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Monico Episode Eleven: Grudge Match

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  • Monico Episode Eleven: Grudge Match

    Episode Eleven:
    Grudge Match

    Disclaimer: Oz isn't mine, although everybody else is, and the universe in which they all live also belongs to people other than me. I'm writing for my own amusement, and make no profit from it.
    Feedback: Yes please, I welcome constructive comments.


    Previously in Tales from the Monico:

    Oz: "Oh, there's nothing special about me. The others, maybe. But I'm just trying to get on with my life. Only?stuff keeps happening that I can't walk away from."

    Charlie: "My mother was a vampire?I mean, not when I was born, obviously. She was turned when I was eight? every now and then, she'd remember that she had kids and come looking for us. So we had to keep moving."

    Charlie: "Have I ever told you about my brother, Edward? He died when he was sixteen, just after his birthday. He was killed. By?our mum."
    Oz: "She turned him?"
    Charlie nods, tearfully.

    Oz is confronted by vampire Ed, and throws holy water in his face to aid his escape. The vampire yells in pain and outrage as his flesh sizzles and burns.

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

    Ed and a cohort of fellow vampires stage an assault on the Monico.
    Ed: "You."
    Oz: "Me."
    Ed: "I owe you one."
    He gestures mockingly to his burnt face.
    A fight ensues. Ed focuses on Oz, who manages to throw him off, and the vampire is impaled on a couple of chair legs. Oz goes to stake him, only for the vampire to turn his human face back toward him, moaning with pain. Oz hesitates, and then is distracted and releases Ed. A female vampire helps Ed escape.


    David: "So Vampire Ed has vanished into thin air?"
    Elli: "Certainly giving a good impression of it. I was sure he was there this time."
    Oz: "Oh, he had been. Could smell him in there, over everything."
    David: "So what does that mean?"
    Elli: "Means he's moved on. Again?He'll keep moving for as long as he thinks we're looking, and for as long as he's too weak to do anything about it?if we don't find him first, as soon as he's fully healed he'll come looking for payback."

    Piers: "I find myself a little embarrassed, to tell you the truth, and have come to ask for your help. It appears a somewhat sticky problem has arisen that requires rather younger and fitter persons than myself to assist with?A businessman, Gil McKenzie has a rather unpleasant demon pursuing him, and it is laying claim to his daughter."

    McKenzie: "I can't do this on my own. I can't lose my little girl to this thing. I need help. Please."

    The Toshok demon gatecrashes the party preparations, and a fight breaks out as it attempts to attack Anouk. Oz gets in front of Anouk and defends her, sword in hand, while the others attack the demon from behind. David eventually gets in the final killing blow. Once it's all over, Anouk realises that she's clutching at Oz's arm and lets go, blushing.
    Anouk: "Oh. Sorry for being such a girl."
    Oz: "Not a problem."
    They smile shyly at each other.

    Oz cuts his hand on Emma's broken silver mirror.
    Elli: "Silver is kind of poisonous to a werewolf. It burns? With mystical beings, there's a whole different set of rules. And for a werewolf, silver kills or maims."
    Emma: "Allergic to silver. Whatever that means."
    Oz (unsettled): "I guess it means I'm not quite as human in this face as I like to think I am."

    Elli (fixing his hand up for him): "Okay, so in future you might want to think about avoiding thing that are made of silver and sharp edges."
    Oz: "Agreed."

    Emma: "Tell me more about your damsel in distress ? gonna call her?"
    Oz (with a lazy smile): "I might."


    *****

    Prologue:

    *****

    "And then there was that guy who tried to get up on the stage and fell off, splat! On his back," Anouk giggled. "Someone always tries that. Has it ever happened at any of your gigs?"

    Oz shook his head. "Not as yet. Something for us to aim for."

    Anouk laughed again. "And that's when you'll know you've really hit the big time. Ooh, look at that."

    Distracted by a somewhat outlandish outfit in a shop window they were passing, she towed him over to have a look. Still buzzing after the concert they'd spent the evening at, Oz couldn't keep the smile off his face, even if he did have to admit ? somewhere deep down inside ? that the fast approaching full moon probably also had something to do with the buzz. It sang loudly through his veins. He always felt more alive in the week around full moon than at any other time. But excellent company and a fun night out were also major contributing factors. It was a long time since he'd been on a date that was an actual date, and nothing but a date. And right now he was just enjoying listening to Anouk's chatter, enjoying being with her ? enjoying the total lack of complication in his life in this moment. It made a refreshing change.

    "It's gorgeous," Anouk decided, gazing longingly at the outfit. "But not really me. Is it? And my dad would have a meltdown if he saw me in that. Oh, hey ? there's Geena. Geena!"

    Still hanging onto his arm, she was off again, this time heading for a 24-hour coffee shop a little further down the street. One thing Oz had learned about Anouk, in the few short weeks that he'd known her, was that she was rarely still for longer than a minute. She was like quicksilver, unpredictable ? always on the go, always laughing at something that amused her, or upset about something she'd read, full of life. Getting to know her was fun, and when they were together the more complicated aspects of his life seemed to just fade into nothing, and he was just a normal guy again. It was a good feeling.

    The friend Anouk had spotted extracted herself from the small group she was with and hugged her in greeting.

    "This is Oz," Anouk proudly announced. "And this is my friend Geena."

    Geena gave him a knowing smile. "Ah, so we meet at last." She held out a hand for him to shake. "I've heard a lot about you, Oz. Anouk has spent the last?well it seems like forever, but probably only three weeks, telling anyone who'll listen, over and over, how you saved her from that escaped bear that gate-crashed my birthday party before it even began."

    Anouk had been amazed that she'd barely even needed to try to think up an excuse for the attack on the party preparations. It was incredible, even Oz had to admit. A whole roomful of witnesses, and they still managed to convince themselves it had been a bear escaped from the zoo instead of a nine-foot demon with horns and fangs. The uninformed mind simply refused to believe such a thing was possible.

    "Well, I'm sorry about the party," said Oz.

    "It wasn't a total bust." Geena grinned at Anouk. "Anouk's dad found us another place, and I didn't even know there'd been a problem until everyone told me about it. It all sounded very exciting. And I'm delighted to finally meet the man who saved my friend's life, and can produce that smile she's had plastered all over her face ever since."

    Then she laughed, apparently delighted at having managed to embarrass them both, and gently squeezed Anouk's arm. "I'll leave you to it," she said. "Nice to meet you at last, Oz. Call me in the morning, Nou."

    As Geena hurried off to catch up with her other friends, Oz smiled at Anouk, and then caught a glimpse through the shop door of a clock half hidden by the neon lights behind the bar. It was later than he'd realised.

    "You know, we should probably think about making a move, too."

    Anouk shook her head, eyes sparkling. "There's no rush, is there? Let's have a coffee, talk for a while."


    *****


  • #2
    *****

    Part One:

    *****

    It was very late by the time Oz got home. Or very early ? it all depended on your perspective. Letting himself in as quietly as possible, he crept upstairs hoping he wouldn't wake David or Emma. Landlords and employers were entitled to certain privileges, after all, and not being woken by tenants and employees in the wee small hours was one of them. Reaching his room, he dropped his jacket across a chair, and then drifted over to the window, eyes drawn irresistibly to the almost full moon, half hidden behind wisps of cloud. He felt restless, and knew that despite the lateness of the hour sleep was the last thing he'd be able to manage right now. The coffee probably hadn't helped with that.

    Then he noticed a light out back, coming from the old stable block where Elli had her studio. Either she'd forgotten to switch it off, or he wasn't the only one not sleeping tonight. He hesitated for a moment, and then picked up his jacket and very quietly headed back out.


    *****

    Oz tapped gently on the door of the studio, and then pushed it open, knowing that Elli never bothered to lock it, arguing that the courtyard was secure enough, that she had very little worth stealing, and that she hated feeling confined.

    She had both eyes fixed on the door as he came in, standing behind a large canvas with paintbrush in hand, barefoot, her paint-splashed overalls carelessly slung over PJs and only half done up, sliding off one shoulder to show the strap of the vest-top beneath. Although her stance was alert, she gave the impression of being not the slightest bit concerned about the arrival of a late night intruder, and only someone who knew her well, as Oz did, would be aware of her relaxation from full alert to off guard on seeing who it was. Friend, not foe.

    "Hello," she said, returning her attention to her canvas. "You're up late."

    "Could say the same about you," Oz noted, waiting just inside the door. She inclined her head in silent invitation so, sliding the door shut after him, he crossed the room and sat on a workbench, feet dangling.

    "I couldn't sleep," said Elli. "So I decided to be productive instead. And I'd hazard a guess that you haven't even tried yet. Does Anouk's father mind you taking her home this late?" She raised an eyebrow, amused.

    "Oh, he's away," said Oz, pulling one leg up to rest the foot on the edge of the bench and leaning his chin against the knee.

    "That's absolutely not what I asked, but lucky for you two." She was laughing now. "It's probably a good thing he approves of you. So far."

    "Anouk's an adult," Oz pointed out, relaxed. "She can do what she likes."

    That included staying out till the early hours, if she chose, although Elli did have a point even if she was only teasing. It had been a while since he'd had to worry about what a girlfriend's parent thought of him and what they got up to together ? not since Willow moved out of home. Before that, if he was honest: Willow's parents hadn't been quite as on the ball regarding their daughter's activities as Anouk's over-protective father. But saving his daughter's life had definitely gone over well with Gil ? it would take more than a few late nights to lose those points.

    Elli chuckled. "Gil McKenzie doesn't strike me as the kind of father who ever sees his daughter as an adult who can do what she likes."

    That was probably true, but still. What he didn't know couldn't hurt.

    Elli's eyes were fixed on her canvas as she continued, a little too casually, "You haven't told her yet. Have you?"

    Hello and welcome back, complications.

    Taken aback at this unexpected and very neat pinpointing of an issue he'd avoided facing up to until now, Oz opened his mouth, and then shut it again, unable for once to come up with any quick answer or glib excuse. It always disconcerted him that she seemed to be able to read him so easily, better than anyone else he'd ever met ? even Willow. And he honestly hadn't expected to get himself into this position again. This was what came of not planning ahead.

    "I know it's only been a few dates so far," Elli added, her tone still light, but with a more sober undertone. "But if it does get more serious?well, she's going to find out at some point, isn't she? And these kinds of revelation always go better if they're made sooner rather than later." She glanced sideways at him. "Full moon this weekend."

    "I know," Oz quietly acknowledged. "Last couple were smooth."

    "They weren't easy, though. Were they?" She looked him right in the eye now, and he could feel himself fidgeting uncomfortably.

    Full moon was never easy, and she knew that, better than probably anyone else in his life. Keeping the wolf repressed was a strain, every time, no matter how smoothly he managed it. She also knew how much he did not like talking about this, and was raising the subject anyway. Because it was important. He knew that. Knowing that didn't make him like it any better.

    He was annoyed with himself for having got into this situation again. It had been too easy to just glide along. One date led to another, it had never come up, and it wasn't an easy subject to raise. When was the appropriate time to come clean about that kind of thing, anyway? Hope you enjoyed yourself tonight, and by the way, I'm a werewolf. That isn't a problem, is it? So he'd put it off, unsure how Anouk would react. And now that they were fast moving past the getting-to-know-you stage it was getting too late.

    You'd have thought he'd have learned his lesson by now about keeping secrets from the people he was close to, after everything that had happened over the past year or so. But potential rejection would have been a hard thing to face up to even if he didn't like her so much.

    "I know," he said at last, very quietly. "I'll talk to her."

    He wasn't sure when, or how, but he knew it had to be done. Somehow. Before either of them got too attached because, as hurtful as it would be, running a mile would be a fairly understandable reaction to that kind of bombshell. But you never knew ? she might take it completely in her stride, as Willow had done. Or was it too much to expect that kind of understanding twice? She'd only just got over the shock of the demon attack that had first brought them together.

    Something deep inside churned with the unfairness of it, that kicking back and enjoying a new relationship couldn't last, that it had to become so complicated so soon. This was an issue he was going to have to face every time he got close to someone new, for the rest of his life: when and how to drop the bomb, and how well or how badly they'd take it ? and what might follow if they did take it especially badly. And he couldn't help but resent that.

    To his relief, Elli didn't push it. She simply nodded and picked up her brush again, apparently willing to drop the subject now she'd said her piece, trusting him to do the right thing. "Okay. Good."

    It felt kind of weird, talking to Elli about Anouk after they'd come so close to having something themselves before agreeing to go down the just-good-friends road instead. But he did appreciate having a friend around who was willing to challenge him, and point out where she thought he was going wrong, however uncomfortable it was to hear. Maybe if he'd had someone like that back in Sunnydale, he mightn't have screwed things up quite so badly.

    Drumming his heels against the workbench he was sitting on, Oz stuffed his hands in his pockets, and felt something there that reminded him of another reason he'd wanted to come over.

    "Oh, almost forgot," he said. "I got something for you."

    Elli's face lit up. "Oh yes?"

    "Except it isn't so much for you, exactly," he added, pulling the small paper bag out of his pocket. "I saw this, and thought of Jones."

