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Monico Episode Sixteen: Aftermath

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  • Monico Episode Sixteen: Aftermath

    Tales from the Monico, Episode Sixteen:

    Disclaimer: Oz isn't mine, but everybody else is. I'm writing for my own amusement and enlightenment, and make no profit from it.
    Feedback: Yes please, I'd love to hear what you think.

    Previously in Tales from the Monico:

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

    Oz saves Anouk from the Toshok demon and they smile shyly at one another.
    Anouk: "I think you kinda just saved my life. That was amazing."

    Emma: "Gonna call her?"
    Oz: "I might."

    Anouk: "When I'm with you I am happy, so it's all good."
    Anouk and Oz lean in for a kiss.

    Oz and Jim meditate together.
    Jim: "This is my thing, it's what I do. Why Sheng sent you here?. You're never going to have the kind of control you need, long-term, with your concentration as scattered as it is today?. The answer is to find some way to bend the discipline you need around the life you want to lead"

    Anouk: "We can't go on like this. I can't go on like this?. You've just got so much on your plate right now. And I don't know where I fit into that. I'm not sure I do fit into that. Just lately it seems like the only times I get to see you is if I'm in danger, or when you can fit me into that hectic schedule of yours, and I don't like being an after-thought?. Actions speak louder than words, Oz, and I don't want to be a part-time girlfriend. I'm greedy that way?. Why are you even with me in the first place, if you don't trust me enough to talk to about anything?"

    Oz: "I don't think this is working."
    Anouk: "No. It really isn't, is it?"

    At the university, Oz is hit with a tranq dart, and wakes up in chains in Mary MacBride's secret laboratory.
    Team Oz burst into the secret laboratory to find Mary's ritual in full swing and rescue Oz, but are too late to prevent Mary's partial transformation into the Ravyon demon.

    Staunton: "Do you honestly think that you could stop a thing like that?"
    Elli: "I honestly think we're going to try."

    Oz leads the team as they track Mary-Ravyon to the university too late to prevent a massacre, and they find Anouk dead.
    Mary-Ravyon is finally located at her family mansion, and the gang fight a losing battle against her, until Oz gives in to his anger and injuries and wolfs out. The others are forced to leave the room and lock him in with the creature

    Emma: "I thought you said spontaneous daytime changing wouldn't happen."
    Elli: "That wasn't spontaneous. That was a decision."

    Elli returns to the room to find the battle over, Mary-Ravyon defeated, and the Oz-wolf collapsed at her side. She kneels beside him.
    Elli: "Come on, Oz, come back to me."
    Oz returns to human shape, injured and exhausted.

    Oz: "Thanks? For not saying anything."
    Elli: "Nothing to say. I know that."

    McKenzie: "Tell me you killed the thing that did it."




    He leapt, teeth bared, claws unsheathed.

    The demon leapt with him. They met mid-air and crashed to the ground, rolling and grappling, tearing and biting. He roared in agony as demonic talons ripped into his skin. He slashed back, drawing blood, bit back, tearing out chunks of flesh.

    The fight went on and on, endlessly. Exhaustion set in. At last he collapsed, utterly spent, watched the demon stalk around him, jaws snapping and eyes glittering. It had him at last. He could not even lift his head to follow the movement, could barely raise a paw. It had him, and there was nothing more he could do.

    Behind it he caught a glimpse of a familiar face, pale and still, in need of his defence. He gasped, struggled to rise, to continue the fight.

    The demon pounced, gaping jaws dripping saliva, fetid breath hot on his skin?.

    He awoke with a start.

    He was lying flat on his back, naked. Strapped hand and foot to a cold metal surface, the light bright in his eyes. People clustering all around, soldiers and scientists. Faces were familiar, yet his confused mind struggled to identify them in this unfamiliar setting. A college professor, harsh and unyielding. A post-graduate TA, tense and concerned, arguing on his behalf.

    Nothing made sense.

    Above him, mouths were moving, opening and closing, yet the voices seemed to come from a long way off and failed to keep pace, hard to make out.

    "I always suspected that stuff about werewolf transformations being based on a lunar cycle was campfire talk."

    A needle pierced his skin, ice-cold fluid entering his veins. It burned. He groaned.

    A sudden jolt as electricity coursed through his body like fire. He screamed as bright white light enveloped his vision?.

    He awoke, breathing hard. Where was he now?

    A secret laboratory, hidden on campus, chained hand and foot. The silver blade cut deep; a smouldering pain, like acid eating into his skin.

    Mary MacBride laughed and played, taunting him, decorating his skin with mystical symbols painted in blood. Chest, back, arms, face. The blood was warm and sticky, the scent acrid and metallic. Deep cuts and shallow cuts, burning like fire. Professor Staunton stood nearby, watching, arms folded across his chest, lip curling in distaste.

    "I don't want to open the paper tomorrow and find your name attached to a grisly murder headline?"

    The voice drifted through the room, echoing slightly. No speaker was visible.

    Mary laughed and walked away, then returned dragging Anouk by the arm. Dark eyes bore into him, terror-filled. Pleading.

    "Save me. Please."

    Mary laughed again, drew her blade across Anouk's throat in one deadly strike.

    He shouted in despair, straining at his chains.

    "?grisly murder headline?"

    "?grisly murder?"

    Anouk slumped to the ground, eyes open, unseeing. Blood pooled around her, the scent flooding his senses with metallic red fire. Fury burned deep within. The inner beast roared.

    "All will die, one by one." Mary taunted and teased.

    The chains loosened, broke free. He fell to the ground, braced himself, and rose. A growl sounded, deep in the back of his throat. A warning. Beware.

    He leapt, teeth bared, claws unsheathed.

    Mary leapt with him. They met mid-air and crashed to the ground, rolling and grappling, tearing and biting. He roared in agony as demonic talons ripped into his skin. He slashed back, drawing blood, bit back, tearing out chunks of flesh.

    A shot rang out. He leapt to his feet. The demon was gone.

    He span around. Where was he now?

    A cellar at the Monico, the door safely locked, trapping him inside. He charged at it, bounced off. Charged again, bounced off. Over and over.

    The door opened. He rushed through it.

    His friends were clustered on the steps, tense and afraid. The scent of fear set his pulse racing, intoxicating. He howled, and charged, bowling them over. David hit the wall and fell, lay still. Emma screamed. Charlie shouted.

    Anouk stood before him, pale with terror, next in line. He leapt, claws ripping into her, teeth tearing out great chunks of flesh.

    A shot rang out.

    He dropped Anouk and stared in horror. She lay still, pale and waxen, her eyes open, unseeing.

    He turned. Mike raised the gun. The shot echoed in the confines of the stairwell. A bullet punched into his body.

    Pain, blackness, and then nothing?.

    He awoke with a yell in a small metal cage. Scientists and soldiers stood all around, guns trained on him, surprise registering in their eyes. They argued among themselves, manhandled him out of the cage.

    Who am I?

    He was a man.

    What am I?

    They saw only an animal.

    Naked and vulnerable, dragged into a laboratory, against his will. Strapped to a table, flat on his back. Trapped. Helpless. Scientific experiments, conducted on him. Needles and tasers and pain.

    He was a lab rat, nothing more.

    Mary MacBride stood over him, white lab coat contrasting oddly with her customary black attire beneath. She laughed as her silver blade cut into his skin, burning like fire.

    "Let it out."

    Hate and rage bubbled up inside him, fast reaching boiling point. Why even try to deny it? Use it. Embrace it.

    Let it out.

    He reached deep inside, found the switch, and flipped.

    The wolf sprang, rejoicing in its freedom, burning with fury, seeking revenge.

    The demon leapt with him. They met mid-air and crashed to the ground, rolling and grappling, tearing and biting. He roared in agony as demonic talons ripped into his skin. He slashed back, drawing blood, bit back, tearing out chunks of flesh. The demon twisted and convulsed as little by little he beat it down until at last it lay still. Eyes filled with hatred were fixed on him. Dripping blood, every fibre of his being burning in fiery agony, he collapsed, stared at it, let his eyes drift beyond it.

    The bodies of his friends lay still, blood splattered all around. Horror flooded through him. Anouk lay atop the pile, face pale and waxen, eyes open, unseeing, her expression accusatory.

    Too late.


    Oz woke gasping for breath, and sat bolt upright, the blanket covering him sliding to the floor. It was dark, and his surroundings were unfamiliar, yet not. He wasn't where he should be, and an unexpected fear stabbed at him.

    Memories both real and imagined danced at the edges of his mind. Disoriented, tense and sore, he peered around, breathing hard. Where was he now? Trapped in a nightmare still? Awake? Asleep? He was in the wrong place, whichever.

    A light came on, dazzling him. Blinking, he looked up to see Elli standing in a doorway, leaning against the jamb, bleary-eyed and pyjama-clad, the strap of her vest-top sliding off one shoulder.

    "Bad dream, huh." She yawned. "You all right?"

    His surroundings resolved into familiarity, with a side of confusion. Why was he sleeping on Elli's sofa?

    "You fell asleep," she helpfully informed him. "Last night. After mooching around all evening with a bottle of beer and a great big wall of silence as your only companions. I decided not to disturb you."

    He remembered now ? he'd come over to escape from Emma's suffocating concern. Not that Elli was any less concerned, but she was less obvious, less overwhelming with it. Having his every movement carefully monitored as though he was made of glass and might shatter and wolf-out at any moment was not something he could bear in lengthy doses. So he'd come across to Elli's apartment in search of more soothing company, fallen asleep?and now he'd woken her up. 'Bad dream' was kind of an understatement. Even immediate post-Initiative nightmares had not been like that, and it had been a long time since those particular memories had played such a featured role in his dreams.

    "Sorry." Still fuzzy with not-so-restful sleep, a vision of his own bed where he wouldn't be disturbing anyone drifted through his mind. Following it automatically, he started to stand, but then thought better of it, catching his breath as a dozen not-yet-fully healed injuries instantly protested the unguarded movement, stiff from sleeping on the sofa.

    "It's after three am." Elli was shaking her head. "You might as well stay where you are and try to get some more sleep as wake everyone else blundering back over there at this hour."

    Fragments of a nightmare flashed through his mind. Sleep right now was the last thing he wanted and, judging by the way Elli narrowed her eyes, it showed.

    "Or, I could put the kettle on." With a little shrug that said 'makes no difference to me' she headed for the kitchenette, but despite her nonchalance a pang of guilt now added to the physical aches and mental discomfort Oz was already feeling.

    "Sorry," he murmured again, shifting a little in search of a more comfortable position. "Didn't mean to keep you up."

    "That's okay." Water splashed into the kettle. "I don't always sleep that well myself."


  • #2

    Part One:


    The vampire exploded in a cloud of dust.

    Shadrach waited until said dust had settled before smiling nastily, his own fangs and forehead ridges slowly morphing back into human features. He winked at what was left of his audience. "No one teaches the youngsters any respect these days."

    Satisfied that he'd made his point, he smoothed the collars of his jacket back into place and sauntered off, a jaunty swagger to his stride.


    "I'm going to have to really knuckle down if I want to keep my job," Emma remarked as she sifted through a collection of jewellery Elli had made to select items for sale at the boutique where she was just about hanging onto her part-time job. "Too much unplanned time off. You should've seen Claire's face when I asked to switch shifts so I can go to the funeral, which ? I am so not looking forward to that."

    "Well, do you?" Elli glanced at her.

    "Do I what?" Distracted slightly by a rather lovely necklace that had caught her eye, Emma frowned, confused.

    "Want to keep your job?"

    "Of course I do." The response was automatic, but once the words were out, she caught herself, stopped, and thought about it for a moment. Did she? She'd loved the job at first, and still did, most of the time. But it was only part-time, her enthusiasm had been on the wane for a while now, and there always seemed to be more interesting or important things going on. In order of priority, earning what amounted to little more than pocket money at the boutique was sliding ever further down the list.

    "You don't need the money any more." Elli pointed out, head bent over the collection of earrings she was sorting through.

