Boy, seven pound eight, Harry. Mother and son are doing well, dad's exhausted, and the girls are jealous."

    "And all's well with the world," David remarked, but his light-hearted comment only served to remind Charlie of how much wasn't well with the world, and her smile faltered.

    Emma eyed her suspiciously. "You don't exactly look overjoyed."

    "No, I am," Charlie instantly protested, but then hesitated, unsure what to do. She should probably just tell them what Becky had told her, she knew that. But she really wanted some time to herself first, to get her head around it, get used to the idea of him being here, for her, again. After the way last time had gone? "Its just, Su had a bad time with it, apparently," she added, by way of explanation. "And ? you know, I don't often wish I lived closer to my family, but?"

    "This is one of those times." Emma nodded with understanding.

    Charlie sighed. "Something like that." She fidgeted uncomfortably for a moment. "Beck said she'd email some pictures of the baby, so I should probably go home and pick them up. See you again."

    She headed for the door before anyone could ask any further questions.


    The baby pictures were cute, but one baby was pretty much like another. It could have waited, if she hadn't so badly needed to be alone to gather her thoughts a little.

    Charlie spent most of the afternoon trying to get on with some work, trying to forget the other news her sister had given her, the warning, and trying to pretend that nothing was wrong. It was a game they played a lot, in her family: pretending that nothing was wrong. Even on the phone with Becky earlier they'd both played the game, as if the news was nothing in particular, just a footnote to the birth announcement. Becky's quiet parting comment about taking care had been the only hint of the inner turmoil both had felt, that it was starting again, and it was Charlie's turn this time.

    Trying to work wasn't working. She felt pent up in her dorm room, as if the walls were starting to close in. This was the part she hated most, the waiting. Wondering if this time would really be it. Frustrated, she threw her pen across the room and chewed on a nail for a moment, before realising she was falling back into bad habits. Pulling her hands away from her mouth, she sighed, and fidgeted.

    Her room really wasn't big enough to pace comfortably. She decided to take some books back to the library, across on the other side of campus. It was a sunny day; getting out into the fresh air could only do her good.

    The library didn't feel as comfortable today as usual. She hadn't really believed it would. She wasn't going to feel comfortable again until this was over, one way or another.

    There weren't many people around as she headed back across campus toward her room once more, bag stuffed full of a whole new set of books. But then, turning a corner into a shady avenue, a dark figure sprang out in front of her, and she suppressed a yelp of shock and fear. As anxious as waiting for it had made her, she hadn't expected him to make his move so soon. Or at this time of day.

    "Hello, Charlie." He smiled happily, as though delighted to see her. "It's been a long time."

    "Hasn't it just." Charlie backed away.

    "You're not going so soon?" He moved casually but quickly to stop her, catching at her shoulder and pulling her toward him. "I thought we could?spend some quality time." He looked so young, and innocent, his eyes wide. "Isn't that what they call it? Isn't that what families are supposed to do?"

    "You aren't my family," she spat at him, pulling away from his grasp. "Not any more."

    He actually looked hurt that she would say that. And that hurt Charlie, deep down where the memories were buried. She had to remind herself: this wasn't him. He was just trying to throw her off her guard.

    "Get away from me!" She lashed out with her mind, the way a similarly emotionally painful encounter had taught her, many years earlier, and made a break for it as he stumbled backward. It was late afternoon, and out of the shadows the sun was still shining brightly. He couldn't follow her there.

    Out in the sunlight she kept running, her bag sliding off her shoulder and banging against her legs as she clutched at it, trying to remember a way back to her room that didn't take her through any more shaded areas. If he was here already, he had to have been following her, studying her. He'd know all the places she liked to go. But he liked to make a game of it; he wouldn't want a real showdown just yet?

    "Hey, Charlie?"

    A concerned voice cut across her increasingly frantic thoughts and she skidded to a halt, her heart pounding. It was Oz. She couldn't remember when she'd been so glad to see anyone.

    She was too breathless and distraught to explain herself properly, and she knew it, hearing herself gasp incoherently about the vampire in the shadows. It annoyed her intensely, somewhere beneath the panic, that after all this time he could still reduce her to this.

    Absolutely calm, as always and in direct contrast to her own state of anxiety, Oz looked her up and down, nodded, took her bag off her, and gently hooked an arm through hers. "Come on, I'll walk you home."

    "Thanks." Charlie was trembling. He always got to her so much, even now.


    Oz didn't know what the problem was, beyond that she'd had a close encounter with a vampire, but seeing the state Charlie was in he was kind of glad he'd decided not to cut class this afternoon. There had to be more to it than the obvious. Vampire run-ins were never fun, but Charlie could usually handle herself without getting this worked up about it.

    There didn't seem to be much point attempting conversation just yet, so he just quietly escorted her home, noting with curiosity and concern how jumpy she was, peering worriedly all around them and anxious to avoid any shadowy areas where a vampire might be lurking. He'd never seen her so distressed. When they reached her dorm room, she flopped onto her bed, taking long, deep breaths as she tried to calm herself down.

    Oz went over to the little kitchenette to get a glass of water and brought it over to her, then looked around the room with mild bemusement. The only chair to speak of was the computer stool at the desk, which was covered with an assortment of discarded clothes, books and unopened mail. He sat down on the large beanbag beside the bed.

    "Sook keeps telling me I need to get some actual chairs in here," Charlie remarked, distantly. "You've met Sook, haven't you?"

    "Once or twice," he confirmed.

    "You know, if the two of you had anything else in common at all," said Charlie, "You'd be a match made in hair dye heaven."

    From what Oz had seen of Sook, she changed her hair color more often and far more dramatically than he did, which was whenever he felt like a change: rusty-brown, currently. "What color is she today?" he asked, willing to go along with the conversational diversion while she pulled herself together a little.

    "Last time I looked, azure."

    Oz considered that briefly, but then shook his head. "Oh, that wouldn't work with my complexion," he observed in his gravest tone, and was rewarded with a wan smile. "Feeling better now?"

    Charlie sat up a little straighter, her eyes fixed on the glass of water in her hands. "I suppose you want to know what's going on."

    "That might help."

    Her head hung lower than ever, and her voice was little more than a whisper. "A vampire."

