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Empty Room With A Song

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Title: Empty Room With A Song
Category: Anime/Manga » Hellsing
Author: death-in-the-orchard
Published: 10-31-10

 

Chapter 1

There it was again. The song. The black and white keys pulling sound from the wires within the piano. She was there. Her song was there.

The teen's muscles flexed under his letterman's jacket, which had his last name sown into the back in large silver letters. The black wool that made up the rest of the jacket blended into the shadows the boy crouched in, as had become custom since the first time he had heard the enchanting song and arrived in time to see the black haired girl run out of the room when his presence had become known. Now he slowly stood, praying to God that his knees would not crack, and he edged towards the area the music was originating from. The school's music room was pitch black, bringing a new respect for the one playing from the boy. He swallowed as he saw that he was not going to be discovered. His eyes had become used to the darkness, and they saw the outline of a white collar and the white star on the converse the other teen was wearing. The boy who wore the name Anderson on his back, could see the head before him sway with the music, he could hear her content sigh, he could hear his own rampant heart thudding between his ears…as he stretched out his hand and hesitated, pulling his hand back a few inches, and then he extended his fingers. Quickly, he caught a hold of the shoulder, and the two gasped in unison. This he had expected, and he opened his mouth to begin his hurried apology, but what he had not expected was a strong, good sized fist swinging around and clipping him in the head, breaking the contact between the two. Stunned, Anderson clutched his head in disbelief while the figure seated at the piano jumped up and stumbled over a misplaced chair, landing on the floor with a loud thump.

"Are you alright?" Anderson called out in alarm, concern obvious in his tone, and the teen followed the direction the other had taken. But the teen on the floor scrambled out of his reach. The door was only a few strides away when Anderson's football training surfaced and, after a short sprint and a wild leap over a chair that the one he was perusing threw in his path, Anderson's hands caught the girl and pinned her against the wall. Suddenly anxious about how aggressive all of this seemed, the boy's other hand swept over the wall to find the light switch. He grunted with pain and effort when a powerful struggle began, almost causing him to abandon the light switch. But he was able to click it before bringing both of his hands to the surprisingly ungirlish shoulders and the monstrous strength the figure was showing as it pushed the six-foot-four teen away.

Then the light illuminated the room, blinding its occupants for a breathless second.

Anderson's jaw dropped in horror when very familiar red eyes were glaring at him instead of the kind and timid eyes he had expected. His mortification grew as his knowledge of the teen in front of him rose in his mind. The girl he had been longing after…was in fact a boy…a boy who was also a senior, the same age as Anderson…and was also a well known delinquent…a gangster who came to school in blood stained clothes. Vlad A. Dracula, a.k.a. the Hell Dog from the streets. And, good gracious God almighty, he had thought this thug was his mysterious crush…the silent, phantom girl who played beautifully haunting music just after the sun set…

Anderson jolted back into reality when a pale fist formed in his vision and then, a split second later, struck him in the face, knocking him to the floor. He sat there, dazed into a stupor as the other boy approached. Vlad's arm extended and he caught one of the chairs, dragging it behind himself as he did not slow his steps. The chair left the ground, rising above Vlad's head as he towered over the felled teen, red eyes flaring with murderous intent. Green eyes turned upward at the image of death and Anderson's eyes sparked. The chair descended with a roar from the black haired boy.

There was a choking gasp as Anderson lunged forward, head-butting Vlad in the stomach. The chair grazed the football player's back before it clattered harmlessly to the floor, Vlad Dracula gagging and crashing to the tile with the much larger boy falling on top of him. The two wrestled on the ground without a different result. Anderson had the upper hand in size and in his position. But Vlad continued to thrash under the boy, hissing in frustration as this failed to deter Anderson who brought a heavy knee to the boy's back when Vlad managed to flip onto his stomach. Leaning to apply pressure, he heard the boy's back crackle a few times.

Coughing with a reddening face, Vlad resorted to cussing at the other teen, gasping out the words as breathing became increasingly more difficult.

"Get off! Fuckin' bastard! Get off of me! You're Goddamn heavy!"

A palm forced Vlad's face into the floor while Anderson scowled, disgusted by the boy.

"How dare you take the Lord's name in vain? A runt like you…!" Anderson was cut off as a renewed bout of thrashing commenced.

"BASTARD! GET OFF OF ME!"

Anderson grabbed the other boy's shoulders and shook him until he was quiet, yelling at him as Vlad's head lolled. "A girly little runt! How dare you! You ignorant piece of heathen trash!"

"And…and what harm…was…I…!" Anderson realized Vlad was speaking so he stopped shaking him. Alarm widened the green eyes as he realized the boy was wheezing disturbingly, and Anderson eased up the amount of weight he was leaning on Vlad. "What harm….came from my playing the fuckin' piano?" he panted, squirming a little. "Fuckin' ass hole!"

There was quiet, with the exception of Vlad's panting and his snarls. Anderson's mind was blank as he stared down at the teen, remembering the song he had fallen in love with…and the girl. His eyes ran over the lengthy black hair covering most of the boy's face. Then they moved to his clothes and he realized how thin and boney the boy was. His black sweatshirt was torn and smudged with dirt and the white collar had marks of blood spatter on the back of it.

"So…" he began quietly while Vlad continued to squirm uncomfortably. "…you really are the one who has been in here."

Vlad paused and then sneered at the floor. "Dumbass. Who else? You've been watching me and now you've caught me…I know your kind. You'll spread this around to anyone who's willing to listen, that 'Hell Dog Vlad does this or that.'" He growled as he continued. "Worthless bastards, all of you. You have nothing more fulfilling in your lives other than finding ways to ruin the lives of those living outside the laws of society, eh? Now…get off of me! Fat ass!"

"I'm not fat!" Anderson spat back but then he was quiet, mulling over what this all meant. Guilt began to bite at him. "I didn't come here to expose you…I came here because…just to find out who was playing the music…"

"Bullshit! It was you! You came here two nights ago! It was you, wasn't it? Don't lie!"

"I'm not!" Anderson scowled with a huff of annoyance. "I came here to see who was playing the piano!"

"Liar! You knew! Bastard! YOU KNEW!"

"NO! I thought it was a girl playing! Not you! If I knew it was you, I wouldn't have even bothered coming back!"

"Dumbass! I'm not a girl!"

"I know that." The blonde boy sighed and his attention returned to the other boy's clothes. His nose crinkled a little. "You're filthy."

Vlad flinched and hissed back. "Go fuck yourself, rich boy! And….GET OFF OF ME!"

Anderson pressed more of his weight on the boy when he struggled, chuckling with a smug grin when the delinquent yowled in outrage. "You really are dirty…" he stared at the clothes and moved his knee as he felt the prominent ribs beneath them. "…and scrawny."

"Shut up and get off! Faggot!"

"You shut up."

"I would if you would get your heavy carcass off of me! How much do you rich boys eat? Damn it!"

Grumbling to himself, Anderson lessened the weight but refused to free the boy entirely, earning a few extra curses. "Stop cussing. It's crude and…"

"Shove it rich boy."

The weight returned until Vlad gasped in pain, then Anderson reduced it. "Why don't I wash out your mouth with a bar of soup and you can take the rest home with you and do something about these clothes. There's holes in them too."

"Shut up!"

"And your hair…it needs to be brushed…"

"Shut it!"

Anderson smiled as he knew he was pushing down the delinquent's pride, and he laughed. "Go back to the streets, it's where you belong anyway. From the looks…and smell of you, you probably live in a gutter…eh? Hell Dog?"

"I'LL FUCKING MURDER YOU WHEN YOUR FUCKING FAT ASS STOPS CRUSHING ME!" The boy shrieked, kicking at the nearby chair, sending it flying. Anderson wrapped his arms around the struggling creature, shocked by his increased strength, but easily overcoming it. "WHAT RIGHT DO YOU HAVE TO DO ANYTHING? SO WHAT IF I SNUCK IN HERE? ARE YOU GOING TO REPORT ME FOR TRESSPASSING AFTER SCHOOL HOURS? BIG, FUCKING, RICH-BOY, JOCK! SOME DAY I'M GOING TO KILL ALL OF YOU BASTARDS! I WILL! I SWEAR I'LL GET YOU ALL!"

Frightened by the wild behavior and the death threats, without thinking, Anderson grabbed the boy's hair and shoved his head into the floor, once, and then a second time as he cursed. But Anderson's blood ran cold when the body suddenly went limp.

Within the quiet, the haunting music rose in Anderson's mind. His hands released the black locks and he got off of Vlad, sitting to the side of the boy. Nudging the body didn't produce any result other than a pained groan, and as time passed, Anderson's eyes ran over the dirt smudged clothes and the marks of blood, recalling the nameless music and the girl he had once believed to be the one playing it. "Are you still planning on killing me?"

"Shove it." Vlad retorted weakly and he cringed at the pain in his head. "Damn you."

Anderson was quiet, looking at the teen before him. "What's the name of that song?"

The boy didn't respond for a moment as he tried to sit up but decided to remain laying flat on the ground for a while longer. "What are you going on about now?"

Anderson frowned, but pressed on. "What is the name of the song you played on the piano? The one you were playing before I stopped you?"

Vlad mumbled something incoherent, making Anderson growl and repeat himself again. "Doesn't have one. It's not even a song…I just came up with it..."

Anderson's eyes widened in disbelief, then they narrowed. The boy had to be lying. The song was so…beautiful…he couldn't have come up with it. He couldn't have…it desecrated the song…this boy. Anderson scowled with his glare, but Vlad didn't hear it as he focused on his pounding head with his eyes closed. Something like a whimper began in his throat, but he swallowed it instantly, gagging on bile that replaced it.

"Ow, fuck." His hand touched his head gingerly as he maneuvered to his side, curling up slightly. "Shit, rich-boy, what did you fuckin' do? Give me a concussion? You foot-ball bast…"

"I'm not rich…but…" Anderson tried not to feel sorry for the miserable boy and he swallowed. "…how did you know I'm on the football team?"

"Everyone knows you, Anderson. And it doesn't hurt that your name's on the front and the back of your jacket. Bet…" he coughed and then sneered unpleasantly. "…bet you're as famous as I am here."

"Red eyes are prominent features…" Anderson muttered back. Vlad quieted at this and his body relaxed on the tile for a few moments, then he sat up slowly, making Anderson uneasy.

"What time is it?"

Anderson didn't answer, not expecting such a casual question, and stared dumbly at Vlad until the boy scowled at him. "You have a watch, I can see it on your wrist."

Anderson looked at the time and told the other boy that it was approaching seven o'clock. There was a sharp curse that made Anderson flinch, while Vlad stood, glancing at the window angrily. "Now I'm late, dumbass. This is just great. Freakin' perfect."

"What? What're you late for?" Anderson followed the boy who was striding to the door. He received a daggered glare and stopped.

"I'm going to miss something important, thanks to you, bastard." Then Vlad was gone, and as minutes passed, Anderson turned off the lights and went home.

"Bastard."

Many students turned around in their seats to stare and gape at the delinquent who was hovering over Alexander Anderson who wore the same expression as he looked up at the infuriated face. "You owe me 500 dollars, rich-boy."

"What?" Anderson blurted out along with half the class. Instantly a buzz of whispers filled the room.

'Drugs?' 'Alex? No way man, never. He's quarterback.' 'Isn't that Hell…?' 'Shh! He'll kill you! I hear he brings knives to school. He's crazy.'

"Shut up."

The room fell into silence under the crimson gaze and many returned to getting out their supplies for their art class. Six students sat on stools around Anderson's table, but half of these students got up and left when Vlad shoved a boy sitting next to Anderson, demanding that he find a new seat. Anderson just stared with wide, lifeless eyes as the delinquent settled next to him. He swallowed his nervousness, trying to coax some aggression into his voice. "I don't owe you anything, runt. This isn't your class anyway…what are you doing here?"

"Actually, I attend this class as well, dumbass. I usually sit at the table over there." A finger indicated an empty table in the corner of the room, darkened by shadows. "And you owe me for hospital bills. Your fat ass gave me a concussion."

"Oh." Anderson looked around as a few people started to whisper again, then he realized the extra comment and hissed back. "I'm not fat, you're freakishly thin. When was the last time you ate a descent meal? Or a meal at all?"

"Shut up. You owe me 500 dollars. I'm not going to be able to eat for a while if you don't pay me, you ass. I'm sure you can spare a few bucks, fatty."

"I'm not fat! And even if I really did give you a concussion…" The rest of the students at the table left. "…it wouldn't cost 500 dollars. The doctor would just tell you to rest, they don't push up the bill with costs for bandages or medication unless you got some pain pills…and they don't try to rip off people who look like they live off the streets."

"Shut up, God damn it. You will pay for the expenses. I didn't come to you looking for a fight, you came to me, so you have to pay for…"

"I did not come to you looking for a fight!"

"Then why the hell did you…?"

"It was the piano…"

There was a feral hiss that drowned out the rest of the noise in the room. When the teacher entered, she hesitated at the door from her back office, intimidated by the graveyard silence. Her eyes traveled about the room, finding it unbalanced…one of the tables that was usually full was practically empty. Her eyes widened as they recognized the two unlikely occupants, and she slowly turned to the board to write down the schedule for the day. She couldn't move the boys as she had allowed the students to pick their own seats and changing that now would only hint to discrimination, so she held her tongue.

The little Freshmen girls timidly shuffled out of the two boys' way when they begrudgingly went to the side of the room to pick up the assignment they were supposed to finish in class. They were transitional pencil drawings, in which one image was drawn morphing into another as its shape twisted and changed in pictures separating it from the final image it would turn into. In five panels, for example, a tree would be drawn warping into the form of a woman, and the perfect form of a woman would be drawn in the last panel. Vlad dithered for a moment, glaring at his picture and then Anderson's back as the football quarterback returned to his empty table. With a sigh, dark locks covered the teen's features as he snatched up his picture along with a sharpened pencil and a chunk of eraser from a tin can in the middle of the table by the stack of artwork.

Anderson glanced absently at the paper that lowered beside him, but his eyes froze on the almost finished artwork and his lips parted. There was a hideous ogre with knurled, twisting wooden horns and in the following panels it warped into the form of a magnificent black dragon that had graphite blood coloring its pointed fangs. His shoulders shivered slightly and his eyes traced up to the crimson pair that was glaring at him.

"Not a word, rich-boy, or I'll kick that stool out from under you…and then you'll have a headache like mine."

"It's good."

"Stuff it."

"But it is." Anderson's glasses glinted in the light, catching Vlad's attention and he eyed them with little interest.

"You were wearing contacts yesterday."

Flinching, Anderson's pencil was posed just above his paper and he moved it to the side before he answered. "I had practice yesterday."

"Hm." Red eyes fell to the other boy's paper and they dulled for a moment. A pale hand raised and a finger pointed at the art. "And what the hell is that supposed to be? It looks like a freakin' dung beetle."

Anderson inhaled sharply and frowned at the teen, gritting his teeth as he stubbornly resumed his work. "It is a beetle…it's a ladybug."

Vlad stared at Anderson blankly as the other ignored him, but he stabbed his paper when a sudden muffled laugh erupted from the dark haired boy's arm where his face was hidden. Several other eyes moved from their papers to observe the strange phenomenon. Hell Dog didn't laugh often when the object of humor didn't involve blood and some form of violence. But now he laughed at the quarterback's ladybug and the teacher came to investigate.

"What's going on?" she said pointedly to Vlad but was ignored. She gave the same question to Anderson and received a grumble.

"He thinks my art sucks." The teen debated on whether he should hit the other boy or scribble on his beetle, but he did neither when the art teacher clasped his shoulder and gave him some reassuring praise.

"It's a great piece of work. You can tell you put a lot of effort into it."

A snort from the arm ruined the reassurance and both Anderson and the teacher glared at Vlad who was still hiding his face in his arm, slouched over his own picture. Anderson's eyes glinted at the paper and he quickly grabbed it and drew it out from under the arm, also drawing a gasp from Vlad who shot up and tried to claim the paper from Anderson's hands. But Anderson immediately gave it to the teacher who stepped back out of Vlad's reach. She straightened the paper and stared down at it until she realized Vlad had gotten up and was now standing behind her, an aura of evil looming over her. The woman set her jaw and tightened her grip on the paper as a pale hand tugged on it.

"Is this why you never turn in your work?" There was a hard tug on the paper as more students turned to watch what was happening. People started talking about the paper. "Are you embarrassed?"

There were several gasps as the paper tore, but the loudest came from Anderson and the teacher. From her lifeless hands, Vlad snatched back the remaining pieces of paper and tore them apart. He stalked to the trash can by the door and threw the shredded paper into it before leaving the room.

There was murmuring in the room as the shaken teacher walked over to the trash can, followed by a large part of the class, but she left the pieces inside, seeing that fixing the drawing was nearly impossible. She sighed with disappointment and went back to Anderson who was staring at the table with dimmed eyes.

"He's a troubled kid. Don't blame yourself, okay? Alex?"

Anderson nodded his head as the teacher went around the room, quieting the other students. His eyes slowly moved back to the trashcan and then to his own paper. The music from the night before and the art piece moved through his mind as his ears rung with the muffled laughter. Blinking, he stood up quietly and moved to the trashcan and set to removing the individual slips of torn paper. He ignored the eyes that stared at him, and brushed off the teacher's hand when she tried to stop him. In the end, he was allowed to do as he wished and he soon brought the pile of paper to his table. He got up and retrieved an identical piece of paper and set to work, piecing together the difficult puzzle Vlad's outburst had left behind. The teacher came by and, without a word, left a stick of glue by his arm and told him that he could finish his own art piece another day if he needed more time. Anderson only nodded and uncapped the glue stick.

Vlad was staring at the diamond holes in the lunch table that let him see his scuffed converse. He frowned at the obvious holes in the shoes, covering one up with the other shoe as he tried to see what they had looked like when they had been new, but the sudden appearance of a plastic wrapped sandwich blocked his view, erasing his frown and replacing it with a look of surprise. The teens that had been talking loudly around him stopped and stared at the intruder and then the sandwich, then Vlad who lifted his head to gaze up at Anderson, perplexed.

"What's this for?"

Anderson waited for a moment, looking at the scarlet eyes as they failed to waver or turn away. "Generally it's for eating."

"Shut up." Vlad snapped back and he glared at the sandwich with a scowl.