    That was true; the Monico was well established now, and that had been the whole point of taking the job in the first place ? to tide them over a rough patch. Not a career choice. But still. It was her job, and one of the few things in her life that was truly her own.

    "Of course I do," Emma repeated, feeling less certain.

    Elli grinned at her. "Better knuckle down, then."

    "This is beautiful." Changing the subject, Emma held the necklace she'd been admiring up to her neck to see how it suited her, peering into a handy nearby mirror. She could think of at least half a dozen outfits in her wardrobe it would accessorize perfectly?

    Elli glanced up again and smiled. "Keep it."

    "No, I can't," Emma instantly protested, feeling guilty. "You made it to sell."

    "I made it because I like making things," Elli calmly replied. "Selling is a bonus. And now that one is a gift. I'll be offended if you say no."

    Emma admired herself and the necklace in the mirror again. "Thank you."

    "I'll make you a bracelet and earrings to match." Elli turned back to her sorting.

    "Oz stayed over here last night, didn't he?" Emma said, rather more abruptly than she'd intended, having failed to find the right words or a more appropriate moment any sooner.

    Elli looked at her. "'Stayed' isn't quite the term I'd use," she said. "He fell asleep and I chose to let sleeping werewolves lie."

    "Has he talked to you at all, about?you know?" As far as Emma could see, recent events had been fairly traumatic by anyone's standards, and now that it was over she still couldn't shake the nagging sense of worry.

    Elli wrinkled her nose. "Not so's you'd notice," she cautiously admitted. "Studiously avoiding all mention of the subject, in fact. He's been very quiet just lately."

    "Oz is always quiet," Emma felt obliged to point out.

    "Quieter than usual."

    "You're worried." Emma sighed.

    Elli hesitated for a moment before nodding. "I'm worried."

    "But what is it," Emma carefully asked. "That you're worried about? Specifically? Because, I mean ? well. Your worried sort of validates my worried, and I'm kind of worried, because?well, obviously because this terrible thing has happened and I don't like to see him upset, but also because?. Because?I mean, for one thing, emotional control and the sudden death of a lover, or ex-lover, don't exactly go hand in hand. And I really don't want there to be any slip-ups of the hair and teeth variety."

    "No one wants that," Elli agreed.

    "And it seems to me," Emma continued. Now she'd started to talk her fears through out loud, she couldn't have held the words in if she'd tried. "That there's an awful lot of reasons for worrying to chose from. I mean, there's the Anouk thing. There's the torture thing. There's the injury thing. There's the thing where he was meant to be working with Jim to help with his wolf issues, and now he's avoiding him. And there's the thing where he changed, which he always said he never wanted to do, and in the middle of the day as well, and that he chose to change, it didn't just happen. And I don't know what that means, or if it even does mean anything, and?. Which is it that worries you most? Or is it something different? Or all of the above?"

    Elli hesitated, eyes fixed on her fingers, still fiddling with the jewellery scattered across her work-surface.

    "All of the above," she admitted at last. "Plus the not just physical. That ritual of Mary's, tapping into his werewolf energy and using it like that?that has to be damaging, on a psychic level. It couldn't not be, could it? I wish he'd talk to me."

    "Oz never talks to anyone." Emma rolled her eyes. "Not about stuff like this."

    "He usually talks to me." Elli sounded worried. "Enough, anyway." Then she glanced at Emma again and offered her a reassuring smile. "It'll be okay. I'll talk to him."


    "Aren't you going to do something about it?" whispered Jane, a little too ear-piercingly.

    From the cramped little nook they'd found from which to watch the spectacle currently unfolding before them, Ed twisted his head to glare at her, raising a finger to his lips, and then turned back to the show. The new vampire in town, Shadrach, was holding court and playing at the big, butch macho-man, with a whole bunch of San Francisco's vampire and demon population fawning around him, currying favor.

    Ed was disgusted. The trouble with vampires was that given the right circumstances they were, in effect, pack animals: show them a strong enough leader, and they'd simply fall into line and follow orders rather than fight for the right to do their own thing.

    It was infuriating.

    His mood improved just slightly when one of the fawnees recovered enough pride to argue back, rebelling enough to ask just who this Shadrach thought he was, throwing his weight around like this when he'd only just arrived in town. Ed smiled to himself, pleased at the prospect of some action that might just stir up insurrection in a few more vampiric hearts and maybe even rid the city of this interloper with little or no trouble to himself.

    Shadrach also smiled, and it was an unpleasant smile.

    "How old are you?" His tone was mild, almost amused.

    Confused, the vampire flustered and blustered, and Ed realised his hopes that this newcomer could be got rid of so simply had been premature.

    "How long ago were you sired?" Shadrach clarified his question, speaking very slowly and clearly, as if to an imbecile, and still with that air of mild amusement.

    "Few weeks. Long enough," the luckless vampire told him, affecting an air of bravado. Ed recognised the fool ? one of his own recent converts. He'd been amused by the notion of sending out a stream of new vampires into the world for his sister and her friends to have to deal with, but this one had clearly been a bad choice.

    "A few weeks?" Shadrach laughed. "Well, when you've been around a few hundred years, maybe then you'll have something worthy to say to me." He paused; made a show of giving the matter some thought ? and then a hand bearing a wooden stake darted out and dusted the fool. "Then again, maybe not." He looked around, and smiled again. "Does anyone else have any comments? Questions?"

    Ed growled, deep at the back of his throat, as the vampires moved on out of sight and the sound of their voices faded away into the distance. He jerked his head to indicate to Jane that they were leaving. "Come on."

    "Come on where?" she muttered, following him out.

    "Away," he snapped. Something really had to be done about this Shadrach, sooner rather than later. Not that he fancied risking his own skin for the job, but maybe he wouldn't have to?.


    "I really hate wearing black," said Emma, fretfully.

    "You wear black all the time," David objected, frowning at his reflection in the mirror as he struggled to get his tie fastened and straight. He'd been lucky to come out of their recent pitched battle against a mass-murdering demon with nothing worse than a dislocated shoulder, but even that took time to heal properly and was immensely frustrating in the meantime.

    "Funeral black is different to everyday black," Emma informed him, that tense, fretful tone still edging her voice. "I wish we didn't have to do this. Why do we have to do this? I hate that we have to do this."

    "Em?" David sighed and let go of his tie to turn to her, and the look in her eyes tugged at his heart. "We have to do this," he finished, weakly.

    "I know." She looked so sad. "I just wish? This year has been so?."

    "It really has," he had to agree, with a sigh.

    "Do you know," she continued, moving closer to fix his tie for him. "That this time last year we were just opening this place. And monsters and demons and vampires were just stories, horror film stuff. They weren't real."

    "They were real," said David. "We just didn't know."

    "Do you think we were better off?" She let go of the tie again, raising deeply troubled eyes to his.

    It was a good question. They'd become so deeply embroiled in a world they'd never even dreamt existed, a world that was frightening and dangerous and stressful, where horror film monsters were real, and not just out there, but on your doorstep out there, and innocent people died. It was far too tempting to wish that none of it had ever happened, that they could have remained forever cocooned in a safe little bubble of ignorance. But, on the other hand?.

    David reached out to gently grasp Emma's arms and brushed a soft kiss across her forehead. "This time last year we already had a ghost making our lives hell," he reminded her. "We didn't know what it was, but it was there and it was playing hell with us. I don't think we were any safer not knowing."

    "Maybe not." She still looked unconvinced. "I just?our lives got so crazy. All this danger, and fighting, and knowing how bad things can be, and it just?it scares me."

    "Scares me, too," David admitted. "But you know what scares me the most?"

    Taking hold of his tie once more, Emma shook her head.

    "What scares me most," David told her. "Is that we've got off pretty lightly, all things considered."

    Emma drew in a deep breath, and avoided his eyes, concentrating on fixing the tie. "I really wish you hadn't said that."

    "Would you give it up?"

    The words hung in the air for a long moment. Emma's fingers froze on his collar, tightened. But then she let out a long breath and continued fussing. "Sometimes I wish? But it's not that simple, is it? Now that we know, we can't not know, can we? I can't not?. I don't think we could walk away if we tried. Not now."

    "No," David murmured.

    Emma patted his chest. "Come on, you're all set. Let's get this over with. And maybe then things will start to settle down again?"

    As they headed downstairs, Oz appeared from down the corridor, as if he'd been waiting for them to emerge. He was looking uncharacteristically formal in a suitably funereal outfit he'd unearthed from somewhere among his wardrobe, still wearing that tightly closed-off expression he'd been sporting ever since it had all happened, a look that invited all comers to attempt meaningful conversation at their own peril.

    The brittle edge returned to Emma's voice as she called a too-bright greeting while, still as unsure what to say as ever, David caught Oz's eye. Oz gave a little nod in response to words left unvoiced, David nodded back, and there was a moment of still, silent awkwardness before they headed downstairs to find Elli waiting for them, ready to go.


    The funeral was?pretty much a funeral. Black ties and hats, sombre and depressing, and just about packed out. Standing room only ? Anouk had been very popular.

    The room was flooded with all kinds of intense emotions that scraped across wolfishly heightened and still-raw senses like sandpaper. Looking around, Oz recognised a number of faces. Geena stood out, Anouk's best friend, hobbling along on crutches, face stained with tears, and looking fairly battered herself: one of the few Spring Fair survivors.

    "I have a meeting. Final preparations and last minute crises for the Spring Fair." Almost the last words Anouk had spoken to him, little more than a week earlier, rang out in his mind, as clear as if she was standing right beside him. If only they'd known?.

    He felt very grateful for the quiet moral support of his friends, who might not have known Anouk all that well, but had nevertheless given up their time to attend her funeral with him.

    And then afterward there was the wake, which he found himself kind of railroaded into, and the next thing he knew he was face to face with a dark haired and very tense young man who was unmistakeably Anouk's brother, Leon, back from his overseas trip in the worst possible circumstances.

    "You were her boyfriend, weren't you?" The question was abrupt, and both expression and tone were borderline accusatory.

    Technically, no: not at the end. But they'd been broken up barely a week when she died. "Yeah. Kinda."

    "'Kinda?' You either were or you weren't. It's 'Oz', right?" He uttered the name with deep suspicion, and that accusatory note in his voice was fast becoming outright hostile. "What happened to your face?"

    Face?? One hand rose involuntarily to touch the scratch marks left by Mary MacBride's fingernails and claws, the fading bruises ? the least painful of his healing injuries, but the most visible.

    "It was that thing, wasn't it?" Leon lowered his voice, glancing around surreptitiously at the people thronging all around, paying them no heed in this quiet corner. "You were fighting the thing that killed her."

    That was?kind of unexpected. How much did he know? Oz wasn't the only one here sporting injuries, wasn't the only one here who'd suffered at the hands ? teeth, claws ? of the thing that had killed Anouk, even if barely a one among them actually knew what it was. So was Leon simply assuming he'd fought it, rather than being just another victim of the Spring Fair attack, or did he actually know something of the truth? How much had Gil told him? Did he even know what it had been?

    "Yes," said Oz, very quietly. "Kind of."

    "I know it was a demon." Leon's voice became lower still, thick with grief, and his eyes blazed with anger. "My father told me. I thought he was crazy. But now I can't stop thinking about it. There's no such thing as demons. Or is there? I don't know any more. I don't know anything any more. Maybe he is crazy. I know he's crazy. He's been crazy ever since?."

    His voice tailed off and he stared down at his feet, jaw clenched, fists bunched, and Oz had no idea what to say to him. What could he say? Admit the truth? It wouldn't help anyone, wouldn't change what had happened.

    "Were you in love with my sister?" Leon asked, very abruptly, and the look of accusation returned to his eyes.

    The unexpected question brought Oz up sharp. He'd been in love with Willow for so long that he tended to take it for granted. Even now, after everything that had happened, after they'd been apart for so long and after accepting long ago that they would never be together again. Even after ? even during ? his time with Anouk, those feelings for Willow remained his benchmark, his point of reference; the eternal comparison, somewhere in the background, unchallenged, unconsidered almost. It had never occurred to him that his feelings would change. But now the question had been asked, out loud, he realised that it wasn't true any more ? a part of him still loved her, always would, but he was, very definitely, no longer in love with her. She really did belong to the past.