    Oz nodded. "Yeah, I got that part. The vamps don't usually rattle you like this."

    She looked up at him then, her eyes haunted. "My sister Becky called today."

    "I know," said Oz, wondering how that was relevant here. "I was there. Congratulations."

    "Thanks," Charlie muttered. "But it wasn't just about the baby. She had some other news for me. A warning, only a bit late, as it turns out. She, um?"

    She took a long sip of her water before composing herself once more. "Have I ever told you about my brother, Edward? No, don't answer that. I know I haven't. Ed was?he died when he was sixteen, just after his birthday. He was killed. By?our mum."

    Her mother, who had been a vampire, Oz remembered. She didn't go on any further, looking away once more and nibbling at a fingernail. Oz weighed up what she'd told him, and her distress about the vampire she'd encountered today, and reached an unpleasant conclusion. "She turned him?"

    Charlie nodded, visibly fighting back tears. Oz looked at her for a long moment, her situation bringing back all kinds of unwelcome memories for him, memories he usually kept well buried, over and done with long, long ago. But dragging his own experience back out here and now would probably be helpful, letting Charlie know that he understood, at least in part.

    "I had a brother once," he quietly told her.

    She looked up. "What happened?"

    "Vampire." That was all he needed to say. Almost no one knew about that. Even with Willow, they'd only ever talked about it the one time, and she'd seen how hard it was for him and never raised the subject again. Bobby had been more than six years older than him, his hero as a child. But then one night he'd gone out, and never came home. 'Neck rupture', the police had said when his body was found the next day. Yeah, right. Years later, Oz had met Willow, Buffy and the gang. Their explanation, the one about vampires, had made much more sense. Funny thing, though ? Bobby would have been just about the same age as Charlie's Edward was, when he died. "But, we didn't know that then?it was a long time ago," he added, by way of explanation.

    "What happened to Ed was a long time ago," Charlie quietly told him. "But it keeps coming back to haunt us all."


    "But why?" Emma worriedly asked. "Why come here?"

    They'd returned to the Monico without incident, Charlie having reached the conclusion that, painful though the story was to tell, forewarned would be forearmed for all her friends. Or, at least for those it was possible to warn, the ones in the know. What she should do about those living in blissful ignorance was a whole other problem that would have to be faced ? probably sooner rather than later.

    "Because this is what he does," she explained, very quietly, her eyes fixed on the table she was sitting at. "With our mum, she was mostly just interested in the killing, although she remembered that she had children, and had fits of wanting to make us all like her. Ed was the only one she managed. But Ed?he likes to play games."

    Emma looked almost tearful at the thought. "With you?"

    "With all of us." Charlie nodded. "Three sisters to choose from. He doesn't really want to kill us, although I'm sure he would if it came to it, or if he got carried away. But if he actually killed us, he wouldn't have any sisters left to torment. So he just plays these games. We've all had our turn, over the years. He'll pick a sister, make our life hell, maybe kill a few of the people around us, and then take off again."

    "Kill a few of the people around you?" David looked deeply worried now.

    Charlie hung her head, biting at her lip, and didn't respond.

    "But my parents are coming!" Emma exclaimed. "I don't want them to find out about all this vampire stuff, or be in danger, or anything."

    "I don't want my brother to be a vampire," said Charlie, her tone brusque and angry. "I'd like nothing more than for Ed to come walking through that door right now, alive and human, and grown up like he should have had the chance to be, telling me that the demon that's been terrorising us for years looking like he did at sixteen is all some big mistake. But that's never going to happen. Because the world isn't perfect, and things don't always work out right. Believe me."

    "Are you going to tell Mat?" Elli quietly asked, breaking the silence that followed.

    "I wish I didn't have to," Charlie murmured.

    "But you saw this vampire brother of yours this afternoon?" David suddenly put in, looking puzzled. "In the daytime? I thought vampires couldn't go out in daylight."

    "Your more obsessive vamps will find ways of getting around during the day," Oz noted.

    "That's cheating," Emma protested.

    Oz shrugged. "Evil."



    • #3

      Part Two:


      Oz walked a very nervous Emma to work the next day, as David was busy opening the caf?, and Emma's state of anxiety at the thought of a stalker vampire prepared to hunt during the day was more than anyone could stand. It was worth the walk to reassure her. Door-to-door service.

      The caf? was quiet when he returned, the only sign of life being Elli, who was sitting at the counter with a cup of tea.

      "David's in the kitchen fixing my lunch," she told him as he joined her. "Which gives me a few moments to recover. I made the mistake of admitting that American football means nothing to me, so he spent almost a whole twenty minutes explaining all the rules. It was mind frazzling."

      Oz raised an eyebrow. "So did it work? 'Cause, you know, I could test you?"

      "Nope, sorry." Elli shook her head, chuckling. "Water off a duck's back, I'm afraid, and it still means nothing. He had to admit defeat in the end. Besides, there is no way you could match David's encyclopaedic knowledge of who beat who for the last, probably twenty years. I don't suppose you saw Charlie while you were out on your travels, did you? David was fretting that she hasn't been in yet today."

      Oz shook his head. "It's still early," he pointed out.

      "Yes. That's what I said. But David's twitchy," she explained. "He's not used to lurking menace."

      Oz could understand that. His own initiation into the world of the supernatural had involved Evil Angel stalking Buffy, and it had been kind of a feet first plunge into the deep end. "Not the sort of thing you'd want to get used to."

      "Very true." Elli nodded. "Charlie's probably lying low. This is hard for her."

      'Hard' had to be a big understatement. "Band practice tonight," he said. "She'll be here for that."


      "What is wrong with you?" Shanei complained, rather more shrilly than was strictly necessary, when Charlie missed her cue and threw off the whole set yet again

      "I'm sorry." Charlie tried to defend herself.

      "Where is your head today?" Shanei demanded. "You know this backward!"

      It could be tough, at times, to keep track of who knew what. David and Emma, for instance, knew everything. Mike and Mat, on the other hand, knew about Oz and Charlie, having seen both in action, but as far as Oz knew remained more or less in the dark about the more unconventional aspects of Elli's background and abilities. And then there was Shanei, who knew nothing and didn't seem to want to know, although she had to have at least some idea that there had been weirdness taking place around her from time to time. Her state of blissful ignorance made band practice a less than ideal occasion to try to talk to Charlie about her brother's vampiric presence in town, but some attempt had to be made.