"Look," Anderson fixed his glasses and sat down in the empty spot next to the boy. Vlad shot him a look of warning but he ignored it. "…I'm sorry about what happened in class."

"Shut up, fat ass. Take your fat food and leave me alone." He pushed the sandwich in front of Anderson and mumbled to himself. "Go draw lady bugs or whatever the hell it was you were trying to draw."

"It was a lady bug."

"No shit… That's what I said."

A small group had gathered around the two teens and Anderson glanced at them warily. All of them seemed to be rather intimidating delinquents. "Now go, rich-boy, before you lose your sandwich and your wallet."

Anderson stood up and stared down the individuals in the group, making them back up a few steps and break their forming ring. Vlad's eyes went to Anderson's cold expression before it faded away and the jock pushed the sandwich in front of the pale teen.

"I don't think I have to worry about that."

Vlad didn't respond as Anderson walked away, but a few of the boys around him hissed in outrage and Vlad's attention turned to them. They demanded that he teach Anderson not to look down on their group. Vlad shook his head. When one called him a wuss, he snarled at them, making them stumble and trip over their own feet, falling on the ground.

"You have to do something." One of the teens went to Vlad's side, but the crimson eyes remained on the table. "Fine." The voice said. "I'll do it." Before Vlad could react, the sandwich was in the boy's fist and it was soon hurled at Anderson's head. Vlad stared at Anderson as he stopped in the middle of the quad, rubbing his head. He just picked up the sandwich and tossed it into a trashcan before continuing on his way.

When the boy who had thrown the sandwich smiled, he lost a front tooth as Vlad's fist soon bloodied the smile. Writhing on the floor, clutching his mouth, the boy howled in pain while his companions backed away in fear as the Hell Dog stood over his victim. "I was going to eat that, idiot."

"You…you're gonna get it, you know." One of the boys managed to squeak, earning a glare. "You can't act like this and skip out on fights too. Alucard…"

"You're not allowed to use that name." Vlad hissed, and then scowled, repulsed by the cowardly shiver that ran through the teen that had been speaking. "I'm leaving. You all can go to fuckin' hell for all I care…useless bastards." The other boys were left in dumb silence as he walked away, disappearing into the crowded quad as the bell for the end of lunch and the passing period rang out above them.

Stopped in a line backed up behind a stop sign, Anderson gazed out the front window as his windshield wipers beat at the glass. His elbow rested on the armrest separating the passenger and driver seats, and his hand was cupping his cheek. Something suddenly rapped at his window and he started, sitting up and turning his head to the glass. Vlad moved his hand, telling the teen to lower the window. When Anderson complied, Vlad leaned through the window and glanced around the car interior before looking at the expectant green eyes. "I need at least half of the money by Friday."

Anderson stared for a moment. "What?" His mind went back to this morning and he frowned. "A concussion doesn't cost…"

A black sleeve went through the window, dripping water on the leather seat. A few fingers wriggled out from the sleeve, revealing the bandages. Anderson was quiet. "You didn't give me more than a headache…I already told you I missed something important because of our…confrontation." He hesitated and shook his arm so that the sleeve covered his hand again. "You know what type of…extra curricular activities I'm in…"

"Oh." Anderson breathed, dread beginning to weigh on him. But this was interrupted as a few horns honked behind them. Vlad looked through the back window and then returned his eyes to Anderson.

"I didn't throw the sandwich."

"Yeah…it's…okay." Anderson managed as Vlad began to withdraw from the window. Biting his lip, the sound of the crashing rain returned to his ears and his hand shot out, catching the other boy's sweatshirt, surprising him. "I'll give you a ride. It's pouring out there."

"What?" Vlad looked around, eyes darting to the honking cars. "No. Let me go!"

"Get in the car, runt. You're soaking wet."

"Shut up, fat ass! Let me go!"

The chorus of horns grew and finally the boy caved. "Fine! I'll get in! Let me open the door, or do you want me to climb through the window?"

Anderson ignored the biting sarcasm and he narrowed his eyes. "You're just going to run."

"I won't run. Damn it. Let me go! Can't you hear that?"

Anderson let go of the sweatshirt. Soon the car door opened and Vlad squelched into the seat and shut it with a hiss as the window closed beside him. "Now go, fat ass. We have the whole school backed up behind us by now."

Anderson drove to the stop sign, stopped, as was according with the law, and then continued down the road. Quiet resumed with the absence of the honking horns and Anderson looked at the fuming teen. "Where should I drive?"

"To the corner, pull over and let me out."

"No. I'm taking you home."

"You sure as hell are not, fatty. You're letting me out of this damn car. Your leather seats are covered in water now."

"I'm not fat. Haven't you ever heard of muscle? Or even food? I swear, when was the last time you bathed or ate?"

"Shut it, porky rich-bastard."

"Fine." Anderson passed the corner, making Vlad snarl at him. "I'll take you to my house then."

"Are you kidnapping me? Feakin' ladybug drawing creep!"

Anderson couldn't help but smile at this and he nodded. "Sure. I'm going to do all sorts of terrible things to you too, like feed you and make you take a shower."

"I'll kill you one of these days, Anderson."

"But then you'd never get the money."

Vlad grumbled to himself while Anderson lost his humor. "What happened to your hand anyway? And those bandages don't look like they came from a hospital. What are you trying to get at by demanding I pay for imaginary hospital bills?"

"Dislocated a few fingers…" Anderson jolted. "…I can't work for a few days and I'm going to miss other meetings now because of it. You can just pay half of the money…I said 500 because I figured you'd refuse and demand to pay a lower price."

Disturbed, Anderson didn't respond. Finally he looked at Vlad who was staring out the window. There was still blood on his collar… "Fine." Anderson faced straight ahead when Vlad looked at him. "I'll pay 250…but I really can't afford 500, you know? That's a lot of money all at once…"

"250 is more than I was hoping for."

The two didn't speak as they went through two green lights and were stopped by a red. "Are you really taking me to your house?"

"Mhm, yeah." Anderson pushed down on the pedal when the light turned green. "Unless you tell me where you live."

Vlad was quiet. "Your family's not going to appreciate this."

"It's just me, my mom, and my sister when she comes back on the weekends from college. If you find any clothes or stuff in here, it's hers. She stuffs her clothes into garbage bags to bring them home to wash them in our washing machine." Anderson paused and looked at Vlad's clothes before returning his eyes to the road. "We can wash your clothes too…since they got all wet in the rain." He added the last part when Vlad growled. Then the boys were quiet until they pulled up to a gate that opened for them, revealing a long, winding drive way, surrounded by trees. Vlad looked around in awe, then peeked at Anderson.

"You really are rich."

"Not really."

"Damn fat rich-boy."

"I'm not fat."

Vlad returned to watching the passing trees. "Where's your dad?"

"He's on a business trip…be back in a few weeks."

"I won't scare your mom?"

"No. My mom's pretty nice to everyone…but she's a bit strict. That's why you'll have to shower and borrow some clothes before she comes home."

"She works too?"

"Yeah, though we don't need the money. She just likes her job."

They pulled into the garaged, passing a fountain that sat on an island before the front door. The two entered the house through a door in the garage and Anderson immediately shoed Vlad upstairs to use one of the showers, showing him where the towels were. While the boy was enjoying the warm water, Anderson slipped into the bathroom and put some jeans and a clean shirt on the counter by the white, marble sink and then ducked out of the room and headed for the kitchen to heat up some Campbell's Chunky soup. He grimaced after pouring the container into a larger bowl and covering it in the microwave. Vlad was going to enjoy calling him a fat football player after this. The Campbell's Chunky commercial had damned his soul. He groaned but set to making his own bowl of soup, having wasted his lunch searching for Vlad.

Meanwhile, Vlad was smelling the bottles of shampoo and conditioner, choosing to use the ones that had the best scent. It had been ages since he'd taken a real shower, resorting to washing his hair in the sink with a bar of soap. This was paradise for his grimy skin, so a smile played at his lips without his permission. He thought of the piano and looked down at his swollen hand, losing his smile. He turned off the water and opened the curtain, grabbing the green towel from the towel rack and drying himself off. After scowling at how big the clothes were, rolling up the jeans a few times to make them fit, he glanced at the mirror and paused. He touched his wet hair thoughtfully, amazed at how sleek and smooth it was…he could run his fingers all the way through it. He shook his head and hung up his towel before opening the door.

Vlad entered the kitchen and smiled smugly when he saw Anderson sitting with a spoon in his mouth, looking at him in surprise. He swallowed and asked the boy how he had found the kitchen.

"I have a nose."

"Oh." Anderson put the spoon in his soup and gestured towards Vlad's share.

"Why are you eating?"

"Because my lunch was spent on finding you…and I had to wait in line to buy your food."

"Why didn't you buy your own food when you bought the sandwich?" Vlad sat down and spooned some soup into his mouth while Anderson ate his with a frown. "Where're my clothes, kidnapper?"

"Oh!" Anderson's eyes flew wide and he put his spoon down to fix his glasses which had slipped. "I forgot to put them in the wash, I'll be right back."

The dark haired teen smirked to himself when the other dashed out of the room, beginning to eat his soup again. Suddenly someone grabbed the back of his head and he choked on the soup as his face crashed into the granite counter, barely missing his bowl of soup. A hand grabbed his bandages. Red eyes flew opened and a broken cry alerted Anderson who ran from the laundry room back to the kitchen and watched in horror as his mother cuffed Vlad's wrists together while the teen coughed and struggled to breath.

"Oh shut up." The woman hit Vlad on the back, clearing his throat. Swallowing, the boy coughed again and took a shaky breath, panting as his head moved, trying to see who had attacked him, instead he found Anderson in the doorway.

"Mom! What are you doing?"

"Mom?" Vlad spat out the spoon and waited for the woman to release him, cringing as his hand throbbed. "That was dangerous, I had a spoon in my mouth and I almost choked…"

The hand let go of him and he was able to sit up and face the woman. His mouth formed an 'o' as his eyes filled with dread. "Anderson…you didn't tell me you mom was the chief of police…the Integra Anderson."

"I…didn't think…it'd matter." Anderson said quietly, still in shock. Vlad moved his arms and frowned at how uncomfortable the cuffs were. Integra looked at her son in surprise at the familiarity the two had with one another.

"You know this delinquent?" She frowned when Anderson nodded. "Why is he in our house?"

"I was giving him something to eat and…" Anderson began, but Vlad cut him off.

"He kidnapped me because I wouldn't tell him where I lived. Making me eat soup was part of his plan for torturing me. I haven't done anything illegal, so…can I go now?"

"No." Integra moved around the stool Vlad was perched on, her eyes full of hate. Vlad accepted the look without batting an eye. "What is your real name? Hell Dog? Alucard? Those are fakes, right?"

Anderson edged into the room and he surprised his mother by standing next to the black haired boy. "His name is Vlad, but why are you interrogating him? He hasn't done anything…"

"He's the crazy one I told you about," Integra suddenly stepped towards them and she forced her hand in front of her son's face, showing the large crescent, dotted scar. "He's the one who bit me."

Anderson's eyes widened and he turned around to look at Vlad who was shaking his head, his hair hanging before his face. "That was four years ago…I was thirteen years old! You're a freakin' scary old bitch to a thirteen year old kid. You cornered me and I fought back."

"Don't call my mother a bitch!" Anderson cut in defensively, and his mother scowled as well, bringing her hand to her side.

"You still bit me."

"Do you want me to apologize?"

Taken aback, the woman stammered something and then glared at her son as if he were the one who had scared her for life. "Why did you bring him here? He's a criminal."

"I…I…" Anderson backed into the counter, not knowing how to answer. "Because of me…his hand…the picture and the piano…"

"Anderson!" Vlad glared at the boy who jumped, but Integra stopped him from continuing.

"What? Say something that makes sense!"

"I was going to drive him home because it was raining so hard and he didn't have an umbrella! But he wouldn't tell me where he lived so I told him I was going to take him here and make him clean himself up and eat some food. He hasn't done anything. Because of me his hand was…"

"Anderson! Shut up!" the room lost its volume and blue and green eyes focused on the handcuffed teen who wobbled on his stool once. "Let me go home, alright? I'll walk. I don't mind rain."

"No." Integra grabbed the boy's shoulder, undeterred by how boney it was. "You're going to tell me where you live, the names of your parents, your name, and then I'm going to drive you home and have a good long talk with your parents or guardians." Blue stared into the red. "Now, speak."

"How about you drive me home and we can talk in the car…you can keep me handcuffed…but I want my clothes back….they're mine."

Integra blinked and removed her hand from the boy, stepping away. She jerked at the familiar shirt and jeans and shot a reproachful look to her son. "Fine."

"But I was going to put them in the wash…" Anderson argued.

"No. You'll bring the clothes now so he can change, then we'll go."

"But…"

"Do as I say, Alexander!"

Integra ordered Anderson make sure Vlad didn't escape, so he was in the room as the boy changed back into his own grubby clothes. His caved stomach sent chills down Anderson's spine and he had to look away as Vlad finished.

He walked with Vlad to the car, watched as his mother cuffed the teen and helped him into the back of her police vehicle, and then waved at the pale face that gazed at him as the car drove away, painfully reminded that Vlad's injured hand was being crushed against the seat.

Vlad was quiet as no questions were asked until they left the gate and hit the public roads.

"Where do you live?"

"Downtown." Integra turned into a separate road.

"What's your name?"

"Vladimir Alucard Dracula."

"Not Hell Dog?" She put in spitefully. Vlad merely shook his head and looked out the window. It was still raining.

"What are your parents' names?"

"My father's was Vlad. My mother's was Sierra."

Integra's mouth twitched and she looked at her mirror to see the boy sitting in the back seat. She noticed the smudges on his sweatshirt and the hungry look in his eyes. "Was?"

"They died when I was ten."

"Who do you live with now?" Integra sighed, closing her eyes for a moment. She opened them and looked at the empty road before them.

"My uncle."

"What's his name?"

"Walter."

"I'll have to talk to him when we…"

"You can't." Vlad cut in.

"Why?" Integra's eyes went to the mirror again.

"He's in the hospital at the moment. He had a stroke, but he's stable…."

Integra continued in a softer voice. "Then I'll have to visit him there."

"I said he was stable…but you still can't talk to him. He has been in a comma for almost a year now."

"And so you've been allowed to run rampant?" The woman scoffed at the circumstances and moved her scared hand.

Vlad didn't answer and neither spoke until Integra needed more directions. Vlad told her when to turn and anything else she needed. They arrived at their destination thirty minutes after leaving the house. Integra's eyes glazed over as she looked at the run down and barely habitable apartment complex, flinching as a drunk stumbled and fell off the curb, hitting the concrete on the street, hard. Vlad noticed where her attention was and he smirked.

"Ignore him, he's like a cockroach. If they dropped an atom bomb on this town, he'd be the only survivor. Can you uncuff me now?"

"Is that a whore on that corner?" Integra stared at the scantily dressed individual and looked doubtfully at the boy behind her. His face was lined with disgust.

"That's a man."

Integra's eyes went wide and she stiffly turned to look at the mini skirt again. "Good Lord."

"He's still a whore though. They like to trick people…it's pretty funny when you hear the guys scream when they find out."

Integra felt bile rise in the back of her throat as the boy chuckled, and she undid her seatbelt and got out of the car and let Vlad out. He rubbed his wrists, wincing as he grazed his injured hand, and started to walk away.

Integra stared after him emptily, moving her scared hand as she tried to recall her hatred for the boy, but found that she couldn't as all of the humans in the area saw her car and slowly slunk away in the shadows.

"He really lives in Hell, doesn't he?" She shuddered and got back into her car.

Vlad reached his door, pondering what had happened that day, wondering why the woman hadn't doubted his story and then how he was going to pay rent and his uncle's medical expenses with his busted hand.

At least it had stopped raining.

Chapter Text

Simple was not an accurate way to describe the boy's home, for its state was created by many complicated things. No. Vlad's home was sad, for it was not a home. It was merely a place where he could sleep, where the rain would beat on the roof instead of on his head. It was dry, warmed by the small electric heater he plugged in every night when he was about to fall asleep, but it uncomfortable and hostile to any human tenant. It was empty, in one sense. In another, it was crammed with dusting towers of relatively organized, at least stabilized, things that were owned by the teen's uncle. A small cupboard was forced between a pillar of books, intermittently decorated with a box set in place by several trinkets and other objects that broke the steady pattern of dulled bindings; and the cheap wall paper that covered the wall, so worn away that its stripes and flowers print had become a smear of smoky grey and baby blue. On top of the white painted plywood that constructed the basic rectangular shape of the cupboard, was a hot plate that sat on a section of a broken plastic cutting board, used to guard the wood against the heat the hot plate emitted when it was used to boil water for oatmeal or ramen, a can of soup, beans, or anything else that came to fill the humble cabinet. The saucepan used for all of this cooking was washed in the deep sink protruding like a beige pimple from the wallpaper. Clothes were also washed there, sometimes with free sample packets of Tide detergent or the dish (or regular) soap that had been bought in bulk. 'Laundry' days were nights when the boy found that he had enough stamina left to complete such a task without making a soaping mess. Two off-white dish towels hung from a white ring on the wall, its paint chipped badly and its hinge rusted stiff. Across the square of limited walking space, reaching the far wall in the 'home', was a thick mat large enough for a young child to lay flat on, with a larger navy-blue comforter spilling over its sides. A pillow was set atop this shrine of comfort, clothed with a regular, blue pillow case. The single window that revealed the open, widely spaced world of the walkway on the second level of the building he was living in, was covered by a curtain.

The roof shielded the cluttered pack-rat dwelling that had come to be called Vlad's home, from the sheets of rain that continued to fall well into the morning when the teenager uncurled on his two inches of cushioning-mat he slept on, and pushed away the mountain of comforter that was piled on top of him. As to keep to his morning ritual, Vlad got up, stretched his arms over his head as he went to switch on the hot plate, and paused to listen to the first few tinks that came from the hot plate. They always reminded him of the primeval sound of flint stones striking together to spark a fire. The boy then returned to his 'bed' and pulled the pillow from the depths of the warm comforter, pushed the billowing fabric down to minimize the amount of space it used up, and then set the pillow on top of the mound, turning back to the hot plate, refusing to listen to the comforter expand with air and greedily eat up the scanty amount of space left in the room. The plate was reddening, slowly, adopting a rosy blush on the edges of the dark, heating rings. Red eyes glanced over them, checking to make sure that nothing flammable was too close, and then moved on to the cupboard that creaked a little when it was opened. Vlad crouched down, cracking his knees as he ran his hand over the thick shelves. He pulled out the canister of oats and peered through the cloudy white lid to see the skimpy meal that barely covered the metal bottom of the container. Feeling that he too hungry to settle for this, Vlad decided to pull out a cup of ramen instead, and he set it on one of the towers of books.