    He handed it over, and Elli opened the bag and pulled out the crinkly cat toy inside. She laughed in delight, squeezing it and noting the crunchy sound it made with approval. Jones the cat had a bad habit of pulling bits of paper and old chip packets out of the bin to play with, apparently fascinated by the sound.

    "Jones will love it," she told him. "Thank you."


    *****

    Shifts that very handily ended just in time for someone else to have to deal with the teatime rush were not to be sniffed at, even if they did usually have to be arranged beforehand to tie in with plans for the night.

    Now beginning to flag, and starting to wish he'd managed a bit more sleep the previous night, Oz grabbed a coffee and quick snack to round off his shift, joining Emma at the counter and listening to her gossip with half an ear while he ate. Still working, David drifted back and forth, joining in the conversation from time to time to make it a little less one-sided. As the bell over the door sounded to announce the arrival of a new customer, he glanced up and then smiled broadly.

    "Look out, the wanderer returns," he called out, and Oz turned slightly to see Charlie heading into the caf?, back from spending the Christmas vacation in the UK with her family. "Hello, stranger."

    "I wasn't away that long," she cheerfully protested, taking her jacket off and dropping it on the floor beside her before pulling up a stool next to Emma. "Can I have a coffee, please, David? Bla?"

    "Straight black, no sugar. Gotcha," said David, turning to make it.

    "Have you just got back?" asked Emma, who had a large, elderly book open on the counter in front of her, one of Piers' dusty old tomes. Not having work today, she'd spent most of the afternoon reading, and seemed only too glad to seize on Charlie as a potential distraction, just as she had Oz when he'd joined her.

    Charlie nodded. "This afternoon."

    "Seen Mat yet?"

    "My first stop," Charlie confirmed. "He just dropped me off, he's working tonight. So, tell me what's new around here."

    "Less than you'd think," said Oz, and Emma wrinkled her nose at him. He could guess what was coming next, and glued his eyes to his plate in resigned anticipation. And yes, here it came?

    "Oz has a shiny new romance going on," Emma gleefully told Charlie, who chuckled.

    "Anouk. That was already on the cards before I went away, so ? not as new as all that."

    "Well," said Emma, in response to Charlie but mostly addressing Oz. "I think it's nice to see him getting back on the dating horse at last. Now we just need Elli to get her act together ?"

    "My act is together, thank you very much," Elli herself retorted, arriving in the caf? via the back hallway just in time to hear the comment. She shook a few droplets of rain out of her hair. "It's wet out there. Hi, Charlie."

    "Hi back," Charlie cheerfully greeted her. Then she hesitated slightly, her expression clouding over. "The, um, the other thing I wanted to ask about was?"

    She stopped again, biting her lip, but the meaning was clear. There was only one topic that could put that particular look on her face. Ed.

    "Not sight nor sound of him since you left," Oz quietly told her.

    "Thanks." Her response was just as muted, and unhappily delivered, but then she brightened again, changing the subject instantly. "Emma, what's up with the book? I thought you'd put school long behind you."

    "This is research." Emma sighed.

    "Research?" Charlie's brow furrowed. "Research into what? You all just told me there was nothing going on?"

    David shook his head. "There isn't."

    "I just decided," Emma explained. "Because, you know, if these kinds of freaky things are going to keep on happening, and Piers next door has proved that he's fallible ? well, I don't want to get caught out again. I want to be as prepared as possible. And that means learning as much as possible in advance. So, I'm reading up."

    Charlie's eyebrows had shot up into the wispy ginger curls that fell across her forehead. "I thought you thought the research was boring?"

    "I did. Still do," Emma admitted. "But it's something I want to do, so I'm doing it anyway."

    "And speaking of things we want to do?" Elli turned a winning smile in David's direction.

    "Uh-oh." David eyed her suspiciously. "That's an I-want-something face."

    "I need someone taller than me to change a light globe," she told him. "It just went pop when I turned it on, and it's getting dark so I can't see to paint."

    "Stand on a chair," said David.

    "I did. I still couldn't reach. It's not my fault your ceilings are too high, landlord, and I've no intention of killing myself by falling off a chair."

    David gave in with a hearty sigh. "Okay, I'll be over in a minute. I need to take the trash out anyway ?"

    He stopped and sighed as what looked like an entire busload of customers emptied into the caf?, heading purposefully toward the counter. "But both your light and the trash might have to wait a little while. Where's Shanei?"

    "Kitchen. Need a hand?" Emma shut her book with a thud. "I've had it with this for the night."

    Oz checked his watch, and slid from his stool as David turned to greet the first of this new wave of customers. "I can take the trash out, if that helps."

    "I thought you had a date with Miss Thank-you-for-saving-my-life." Pausing on her way around the counter, Emma wiggled her eyebrows suggestively at him, but he knew she knew better than to think he'd rise to that bait.

    "No, I've got time," he calmly assured her. Two nights in a row was maybe kind of intense for a very new, not-sure-where-this-is-going-yet relationship, it was true, but the concert had been a one off, and tonight was all about some university thing, a party to celebrate ? or possibly commiserate ? the start of the new semester that Anouk wanted to take him to. Probably so she could show off the new boyfriend. He could live with that. It had been a long time since he'd been able to just kick back and enjoy himself like this.

    "Your, uh, light might have to wait, though," he added to Elli. If she couldn't reach then neither could he. David had a lot of inches on him.

    "No worries." She'd helped herself to an orange juice, and gestured vaguely in his direction with the glass as he made his way back around to the rear of the counter and headed toward the back passageway.


    *****

    The persistent rain that had fallen all through the day had died down to a light but steady drizzle as Oz pushed the back door open to take the trash over to the dumpster across the yard. Turning back toward the door, he stopped dead as a whiff of an unexpected and very unwelcome scent hit his senses, so intermingled with the more mundane odours of damp vegetation from the garden and food from the caf?'s ventilation fan that it took a moment to isolate and identify.

    A blur of movement in the dusky half-light confirmed it, and before he had a chance to break for cover Ed was in front of him. He moved easily enough considering the severity of his recent, but now thanks to his vampiric regenerative abilities clearly well healed injury, although his youthful appearance was still somewhat marred by the residual burn scars of Oz's holy water attack.

    The vampire smiled happily, as though delighted to see him. "Hello. It's Oz, isn't it? You know, I don't believe we were ever properly introduced."

    Oz froze, trying to calculate possible moves. Ed stood between him and the back door, effectively blocking his route back into the caf?, but Elli's studio was behind, and she never locked the door, so if he could get there before the vampire could take him out?

    Ed laughed, but there was a deeply menacing undertone to it. "Oh, don't worry. I wasn't planning to come in, and I'm not looking for a fight. Not right now, anyway. I just wanted you all to know I was back in the neighbourhood. Tell Charlie I said hi, I hope she enjoyed her little holiday and gave my regards to the family. I'm very glad she's back at last. It's high time we?caught up, and spent some time together."

    The weirdest thing about Ed, Oz decided, was just how sincere he could make lines like that sound, even when you knew how disturbing his true meaning was, and that those pleasant words in fact conveyed deadly threat. He always sounded so genuinely wholehearted and earnest.

    "My very best wishes to the rest of your little gang, too," the vampire added, his tone light and airy still, although the look in his eyes was positively chilling. "I've not forgotten the welcome you all gave me last time I visited. A greeting I'll be sure to return some day. Oh yes ? every last one of you."

    His message delivered, Ed half-turned as if to leave, but then stopped and looked back. "Oh, and by the way, I thought I should mention that I worked it out, after our last little encounter. What you really are. And, no offence, but I prefer human blood. Tastes better; you know what I mean? So, I shouldn't worry too much if I were you, I won't be trying to bite you again." He chuckled. "No. I'll just kill you instead."

    And then, all at once, the sinister edge to his smile was utterly gone and he grinned as cheerfully as if they'd been discussing the latest sports results. "Have a nice night, and I'll see you very soon."

    Another blur of movement, and he was gone.


    *****

    Comment


    • #3
      *****

      "And January is so dull it has officially been cancelled," Charlie was saying as Oz returned to the caf? once more, worrying. "Please adjust your calendars to read February."

      "Oh, I wish they really would," Emma laughed.

      Now sitting at the counter with Charlie, Elli glanced up as Oz came in, and narrowed her eyes the moment she saw his face. He wondered if it was that obvious ? he was usually better at hiding his unease.

      "What happened?" she asked at once, and Charlie and Emma both turned to look at him.

      Oz let out a deep breath. "I think the, uh, the re-match is on."


      *****

      "I should have known." Charlie nibbled nervously at a thumbnail and looked around at the others, gathered in the lounge room behind the caf? for an emergency council of war. "I should have realised he'd be back the moment we dropped our guard."

      "I kinda got the impression he'd been waiting for you to get back," Oz reluctantly told her.

      "Yeah," she sighed. "That would be his style."

      "So what do we do now?" Emma looked scared. "I mean, he could be anywhere, couldn't he? He could attack us at any time, like he did before."

      "Well, speaking as the one who just had kind of a close encounter," said Oz. "I'd say what we do now should probably involve not panicking."

      "Definitely." Nodding, Elli leaned back in her chair and frowned slightly. "There's not much doubt that's what he's hoping for. So, we need to stay alert and be on our guard at all times, true, but mostly I'd say business as usual with a generous dose of extra caution for now. But then if we get a chance to take him out that doesn't involve unnecessary and suicidal heroics ? go for it, no quarter."

      Oz fixed his eyes on the floor. He didn't think the comment had been aimed specifically at him, but the fact was that during their last encounter he'd had Ed at his mercy, hesitated, and thus thrown away their best chance to rid themselves of the vengeful vampire. If he'd taken that chance when he had it ? well, Charlie might have had some issues around him dusting her former brother, but at least they wouldn't have to deal with him again now.

      "Business as usual?" Emma echoed, faintly.

      "Yes." Elli looked at her. "There's no point living in fear, Em ? caution, yes, but not fear. Look, I know this isn't pleasant, but danger isn't a new thing. Not in my life, anyway. And right now it's just something we have to live with. Ed could attack tomorrow and get it over with, or he could keep us hanging for weeks, and we'd be absolute nervous wrecks if we spent those weeks fretting like this. We need to be wary and prepare for a fight, but driving ourselves mad with paranoia is just playing into his hands."

      "That's true," Charlie murmured. "And he's already made his point for tonight."

      "And I really don't think we're going to come up with any sensible strategies tonight, with everyone so on edge," Elli continued. "We need to take some time to calm down and think clearly before we can decide what to do. Oz, didn't you have a date to get to?"

      Oz nodded, although Anouk's back-to-school-bash was the last thing he felt like right now. He'd feel better for seeing her, though ? the one truly, refreshingly normal thing he had in his life.

      "I'll take the van," he decided. Walking the streets after dark didn't feel quite such a safe option tonight as it had just 24 hours earlier. He turned to Charlie, remembering that Mat had dropped her off, which meant she'd be on foot to get home. "Need a lift?"

      "That would be great, thanks." Charlie nodded, gratefully.

      "Okay." Elli straightened up. "David and Emma should probably get back to work before Shanei resigns on you, and I'm going home. I've got things to do, light or no light."

      "You can't go out there on your own," David instantly protested.

      She arched an eyebrow. "Why on earth not?"

      "The homicidal vampire we've been discussing ring any bells? He was just hanging around out back not half an hour ago!"

      "Yes," said Elli. "And he's made his point and succeeded in shaking us all up, so he isn't going to be hanging around any longer, is he? And even if he is, I'm not about to let him stop me going home when I want to."

      "I'll walk you, then," David offered. "I mean, since you wanted that light globe changed anyway."

      "I did," Elli remembered. "It's true. But if you walk me home, then who'll walk you back across after?" She raised an eyebrow, half teasing, but also very serious.

      "I don't want you out there on your own in the dark with a vampire hanging around," Emma told David.

      "Guys." They all looked at Elli. "No panicking, remember? If we can't even walk across the backyard for fear of one vampire, what does that say?"

      "That we're panicking." David sat back with a sigh.

      "We are at risk," said Elli. "I know that. We were all ? except Charlie ? there when Ed and his little friends attacked the caf? ?"

      "And he won't like that you beat him," Charlie put in.

      "But there's no point driving ourselves mad. The light can wait till tomorrow, David, when everyone's feeling calmer. And you can watch me walking across from the back door if that'll make you feel happier about me getting all the way across the yard safely. Okay?"

      "Okay." David still looked worried, and Emma even more so.

      "And I'll drop Charlie off on my way." Oz stood up. "Just so no one's out there on their own tonight."

      "And don't forget to take some protection!" David shouted after him as he and Charlie headed out.


      *****

      "Okay, spill. What's wrong?" asked Anouk as they walked in the direction of Oz's van after leaving the party a little earlier than they might have under different circumstances. He'd found it hard to get into anything approaching party-mood when all possible ramifications of Ed's unwelcome return to San Francisco had been so much on his mind all night. At least it had stopped raining at last, although the night sky was heavy with clouds still, blocking all view of that almost full moon that he could feel so strongly.

      Automatically clamping down on the call of the moon while trying to surreptitiously sniff the air without Anouk noticing, Oz was distracted from the question by the scents he was analysing. Was that vampire he could smell, or was he just being paranoid? And why had he parked so far from the party anyway? He'd known it might not be safe?