    But did it follow that he'd fallen in love with Anouk??

    Life was so much more complicated than that. Had he been in love with Anouk? No. Not in the way he had been with Willow. But?

    "I cared about her," he said at last. "A lot." The relationship just hadn't had time for anything more to develop. He hadn't allowed it to.

    "But you weren't in love with her." Leon now looked almost disappointed, and Oz wondered exactly what it was that he wanted to hear.

    "Actions speak louder than words, Oz, and I don't want to be a part-time girlfriend. I'm greedy that way." There had been tears in her eyes when she spoke those words, and he'd been the cause. He'd been selfish, holding back, denying her the chance to be happy and fulfilled in the last weeks of her life. If only they'd known, if only he'd known?

    But he couldn't bring himself to admit that out loud. Not in the face of her brother's grief.

    "There wasn't time?" Oz murmured, and knew he was evading the issue. "We didn't?we didn't have that long together."

    What did it take to fall in love? Three days? Three months? Three years? The right person at the right time? What if Anouk had been the right person at the wrong time? What did that mean? They'd left things kind of open-ended, in the end, hoping for another chance somewhere down the line, hoping they might still be able to make it work someday. And now that was gone, and he was left with this nagging sense of guilt, remorse and 'what if?'

    Or was it too easy, now that Anouk was gone, and any chance they might have had together was gone with her, to believe that he could have truly loved her if only he'd allowed himself?

    "She was in love with you," said Leon, anger edging his voice once more. "Did you know that?"

    Silence hung heavy in the air between them. Oz couldn't reply, couldn't even look him in the eye.

    "Why'd you guys break up, anyway?"

    Leon's eyes bore into him, daring him to lie. Daring him to tell the truth. How much did he know? Gil had already told him about the demon, so maybe a more relevant question was: how much did he believe?

    And how much was safe to tell him? Safety in secrecy?but Oz wasn't sure he even cared any more.

    "I belong to a world that Anouk couldn't be a part of," he said, eventually and very quietly. "I kind of?I-I wanted to protect her from it."

    Leon's anger seemed to leech out of him and a black cloud of depression settled in its place. "Well, that really didn't work, did it?"

    "No." Oz felt as heavy-hearted as the other man looked. "No, it didn't."


    "I'd like a word with you, young man."

    Oz had no sooner escaped from the severe discomfort of his conversation with Leon than Gil McKenzie descended, and drew him away into an empty room for a more private discussion that promised to be equally difficult.

    "I asked you straight out one time if you were still involved in that whole monster scene," was Gil's very blunt opening statement, the deep emotion that had been pouring off him the last time they met now firmly locked away behind a mask of businesslike briskness. "And you?you never did give a straight answer to that. Did you?"

    No. He hadn't, it was true. At the time that had seemed the best thing to do, not wanting to rock the boat. But now the boat had been more than rocked anyway. Sunk without trace.

    "I need to know what happened," Gil told him in a voice that brooked no refusal. "Exactly what happened, not just what the police assume, because you and I both know different. It was a demon?"

    Demon-human hybrid, technically. Oz nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

    "And you fought it ? you killed it, you said." Gil was becoming heated now, anger edging his words, his voice growing louder, shriller. "Which means you were there ? you saw what happened to her. So maybe you can tell me why it happened? Why it was there ? did you lead it to her? Was it because of you?"

    "No. No, I wasn't there?" Oz shook his head in something like desperation, the accusation cutting almost as deep as the shock of realisation had, that first moment when he'd caught Anouk's scent and seen her lying there, seen the blood?.

    And yet ? wasn't he responsible? At some level, anyway ? it had been his blood, his werewolf energy, that made Mary's transformation possible, that had started the whole thing.

    "You weren't there??" Gil's stern voice faltered now. "But you said??"

    "I ? we ? kind of?we hunted it," said Oz, fumbling badly for appropriate words and not knowing how to even begin to describe what had happened. His memories of that day were so foggy and jumbled, blurry details with jagged edges coalescing into painfully inescapable truths.

    Gil had a right to know the truth about his daughter's death, didn't he? But how much did he need to know? Did he need to know that the demon had only existed in the first place because of Oz, because Mary MacBride had abducted him and tortured him, and stolen his power from him? That it had been a psychic violation on a level and scale that was painful even now, that something deep down at the core of his being had been damaged and he didn't know yet if it would ever heal fully??

    But whether Gil needed to know any of that or not, Oz couldn't talk about it, not to anyone ? could barely even acknowledge that fear and doubt and guilt in the privacy of his own mind, let alone give any of it voice. No. Gil didn't need to know, didn't need any more reasons to lay blame.

    "Hunted?" Gil whispered, looking distraught.

    "I knew," Oz admitted, very softly, and forced himself to look the older man in the eye. "That it was out there, that it would kill. I didn't know where?we were too late. We got there too late."

    "You saw what it did to her?" The anger was returning to Gil's voice, but it was no longer directed toward Oz. Not quite so much, anyway.

    Anouk's scent, wafting across the Quad, mingled with odours of blood and death and demon. Lying so still. Face pallid and waxen. Eyes open, staring, unseeing. Blood splattered all around.

    "I saw," Oz murmured, trying hard not to remember, trying to remember Anouk as she had been, not as she'd died.

    "My little girl. My poor baby girl?." Gil sounded bone-weary now, just barely hanging onto his composure. He sat heavily on the arm of a nearby chair. Then he glanced at Oz. "I see something of what it did to you, too."

    Oz frowned. Fading cuts and bruises on the face and hands aside, his injuries weren't all that visible, well hidden beneath layers of clothing, and healing well now, if slowly.

    Gil evidently saw his confusion. "The way you move. Stiff. Sore?"

    He couldn't deny that, and shifted uncomfortably. "Yeah. Kinda."

    "You took it down." Gil nodded to himself, his pain written all over his face. "Too late, but you took it down. Did she know? That it was out there?"

    "No." Oz shook his head, wondering if it would have made a difference if she had known. If she might not have been there when it attacked.

    Too many reasons for guilt, doubt and self-recrimination, and he felt impossibly tired all of a sudden.

    "No," said Gil, pinching at the bridge of his nose and sighing. "No, of course she didn't know. Because that's why you broke up: because you were still running around hunting monsters and she wasn't included in that." Glancing at Oz, his lips twitched in what might, under other circumstances, have been almost a smile. "Don't look so surprised. It's not so unheard of for a girl who has no mother to confide in her old dad instead, when her heart has been broken."

    When her heart has been broken?.

    She was in love with you; did you know that??

    Oz bit his lip, and no diversionary words to provide an escape from this increasingly uncomfortable conversation came to mind.

    "Couldn't bear to see my little girl hurting so much," Gil told him, the brisk, businesslike note returning to his voice ? his way of trying to internalise all that intense emotion, Oz guessed. "Cursed your name for it at the time. But she defended you, said it was as much her issue as yours, that your life was different to hers, that you tried to keep her out of it?."

    "I wanted her to be safe," Oz whispered. He'd failed in that, quite spectacularly.

    "So did I." Gil's voice was leaden, a father who had lost his child. "So tell me, young man ? should I be angry, that I asked a straight question and you avoided a straight answer? That you let me think your demon hunting days were over when in fact they were anything but? Or should I be relieved that at least you had the sense not to involve my daughter, for all the good that did? Because right now?" His face crumpled, he buried his head in his hands, and his voice became muffled as he continued, "Right now all I want is my little girl back."

    Oz felt frozen to the spot, seeing this strong man break down and feeling all kinds of responsible. There was absolutely nothing he could say, nothing he could do to fix this, to make it better. It had happened, Anouk had paid the highest price, and they all had to live with the consequences.

    "And now Leon?." Regaining control, Gil looked up once more. "I drank too much, I said too much?I don't think he believed me. But he has so much anger; so much anger and no outlet, nothing to take it out on." He turned his head to look at Oz, his eyes glimmering with unshed tears. "Because there is nothing. There's nothing that can change this, is there?"



    • #3

      Part Two:


      "This is a flag of truce."

      Post funeral, they'd all ? Oz, David and Emma, Elli, Charlie ? drifted back to the Monico in sombre mood and settled into a depressed silence lounging around a back room drinking coffee, until Ed's clipped English tones rang out and sent a ripple of shock through them all.

      "Not here to fight," the vampire cheerfully continued as they leapt to their feet with various protests of dismay, concealed weapons reached for or impromptu weapons improvised. "No need to panic."

      And he was, indeed, waving a greying rag that could, in the right light, just possibly pass for a white flag.

      "What are you?no, how did you get in here?" David spluttered.

      Ed smirked. "I'm a vampire. Did you think I wouldn't break my way in if I wanted to? That's why I'm here, incidentally. Vampire. Calls himself Shadrach, thinks he's God's gift, old enough to know better ? been in town all of five minutes and he's got the whole place running scared."

      "So?" Charlie practically spat the word at him, preparing herself to fight if need be. One wrong move and he was dust, and she would do it this time. She would ? she could?.

      "So?" Ed gave her a look that practically radiated angelic innocence. It was a look he'd perfected before he turned five, by all accounts. Only now, in his vampire unlife, it had been twisted into something with far more sinister undertones than childish attempts to avoid taking responsibility for stolen sweeties. "So, I popped in the other day to tell you all about it, but you seemed a bit preoccupied. I thought now might be a better time??"

      "So there's another vampire in town." Charlie glowered at him, wondering what kind of game he thought he was playing here. "Big deal. Why on earth would you come to us about it?"

      "It is a big deal." Ed rolled his eyes as if it should be obvious. "I don't want him here. And you're supposed to be the good guys ? go sort him out."

      "What?" Charlie was incredulous. "Sort him out yourself!"

      "Like I'd risk my own skin when there's a whole pack of do-gooders just sitting here," said Ed. "Ready, willing and able to do it for me, free of charge."

      "You know, your motivational skills really have gone down the pan since you died," Charlie told him, her voice dripping scorn. He sounded sincere enough ? he always sounded sincere enough ? but he also always had an angle of his own.

      "I'm doing you a favour," Ed protested. "This is your heads up ? big bad evil thing in town. You get to stop it killing people, if you play it right. And, as a fringe benefit, you can do me a big favour at the same time. And I'll be grateful for that, not kill that boyfriend of yours. Yet. You see? We all win." He winked and grinned.

      The others had gone very quiet, warily allowing Charlie to handle the confrontation with the vampire that had once been her brother and standing by, weapons in hand, ready for battle if need be. Hearing the threat against Mat, she felt cold, knowing that he was perfectly capable of following through. That no matter how careful they were, and no matter how rigorously they patrolled the streets to make it clear to him that their alert level was high, he'd find a way of slipping past their guard if he really wanted to.

      "Right." She shifted slightly, letting Ed see that she had weapons at hand. "Thank you for the information. Now leave ? quietly, and without fuss, and bearing in mind that this is the one and only amnesty you're ever going to get from us."

      "Fair enough." Completely nonchalant, Ed shrugged his shoulders, stuffed his hands into his pockets, and sauntered back out the way he'd come, whistling a jaunty tune.

      A brief silence followed his exit, during which they all looked at one another.

      "Do you think he was serious?" Emma nervously asked.

      "He usually is." Charlie sighed. "In his own way."

      "So what do we do now?"

      Charlie frowned, thinking over what Ed had said. "If Ed was still alive he'd be looking back on his twenties with fondness as the big three-oh loomed large on the horizon. Instead, he still looks sixteen. He said this Shadrach was 'old enough to know better', but old for a vampire doesn't usually mean grey hair and wrinkles."

      "It means they've been around a long time," Elli quietly agreed, and Charlie nodded.

      "And that leaves a paper trail. We should look him up."


      "Are these all the books we've got?"

      The question came from Charlie as she cast a critical eye over the armful of books Emma had unearthed ? a little not-so-light bedtime reading borrowed from the antique store next door.