Soon the sauce pan was filled with enough boiling water to cook the noodles. Vlad leaned against the window, staring down at the styrofoam cup as he waited for the noodles to expand. When they were done, he drank the hot broth, as if it was coffee, and then ate the noodles with the bits of peas, carrots, and corn in the bottom of the cup. After finishing his breakfast, Vlad pulled back some of the curtain to see how hard the rain was falling. The cascading water prompted him to leave his backpack behind. He figured that there was no need to ruin the expensive textbooks. It was better to leave them and go to school 'unprepared' than to take them and have to pay for the consequences later.

And so, Vlad pulled up the black hood of his sweatshirt and left his 'home' to begin his walk to school.

One would wonder if Vlad had always lived like this. No. The teen had been living in a comfortable apartment with three meals a day only a year or so ago. It was when his uncle had suffered a stroke and fallen into a comma, that his life changed. His uncle had some money, they were not exactly poor. But after seeing the bills for keeping the man alive in the hospital, Vlad had decided to never touch his uncle's money again…to support himself with money he earned on his own. The money in the bank would only be used for his uncle's expenses, even life insurance for Vlad was cut out, leaving only his uncle's that needed to be paid for.

When Vlad was evicted from his uncle's apartment, he had taken the man's favored possessions and had pawned off what was left, putting the money in his uncle's bank account while he adapted to his current living conditions. One to two meals a day, working odd jobs for a pitiful amount of money, always ripped off by those who could tell how desperate he was because of his grungy appearance, unable to complain because they would just report him and he didn't like dealing with cops, getting buried when the pillars of stuff in his room toppled over because of a few low flying jets or because he accidentally bumped into them…his life was different now. But he had grown used to it.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Sierra and Vlad Dracula had loved each other. Sierra Dracula had loved her son. Vlad Dracula, on the other hand, had found the boy to be a disappointment. Vlad had been an accountant, good with numbers, but largely undervalued by his employers. Bitterness from this bred discontent in the man, and he expelled the feeling by taking it out on his son. Math books, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and beginner's geometry; they filled the boy's shelves, marked with red dashes on every page, showing the boy's incompetence. The differences between the two made them into strangers, never allowing them to develop a close bond.

Sierra had been a musician and a singer. She taught the boy how to play the piano from the tender age of three. And here, the boy blossomed and a closeness was able to grow and knit the mother and child together. Then the lessons stopped. Sierra had died along with her husband in a late night car accident. The young Vlad, ten years old at the time, had been at home, asleep as a watchful babysitter sat in the corner of his room, reading a book with a desk lamp on.

Vladimir was then sent to his uncle's house. To little Vlad, the big city called 'down town' was an alien world compared to the boy's hometown. It was loud and bright. There were people everywhere you looked, their tall figures replacing traditional scenery like trees while large buildings replaced hills and distant mountains. And it was dirty. The streets, the sidewalks, the people, they were all dirty.

Walter C. Dracula did not look like his brother. He was tall and lean like a cat, with long black hair tied back behind his head, and bright, dangerous blue eyes. His mouth was always ready to turn into a scowl just as his hands were always ready for a fight, covered by black, fingerless gloves. His home was gloomy and filled with books and mismatched furniture, but shelves filled with odd trinkets distracted visitors from these things. Such as the blackened mummy hand displayed in a wooden display box with a glass window. No one even noticed that every other chair around the table was of a different style, once their eyes had been captured by the dead human flesh. The house was out of the ordinary, but so was Walter C. Dracula, so the two fit one another, just like his gloves.

At forty-three years old, Walter had never married and had never dreamed of having children of his own, so he did not approve of the little runt that timidly squeezed the handle of the red luggage smushing the boy's tinny toes. It also did not help Walter like his nephew any better now that he had learned that his brother had left him nothing in his will. So the man scowled at the child as the boy was left in his care and made his responsibility to take care of. A pleasant woman wearing a dress suit smiled at Walter before patting Vlad on the shoulder and closing the door.

They stared at one another for a long time, finding each other's strangeness with their eyes. The man's gaze narrowed, adopting creases as he noted the red eyes and the pale skin. He would have believed the child to be an albino if not for the deep black hair and the lack of glasses on the child's face. And the red eyes were gifted with enviable vision whereas the eyes of an albino are crippled with rather limited sight.

Vlad's wide eyes gazed up at the man, too intimidated by his scowl to look away. He shivered once and swallowed noisily.

"Come." The boy jerked at the sudden order that had broken their unspoken pledge to silence. His knuckles turned white on the handle as the scowl on the man's face persisted and his cold voice returned. "I'll show you where you're going to be sleeping."

Walter turned and strode past his shelves and the table with mismatched chairs and then through a door that had not been closed. Vlad scampered after him for a moment, but was caught by the sight of the black hand on the shelf near the table, and he was forced to stop. His mouth hung open slightly, pink lips glistening on the inside from the light that hit the side of his young face, and his eyes grew even wider, mesmerized by the hand. Walter had stopped in the next room and observed the eyes and the face and the lips, without a scowl. He moved forward silently to glance at the hand as well, and then watched the boy for a while longer.

"Does it scare you?"

Vlad jumped, stepping backwards and stumbling over the luggage behind him. He fell on top of it, and then quickly got up and looked at the blank faced man in the doorway. The black hair swished as the boy shook his head anxiously and went to him. Walter paused before turning to walk through another open door at the other end of the room, this time without checking to see if the boy was following him. He stopped at the first closed door the boy had yet seen, and opened it. Vlad peered into the darkness, and could make out a large bed with a nightstand beside it, occupied by a fat blue lamp. There was little else in the room.

"I don't like to waste money on things I do not want to pay for." Walter was scowling again, this time at the dark room. His hand reached inside and flicked a switch on the wall, and then he flicked it off again as he changed his mind and turned his scowl upon the boy. Vlad's chin met his chest while his thin shoulders rose protectively, eyes staring up at his uncle. "I only have one bed. You'll either sleep there with me or on the couch in the room we just passed through." He waited for a few seconds. Then he growled irritably as the little boy remained mute. "Do you want to sleep on the couch? Or would you rather sleep in the bed? I'm giving you the choice because the couch has had a strange smell ever since your grandfather died while taking a nap on it." He cocked his head towards the door to the other room while Vlad's mouth fell into a gape at his words. "So what's it going to be?"

An urgent pink finger pointed at the bed as Vlad continued to stare and gape at his uncle. Walter's scowl deepened at his quietness and the answer, and he jabbed his own finger at the bed. "Sleep on the right side over there. I sleep on the left. And for your own sake, you should pray that the day you wet yourself in my bed never comes, brat. Now get." He raised his voice a little, causing the boy to hurry into the room. "And go to sleep. It's passed eleven already and I'll have to wake you up early to bring you to school." He closed the door, leaving the boy in the pitch dark, and began to move away from his room. He added one more order when he thought of it. "And change into your clean pajamas. I don't need your dirty clothes messing up my bed." Then the man walked through the room with the couch, passed the table with the mismatched chairs and the shelves with odd trinkets, and went out the front door to enter the night and the dirty city streets.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

When Walter C. Dracula returned, he showered and put something on to sleep in, and then pulled back his covers to get into bed. The man froze, almost dropping the blanket when he saw the little back marked a with chu-chu train print. Vlad was curled up on the left side of the bed. He was sleeping, curled up on the wrong side of the bed. Walter bit his lips together until they began to lose some of their warmth and color, only releasing them to form a scowl. Two gloved hands slipped under the sleeping boy's arms and lifted him out of the bed, shocking him from his sleep. The small figure swung slightly as Walter carried it roughly from the room, throwing Vlad over his shoulder when he had to open the door. He let the boy fall onto the couch and then spun on his heels and left the room. He the door to his bedroom.

In the morning when the man went to the couch, it was empty and the cushions were cool to the touch. Frowning to himself, Walter searched the room with his eyes and then marched through the open door. He stopped there, staring down at the boy curled up on the rug peeking from beneath the table with mismatched chairs, where he could look at the black hand from the floor.

His blue eyes lingered on the peaceful face and the parted pink lips that didn't move as the boy breathed through them. Then two black shoes stopped in front of the sleeping child. "Wake up."

Nothing happened.

"Wake up!" Walter barked with an added snarl. Vlad jolted and tore his head from the rug to gaze in fear at the man, his arms and legs scooting him back and under a chair. The man sighed angrily, a fist formed by his side. "Get out of there. You need to get ready for school." His eyes followed the boy when he darted from the room. He came back a few minutes later while Walter was leaning against the front door impatiently. Vlad's hair was still messy with sleep, but Walter didn't care at this point. He just opened the door and told the boy to come. Then he locked it and tramped over the cement and grass, away from his door and down the little hill to the sidewalk lining the street. The confused and apprehensive boy said nothing as he trotted along, taking two steps for every long stride his uncle made down the sidewalk. Vlad wondered if they were going to walk all the way to school, if his uncle even had a car, where he was going to get his breakfast and his lunch, and what his school was going to be like. He had never been to a public school before. His mother had homeschooled him since he was five years old, so he wasn't sure what fifth grade would be like with a different teacher and other kids his age.

While he had been wondering all of this, they passed a series of iron bars making up a black fence in front of a humble school campus. Then they turned into an opened gate, moving along while cars swung to the curb where a separate road had split from the street to enter the campus. Children chattered and laughed as they emerged from these cars, jumping from their booster seats or the generally oversized seats built into the car, to leap through the van door while carrying a lunch bag and a backpack in tow. Mothers would blow them a kiss goodbye and tell them to have fun at school and to learn a lot. Vlad watched them with pursed lips, feeling his cheeks redden as his eyes moistened. He took a shaky breath and ducked his head shamefully as he followed the stolid back. But soon, he lost sight of the back. Alarmed, Vlad whipped around to see the man leaving him behind, going back to the gate to exit the school.

The ten year old boy stood there, dumb with amazement. Sniffling, the large red eyes darted about, desperately watching for a hint that would tell him what he was supposed to do next. His eyes found a building with a sign that read 'Office', so he went to it and peered through the glass window in the door. There was a high counter and a lady that walked away. Pulling open the door, Vlad shuffled to the counter and stood on his tippy toes. His eyes watched a big woman writing on some white papers with a fake flower. The boy recognized that the flower was actually a pen and he set his stubby pink fingers on the edge of the counter to hold himself up.

After a few moments, the woman started and looked up, squinting at the boy through the rectangular lenses of her glasses. A beaded strap draped down from the frame of the glasses and looped around the back of her neck, unheeded by hair since she had cut it short and dyed it blonde at the same time. She flinched at the red eyes, leaning back in her chair with a gasp, and had to blink several times to make sure that she was not hallucinating.

"Excuse me." Came a quiet whisper that made her flinch again. Her eyes gradually warmed when she listened to the soft spoken child. "I'm Vlad and I'm supposed to go to fifth grade today, but I don't know where my class is. Do you know where the fifth graders go?"

The woman smiled slightly and folded her hands over her papers before she drew them away and swiveled her chair to face the monitor of her computer. She reached and clicked on the mouse while the red eyes followed her every movement. They blinked when she asked him for his full name.

"Vladimir Alucard Dracula."

The woman paused, digesting the unique name, and then typed it out on her keyboard. "So you go by Vlad?"

The black hair bobbed as the child nodded. "Yes, I do Miss. Everyone calls me Vlad, but some people call me Vladimir. I have two names."

"Alright." Her smile grew a little as she turned to the printer that had suddenly come to life. It spat out a piece of paper with a teacher's name and classroom number on it. The woman gave it to the boy who clung to the paper, reading the words quickly. She stood up and watched him for a moment, and then searched for the adult she assumed was waiting behind him. No one was there. Her eyes fell to the little boy that was beginning to fill with dismay. He looked at her uneasily.

"I don't know where room 15 is."

The office was quiet for a while and the woman's hand swept over the counter, her wedding ring scrapping against it. "Aren't your parents with you? Your mother or father?"

The boy stared at her and slowly shook his head while his eyes descended down the side of the counter and reached his black sneakers with their big, loopy laces.

Taken aback, the woman's eyes roamed the office, as if doubting the boy. They returned to him and the big woman sighed sadly. A finger rose to point down a short hall with a few open doors. "Ask one of the aids to help you. They'll take you to your class."

"Thank you." Vlad whispered, nodding his head to the woman respectfully. She noticed his unoccupied back with a twinge of pity as he followed her directions. He didn't even have a backpack or a lunchbox, the poor boy. She shook her head at the adult that appeared with the boy, giving the woman a questioning look. The aid walked Vlad to his classroom and went to the teacher. Mr. Olson received a shock when the aid left and he took a good look at his new pupil. The large crimson eyes and pale skin made the boy seem inhuman at first glance. Shaking off the feeling, the teacher showed Vlad to an empty seat so he could put his supplies away. When the boy told him he didn't have any, Mr. Olson grumbled to himself and took a few pencils and some paper from his own desk. Then he went to the cabinets lining the wall beneath a few windows, and drew out the textbooks the boy would need. When he was done the bell had rung, so the teacher told his new student to stand in front of the board to wait for his classmates to come inside.

The children arrived in pairs or groups, giggling and laughing, quieting their voices a little as they entered the room. Eyes would find the boy, and they would stare until someone pushed the idling child out of the way. When most of the seats had been filled and no more children could be seen wandering around outside, the teacher walked across the room and closed the door.

"Scary." A girl blurted out excitedly, inciting a wave of shrieking laughter and others repeated the word. "Scary." "It's weird." "People don't have red eyes." "They're those eye thingies you put in your eyes so you can see without glasses." "Contacts?" "Yeah. They got to be. Nobody has red eyes."

"Quiet." The teacher commanded dryly and glanced at the upset child staring fearfully at the class. "Tell us your name."

"I'm Vlad." The boy murmured.

There was a roar of laughter that reddened the pale cheeks, causing them to burn with shame.

The teacher sighed and shook his head. "Your full name please."

"Vladimir Alucard Dracula."

Vlad squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the laughter to return. It was silent. Then the room came back to life.

"That's a long name." "That's not a people name." "Yeah. He's weird." "Maybe he's from a different country." "Or a different planet." Some sniggered. "He's a freak." "What's that? What's a freak?" "A weird mutant with red eyes."

They laughed again, erasing the teacher's order for Vlad to go to his seat. The man had to repeat himself before the boy reluctantly opened his eyes and moved to the desk in the back of the room. Children leaned away from him and made gagging sounds or laughed. When he slumped into his chair, he started and stared at the faces that turned to him.

"Are those your real eyes?" A boy demanded, and then waited, proud to have been the first to ask. He took some air of authority after that. Being the one seated closest to the strange boy, he relayed all of the class's questions.

Vlad nodded slowly. "Yeah."

"That's so weird! Do your brothers and sisters have red eyes too?"

"Yeah! Do they? Do they?" Someone else asked.

"No…I don't have any brothers or sisters." Vlad jerked at the next onslaught of whispers. The teacher told the class to quiet down and the day's lessons began. A note hit Vlad's shoulder in the middle of class. He opened it curiously after giving a questioning look to the boy in front of him. The boy was turned around, waiting for his answer.

Are you human?

The boy's eyes grew wide and he stared at the other boy, He could feel a sob climbing up his throat, so he swallowed and blinked away the tears that were developing in his eyes. "I'm human. What else would I be?"

"Vlad!"

The boy jerked and gazed at his teacher, surprised by the yell. "Yes?"

"No talking during class!"

He bent over his desk as the laughter returned and whimpered. "Sorry."

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Vlad was hugging his knees, sitting on the curb of the round-about used for pick-up. But pick-up was over. Day care was over. The day was over, and the moon was up in the sky. A frustrated aid was tapping her foot on the curb, her arms crossed with her mouth contorted into a pout. "Are you sure you don't know your home phone number? Or your parent's cell phone number?"

Vlad's shoulder's stiffened. "N..no." He blinked and a single tear escaped. "I'm sorry." He croaked out, and then had to swallow to keep himself from crying.

"Oh, God." The woman grabbed her bun and turned around helplessly, looking back at the empty school. "And you don't know how to get home?"

"M…mm. No."

The woman began pacing and muttering to herself, occasionally rubbing her arms. She looked down at the blue sweatshirt the boy was wearing, and then continued to search the school and the streets for the sign of a parent coming to pick up their child. Minutes passed and she finally groaned and sat beside Vlad on the curb.

"I was wondering where you were."

The aid gasped and jumped to her feet while Vlad jerked up to see his uncle standing a few yards away, near the street. The man ignored the angry woman that began to talk to him and slapped his thigh lightly. "Come here. I'll walk you home."

"Are you his father?" The woman demanded huffily, crossing her arms as she lost her remaining patience.

Walter glared at her. "No. This is my nephew." He pointed at Vlad, who had stood and was shuffling his feet as he walked to the man's side. "He should have walked home. I showed him the way this morning, and it's not far."

The woman deflated a little and passed a chilled look to the boy. "Well," She swiped at a loose hair that was hanging in her face. "…we're going to need your phone number and address on file in the case of an emergency."

"Fine. Expect to have it tomorrow morning." Walter said and pivoted to stride down the sidewalk. Vlad ran after him and then jogged by his side, tripping at times. The man didn't seem to notice.

The boy was wheezing a little, but he was too scared to ask his uncle to slow down. When they reached the apartment and his uncle had unlocked the door, Vlad staggered into the room and sat down on the floor by the wall. Walter closed the door with a flick of his wrist, throwing a scowl at the boy. "What are you doing on the floor? Get up? Are you an animal? Get off the floor!"

Vlad whimpered and shook his head, trembling slightly.

"Why? Do you like sitting and sleeping on floors, boy?"

The child shook his head again, and choked on his own breath.

The man growled and approached the child with heavy steps. He reached out to pick the boy off the floor. Vlad's eyes went wide and he shrieked in fear when his uncle grabbed his sweatshirt, causing the man to freeze and stare as the boy cowered, pressing himself against the wall. Walter was quiet. Slowly, he crouched down and took his hand away from the blue cloth. Rubbing his hands together, he uncomfortably waited for the boy to calm down. "I'm not going to hurt you, you know."