      With Charlie's distraction making actual rehearsal all but impossible, David exchanged glances with Oz, and then pulled Shanei aside to run through a few changes he'd made to one of the songs. Oz looked across the studio, where most of their rehearsals took place, to where Elli was sitting on the stairs up to her apartment, watching proceedings. She nodded, and stood up, and with Shanei's attention so neatly diverted the two of them approached Charlie and sat down alongside her, one on either side. Thus ganged up on, Charlie let out a deep sigh.

      She hadn't seen Ed himself, Charlie told them, but he'd made his presence felt nonetheless. She'd been woken that morning by piercing screams from outside her room, and had rushed out fearing the worst to find her neighbour having a panic attack over a charming gift Ed had left outside her room ? a bunch of dead rats, their tails tied together and eyes gouged out.

      "Just his way of letting me know how close he can get," she murmured. "He'll want me to stew for a while, now I know he's here."

      "But you haven't told Mat yet?" Oz quietly asked.

      Charlie shook her head, biting her lip nervously. "I haven't seen him," she excused herself. "He's been putting in a lot of overtime this week, and? and he just doesn't understand this stuff. I mean, he tries, but he doesn't really, and I can't blame him for that. I don't think he's ready to have a 'vampires in the family' conversation. I'm not sure I'm ready to have that conversation yet. The relationship is still so new."

      "He does need to know," Elli gently pointed out.

      "I know," said Charlie, unhappily. "I'm seeing him tomorrow. I'll find a way to tell him then."


      "Just drop me off outside the caf?," Mat told Mike as they approached the Monico at the end of another long day complete with excessive overtime. "I can surprise Charlie, walk her home after band practice. Of course, you won't want to come in, given the cold war you and Shanei have got going on right now."

      "You two are going great guns at the moment, aren't you?" said Mike, firmly not rising to the bait.

      "Oh yeah." Mat smiled broadly, thinking about Charlie. "She's incredible."

      "You always say that," Mike teased him.

      "But I mean it this time. I really want this one to work," Mat insisted, annoyed that his partner wasn't taking him seriously ? not that he had any reason to, admittedly. His track record was working against him here. Riled, and rather than admit to the issues he was struggling with himself, he found himself adding: "But?I don't know, man. The gun part of my working life could turn into a real issue. For which I blame you entirely."


      "She saw you shoot one of her friends right in front of her," Mat pointed out. "And now she's twitchy about guns. Do the math."

      Mike sighed. "But that was me, not you."

      "Guilt by association, my friend." Seeing Mike's expression, Mat relented. "Ah, it's okay. We'll work it out."

      Swinging out of the patrol car, he headed into the caf?, where Emma was preparing to close up for the night.

      "All right if I head out back?" he asked, preparing to round the counter.

      "Fine by me," Emma blithely told him. "But if it's Charlie you want, you're too late. Oz already took her home."

      "Oh," said Mat, taken aback. "She doesn't usually need an escort."

      He didn't miss the nervous look that crossed Emma's face, but the only explanation she offered was that Charlie had been tired after rehearsal, and had been glad for a lift.

      "Okay then," said Mat, still puzzled. "I'll head over to her place, catch her there."


      Turning back toward the car park after walking Charlie to her door, Oz felt his nose twitch as his keen sense of smell picked up a very particular scent he'd long ago learnt to distinguish. Vampire. Somewhere very close by. He hesitated for only a second, and then carried on his way. There was no harm in hoping for the best, and no sense in letting it know he was aware of its presence. But he wasn't the least bit surprised when a dark figure sprang out in front of him, blocking his route to the van.

      It was hard to really get a good look, dark as it was, but from what he could see the newcomer was a tall, athletic looking teenage boy, with a friendly, open face and thick sandy hair falling across his forehead Hugh Grant style. And the family resemblance was unmistakeable. This was Charlie's brother. Ed.

      "Hello." Ed beamed at him, genially, the English accent confirming his identity, as if there'd been any doubt.

      "Hey." Oz waited to see what the vampire would do next.

      "I'm Ed," he cheerfully remarked. "I just saw you with my sister, Charlie. You brought her home yesterday, too."

      He looked a little disappointed at the lack of reaction to that statement, as Oz didn't reply, still cautiously waiting to see what move he would make.

      Ed frowned slightly, and tried again. "So, are you her boyfriend?"

      "No." Oz shook his head, nonchalantly stuffing his hands into his pockets, where he could feel the reassuring presence of a small bottle he'd been carrying around for a couple days now. Precautions were always good to take, but more especially under these circumstances.

      "No?" Ed looked disappointed again. "Just good friends then. Never mind. That'll have to do."

      "Do for what?" Oz cautiously asked, surreptitiously easing the lid off the bottle while trying hard not to spill any of the contents, not wanting to waste any.

      Ed smiled. "I wanted to leave her a gift; some way of?expressing my affection. Letting her know I was here."

      Oz shrugged. "You couldn't just call?"

      "Oh, where would be the fun in that?" Ed laughed.

      "I could give her a message," Oz offered, still keeping his tone very casual while inwardly reflecting on his chances of getting out of this alive.

      Ed's smile became sinister, and the impression of extreme youth and naivety he'd been conveying until that moment suddenly dropped away.

      "Oh, you will, you will," he smirked, his face contorting until vampiric ridges and fangs were clearly visible. He advanced on Oz, laughing ? but the smile was wiped from his face as Oz flung the bottleful of holy water into it. The hiss his burning flesh gave off was entirely drowned by his yells of pain and outrage, but he retained enough presence of mind to grab at Oz as the young werewolf tried to dodge past him.

      Oz pulled a wooden cross out of his other pocket, thrusting it in the already burnt face of the enraged vampire and kicking at its legs, ducking away from its grasp as it swiped the cross out of his hand. Then from somewhere behind him he heard Charlie yelling for Ed to get off him and, as the vampire grabbed at his jacket, shouted for her to get back inside. There'd be no point in endangering both of them.