      "Oz?" Anouk continued when he didn't immediately reply. "You've been?well, I won't say you've been quiet all night, because ? duh. But you haven't been yourself. So what's wrong? I know something's up."

      Oz let out a deep breath. That was definitely vampire he could smell, somewhere real close. Not necessarily Ed ? it was hard to tell for sure with so many other scents intermingled ? and not necessarily interested in them, but this definitely wasn't the time or place to go into complicated detail about vampires and their little games and grudges.

      "Oh, nothing you need to worry about right now," he told her, trying to quicken the pace. The van was just at the end of the street, and spelled relative safety. He felt way too exposed out here. "We can talk in the morning."

      "Oh, I wouldn't be so sure about that," a familiar voice drawled. "On the contrary. I think right now would be an excellent time to start worrying about whether or not you'll ever get to see another morning. Don't you think, Laura?"

      Oz felt his heart sink into his boots as Ed unfolded himself out of the shadows nearby, arm in arm with a female vampire who was also familiar ? she'd played her part in the assault on the Monico a few weeks earlier, and Ed had just confirmed Charlie's identification of her as her sister's one time friend Laura. Another victim of Ed's little games, and now his accomplice in them, she was every bit as distinctive as Charlie had described her, and as he remembered from their brief encounter at Thanksgiving. Her light brown hair matted into dreadlocks and pulled back off her face with a brightly coloured bandana, she wore heavy boots, checked trousers under a tie-dyed skirt, and a preppy sweater to complete the highly individual ensemble, with piercings just about everywhere that was visible.

      Two vampires. That was not good odds, especially not when he had Anouk with him, and she'd never seen a vampire before. He tried to position himself between her and them, his mind racing to assess the situation.

      "Oz, what's going on? Who are they?" Anouk sounded nervous, but also bemused, not suspecting serious danger ? not yet.

      They were too far from the party to get back to safety there, and their route to the van was effectively blocked. The vampires were in the way, and were hardly going to let them pass. He scanned the street, hoping to spot something, anything that could provide them with even a tiny break.

      "I told you I'd see you again soon," Ed cheerfully reminded him. "I'll bet you didn't think it would be quite this soon, did you? And you've brought your girlfriend, too. It's almost like a double date!"

      "Yeah, really not," Oz muttered, trying to keep Anouk behind him with one hand, and delving deep into a pocket with the other. No holy water this time, but he had a stake on him, and a cross, if he could just find one of them. Maybe it was the other pocket.

      "Oz?" Anouk hissed in his ear, starting to sound freaked now as Laura, cocking her head to one side, unpeeled herself from Ed's arm and began to circle them, with an unsettling kind of smile touching the corners of her mouth.

      "It's okay, stay calm," Oz murmured, pulling Anouk out of reach as the vampire reached out to touch her face. He tried to circle with Laura so that he was always in between her and Anouk, at the same time as maintaining a careful watch on Ed.

      "It isn't okay," Ed immediately countered, still standing off to one side watching with great amusement. "It isn't okay at all. Not for you. Either of you."

      "The girl is the one we can eat, right?" Laura looked eagerly to Ed for confirmation.

      "Oh absolutely," Ed beamed. "You wouldn't like the taste of the other one. Would she, Oz? You know," he added, to Anouk. "You really need to be very careful about the kind of company you keep. There are a lot of unsavoury, not-so-tasty types out there. And I prefer my dinner on the savoury side. Isn't that right, Oz?"

      "Well, I'm sure you'd know," Oz murmured, fingers closing around a wooden cross that had one end sharpened to a point to double as a stake. Now, if he could just spot an opening before the vampires stopped playing and pounced.

      "That's right." Ed smirked his assent. "I do. I know all about you: who you are, what you are. Hey, if I make you watch us drink your girlfriend before we kill you, d'you think that'll make us even for what you did to me? Or no?"

      "Oz!" Anouk was more than freaked now.

      "It's okay," Oz repeated automatically. It was a long way from being okay, but the last thing he needed right now was for her to panic and try to make a break for it. They needed to be ready to let the vampires make the first move, and then counter it. Like that?

      Laura, tiring of waiting for Ed to stop talking, made a sudden grab for Anouk, but Oz was ready for her, thrusting his cross into her face and pulling Anouk aside in the same movement. Caught unawares, Laura recoiled, hissing. But then, in another blur of movement, Ed joined the tussle, neatly separating Oz from the two girls.

      "Ah, ah, ah," the vampire chided, catching hold of the front of Oz's jacket and hauling him bodily away. "Let the girls get acquainted."

      All Oz could do was grapple with the vampire, struggling to hang on to his cross and bring it into play, while simultaneously praying for a miracle to happen along some time soon. He couldn't fight Ed and keep track of both Laura and Anouk at the same time. The fact that Ed didn't actually want to kill him outright, not yet anyway, gave him something of an advantage, but it wasn't much. He was pretty sure it wouldn't take much to change Ed's mind. And Anouk didn't even have that much.

      Ed's grip on his wrist tightened until the cross dropped from nerveless fingers, and then a hefty blow sent him crashing to the ground. As he fell he caught a glimpse of Laura, fully vamped out. She had hold of Anouk, and was trying to lean in for the bite, but Anouk was pulling hard on the vampire's hair while flailing at her with her purse: managing to hold her off, but only just. She needed help.

      But help was in short supply right now. As Ed moved in once more, Oz's attention was dragged back to his own life-or-death struggle. He rolled, kicking at the vampire's legs to buy himself a few more moments, which he used to reclaim his cross and scramble back to his feet, even as Ed caught at the back of his jacket to haul him back into the fray once more. Then a sudden howl of anguish distracted them both, and they turned in time to see Laura stumbling, clutching at her eyes and shrieking while Anouk defiantly waved a bottle of pepper spray she'd pulled out of her purse and yelled angrily at her.

      It was too good an opportunity to waste. Oz struck out at Ed in that second that he was distracted, ramming his cross-stake into the vampire's side and shoving him hard. Ed staggered ? not dusted, as he couldn't reach the heart from that angle ? but it was enough. With both vampires preoccupied for a few bare seconds, Oz left the cross sticking out of Ed's side, knowing that he'd have to burn his hands to pull it out, and shoulder-charged the still temporarily blinded Laura as she rubbed at her eyes and cursed, knocking her to the ground. Then he caught Anouk's hand and ran for it.

      Expecting the vampires to recover and be after them at any moment, he was surprised to instead hear Ed laughing. "That's right. Run," the vampire shouted after them. "There'll be another time. There's always another time."

      "Are you okay?" Oz anxiously tossed the question at Anouk as they made it back to the van with no sign of pursuit. She didn't seem to be injured, but it had been a very close thing. Too close. Scrambling into the cab, he wasted no time starting the engine and pulling out at speed.

      "You've a very different definition of 'nothing I need to worry about' than I do." In the passenger seat beside him looking rumpled, Anouk managed to sound both breathless and accusatory at the same time, which was a neat trick. "Don't ever use that line on me again unless you really, really mean it. Okay? Tell me what's going on."


      *****

      Oz pulled up in front of Anouk's house and stopped the engine. He kept his eyes fixed on the steering wheel as they sat in silence for a moment.

      "You have a vampire stalking you," Anouk said at last.

      "Not just me," Oz pointed out. Ed did have an especial grudge against him, though, mainly because of the holy-water-in-face thing, not to mention for physical damage inflicted by what he'd no doubt regard as a lesser foe, and the resultant injury to his vampire pride. After two close encounters in one night, Oz was finding it hard to maintain his customary air of detachment about the situation. When someone had a personal grudge against you, it was hard to take that anything other than personally.

      "And you didn't think to tell me this before now?"

      "Well?" Oz had no real excuse to offer. The truth was, they'd let Ed's absence lull them into a false sense of security as the weeks passed with no trace of the vampire. There had been other things to worry about, and to enjoy ? too many distractions, and for Oz Anouk herself had been the biggest distraction of all. And now that Ed was back ? well he hadn't really had much opportunity to tell her about it between then and now. Or much desire to, either, if he was honest. He'd wanted this one more night just for them, without any of that getting in the way. The party really hadn't been the appropriate time or place for any kind of confession. "Well, he wasn't around before now."

      There was another long silence, and then Anouk sighed. "Just when I thought I knew you."

      "You don't know everything about me." The words were out before he could stop them.

      "But I want to." There was a plaintive note in her voice, hurt and confused at being shut out. "I want you to talk to me, Oz." She studied her fingers for a moment. "What did he mean? That vampire. When he said he knew who you were, what you were? He said I should be careful about the company I keep, that they could eat me, but not you. Why? What does that mean?"

      Oz drew in a deep and slightly shaky breath, held it for a moment, and then let it out again. He'd hoped she wouldn't have picked up on that. This was it then, the best opportunity he'd had yet to come clean and tell her everything, see how she reacted.

      And yet, he couldn't bring himself to do it, couldn't face that conversation. Not yet, not now, on top of everything else.

      "It's late," he murmured. "We're both tired. We should probably talk some more tomorrow."

      Fire flashed in Anouk's eyes and for a moment he thought she was going to argue, angry at his evasion. But then she sighed and all the fight seemed to drain out of her. Seeing the disappointment in her eyes, Oz could have kicked himself.

      "Okay then." She picked up her purse and pushed the door open. "Call me tomorrow." She glanced toward the house, where a light shone from a window on the second level. "Dad's back."

      No kiss goodnight tonight, just a tight little smile, and she was gone. And that opportunity to tell all was gone with her.


      *****

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      • #4
        *****

        Part Two:

        *****

        "It's because you fought back," said Charlie over coffee the next day. "Again. He likes that because it appeals to his sense of fun, and at the same time doesn't like it because he hates anyone getting the better of him. But that's why he didn't go after you. Chasing you down then and there would be too easy."

        Feeling several pairs of eyes focused on him, Oz stared into his coffee and didn't respond. He hadn't spoken to Anouk yet, and was apprehensive about what kind of mood she'd be in today after what had happened. Leaving it like that last night without clearing the air properly could only have made things worse.

        "Is that supposed to make sense?" asked David.

        Charlie sighed. "It probably makes some kind of sense in Ed's mind. He likes to play, and he likes to spin his little games out for as long as possible. If you just give in to him without a struggle, he'll kill you and enjoy doing it. But he won't enjoy it as much as if you fight back, because that turns it into a game. Escape, and he'll let you run, because it means he'll have another chance later. It cranks the game up a notch or two, makes it last longer and. He thinks it's fun." There was a bitter note in her voice.

        "So, if you escape from him and run away you're just playing along with his little games, but if you don't, you die?" Emma sounded annoyed. "Gee, he really has got it sewn up so he wins at all ends, hasn't he?"

        "Yep," Charlie sighed and looked at Oz with a wry smile. "He likes you."

        The repeated attempts to kill him were not what Oz would have called typical overtures of affection, although that wasn't of course what she meant. "Kinda the opposite, I thought," he said.

        "Yeah, he's got a funny way of showing it," David agreed, and Charlie rolled her eyes at him.

        "Not like like. Games, remember. Like in the favourite new toy sense," she told him, and turned back to Oz. "He went after you twice in one night, singled you out. And you very definitely got the better of him last time, which he won't like at all. Might as well face it. You're his newest hobby, just like Laura was the last time he went after Becky. And you might want to make a note of how that ended up, and take steps to avoid a repeat performance."

        David looked intrigued. "Can a werewolf be turned into a vampire? What would happen if he tried?"

        That was a deeply disturbing thought. Oz abruptly found the surface of his as yet untouched coffee desperately interesting once more, as Charlie and Elli exchanged curious glances and shrugged.

        "I honestly don't know," Elli admitted.

        "Never thought about it," added Charlie.

        "Wouldn't happen," said Oz, suddenly remembering what Ed had told him. "Werewolves taste bad, apparently. So, no biting."

        "Just killing." Elli sounded grim. "Lucky you."

        "Taste bad?" David apparently found that funny. "And you look so temptingly yummy, as well."

        "Moving on," Emma firmly said. "So far today we've established that Oz is a good candidate for plain old fashioned murder, while the rest of us remain very much on the drinks menu. What else do we know? If Ed is mostly interested in Oz right now, does that mean the rest of us are safe for the time being?"

        Charlie shook her head. "He's really, really unpredictable. I should have remembered that yesterday when we all thought we were safe for the night because he'd already shown up once. He might keep focusing on Oz for a while, or he might switch his attention to someone else without any warning, or he might start to mix it up a little and attack different people at random just to keep us on our toes ?"

        "That's a lot of ors," said David.

        "I know." Charlie pulled a face. "I had to warn Mat to stay on red alert. He's another potential target. Because that's what dating me is all about when Ed's in town." There was a sarcastic edge to her voice, still with an undercurrent of bitterness. "And you talked to Anouk after what happened last night, didn't you, Oz?"

        Now there was a question and a half. He had, and he hadn't. But he had explained the vampire situation in enough depth that she'd know to be careful, surely, even if he hadn't perhaps said as much as he probably should?

        Suddenly worried that he hadn't given her enough warning about what Ed was capable of along the stalker line, Oz nodded. "Yeah, kinda."

        Even to his own ears he sounded vague and distracted, but although Elli shot a long hard look at him, no one else seemed to notice.