      "To do with vampires, yes." Emma frowned. She didn't have that many borrowed books here at the moment, and fewer still that looked even remotely relevant. "We'll probably need to go next door and disturb Piers. He's got loads I've barely even looked at yet."

      She stood up, and David frowned at her. "You mean now?"

      Emma raised an eyebrow, determined to get on with this now it had been raised. Anything had to be better than continuing the post-funeral blues. "You've got something better to do? Like, sit here and mope?"

      "No, actually my 'something better to do' revolves around getting back to work," David admitted with a sigh. "And giving Sylvie a hand out there. Equally distracting from the moping thing, though. Just, more mundane."

      "Book research isn't that much of a distraction for me," Charlie remarked. "More a reminder of overdue assignments ?"

      "But looking this dude up was your idea," David protested.

      Charlie ignored him completely, turning to Emma. "So if you're good for that, I think I'll hit the streets and try asking around. Norm's probably heard something if this Shadrach's making as many waves as Ed seemed to think."

      "I might come with you." Elli rose to her feet, looking thoughtful. "I'll be dark soon and we've let the patrolling slide again. Could do a quick sweep."

      "Take my van." Oz now spoke up for the first time since they'd left the funeral and, as Elli nodded her agreement and thanks, shooting a quick 'keep an eye on him' glance at her, Emma turned to him.

      "I think that leaves you and me to go wake Piers up and requisition his library again."

      Oz nodded. "Sounds like a plan."

      He sounded almost like his old self. Almost ? until you caught a glimpse of the eyes. He'd been playing at this little game of 'let's act like nothing really happened' just about since it had happened, and the rest of them had been going along with it, so far. But every time Emma saw that look in his eyes, and the tension that seemed to fill his whole being, like a tightly coiled spring wound almost past breaking point, that feeling of worry she couldn't quite shake off returned full measure. He could pretend to be okay as much as he wanted; it didn't make it true.

      "'Patrolling'?" A new voice cut across the conversation, abruptly silencing them all. "Patrolling what for who, and why?"

      Emma spun around to see a dark-haired, rather angry-looking young man standing in the doorway, and remembered seeing Oz talking to him to at the funeral. She glanced at Oz just in time to see everything behind his eyes shut down completely at the sight of the newcomer, and there was an awkward silence while he visibly struggled with himself for a moment before making the introduction.

      "This is Leon. Anouk's brother."


      "I wanted to talk to you." Leon eventually broke the awkward silence that followed the introductions, looking at Oz.

      "Okay." Oz shifted uncomfortably, wondering what he wanted now that he'd come all the way here to ask about.

      Leon glanced around the room at the others, looking uncertain. Getting the message, they all made a show of getting up and moving toward the door.

      "We should clear out," said David. "Give you some space."

      "No." Leon appeared to change his mind rather abruptly, frowning and sounding confused and unhappy. "No. I wanted to talk to him. There's all this stuff my dad told me, and he knows about it. But now I think you all know about it. Everyone's in on something that I'm not, and it's about my sister, and I don't understand any of it but I want to know. What is it everyone else knows that I don't?"

      Words were tricky things. They had a habit of deserting you just when you needed them most. Feeling himself struggle badly, Oz looked to Elli for support, and she instantly came to his rescue.

      "What did your father tell you?" she asked gently, sitting back down.

      "He was drunk." Leon flung himself into a chair, running a hand through his hair and over his face. "Said all kinds of crazy stuff, about demons and I don't know what else. And then I realised he was serious. And that it made a weirder kind of sense than what the police were saying. So now I don't know what to think. I don't know what's real, what's madness, or?anything, really. Please tell me."

      He gazed around the room with an expression almost of eager desperation, and Elli looked at him, her expression grave and concerned.

      "You really want to hear this?"

      Leon nodded, looking tense and wary.

      "Your father was telling the truth," she said, bluntly but not unkindly, and Oz felt his throat constrict at the memory as she continued. "Your sister was killed by a demon, which is now dead. It can't hurt anyone else now."

      "That's insane." Leon hung his head, pressed his palms against his forehead, and groaned. "But?it's true and insane. Isn't it?"

      He looked at Oz for confirmation, and Oz nodded, still unable to find words.

      "A demon and it's dead," Leon continued, still sounding unsure whether to really believe it or not. "Dead how, exactly?"

      Oz felt several pairs of eyes flick in his direction, and knew Leon had noticed that, as Elli calmly replied, "Us is how. We tracked it down and put an end to it."

      "Just like that?" Leon looked from her to Oz, at the others, then back at Oz, just a hint of suspicion creeping into his voice and eyes. Oz let his eyes drop to the ground near his feet, feeling like the walls were closing in on him.

      "No, not 'just like that'. But it's over now." She paused, and then softly added, "I'm sorry we were too late for Anouk."

      "It killed her." Anger blazed in his eyes.

      "I know."

      "So if it's dead," Leon pressed on. "What were you all talking about when I came in? Patrolling, and books and whatever?"

      "There's more than one demon in the world," said Charlie with a sigh.

      "More than one?. So you're all, like, demon-hunters?" He sounded intrigued at the notion. "You do this kind of thing all the time?"

      "No." Oz surprised himself by speaking up just when he felt most incapable of it, feeling something like a sense of urgency that this be understood. "No, we're just people. But we don't close our eyes. We do what we can. When we can."

      "If we can," Emma added.

      "So what kind of demon are you hunting now, then?" Leon looked a little suspicious still.

      "We aren't hunting any kind of demon now," Charlie told him. "What we're planning to research is a vampire that's new in town."

      "Vampire?" Leon let out a long, shaky breath and shook his head. "Demons and vampires, and people that go out hunting them. This is mad. Can I come?"

      The image of Anouk lying dead and bloody on the grass flashed through Oz's mind, closely followed by that of her father's distress at losing a child. The thought of having to face Gil and tell him his son was now plunging headlong into a danger he was entirely unprepared for was horrific.

      "I think you should go home and be with your father," said Elli, still very calm, her voice very gentle. "Tonight of all nights. He'll need you."


      Darkness came, and she arrived. Majestic and beautiful, she stalked through the city in state, entourage in tow. Shadrach came to meet her, feeling his heart sing as he welcomed his lady to their new home at last.

      The humans roaming the streets in the evening dusk stopped and stared at the procession as they made their way toward the home he'd picked out for them. With the nightlife of San Francisco just starting to come to life, picking off a few choice victims was like shooting ducks in an alley. This city had so much potential, and together they would pick it clean.


      "So, run into any vampires?" David enquired. He'd just closed the caf? for the night when Charlie and Elli returned from their patrol/fact-finding mission and collected him en route to Piers' shop to compare notes with Oz and Emma. Piers himself was nowhere in sight as they walked in, having apparently decided to turn in and leave them all to it.

      "Just the one." Charlie settled onto a stool.

      "Not the one we were looking for, either," Elli added. "We don't think. Didn't fit the description."

      "And he got away," Charlie continued. "Which ? I was actually really glad not to tangle with him."

      "Why?" Emma asked. "What was he like?"

      "About six foot four and built like a prop forward," she said, and David frowned, confused, while Emma looked equally blank. Charlie and Elli both sighed.

      "When are you Yanks going to get a handle on real sport?" Charlie grumbled.

      "When are you going to get a handle on the NFL?" David countered.

      "Never!" Charlie protested, eyes wide with mock horror.

      "Exactly," said David. "So, about this vampire situation??"

      Charlie sighed again.

      "Ed was dead right about the demon underworld being unhappy," she reluctantly said. "You could cut the tension with a knife. And it's not like there aren't vampires in the city already, but none of them have had this effect."

      "Everyone we spoke to said the same thing," said Elli. "There's a powerful new vampire in town, name of Shadrach, out to make an impression, and they don't like it at all. But none of them have managed to take him on. Not successfully. He's got them all scared."

      "Sounds delightful," David murmured.

      "Exactly," she agreed, looking to Emma and Oz. "What do the books say?"

      They looked at each other, and then down at the books strewn across the table in front of them.

      "Shadrach?" said Oz, grimly. "Least of our worries. Or, only a part, anyway."

      That didn't exactly bode well, David decided. It was hard to gauge Oz's mood at the best of times and even more so just lately when he seemed to be almost radiating tension pretty much all the time. But Emma was very definitely nervous about whatever they'd found, and she was generally a much better yardstick to judge just how bad something might be.

      "There are references to a vampire called Shadrach going back almost four centuries," she said, pulling a face." Some really icky stuff, too."

      "But he doesn't operate alone," said Oz.

      "In every reference we've found," Emma continued. "He's always working alongside a female vampire, even older than he is. There's a few different names given for her, but there's also a few pictures ? you know, sketches and woodcuts and stuff ? and we're pretty certain it's the same one every time. She's the vamp that sired him, and then when we tried tracing her through the records we got as far back as what seemed almost like the Middle Ages and gave up. She's old. Older than old."

      "Which means she's good at staying alive," Elli murmured.

      "Un-alive, you mean." David wrinkled his nose.

      "She likes to hold court," Oz picked up the tale once more. "Tends to have a whole entourage travelling along with. Same names crop up over and over."

      "What's she called?" Charlie asked.

      "Well, the most recent references," said Emma, pulling a face. "And by recent I mean the last couple centuries, all give her the same name. She seems to have settled on it, for now at least. Delilah."

      As she spoke, she turned another page in the book before her and scanned it almost absent-mindedly. A detail seemed to catch her eye. "Hey, and did you know there's a vampire with a soul?"

      "A what?" Charlie looked and sounded taken-aback.

      "Angel," said Oz, casually, and every eye turned in his direction.

      "Vampires with souls are angels?" David asked, bemused, before his brain caught up with him and pointed out from context that it was clearly a name, not a job description.

      "That's not what it says here." Emma spoke at the same moment, and frowned down at the page. "It says Angelus?oh. Angel. Angelus." She gave Oz a quizzical look. "You know him?"

      "Used to."

      And there had to be a much longer story there, David decided, although his chances of ever hearing it were, he had to admit, fairly slim.

      "There's a vampire with a soul?" Charlie asked, sharply.

      "Just the one," Oz confirmed. And then added, "As far as I know."

      "Which is fascinating." Elli drew them back onto the topic at hand. "But unless the vampire with the soul has also decided that San Francisco is the place to be, it's nothing to do with the problem we've got here."

      "But maybe the problem we've got here isn't as bad as we think it is." Emma sounded hopeful, as though trying to convince herself. "Just because the history books say that Shadrach always travelled with Delilah and this whole pack of other vampires doesn't mean he still does. Does it?"

      "All the sources we spoke to only mentioned Shadrach," said Charlie, slowly.

      "Which could just mean that he's clearing a path and the others aren't far behind," Elli pointed out.

      "Unless Delilah's dust already." David decided to focus on more optimistic scenarios. "Or they've had a falling out."

      Elli looked unconvinced. "If they've lasted this many hundreds of years together, I wouldn't count on it. I think we need to be ready for the worst."


      They had brought a few humans with them to their new abode. It was, after all, a housewarming party.

      Delilah reclined gracefully on the best seat in the house, and laughed lazily at the orgy of bloody death. It was a party, all right. And Shadrach watched Delilah. Shadrach always watched Delilah, delighting in her delight.

      "You chose well, my love." Her voice was low and melodic as she turned her sweetest smile upon him, reaching out to caress his cheek.

      He took her hand and kissed it. "I knew you'd like it."

      "And yet?I'm curious," she told him. "So few of our kind here, exploiting this town. Why is that, I wonder?"

      "Too close to LA?" Shadrach shrugged expressively. "Too far from LA? Who knows? Who cares? There are vampires here, and demons, too, but there's no?no style."

      Delilah smiled. "We shall change that."

      "We shall." His active mind was already racing, abuzz with the possibilities afforded by this town. More than half of the local vampires were on side already, and there were ways and means of separating the wheat from the chaff. Then his attention returned to the housewarming party, and he stood to call their underlings to order.

      "Don't forget to save some for later," he shouted above the din, rolling his eyes at their energy and enthusiasm.