      His jacket came off in Ed's hands, but before he could make a break for freedom the vampire lunged at him again, and Oz went down, hard. Winded, he took a second to catch his breath, and then rolled to one side ? just in time, as Ed pounced. Kicking out once more, Oz scrambled away, swiftly regaining both his feet and his cross, as Charlie came running, crossbow in one hand, and a stake in the other. And then Mat appeared from the other direction, eyes wide at the scene before him.

      Outnumbered, Ed hissed. "I think the message got through," he snarled, retreating.

      Charlie kept her crossbow trained on him as he left. "Are you all right?" she asked Oz in a voice that shook only very slightly, not taking her eyes off the spot where Ed had vanished into the shadows once more.

      "Yeah." Breathing hard, Oz nodded.

      "What just happened?" asked Mat, his eyes still wide with confusion and amazement.

      Oz picked his jacket up off the floor. "I think we just won a round."


      "Ed was always the most popular boy in school," said Charlie, sipping at the mug of hot chocolate Mat had made for her. Not wanting her to be alone, he'd insisted that she come home with him to his apartment, where Ed wouldn't be able to find her. And, rather than have them make their way there on foot, Oz had given them both a lift in his van before returning to the Monico to, presumably, count the bruises of his scuffle with Ed. "He was on every team, captain of most of them. He was brave, he was daring; everyone loved him. And then he was gone. And a demon took his place."

      Mat sat opposite her, the look on his face saying everything he couldn't find the words to express ? horror and sympathy mingled. He came from such a big, close-knit family; the thought of how hers had been torn apart must be hard for him to imagine.

      "We hadn't lived together for years before that," she added. "We were all split up after?after what happened with Mum and Dad. But we saw each other as much as we could. He was my brother?"

      "I'm so sorry," Mat murmured. "I can't imagine what it must be like."

      "This is typical Ed," she told him. "We've all had our turn over the years ? me, Becky, Suzanne. And we've always been lucky before now. He torments us for a while, and we fight him off, and then he gets bored and goes away. But he never goes away for long. He hasn't come after me since I moved out here, though."

      She leaned forward in the comfortable chair she'd taken refuge in, cupping her hands around the hot mug, and worrying about what else her one-time brother might do now he had finally followed her out here. "He's going to be gunning for Oz, now, as well, after what he did to his face. And you, if he finds out about us."

      She hardly dared look at Mat as she admitted his potential danger, but he seemed not to notice, dazed as he was by the story as a whole.

      "Can't you just?you know?destroy him?" he hesitantly asked. "Or whatever it is you do to get rid of vampires. Like you did with??"

      He couldn't quite complete the sentence, biting at his lip.

      "Like I did with our Mum?" Charlie finished for him, shaking her head. "It isn't that easy."

      Mat sighed. "I want to understand."

      Charlie put her mug down on the coffee table, feeling her hands start to shake again. Her eyes filled with tears that she blinked back, unshed. There'd been too many of them already, over the years, because of this. "It was for Becky," she softly explained. "She was attacking her, and I had to stop it. We'd already lost Ed?a-and there was a chair broken, so I picked up a piece of wood and stabbed her with it. And then she was gone, and there was just dust?and you've no idea what it feels like, to do that to someone you once loved."

      The tears were beginning to fall now. Mat leaned toward her, gently wiping them away with his fingers. "I'm sorry," he murmured again.

      "I've never been able to get close enough to Ed to take him out," said Charlie, trying to pull herself together again. "None of us have. I don't know if I could."

      The tears returned, despite all her best efforts, and then all of a sudden Mat was pulling her to her feet and holding her close, stroking her hair and kissing the top of her head. Giving in at last, she let him comfort her.


      "Maybe I should call Mom and tell her not to come," Emma anxiously suggested. She'd tossed and turned all night after hearing about Oz's close encounter with Ed, despite his attempt at playing it down, and David had been kept awake with her.

      He let out a long, deep breath. "You've no idea how many times I've longed to hear you to say that. But no," he told her. "It's all arranged. You want to see them. There's no reason to cancel."

      Emma looked at him, worriedly. "You don't think a psycho stalker vampire is a good enough reason to cancel?"

      "The psycho vampire isn't stalking us," said David, firmly. "And I'm all psyched up for the parental onslaught now. Bring it on."

      She fiddled with her wedding ring. "They just want what's best for me."

      "And what they think is best for you doesn't include me," David sighed, but when Emma opened her mouth to defend her parents he hurriedly added, "It's okay. I'll be on my best behaviour. Scout's honor."

      "I really want them to love you like I do," she plaintively told him. "Okay, maybe not quite like I do, but you know what I mean."

      David smiled. "Yeah."

      Emma nervously drummed her fingertips on the surface of the dresser she was sat beside. "I need everyone to be on their best behaviour. Including the psycho stalker vampire, who'd better not show his face. I want everyone to make a good impression on my Mom."

      Knowing Emma's Mom the way he did, David privately thought that would be nigh on impossible, not matter how hard they tried. She seemed determined to disapprove of just about everyone in Emma's life who hadn't been handpicked for her.

      Emma's thoughts seemed to be rattling away with her. "D'you think I could persuade everyone to make an effort and dress up a bit?"

      David's eyebrows shot up. "Dress up? How formal are you planning?"

      "Not formal." Emma shook her head. "Just?decent."

      "I'd like to see their faces when you tell them the way they usually dress isn't decent," said David.

      Emma pulled a face at him. "That isn't what I meant. It's just? how is it that after hanging with the fashion conscious all my life, I've now managed to hook up with the two girls least worried about their appearance in the whole city?"

      David didn't even attempt to answer that.

      "It's just so frustrating," she continued. "Neither of them ever makes the slightest bit of effort. I mean, Elli's all about earth colors and natural fibres, and, okay, the look really works for her. But that's half of what's so annoying, because she doesn't do it on purpose. She's all about the effortlessly classy instead of being fashionably stylish."

      "What's so wrong with that?" David asked, reasonably enough, he thought, but Emma wasn't listening.

      "And Charlie?Charlie is worse," she continued. "Because she could look so good if she would just try. You know: if she would once, just once, drag herself out of jeans and t-shirt and wear something decent. D'you think she even owns a skirt?"

      "I guess the bonds of true friendship go beyond the restrictions of fashion," David pointed out, slightly surprised by the rant, and suspecting that a severe case of nerves lay behind it.