        "The trouble is that I know a lot of people," said Charlie. "And they aren't all warn-able. And Ed's quite capable of taking any one of them out, just for the sheer hell of it, and to show me how close he can get. That's how his games work." That hint of bitterness was back in her voice.

        "So, we have two main options right now," Elli cut to the chase. "And they kind of overlap. We can either stay on the defensive and just react to him whenever and however he shows up, which means having to be vigilant at all times and hope he doesn't catch anyone alone and unawares again like last night. Or we can turn things around and try to take the fight to him."

        David frowned. "Track him down in his lair, you mean?" He sounded apprehensive.

        She shrugged. "Well, he has to go somewhere during the day when he isn't out hunting, doesn't he? We've tried it before, but couldn't find him while he was so much in hiding. So now that we know for sure he's back and out for blood why not try again and hopefully stop him getting any?"

        "But he was injured before when you went looking for him," Emma worriedly pointed out. "He's fit, healthy and murderous now."

        "Which kind of makes the pre-emptive strike sound like more of a good thing," Oz said. It wasn't the most enticing prospect in the world, but it did make sense, if they could pull it off.

        "So, next question," said David. "How do we find him?"


        *****

        "But I thought tracking was one of your things?" said Emma. "Can't you just concentrate, or whatever it is you do, and ?"

        "No." Elli leaned back in her chair looking tired as she explained again. "Because it's been weeks, and I only saw him for a moment anyway. I didn't have any actual contact with him at all. I'm pretty sure I'd know if I was close, but I can't just walk randomly around the city until it feels right. We'll need to narrow the search down first."

        "Which brings us back to the original question," said Emma. "How?"

        "There's always ways of finding things out if you ask in the right places."

        Emma sighed. "Needle in haystack time, in other words. How hard could it be to find one little vampire in a great big city like this?"

        "Two vampires," Charlie amended, looking thoughtful. "And they've got to be feeding somewhere. That'll leave a trail, if we can just pick up the right one."

        "Drinks up." Arriving back in the lounge from the caf?, David slid a tray onto the table and slumped back into his chair. "Any more ideas?"

        "Take out a line in the small ads," said Oz, feeling that everyone was getting way too tense and it couldn't possibly be healthy.

        But David was apparently the only person who thought that was funny. "Wanted: dead or dust," he deadpanned.

        "I've had everyone I know with even the slightest connection to the underworld keeping an eye out for him since the last time he showed up," said Charlie, determinedly ignoring both of them. "Except, of course, that he then disappeared completely so I stopped asking. I'll go around this afternoon and start hassling again. Norm's usually reliable."

        "Not on your own," said Oz immediately.

        "I'll take Mat," she assured him. "I can pick his police-brain about potentially vampire-related murders or disappearances at the same time. And if we come up with anything, I'll check back and let you all know."

        "Okay then. So, we're agreed," Oz summarised. It was clear they weren't going to get any further at the moment, so they might as well break this up now. "We'll all keep our ears to the ground ? only not literally ? Charlie'll check out her people, and as soon as we get a lead, we're on it. But until then, caution, caution, caution."

        Elli nodded. "We don't take any chances, but if we can find him and there's a clear opening, we go for it. Sitting around like this waiting for him to strike isn't going to do anyone any good."

        "Okay then." Oz leaned back in his chair, and swept his soberest look around the others. "Meeting adjourned."


        *****

        Oz went straight to the telephone in the hall after the crisis summit had ended and tried to get hold of Anouk. Again. She wasn't home, and her cell phone went straight to the message bank. Perfect: just when he really needed to talk to her.

        The others had gone past into the caf? while he was on the phone and, as he hung up the receiver, he considered joining them, but decided against it. He wasn't in the mood for talking any more, and also couldn't quite face any potential quiet reproach from Elli over his failure to have that promised conversation with Anouk, not when he was already so frustrated with himself about it. Instead, he headed upstairs to chill out with his guitar for a while and hopefully take his mind off things. He'd have to try Anouk again later.


        *****

        "And Mat's got this christening at the weekend," said Charlie, dropping onto a stool at the counter in the caf?. "He's being godfather to his brother's newest, and I know he wants me to go and do the proud supportive girlfriend thing. But I also know I'd find it impossible to act normal around his family right now. I wouldn't be able to keep it up and they'd all end up wondering what the hell's wrong with me. And it's not like I can tell them the truth."

        "No," David agreed. "I can see how that wouldn't go down too well."

        "'Oh, it's just my dead brother stalking me and my friends. And potentially your son, as well. Nothing to worry about, really.'" Charlie let out an exasperated snort.

        "Speaking of Mat?" Emma nodded toward the door as the bell sounded to announce a new arrival. Two new arrivals, in fact: Mat and Mike. Charlie brightened instantly.

        "Hey." Mat greeted her with a smile and kiss, and nodded a slightly less familiar greeting to the others while Mike ordered a couple of coffees for them both.

        "Just off shift?" Charlie smiled happily at her boyfriend, apparently feeling better about life in general just because he was in the room.

        "Yeah," Mat grinned back. "I've come to take you away from all this."

        "Ooh, sounds good to me. I've got plans for us." She instantly started gathering her belongings together. "Have you got the car?" When he nodded that yes, he did, she turned to Emma. "Need a lift to work?"

        Clearly delighted at the thought of not having to walk alone in these dangerous times, with the brisk speed of a small tornado Emma joined Charlie in rapidly gathering up jacket and purse, and anything else she might need. Mat barely had time to gulp down more than a mouthful his drink before they were ready, and away, leaving David and Mike grinning bemusedly and Elli chuckling quietly to herself in their wake.

        "She isn't his usual type," Mike murmured, shaking his head in amusement.

        "Meaning?" In Emma's absence, Elli was quick to jump on a comment like that.

        Mike wrinkled his nose slightly. "Meaning, I think he might actually be serious this time."

        That sounded a bit better. "I should think so, too," she briskly told him. "The last thing Charlie needs right now is Mat messing her around."

        The protective friend card played, she slid from her stool and took her drink over to a quiet table, fishing out her present sketchbook. Mike and David leaning against opposite sides of the counter gossiping guy-style made a perfect subject, and she was still quietly perfecting the sketch when she noticed Anouk entering the caf?. She talked to David at the counter for a moment, bought a drink, and then glanced around the caf?, spotted Elli, and came over to her table.

        "Is it okay if I join you?" She sounded nervous.

        "Of course." Elli offered her a reassuring smile, and put her sketchpad away as a gesture of welcome.

        "I wanted to see where Oz works," Anouk told her. "And?I don't think I ever said a proper thank you to the rest of you, did I? You know, for the big rescue thing."

        "Not necessary," Elli assured her. "And I think Oz is upstairs somewhere. David'll let you go through if you ask."

        "Maybe in a minute." Anouk fidgeted in her seat, picking nervously at a fingernail. "I just wanted to?I mean I?" Her voice faltered, but then found new strength and she looked the other girl full in the face, her expression determined. "Tell me all about Oz. Please."

        Elli let out a deep breath, feeling very strongly that she really wasn't the most appropriate person for Oz's new girlfriend to come to when she wanted to talk about him. But out of all the people that Anouk knew were friends of Oz, David was the only other one present, and she was hardly likely to ask him, was she.

        "Oz," she said. "Guitarist in David's band. About this much taller than me." She measured half an inch with thumb and finger. "And a tiny bit precious about his hair. Likes to throw the odd curve ball into conversation, I suspect for the sheer fun of seeing how everyone reacts. What else do you want to know?"

        "I don't know." Anouk squirmed. "I just?we've been seeing each other for a little while now."

        Elli waited for a moment.

        "Yes," she said in her most encouraging tone, when it became clear that some response was required.

        "And, we've been having lots of fun and all," Anouk slowly continued, as if she needed to talk this through out loud in order to be sure in her own mind exactly what was troubling her. "I think he's great."

        Again, it seemed a response was required. "You won't get many arguments there."

        "He's really sweet. And funny?and, you know, I already knew that he was impossible to talk to," Anouk sighed.

        Elli chuckled softly. "You won't get many arguments there, either. He really can be."

        "I really thought everything was going fine," Anouk sighed, biting her lip. "But then when that thing with the vampires happened ? you do know about the thing with the vampires, right?"

        "I heard about it, yes."

        "Well, you're doing better than me, then, because I don't even know if he would have told me about any of it at all if I hadn't seen them." She looked hurt, unhappy and confused at being kept out of the loop. "It's like I hit a wall. Like ? like he'll let me get so close and no further, like there's this whole huge part of his life that he doesn't want me to be a part of. And I don't know what to do about it. I know there's more going on with him than he said last night, but he won't tell me anything."

        Elli knew perfectly well that there were lots of reasons why Oz was finding it difficult to open up to Anouk, but it was hardly her place to explain any of the whys.

        "Not talking to the other half about anything more important than 'what shall we do tonight?' is a bloke thing in general," she pointed out. "But also an Oz thing in particular, it's true. He isn't the most communicative person in the world."

        "And then I turned my phone off anyway," Anouk added, miserably.

        They were as bad as each other. "He can't ever talk to you if you don't answer your phone," Elli pointed out.

        "I know." Anouk pouted at her coffee, and then gave a wry snort. "I just?I needed some time to think. I mean, we only just started dating, and already there's all this. It just made me realise. If there's stuff going on that he isn't telling me about then what does that say about us? About me? "

        "I don't think it has to say anything about you," Elli began. "Oz is just a very private person, and ?"

        "But the two of you are friends," Anouk cut her off. "I mean, he talks to you ? right?"

        "We have been known to have the odd conversation, every now and then, it's true."

        "So maybe you can help me, then." Anouk's eyes were wide and innocent, full of hope and trust. "How do I get him to talk to me? To trust me?"

        "Trust really isn't the issue?" Elli began, wondering how she was meant to reassure Anouk without betraying Oz's confidence. Except maybe that it probably was about trust, after all, the kind of trust that their relationship hadn't had time to build yet.

        She stopped and sighed, deeply uncomfortable with this conversation and the conflict of interest it created. Oz was her friend, and she knew him well enough to be able to guess at something of what was going through his head at the moment ? well enough to be uncomfortable being asked to discuss him behind his back. He was a very private person, not naturally talkative, and was never comfortable with talking about himself.

        Add to that his discomfort with having to explain the werewolf situation to anyone, and natural tendency to worry about how the uninitiated might react to it, and you found yourself pretty much where he and Anouk were now. Because Anouk wasn't just anyone, so there was that much more at stake. He couldn't predict how she would react, and so had put off telling her until they knew each other a bit better. He was a guy who needed to be absolutely sure something was right before he committed: he'd had his fingers burned before, and didn't want to get hurt again. It was understandable. But now that they were getting to the stage where she really needed to know, he was getting too tied up with his own reticence and everything else that was going on to actually go through with it.

        It made sense and was understandable, but Elli could also see how frustrating it must be for Anouk now that she knew, or suspected, that something was up. Oz was afraid to tell her the truth about himself in case she rejected him, but if he weren't careful he'd end up losing her anyway over this failure to communicate, because she felt rejected by him.

        But it wasn't her place to tell Anouk any of that, though. All she could do was offer support, for Anouk's sake as much as for Oz. Having opted for this monastic existence, playing agony aunt to the people around her was a role she'd more or less imposed on herself by default, like it or not. But then again, while Anouk might need reassurance, ultimately Oz was the only person who could really give that to her. And what she clearly wanted was hard, practical advice rather than sympathy, and it was possible to give a little of that without betraying any confidences.

        "Okay. Well, if I suspect there's something wrong," she advised, changing tack. "I've found it's best to just ask him straight out, 'cause he'd never actually say. And sometimes doesn't even then. But in more general terms, all I can say is give it time. You haven't known each other all that long. But you really do need to cut out the middle man and talk direct to him about this, not me."

        Anouk glanced across to the counter, and the passageway behind it leading to the kitchens and private quarters above, and bit her lip. "I know. But?maybe later. I still need to think some more."


        *****

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        • #5
          *****

          "Well, I've now visited parts of this city that I never knew existed, and I thought I'd seen it all." Mat had his arm around Charlie's shoulders as he walked her back to her dorm after a tense afternoon spent cruising what Charlie had assured him were actually some of the safer demon haunts of the city in search of clues as to where Ed might have holed up. Probably not how he'd anticipated spending the afternoon when he arrived to pick her up, and one vampire was hard to single out of the many living in the city, but they now had some promising leads on vampire hideouts and potential Ed sightings, and Mat had insisted on rounding off the afternoon with a very late lunch followed by ice cream. Just for the sake of normality, whatever that was. "And we've got a place to start now, at least. And you know you can count on me all the way on this, don't you?"

          "I know." Charlie smiled up at him, appreciating his freely given support, and how unfailingly upbeat he was in the face of everything.

          "And Mike too, of course," he added, automatically volunteering his partner's aid, as well. "So ? feeling better now?"

          "I always feel better with you," she told him. "And I don't care if that's a cliché, because it's true." When they were together, the rest of the world ? and Ed in particular ? felt a million miles away.

          With his chin all but resting on the top of her head as they walked, she felt rather than saw him smile. "I aim to please."

          "That's ?" Charlie cut her reply dead as a familiar voice started to sing tunelessly out of the shadows nearby.