      "City's wide open," a shout came back. Desmond. Of course. "We'll never go without."

      "But the daytime is so inconvenient." Delilah rose, lithe and catlike. She almost glided across the floor toward Desmond, ran a finger across his cheek, and took the hand of the human he'd been feeding from so avidly.

      "It always pays to keep something fresh in stock," Shadrach reminded them all as she pulled the man to his feet, drew him close to her and cocked her head to one side, studying him thoughtfully. Already half-drained, but he was young, fit and healthy ? no doubt tasty. And taking him from Desmond would amuse her.

      Unceremoniously handing the man to Shadrach, she clapped her hands, calling the party to a close. "Enough! Lock them up."

      Shadrach laughed at the grumbles and moans that arose, and laughed again as the others reluctantly moved to obey. Disobedience would not be tolerated, and they all knew it. Then, as Delilah returned to her seat, he effortlessly hoisted the man up by the collar and carried him to her, laid him across her lap. She smiled, her vampire features swiftly overlaying the human version, and sank her fangs into him.

      "Home sweet home," Shadrach murmured, watching her feed.


      "So you think we should be on alert?" Mat asked.

      Charlie almost wished she hadn't told him now. It was very late, and she'd got so comfortable, snuggled up on the sofa with him in front of some old movie ? too comfortable and too nearly asleep to want to drag her mind back to less pleasant realities of life.

      "Mmm," she murmured, sleepily. "Probably. No, better make that definitely."

      "So how high an alert?" He was stroking her hair, and she could feel herself drifting. "We talking amber? Red? Flashing neon lights and very loud sirens? Or a casual pink or green?"

      "Don't know yet." Charlie yawned. If he was going to keep talking about this, she'd need to not fall asleep just yet. That coffee she'd left cooling on the table nearby would help there, if she could just bring herself to move?

      Or, instead of her moving, she could do it the easy way and make the coffee do all the moving. Easy for her, anyway. Relatively speaking.

      Mat went very quiet as the mug floated through the air and into her hand without spilling a drop. She didn't usually do that kind of thing. Not in front of people, anyway, even him. Random practice around the house with no one watching, though ? it was a good way of honing her skills, such as they were.

      "Show off," he said at last. "Hey, have you ever tried something really big, like, say?like cooking a meal without getting out of bed? See just how lazy you could be?"

      Charlie chuckled, sipping the coffee. "I think that'd be a little bit beyond me."

      "You never know if you don't try. I can think of all kinds of experimental possibilities," Mat teased, and then more soberly added, "I'll let Mike know about the new vampire situation. Keep you posted if we hear anything."


      The following morning brought nothing much that was new. No new information; nothing much to be done. Life just went on, and it felt heavy.

      "So, no class again today?" David managed to make the question sound completely casual, nonchalantly tossing it out there as they prepared the caf? for opening. "You know, even a genius like you might struggle to get through finals if you never actually go to school again."

      Oz decided, as he had every time this subject had been raised, to not rise to the bait and get into any kind of deep and meaningful discussion about the deeper reasons he hadn't felt ready to return to school just yet. He'd mostly been focusing on healing so far, and everyone had accepted that as valid, but the excuse was starting to wear a little thin now. But?returning to school, picking up his studies with Jim once more ? it would all mean facing up to stuff he just wasn't ready for yet, and being aware that his friends were concerned didn't make him any readier.

      It made him all the more anxious, if anything, feeling like a liability ? almost like the old days, back in Sunnydale at full moon, when his friends would be dashing off to deal with the latest crisis while he locked himself away in his cage. When they'd given up their sleep for the nights of the full moon, month after month, to guard his cage in case he got loose. He'd hated it more than he'd ever hated anything, but never allowed that to show, since it was his issue and no one else's. Or should be, which was kinda the whole point. And he had hoped never to feel that way again, had tried so hard to prevent it, only for this to happen. Every time he thought he'd moved on, moved past it, something happened to put him right back to square one.

      "I'll get there," he said by way of answer. And, as usual, David took the hint and dropped the subject, switching effortlessly to the much safer topics of music, today's menu and the weather, and apparently content to monologue away without Oz being required to toss in any more than the occasional comment, for which he was grateful.

      David was still chattering aimlessly when an edgy looking figure appeared outside the locked caf? doors and peered inside. Recognising him, Oz felt his heart sink. Leon. Again. Just about the last person in the world he felt ready for another confrontation with right now.

      David recognised him as well, and gave Oz a half-questioning, half-worried look. His decision to make. Oz sighed and nodded for him to let Anouk's brother in.

      Once inside, Leon just stood there, shuffling his feet and looking moody, and David was equally silent. Clearly, the first move here belonged to Oz.

      "Hey," he said, at length.

      "Hey." Leon echoed his greeting, and the awkward silence resumed. After a moment, Oz tried again.

      "Get you a drink?"

      Leon nodded. "Thanks."

      "Coffee?" Almost ridiculously enthusiastic at the prospect of something practical to do, David sprang into action, heading behind the counter at speed.

      "Coffee, thanks. Yeah. Uh," Leon hesitated, and then just came out with it. "So. How did you, uh, get on last night? With the, uh?the, uh, the?vampire?stuff?hunting?"

      "Not hunting." Oz shook his head. "Research."

      "Research, then," said Leon. "So. Uh ? learn anything interesting?"

      Not the best attempt at nonchalant ever. Oz exchanged a concerned glance with David, wondering what was lying behind all this curiosity and where it might lead ? surely nothing good could come of it.

      "Found out some stuff," he said cautiously, wondering how Gil would react if he knew his son was here and taking such an intense interest in all this. "Not good stuff."

      "About vampires?" Leon asked. "So, is ? is it all true? Like in the films? With the garlic and the stake-through-the-heart and all that crap?"

      "Staking, yeah," Oz told him, and tried not to notice how much Leon looked like his sister. He'd had pretty much this same conversation with Anouk, and not all that long ago, either? "Garlic, not so much."

      "And?drinking the blood of virgins??"

      "Most of 'em?" Oz shook his head. "Not that fussy."

      He wondered briefly if it would make life easier if they were, but decided, on balance, probably not. Nothing in life was ever easy; least of all anything intended to make it so.

      "Man." Leon let out a long breath. "It's a lot to take in."

      "Why do you want to know?" David asked, rejoining them and handing out coffees all round. "Because, mostly none of it's fun to know."

      "Why do I want to know?" Leon asked, almost incredulous. "Because I just found out. There's this whole other world that keeps itself hidden, and my sister got killed because of it, and I just found out. I have to know. I have to ?"

      A knock at the caf? door interrupted, and he fell silent. It was Mike and Mat, looking sombre and official.

      "This a bad time?" Mike asked as he pushed the door open, David having not locked it after letting Leon in.

      "Problem?" Oz felt his heart sink again as their faces confirmed that, yes: something was up. All of a sudden, his head ached. Nothing but problems just lately: no rest for the weary.

      "You can talk," David added, seeing them looking askance at Leon, who was shuffling his feet and scowling again. And, although Oz really didn't love the idea of letting Leon get any deeper into this than he already was ? for Leon's own sake, for Gil's sake, and for Anouk's ? he had to admit that there wasn't really any practical way of excluding him now he was here. He was asking questions, he was filled with rage about what had happened to his sister, and he was going to find out as much as he could, one way or another. At least if they were the ones answering his questions they could keep an eye on him, wearying though the thought was. As long as it was just questions?

      But if it was more than just questions ? which, he really hoped it wasn't because that was the last thing he wanted to think about right now ? then that was a whole new headache to add to a growing list.

      "Problem, yeah," Mat confirmed, sitting down on the edge of a table and earning himself a glare from David, which he ignored completely. "You could say that."

      "Problem how?" David warily asked. "Big or small?"

      "Depends," said Mike, still eyeing Leon with vague suspicion and curiosity. "Mat said something about vampires ? new vampires?"

      "Bad ones, according to Charlie," Mat added.

      "We think so. Yeah," Oz confirmed. One thing after another ? it was just never ending.

      "Well, then," Mike explained. "Then last night we got a whole wave of missing persons."

      "Whole wave as in how many?" David looked anxious.

      "Too many," said Mat, his tone grim.

      "Oh." David looked dismayed, and Leon frowned at them all, confused.

      "What does that mean?"

      "Maybe nothing." Oz wished he could believe that. "But maybe that the, uh, the pack arrived."

      A pack of very old, very powerful vampires out to stamp their authority on a new habitat; the disappearances last night would only be the start. How was a very small bunch of utterly non-super-powered and mostly not that well trained people like them supposed to even begin to tackle a problem like that? They were going to have to try though, because?well, just because. It was an exhausting thought, with the wounds of their last battle not yet healed.

      "A pack?" Leon's eyes went wide. "Of vampires? Lots of 'em? Here?"

      "Looks like." David cast a worried glance in Oz's direction, and Mike and Mat were frowning, as well. And, seeing the glint in Leon's eye, Oz heard the alarm bell that had been chiming softly ever since Leon showed up after the funeral start to clamour loudly inside his head. No way this was going to stop at just questions, and the thought of it just made him feel tired, and frustrated, and a whole lot of other things that he couldn't quite identify right now, all kinds of pent-up emotions bubbling away inside all of a sudden and starting to churn.

      "So what do we do now?" Leon asked, almost enthusiastically. "Kill them? Can we do that? How do we do that? We kill them before they can kill anyone else, right?"

      "No!" Oz almost snarled the word, feeling his patience snap completely, very suddenly and unexpectedly. His coffee mug went crashing to the floor and shattered loudly as the image of Anouk lying dead on the grass danced in front of his eyes, and Gil McKenzie's voice rang in his ears, leaden with despair at losing his child. He'd tried so hard to keep her safe, and failed, and now her brother wanted to hurl himself into harm's way as well, and for what? Revenge of some kind? Revenge against any and every monster he could find because the one that had killed her was no longer there to lash out at? As if that could fix anything.

      On top of everything else he'd been trying not to deal with lately, it was just the final straw.

      Everyone was staring at him, expressions ranging from bewilderment to concern, as he paused, tried to breathe. Tried and failed to regain control. He was usually so good at controlling his own emotions and reactions; it was the one thing he'd worked hardest at in his entire life. But just now, out of nowhere, that control seemed to have abandoned him completely, and he felt a sudden surge of anger. Anger at Mary MacBride and Professor Staunton for what they'd done to him, and the effect that was having even now, and for Anouk's death, and so many other deaths that day; anger at the world in general for allowing it to happen; anger at Leon for being so na?vely gung-ho when he had no idea what he was getting himself into.

      "'We' aren't going to do anything," he fiercely insisted, and heard something like a growl in his voice. That wasn't good ? he had to get a grip. "You aren't a part of this. Stay out of it!"

      "What?" Leon blinked at him, bewildered, and a little angry himself. And Oz was getting more odd looks from the others, as well, because blowing up like this just wasn't his usual style, and now anger at himself surfaced and crowded out all the rest. He was starting to make them nervous again now, which he'd been trying hard to avoid, and he was also making himself nervous again, and he couldn't stand it any more. He had to get out of there before he exploded completely, or worse.

      "Hey, chill, man, what's up?" Mat was saying, and David reached out to touch his arm with a quiet, "Are you all right?" as Oz turned on his heel and headed for the exit at speed. He ignored them both, not trusting himself to speak any further, and plunged past Elli in the corridor behind the caf?, also without a word, not replying when she called after him. He didn't stop until he reached the yard behind the caf?, where there was fresh air and he could breathe again, and he leaned against the wall and wondered what the hell had just almost happened and just how dangerous he really was.


      Concerned, Elli stared after Oz's retreating back for a moment before continuing into the caf?, where she found David, Mike and Mat, along with Anouk's brother again, all standing around looking various shades of confused.

      "What just happened?" she asked.

      "Is he always like that?" There was hostility in Leon's voice and suspicion in his eyes.

      David frowned, wrinkling his nose in bemusement. "Usually never."