      Suddenly relaxing, Emma laughed. "I guess they do. It's a struggle, but I think I can manage."

      But then she frowned again. "Do you think Oz owns anything that isn't strictly casual?"


      "Did you know, by the way, that your city-saving act of eco-vandalism has had far-reaching repercussions?" Elli lightly asked Oz over lunch.

      Curious to know what she was getting at, he raised an eyebrow.

      Elli grinned. "You know that mud hole on campus formerly known as a lake?"

      Oz nodded.

      "Now a building site," she told him. "They're turning it into a new science block."

      "Because you can never have enough of those," Oz mused.

      "Apparently not."

      "You two are as thick as thieves lately," David interrupted, bringing a couple of fresh drinks over to them.

      They looked at each other, and shrugged.

      "No," said Oz. "No thievery at all."

      "And less of the thick, thank you very much," Elli added, glancing across at the door, where Charlie and Mat were just coming in. She waved a greeting, and the couple came over to join them, Charlie giving the others a half-hearted smile as Mat pulled a chair out for her before dragging another across for himself.

      "How are you this morning?" Elli asked, sympathetically.

      "Been worse," Charlie nodded, putting up a very good front of okay-ness. She smiled at Mat. "And I've got my very own personal bodyguard for the day, so that can't be bad."

      "I'm not working today," said Mat, smiling back at her. "So I'm all yours." Turning to the others, he added, "Still can't persuade her to come to us for Thanksgiving dinner, though."

      "I already promised Emma," Charlie reminded him, and then looked across at Oz. "I'm so sorry about Ed jumping you last night. You are okay, aren't you?"

      "Been worse," Oz assured her, repeating her own statement of okay-ness. Understanding the message, she nodded back at him. They both knew the score where homicidal vampires were involved: any encounter that didn't leave you dead could be counted as a good one. And since Ed's intentions had so clearly been murderous, escaping with no more than a few bruises definitely fell into the 'could've been worse' category.

      Charlie looked anxious. "He isn't going to love you, after you wrecked his face like that."

      A vampire with a grudge probably wasn't such a good enemy to make, but still.

      "Well, better his face than my jugular," Oz remarked, trying to keep the mood at least a little bit light. Then, seeing how uneasy she still looked, he added. "He'll heal."

      Charlie nodded, worriedly. "I know, but he won't forget."

      "Okay, I need to say something." Letting out a deep breath, and looking nervous, David sat down at the table with them. "I'm sorry, Charlie. I don't want to sound callous, or rude, or anything, but surely we should be doing something: something more than sitting around pretending everything's normal and waiting for this vampire to attack. Like, like finding his?his lair, or whatever name they give the holes they hide in, and trying to get rid of him, or something?before?"

      He hesitated, looking from one anxious face to another, and then just came out with it. "Oh, I don't know. Before he kills someone. Before he kills one of us. What are you supposed to do in this situation? Because Emma's scared. And she's worried about putting her parents in danger, and I don't know what we're supposed to be doing about it. Surely there's something we could do?"

      Oz wasn't sure what to tell him. The trouble was, in a way he was right. They probably could be doing more to take the fight to Ed, if they were prepared to take that risk. Vampire hunting wasn't a pastime to be taken lightly, but could become necessary if the situation escalated. But it had to be Charlie's call, and he wasn't sure she could bring herself to do it, or to ask anyone else to hunt her brother down for her. She looked down at the table, and Mat took her hand.

      "We've got no way of knowing where he's hiding out," said Elli.

      Charlie looked up at her, her expression suddenly thoughtful. "Could you find him?"

      Elli hesitated, her eyes darting across to Mat, then to Oz, and then to Charlie. "I haven't met him. Or even seen him."

      Charlie sighed. "That's a no, then."

      Elli looked at the other girl very seriously. "We could probably track him down. But that opens a whole new can of worms ? like, what would we do then? What would you want us to do?"

      Mat squeezed Charlie's hand, comfortingly, as she bit her lip and eyed the table. Then she looked up, shaking her head unhappily. "I don't know. I think I'd like us to get Emma's Thanksgiving dinner out of the way. Then we can worry about Ed." She glanced across at David with a wry smile. "And the gig."



      • #4

        Part Three:


        "My timing's completely up the spout," Emma moaned. "I had that turkey defrosting for almost two days, and I still don't think it thawed properly. I've got a psycho stalker vampire out there somewhere to try and keep secret from my parents. And they aren't even getting here on time! I've had to put dinner back two whole hours. More, even."

        "Doesn't that give you more time to get ready?" Elli stuck a finger into the seasoning for a taste-test. "This is good, by the way."

        "It's not finished yet." Emma moved the bowl, and then turned a beseeching face to her. "You'll help me get it all ready, won't you? David's busy downstairs."

        Elli nodded. "Of course. Not that I know anything about how Thanksgiving dinner is prepared."

        "You don't have to know anything. You just have to be here to stop me going crazy, because I really am." Emma paused in her scurrying around the kitchen, looking anxious again. "You don't think the vampire will try anything tonight, do you?"

        "Truthfully? I don't know. I hope not, for everyone's sake. Did you tell Charlie about the change of time?"

        "She's out somewhere with Mat," said Emma, nodding. "I left a message on her cell phone."

        Elli wrinkled her nose. "Why are your parents coming so late, anyway?"

        "Daddy couldn't get away from the office any earlier." Emma looked around the kitchen, fretfully. "Where did I put the cornbread dressing?"


        "I warned you about my in-laws, didn't I?" said David, pottering around behind the bar without actually getting much done.

        Also pottering, since the caf? was unusually quiet for late afternoon and they were getting ready to shut up shop early anyway, Oz glanced across at him. "Several times."

        David sighed. "Just paint on a fixed smile and wear it all the time, that's my motto when Gordon and Diana are around." He looked thoughtful for a moment, and then added, "Or, in your case, just keep that poker face firmly in place. Oh, and earplugs might help, too. The carping isn't so painful if you can't hear it."

        Nodding in what he hoped was a suitably sympathetic manner, Oz glanced up as he heard the door open ? and froze when he saw who was walking in. Ed, the burns caused by the holy water splashed in his face healing already but still visible. And he wasn't alone. Dusk came so early at this time of year, and it had been overcast all day. Perfect for allowing vampires out a little early.