          "Charlie, Charlie. Give me your answer do. I'm half crazy all for the love of you. It won't be a stylish marriage; I can't afford a carriage. But you'll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle made for two."

          Charlie froze, and felt Mat stiffen in reaction to both the song and its effect on her.

          "Hello, Chas." Ed stepped forward to stand at the edge of a nearby alleyway, remaining in the shadows, as the sun had not completely set ? not just yet ? but close enough to be visible. He grinned at the two of them in a teasingly friendly fashion. "Wow, dating a copper now, sis? Who'd have thought?"

          "Ed." Charlie kept her voice very level, holding on tight to Mat to hopefully stop him doing anything reckless. He might have police training behind him, but he didn't know much about vampires. This was neither the time nor the place for would-be heroics.

          "But who knows?" Ed laughed. "You look so cute together, maybe this one could be more of a keeper than the last?" His smile became sinister now. "I might have to do something about that."

          "Mat, no. Leave it." Charlie hung on to her boyfriend, holding him back as he cursed in Spanish and lunged toward the vampire. Ed laughed again.

          "I'm not here to fight," the vampire cheerfully informed them. "Just popped out for a meal, thought I'd stop by to see you on my way home."

          Releasing her hold on Mat, Charlie dug her hands into the pockets of her jacket, feeling the reassuring presence of the stakes she'd stuffed in there earlier, and wondered if she'd ever be able to bring herself to use them on the creature that had once been her brother. If it wasn't so late in the day she could perhaps use her less-than-normal power to drag him out of those shadows into the sunlight and finish this once and for all, but the sun was all but gone now ? too late in the day for any vampires to be burned up by it, and even if it weren't, she wasn't sure her resolve would hold. Would she really be able to do it to him?

          "You've seen me now," she spat at him. "And now you can leave. Leave town, and don't come back."

          Ed smiled lazily. "Or what?"

          "Or we'll kill you." Mat glared.

          "Oooh," Ed mocked. "Scary. Is that meant to be a threat?"

          Charlie frowned at Mat to stay out of this, let her handle it. "Not a threat," she calmly told the vampire. "A warning. We're not going to just sit back and let you play your little games any more. We're coming after you, and you won't know when. So if you don't want to end up in the dust bag of someone's Hoover, you'd better leave while you still can."

          Not her best threat ever, and there wasn't a chance in hell that Ed would take it and go, but she felt better for trying, even if warning him of their intentions did lose something of the advantage of surprise for them.

          Ed laughed, entirely unmoved by the threat. "We'll see, we'll see." He winked. "Be seeing you again soon, sis. Watch your back."

          Stepping backward, he seemed to melt into the fast lengthening shadows once more, and with the daylight so rapidly disappearing, he'd have no trouble getting safely away. There'd be no point chasing him even if they were fully prepared to take him on.

          "Just leave it for now, Mat," Charlie insisted, when he made a move to follow. "Take me home. Please."

          Mat stood for a moment longer, glowering at the spot where Ed had been standing and muttering dire imprecations in Spanish.

          "Mat?"

          "Yeah. Okay. Sorry." Giving in with a very bad grace, he took her arm again and they continued on to her dorm in silence, the comfortable mood between them well and truly broken.

          They arrived back at Charlie's place without any further incident, but before she could even turn her key in the lock, tearful sobs announced Sook's arrival. Remembering Ed's words, Charlie took one look at her friend's face and feared the worst.

          "What happened?"

          Sook flung her arms around Charlie's neck and sobbed incoherently on her shoulder for a moment before regaining enough self-possession to gulp out a few short words. "You haven't heard?"


          *****

          Elli pottered around making a hot drink in her little kitchenette, the stop-start sound of music drifting up from the studio beneath. The band was practicing, her studio being the location of choice largely because it was at a suitably safe distance not to disturb diners in the caf?. David was nothing if not profit minded where his business was concerned. It didn't sound like a full rehearsal, though. There was something missing.

          A moment's reflection later it was obvious what was missing: the drum beat. Charlie couldn't have arrived yet. A minute later again, and the music stopped, replaced by a low murmur of voices. Picking up her mug, she decided to see for herself what was going on down there.

          By the time she was half way down the stairs, the music had started again ? partly, at least. David was running through part of a song with Shanei, while Oz had abandoned his guitar and was messing around with Charlie's drum kit. Tapping out a gentle rhythm, his attention was focused intently on the other two, head bobbing absent-mindedly to the beat. Elli went across to him, remembering that she still needed to find a moment alone to talk to him about Anouk again and tell him about their conversation earlier. But that had to be a 'when the time was right' thing. Oz had a habit of clamming up like an oyster when troubled, and you had to pick the exact right moment to strike and the exact right spot to hit if you wanted to prise that shell open again. And now certainly wasn't the right moment, not with David and Shanei within earshot, albeit not paying much attention to anything other than the music. The same could be said for Oz himself, mind.

          Following his gaze over to the other two, she tilted her head slightly to one side and frowned, wondering what was so interesting about David making Shanei repeat the same few lines over and over.

          "What?" she asked at last.

          Distracted, Oz blinked. "What?"

          "I asked first."

          It took a moment for him to come back down to earth from whatever musical plane he'd been occupying and work out what she was talking about.

          "Oh." He nodded toward David and Shanei. "She's coming in a beat early, every time."

          "I'll take your word for it." Shanei's singing sounded excellent to Elli, but then, she wasn't such a musical perfectionist as the guys.

          Oz gave her his full attention now. "We disturbing you?"

          "No, no," Elli assured him. "Well, actually yes, in the sense that it's loud and right underneath me. But no, I was listening. Where's Charlie?"

          He shrugged, brow slightly furrowed. "A no show as yet. Hasn't called."

          Elli frowned. Charlie had gone out for the afternoon with Mat, and lateness wasn't normally a matter for concern ? a matter of course, in truth. But under current circumstances any non-appearance made everyone twitchy, and knowing that they'd gone to check out some of Charlie's demon contacts was a point of unease.

          But as if on cue, Charlie herself arrived at that moment, looking angry and upset, with Mat in tow.

          "Hey, girl, you're late," Shanei called, turning away from the keyboard at the sound of the door opening.

          "What's wrong?" Elli asked, more gently. Something had obviously happened.

          Charlie's eyes went straight to Shanei, who still lived in blissful ignorance of the supernatural underworld. Mat put a supportive arm around her.

          "Um, a, a lad that was in some of my classes was killed today," she faltered.

          Elli felt her heart sink at those words, and exchanged a grim look with Oz as he stood up and moved around from behind the drum kit, bringing the stool with him and setting it down beside Charlie. This was what they'd all been dreading since Ed's reappearance.

          "Killed?" Shanei's eyes went wide. "Killed how?"

          Charlie flushed, and Mat squeezed her shoulder reassuringly. It was obvious what had happened, but also obvious that she had to be very careful of how she phrased it in front of Shanei. "He was attacked," she said, glancing nervously toward Oz, then David, and then Elli with a tiny nod to confirm their suspicions. "This afternoon. Neck injuries, and he lost a lot of blood. That's what killed him."

          "Oh, I'm so sorry." While the others exchanged worried looks, Shanei was all sympathy. "Were you close?"

          "Not very close," Charlie sniffed, sitting down heavily on the stool and leaning against Mat. "But I knew him. We had classes together. He was nice: very earnest, big dark eyes. And now he's dead. And do you know what's the worst part?"

          She looked tearfully up at the others. "The whole time Sook was telling me about it, and she was so upset because she went out with him a few times, all I could think was how glad I was that it wasn't her, or one of my other friends, or anyone that I knew better than him."

          Her face crumpled and Mat pulled her close as she burst into tears. He looked helplessly at the others. "She's been like this since we heard."

          "Not surprising," Oz murmured.


          *****

          So, band practice was a bust.

          As Shanei led a still tearful Charlie back across to the caf? in search of a soothing drink, Mat and David trailing behind, Oz stood with his eyes fixed to the door, a myriad of conflicting thoughts and emotions warring for his attention. The knowledge of how lucky he'd been in his own encounters with the vampire was severely tempered by guilt over the death of someone without his experience of vampire evasion, feeling sure that it could, should, have been prevented. Somehow.

          Behind him he could hear Elli quietly tidying away after the aborted rehearsal.

          "Should've taken him out when I had the chance," he murmured, almost to himself.

          The sounds of furniture being moved stopped, and he could feel her eyes on his back.

          "Might've helped, but what's done is done," she softly replied. "You felt sorry for him, just for a second, and got distracted. It happens."

          Except that feeling sorry for a vampire, even for a second, was really dumb ? and cost lives. He'd even known that Ed liked to play on his innocent appearance, and still fell for it.

          After a moment in which he didn't respond, Elli quietly continued, "Even misplaced compassion isn't something anyone should ever feel ashamed of. It says a lot of good things about who you are."

          "You wouldn't have hesitated."

          That wasn't a question. He was pretty sure she wouldn't have fallen for Ed's guilt-trip ? she was kind of a throw-yourself-in-there person, and had lived through a war in her own world. Fought in that war, even. You had to be pretty ruthless where your enemies were concerned to survive something like that, didn't you?

          Behind him, he heard her let out a long, deep breath. "No, maybe not," she replied, very slowly. "But that says less good things about who I am."

          He kept his eyes fixed on the floor just in front of the door for a while longer, not trusting himself to speak: too much going on in his head right now. After a moment he felt her attention shift away as she returned to her tidying, and this dragged his attention back to more mundane matters. He should probably help with that, he decided, since she'd allowed them to use her space for rehearsal and the others had just taken off and left her with all their clutter.

          As he began to move Charlie's drum kit into a corner out of the way, Elli very lightly changed the subject completely.

          "Did you know that the new science block at the university is being funded by a private donation? And that Professor Staunton is overseeing the work personally?"

          Her investigation into Staunton's potential evilness might be no more than a background task, but it remained ongoing. The professor hadn't yet given any overt sign of sliding back off the rails, but given what he'd been up to the previous summer, it paid to be wary of his more discreet activities. Personally, Oz made a point of never going anywhere near him, and for good reason. He'd come too close to dissection in the name of science too many times already.

          "So?" He raised an eyebrow, curious to know where this was leading.

          She shrugged, carrying on with her tidying. "So nothing, possibly, although it isn't usual, is it? Your average professor of mathematics and science wouldn't be involved at that level. And I couldn't find out who the donation was from, and usually even the most private benefactors like their names to slip out so they can bask in the gratitude. Not many people are that completely altruistic. So I might ask Charlie ? only not today, obviously ? to have a word with Mat, see if he can look into it. Or maybe it would be better to go straight to Mike with things how they are right now?"

          "Could be worth a shot." Maybe not a huge puzzle, and possibly nothing at all, but it was a good distraction from the more complicated vampire-related issues of the moment, and there were other avenues of investigation that might not have occurred to her. "And, you know, I could maybe do some detective work on the computer, see what comes up."

          "Good thinking." Elli pursed her lips, thoughtfully. "I mean it doesn't have to mean anything, it's probably completely innocent. He might have got his fingers so badly burned last time that he never wants to stray from the path of righteousness again. Except that I've got this nagging feeling that something isn't quite right, only it isn't nagging enough to be sure. Does that make sense?"

          "No," Oz admitted. "But also, yeah. Kinda."

          "Besides," she continued, pulling a face as she started to shift her large easel from the side of the room it had been moved into. "I can never tell if he's acting weird or not because, apparently, he always acts weird. There's no way of telling the difference."

          Oz helped her pull the easel back into the sunny spot where she usually worked at it, and then stopped when he saw the painting she'd been working on lately for the first time. It depicted a clearing in the midst of deep forest, with shafts of golden sunlight filtering through the trees, and a small stone pillar, a shrine perhaps, set off to one side. The painting was beautiful: peaceful, vivid, and incredibly life-like ? far too real to be plucked from the imagination.

          He saw her looking at him askance as he admired her work silently for a moment, and realised he should probably say something. "Hey, that's pretty good. Is it ? is it from memory?"

          She nodded, and the look that came across her face as she regarded the painting was one he'd never seen before. Nostalgia. Longing. Regret. She so rarely let slip any hint of how she really felt about her exile in this world. "The sacred grove," she murmured. "I used to play there as a child."

          She turned a wry smile to him, pulling a sheet across the painting. "I'll have to paint over it, of course."

          "Why?" He was startled at the suggestion, wondering why anyone would possibly want to create something so lovely only to destroy it again immediately.

          "I wanted to remember, just for a little while?But it's too recognisable," she said, very simply. "And, therefore, too risky to have hanging around. Did I mention that Anouk came into the caf? earlier?"

          She hadn't, and her casual mention of the fact now took him aback. But as disconcerted as he was to hear it, he wasn't blind to the diversionary tactic she'd employed by changing the subject so abruptly. If recognisable was risky to have hanging around, did that imply that someone was looking?

          "I told her you were just upstairs and summon-able, but she wouldn't stay," Elli continued, her tone light as she carefully sorted through some equipment she'd left out on a work surface.

          That piece of information very neatly diverted his attention away from the mystery that was Elli's past back to his own issues and, having told him that much, she fell silent. Oz waited to see if she would add anything else, but she didn't so much as cast a knowing look in his direction. It was a very effective tactic, he ruefully realised. She didn't even have to hint at the wolf issue. It was foremost on his mind where Anouk was concerned right now, and he still didn't know how best to play it.