      "What happened?" Elli repeated, patiently, and then listened rather less patiently to the rambling accounts they gave her of the conversation they'd been having when Oz had so uncharacteristically flared up in anger. Leon, apparently, had been the trigger, morbidly fascinated by this world he'd just discovered, and far too eager to hurl himself into it in memory of the sister he'd lost. Evidently, Oz had not taken kindly to the idea, and David was trying hard not to verbalise hair-and-teeth-style loss-of-control fears in front of Leon.

      No more waiting for the right moment, she decided, or leaving him to work through this in his own time and space ? there came a time when you just had to make it the right moment, and this felt like that time.

      Leaving the rest of the menfolk to their own devices, she headed out back in search of Oz and found him sitting on damp concrete out in the yard, leaning against the wall, apparently oblivious to the light drizzle that had been coming down all morning. Staring blankly into space, he was lost in an unhappy world all his own.

      Wishing she'd thought to pick up her coat when she came across, she went over and sat down next to him, cross-legged on the ground, and there was silence for a moment.

      "When I lived in Melbourne," she ventured, eventually. "Maggie had this old pressure cooker. It was her favourite thing. She'd use it to prepare almost every meal ? throw in the potatoes and the rest of the veg, add water and whack it on the hob, and the pressure would build up inside. And then, at just the right moment, she'd flip this little valve and watch the steam come shooting out. But I remember there was this one time she didn't get to release that pressure valve in time, and it wasn't pretty."

      He made no comment, showed no sign of even having heard, and she hesitated for a second before ploughing on.

      "I'm worried about you," she told him, fairly bluntly, since bluntness seemed called for here. "For lots of reasons. But mostly because right now you remind me of that pressure cooker with the release valve shut tight, and it scares me what could happen."

      He looked at her at last, eyes suspiciously bright. "Scares me too."

      For him, that was quite an admission. She eyed him appraisingly, trying to calculate how far she might be able to push.

      "You want to tell me what's going on in that head of yours, or are you just going to carry on cooking until you hit total meltdown?"

      He studied his feet morosely, and didn't reply.

      "Jim's concerned, you know. Maybe more than anyone, because of you not having gone anywhere near him in so long."

      Oz looked up sharply at that. "You've spoken to him?"

      Elli nodded. "A little. He said he's waiting for you to go to him. Doesn't want to push it."

      He gave a little nod, regarded his shoes once more, and said nothing.

      "So." Elli tried a different tack. "Leon seems a bit?"

      She couldn't quite come up with an appropriate word to summarise the young man's apparent state of mind ? over-enthusiastic, perhaps ? and Oz gave a wry snort.

      "Yeah. He does."

      "Is that what all this is about?" All this, she'd be prepared to stake money, was about a lot of things, Leon maybe the smallest part of all. But they had to start somewhere.

      He shook his head and frowned. "Not really." But then, after a short pause, he quietly added, "Just ? his dad, you know?"

      Anouk, he didn't say, but the heaviness in his eyes and voice spoke volumes on that subject.

      "I know. I mean, I think I do. It's just?." Elli sighed. Sometimes it was hard to know what to say to help. Sometimes there was nothing anyone could say that would help; she knew that only too well, from painful experience.

      "Sometimes there really is nothing you can do," she ruefully continued. "And I know that's no comfort whatsoever, but it's true. There was nothing you could have done. And if Leon thinks asking us about vampires and demons and trying to help us kill them will make him feel better about what happened, there's not much you or any of us can do about that, either. Except maybe keep a close eye on him and try to keep him out of trouble."

      Oz shook his head, eyes now fixed on the ground beneath his feet, and quietly said, "No, I'm pretty sure there was a lot more I could have done."

      "When?" Elli countered.

      His only answer was another non-committal shrug. Elli sighed again, starting to shiver. The rain was coming down more heavily now, and it was colder than she'd been led to expect for California at this time of year. Right moment or no, this was probably not the best time or place for lengthy deep-and-meaningfuls. Noticing, Oz promptly pulled off his over-shirt to drape around her shoulders, which was a typically sweet gesture, if not exactly useful, since he was already wetter than she was.

      "Thanks." Since he hadn't actually answered her question, she pressed on. "You know, the trouble with playing the blame game is that the further back you take it, the wider it spreads. Maybe I should have done more."

      He frowned, clearly not expecting that line of reasoning. "What else could you have done?"

      "I don't know." That was the trouble. And that was also her point. "Something. I knew they were up to something. Maybe I could have tried harder to find out what it was, ripped Staunton's office to bits a little earlier ?"

      "Got kicked out of school?" The wry little look Oz gave her said I know what you're trying to do here, but was also reassuring. It was still early days, but he was sensible enough to work through this, given enough time and space. And he was starting to look slightly more relaxed again now, in spite of that admission of guilt.


      "No, you pretty much did everything you could," said Oz, shaking his head. "You warned me?."

      Elli rolled her eyes. "Well, if I'd known you weren't going to listen I could have locked you in your room or something. That might have done it!"

      It really wasn't funny. And yet, in a twisted kind of way, it was, and the faintest hint of a smile played at the edge of Oz's lips for the first time in a long while.

      "We should probably get back inside," he said, equilibrium regained, temporarily at least, and pushed himself back onto his feet. "Kinda damp out here."

      "Oh, you noticed that?" Elli took the hand he held out and let him pull her upright, noting only the faintest hint of a wince. He was healing well, and she allowed herself a moment of satisfaction ? and a silent internal word of thanks to Enys and Tolmai ? that the herbcraft she'd learned so long ago was standing her in such good stead in this world, too. "You know, it's a shame, though, that I had to drop math," she remarked as they reached the door.

      "Really?" Oz looked at her, one eyebrow lifted slightly in as close to an incredulous expression as he was ever likely to get.

      "Yeah." She flashed her most mischievous grin at him. "I was looking forward to finding out what kind of grade you could get for me!"



      • #4

        Part Three:


        They were up to something.

        It was amazing, really, how much you could learn just by lurking around in the shadows, listening. No one even noticing you were there. And what Ed was learning right now was that Shadrach's people were up to something. Since his gang arrived in town they'd been hauling in all the local vampires they could get their hands on, terrorising them, getting them onside. And the locals, like fools, were just rolling over and falling into line.

        Ed considered himself well out of it. They hadn't found him yet, and he intended to keep it that way. Just how bad could they be, if they hadn't even noticing him spying on them? He didn't do teamwork, and he didn't take orders. He was his own boss, and this lot were threatening to stomp all over that.

        They were planning something. A 'city-warming' party, to let the locals know what they were in for, stamp a bit of authority onto their new territory. Ed's territory, that they'd muscled in on. Blooding their new recruits, apparently, to find out which were worth keeping around.

        Ed seethed. And, curiosity piqued, strained to hear more details.


        "Ed's small fry in comparison," Charlie gloomily noted late that afternoon, when all the evidence they'd managed to assemble and every contact spoken to had already all but confirmed the worst: that the new vampire situation involved a lot more than just Shadrach. A lot more.

        "You think?" Fussing around with mugs and milk, playing hostess, Emma looked surprised.

        "Yeah, I think he's lost his touch." Charlie wrinkled her nose. "Or gone off the boil, or something. He usually wreaks a lot more havoc than he has since he got here."

        Perched on the arm of the sofa alongside her, Mat raised an eyebrow, swivelling slightly to face her. "So the widespread death and destruction that follows him around comes under the heading of 'small fry'?"

        She elbowed him in the ribs, looking anxious. "I'm not saying he hasn't been bad, and driven me to distraction, and everything, but it's just?it's been small scale compared to how he usually is. And a lot more distant from me and mine than normal."

        "Ed isn't really the point, anyway," Elli quietly pointed out, taking the mug Emma was holding out to her. "Is he? And?" She trailed off, looking at the door. "Leon."

        Oz sighed as he turned his head to see the young man standing in the doorway, almost radiating sullen defiance.

        "I've as much right to be here and hear this as anyone," said Leon, apparently deciding to get in a pre-emptive strike before anyone had a chance to protest against his presence. He glared fiercely at Oz, as though expecting most resistance from his direction. Unsurprising, really, given how things had gone down earlier. "I want to help."

        "Your father ?" Emma began.

        "This isn't about my father," Leon interrupted, scowling. "It's about me. Just?let me hear what's going on. I can't pretend I don't know now. You can't pretend I don't know now."

        He sounded almost desperate, looking around from face to face in mute appeal. The way Gil McKenzie had looked at his daughter's funeral flashed through Oz's mind, and a vein in his temple started to throb again at the memory, but there was pretty much no getting out of this now. Like it or not, Leon had the right to make his own choices, even if they were bad ones. Like Elli had said, better to have him here where they could see him than out there exploring on his own.

        He sighed again and nodded to Leon to join them, and tried not to notice the wary glances that were shot toward him from various directions.

        "The point I was trying to make." As Leon found a chair to sit on, away from everyone else, and settled in to listen intently, Charlie picked up the thread of what she'd been saying earlier, before sidetracking onto the subject of Ed. "Was that I think we've been a bit complacent lately."

        "Complacent?" David started to protest, and Charlie nodded, sticking firmly to her guns.

        "Well, we have," she insisted, her tone defensive. "Taking out the odd vampire here and there on patrol, it's been easy ? well, relatively easy, anyway. You know what I mean. When you think what it could have been like. Ed went off the boil, he wasn't harassing us directly any more, and there've been so many distractions we let the patrolling slide again. This new group is completely different. It's big. Bigger than we're used to."

        "Because there's a group of them?" David frowned. "You know, we took out a whole group of vamps before, at that old school that time. Not that I love the idea of getting into anything like that again, but we did it."

        "That was different," said Charlie.

        "Different how?"

        "Because they were retards," Elli told him, dryly. "This lot are organised. And old. Experienced."

        That really wasn't an encouraging thought. The conversation wound on, mostly going around and around in ever more frustrating circles. San Francisco in general had no experience of this kind of ancient, organised vampire conglomerate. Which meant it was up to amateurs like them to do what they could. But, on the other hand, they had no experience of this kind of ancient, organised vampire conglomerate, either. Charlie was right ? Ed was small fry in comparison. If they brought themselves to the attention of this new crowd they could be in serious trouble.

        They just didn't have the capacity to take this lot out. That was the bottom line. The patrols they'd been operating up till now had saved lives, it was true, but they hadn't even been able to get to Ed, never mind a group like this. If there really were as many of them, as well organised, as advertised.

        Leon just sat quietly throughout, listening to them talk, taking it all in. Oz kept glancing across at him, still worried about letting him get involved in all this but not knowing how to keep him out now he was here and so determined. He shouldn't be involved. Gil wouldn't want him involved. Neither would Anouk. But here he was, and that was his choice. But that didn't mean Oz had to feel comfortable about it.

        At length, Leon suddenly spoke up, frowning. "Can I ask a question?" he said. "Who's Ed?"

        Every eye in the room now flicked in Charlie's direction. "A vampire," she said in a flat, even tone. "One that used to be my brother. End of story."

        Leon's eyes became wider than ever, but he was quickly distracted, as Charlie very firmly switched the subject back to the issue at hand: the new vampires in town. This time, Leon took part in the ongoing debate, asking questions, clearly determined to understand. The patrols they tried to keep up with already had been instigated initially because of Ed, they explained. But they already found it a struggle, given there weren't many of them and they didn't have much in the way of strength to fight off any vampires or other creatures they came across. Mostly they had to rely on the element of surprise, adequate weaponry, and sheer luck. But if Shadrach and Delilah really had moved their operations into town, that might not be enough any more. It was a sobering thought.

        The only firm conclusion they managed to draw was that they needed more intelligence before they could make any kind of decisions. Which meant continuing to patrol as normal, asking around, investigating, trying to find out where these vampires might have set up shop, what they wanted to achieve here ? anything they could learn would be useful at this stage. And then they could think about it again.

        The meeting broke up with no one really satisfied. Leon headed home to mull over everything he'd learned. Charlie and Mat, meanwhile, had a double date with Mike and Shanei, who ? despite everything ? were apparently attempting to patch up their differences. Again. "Don't ask," was all Mat had to say about it, and that sounded like good advice to Oz.