Vlad sniffed and gazed at his uncle with large, watery eyes.

"There." An unsure hand patted down the boy's untamed hair, and, when it was withdrawn, Walter sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the speechless child. "Now then." Walter cleared his throat and looked at the wall. "You can try again and sleep on the right side of the bed, not the left. You have school tomorrow, so you need to sleep."

The red eyes continued to stare at the man, and they lifted when Walter stood up.

"Uncle."

Walter's body went rigid at the soft voice and he gazed at the child that timidly played with the pouch on his sweatshirt. It was the first time he had heard the boy speak, and now that he thought about it…he didn't know the boy's name. Walter waited for a while, but Vlad didn't speak again. "What is it?"

"I…" The boy looked at his shoes and was quiet.

The man scowled and crossed his arms impatiently. "Out with it, and then off to bed."

"I'm…I'm h..hungry, Uncle. I didn't eat breakfast or lunch and I haven't had anything for dinner yet."

The scowling features became blank and empty. "Oh." Walter's eyes wandered the room as his mind refused to work. "I have to feed you…"

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

It was his forth piece of bread and he was cramming it into his mouth as if it was his first. Walter watched from the side of the room, having set a loaf of bread on the table with the mismatched chairs. He waited for the boy to slow down, but he didn't seem like he wanted to.

"If you keep on eating like that you're going to throw it all back up again and I'm not the one who's gonna clean up the mess, got it?" He frowned at the timid apology and the nibbling that began afterward. Walter crossed his arms and closed his eyes, suddenly tired. "Boy." Vlad looked at him, still nibbling on his bread like a mouse. "What's your name?" The boy swallowed, then hesitated.

"I'm…my name's…" He was quiet for a moment. Then big globs of tears began to fall on the piece of bread in his hands. Walter watched.

"Stop crying, boy, and answer me." He growled.

"But…but…" Vlad put his bread down carefully as his face twitched, fighting back a sob. He slowly crossed his arms and shakily rested his head in them, blinking away tears as he whimpered. "But…don't laugh at me."

"What?" The man's blue eyes narrowed as he saw the thin shoulder quiver with silent sobs. "I told you to stop that."

"They…" Gasping out the word, Vlad buried his face into his arms, squishing down his runny nose on his sleeve. "The kids all laughed at me and called me names because….because…I have a weird name…and…..cause…I'm…so…ugly…they..they…they called me…a.. and said mean things to me…and wouldn't play with me…and…I…I don't wanna go to school anymore….I don't like it there. They're mean to me…and the teacher doesn't…doesn't do anything."

"I told you to stop that, you whiney brat." Walter hissed, looming over the boy that was shivering and hiccupping now. "Do you think I care if they play with you? School is for learning, not for fun. Who gives a shit what those brats say or think? They're useless, stupid brats, just like you. Ignore them. Now stop crying and eat your food."

"I'm…I'm not hungry…anymore." Vlad gasped, rubbing his reddened face on his sleeve to get rid of the snot and tears. His uncle cringed in disgust and grabbed the lengthy black hair to make the boy sit up. Vlad gasped in pain but instantly stiffened in terror.

"Good. Now take a shower and get to sleep. Since you cry and snot up everything, you'll have to sleep on the couch. Got it? And you make your own food if you want to have anything to eat, or else you can starve. Now get moving." The boy's chest jerked with breaths he could not take.

"Uncle." He whispered. "I don't know where the shower is."

Walter let go of his nephew and stepped towards the open door. "All you have to do is ask. I don't bite… much."

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Vlad blinked as a drop of rain hit him near the eye and then rolled into his eyelashes. He shook himself sharply, his head bent as he kept his hands shoved into the depths of his pockets. It was still pouring, raining cats and dogs as they say, when the teen jumped over a large puddle in the school's back parking lot. The headlights of cars shone around him, illuminating individual drops of rain for fractions of a second before they fell out of the light and hit the wet asphalt. He moved up the stairs and reached the campus, immediately making his way to the line of picnic tables with the wood covering over them. Rain fell in torrents from the flat roof, spattering loudly on the concrete. The boy stopped, though, and let the rain beat against his hood as his eyes ran over the collection of teenagers using up most of the space.

Vlad turned in a circle, scanning the campus to find a dry place to sit. He didn't find one.

With a few blinks, he changed his direction and headed for the Art Building to find refuge in his first period class. The door was locked, so he knocked on it and waited under a ledge. No one else was there so he debated with himself whether or not he should just sit against the wall or go inside if someone opened the door. A female teacher poked her head out of the door and saw the soaking teen. She pursed her lips without recognizing him. His face was obscured by the hood that had been stretched by his tugging on it in its wet condition.

"You're a little wet. I'll see if I have a towel you can dry off with. It'd be dangerous if the floor got wet…" She muttered before disappearing. Vlad waited a few minutes and she came back. "Here." She handed him two paint stained towels and then propped open the door and retreated inside.

Pushing back his hood, the boy dried off his face and then tried to soak up the water from his pants by sponging them with a towel. He peeled off his sweatshirt and wiped down his arms and neck. Afterwards, he sponged the black sweatshirt for a while and carried it into the building, along with the wet towels. He gave the towels back to the teacher who gawked at him, stunned when she recognized who he was. She stuttered when he spoke, lifting up his sweatshirt.

"Can I hang this somewhere?"

"U…um…" Her head swiveled about, searching for 'somewhere'. She pointed to an empty rack that was usually used for storing wet paintings. "There. Use that."

Vlad draped his sweatshirt over the rack and went into the next room, rubbing his cold arms to get them to warm a little. His teacher was in her office so she didn't see him cross the room and sit down in his usual obscure table in the corner. He cross his arms over the table and rested his head in them, hiding his face as he closed his eyes.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Little Vlad slept on the mat that he set in front of the shelves with the odd trinkets. Walter had found an answer to the bed problem by buying the boy a small futon. He gave the boy a pillow and a blanket and let him chose where he wanted to sleep, but reminded the child that he was still allowed to sleep in the bed if he slept on the right side.

Getting up in the morning wasn't hard for the boy, but he struggled a little with finishing everything he needed to do before going to school; such as brushing his teeth and hair and getting dressed and making breakfast and lunch and making sure he had his homework…and he had a hard time coming up with creative things to eat. He had bread with butter for breakfast and bread with butter and sugar for lunch. Eventually his uncle bought peanut butter and plum preserves along with a small toaster. At night, the boy usually ate some fruit along with his sandwich, eating a few frozen strawberries as if they were some highly treasured dessert.

School didn't improve, and as a result the boy, who had already been behind his peers grade wise because of his isolated homeschooling that had involved more lessons in music than anything else, began to perform poorly in school. He told his uncle that he did not understand the lessons and the man would tell him that it was the boy's fault for not listening or the teacher's fault for being a stupid, incompetent bastard. Walter wasn't a teacher, as he pointed out, so he couldn't help the young Vlad with homework or studying. The boy just assumed that he was stupid because he did listen during class and the other children didn't have any trouble understanding Mr. Olson.

"Why can't you answer this problem?" Mr. Olson demanded, gasping in exasperation as he pointed at the whiteboard. "We went over this last week." The other children were laughing as the boy looked the teacher in the eye and apologized.

"I'm sorry Mr. Olson. I'm just stupid." The class let out a roar of laughter, howling and banging on their desks as they giggled and spoke to one another. The teacher ordered their silence and then chastised Vlad for trying to act like the class clown, always riling up the other students.

"If you cracked less jokes and worked harder, you'd be able to do these problems in your sleep."

Quietly, the boy sat down and stared at the numbers on the board with an empty expression. It was an alien language to him, and he had no hopes of decoding it.

Since he had begun attending the elementary school in April, summer came quickly and soon the boy was without a 'daycare'. He mostly stayed at home alone, too scared to wander about the streets. He didn't want to get hit by a car or stolen by a smelly, mumbling homeless man. The boy mainly read books or doodled on paper, drawing the black hand dozens of times until he thought that he could create the hand's identical twin on paper without using the original as a model. He didn't show his uncle because he was afraid the man would get angry, since he was 'wasting paper and good lead'.

One night, Walter stood by the door with an unlit cigarette in his mouth as his eyes watched the boy that was reading a book under the table. He cocked his head thoughtfully. "You'll ruin your eyes if you read there."

The boy flinched and looked at him. "But…I can see fine under here. It's not dark."

The entire area where the boy was laying was cast in a dark shadow. The cigarette wobbled in the man's mouth. "Put the book away. Book worms are useless. You're coming with me tonight, so get some shoes on."

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

The man watched his nephew loosely as he stood with a few other men, checking to see how the other youths that tagged along with their fathers (sometimes), would interact with the nervous little boy. Vlad was the youngest and the smallest in the group, and he stood rigidly near a brick wall as the boys made a circle around him, commenting on his red eyes.

"Whoa man, check it out. Red eyes!" "Like a freaken demon or freaken Satan!" They chuckled, but then smiled at the youth. "I think it's awesome. How fuckin' scared would punks be if you had red eyes?" "I wish I had red eyes." "It's cool, little dude."

"Really?" Vlad said, trembling a little as he clung to the end of his sweatshirt. His eyes were large with hope and he grinned awkwardly, still in a state of disbelief. "They're…they're not weird?"

The boys laughed. "Hell yeah they're weird! They're freakish, but that's why they're totally awesome!" They chuckled together darkly, passing each other amused looks as the little boy fidgeted with a big dopey grin on his face. "Yeah. It's time." "It's time, alright." The boys spoke amongst one another and then looked at Vlad whose grin was beginning to fail.

"What time? What do you mean?" He asked curiously, squeezing his sweatshirt as the boys smiled at him. They suddenly looked like a pack of hungry wolves, and he cowered into the wall when they laughed.

"Time to get the kid with the red eyes!" They all lunged at him at once, and the boy ducked with a shriek and slipped away. He searched for his uncle and found that the men were watching him, amused.

"Uncle! Uncle! Help!"

The man scowled and waved the boy away as the child danced anxiously on his feet before fleeing from the older boys again. "Go play. It builds character."

"But they aren't trying to play!" Gasped out the child as he narrowly dodged a wild grab. "They're trying to kill me!"

Walter's mouth twitched with humor while the other men laughed, even the chasing boys chimed in. "No. It's all fun. They'll only bruise and maybe bloody you up a bit, but that'll make you stronger."

The boy shrieked again and dashed away from the boys, this time getting caught. They tackled him, smushing the little boy until he wriggled loose. He had abandoned his sweatshirt, so it was left on the grimy asphalt as the group ran after him again. Desperate, Vlad spun about, searching for a way to escape. He saw the brick wall and a fire escape protruding from it.

With a burst of speed, the boy ran towards the wall and then up the bricks until he began to lose momentum, then he dug his fingers and the tips of his shoes into the crevices and scaled the rest of the wall. The pursuing boys stopped and stared along with the men. Vlad went up nine or so vertical feet and then grasped the side of the bottom of the fire escape and then pulled himself up and quickly climbed over the barred railing. The boy peered through the bars, panting and shaking with adrenalin. He smiled a little when he saw that the boys had stopped chasing him, and looked at his uncle who stood, surrounded by the gawking men.

Walter's face was unreadable. Then he drew on the cigarette in his mouth and puffed out a cloud of smoke as he spoke. "Can you get down?"

Vlad started and went on his tippy toes and then back on the balls of his feet as he thought. He climbed over the railing and looked down at the concrete below. The men began to chuckle as they saw that the boy was stuck, but they choked on their amusement when Vlad suddenly leaped off of the fire escape and landed on the ground in a crouch. He got up and scurried over to his uncle's side and smiled up at him nervously. "Yeah. I could get down."

One of the men whistled while, in amongst the group of boys, his son echoed the whistle and stuffed his hands into the pockets of his black, leather jacket. "Now that's an interesting little fella. What's his name?" The man asked Walter who had to shake himself from a daze.

"Hm." He looked down at the boy, trying to remember what his name was. The man chewed on his cigarette. "Why don't you tell him?"

The boy straightened up and smiled at the man who grinned back. "I'm Vlad. My whole name is Vladimir Alucard Dracula, but don't laugh."

The men paused and then passed smirks to the boy's uncle who scowled at them. The boys were the first to speak.

"Alucard? That's a cool name!" "Yo, Alucard! Little dude! Show us how you climbed up that wall!" "He was like freaken Spider Man." "He's a monkey. Way better than a stupid comic book hero." "Yeah! Alucard, climb the wall again!"

Puffing up with pride and joy, the boy ran to the others and laughed at what they said and climbed the wall half a dozen times, just to please them.

He had made his first set of friends.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

"Wake up."

Uncle. I need to sleep for a little while. I tired.

"Hey. Wake up, Vlad."

Vlad? Uncle always calls me either boy or Vladimir. The boy left sleep gradually and groggily lifted his head to meet the green eyed teen. He blinked at Anderson for a while, disoriented after his dream. His eyes swiveled about the room, finding a few stares directed at them.

"Why are you wearing a T-shirt? It's freezing cold today." Anderson put his hands on the table and leaned on them as the red eyes returned to him. Vlad left his arms crossed over the table and continued to slouch.

"My sweat shirt is in the other art room, drying out. It got soaked in the rain, so it's useless." He looked around the classroom again and saw that the students were getting new pieces of paper and supplies for their next project. Damn. He had slept through the instructions.

Anderson seemed to be able to read the other teen's thoughts, and he straightened his back and crossed his arms, also looking at the class. "Christmas stuff. You can do whatever you want."

Vlad's head moved back to his arms. "I don't feel like drawing a fat man in a red suit."

Anderson, who snorted at this, watched Vlad close his eyes again. "Then draw a candy cane."

"Draw a lady bug with the rest of your cult and let me sleep."

The football quarterback cocked a brow and almost laughed. "Cult? You say such…rubbish, you know that? Now get up and go get a piece of paper and a pencil and draw a candy cane or something. You need to get the participation points for working in class."

"I don't like candy canes." Came a grumble. "I hate Christmas."

"Then draw the Grinch and his dog stealing Christmas."

Vlad was quiet for a while, then he stiffly got up and stretched his back so that it crackled a bit. Walking to the side of the room, the boy snatched up a piece of paper and a pencil and returned to his seat, only noticing that Anderson had gone with him and gotten his own piece of paper and pencil when the teen sat down at his table. Vlad stared at him dully. "What the hell do you think you're doing, fat rich boy…"

"I'm not fat, little grubby runt."

"Fatass."

"Anorexic person."

"Fatass."

"Grinch."

"Fatass."

Anderson growled, losing his humor as he shot Vlad a halfhearted glare. "Stop calling me that. People don't like to be called mean names."

The red eyes dropped to the paper as the pencil marked it, ruining the perfect white sheet. "I know. I say it because I don't really mean it."

Anderson stopped what he was doing and watched Vlad work. He felt a little sad now, and he didn't understand why. Looking at the teen, he saw how the boy was too thin and recalled how he had said that he hated Christmas. It wasn't really fair now. The fat ass remark was absurd while Anderson's remarks had been…believable...almost truthful. His face fell to his own paper and he struggled to gain the inspiration to draw something.

"Draw a lady bug with a Santa hat. No one else is going to think of drawing that."

Anderson smiled after glancing at Vlad, and then paused when he caught sight of the boy's paper. His eyes narrowed a little and he shifted uncomfortably. "What…what in God's Holy name is that?"

Vlad didn't look up, and his face didn't change. "The blackened hand of a mummy."

The other teen cringed, but tried to hide his distaste for the drawing. "Why? What does that have to do with Christmas?"

"My uncle me one the first Christmas I spent with him."

Anderson's eyes softened and he came to accept the hand, analyzing the detail with awe now. "It's interesting to look at."

"Yeah." Vlad smirked. "I still have it…look at it all the time, too."

Anderson was sad again, hearing the boy's words. The black haired teen was rather quiet today.

"It's going to be my first Christmas without him in five, six years."

Vlad continued to draw while Anderson watched him. "Where is your uncle?"

"He's ill, in the hospital. But he's not going to die. He'll get better soon."

"Hm." Green watched the paper that was supposed to have a lady bug on it already. Slowly, he started to draw again.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

His uncle had found the sketches of the mummy hand and he was holding the pile of papers, looking from them to the hand in the display case. They were identical. The man frowned as a boy opened the front door and came into the apartment, his cheeks flushed from the fighting and chasing he had done with the other street kids. There was a swelling bump on his head, a common result of the play fighting that the other boys called an 'egg'. Vlad forgot about it as he stood, horrified, realizing that his uncle had discovered his pictures. He shuffled his feet nervously as blue eyes glared at the papers and then the hand on the shelf.

"Where did you get these?" Walter demanded quietly, his voice cold and biting. Little Vlad's bottom lip quivered.

"I…I drew them, Uncle."

"You're a dirty liar." The man turned his glower upon his nephew and threw the papers on the floor in disgust. "Who have you been letting into my house? Who? Tell me, God damn you, or I'll belt you! Now speak!" The boy jolted at the loud voice and edged back towards the door, pressing against it.

"Nobody. I drew them." The man came towards him and the boy's voice rose into a whine and he held up his hands protectively. "I drew them! I drew them! I swear, Uncle! I swear to God I was the one that drew the pictures! I didn't let anybody in! I didn't! Please! No!" He cried out as a hand wrenched his head down, holding his hair in a firm grip. The boy whimpered. "I'll show you. I'll show you that I drew them! Let me show you! Don't hurt me!"

Walter let go of the boy, almost tossing him to the floor. He got a pencil and a piece of paper and slammed them down on the table with the mismatched chairs, hissing. "Draw it, and you better not be lying, for if you are not even God will be able to save you, boy!"

Shaking, Vlad sat down with his uncle leaning over his chair, and he picked up his pencil and tried to fix the crinkled paper. His hand was trembling too much for him to draw a straight line. Gulping down air and fear, Vlad took deep breaths until his hand behaved. Then he drew. He drew the hand flawlessly as the blue eyes watched from above.

Walter was silent. He picked up the paper before the boy was finished, and he stared at it. He stooped and picked up one of the other papers and stared at it. Then he stared at the boy. "Who taught you to draw like this?"

"No one!" Vlad replied hastily, waving his hands. "I promise! I never let anyone in! I never have! Never! And I promise I won't! Never ever in a million years, Uncle! I swear!"