        "David." Oz quietly alerted his friend to the newcomers, allowing his tone to convey the danger without making a huge fuss about it.

        David straightened up from putting some plates away below the counter and exhaled sharply when he saw what Oz was looking at. "That's him, isn't it?" he murmured, also quietly.

        Oz nodded, not taking his eyes off the vampires.

        David looked scared. "This can't be good."

        Ed wandered casually across to the counter, his eyes fixed on Oz. He smiled, as though delighted to see him. "You."

        "Me," said Oz, watching to see what the other vampires would do as they ranged themselves behind Ed. The situation was horribly familiar, taking him right back to his high school days. Getting trapped and held hostage in the Bronze by Willow's vampire counterpart and the henchmen she'd picked up, watching helplessly as she murdered people around him, had not been fun. But at least then there'd been the prospect of rescue. There was no Buffy to send for here. They were going to have to get out of this by themselves ? or die trying.

        "You know," said Ed, conversationally. "I'm still really keen to leave that gift for my sister."

        David shot a frantic look at Oz, out of his depth and with no idea what to do. Oz caught his eye for a second, hoping to convey some kind of reassurance, but kept his attention focused on Ed and the other vampires as they struck up intimidating poses and began to vamp out. Unsurprisingly, the few customers in the caf? seemed to be noticing that something was wrong. "Your sister isn't here," he pointed out.

        "Oh, I know," Ed cheerfully told him. "I don't need her to be here for this. She'll get the message. And I owe you one." He gestured mockingly at his face, still smiling winningly, as though they were discussing something delightful.

        Behind him, the customers were looking decidedly edgy at the increasing atmosphere of menace. One woman got up and made to leave, only for one of Ed's buddies to stop her, moving with that incredible speed vampires were capable of when they chose to use it.

        And then he bit her, and there was nothing Oz could do to stop it happening. Choking a protest, David looked like he was going to be sick, and then all hell broke lose as the other customers screamed, and tried to run for it.

        Even if you were out-numbered and out-weighed, you still couldn't just stand there and watch while this kind of thing happened ? throwing yourself in and doing what you could was pretty much the only option. So, with a potential killing spree breaking out right in front of him, Oz just plunged into the fray, vaulting over the counter heedless of what got broken along the way and ploughing into the first vampire he reached, a female, knocking her to the ground and away from her intended target. That much achieved, he had no plans for how else to proceed. Staying alive kind of had to be the first priority. But helping to keep other people alive and get them out of here was also high up on the list.

        Struggling free of the vampire he'd tangled with, he rushed at the one already drinking from the stricken female customer, jumping on his back and forcing him to drop her. Shouting with anger, the vampire spun around, throwing him off, and his back crashed against a table with bruising force.

        Winded, Oz tried to catch his breath, but before he could get back up, Ed appeared in front of him, smiling happily in full fang-face mode. He gripped Oz's arms with painful strength, holding him down.

        "Just you and me again," Ed sneered. "But my advantage, this time."

        As he lowered his fangs toward Oz's neck, Oz fumbled blindly among the assortment of broken plates, food and cutlery that had fallen from the table when he crashed into it. His fingers closed around a fork and, despite Ed's restraining grasp on his upper arms, he managed to twist his hand around just enough to stab the vampire with it, even as he felt those fangs scraping his skin. Startled, Ed let out a howl and released that vice-like grip just enough for Oz to struggle free, but as he crawled away Ed clamped a hand on his ankle, pulling him back. Oz kicked out, his shoe coming off in the vampire's hand as he scrambled back to his feet.

        Most of the customers had fled, and the girls had come running downstairs on hearing all the commotion, he realised, seeing Elli getting the upper hand on one vampire, while Emma batted at another that David was struggling with, despite David's yells for her to get back upstairs. Upstairs would be safer, he guessed ? the caf? was public space, but the living quarters upstairs should be barred to the vampires. But even if they did retreat upstairs they'd be under siege there, and who knew what else might happen then.

        Ed caught up with him as he ran back across the caf? to help the others out, the vampire's hand closing on his collar and jerking him backward, half-choking him.

        "Not so fast," Ed snarled, slamming him hard against the counter.

        Desperate to get free, Oz grabbed hold of the counter to prevent himself being dragged any further back. Then he spotted the urn alongside him and reached out for it, allowing its scalding heat to burn his fingers as he strained to tilt it?over! The urn tipped, pouring boiling water all over the vampire behind him. It also splashed Oz himself a little, but he barely felt the scald so focused was he on getting Ed off his back. The vampire was bellowing with pain and rage but swiftly regained his grip on Oz's shirt and shoulder.

        Oz could usually manage to keep a pretty good grip on his temper, but right now he could feel a lot of anger bubbling up inside at what was happening around him. Under normal circumstances anger was a bad thing, something he tried to avoid ? along with all other really intense emotions, given the effect they could have on his sometimes fragile hold over his inner-wolf. But right now it felt like an emotion he could use, that he could channel into that strength he generally tried to deny.

        With the enraged Ed still clawing at his back, Oz focused, drew deep on those inner reserves of wolf-strength the monks had tried to teach him about, and then unleashed it, hurling the vampire away from him. Ed went flying, and came crashing down on top of a broken, up-ended chair, two of its legs impaling him horribly through the abdomen. Seizing a piece of broken wood from the floor, Oz strode over to him, intent on finishing the job.

        But then Ed turned to look at him, moaning with pain. He was back in human face now, the face of a hurt, frightened sixteen year-old. A frightened sixteen year-old with the same big brown eyes as his sister: the sister who'd never been able to bring herself to kill him, and was so torn by his sudden appearance in town. And, thinking of Charlie, Oz hesitated, the improvised stake still in his hand, poised to strike ?

        And then he heard a scream from behind him. He looked up in time to see Emma fleeing out into the back passageway with a large, burly vampire in hot pursuit. Abandoning the stricken Ed, he rushed out after her, David close behind him, and shouted for Emma to go upstairs. She'd be safe up there.

        She didn't have enough of a head start, though, and the vampire was almost within catching range of her.