        And Oz himself was headed out on what promised to be an uneasy evening on patrol investigating possible hideouts for new vampires in town with Elli and David.

        All in all, just another day in the life, in fact.


        "All on your own, I see."

        Emma almost jumped out of her skin when the sly, suggestive voice rang out just behind her. It was a quiet evening at the caf?, a fact she'd been immensely grateful for, since it was just her and Sylvie holding the fort. Keeping busy out in the kitchen, enjoying the peace and quiet ? she hadn't even heard anyone come in?

        She span, heart racing. Ed. Standing right behind her ? how had he even got so close without her hearing? ? and she was all alone. She fumbled for the cross at her neck, just a little one but she felt safer wearing it and had done for a long time now, and Ed laughed, lazily.

        "I'm looking for my sister," he remarked in conversational tones, peering with vague curiosity at the quiche-and-salad she'd been preparing. "Not around, is she?"

        "No." Emma backed away, fingers gripping her tiny little cross tight enough that it dug into the flesh and hurt. "No, she isn't here?"

        In a blur of movement, Ed was suddenly behind her and she span around again, terrified. "Just you and me, then."

        He grinned, and she hated him for enjoying her fear. She tugged harder on the cross, managed not to wince as the chain dug into her skin painfully before it snapped, and waved it at him like a shield she could hide behind. "Keep back!"

        Ed laughed again. "I'm not actually here to fight. Not even to eat, either, which means this is your lucky day, because ?"

        Another blur of movement, and the chain was out of her hand and on the floor, he had her pinned, teeth grazing her throat, and she could barely breathe.

        "So you see," the vampire murmured into her ear. "No point fighting. No point struggling. Just listen. I've got something to tell you. A message, as it were, you can pass on to my sister and the rest of 'em."

        The message ? warning, heads up, whatever ? was whispered into her ear, his tight grip on her never relenting for a second. And then, all of a sudden, she was free, gasping for breath and clutching at the worktop beside her for support. Ed was laughing again, over by the door all of a sudden and regarding her with something like regret.

        "Should have done this months ago. So much fun. I could have killed you tonight. And half those people you've got enjoying your fine food out there ? you remember that." And with that parting shot, he was gone.

        It took a few minutes for Emma to calm down enough to gingerly approach the door and peer out into the hallway. No sign of him. No screams from the caf?, either, so he obviously hadn't gone wreaking any mayhem out there. Her hands were shaking, and her breath coming in shallow, rapid gasps still. He could have killed her. She'd been all alone and he could have killed her?.

        And then she remembered what he'd told her, and dived for the telephone.


        "This place is a dive," Charlie grumbled as Mat returned with fresh drinks to the secluded corner they'd holed up in. "It's a flea pit. Why did we come here again?"

        "Shanei likes it," Mat mildly reminded her, lounging casually against the wall, and they both turned to look across the dance floor to where Mike and Shanei were slow dancing together as if all the breaking up and making up and breaking up again had never happened.

        Charlie watched them for a moment, practically eating each other alive right there on the dance floor, and thought about some of the bitter, blazing rows she'd been witness to over the past few months. "I don't understand them."

        "Best not to try." Mat grinned. "Spectator sport only."

        And then all hell broke loose.


        "Was he sure?" David demanded as he, Oz and Elli came charging back into the Monico following Emma's frantic call to his cellphone. "It isn't just another one of his games?"

        "I don't know." Emma had been all but climbing the walls with anxiety, waiting for them to get back. "He sounded sure. Why would he lie?"

        "Why wouldn't he lie?" Elli lifted an eyebrow. "But then again, why would he give us the heads up about them in the first place? He wants us to do his dirty work, he already told us that."

        "Chances are it's true then," Oz quietly concluded. "Which kinda leaves us with a big problem."

        "Yeah," David agreed, a note of bitter frustration in his voice. "A problem of the what-the-hell-do-we-do-now variety."

        "We tool up," said Elli, very firmly. "And then we do what we can. Yes?"


        Big new vampire gang in town. Ancient. Organised. And here. Here to party, vampire style. Bloody hell.

        Keeping low, Charlie clutched tightly at Mat's hand as they dashed from one point of partial cover to the next, trying to get to Mike and Shanei, somewhere over on the other side of what had become a churning frenzy of terrified humans desperate to escape and partying vampires enjoying a spot of random carnage to celebrate a night on the town.

        No weapons. Damn. This was meant to be a night out, not a night on the vampire-hunting job. She should have known better, but who could have predicted this? She was trying to fling a few away from their intended victims, away from herself and Mat?but there were so many of them, and it was dark and confusing, people everywhere, screaming and running, and she was also trying very hard not to draw any vampiric attention in their direction.

        Another patch of open ground successfully covered, they dropped behind an overturned table to draw breath.

        "Plan," Mat was muttering, dark eyes gleaming with fury at what was happening here. "We need a plan."

        "We get to Mike and Shanei," Charlie reminded him in a low voice. "That's the plan. We join forces and regroup, and then ?"

        The table providing them with temporary cover was flung aside as a large, burly vampire lunged at them, grinning nastily. "Gotcha," he snarled, but a second later the smile was wiped from his face as Charlie lashed out in her own unique style, knocking him to the ground without so much as a finger raised. Without hesitating for a second, Mat grabbed a piece of broken table leg nearby and slammed it down into the vampire's chest, dusting it with immense efficiency.

        Even in the midst of all this chaos and bloodshed, Charlie felt a warm surge of pride that he'd got so good at this so quickly, fast followed by concern that none of the other vampires noticed what they'd done. They couldn't fight them all, just the two of them, weaponless. Mat grabbed her hand, and they started to run again.


        Siege at a nightclub?it pretty much had a horribly familiar ring to it. The kind of ring that sent the mind hurtling back to what Oz now remembered as more innocent days, when somehow the world had felt like a kinder, simpler place.

        And then he remembered the sheer, paralysing horror of seeing Willow's vampire counterpart, and wondered how he could think of that as kinder, simpler and more innocent, and yet somehow it still felt that way. They'd been happier days, generally speaking ? that much was certain. Back then he'd had love, freedom, a cage for the wolf each month meaning no worries about self-control?no responsibilities, no guilt?.

        "Fusion's the dingy hole with the upper level that isn't used, isn't it?" said Elli, as they grimly ? and rapidly ? gathered weapons, whatever they could carry. "If we could get in up there without them noticing?"

        "Aim would have to be good." Oz picked up a bow and handful of arrows, and tried to remember when was the last time he'd got in any target practice. Back at graduation, he'd hit every vamp he aimed for and not hit any civilians, but that had been then, and this was now, and the stakes were pretty high here. If Ed was telling the truth. He guessed they'd find out for sure when they got there.

        So much that could go wrong, and so many lives at stake. And the wolf wasn't under control, not fully. The loss-of-temper incident with Leon had proved that, and Oz could feel it stirring within him again now, reacting to the surge of adrenaline pumping through his veins.

        There wasn't time to worry about not being up to the job. All he ? all they ? could do was plunge on in and hope for the best. Lives were at stake, and that meant failure just wasn't an option.

        But knowing that didn't make the fear go away.


        "Think maybe they're on drugs or something?" Shanei's voice was shrill with panic. "Who the hell does this? Why aren't the police here already?"

        Shanei thought the invaders holding them hostage ? killing indiscriminately, playing with them ? were human. Charlie found herself wondering whether she'd be any better off knowing the truth. They'd tried to fight their way toward an exit, only to end up corralled in this corner taking advantage of what little cover they could find while the vampires had themselves a field day. There was just nothing they could do to prevent major loss of life. They were trying, but even telekinesis could only get you so far when you were surrounded and weaponless, but for odd bits and pieces of broken furniture lying around the place, with civilians everywhere. That the four of them were still more or less in one piece so far was about as much of a miracle as they could reasonably expect, and how much longer that would last was anyone's guess, the way things were going.

        "Police won't be able to do much," Charlie muttered, frowning with concentration as she flipped another vampire away from Mat, who'd dashed from behind their cover to haul a vamp off a young girl nearby. Because?they had to try, even if it got them killed. They were trying hard not to get themselves killed. They couldn't save everyone.

        Shanei apparently hadn't noticed what Charlie was doing, or at least that she was the one doing it. Just like she didn't seem to be registering the vampires that were drinking from their victims. Blind with panic, or just blind with denial?

        Then Mike ducked out of cover to drive a bit of wood he'd found into the heart of the vampire Mat was tussling with. It dusted very satisfactorily, and there was no amount of denial that could stop that registering with his sometime girlfriend. Shanei gasped, her eyes going very wide and round. "No way did that just happen!"

        This wasn't the time or place for vampires-are-real explanations. Shanei was just going to have to make of it what she could. Charlie scanned the room desperately, eyes frantically seeking any opening, anywhere. There were none. There was no way to get to any of the exits, people were dying? it really, really looked like they weren't going to get out of this one, and the panic she'd been trying so hard to bite down on was bubbling up inside, threatening to boil over.

        And then all hell broke loose. Again. But?in a very different way than anyone was expecting, least of all the vampires.


        Sensory overload. There was no time to think. There was only action, and reaction, and a large part of that reaction was coming from a very dark place deep within, and it was powerful and it was overwhelming, and so very close to complete release.

        Skin prickling. Blood boiling. Wolf howling. Using it. Controlling it. Exhausting. So close. Too close.

        Don't let it out. Not here. Not now. At the back of his mind, amid the chaos all around, Oz hung onto that thought for grim death, fighting for so many more lives than just his own.


        There was a lot of noise and smoke and confusion. There was fire and there was shouting and there was dust. Lots of dust.

        And then the surviving vampires sounded a retreat, and suddenly it was over.


        "Did you see us? Man, we were awesome!"

        David was going to be riding this high for a long time to come, from the looks of things. Deservedly so, it had to be said. As victories against overwhelming odds went, it had been pretty impressive.

        They'd got there way too late to prevent the siege happening, arriving to a scene of chaos and carnage with a plan that amounted to little more than the element of surprise and whatever weapons they could carry, mingled with hoping desperately for the best and trying hard not to get themselves or any other humans killed. How had that worked? Against what they'd been expecting? Against what they'd encountered?

        "I thought we were done for, man," said Mat, battered and bruised but in one piece, collapsing onto the nearest chair with Charlie dropping on top of him. "Totally done for."

        "More than done for," Charlie agreed, shuddering.

        "And then you all did that thing with the ?"

        "And then there was ?"

        "And whose idea were the flaming arrows?"

        "Oz," Emma beamed.

        Not his idea originally, he'd borrowed it from Buffy, Oz wanted to point out. But where just about everyone else seemed completely wired post-battle, exhilaration and adrenaline running wild, he just felt drained. It had been pretty intense, touch-and-go for more than a few moments there: fire and heat, and danger and noise, with the wolf rampaging within him, reacting to the scent of fear and of blood, feeding off the adrenaline pumping through his veins. His dread of changing and making things worse had been greater than his fear of the situation they were in, so soon after what had happened with Mary MacBride and the demon Ravyon, not yet fully recovered as he was. Too soon, he wasn't ready.

        And that was a sobering thought in itself. There were so few of them, to fight against odds like tonight. And sure, he'd fought hard and fought well, better than he'd expected in the circumstances, but he'd also had moments where self-doubt had threatened to overwhelm him as the wolf howled deep within and scrabbled for release and he was no longer sure which of them was calling the shots. He'd hung on, but it had been close, and in a crisis situation that kind of thing could mean the difference between life and death for more than just him. He couldn't afford to go there again, none of them could.

        He was just so tired of fighting with himself, within himself.

        "So you all knew? All this time, you all knew?" Shanei, clinging tightly to Mike, her eyes wide and dark and desperate, seemed pretty much overwhelmed by the horrors her night out had turned into, and she honestly couldn't be blamed for that. Having finally rediscovered her tongue, she pushed away from Mike and let loose a furious diatribe about how they'd all known, all this time, and kept her in the dark ? all those times weirdness was happening, it actually was weirdness, and she'd never guessed, and hey, weren't they supposed to be friends, and?.