The man said nothing, and then turned and picked up the papers he had thrown on the ground. He stacked them up neatly and set them in front of the boy and patted his head gently. "I believe you… You're very good at drawing, Vladimir. You should keep it up. A man has to use his talents." Walter left the room after that, and for the years to come, the stack of paper and store of pencils in the apartment never ran out.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Vlad was gazing down at the mummy hand, blending in the last of the shading with his lead-shined finger. He began to hear the other high school students yell and laugh around him, talking about what they were going to do over Christmas Break. The teen sitting at his table glanced at Vlad when he saw that he had come out of his trance.

"What are you going to do over the break?" Anderson pushed away his paper while Vlad continued to hover over his own.

Vlad didn't say anything.

"Are you…going to just relax and enjoy the two weeks of no school?" Anderson leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms behind his head as he realized that this was the lowest table in the room, the only one with regular chairs.

"Sure." Vlad leaned back into his chair too, but his arms fell into his lap. He licked his lips and prolonged the discussion. "What're…you planning on doing, then? I told you so you have to tell me."

You didn't tell me squat about what you're going to do. Anderson sighed and looked up at the ceiling, trying not to smile. "Going to stay at home, celebrate and enjoy the holiday with my mom and my sister. My dad's going to miss Christmas."

The black haired teen didn't comment on the last detail. "Are you going to get your own Christmas tree? And eat fat food for Christmas dinner?"

Fat food? "My food is not fat…and we already got out tree. Did you get one, or do you not celebrate Christmas?"

"Don't celebrate, but not because I'm not Christian. I am, I just don't go crazy over the holidays."

Anderson's eyes moved to the black hair. "Do you have a tree?"

Vlad's lips twisted into a sneer and he chuckled. "Does an ornament with a pine tree design count?"

"No."

"Then no, I don't have one."

Anderson scooted forward in his chair and hooked his fingers together. He twiddled his thumbs. "Who are you going to be with? You're parents? Siblings? You going to visit your uncle?"

Red eyes analyzed Anderson's face for a time, then stopped when they gave in to a blink. "The Chief didn't tell you anything?"

An odd look went to Vlad. "You mean my mother?"

Vlad nodded as he crossed his arms over his chest.

"Tell me about what?"

"Me."

"What…I don't get what you're trying to say here." The blonde teen shook his head and pressed the pads of his thumbs together. "What do you mean she hasn't told me anything?"

Pale lips twitched with a mixture of humor and contempt for himself. "My parents…don't live around here. I live with just my uncle."

They were quiet for a while. Anderson uneasily stretched out his arms and kept his gaze welded to the table. "Do you ever visit your parents?"

With widened eyes, Vlad was quiet for several odd moments, then he laughed, closing his eyes and ducking his head into his arms that he laid out on the table. "Sure. I visit them all the time. Every goddamn Thanksgiving and Christmas and Valentine's Day, the whole shebang." Anderson was glaring at Vlad now, and the boy noticed so he lifted his head, sobered. "No, Anderson. My…I don't visit them. They live too far away, and…" He snickered as he looked at the green eyes. "…does it look like I have the money to be buying plane tickets and other crap, I mean, stuff? God, you're a funny person, Anderson. You're fuckin' hilarious."

"Are you mad at me or something?" The other teen shot back. Vlad quieted. "And cut it out with the cussing. You know I hate it."

"Fine, fat ass." Vlad sighed out and lifted his hands over and behind his head, sliding down in his chair, as he stretched out his legs.

"I'm not fat." Anderson frowned as his hands dove into his pockets. "How do you like the Christmas lady bug you requested? It's the best work I've ever done, and that's saying a lot since you're aware of how gifted I am in art."

White arms went to the table and spun the picture so that the red eyes could examine it. Vlad cracked a wicked smile. "Big freaken eyes, eh?"

"Hey. Don't make fun of the lady bug. I worked hard on that."

"My apologies Michelangelo." Vlad maneuvered the bug through the air as if it was flying. "Damn. It's so life-like." He made some sound effects for the flying bug.

"Damn it!" Anderson scowled and grabbed the paper. "Stop making fun of my stuff!"

A dramatic gasp surprised Anderson who flinched at the gape he received from the other boy. "You cussed, Anderson… Do it again, come on. One more time. Just for me."

"Shut up." This time both of them laughed, and they easily blended in with the rest of the tables in the classroom. Though, a few eyes were watching them and mouths moved with the two boys' names.

Chapter Text

Anderson's chair scraped across the floor, jostling randomly when it slid over different splatters of paint left by vengeful students. The teen liked to believe that they had just been careless at the time, and he looked at the abstract art the paint sometimes became when a collection of splatters were able to dry together before they were mopped up by the custodian. Anderson went to the teacher's front desk after the main body of the students had gone up to turn in their art pieces when the bell for the passing period rang. Just turning back to look at Vlad, with no reason behind doing so, the teen was surprised to see the red eyes right behind him, about to leave. A tan hand caught Vlad's shoulder and stopped him.

"You haven't turned in your art yet." Green eyes dropped to the empty hands and then roamed about the thin shoulders of the brown T-shirt the boy was wearing. He wasn't holding the hand picture, and he didn't have a backpack. Anderson's eyes narrowed and he squeezed the shoulder with a sigh. "You threw it away again, didn't you?"

Vlad just blinked, looking at the teen's frustration and disappointment. "What's your point?"

A growl came out with the words and the grip on the shoulder tightened until Vlad winced and shrugged it away sharply. "Because you did it, and you're not turning it in so you're not going to get credit. You don't care about your grades do you? You're good at this kind of stuff. Why not get something out of it? Like a good grade? Or you could even try for the National Art Merit Scholarship and go to college."

Vlad was rubbing his stinging arm with a faint glower creasing his mouth and sparking in his eyes. "I'm not going to college Anderson. So it doesn't matter." He stepped away quickly as Anderson froze for a moment. Then the football jock hurried after him, scooping up the backpack he had set by the desk, but then he stopped, knowing that pursuing the teen would do nothing. So instead, Anderson circled back to search the trashcans. He found the hand pencil drawing and flattened out the creases on the edge of a table.

Vlad watched from the doorway, then quietly slipped away to retrieve his sweatshirt from the other class. The sky outside was a sea of white and grey waves, wild air currents warping the clouds as they failed to give out rain, as if beating them for their incompetence. The crimson eyes didn't have the fire they normally did as they ran over the ocean of the sky and then fell to the horizon where land and trees began. He made his way to his next class to take an exam he had forgotten about. But he had read the chapters assigned for the history homework, so he knew what the test was on. Having failed it his Junior year, the class was easier this time around and he was managing to do fairly well in it, actually maintaining a B through the first quarter. He just always seemed…to take longer than the other students…to get certain concepts and understand the themes of the readings. That was probably why he always did so much better on the retake tests when he was allowed to take them. He still wished sometimes, while taking the tests, that he wasn't so goddamn stupid.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

The weather was insane. It was raining buckets of water as high school students poured out of buildings and into the onslaught of the storm. The flat levels of grass in the quad were under an inch of water that had not been swallowed by the drains that sparsely dotted parts of the campus.

Anderson was in the school work out room, taking advantage of the variety of the equipment that had been provided for the school athletes. Members of the wrestling team were also in the room, along with other football players and one or two soccer players who had stayed because the turf field was too wet and the track was dangerous in this kind of weather. As lightening split the sky in the distance and thunder roared louder than the wind, droplets of rain made rings on the surface of puddles outside the open door. A girl closed it and then returned with her friend to a separate room where a few cardio machines were stored. The music became louder once its way of escape had been cut off, audile over the clinks of metal on metal and the voice of a coach.

Vlad lingered by a large tinted window in one of the buildings on the main campus. The lightening reflected on the window and brightened his eyes for a moment. Rain dripped lightly from his bangs onto his sweatshirt as he watched the weather. He heard a car screech in the parking lot, but without the damning crash of two colliding forces and the absence of honking horns, the boy knew an accident had not occurred. The oil that had collected on the streets was being lifting from the asphalt and suspended by the rain, and this made the roads a little slick, a little dangerous. A drop hanging from the black bangs shuddered and danced before falling after a short struggle. No more drops fell after it.

As the rain began to fall harder outside and trees bent and grazed the walls of the building, Vlad turned from the window and walked down a hall and through a closed door.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

It was dark and it was only growing darker as the sky howled and the heavens waged their war, beating their thundering drums and showering daggered sparks from their clashing swords. The sky was a grey blue color, retaining texture as if the color had been sponged on and the sky was a rough canvass. It was 5:07 PM on the wall, and the sky was only getting darker and the raging gods were only getting fiercer, but Vlad had to leave. He had already ignored his employer for two days. His only luck was that he didn't have any other activities today.

The teachers had forbidden and stopped the students from loitering outside in the wet weather so Anderson had not been allowed to look for Vlad during lunch, which was rather fortunate for him because the black haired teen had decided to avoid him during that time. Now, as water flooded into the impractical ringed holes in his converse and spray from passing cars pelted him like buckshot, Vlad wouldn't have minded if he ran into the other teen. But as headlights, made hazy by the falling rain, dashed by the sidewalk, shooting the boy with stinging water, none of the cars stopped when they saw his silhouette in the dark.

Vlad hopped off the curb and trudged through an unseen puddle, a hiss splitting through his teeth when he felt the dirty water, and he lifted his hooded head for a moment to glare death into the puddle. He passed the opening of a side street and pitched to the side when he made a strained step to reach over another puddle. His foot crashed into the puddle as he caught his balance and the teen jumped out of the water and onto the next sidewalk. His legs were dead with cold. He couldn't feel them while he wished his prickling toes were numb instead. Ducking his head, the boy stared at his soaking shoes while the headlights from cars zoomed by after brightening the outline of his shape. As a truck rolled through the river of water flowing down the side of the street, into a storm drain, the sound of a car door opening and closing in the alley was muffled. So Vlad was ignorant of the person that stepped onto the curb behind him and stretched out a gloved hand.

Vlad gasped when a hard grip clamped over his shoulder and an even harder voice spoke behind his head. Then he paused and blinked, feeling the icy chill of his own face as he recognized the voice.

"Do you need a ride, Vladimir?"

Vlad turned as a car swept by, illuminating the two circular lenses on the woman's face along with the patch stitched into the fabric of her sleeve. It was a police uniform, and blue shone out for a moment behind the glasses. The teen watched Integra without thoughts in his mind.

The hand patted his shoulder and tugged on it loosely before letting go. "Get in. I'll drive you. Walking near the streets when it's raining like this is a hazard to your health and to those driving around here. We don't need a bloody accident so close to the holidays."

Without commenting, Vlad followed the woman and waited beside her police car. She got in the driver's seat and reached over to open the passenger door and then started the car as Vlad shut it again. Vlad, who was distracted by what was going on, did not watch the road to see where she was taking him. His eyes widened, shocked to see the familiar gate that opened to let them in, and he stared at the trees they passed. Integra pulled up her driveway and into her garage that opened after she pressed a button on her visor. She parked the car and got out, gruffly ordering the boy to hurry up. Vlad remained where he was, too stunned to do anything but stare at the white wall in front of the car.

"Get out. You're dripping on the seats." The uniformed woman circled around the front of her cop car and opened Vlad's door for him.

Stiffly, the teen followed the order. He closed the car door the woman abandoned when she marched to the mat before the door into the house and wiped her feet.

"Wipe your feet. They're filthy." She called over her shoulder and disappeared.

The disoriented boy slowly mimicked what Integra had done and went into the house, his shoes squeaking on the tile, tattling to Integra that the boy had failed to completely dry his converse. But that was to be expected after the amount of water they had been exposed to. Vlad left the corridor from the garage and followed the sound of the woman's boots as the squeaking converse became quieter. He skirted the perimeter of a curved wall and found himself looking at the kitchen where a few hanging lamps dropped light on the counters. The rest of the house was shadowed, the other lights mostly turned off. Integra flipped a few switches, brightening the house, and tossed her keys onto the counter beside her son who was bent over an arrangement of textbooks and notes. Anderson didn't even look up when the keys caught on some of his papers and pulled them a little ways over the granite counter space, messing up the collage of school work.

"Hi Mom." He replied absently as the woman opened the fridge and pulled out some things that she slammed mercilessly onto an open counter. She went to the fridge again, catching the door as it began to close.

"I brought home a puppy."

Vlad was still too stunned to react to the insult as he stood at the end of the curved wall, watching the two. Anderson's head snapped up and he spun around on his stool to look at his mother. "What? Really?" His confused expression lit up a little with excitement.

"Yeah." A hand gestured to the direction over her son's shoulder. "He's right there, you missed him honey. We should get your eyes checked again."

Anderson started to grumble as he turned back around, putting his fingers on the counter he had been working on. "There's no dog…" He growled before looking just to make sure. His eyes found the dripping Vlad staring at him blankly.

Anderson yelped and staggered back, almost tripping on the legs of his stool. He took two prolonged steps back and then rocked slightly on his heals as he gazed at the pale teen, gasping. "That's not a puppy! I mean, he's not a…!" He spun wildly to gawk at his mother and then stared at the boy, stupefied. "That's Vlad."

The woman smirked as she turned on the stove and the blue flames jumped up instantly to do her bidding. "Yes, sweetie. I know it's Vlad. Why don't you help him out over there, I think he's cold. His clothes are all wet from wandering around in the rain."

"I wasn't wandering around." Vlad's wide eyes stayed with the woman as she poured some vegetable oil into a pan and rotated it around to spread the fat. "I was going home."

Integra snorted, moving to another counter to set up a cutting board so she could chop up a big chunk of broccoli. "That's nice. You're still wet and you're still dripping on the floor, Vladimir. Alex probably has some clothes that you can borrow. Then he can show you to the guest room where you're going to sleep tonight."

Both of the boys stared at the woman, gapping at her tenacity. Vlad shivered a little in his wet clothes, thinking of the distance from the house to his apartment. He had only been twenty minutes from his apartment when Integra had picked him up. Now he had hours of walking time if he wanted to go home. Giving up, Vlad quietly followed Anderson up a nearby staircase and down the carpeted passage to the blonde teen's room. Vlad, as he stood in the room waiting for Anderson to pull himself away from his drawers of clothes, cringed as he looked at the shaggy carpet and saw dark smudges of dirt left by his shoes.

Anderson didn't notice when he threw the clothes on the bed inattentively, then flinched and got them again and gave them to Vlad. The pale face had dried during the car ride, and now only the black hair let water hit the clothes. "Anderson…" He said hesitantly as Anderson moved away to show Vlad to the guest room. "I think…my shoes… Look at the carpet."

Anderson glanced down and saw the dirt. He shrugged and watched his own sneakers. "Just take off your shoes…and don't worry about it. It's not really your fault."

Yes it is. Vlad sat down, reluctant to make more of a mess, and he pulled at the loose laces and yanked the converse from his feet. His socks were even worse, marked with clinging lumps of dirt or wood. Vlad stared at them, keeping his shoes on his lap. He peeled them off and frowned at the discolored water that marked his white, pruned feet. Not wanting to draw attention to it or bother Anderson, as he was already going out of his way to do a lot of things for him recently, the teen used the clean part of his pants, the fabric near his knees, to clean his feet. He rolled up the ends of his jeans when he saw that they were almost black, soaked with grim. Once decent for walking on the expensive looking carpet, Vlad got up and went to the door where Anderson was still waiting, unconscious of all that had occurred right in front of him, and they went to the guest room, flipping on a light as they walked. Anderson opened the door soundlessly and hit the switch that was installed next to the frame of the doorway.

"It's not very big." Anderson apologized, rubbing his head as he looked at the carpet.

Vlad stared at the dark navy comforter with green sheets visible where they were folded back with the comforted near the headboard of the bed. A pillow that matched the sheets was propped up against the headboard, showing off the patterned texture on the pillow case. An armoire and a dresser were placed by the wall, filling space that didn't have a picture covering the light blue paint. It was as big, if not bigger, than his one room apartment, without counting the guest room's closet. This…isn't much? "Rich fat ass."

Anderson jerked and scowled at Vlad.

"This room is like a freaken hotel suite. What the hell are you saying it sucks for?"

Speechless, Anderson was easily banished from the room when Vlad told him he was going to strip right then and there, regardless of whether or not the other boy decided to leave. Anderson waited outside the door until Vlad's voice drew him back into the room.

"What should I do with my clothes? If I put them down they're going to mess up stuff…" Vlad was holding the clothes out away from himself, dismayed when they dripped a little on the carpet while he struggled to not get the borrowed clothes dirty. Red eyes sought out Anderson's face to make sure he wasn't mad about the drops of water. "Can I borrow your washing machine? Or your dryer?"

"Uh…yeah. Give them to me and I'll go put them in." Anderson went forward and took the clothes out of Vlad's hands before the teen could respond, and, to Vlad's horror, Anderson tucked the bundle under his arm. Vlad almost swung the converse in his other hand to quickly snatch the clothes back, but he stopped in fear of flinging dirt from the shoes. Because of the distraction, Anderson was already out of the room when Vlad caught him.

"Wait, idiot! They're messing up your shirt..." Anderson moved out of reach and waved the worried hands away.

"It's fine. I'll have to wash it anyway. I might as well add in my load of laundry so that we don't waste a ton of water washing just your stuff." He noted the shoes with socks tucked into them and held out his hand. "Give me your socks and we can add your shoes too if you take out the laces."

Vlad stopped trying to take the clothes away and he walked down the stairs quietly. "You can wash shoes in a washing machine?" His questioning eyes made Anderson smirk and then chuckle.

"Well, yeah. You've never put your shoes in your washing machine before?"

Vlad shook his head as they reached the bottom of the stairs. The teen's bare feet padded against the cool white tiles. Once their ears became accustomed to the sound, it disappeared.

When they were in the laundry room, Vlad pulled out his laces while Anderson dropped the wet clothes into the open machine. He left and changed his shirt in his room before hooking his arms around his laundry basket. It creaked in his arms all the way back to the laundry room. Vlad was waiting for him, his shoes in one hand with his laces in the other, with his face showing some kind of inner conflict.

"I don't think…" He shook his head as Anderson put the basket down and began stuffing his clothes into the washing machine. "I'm just going to clean my shoes myself…I'm not going to put them in."

Anderson stopped after dropping a pair of shorts into the open lid. He looked back over his shoulder, with a frown pulling his lips downward. "Why not? It's way easier…and they get cleaner in the washer."