          And the silence grew, and needed to be filled.

          "The conversation will be had," he said at length. If, that was, he ever managed to get hold of Anouk. She hadn't answered her phone all day. And he wasn't sure what it meant that she'd come all the way over to the caf? but then left without seeing him. It was worrying.

          "I didn't say a word," said Elli, still with her back to him. But then she turned and grinned sympathetically. "I was thinking it, though. Am I allowed to ask how soon, or is that a bit too Emma-ish?"

          Oz exhaled deeply. There was no wriggling out of this conversation now, and he had no one but himself to blame for that. She'd offered him the out by not raising the issue directly, and he'd let himself fall right into the trap. He needed to find out what Anouk had said, what she was thinking. "How lame does it sound if I say 'when the time's right'?"

          Elli turned her attention back to the brushes she was sorting away into their containers. "I know I don't have to tell you that the longer you leave it, the harder it'll be. And the worse she'll take it. You'd just be storing up trouble for yourself."

          "I know," he murmured under his breath. And yet, if he'd told her from the start that he was a werewolf, when she'd barely even dreamt that such a thing could exist and had just been attacked by a slathering demon, they might not have even had as much time together as this. The last thing he wanted was to scare her off.

          "If it was me," Elli continued, evenly. "I'd be far more concerned about the fact that you didn't feel you could talk to me than the actual content of what you weren't saying. You've already got her all confused about where she stands. And I know it isn't an easy thing to talk about, but it's important. Anouk needs to know." She looked right at him, eyebrows raised. "How can you be with someone if they don't know who you are?"

          "The wolf isn't the biggest part of me," he instantly objected.

          "It is a part of you though," she insisted. "It's an important part of what makes you you, and you can't hide that from her forever. She needs to be given the chance to know the whole you. If you want the two of you to have any real chance that is."

          Her tone was gentle and she was only trying to help, but it still felt kind of like he was being lectured, and deservedly so. Oz kept his eyes fixed on his feet for a long, silent moment. Then he glanced up and, meeting his eyes, Elli gave him a wry smile.

          "Honesty is usually the best policy, they say."

          "Because you're so forthcoming about every aspect of your life," he countered, feeling decidedly hemmed in.

          "I said usually," she grumpily reminded him, pretending to be severe. "Do as I say, not as I do."

          Oz looked at her for a moment. "Why?"

          He wasn't sure she'd get what he meant by that. He wasn't actually sure he got what he meant by that. Why should he follow her advice? Or, why should she care if he worked things out with Anouk or not? He waited to see which potential meaning she picked.

          Elli looked elsewhere for a moment, chewing at the inside of her lip, before opting for the interpretation that made life easiest for her.

          "I don't know. Maybe I just think that you and Anouk have a shot, and I don't like to see you screwing it up so soon."

          That was way too close to the mark, and it stung. He wasn't entirely sure he hadn't already screwed things up. He hadn't managed to get hold of Anouk yet today, and if she was avoiding him?

          "I don't have any choice about living in limboland," Elli added with a rueful chuckle. "So I like to think that the people around me are leading happy and fulfilling lives that I can enjoy vicariously."

          The moment had become both deeply serious and yet light hearted as she gave him a goofy grin, which he couldn't help but return, even as he noted a familiar scent he'd always enjoyed wafting in from the yard outside. A moment later Anouk walked in.

          Embarrassment hung silently in the air. Elli looked back and fore between the two of them as they avoided one another's eyes.

          "I'm sure if I think about it for a moment," she said. "I can find something else that I really need to be doing right now. Like seeing how Charlie is."

          She slipped past Anouk, heading across to the caf? and leaving them to talk.

          Keeping his private business private used to be so much easier than it had become of late, and he wondered when and how that had happened. Anouk just stood there, with a deeply suspicious look on her face at having found the two of them so comfortable together and talking freely when the last conversation he'd had with her had been so uncomfortable. That could only mean that she was now feeling jealous and even more insecure, on top of being confused about what was going on with him. At least he could be fairly sure she hadn't arrived in time to hear any of what he and Elli had been talking about. But if she was feeling confused and insecure that was his fault, no two ways about it. They'd been fine until she realised he was keeping things from her, and he still hadn't explained that properly.

          But it still wasn't a good time to have that conversation, not with everything else that was going on. Unless, of course, she asked him straight out, in which case it would have to be. But he really didn't feel ready to face it right now, not when he'd been caught off guard without time to prepare himself.

          "What?" He raised an eyebrow, offering her his blankest expression, and wondering if she'd call him on it.

          Anouk looked at him for a moment longer, but then shook her head, apparently deciding she didn't want to ask questions. Not here and not now.

          "Nothing," she said, and that drew a line under yet another opportunity to clear the air. "I know this isn't a good time. Something's going on, isn't it? Something more, I mean. Your friends looked upset when I came through."

          She took a step toward him, looking anxious, but determined. "Is there anything I can do?"


          *****

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          • #6
            *****

            Part Three:

            *****

            Oz and Anouk found everyone gathered in the lounge room behind the caf? when they made their way back through. Shanei had apparently been dispatched to help junior waitress Sylvie man the caf? ? no doubt bribed by the promise of a hefty bonus for working an extra shift ? freeing Emma to join the others.

            "But why kill someone so random?" Emma was asking as they pushed the door open. "Why not someone you knew better, a close friend?"

            "I don't know," Charlie murmured, curled up against Mat on the sofa. "Because he could? Because he was hungry? And because he knew I'd find out and be upset, even if I didn't know him well."

            "Plus he knows we're on our guard now," Elli put in. She gestured around the room at them all, acknowledging the arrival of Oz and Anouk with a little nod. "We were all there when he attacked the caf?, and helped fight him off. And catching Oz unawares last night didn't come off for him either. He knows that the people you're closest to know all about him, that we're going to be on the defensive, all the time, ready for him. So instead of attacking directly again, since that already failed more than once, he goes for the softer targets, picks off random people from around you. And, if this goes on much longer, probably from around us, too. He knows it'll all get back to you."

            "I don't like the sound of that," Emma murmured.

            "I would imagine he'll try to work his way closer, bit by bit," Elli continued, with the air of one who completely understood this kind of tactic. "Hoping that every little bit will succeed in upsetting us, in throwing us off balance, and also ? potentially ? drawing us out into the open. He knows we'll be angry. He knows we'll want to stop him going any further, and therefore might start to take bigger chances. It's all part of his game strategy, and we'll have to tread very carefully before we make another move."

            As Oz quietly pulled the door shut behind him, she glanced up and her eyes flicked from him to Anouk. They hadn't had enough time for that talk they so desperately needed, and she'd know that. But she'd also know that it wasn't a good time. He stepped further into the room now that the conversation had broken. "Hey."

            Beside him, Anouk smiled nervously at the others, and he felt oddly proud. Maybe she didn't fully understand what she was getting herself into, but by deciding to come over here with him, she'd committed herself. Of course, having been attacked by Ed once already, and being known therefore as Oz's girlfriend, she was pretty much involved, like it or not. Ed would have marked her out, which was a scary thought for Oz and a good reason for her to stick with this. It was a big thing, she was tackling it head on, and he admired that. And once this was over, or at least a bit calmer, he was going to have to be straight with her, about everything, no matter how hard it was. Whether she thought he was worth living with the added complications or not, she deserved that.

            "So?" Guiding Anouk toward an empty armchair, he raised an eyebrow and looked around at the others, wondering what had been discussed in his absence.

            "We've got a couple of really promising leads," said Charlie, still sounding subdued. "And a few not so promising, but they should still be worth checking out. I want this over before anyone else dies. Anyone else that I know." She looked at Mat, suddenly distressed all over again. "Am I horrible for not caring if he kills people I don't know about?"

            "No." He kissed her forehead. "You can only worry about so many things at once. Relax."

            Oz perched on the arm of the chair Anouk had taken. "So, is there a plan yet?"

            Elli looked at Mat. "You said Mike was on his way over?"

            He nodded. "Be here any minute."

            "Okay then." She looked around at the others. "We can make proper plans when Mike gets here, but I don't think we should wait around any longer. We need to take some affirmative action, for our own peace of mind, if nothing else.

            "Affirmative action sounds good to me," said Mat, and Charlie nodded.

            "So," Elli suggested. "Tomorrow when we've got daylight on our side again, if everyone's willing, there's enough of us to split into a couple of groups and check out those leads Charlie and Mat came up with. Yes?"

            Scared but resolute faces around the room exchanged nervous glances, and nodded.

            "Better to get him before he gets us," Charlie muttered unhappily, staring at the floor. "He's being running riot for too long now already."

            Elli nodded, but stuck to the practical side of things since Charlie clearly wasn't in the right frame of mind for sympathy. "We'll have to be sure we're well stocked up on weapons, make the groups as evenly weighted as possible," she said. "And be very, very careful. The aim is to find out where he's staying and who he's with, and then re-group, right? Not to take him on straight away without backup, if we can help it. There's no point being heroic and taking unnecessary chances. He'll be on his own turf, but in theory at least we'll have the advantage of surprise. And as long as it is just him and Laura, with enough of us there we'll have them outnumbered, which means we can do it ? as long as we play it right."

            "Amen to that," murmured David.


            *****

            "Okay then, here goes," said a very nervous David as they prepared to set out the next day. "Operation Ed-hunt."

            "Now, technically ? if everything goes to plan ? there shouldn't be any actual fighting involved at this stage." Elli cautioned as she prepared to head out with her team, consisting of David, Emma and Mike. "But we all know that nothing ever really goes to plan, so we need to be prepared for anything."

            "Except flying elephants," Oz murmured before he could stop himself. What they were doing was deeply serious, he knew that, but it also appealed strongly to his sense of the ridiculous. He knew from experience that it didn't pay to take this kind of marching-headlong-into-danger thing too seriously. Maintaining a sense of humour was necessary for morale.

            Elli shot him a withering glance, although the amusement dancing in her eyes suggested that she understood the why. "Except probably that, it's true," she dryly agreed.

            "Gotcha." David nodded.

            Oz, Elli and Charlie were the veterans of the group, as weird as it felt to pin a label like that on himself. They the only ones with real, long-term combat experience in this field, vampires not generally coming under police jurisdiction. But David and Emma had fought vampires before, and come through in one piece, while Mike and Mat might not have vampire experience, but they did have police training and so should be handy enough in a tight spot. Anouk was the only real newbie here, and the thought of taking her into this was scaring Oz more than anything else. But she'd been determined to help and not be left out, and had refused to be talked out of it. All they could do was prepare her as best they could. A detailed vampire tutorial to make sure everyone was up to speed had been the first priority of the day, and the weapon supply they've been stockpiling in the cellar had been raided. They were as ready as they were ever going to be, which was a darn sight readier than they had been the last couple times they'd come face to face with vampires, he reminded himself. It would be okay.

            Giving Anouk's hand a little squeeze for reassurance, he caught fellow team-leader Elli's eye and nodded. Ready or not, it was time to go.

            Elli led her team out to Mike's car, and Oz noted with amusement Mike's quietly irritated reaction as she automatically took point. He might say he was willing to bow to another's experience, but he still didn't like letting a civilian take the lead. Especially when it was his car they were taking.

            Oz himself was taking Anouk, Charlie and Mat in his van, and they headed out just behind the other team. Oz took custody of the list of locations they were planning to hit, while Charlie anxiously checked her cell phone for about the dozenth time to make sure it was on and fully charged. The two teams needed to be able to keep in touch.

            No one was saying it out loud, but they were all extremely nervous. It didn't take a werewolf nose to figure that one out, and since his was at just about its sharpest at the moment he was keenly aware of the sharp tang of fear coming at him in waves from all directions. Not just fear of Ed himself ? they'd already fought him off more than once between them ? but fear of whatever else they might find themselves getting into by looking for him, fear for each other and of what could happen. And yet it needed to be done.

            He glanced up at the sky as he pulled the van door open and drew in a deep breath as he climbed into the driver's seat. Daylight it might be right now, but today was the first day of his full moon cycle, and he felt a lot more agitated than he'd like to be at this time of the month. He took a moment to steady himself before setting off, breathing deeply, and fingering the charms he wore wound around his hand as part of his non-wolf remedy in an attempt to restore that inner balance he so needed to maintain.

            Then all thoughts of wolfiness fled from his mind as Anouk scrambled into the passenger seat beside him, and he glanced at her with a fond smile. He couldn't help but admire her willingness to help out, even if the thought of her getting involved in vampire battles was terrifying, and even if he would prefer it so much if she stayed safely at home.

            "You know you don't have to do this," Seeing Charlie and Mat enjoying a quiet couply moment before joining them in the van, he took the opportunity to give her one last chance to pull out, and could only hope that she'd take it.

            "I want you to know you can count on me," Anouk very firmly told him.

            That could almost have been calculated to make him feel worse. She didn't have to prove anything to him, but if she thought she did?they really needed to find time to talk properly. "I know," he told her immediately. "And, I do. But this is ?"

            "Not safe. I know that. Everyone already told me a thousand times. I'm still coming," she insisted. "I don't need you to lock me up in an ivory tower, Oz. If this kind of thing is a part of how you live your life, then I want to share it with you. You know? I want to help."