        It took a while to shut her up and calm her down, and by then the euphoria of having survived was starting to wear off and present its bill, for all concerned.

        It was Mike who remarked that 'that kid, Leon' would be pissed he wasn't around for the action. Oz was deeply relieved that he hadn't been, but had to concede the point that Leon wouldn't be so happy about missing out. He was spoiling for a fight, and sooner or later was likely to find one. It was a troubling thought, especially now, knowing what they were up against.

        The surviving vampires had decided to cut their loses and run for it, in the end, and Oz honestly wasn't sure if that was a good or bad thing. If their presence as a small but determined anti-vampire force in the city had been noted, just how much interest from this large and attention-seeking new vampire group could they survive? They were so few, without so much as a single super-power between them. And if he couldn't get that inner wolf of his back on a firm leash, they wouldn't just be a man down, they'd be facing danger from within their own ranks. Even if no one was acknowledging that out loud, they had to be thinking it. How could they not, after everything that had happened? If he wasn't sure he trusted himself any more, how could he expect anyone else to?

        He just knew that he couldn't go back to the cage. And he knew he didn't want to let anyone down, least of all himself.

        "It was too easy." Elli spoke up for the first time since they'd arrived home, looking both thoughtful and anxious, and the celebratory mood deflated as reality started to sink back in.

        "You call that easy?" David protested.

        "It was," Elli insisted. "Compared to what it could have been. Should have been. Those weren't the vampires we've been hearing about. Not the leaders, anyway. They weren't organised. They were?a rabble."

        "So what was it all about, then?" Emma wondered. But there were no answers that anyone could offer, and they all headed their separate ways in sombre mood about what the future might hold for them.



        In retrospect, Ed realised, angry with himself, his mistake had been hanging around to watch the fallout, and it turned out that Shadrach and his people hadn't been quite as oblivious to him as he'd so confidently believed.

        Overpowered and hauled back to their newly established lair, Jane with him, he seethed with impotent rage. It was a nice set up they had, he noted with reluctant approval, very sweet, a lot better than his. That fact did not improve his mood any. Neither did his 'introduction' to the very beautiful, very serene and very dangerous Delilah, the true power here, he immediately realised. Shadrach was just the muscle, the right-hand man. He should have known, he told himself, and fumed a little more. He had enough sense not to be too obvious about it, though. He'd seen where that kind of attitude had got vampires before him, and had no intention of joining them in their dustiness. He was on enemy territory and outnumbered. Better to bide his time and earn their trust, all the better to escape later ? and maybe get a bit of back-stabbing in, while he was at it.

        Join them, or become dust. That was the choice. Nice. Ed did not do orders, he did not do teamwork, and he did not allow anyone to rule the roost over him. But he also didn't do dust, and they seemed to want him alive rather than dead, which he could use to his advantage ? if they considered him a potential asset then maybe ?"

        Poof! Just like that, his little playmate was gone, and he was startled out of his plotting, jaw dropping open with shock. "Hey! She was mine," he protested aloud, good intentions of playing along with these dangerous opponents momentarily forgotten.

        Lurking menacingly just a little too close for comfort, Shadrach chuckled, while Delilah smiled sweetly and drifted nearer, languidly stroking his cheek as she murmured into his ear, "What was her name?"

        Good question. What had her name been? Zoe? Chloe? Something like that. He'd never been able to remember. But she'd been his. "Jane," he said, sullen. She'd answered to that. He'd told her to.

        "Not any more." Delilah's voice was dreamy and seductive as she regarded him much like a cat studying a mouse, deciding when to pounce. "And you are now mine. Are we agreed?"

        And oh, it was ignominious and it rankled, but he had no choice but to comply. He could make nice and play along, just another of their good little soldiers, fighting the evil fight. And he could make good an escape, first chance he got. Even if it meant giving up the city and moving on to pastures new. He'd have to be careful, though. Preserving his unlife was the first priority, always.

        "Good." Delilah laughed and clapped her hands as if he'd delighted her, then gestured to a chair for him to sit, reclining alongside him and taking his hand, her smile soft and gentle and for him alone, but her grip on his hand just a shade too tight for comfort, the menace unspoken. "Good. We shall be the best of friends, I am already sure. Now tell me." She leaned closer, intimate and confiding. "About the humans."

        So that was it, the reason he was more valuable to them alive than dead. He had information and connections that could be beneficial to them. He could use that to his advantage.

        But if anyone was going to torment and kill his sister and her friends it should be him, he felt strongly about that. Not that he wanted Delilah to know. Besides, Charlie and her friends were the best chance he had of getting rid of this new crowd throwing their weight around his city. He was hardly going to fight them himself. He had to play this one carefully.

        So he offered a little information, enough to sound like cooperation, but not too much, casually mentioning that experience told him they just weren't worth the trouble of attacking directly. Too good at fighting back, and it was so much more fun to mess with their heads, watch them scurrying around in circles trying to find him, or stop him killing. Killing one or two of this lot would only energise the rest, he warned, and give them the motivation to launch some kind of reckless suicide attack that could prove dangerous even for a nest as powerful as this one.

        He almost regretted taking this line when he heard himself mentioning that part, imagining a shakedown that maybe really would remove Delilah and her crowd for good, and Charlie's little pals along with them. But that, right there, was the problem. He didn't want Charlie and her friends to go down in a blaze of glory fighting Delilah. They were his to torment and destroy, not hers.

        So, there were better ways of handling the humans, he advised: better to avoid direct confrontation and consolidate their strength. Keep them at arm's length. And Delilah seemed to be listening.


        The decision to be a bit pro-active about improving his own situation, because he was the only one who could, came easily in the end, kind of like a switch inside his head had clicked from 'depressed and despairing' over onto 'taking positive forward action'. It was time to stop being afraid of himself all over again and get back to the work he'd been putting in to regain control. Not like anyone else could do it for him. Sometimes it felt like it would be nice if they could.

        Elli was in her studio working on what looked like it had once been half a tree and was now in the process of becoming something else entirely when Oz went over. But she stopped work when he showed up, fixed them both a drink and gave him her full attention, saying very little, making no comment on how quiet he was, and not asking any questions about why he was there. They'd hung out a lot since?. Well. Since. Oz hadn't felt like thinking about it, even, never mind talking about it, and she was just about the only one who hadn't tried to make him. Talking was hard when it came to stuff like this, which was why he usually didn't. But he kind of had a feeling that bottling stuff up had led to bigger problems in the past, and he'd spent a lot of the past year trying hard not to repeat old mistakes.

        "I changed," he said at last. That was what stood out in his mind most about that day. That and Anouk's death. Anouk had died, and he'd hurt so much, in so many ways, and the thing that did it had been before him, and he'd changed. When changing was the one thing he never allowed himself to do, for fear of what it would lead to.

        "I noticed." Elli nodded, apparently content to let him take his own time here.

        "On purpose." He'd been trying hard not to remember that part, trying to forget the seething, boiling frenzy of emotions that drove him to it. It had been the only option. He knew that. Nothing else would have taken that creature down, not then, not after everything. And yet?surrendering all control to the beast within?it terrified him more than anything else in his life.

        Elli nodded again, somehow managing to soothe his jangling nerves simply by her reassuring calm. "I know."

        "I don't know what that means." The wolf within him was something he'd fought so hard for so long, the thing that frightened him more than any other, and yet?when the worst had come to the worst, in his rage and desperation he had turned to it for help, had chosen to unleash it, undoing the work of months and months of effort and repression and rigid control. Where that left him he had no idea, and where Mary MacBride's assault on his shapechanging energy left him he had no idea. Possibly back at square one, possibly someplace else entirely. It was the not knowing that scared him right now, when the wolf felt so close to the surface all the time.

        His wolf-equilibrium was still healing and restoring itself. Logically, he knew that, knew that how it was right now was probably not how it was likely to remain. Probably. But that slither of doubt remained, eating away at him. The bottom line was that he had no idea how long it would take before his wolf-change mechanism stopped being messed up, if indeed it ever did, and had no idea how the next full moon was likely to affect him. Would he be back to normal, having to work at not changing? Would control be harder than ever, impossible even, condemning him once more to the cage each month? Or would changing be the thing he had to reach for instead of control, regardless of how close he seemed to come whenever tension arose just lately? How long would it take to get back to normal, or at least to what had come to pass for normal? It might never happen, and he could spend his whole life waiting for it and wondering.

        "It means?that you are who you are," said Elli, slowly. "And also maybe that you aren't in the place you thought you were. I think you should go back to Jim. I don't know much about what he knows or does, but I know you thought he seemed to be helping before, so he probably could again. If that's what you think you need."

        She wasn't telling him anything he didn't already know, deep inside.

        "Yeah. Yeah, I think it is." He'd been avoiding Jim out of fear, not wanting to relive all that pain, not wanting to find out the worst. But holding it all inside was worse; every day that he tried made that clear to him. He was going to have to bite that bullet and ask for help again.

        Elli looked at him, eyes full of understanding and compassion. "I told you I'm sorry about Anouk, right?"

        "We weren't together that long." It had become his stock response for expressions of sympathy. But how long they'd been together was meaningless, ultimately ? it made no difference to how he felt about her death and the circumstances surrounding it.

        "That doesn't make it any better that she's gone," Elli softly replied.


        The bruises of last night's battle were starting to really make themselves felt as Charlie wearily headed for her dorm after a long day catching up on classes and assignments. She was tired, she was stiff, she was sore, and she failed to notice the dark figure lurking in the shadows until it was too late. He caught her by the arm and his grip was too tight to prise loose, and then he grabbed her other arm before she could reach for a weapon, pinning her against the wall.

        "You know, you're really going to have to step up your game, sis," Ed reproachfully hissed into her ear. "I thought you knew better than to let a vampire catch you off guard like that."

        Heart pounding, Charlie struggled in vain to wrench free from his grasp, which merely tightened ? until she brought a knee up hard into his crotch. He let go then, gasping and clutching at himself, and growled, vamping out. "I didn't come here to fight," he snarled, recovering in time to grab her arm again before she could get the door open and reach safety. "Again. I just want to tell you something!"

        "Tell me what?" He was unbelievable. He really was. But by now Charlie had pulled a large wooden cross from her bag, waving it in his face and forcing him to retreat a little.

        "Don't go after Shadrach's lot," he replied, uncharacteristically blunt.

        "What?" She wasn't sure what she'd been expecting, but that wasn't it.

        "There's too many of them," he went on. "And you lot are just pathetic, so just?don't."

        Charlie laughed, amazed. "Why on earth are you telling me all this." She could hear the bitterness in her own voice. "It almost sounds like you care."

        "I don't care," he immediately retorted. "I just don't want them to kill you that cheaply. How boring would that be?"

        "None of your business what we do, is what it is," Charlie told him, starting to relax very slightly as she got the door open at last and backed in over the threshold into safety. Without an invitation, he couldn't follow her inside.

        He ignored her completely to add, "You know, this town's no fun any more. I'm thinking about going back to the old country, looking up Susie and the kids ?"

        "No!" Horrified at the idea, Charlie shouted, fiercely. "You stay away from them!"

        Ed laughed at her reaction. "Now that was fun. I feel better now," he gloated, retreating into the shadows and disappearing once more, leaving Charlie alone to fret.



        • #5



          The utter tranquillity that came from working on an old car engine was something old Sheng would never understand. Zen was where and as you found it, that had always been Jim's philosophy, and it'd served him well for a lot of years now.

          A pair of feet came into view, interrupting any further musing along those lines. Jim pushed himself out from under the car and found Oz standing before him, looking uncertain. The boy had been avoiding him like the plague since recent unpleasant events, and Jim could think of any number of reasons as to why, none of them especially good, but returning was something he had to do for himself. It couldn't be forced. These things simply had to take their own course.

          "Dan," Jim greeted him evenly.

          Oz shuffled his feet and looked awkward. "Hey."

          "I was wondering how long it would take you to find your way back here."


          ? J. Browning, March 2007

          Man, this story took a long time to write.

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