The black head of hair moved back and forth as Vlad refused to believe the teen. "No way Anderson. They're going to break your washing machine, I just know it, and I'm not going to take that chance. Alright? I'll just wash them in the sink over there." A bare foot stepped towards the deep sink at the end of the room.

"No. Hey! I said you don't need to do that!" Anderson dodged his laundry basket and quickly grabbed Vlad's arm, dragging him away from the sink. They struggled for a moment and then the pale teen gave up the fight, but stubbornly held the shoes out of Anderson's reach.

"They're going to break it!" Vlad leaned away from Anderson's grabbing hands.

"No." The larger boy missed the shoes again and reached around Vlad to get at them. "They aren't! I swear! And if they did it'll be my fault!"

"No!" Vlad ducked away and ran to the sink. A hand caught his shirt and refused to let go. The boy growled as he was forced to stop. "Let go! You're going to stretch the shirt out, you stupid fat ass! It's your goddamn shirt!" He gasped and desperately tried to move the shoes out of the way, but Anderson got a hold of them and tugged.

"Yeah, my shirt, my washer, your shoes, into the washer, now!"

"What?" They fought to keep the shoes in their hands instead of the other's.

"Shoes…" Grunt. Tug. "…into the washer! Now!" Vlad's back was bent over the lip of the sink as he pulled on the shoes, and Anderson's socks slipped a little over the tiles as he yelled. "Let go! Stupid runt!"

Vlad twisted his body to tear the shoes from Anderson's grasp, lifting them into the air so that they almost bumped into a high stained glass window. "No way in Hell, fat ass!"

"You're being an idiot, Vlad!" Anderson pulled hard on the shoes and they swung down, half way over the other teen's head, and then they stayed there for a while until they were slowly brought between the two. Vlad, with a sudden yank, held them to his chest, catching Anderson off guard. He tugged and tugged on the shoes, but they wouldn't budge now. "Give me the shoes!" The growl demanded.

Vlad jerked with each tug, but managed to keep his grip on the shoes. "No! No way in fucking Hell!"

"Excuse me?"

Both of the boys gasped, freezing in their positions. Anderson kept his hands on the shoes, pulling on them when he thought Vlad was off guard. The black haired teen grunted and pulled back. He yelled to Integra over the resumed struggle. "He's crazy! He wants to break your washing machine with my shoes!"

"No!" Anderson finally let go, making Vlad hit his back on the sink with a hiss. The green eyes turned to the mother and the questioning look on her face. "I just want to put them in the washer and he's freaking out." He tried to explain, his hands indicating the disheveled and glowering Vlad. "Tell him they won't break the washing machine. Tell him. He won't believe me."

Integra watched Vlad look at her, waiting for her to tell Anderson that he was the crazy one. Instead, she shook her head and set her hand on her hip with a sigh. "Give them to me, Vladimir."

Hesitating, the boy edged towards her, searching for her intentions in the blue eyes. The shoes were transferred to the woman's gloves. Integra nodded in thanks and then immediately threw the shoes into the open washing machine. Vlad's jaw dropped and he stared at her, devastated. "But they'll break it!" He protested urgently lifting up his hands. Integra saw the laces he was still holding and she snatched them away and tossed them into the machine as well, wiping her hands off afterwards to show that the job was finished.

"There. Much better." She smiled, amused by Vlad's desolate expression as he gazed at the washing machine. He began to fidget anxiously, and the woman shot her son a look to tell him not to make fun of the other boy before she left.

Vlad refused to look away from the machine as Anderson piled clothes over the shoes. "Anderson…take them out." The teen paused, glasses rotating to the pale features. He watched Vlad's face as he dropped in another fist full of clothes. Vlad flinched visibly. The boy did it again and again, getting the same response. Now Vlad looked like he was being tortured. "Please. You have to take them out! They're going to break it! I'm sure of it! Dead sure!"

Anderson pursed his lips, as if in deep thought. Then he slammed the lid closed, shaking his head. "Nope. They won't, I promise." He poured out some soup into the cap of its container and then reopened the machine and poured it in. The football jock started the washing machine and turned to watch the skinny teen pull his black hair with his leg jerking spastically as he forced himself not to run to the machine. Anderson started laughing despite himself, and Vlad let go of his hair and planted his feet firmly on the tiles with a weak snarl.

"Shut up, fat rich ass bastard." His fist shot out at the washing machine and his foot crashed into the floor. "Take them out!"

"No."

Vlad cursed under his breath and paced frantically back and forth for a while, glancing at the machine. Finally he plopped down on the floor with his back against the wall and brought up his knees, lacing his fingers nervously together, moving them constantly. "Then I'll just have to keep watch."

"What?" Anderson observed the fitful nerves, dumbfounded now by the boy's behavior. "Watch what?"

A finger pointed at the machine before returning to be twined with its brothers again. The bare feet tapped out a tuneless beat, moving in turns. Anderson continued to stare, guilt visiting him. Green eyes scouted about, hoping to find something else to look at as he tried to gain the courage to leave the room or find the words that would convince Vlad that there was nothing to worry about. His hand roamed through his short hair.

"Come on, Vlad…I bet dinner's almost ready." Spoke the quiet voice. Vlad shook his head. Now only one bare foot was tapping.

"If it starts doing something weird…if it starts to break…" He shook his head and closed his eyes for a second. "I'm going to sit right here so that I can take the shoes out or stop it if…it's breaking, Anderson. I'm not going to let my shoes destroy your washer… It's not fair."

What's fair? Anderson growled, becoming impatient now. He went to the other boy and stood, looming over him. Vlad wouldn't look up at his face. "Get up. Let's go eat or see if we can help my mom by setting the table."

Vlad froze, stricken by the two obligations. Anderson bent over and tried to lift Vlad to his feet, gripping the thin arms. Slowly, Vlad cooperated. "Fine… I'll set the table with you, but then I have to come back. Okay, Anderson?"

A tan hand readjusted its bronze glasses with a sigh of relief. "Halleluiah." Sighing again, Anderson closed his eyes and then watched Vlad for a while before they started for the kitchen. "They won't break the washer, Vlad."

The teen shook his head, stuffing his idle hands into the pockets of the jeans he had borrowed. "I just want to make sure."

Anderson made an exasperated, almost pained, groan and knocked his knuckles on his head. "Stupid. This is stupid! I'm telling you the truth. Do you think I'd lie about something like this?" Vlad tucked his chin to his chest, a little ashamed of himself now.

"I put…too many towels into my uncle's washing machine…once…" The teen spoke quietly, forcing Anderson to calm in order to hear him. "…and it broke..." Vlad sighed, rolling his shoulders and cracking his neck as it stiffened. "He just stared at it for the longest time…just stood there. Never saying a thing." Anderson watched Vlad's morose demeanor, his mouth twitching once.

He faced straight ahead as they went into the kitchen to wash their hands so they could set the table. When Anderson was grabbing up the forks, Vlad got the knives. "They won't break it. I promise, so just eat with us when the food's ready."

Vlad didn't respond.

As they began to put the silverware on the placemats, Vlad put the knives next to Anderson's forks. When Anderson came back with a stack of plates that had two empty glasses seated on the top of them, with Vlad carrying the spoons and another glass behind him, the green eyes paused on the knives and forks. He moved the knives over to the right side as he put a plate on each placemat and a glass behind them. Vlad blinked at the rearrangement and then peered down at his spoon filled fist, not knowing what he should do. Anderson saw the teen struggle for a while and then put the spoon next to the fork.

"Put it on the right, on the far side of the knife." Anderson was watching when Vlad looked up and then ducked his head and fixed the spoon. He put the glass by the placemat that didn't have one and finished doling out the spoons. Integra was watching from the kitchen, having sensed that something was off. Vlad was standing next to Anderson when he set down his third and final spoon. "Haven't you set a table before?" Anderson asked. Thin shoulders jerked at the question.

"No."

Integra's lips twitched into a frown and she returned to the stove to mix the wild rice that was cooking in the oiled pan with a wooden spoon. "Damn it." She hissed, shoving the rice into a pile that she flattened fiercely. "After you bring a stray puppy home…" She growled, lines marring her features as she beat at the rice. "…you don't want to put it outside again." The woman's eyes narrowed as she cursed quietly, pained when she recalled the night the red eyed teen had bitten her. She had tried to taze the boy as he escaped over a chain linked fence afterwards.

The scar glinted a little in the light coming from the hood of the stove that sucked up the cooking fumes, and the hand moved with the wooden spoon.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Anderson gathered up his notes from the counter with the hanging lights and stools as his mother finished cooking. Vlad helped by picking up the two textbooks and carrying them up after Anderson, into the teen's bedroom. Anderson put his notes on his desk so Vlad put the books beside them. The books were picked up and laid on the notes to keep them flat while Vlad watched, showing no reaction towards the correction. "My mom will call us when the food's ready." Anderson explained as he sat in his chair and opened his laptop. As the screen came to life, he reached over the side of his desk, standing up when he needed a few more inches, and wheeled another chair around the corner of the desk, situating it beside his own. He typed in his password as he spoke. "Sit. I think we have a few minutes to kill."

The black haired teen sat down, red eyes scanning the screen and then flitting over to the textbooks. Vlad licked his lips and then bit them sharply. "What were you studying?"

Green went to the books as well. "Oh, them? Physics and Calc. I'm in Calc BC. You?" Anderson waited for Vlad to answer, his finger tapping on his mouse pad without needing his eyes to watch it.

"…Not taking math this year." Vlad eyed the iTunes window that popped up after the computer's fan fussed for a while. "I already took three years of math and that's all you need in order to graduate."

Anderson nodded, not too surprised. "Most people drop math their final year. What did you take last year?"

"…Statistics."

"Hm." The glass lenses mirrored the light from the screen as the teen read through his list of songs, scrolling down occasionally. The wind howled a little at the window as it abused the trees that surrounded the house.

The red eyes came back from the window and followed the descending list. "What did you take?"

"Calc AB. It goes: AB, BC, and then CD. All college level for college credit. All of them make you want to tear out your hair and beg for summer to come as quickly as possible." He chuckled while Vlad frowned.

"That doesn't sound good…at all."

"No. But then again," Anderson shrugged and his eyes stayed on a song title. "…sometimes it's fun. It's interesting, Math. It's Man's knowledge, everything he has learned and discovered since the beginning of history, allowing the present world to exist and function as it does… So I like calculus a bit." He smiled to himself as he clicked on the song.

Vlad would have liked to mull over the words, but the music distracted him.

"Nocturne…in C sharp minor." Crimson flowed from the speakers to Anderson's smirk.

"I heard you play it once."

Vlad's eyes dropped to the speakers again, and he was quiet, listening to the song. Anderson watched the screen as the seconds ticked by, tracked by the music player.

Integra's voice came from the kitchen. "Alex! You know I'll eat everything if you don't get your butt down here in thirty seconds, counting…now! I, 2, 3, 4…" Anderson hissed something and scrambled out of the room with Vlad following behind him. Vlad stopped by the table while Anderson slid down the hall on his socks without meaning to. The red eyes blinked at the comical sight, waiting for the other teen to take a seat so that he would know where he was supposed to sit.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Integra was at the head of the table with Alexander to her left and Vladimir to her right. The red eyes were moving with Anderson's hands, and Vlad would copy whatever he did. Anderson took out his napkin, unfolded it, and lowered it in his lap and then gasped and put the napkin on the table again and dashed into the kitchen. Vlad stopped after taking the napkin out of his lap again, then watched, puzzled when Anderson was gone. He looked to Integra for an answer and she fitted her own napkin onto her lap.

"He forgot the drinks. He does that every night, you just put the napkin in your lap and we'll wait until he gets back."

Vlad nodded, not knowing what else he should do, and then he looked down at the food. He could feel the steam and heat wafting up into his face, delicious scents invading his nose. The teen bit his lip, a little uncomfortable in the strange environment with the strange mannerisms and strange food and super strange people that kidnap others and take them home… He didn't even know what the meat was. Clearing his throat, Vlad shifted in his seat to make it more comfortable. "What's the meat thing?" He pointed at a whitish hunk of meat, only glancing at the police woman for a second.

"Shark."

Vlad froze and stared at the fish, full of amazement. He almost cussed but bit his tongue instead. "Oh." Came his lame response, and the boy was quiet after that. Anderson returned with three containers: milk, orange juice, and cranberry juice. He handed the cranberry juice to his mother and poured himself a glass of milk, then offered Vlad a choice of the three.

Crimson eyes gazed at the drinks while a hand slowly selected the cranberry juice. It was red, his favorite color, after all. And he didn't like milk and orange juice didn't sit well in his stomach. After pouring out the cranberry juice and sliding it back to the center of the table, Vlad watched as Anderson gathered the containers up again and removed them from the room, and then returned moments later. They were allowed to eat after that.

Vlad ate slowly, glancing at Anderson at times when he began to doubt what he was doing. He ate some of the shark. It was amazing. He ate some of the broccoli. It was good. He ate some of the rice. It was addictive. But still, he ate cautiously and savored his food while Anderson reached for seconds, bringing an awkward smirk to the pale lips.

"How was school?"

Vlad's head whipped to Integra and then he looked at Anderson as the boy responded.

"Good. A few tests, but I feel that I did well on them. And I drew a Santa bug in art and Vlad made fun of it."

Integra smiled as she ate, looking down at her food. "Vlad's a bully, then?"

"No." The black haired boy defended himself, chewing on the side of his mouth. "You would have laughed too if you'd seen it."

Now the woman snickered and looked up. "Is your art so great?"

Vlad's face went blank, almost satisfying Integra for a moment, but her son ruined it, drawing a threatening growl from Vlad as well. "His art's amazing. Best in the class, but he has this bad habit of throwing it away when he's done."

Dark curses were mumbled under Vlad's breath as blue eyes examined him closely. Seeing that it would be best to drop the subject and leave it for another time, the woman stabbed a broccoli tree with her fork and then chewed it to death, quietly.

Anderson was into the conversation now, and he smiled knowingly at his mother. "But he's even better at the pi…"

"Anderson." Vlad cut in sharply, drawing the two pairs of eyes to himself, and his fork indicated Anderson's broccolis. "Eat your vegetables."

"But…" Anderson's disappointment began to prevail over his excitement, and his voice died down until his mother killed it entirely.

"He's right, Alex. Eat your vegetables."

Beaten, Anderson grumpily ate his green trees in silence. When dinner seemed to be at a close and the blonde teen asked to be excused, Integra looked at Vlad's plate and frowned a little. "In this house, you are expected to finish everything on your plate, Vladimir." The boy still had a little of everything left.

Vlad was quiet, and he stared at the food until the mother and son watched him, chilled by the suddenly heavy atmosphere. "I don't want to waste it." Vlad began, still gazing at the food. "But I can't eat anymore."

He had eaten a little less than Integra and only half as much as Anderson. After a few moments, Integra murmured that it was okay for him to go. She called after the two when she regained her voice and picked up her own dishes to take them into the kitchen. "No inappropriate sites on the laptop, Alexander, or I'll burn that thing."

"Mom! You know I don't do that!"

The woman sniggered at the embarrassed, high pitch in her son's voice and she began to rinse off the dishes to load them into the dish washer. The two teens were scaling the stairs as Vlad teased Anderson about what his mom had said and then was told to shut up.

"How are your fingers?"

The sudden question made Vlad's steps falter. He peered down at his hands. "Good, I guess. I get little pricks once in a while, but it's not as bad as I'd thought it would be. They're…it's like they're bruised, for the most part." The two noted the slight discoloration around the knuckles on one of the pale hands.

"Hm." Anderson went into his room but Vlad stopped at the doorway, looking back at the guest room. "You can come in. It's not late yet." Vlad entered the room to find Anderson by his laptop again. He chuckled.

"'No inappropriate sites on the laptop Alexander.'"

"Oh!" Anderson hissed but continued to click on the computer, searching for something. "Go…jump in a puddle, Vlad."

The teen smirked. "Were you going to say, go to Hell?"

"No. I was going to say, go jump in a darned puddle, you loon."

Vlad laughed and moved to sit in the wheeled chair again. "No. First I would have to have my shoes back, and I think I've had enough of puddles…today…" His whole body went rigid when his voice caught in his throat and his eyes shot wide, flying to the door. Anderson growled and grabbed him before he could run off.

"Not the stupid shoes again! They'll be done soon anyway so just leave them. Nothing's going to break." He grumbled as he saw that Vlad's doubt refused to leave as he sat down. "I thought we were done with the shoe business."

"Fine. I'm not going… I said I'm not going, so you can let go now, fat ass." Vlad's dull eyes ran over the desk and his hand fiddled with a drawer he pulled out, searching through the contents. Anderson slammed the drawer shut again, and tapped on his key board before getting up.

"I set up the internet and stuff…you can use it if you need to study for anything. You don't have any textbooks with you, so I thought I'd show you where you can get the same information on the school site." His finger touched his computer screen to indicate a few individual links. "I'm going to go take a shower, alright? Or do you want to take yours now? You can use the other bathroom."

Vlad thought about it and didn't see why he shouldn't, so he got up and let Anderson close the laptop and lead him to a bathroom with a shower. The shampoo in this shower didn't smell as nice, Vlad noticed with a frown, but the conditioner was the same, so he didn't mind. After running his fingers through his hair in the mirror for a while, the teen slipped his borrowed clothes on and went back to Anderson's room. The door was closed, so he waited in the hall until it opened again to reveal a cleaner Anderson who wasn't wearing his glasses. A hand beckoned Vlad in. As the dark head of hair passed Anderson, the teen couldn't resist and he ruffled Vlad's hair with a laugh, startling the other boy. "Your hair's so fluffy now." Vlad moved away with a hissed curse damning Anderson to Hell and beyond. Anderson only laughed. "You smell a lot better than you did before."

"Stuff it, rich bastard."

The green eyes shone with humor while Anderson moved to his desk and propped open his laptop again. "I think I'll name you Fluffy."

"Screw you, Fat Ass. You're a freaken Fat Ass, that's your name."

"I am NOT fat, fluffy runt." He had the window for the school website on the screen and he scooped up his notes and textbooks and went to his bed, where he dropped them. "Do your homework and study."

Vlad leaned back in his seat, thrumming his fingers on the desk. "No homework. Only one test, and I have a free period right before it, and I read all the books so I know all the stuff."

"Is it English?" Anderson's mattress creaked as he lowered himself onto it and crawled into a comfortable position, opening a textbook.