            Seeing the determination in her face, Oz sighed. There was just no way of playing the protective boyfriend role here without digging a very deep hole for himself ? deeper than the one he was already struggling to find his way out of.

            "But before we go?maybe you could explain something." She looked at him with wide, innocent eyes. Trusting him, even now.

            Oz raised an eyebrow, wordlessly encouraging her to ask.

            "This vampire that everyone's so bothered about," she said. "It's just one vampire, right? Plus the trampy sidekick, I know, but it's the Ed one that everyone's worried about, that we're all going looking for."

            Oz nodded, waiting for her to get to the point.

            "But there are more out there," she continued. "Aren't there? Lots of 'em."

            Another nod.

            "So if it's so important to take out just this one before it can kill anyone again, why don't you do this all the time?" She looked worried, as though the thought of doing this all the time was horrific. "Aren't all the other ones just as bad? Don't they kill people too?"

            "They do," he murmured, visions of Buffy now drifting through his mind as he remembered only too well that in one small town built over a Hellmouth there was someone who really did do this all the time, who had no other choice. And he also remembered the effect that enforced way of life had on her.

            Taking a deep breath, he studied Anouk's face for a moment: so earnest and trusting. Innocent, for the most part, yet determined to understand the kind of life he lived, for better or for worse. There was less than a year between then, age-wise, and yet he felt so much older. There was so much she didn't know about the world he lived in, and he found himself wondering if he had any right to drag her into it with him, to potentially rob her of that innocence, no matter how willing she was.

            "I don't know," he told her, wondering just how long a bunch of non-super-powered people like them would last if they tried to take on the entire vampire population of the city on a regular basis. "Maybe we should. But it takes a lot. It isn't easy, to live like that all the time."

            "No one can be everywhere, and the 'who's responsibility is it?' debate is a tricky road to go down," a quiet voice behind them added. Charlie and Mat had joined them in the van.

            "This one is important," Charlie continued, buckling up. "Because he was once my brother, and because he's obsessed, and a very specific danger to everyone I know. Has been since the day he was turned, and it's been going on for too long already. And I'm not having it any more. His time's up."


            *****

            "Second time lucky, anyone?" Mat remarked as he peered out of the van at the less than salubrious area they'd arrived in, the next on Charlie's list of potential vampire hideouts to check out. He automatically scanned the street, making note of the dirt, the squalor, the lack of traffic either motorised or pedestrian. No life, no business, nothing doing. Not the kind of district your better class of citizen was likely to frequent, and there'd been a number of bizarre murders recently all centred on this area. If there was a vampire hangout here, it could explain a lot.

            "Looks vampire friendly enough," was Charlie's assessment of the particular derelict building they'd come to investigate. It was set a ways back off the street, nice and secluded, with windows securely boarded up as guard against unwanted intruders and therefore also very neatly blocking all sunlight from the rooms within. "But whether there's an Ed in residence is anyone's guess. His standards have dropped, if he is. The last place was more his style."

            "Except that it was all abandoned by both human and vampire," Mat reminded her. He looked up at the house and sighed. "Closer look, then."

            They all got out of the van, weapons concealed but at the ready, with many a glance upward toward the reassuring blue-grey of the sky and the sun that was visible despite the general murkiness. Daylight spelled relative safety, at least as long as they remained out in it.

            "Well?" Mat anxiously addressed Oz as he approached the house, hands stuffed in his pockets and nostrils flaring just a little. His brow furrowed slightly and he cocked his head to the side, deep in thought.

            "Oz? Anything?" Charlie added when he didn't respond.

            "Definitely vampires in residence," the werewolf slowly replied, and the worried half-glance he cast back toward Anouk, who'd stayed close to the van, was hard to miss. For a couple who'd only just hooked up, they had an uneasy vibe between them. Trouble in paradise already, or was he just unhappy that she'd insisted on coming with him into potential danger? "Can't say how many ? they kind of all drown each other out, scent-wise."

            "How?" Mat was intrigued. He couldn't smell anything other than the trash that was heaped around the street. Oz was so normal pretty much all the time, it was easy to forget the part of him that really wasn't anything approaching normal. He never talked about what it was like to be a werewolf. "How do you tell vampire from human? Or, y'know ? anything?"

            "Hard to describe," Oz rather absently told him, his attention focused on the house. "Vampires kind of smell dead."

            "Can you tell if Ed's in there?" Charlie eyed the house warily, and shivered. Her expression was determined, and there was no questioning her resolve to go through with this, but she had that little-girl-lost look in her eyes again ? the one she got every time the question of Ed came up. He might be a vampire, he might be evil, and he might already be dead, but the thought of having to kill her brother again, even to save other lives, was immensely painful for her.

            Mat took her hand, physical reassurance being all he could offer right now, and looked to Oz for that oh-so crucial answer to her question. The previous location they'd checked had been a total bust ? definitely a vampire hideout, and considerably higher class than this dump, relatively speaking, but abandoned. This was as close as they'd got to live vampires and, according to Charlie's sources, a couple fitting Ed and Laura's description had been seen near here. It looked promising, but they needed to be sure if they were going to charge in all guns blazing and try to take on the lot of them. Backup or no backup.

            Oz's frown deepened, still concentrating intensely on the house and, presumably, on whatever he could smell in there.

            "Not sure?" He rubbed the back of his neck and shook his head, looking as frustrated as Mat had ever seen him. "Too much general vampire, not enough individual traces out here. I think I'd need to be inside for anything more specific."

            "Inside not a good idea." Anouk, who'd clearly heard that part of the conversation at least, promptly moved forward to join them, a note of alarm in her voice.

            "I'd have to agree," Oz mildly told her with a gentle smile as she slid an arm through his. "A last resort measure only." He glanced at Mat and Charlie, nodding toward the heavily sealed door. "This isn't the entrance they're using. We should check around the back. "

            "Good thinking, Batman." Charlie nodded briskly, and her tone was businesslike, but the tension around her eyes remained.

            They all now looked over toward the alleyway leading around to the back of the house. It was not the slightest bit inviting, even by day. Not much sunlight would penetrate those shadows.

            Anouk looked more scared than ever, taking an involuntary step backward, and Oz gently touched her arm, eyes full of concern. "Maybe you could stay with the van?" he suggested. "We'll just be a minute."

            Anouk nodded, glancing around at their dingy surroundings with nervous eyes. "Okay. That sounds good. You go do your investigating thing out back, and I'll?guard the van."


            *****

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            • #7
              *****

              The sky was clouding over again now. It looked like it might rain.

              Anouk shivered in the January chill and wrapped her arms around herself as she gazed around the unnaturally quiet street. There really was no sign of life, anywhere. Surely not all the houses could be empty?

              Suddenly nervous about being alone, she climbed into the van. Oz's van. It was reassuringly Oz-like, full of comfortable clutter that he'd collected over his years of ownership of it. Posters and stickers, discarded jacket, blanket, a photograph or six, couple toy cars, spare strings for his guitar and an assortment of mislaid plectrums, and all sorts of other random, general boy stuff, plus the odd weapon or two, with a wooden cross dangling from the mirror in place of the standard stuffed felt dice. It felt safe.

              She locked herself in, just to be on the safe side, and asked herself again what she thought she was doing. It had sounded so reasonable in theory, when she made the decision to tag along and get a firsthand look at this less-than-normal part of Oz's life, and find out if it was something she could be a part of and share with him. She'd known from the start that he was different than just about anyone else she'd ever met. After all, they'd first met when he saved her from a demon, which was a pretty big clue that there was more to his life than met the eye.

              And then they'd started seeing each other, and although he'd answered her every question about demons and the like, to some extent at least, there'd been almost no mention of anything like this. No mention of the vampire stalking him and his friends and how prepared they were to deal with it, because the problem had gone away, he claimed. No point talking about it. Except that now it was back, and a bigger problem than ever, and from the moment it appeared things hadn't been the same between them.

              No. Before that, if she was honest. She'd known from the start that there was a lot he wasn't telling her, that he was holding back. But it was only then, after the vampire attack, that she had realised just how little she really knew about him and his life. He wanted to protect her from things that were dangerous, perhaps, or that he thought she wouldn't understand, but they couldn't go on like that. Maybe it was still early days for the relationship, but if they were going to have any chance at all of a future together, she needed to be a part of all his life, not just the bits he wanted her to see.

              As scary as it was, coming here today was part of that: her chance to find out if she could exist in Oz's world ? if he could let her exist in his world ? or if they were doomed almost before they'd begun.

              Being here was scary, though, especially now she was on her own. As menacing as that alleyway round to the back of the house looked, at least if she'd gone with the others she'd be with them if anything happened, not sitting here all on her own starting to get a crawling feeling down her spine that someone was watching her.

              She looked up at the sky, and firmly reminded herself of everything she'd learned about vampires in the last few days. Cloudy it might be, but it was still broad daylight, and that meant safe. Vampires couldn't go out in daylight.

              But the being watched feeling wasn't going away. There were vampires in the house for sure, Oz had said, and exactly how he could tell that just by looking was beyond her. He'd been talking to Mat and Charlie about scent and being able to somehow smell out the vampires, and that had been the most confusing thing in a long line of confusing things just lately. She was trying hard to understand his point of view, but it still made her mad. Of course he'd had a whole life before her, and friends who'd known him longer were bound to know him better than she did, but in moments like that it felt like there was this huge yawning chasm opening up between them, and she couldn't get across it simply because he wouldn't let her.

              And yet she couldn't not try. As girly as it sounded, she liked him too much to just give up at the first hurdle without a fight, and felt sure he'd be worth it, no matter how dangerous his 'other life' was, if they could just get past these non-sharing issues.

              And it really, really felt like someone was watching her. The windows were all boarded up, which meant no one could see in ? but that didn't mean people inside couldn't peer out through the cracks, did it? Or was that too risky with the sunlight out here?

              Not much sunlight right now, though, what with the clouds and the drizzle?

              How long had the others been gone? She glanced at her watch and drummed her fingers against the steering wheel, fretting. Dark, dank little alley or no, she needed to join them. It was a safety in numbers thing, for peace of mind. She couldn't sit here on her own any longer.

              Jumping out of the van once more, Anouk headed off in the direction she'd seen the other three take.


              *****

              A strangled scream shattered covert ruminations on the squalor of the backyard set up: shady and sheltered, with sewer access readily available for daytime travel.

              Oz span around to see that the little side door they'd noted on their way past was now open, an unknown vampire standing just inside it clutching a terrified Anouk he'd dragged off the path. Oz froze, feeling his insides turn to ice, knowing that the vampire could snap her neck before he'd taken so much as a step. Behind him he heard Mat utter a very Spanish curse, while Charlie gasped in horror.

              Standoff. Her eyes enormous, terrified, Anouk mouthed a tearful 'sorry' to Oz while the vampire grinned, smoothing her hair off her neck, fully vamped out with fangs gleaming. "Nice and easy, folks," he taunted. "This is private property, you know ?"

              He got no further, falling forward suddenly, out into the open, into the daylight?

              Charlie. Charlie and her blessed telekinesis to the rescue.

              Oz suddenly found he could breathe again as both vampire and Anouk tumbled to the ground. Anouk scrambled free as the vampire yelled and cursed, far more interested in saving his own skin than hanging onto her. Cloudy and drizzly it might be, but there was enough sunlight visible to cause him severe discomfort if not to inflame instantly. His back was already smoking as he frantically tried to regain his feet, tried to get back to the safety of the doorway.

              With a yell, Anouk now hurled herself at his legs and brought him crashing down to the ground again before he could get away, smoke levels increasing. Oz dashed forward to help her, stake in hand, feeling Mat right behind him. No second chances for this vamp.

              Another moment and it was all over ? round one at least.

              Oz pulled Anouk back to her feet and held her tight. She was trembling, shaking like a leaf in his arms, and he felt more than a little wobbly himself at her narrow escape.

              "I'm sorry," she whispered, over and over. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

              "No, no." Oz gently kissed her on the forehead, furious with himself for allowing her to get into that situation, for bringing her here at all. "It's okay, it's over."

              "No it isn't," Charlie's very reluctant sounding voice intruded on their private moment. She stood staring in through that wide open door, Mat's hand on her shoulder, and half turned to give Oz a look of mingled anxiety, determination and dread. "They know we're out here now. It's now or never."


              *****

              Nothing ever really went as planned ? it was so, so true.

              "I'm not staying out anywhere," Anouk fiercely hissed as they cautiously entered the building, weapons at hand, prepared to fight. Shaken up she might have been by her brush with death by vampire, but she'd recovered in no time at all. It was impressive. "I'd probably be even less safe out there than in here."

              There was no more time to argue, no way of keeping her out of this ? and also no time to get the other team here for backup. Charlie was right. If Ed was here and they really wanted him gone, it had to be done now, before he could make good his escape and force them to start again from scratch. Whatever advantage of surprise they might have had had vanished the moment that door opened. Probably before.

              And Ed was here. As soon as he set foot in the house, Oz knew that. All vampires smelled pretty much the same ? dead ? but there were individual variations that he was learning to pick out if they were strong enough, and Ed's own distinctive scent was woven into the general fabric of the air in here.