        Oz had never been much of a sportsman, his interests tending to lie in other directions, but it would be hard to escape from an American High School without picking up a few things here and there. He lunged forward and congratulated himself, in a quiet corner of his brain, that he caught the vampire's legs behind the knee in a tackle any footballer would be proud of. They both tumbled to the ground, Oz hanging on to the vampire's ankles for grim death, buying Emma the seconds she needed to run upstairs into the sanctity of private quarters where a vampire could not follow uninvited.

        He had to let go when the vampire got a foot free and kicked him hard in the face, but by then David had caught up. He hauled Oz back to his feet as the vampire also regained his, and the three of them faced off: the vampire angry, Oz and David rather nervous.

        They were right by the stairs down to the cellars, Oz suddenly realised. The cellars, where a few anti-vampire bits and pieces had been stashed away in case of need following Ed's arrival in town. Anyone in the know could access them there. If they could just get the vampire down there, and themselves in one piece down there with him ?



        With a welcome-yet-not-really-welcome shower of dust Elli finally got the upper hand on the vampire she'd been struggling with, and turned to scan the room, to see what else needed to be done. Rather surprisingly, the caf? was suddenly almost empty. But almost before she'd had a chance to notice that, she was all but bowled over by the female vampire, who rushed from somewhere behind her to bend over the prone form of what had to be Charlie's vampire brother, Ed. He moaned in agony as she lifted him, pulling him free of the chair legs that had impaled him, and threw him over her shoulder like a sack of potatoes. And then, with a warning growl in Elli's direction, she ran for it, taking the injured Ed with her.

        Elli gave chase, without really stopping to think about it, following the vampires at speed out into the street and around a corner, before losing them when they retreated down into the sewers. She wasn't inclined to follow them down there, not today. Not when she belatedly realised that she should be making sure the others were okay.

        She headed back to the caf?, where she found an almost hysterical Emma. She'd been chased out back by a vampire, she hiccoughed, but David and Oz had come to her rescue, tripping the vampire and themselves down into the cellars. And there'd been shouting, and banging, and they hadn't come back up?

        The guys were, however, on their way back up as the two girls cautiously made their way down to look for them. They were both slightly battered ? David's shirt was all torn up, while Oz had one shoe missing and blood on his collar, and both had livid bruises starting to come out, but other than that all seemed well. Oz looked quietly satisfied, while David was positively jubilant.

        "Should've seen it," he crowed. "Oz did this really cool superhero thing. It was awesome."

        Oz looked mildly embarrassed at all the praise and attention. "Worth a shot," he shrugged, as Elli caught his eye and smiled. He smiled back.

        "Where'd you learn to fight dirty like that?" David enthused.

        "It isn't about fighting fair," said Oz. "It's about surviving."


        "Oh my God," David moaned as they made their way back out into the caf? and surveyed the damage. The caf? was strewn with debris ? broken crockery, broken chairs, broken tables ? and he groaned when he saw that his brand new TV was also lying on the floor, comprehensively smashed.

        His attention was focused on the damage, and how much it would cost to fix, until he saw Elli bending over a prone figure near the door. He was ashamed to realise he'd completely forgotten about the woman who'd been bitten.

        David, call an ambulance," Elli called out. "She's still alive."

        It was Emma, in fact, who picked up the telephone and made the call, while Elli tried to make the injured woman comfortable. Reassured that the woman was being taken care of, David started to pick up the pieces of the caf?, while Oz fished his missing shoe out from the wreckage and put it back on before starting to likewise sort through the mess.

        "Oh God."

        David looked up to see Charlie standing in the doorway looking stricken, Mat just behind her with a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

        "It was him, wasn't it?" Charlie bit her lip, surveying the damage, and went over to kneel beside the injured woman, stroking her hair back to expose the bite wound.

        "It was, yes," Elli gently told her.

        "And a few friends he brought along with," David couldn't quite stop himself from adding.

        Elli gave Charlie a look of deep compassion. "I'm sorry."

        Mat squatted beside them to give Charlie a little hug. "It isn't your fault," he told her, firmly.

        She didn't look comforted. "He's my brother."

        "You aren't your brother's keeper," Mat insisted.

        "And, you know, he really isn't your brother any more," Oz put in, his tone and expression sympathetic.

        Charlie still didn't look convinced, but the sound of sirens outside forestalled any further talk.

        "That'll be the ambulance," said Emma, who'd gone across to help with the injured woman.

        "No." Mat straightened back up. "Police."

        Emma frowned. "Someone must've called them."

        One of the fleeing customers, perhaps. "That was nice of them," David sighed.

        "I'll take care of it," Mat assured them, before going outside to talk to his colleagues.

        Emma's eyes suddenly widened. "Oh my God. The turkey."

        She looked down at the injured woman, then glanced toward the back of the caf?, and then looked back at the woman, clearly torn over what to do.

        "It's okay," Elli told her. "I've got this. You go save dinner. I think we all need it."


        "Wow," said Mat. "Expecting an army?"

        Thanks in large part to Mat's carefully worded input the officers sent to investigate had been supremely disinterested in what was clearly just another gang-related incident they'd never trace the perpetrators of. They'd taken statements, and given David an investigation number, and had then, almost as soon as the ambulance had ferried the injured woman away, left Mat to take care of the finer details. And, with that taken care of, they'd all abandoned the clearing up for a moment to come upstairs into the relative calm and order of the kitchen and update Emma.

        "Yeah," she said, looking around her at the impressive amount of food in various stages of preparation. "This is what they call 'over-catering'. It's part of an ancient family tradition."

        "It's also called nerves," David put in, giving her a loving kiss on the cheek. He felt a little surprised that he wasn't angrier about what had happened. Mostly he was just relieved that everyone was okay. And proud, that they'd successfully fought off the vampire invasion with so little injury. Beyond the blood loss suffered by the customer who'd been bitten, the physical damage was purely superficial. Scratches and bruises, and Oz had burned his fingers slightly. It could have easily been so much worse.

        "I can't help it," said Emma. "I was already worried about hosting this even before the vampires gate-crashed. What are we going to tell my parents?"

        "Same thing the police told us," David suggested. "Drug-related gang robbery gone wrong."

        "Oh yeah." Emma looked even more worried. "They'll just love that."