"Yeah."

"Read the Spark notes online, just to refresh your memory."

Red stayed with the computer screen, blinking at times, and the fingers continued to thrum on the desk. Finally, Vlad got up and stretched his hands over his head and cracked his back a bit. "Gonna take a nap."

Anderson sighed and buried his nose in his book. "Fine. Suite yourself." Vlad began to head for the door but Anderson's head popped up with a gasp. "Wait. You know about the….er…money stuff. I'll get for you tomorrow. You can come with me to the bank."

Vlad was frozen in the doorway, his face twisted disturbingly. He got rid of the expression before Anderson could see it, and he moved his face away from the boy's eyes. "Don't bother. My hand's healing faster than I thought." He opened and closed it easily, showing that he was speaking the truth. "I'm a fast healer…none of that's a problem anymore. Keep your money." Anderson didn't say anything when Vlad left and closed the door.

No. Vlad was sure he had lost his temporary job. It was a given after his second day of absence, but he didn't care anymore. He didn't want Anderson's money.

As Vlad was making his way passed the stairs to go to the guest room, a sound seeped through his flesh and solidified his muscles, stopping him where he was. It was the ghostly sound of a piano. Coaxed by the music, Vlad didn't think twice about going to the source, and he watched Integra play brazenly. He aware of the fact that she knew that he was there, and suddenly, he realized that she had caught on to the secret or had already been told by her son. He stood behind her and watched until she was done.

The woman turned around, glancing about to see if Anderson had come as well. She preferred that he hadn't. "I hear you can play." Her lips smirked at the boy's emotionless face that became a little cold, in her opinion.

"Why did you bring me here?" He asked in a hushed voice, waiting for something to happen. It was something specific and significant, but he could not yet determine what that something was supposed to be.

Integra's voice became quiet as well, like a gentle whisper that was still strong enough to fill the room. "Play for me."

The red eyes didn't change. Nothing changed in the room. It was just as peaceful and quiet when Vlad moved to the bench and Integra got up, allowing it to creak a little. He sat down and laid his fingers on the ivory tips of the keys. "Is this why you brought me here?"

"No."

Vladimir Dracula said nothing, and he did not play. "This isn't just playing and listening to music." Integra didn't comment as the boy remained, poised to begin, yet his slack fingers said that he would not start at the moment. "Have you ever heard of the name Vladimir Horowitz? …..No." His head moved a little, as if he were going to shake it to support his claim. "And most around here haven't. He was a Russian pianist and a composer who played for food in order to support his family during the Russian Revolution, when he was about my age. He survived during that time…and learned to play and honed his skills despite the obstacles… He was a…great composer…and pianist…." Sadly, his words began to fail him and Vlad fell into silence. His fingers twitched as he fought to find a way to express himself. "I was named after him… My mother was a musician… So playing the piano for me, isn't just playing. I don't do it for just anyone or at just any random time." He fixed his posture and lifted his palms from the keys, where they had come to rest. "I don't do it just because someone asks me to."

Integra didn't speak. She only watched and waited to see if he would play. Vlad almost didn't. He almost stood up and left at that moment, but he stayed, and slowly pressed down on a key to play his first note.

The notes came out softly, moving up and down, over the piano, changing to different pitches, like the blossoming of different flowers. A large one opened as several smaller ones unveiled themselves. Then the rolling deeper notes flowed like waves, thick and heavy, through the music, catching it in a rapid current that sped off with the thin white fingers, over the keys, pressing them down and jerking the hands as if they were only a part of its functioning body. His hands were an organ working to bring the piano to life. His hands became its heart and they pressed the keys that filled the instrument's wired veins with vibrations that sung out sound.

Time became lost as the fingers flowed and jumped and leaped over the keys. Stroking them and then striking them just to slow and comfort them again with softer notes. The current caught again and the hands were whisked up and down the piano once more, always moved by the fluid sound and not the muscles that were within the boy. It was almost spiritual, like a holy ritual of worship to a god of music. But that was only a feeling in the back of Integra's mind as she watched the fingers, unable to look away to see the boy's face. She watched, and minutes went by. The piano's voice rose and drew Anderson out of his room and he watched as well, standing beside his mother while she failed to notice him.

And Vladimir played on and on. And his hands began to slow and time took up its place in their lives again. He stopped and turned to them, suddenly lighter, in his mood, than before. He was at ease. "Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor… Not all of it, and it's not the same without the orchestra, but I think I did it some justice." The two watched him without interrupting as the teen went on. Vlad could feel his quickened pulse begin to slow. He didn't want to lose the exhilarating high he was feeling at the moment, and he couldn't remember the last time he had played like this for anyone else other than his uncle, and he had only played for the man a few times through the years. "Can I play something else?" Integra came back to life with a gentle smile on her lips, warmed by a secret she kept to herself. The boy had accepted them, and now there would be no getting rid of him. "Of course. Play until your fingers fall off, Vladimir." She left the room with the same smile, while Anderson lingered. "I'm going to move my stuff down here. I'll be back in a second." He almost apologized as he ran off to transfer his books and notes to the glass coffee table surrounded by white reading chairs in the open room that contained the piano. Vlad didn't wait for him to return, and began to play Moonlight Sanata, the first movement. And then he played the Appassionata Sonata, the third movement. He played until Anderson had finished his studying and was reclined back in a chair with his eyes closed, about to fall asleep. Integra came and told the boys to go to bed once Vlad had finished his last piece.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Vlad was the first to wake up, and he took his time looking out of the window in the guest room, to view the trees and the buildings in the far distance, all dampened with rain. Boredom drew the long, sinewy fingers to the different drawers in the room, amounting to the discovery of a clean comb and a tube of toothpaste without a brush. He left the tooth paste and used the comb by the mirror, easily disentangling a few persistent knots. When the clock showed that it was 6:55 AM and Vlad was sure that it had been Integra's car that had driven through the trees a few minutes ago, he took it upon himself to wake up the sleeping teen. It was Friday, so of course Anderson didn't want to wake up.

He crept into the quiet room and his predatory eyes spotted his lumpy prey that was hidden under the blankets. Patiently, with a wicked grin on his lips, he stalked closer to the mound and then took aim. He pounced on the sleeping Anderson, making the teenager fight and yell to get him off. By the time the blankets slipped off the bed, with Vlad falling with them, Anderson was kneeling on his mattress with his pillow as a handy weapon hovering over his head. Soon, because of Vlad's sniggers, Anderson figured out what had happened and he yelled at the 'scrawny, fluffy runt' to get out of his room.

When Anderson had dressed and gathered his stuff into his backpack, he went downstairs to help Vlad find the bowls so they could eat some cereal. It was at this time that they recalled the washing machine. They had no choice but to start it and then search for something that Vlad could wear.

After all of this had been settled out, Anderson drove them both to school.

Chapter Text

It wasn't raining during the car ride, and the sky was clear with only the threat of another storm rolling in from the grey mess of clouds in the distance. But it was cold. Vlad's nose was frozen as the two walked up the steps from the parking lot to reach the main campus, and his nose was beginning to run. Damn. Today was not a good day to be wearing someone else's grey sweatshirt. The clothes were relatively warm and definitely pleasantly clean, but he knew that it was not a good day for him to be wearing them. His goddamn nose just refused to cooperate.

Anderson noticed as Vlad sniffed a few times, but he was ignorant of the teen's dilemma. "Are you sick?"

"No." Returned a growl, and the pale face turned away from Anderson, pretending to look around. Then the boy realized that he did have a reason to look away. He was searching for a spot where he could waste the fifteen minutes that were left before classes were going to start. He sniffed and warmed his hands in the sweatshirt's pouch, touching the soft interior thoughtfully, though he refused to let it displace his stubborn scowl. "I'm wearing rich boy clothes today… People are going to think I stole them from some unlucky bastard." He chuckled a little as he played a likely scenario of him actually stealing someone else's clothes right off their backs. This could be a little fun… But then the fleeting feeling of amusement left Vlad and he frowned as he realized that he was letting Anderson lead him away from the picnic tables he usually occupied. They were moving to a line of benches, weighted down with several teenagers, a mixture of boys and girls, mostly Seniors by the looks of them. A big looking guy hollered to Anderson, who chuckled as if the appearance of this individual was funny. He lifted a tan hand in recognition and then dropped it into his letterman jacket's pocket. Others greeted him, made hyper and talkative by the Christmas two week break that would begin after the last bell for the day rang. None of them even noticed the skinny teen that was trailing behind Anderson, wary of their presences. Someone clapped Anderson on the shoulder with a spreading, impish grin.

"You know, Alex, we've been dying to ask you about your new friend…" His teasing eyes deadened upon seeing Vlad's narrowed red gaze, over his friend's shoulder. Panicking, the boy coughed and quickly backed away from Anderson, maneuvering around so that he was behind a bench now. This sudden change grabbed the others' attention and they gazed at Anderson for a while, to see what was wrong. Then, slowly, they saw the person standing behind Anderson, acting more as his shadow than as another presence. Vlad remained where he was, set on keeping his distance from the other teens, but he was not against speaking to them, and he opened his mouth with a badly concealed sneer of contempt.

"What about his new friend? I would like to hear about this as well."

"Hey!" Anderson shot back at the unpleasant, and rather provoking, tone. "Don't cause trouble, Vlad. You just got here."

The teen snorted, glaring at the others as he took in the remark with a different meaning. I did just get here. I am the new friend that these bastards want to use for their own entertainment…to satisfy their own damned curiosity. They can all just go to Hell. With this thought, Vlad turned on his heel and began to stride away, passing the picnic tables because they were within seeing distance of the benches. He chose to hide in the Art Building instead, sniffing and rolling his shoulders on the way.

Anderson called after him, but gave up. He could feel the cold welcome coming from his friends, and their sharp stares that stalked Vlad across the quad. They turned those stares onto him when Vlad was too far away to be interesting to watch anymore. "What the hell was that, Alex?" Someone demanded, confused by what they had just seen. "Why was he with you?" "Why are you hanging out with him?" "Bad crowds aren't good to meddle with, Alex." The tone of his friends' voices were containing more concern for him now, and Anderson sighed, fixing his glasses and rubbing the back of his head as he postponed his explanation. It felt like he didn't have the right to tell them, and that it was none of their business, but they were just worried about him and didn't understand what was going on. One female voice rang out, spiking through his nerves.

"Why are you with that Hell Dog freak?"

"Yumie!" Anderson said loudly, aghast. "He is not a freak. How can you say something like that?"

The others were quiet. They had been thinking the same thing, Anderson realized with a start. He frowned at the group, disappointed. "Really now. He's not that bad."

"Were those your clothes?" Heinkel's question brought turmoil to the group and they chattered incoherent things while Anderson's body froze up, frustrating himself. He growled in his throat, hoping no one would hear him as he tried to gain control of his temper.

"Well, yeah, they were. A lot of things happened yesterday and I had to lend him some clothes."

Heinkel's eyes narrowed and her lips turned down into a sharp frown. "A lot of things…? What are you talking about? Why are you getting yourself involved with someone like him? What good can come from it?" Anderson tried to speak but the girl just raised her voice to cover his interruption. "We all know you're a great guy, Alex, so you probably want to help him out or something. That's understandable, for you, but it's not good. It's not worth it, Alex. It's flat out stupid and dangerous! You stay away from sinking ships like him. They'll only drag you down with them."

Anderson's green eyes were wide and blinking, trying to expel his shock as quickly as possible. He hated her logic. But it was a logic that sung true in his ears, but felt so wrong when he tried to swallow it. It was like a cold stone in his gut. "He's not bad, I tell you. And…it was my mom yesterday. She actually took him into our house and made him stay over." Oh God this was coming out all wrong, but after he had said it, he couldn't bring himself to take it back. Because, none of it was a lie. He would never have dreamed of making Vlad sleep over at their house. Maybe feed him and clean him up, but not invite him to stay there, though he had no objections to it. There was nothing wrong with it, really, in his opinion. He just wouldn't have had the guts to think of it. They weren't that close yet, though, their relationship was tightening quickly now. He could consider Vlad as a friend, and he trusted the boy. Vlad wouldn't hurt him or his family. He wasn't dangerous…those around him might be, but not Vlad. Vlad was a good kid.

"Alex." Yumie shook her head from where she was standing with her arms crossed, her bangs in her eyes. "He's one of those people who aren't going to go anywhere in life. He probably can't and won't get into a college, he'll be waiting tables until he dies or overdoses or does something stupid that get's himself killed. Get away from him, Alex. We're your friends…we just want what's good for you."

"And you're mom should know that too, she's a smart woman. She must have had a really…" Heinkel paused, her eyes twitching in disgust. "…REALLY good reason for bringing that guy into your house." Her brow furrowed as her eyes darted to the ground, perturbed by the concept. "Are you sure he didn't steal anything?"

"No! I mean, yes. He didn't steal anything, Heinkel. You're being ridiculous. He wouldn't steal anything! I mean, God." Anderson's hand gripped his hair viciously, drowning in disbelief at the moment. "You should have just seen what a nervous wreck he was at my house, freaking out about messing up the littlest things, terrified of his stuff breaking my washing machine! He isn't like how you imagine him at all. He's just all alone, his uncle's in the hospital, and you should see just how skinny he is. It's scary! I mean…" Horror descended slowly upon Anderson's mind, and his eyes widened and hit the floor, shock and shame freezing up his body.

The others were staring at him, not seeing his sudden inner conflict, but astonished by what he had said. Another voice spoke up, drawing Anderson back to the surface of his thoughts.

"You know…Andy…you should really just let some adults handle this, then. You don't know what you could be getting yourself involved in. You have to be trained, probably, or know things, study, about this kind of stuff before you get in too deep. Let your mom take care of it. She'll probably help him out by getting him some, you know, professional guidance or help him enroll with some kind of government program that can provide financial aid for him and his…his uncle, you said? It's not really for someone like you. I mean, you have college to look forward to next year, for Christ's sake! What are you going to do? Hurt your chances at that for a guy like this? It's insane! We're telling you to drop out of this as soon as you can. Get him some real help and then get out of it as fast as you can. He's bad news…a sinking ship like Heinkel said."

"Yeah." A few quiet voices echoed behind the words. Anderson's head hung, his face directed towards the sun bleached concrete and its rugged texture. Compassionate friends offered to give him a seat, and he accepted, sheepishly, unsure about what he was going to do now. But abandoning Vlad was not an option. Never, in his mind, did he consider it. He was not a coward.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Anderson walked in with the rest of the arriving students, and his eyes wandered up to Vlad's table. As he drew near, with the choice of going to his own table or to the lower one, Anderson heard the boy cough into his sleeve and sniffle with his blocked nose, stuffing his hands back into his pockets again as he slouched in his seat. Sadness weighed down the tan features, composing a piece of misery on Anderson's face, and his feet forced him to go to the lower, emptier table. Vlad saw his face, and flung out his hands in an attempt to get rid of the germs that had accumulated on the borrowed sleeves.

He paused at the sad expression. "What did they do to you? You look like somebody just killed your pet hamster or something, Anderson. You were happy this morning."

God, he felt terrible. He felt like a terrible person too, as he sat down next to the boy he felt like he had betrayed only minutes ago. His posture was grossly decomposing by the second until Anderson sighed and buried his face in his arms on the table, turning his head so he could look at the pale teen and speak to him. "Are you sure you aren't sick?"

Vlad's eyes shot to the other side of the room, avoiding Anderson's gaze. "No. I just have a cough…and I'm sorry about your clothes. The germs will come out in the wash, right? But because of me you still have to wash them again…and I don't mean to make you sick… Not that I'm sick, that is."

The awkwardness actually brought a faint smile to Anderson's lips and he laughed softly, making Vlad growl and damn him.

"Shut up, fat ass. I am not sick. I'm just going to snot up your sleeves and the rest of your clothes just to spite you, you fuckin' creep." He snarled as the laughter got louder and Anderson had to stifle it with his arm.

"Stop cussing, fluffy runt." Anderson chuckled, a knot in his chest making him feel a little nauseous.

"Oi. You can't call me that at school, fat ass. It's not funny either, bastard. How about I knock you on the head to get rid of that fat smirk of yours?"

"Go right ahead." I deserve it.

"Hey, Anderson." Vlad's volume and anger fell as the other boy continued to act strangely, never moving his head from his arms. "Aren't you supposed to be saying stuff like 'I'm not fat'? Oi. Anderson…" Vlad leaned closer to the blonde head. "Get up. The teacher's here. She's not going to see you if you're like that and then you'll be marked absent. Do you hear me in there? Sit up, you stupid bastard. This isn't funny anymore."

"I'm tired." Anderson lied with a hidden wince. "You should've let me sleep for five more minutes this morning, runt. And I am not fat, and stop cussing. I hate hearing it so early in the morning."

Vlad poked the head angrily, causing the bent body to start, and he fell back into his chair and crossed his arms with a grumble. "You fat rich boys are too pampered. You need too much sleep."

Anderson chuckled in his arms and then bit his lip until he thought it was going to burst. He felt like shit. That's what he felt like. Shit.

"Come on Anderson. Sit up now. The teacher's explaining something. You care about your grades, right? Well, you're not going to be able to do squat if you don't sit up and listen. I'm not going to help you out later when you're whining about missing the instructions like a dick. Get up, fat ass." Anderson didn't respond to the aggravated teen, cutting Vlad's frustration down with worry. "Hey, Anderson…?" Vlad ventured quietly, looking at the lowered head. He licked his lips and glanced at the teacher and the other students as people began to chatter and get up to get their supplies. He nudged the head with his fist. "Hey? Are you sick? I didn't mean to get you sick too. It was an accident."

So you are sick. Anderson's chest rose and fell with a breath and a sigh. He didn't sit up. "Why won't you go to college?"

Vlad started and sat back with an unpleasant scowl. "Because my grades are crap and I don't have the money, Anderson. And, on top of it all, it'd be a waste. I'm naturally stupid."

"You're not stupid."

Vlad scoffed, a warped grin on his face sparking a dancing light in his eyes. He laughed at the statement, deriding it with an intended passion. "Oh, God Anderson. You're just as funny as ever. You haven't seen my grades. You've never tried to teach me anything. I'm a bona fide idiot when it comes to school stuff. I swear, it goes in one ear and right out the other." His hand rose to cut through the air, miming his words after he had said them. Vlad shivered a little and pulled on his borrowed sweatshirt to try and make himself warmer. His body was freezing while his head pounded with the heat of an inferno. He was getting a headache too. The boy cursed his bad luck.