              Unsurprising, really, given that Ed was standing right there in front of them. And for once he did not look happy at all.

              "When I said I wanted to return that warm welcome you all gave me," he snarled. "I didn't mean literally. But since you've chosen to take it that way?Watch out, Sis, the gloves are coming off."

              Behind him, Laura hissed menacingly, vamped out and spoiling for the fight. Ed half-turned his head to smile at her in anticipation of the fun they were about to have. And then sprang.

              Four against two should have given the live contingent a bit of an advantage. Should. But it didn't stay as four against two for long, as two or three more vampires appeared at the top of the stairs, complained about the noise, and then hurled themselves into the melee.

              Charlie's telekinetic, vampire-flinging abilities were wonderfully helpful in a situation like this, fighting hand-to-hand in close quarters, but she couldn't fling all the vampires away from everyone all at the same time. Trusting her and Mat to take care of each other, Oz tried to stick as close to Anouk as was possible in the circumstances, diverting the attention of the biggest, beefiest of the vampires away from her. Unfortunately, the side effect of this tactic was to focus the attention of the beefy vampire on himself, causing him to lose track of Anouk. And Beefy had a rather large size and weight advantage over him.

              Defensive fighting was something necessity had forced Oz to learn, pretty quickly after joining the Scooby gang way back when: duck, roll, weave, and hope to get lucky. He was managing to hold his own pretty much until he took his eyes off the fight long enough to check on Anouk, and saw that she was in danger. More imminent danger than just being here, that was, being menaced by Laura with no help anywhere at hand, both Mat and Charlie having their hands full at that moment and even further away than he was.

              And, slam! Before Oz could even stop to think about what to do, Beefy took advantage of his distraction, smashing him hard into a wall. A red-hot spike of pain shot through his shoulder and wired straight into the wolf. Daytime it might be, but it was also the first day of his full moon cycle: a dangerous time. Too dangerous. And he was already so much more not calm than he needed to be at this time of the month.

              Deep inside, the wolf started to howl, louder and louder, desperate to be allowed its freedom to run wild, to rip the head off the vampire attacking him?

              But he couldn't allow it. Couldn't allow it.

              He could feel the intense prickling under his skin that meant the change was imminent, and forcing it back down was physically painful, it had come so close so fast, almost before he'd been aware of it. It hurt far more than any battle-bruises he'd so far picked up. And he didn't have time to focus properly, with Beefy lunging for him once more, and the need to survive outweighing the need to not change.

              Narrowly avoiding a crushing blow, Oz turned back on his attacker with a snarl, forgetting all about size and weight differences and conscious only of the need to rid himself of this assailant.

              He'd never fought with the wolf this close to the surface before, only half aware of his own actions. He was dimly aware that Mat had gone to Anouk's rescue, seeing Laura explode into dust at the edge of his vision, dimly aware that one of the unknown vampires had distracted Charlie sufficiently for Ed to give up on the fight and make a hasty getaway. Readily available sewer access for daytime vampire travel, a small voice at the back of his mind reminded him. But his own struggle with Beefy dominated. Kicking, and clawing with claws that were almost there, snapping with teeth that were not-quite human any more, feeling his control slipping just a little more with every blow the vampire landed?

              And then Beefy flew backward, landing with a heavy crash across a pile of already broken furniture. Charlie and that blessed vampire-flinging telekinesis again.

              Gasping for both breath and control, Oz snatched up a stake and dived for the vampire before he could recover, driving the wood into his chest. The vampire exploded beneath him in a shower of dust, and he dropped onto the floor, chest heaving, still fiercely fighting his own immense internal battle for self-control.

              Behind him he could hear quiet voices, Charlie and Mat bemoaning Ed's escape, inspecting one another's war wounds, and reassuring Anouk that it was all over now, telling her to give him a second to catch his breath. Maybe Charlie had cottoned on to what had so nearly happened, had realised perhaps how much Anouk still didn't know. He wasn't sure, couldn't think about that. He needed to focus his entire mind on holding down that dark, inner self that was so desperate to escape, so furious at having come so close only to be denied release.

              "Oz?" He heard Charlie take a step toward him now, and her voice was hesitant. "You okay?"

              "Yeah." His voice sounded gruff, and he stared at his hands. They looked normal. No claws. No fur. The wolf was subsiding again, pressed back down by sheer force of will, and the effort was even more exhausting than usual, so close had it come. "Just?gimme a second."

              He concentrated on his breathing, one long, shuddering breath after another, and then was aware of someone approaching him from behind. Anouk.

              She sat down on the floor beside him, and all at once making sure she was okay was the only important thing in the world, entirely superseding the wolf, as it retreated further with each passing moment.

              "Are you all right?" He eyed her anxiously, noting that she looked remarkably undamaged ? no cuts and very few obvious bruises, although considerably dishevelled. Whereas he, in contrast, was beginning to be aware of just how much his shoulder was throbbing, and just how many other bruises and scratches he'd managed to acquire during the fight.

              "I'm okay," Anouk assured him with a worried little smile. "Better than you, anyway. I'm not the one who got thrown around. But Ed got away ? did you see? So I guess that means it isn't really over, after all."

              No, he guessed it wasn't. Ed wouldn't come back here now, which put them right back to square one, not a clue where to find him. And he'd probably be spoiling for even more revenge than ever, which meant that their back watching would have to remain ongoing.

              Oz sighed. "This is my life," he said, looking her straight in the eyes, torn between hoping ? for her sake ? that she'd want to back out of it, to be safe, and fear that she would want to walk away, unwilling to lose her now. "Sometimes it isn't so normal. Sometimes it's not all that safe ? sometimes I'm not all that safe. You might find it easier to walk away now."

              Anouk's response was immediate, gently resting a hand against the side of his face. "I don't want to walk away," she said, very simply, dark eyes gazing into his.

              Oz felt a rush of affection ? and relief. Also guilt at feeling so relieved, when she'd be so much better off without all this. But mostly a warm, cosy feeling of reassurance, and growing fondness for her. He took her hand and kissed it, maintaining the eye contact and smiling broadly as they helped each other stand up again.

              Across on the other side of the room, leaning wearily against a wall, Mat gave them a lopsided grin, triumph at their victorious survival mingled with regret that the battle might be won, but not the war. Not by a long shot. He looked as battered as Oz felt, with blood trickling down the side of his face from a cut over his eye, and his attention swiftly returned to Charlie. Ed's escape had to be hitting her hardest of all.

              Over by the boarded-up window was a pool table, the felt torn in a couple of places and most of the balls missing. Charlie leaned over it, her eyes dull, expressionless. After all that effort, the nightmare was still not over, other than Laura's dusting, the news of which she would now have to break to her sister. She flicked a finger and, at the other side of the table, the red ball slowly slid into a pocket and fell to the floor with a thud through a hole in the net.


              *****

              Oz dropped Anouk off at home on the way back to the caf?, making arrangements to meet up the next morning, once things had calmed down a little and they were all cleaned up. A little honesty on his part was way overdue. Then he took Charlie and Mat back to the caf?, where they found the other team waiting for them, with battle wounds and stories of their own to tell. The leads they'd followed might not have led them to Ed, but had taken them straight into the thick of trouble and David, in particular, was jubilant at having survived and defeated the opponents they'd come up against.

              "But whichever of your contacts it was that put you onto that place, whose name I forget but David can tell you which one it was," Elli grimly told Charlie, nursing a twisted ankle. "You might want to not trust them so much in future. It was a set up."

              While Charlie then turned straight to David for a fuller explanation, taking everyone else's attention to her, Elli moved to the quieter end of the room where Oz was sitting.

              "Everything go okay for you?" she asked, regarding his bruises with a critical eye, but he knew she meant more than that. She understood better than anyone how hard full moon could be.

              "Yeah," he nodded. "Almost had a hairy moment there, but it passed." She was the only person he could admit that to. She nodded gravely, but her eyes showed how pleased she was for him.

              "And Anouk?" The tone was light, but the look in her eyes was deeply concerned. For them both.

              And right now, Anouk was foremost on his mind, and just the mention of her name brought a smile to his face. After what they'd been through today, he was no longer so worried about making his big werewolf revelation. She'd come to terms with the idea of her father's demonic debt that had nearly cost her life. She'd taken the vampires in her stride and handled them better than anyone could have expected. She hadn't batted an eyelid at Charlie's telekinesis, which he suddenly realised she probably hadn't heard about before seeing it in action. Finding out he was a werewolf ? well, she still might take it badly, especially since he'd gone so long without telling her. But then again she might not. He suddenly didn't want to wait any longer, anxious to get it over with, and find out how she'd react, as soon as possible.

              "Anouk and I need to talk," he said.


              *****

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              • #8
                *****

                Epilogue:

                *****

                Oz had arranged to meet Anouk for breakfast the next day, not wanting to tempt fate a second time that night after his near slip during the fight. His anxiety to go and see her again, to tell her everything, was just another distraction that he had to work hard at repressing that night during a more intense than usual meditation session. The wolf was still so close to the surface, and he had to work even harder than normal to restore that inner balance that was so crucial. The last thing either he or Anouk needed was for him to get worked up and change in front of her.

                Morning seemed to take forever to arrive, and he went around to Anouk's house as early as he thought he could get away with. The housekeeper was less than impressed at being disturbed so early, and eyed his bruises with deep suspicion, but headed off to fetch Anouk unquestioningly enough, albeit with a bad grace.

                Anouk, on the other hand, seemed delighted to see him even at such an unearthly hour.

                "Hey, you!" She greeted him with a tender kiss, displaying far more energy than anyone had any right to possess after the day they'd had yesterday.

                "Hey back," he said. "Fancy a coffee?"

                "Sure," she smiled, as perky as if they hadn't spent a good portion of the previous day fighting for their lives. "I'll just grab my bag."

                She disappeared back into the house, leaving Oz to fidget nervously in the foyer, wondering exactly how she'd explained the more visible of her bruises to her father. He couldn't imagine the truth going down well, and made a mental note to ask. Stories needed to be kept straight under these circumstances.

                "So, where are we going?" Anouk wanted to know, returning moments later with coat and purse and pulling the front door shut after them. "Your place? Except that your place isn't open yet, so probably not."

                Oz shook his head, suddenly nervous again about how he was going to word this. "Someplace neutral. There's some stuff I kinda need to tell you."

                "Sounds serious." Anouk stopped walking to give him a very solemn look. And he knew that she'd been waiting for this moment ever since he'd refused to talk properly after the party the other night, and regretted more than ever that he'd kept her in the dark for so long. She deserved so much better than that.

                Oz took a deep breath. "You said you wanted me to talk. Explain stuff. Well, this is it. Cards on the table time. You ready?"


                *****

                "I really wish you'd told me about all this sooner," was the first thing Anouk said, after a very long silence had followed Oz's faltering confession of who ? or what ? he really was. The silence had been worrying, and he still couldn't figure out what she was thinking. She was playing it neutral, her manner guarded.

                "I know." He couldn't look at her, fixing his eyes instead on his coffee. They'd holed up in that same 24-hour coffee shop they'd spent so long talking at after the concert the other night. Only a few days ago, yet it felt so much longer than that, so much had happened since. It was maybe a little too public for a conversation like this, or would have been if she'd freaked completely, but it was quiet enough at this time of day, and was the best he'd been able to come up with at short notice. Quiet, neutral ? away from the prying eyes of interested friends. And so far so good ? at least, she hadn't started yelling yet. "So do I."

                Anouk let out a very deep breath. "Okay. This is a ? a really weird thing. But there've been plenty of those already since I met you, haven't there? I always knew there was more to you than met the eye, and now I know just how much."

                "You do," Oz murmured, still unsure which way this was going to go: acceptance, rejection, or something in between?

                "And, by the way, isn't it full moon right now? I mean, tonight?" she glanced out the window at the bright morning sky.

                "It is," Oz confirmed. "Was last night as well. And tomorrow. But I don't change."

                "You already said that," she mused, and then nodded firmly, as though a decision had been reached. "Okay."

                She looked him straight in the eyes, her expression determined. "This is weird. It's freaky, and it's weird, and I can't deny that. But I also can't forget everything else. How you saved me from the Toshok, how much fun we've had together the past few weeks ? how I saw you fighting all those vampires these last couple days. It's been amazing, and kinda scary, and?I think?I'm gonna need some time to really get to grips with it all. All this new, scary stuff I keep finding out."

                Oz felt his insides knotting up, convinced he was about to be given his marching orders, only for the knot to instantly unravel at the sight of the brilliant smile she gave him as she continued. "But at the end of the day, I think the good outweighs the weird."

                She was watching him so closely, so intensely, he felt like he was melting away beneath that gaze?

                "I don't want to lose you, Oz," she said, very simply. "I don't want to miss out on what we could have together. But, I also don't want any more secrets. No more hiding of important information from me, okay? If we're going to have any kind of future together, we need to be straight with each other."

                "Agreed," Oz was quick to tell her. Right then, he felt like he'd have agreed to anything. With this huge hurdle successfully negotiated, it was walking on cloud nine time.

                Then she leaned across the table and kissed him, and when at last they broke apart she was smiling another of those oh so sweet smiles, eyes shining brightly. "So. Maybe we should finish this conversation at home?"



                ~fin~




                ? J. Browning, September 2005


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