        "Sounds better than the truth, though," he reminded her.

        "I'm really sorry ?" Charlie began.

        Emma sighed. "You don't have to keep saying that. It isn't your fault."

        "I know, but ?"

        "We're all alive," said David in his firmest tone. "Including that lady that got bit who I guess I'll have to send flowers to in the hospital, or something. We're all alive. That's the only thing that matters."

        "You're all alive," Mat agreed. "And about to have a really good feed, by the looks of it."

        Emma looked around at all the food she'd prepared. "I hope everyone's hungry. You can stay, if you want, Mat."

        Charlie looked sheepish all over again, and Mat seemed amused. "Thanks, but I should head back to my own dinner. I kinda left half-way through to bring Charlie over here."

        "I gave in and went to Mat's family thing for a while," Charlie admitted, apologetically. "Since this was going to be late. But I was good, honest. I didn't eat anything ? much."

        "As long as you've still got appetite, I don't care," said Emma, firmly. "Nothing is going to spoil this now. We just need to tidy up as much as we can, and make ourselves look presentable before my parents get here."


        It was one of the more?interesting Thanksgiving dinners that Oz had ever been to.

        Emma's mother arrived alone. Her husband had, apparently, been unable to get away from the office, and Emma's disappointment was obvious, despite her efforts to hide it. And Diana's determination to find fault wherever possible was also obvious, starting with the damage to the caf? that they were unable to completely hide ? not to mention their own increasingly visible bruises. She was appalled at the thought of a violent gang attacking them on their own premises, interpreting it as entirely David's fault for choosing such a clearly dangerous area in which to set up shop with her darling daughter. Emma's despair was clear, and for her sake David determinedly bit back whatever it was he so badly wanted to say and let Diana's bile wash over him.

        Oz, having been introduced to Diana as a guitarist in David's band, was instantly dismissed by her as musician, disreputable and therefore tarred with the same brush as that good-for-nothing son-in-law who so stubbornly chose to follow his own dreams rather than take a good job with 'Gordon, darling'. It was written all over her face. He could live with that. The good-for-nothing son-in-law was a good friend.

        Since Emma had introduced him by his full name, which told a story in itself, Diana's look of disapproval increased tenfold when she heard him called by his nickname for the first time. But that was countered by the strange shock sensation he felt when she insisted on calling him 'Daniel' throughout the evening. Almost no one called him that, ever. It was the name his grandmother used, mostly.

        Charlie won points just by being English, but then lost them again by being another disreputable band member, not to mention archaeologist, which was clearly not a suitable job for a woman. And being a lowly art student earned Elli a frosty glance or two, until she came over the ice maiden and played the 'dignified grieving widow searching for a new direction in life' card for all she was worth. And, it seemed, she could out-haughty Diana any day of the week, which was a side of her they didn't see often. David looked delighted at seeing his mother-in-law so comprehensively out-imperialised.

        Oz, Elli and Charlie made a discreet exit as soon as was polite when the meal was over, leaving Emma to enjoy ? or not, as the case may be ? some alone time with her mother. David had retreated to the kitchen to wash up, but popped his head out when he heard them passing.

        Elli gave him a bright smile. "We're just going to go over to my place and ?"

        "Hide," David finished for her.

        "Absolutely," said Oz.


        "Poor David," Charlie sighed, curling up comfortably in a corner of Elli's sofa.

        "Poor Emma," said Elli, sitting cross-legged at the other end of the sofa with a mug of herbal tea cupped in her hands.

        Charlie sighed again. "Poor all of us, in fact. You're sure Ed got away?"

        "With a little help," Elli confirmed. "I chased them as far as the sewers. The female was carrying him."

        Charlie looked puzzled. "Why?"

        "I kinda damaged him," Oz said. He'd pulled a chair across to sit on, reversing it and resting his chin on his arms, which were crossed over the chair back.

        Charlie's expression hardened. "On purpose, I hope."

        "Kind of a self-defence thing."

        "But the point is that he was damaged," said Elli. "Badly enough that he couldn't escape under his own steam. Even for a vampire, that's going to take a while to heal. Which gives you a little time to decide what you want to do about him."


        After making the washing up last as long as he possibly could, David emerged from the kitchen to find Emma smiling lovingly at him.

        "Your Mom?"

        "Gone to the hotel," she told him.

        David couldn't quite hold back a sigh of relief.

        "Thank you," said Emma. "You know, for the washing up, for defending me against the vampire hordes, for not snapping?"

        David smiled. "At Christmas?"


        "How about making it just us," he suggested. "Our first Christmas together as an old married couple. No parents of any description."

        Emma smiled back at him. "That's a wonderful plan."



        • #5



          Saturday nights should always be like this: completely relaxed, completely at ease; just chilling out, on stage, with the band. And, for David's sake, with a caf? full of paying customers enjoying their music.

          It was funny, Oz thought, how some things could be so completely different, and yet so similar. This band had a totally different vibe to his last one. That had been all about the rock 'n' roll, and the performances. This one was all about hanging out making music, with the occasional performance thrown in to make the rehearsals worth their while. And, of course, to get paying customers into the caf?. And, in the same way, his new group of friends were completely different to those he'd left behind, and yet in some ways so similar.

          From up on the gallery he could see pretty much the whole caf?. Emma was working the bar with Sylvie, only occasionally allowing herself to be distracted by watching David. Elli was sitting at the counter, making no pretence at anything other than enjoying the performance, which was nice. Mat sat beside her, and his eyes hadn't strayed from Charlie yet. And Mike was over by the door, also watching the band play, but covertly, clearly trying hard not to let Shanei see him. They hadn't patched things up yet.

          Of course, Vampire Ed was still out there, somewhere. That wasn't a fun thought. He'd been hurt, but he was a vampire. He'd heal. And he'd want revenge. That was an even less fun thought.

          Charlie had decided what she wanted to do. She wanted to find him, and she wanted to be rid of him once and for all, and they'd all agreed to help with that, both for her sake and their own: after Ed's assault on the caf? had worked out so badly for him, they'd none of them feel safe until they were sure he was gone.

          But that was something they could deal with in the future. Right here, right now, during a lazy Saturday night performance, everything was perfect.


          ? J. Browning, May 2005

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