"You're not stupid, Vlad. The only stupid thing about you…" Anderson sighed as he got up and he rubbed the deep impressions the pads on his glasses left on his nose. "…is that you think you're stupid."

Vlad crossed his arms irritably and muttered. "You should join the circus, Anderson. You'd make a great, fat ass clown. I'd laugh at you, for sure."

Anderson blinked at the other teen and scowled, pointing a finger at the pale face. "Okay…that one kinda hurt. Stop it with the fat jokes or else I'm going to have to go on a diet... And the next thing you know, I'll be anorexic just like you." Anderson moved away to get his piece of paper, while Vlad huffed.

"Fat rich ass bastard." Vlad got up and shoved his chair away as he followed Anderson. "What's your problem today? You're as moody as hell."

They sat back down. Anderson watched as Vlad's pencil stabbed into his paper, drawing something already. His glasses glinted in the light as his face fell with shame once more. He twirled his pencil anxiously in his fingers. A confession…he needed a confession, like at Church. He sighed, and then swallowed, turning his ankle under the table. "I said some stuff I shouldn't have said…earlier, with my friends." Vlad was rigid, and his hand dropped his pencil as his eyes rose, wide, to stare at Anderson. "I was only trying to defend you…because, well…they were saying stuff, and someone said that you might've stolen stuff from my house. So, I said that my mom had taken you to our house and forced you to sleep there…and that you wouldn't have done anything like that. I only meant to defend you. I…"

"Did…" Vlad cut in loudly, and then cleared his throat and eyed his paper. "Did you tell them about…you know." His hands rose and he moved his fingers quickly, like he was playing a piano.

Anderson, who had seen this, shook his head hurriedly. "No. Nothing about that. But I mentioned it that you…had trouble with the washing machine. You thought you were going to break it…" Anderson waved his hands to ward off any anger he imagined was rising up. "But I wasn't making fun of you or anything like that at all. I was only trying to explain how I knew that you wouldn't steal from my house."

To Anderson's surprise, Vlad snickered and began to draw again. Red went to Anderson's blank paper. "We're doing free-draw, or whatever you want to call it, 'Christmas stuff'." He continued to draw.

"You…you…" Anderson stammered, gawking at the other teen, amazed by his indifference. "You don't care? You aren't mad or anything?"

"I don't care if you make fun of me or stuff like that Anderson." Vlad shrugged without looking up. "Just don't tell them personal stuff like the piano, but other than that, you can tell them that I'm a freak or whatever. I really don't care."

Anderson's face contorted, as if pained. "Hey. I didn't do that."

"I know. You said you defended me…thanks, I guess. But don't go out of your way for me. It makes us even. I always make fun of you for being fat anyway."

"Hey! But I'm not fat!"

Vlad laughed at Anderson's angered expression, enjoying himself now, and he coughed a few times, then laughed again. "Fat ass. Damn it, you should be a clown."

"Shut up Vlad. You're a jerk, you know that? A real jerk in the neck."

"A royal pain in the ass, eh?" Vlad chuckled and drew a few lines as Anderson's pencil descended upon his own paper. "Fine by me."

Anderson just scowled and went on drawing his picture. When Vlad saw what it was, he frowned.

"Hey." His pencil's eraser jabbed at the white paper, scuffing it with a pink mark. "That's not a lady bug. I demand that you draw a lady bug, not…whatever the hell you're trying to draw. It looks like crap. Draw the lady bug."

"I don't want to." Anderson growled back, and then chewed on his lip as he saw the snowy forest that Vlad was drawing. He paused and then smirked when he came up with a way to make fun of it. "Looks like Narnia."

Vlad stared at Anderson until the teen looked up with a smug grin. "What the hell is Narnia?"

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

After watching the name 'Anderson' stitched into the back of the black jacket, fade into the crowds of teenagers moving about the campus, Vlad's stolid face moved with a sharp jerk to see the direction he would take to go to his next class. His feet moved stiffly as thoughts forced him to go back in time, to return to the moment Anderson had confessed to having guilt for what he had said about Vlad to his friends. A scowl would not come to the pale lips. There was no emotion as the boy moved through the crowds, never becoming a part of them, just passing through like a shadow.

When rain began to trickle down and the boy coughed again as others ducked under ledges to avoid the cold water, no observer would have thought of them as scattering children caught in the rain. They had too much purpose and responsibility to be seen as children, but they were not adults, they were not individuals, apart from their families. Vlad was caught somewhere within this picture, as a shadow slipping off into a building. And the rain continued to drizzle down from the grey, moving sky.

His thought's roamed, and his feelings remained numbed. He was always taunted, made fun of, hated, despised. Anderson…it didn't matter if the boy also did so, if he despised him and told others about his warped personality, his strangeness. A drop of water rolled down from his temple, sliding along his jaw line. He tried to listen to the other voices talking around him, but his thoughts were much louder than the other teenagers. They were loud, but they said nothing. It irked him, but he could do nothing against them and their emptiness.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Vladimir stared at the weighed down arms, brimming with an assortment of packages, both unwrapped and wrapped, and baggies filled with green and red candies, decorated with the holiday in mind. The red eyes continued to track the progress of the football player as he trudged through a deep puddle of murky, brown water, the dirt swirling about his shoes as he moved through it like he was breaking through a solid cloud. The sky was damp with a spraying drizzle, but the dark clouds suggested that another thunderstorm was on its way so all athletic practices had once again been cancelled and almost the entire school was trying to squeeze its way out of the parking lot at the same time, so Anderson was stranded on an island of grass for a minute as a backed up line of cars were exploiting a break in traffic that had occurred farther up, where the parking lot became the main road. Anderson finally reached his car, giving a heavy sigh of relief and a crooked, proud grin as he accomplished the feat. Vlad was still staring at his arms, blinking owlishly.

He gazed at the sugary foods, at a loss for words for a moment. Then he licked his lips and cocked his head to the side, stuck between anger and easy humor. He snorted, amused now as he saw Anderson juggle with his load as he struggled to get his keys out of pocket, almost dropping an arm-full of packages. A single box bounced onto the wet concrete, its glistening red wrapping paper instantly being stained by the black grim. Vlad scooped it up with a wry grin. "Did you rob 7Eleven or Santa Claus himself?" He laughed at the odd look he received from Anderson and tossed the present from one hand to the other, enjoying his lightened mood.

"No…" Anderson mumbled as he shoved his key into his car door, turning the key to unlock it. He was going to add to what he had said when he realized that he had a button that could unlock his car doors along with the trunk, so he fussed with his load to get to the button. He let the presents spill out of his arms into the trunk of his car, selected two packages after a second thought, and then slammed the trunk shut. He was going to the driver's seat when Vlad spoke again and he stopped to watch the boy.

"Then where'd all this crap come from, Anderson? Did it just fall from the sky or did you get hungry, fatty?" He sniggered, circling around the back of the car while Anderson stood still, following him with a frown.

"I am not fat. And…" He smiled slightly and opened his door as Vlad opened the passenger's side. "…girls enjoy giving me presents."

Vlad paused, losing some of his humor as he gave a partial scowl to the other teen and flopped into the seat. "Oh, shut up, fat ass. Girls give you food because they think you like it so much, considering how fat your ass is…"

"They give it to me because they're friendly. If you try being nicer to people, maybe they'll give you candy too." He laughed at the growl he received and he pulled out of the parking spot and waited in a line to enter another even longer line that lead to the main road. "Calling people fat does not constitute as being nice."

Vlad was quiet as they inched long, frowning with crossed arms as he thought the whole thing over. "Getting candy doesn't sound too bad. Maybe I should try this 'nice' act, sometime." He shrugged carelessly and turned his eyes to his side window, noting a few girls who were dashing between the cars, trying to get across. Then a mixture of students joined in, all scrambling to get to their cars as the rain drops matured, growing heavier and more frequent as time went by.

"Here." Anderson had one hand on the wheel while the other dangled a bag of M&M's in Vlad's face, jostling it so that the colored candies would clink together. "Candy."

Vlad glared at the bag, swiping at it so that it would swing wildly and hit Anderson's hand. "Not from you. Who wants candy from a fat ass?" He chuckled at the angered look Anderson threw at him. They were still stuck in the school traffic, but they could see the first stop sign in the distance.

Anderson threw the bag into a cup holder that was situated between the passenger and driver seats, muttering something about an ungrateful runt. His hand rustled around in a different package and removed a few pistachios that easily left their shells and were soon being chewed into oblivion. Vlad noticed and waited until they got to the stop sign before snatching up a few without Anderson noticing. As they reached the second stop sign, Vlad munched on a nut thoughtfully, finding that he enjoyed the salty, somewhat sweet, taste. He continued to steal pistachios as the car drove along and the rain hit the windshield as the moving arms of the wipers pushed the water aside so Anderson could see where they were driving.

When they could see the black gate that opened to let them into Anderson's driveway, the tan hand shifted through the shells that were left in the bag, and he looked down, confused when he found that they were all gone. Vlad smirked by his side.

"Damn, you at them all already."

"No…" The doubtful hand drooped as the green eyes stared at the bag and then had to returned to where they were driving. He pulled into the garage. "I didn't even eat that many…I didn't think." Vlad chuckled good humouredly.

"Here, why don't I you out." He dropped a large handful of empty shells into the bag, surprising Anderson who looked at the other boy's shell occupied lap with a growl.

"You thief! You ate all of my pistachios! And you were trying to make me think I…"

"Oh, well, considering that you are such a nice person…so nice that you deserve all of these gifts, I assumed that you would gladly share them with me." He sniggered at the stubborn snubbed glower, and got out of the car with a stretching smile. He coughed into his arm when his irritated throat lashed out at him, punishing the boy for the humor. Vlad continued to laugh anyway when Anderson had to take the shell filled bag along with the M&M's out of the car. The blonde teen threw the useless bag away and took his backpack and a few of the gifts from the trunk. He glanced at the amused red eyed boy, his mouth twitching at the hoarseness in the coughs.

"Hey you. Help me out here and take up a few of these, you nut stealing…nut." He scowled and moved to the side, leaving an empty space where Vlad could move to gather up the remaining packages and bags. Vlad scooped them up with his own scowl.

"Damn, just how many of these things did you get? And, for that matter, how many girls gave you all of this? I mean." He looked at his arms and then Anderson as the other walked away. He hissed a curse. "Shit. Just look at 'em all. Shit, Anderson. How nice are you?" Anderson laughed out something that Vlad didn't catch, but he didn't care enough to ask Anderson to repeat himself as he followed the teen into the house, he just glowered at the gifts in his hand, revisited by his confusion and disbelief from before. "I mean…what do you have to do? Carry their books or bags? Tell them they smell like flowers when they smell like crap? What did you do, Anderson? There has to be a master plan that led up to this."

"No plan." Anderson unloaded his gifts onto a counter and Vlad did the same. When Vlad saw that Anderson was sorting them, creating a food pile and a pile of wrapped or boxed gifts, he did the same. "I'm just nice to everybody, Vlad. I have a lot of friends, and a lot of friends that are…girls, I guess." He lifted up a tiny teddy bear keychain, turning it in his hands. "And girls have this thing where they like to give guy friends presents if they don't have boyfriends to give presents to. Well," He smirked and set the teddy bear on top of a neat stack of boxes, as if seating it on a royal throne. "…I'm not complaining. I like free stuff."

Vlad muttered something and then sneered at the mini mountain of candy. "You're friends want to fatten you up."

The bag of M&M's flew at Vlad's face and smacked him on the cheek. He cursed, glaring daggers into Anderson before he bent down to pick it up. Anderson laughed darkly. "You're the one that needs to fatten up, runt. Eat the candy."

"Stuff it." A pale hand chucked the M&M's at Anderson but the football jock dodged and threw another bag of candy in return. This continued for a little while, until they realized that they were bashing up the gifts. Then the two gave up and set to storing the candy in the cupboard, hiding them in the back of the shelves. Anderson settled onto a stool when they were done, and pulled a wrapped box towards himself. He tore off the wrapping while Vlad gravitated closer to see what was underneath it.

"Do these girls like you or something?"

Anderson was on his third box and soon he had it opened and was bolding a pair of cheap (Christmas) ear phones. He looked up, past the present. "Not like that…at least, not most of them, or not that I know of. They're just friends that I've known since middle school, elementary school even." He let the ear phones hang off of the bear key chain and he picked up the fourth and final wrapped gift.

Vlad watched in silence as the gift was revealed and the wrapping paper was crumbled up into a ball and thrown in the garbage. He wetted his lips before he spoke, his chest jerking with an abrupt cough he chose to ignore. "Not…" Cough. "Not many kids from my middle school…went to the same high school." He coughed into his fist and Anderson offered him a glass of water. He growled at it, but a hand forced it into Vlad's gut, spilling some on his borrowed sweat shirt. "Fine." He hissed, his throat itching with the moving air, and he gulped down some water.

"What about those guys you hang out with at lunch? You were with them today, too, weren't you? I was…kinda dragged off, so I couldn't check."

Vlad sneered at the glass of water he moved around on the smooth surface of the counter. "They come to me. I don't go to them…they aren't my friends. And they're annoying as Hell. My…friends…don't go to our school or they don't bother showing up for classes." His features quieted and the glass was stilled, though a pale finger drew lines in the condensing water on the outside of the glass. "They're…different, but I've known them forever, so I get along with them."

Anderson watched, listening to the words with rising unease. He shifted his weight from one foot to another and cleared his throat as he leaned back on a counter by a stainless steel sink. "Are they…delinquents?"

Vlad's eyes widened and a laugh burst from his lips before he could stop himself, and the humor continued, making his tone unpleasant when he answered the question. "Are they delinquents? You mean, do they do drugs, drink, vandalize public and private property, steal, and all the rest?" He laughed again, though it sounded more like a cackle in Anderson's ears, and the green eyes narrowed as they darkened.

"Do you do those things with them?" Vlad's laughter died and he turned to the quiet, passively aggressive voice, and leaned his weight on his elbow on the counter, remaining on his stool as he looked at the tan face.

"Some of it Anderson, but…before you freak out and turn me over to your mom," Vlad lifted his hands and pulled back his sleeves, then pulled on his eye lids, showing the clear whites of his eyes. "…I'm drug free and I don't deal. I drink, when someone else provides it, but I've never been drunk. Does that make it any better?" He shrugged, asking himself the question as he read it in Anderson's narrowed eyes. "Hell no. But that's what I've grown up with, Anderson. Same with the 'delinquents' I call my friends. It's not all our fault, you know. It's just how we were brought up, or mostly that's the case. My uncle got me to develop a taste for cheap wine and small quantities of beer…but I can't handle anything stronger, he never let me experiment with anything stronger. Guys make fun of me, but why should I care? I don't give them a reason to disrespect me, other than not showing off in that regard, so I'm let alone, mostly."

They were left in a tense silence. Vlad thrummed his fingers on the counter, biting the side of his mouth as his foot tapped quietly on the tile floor. Anderson took a breath and opened his mouth when the silence was broken by a cough. "Why are you called Hell Dog?"

Vlad's neck jerked, forcing him to look Anderson in the eyes for a moment. The red gaze dulled, and then sparked as his lips twisted into a leer. "Curious now, are we?"

"Concerned, actually." Anderson replied in a cold monotone, crossing his arms to show that he was ready to wait for his answer.

Vlad paused, watching the intent eyes. Then he grinned without real amusement or pleasure behind the expression. "I bite." The green eyes widened, disgust and shock coming with his knowledge behind the scar on his mother's hand. He would have gotten angry, if not for the somewhat pained look his glower drew from Vlad. The black head of hair shook, and Vlad sighed, burying his hand in his hair. "I get in a lot of fights, and I'm expected to take part in organized fights…and I tend to bite, just in reflex sometimes. I bite, I hiss…I do…abnormal things, and I scare people. Plus…I have, you know…red eyes." He leaned away from his hand, and put it on the counter as he glanced at the emotionless face by the sink. "It's not something I asked for…but I have a sense of…of some kind of pride for it. But you wouldn't understand, Anderson, and you shouldn't. It's…a survival thing… Actually, I don't know what it is, but I don't mind the name. People respect it, and I don't get much respect in…life, Anderson. People look at me and they move away. They cringe. They hurry past me on the sidewalk so as to not get too close." His hands were in his lap now, but he was still looking calmly into Anderson's unresponsive face. "I like the fighting. I like thrill…almost as much as the piano. Though, you'll probably just say that it's insane…fighting has its own skills and stuff." He paused for a moment. "It always reminds me of 'the survival of the fittest', Darwin's thing. But you can't explain it… You have to… It's something you have to experience in order to get, Anderson." Vlad's eyes widened for a moment, and he looked away with an awkward laugh. "Well, damn. This has nothing to do with your question, now, does it?" He chuckled and slouched as he sat on the stool, catching his head on the counter with his hand and he sighed. "Can we just forget this and move on? Hm? I want to go see if my shoes are dry. Your shoes are too big and they're starting to give me blisters. 'kay? Shoes, Anderson. I want to get my shoes and my other clothes. I got to go check up on some stuff. I have to go home and see if anyone's broken in and stolen everything or not. I'll walk after you give me back my stuff…"

"Shut up, Vlad."

The red eyes rose as the teen sat up stiffly and watched Anderson leave the sink. "Let's get your stuff and then we can figure out how we're going to either eat all of the candy before my sister get's home, or how we're going to hide it from her."

Vlad was quiet, unable to make himself move on command, but he got up when Anderson left the kitchen and yelled at him to 'come get his own stuff'. Trying to forget about the uncomfortable discussion they had just had, Vlad smirked emptily as he walked with Anderson to the laundry room. "Is your sister fat too?"

"I am not fat." Anderson shot back, and then grumbled. "My sister isn't fat either." He continued to walk, but his foot halted in the mid step after another moment. His eyes swung to Vlad who stopped by his side, looking the other teen over with a small, growing grin. He started to walk again while Vlad's mouth creased with a tight frown.

"What the hell was that? Did you have a brain fart for what, Anderson?"

Ignoring the crude question, Anderson smiled. "Do you want to go to a party tonight?"

"A what?"

"A party. There's a Christmas party that I'm supposed to go to tonight…do you want to come?"

They had reached the laundry room now, and Anderson went to the drier to remove the clothes while Vlad slowly walked to the sink where his shoes had been set to dry. He picked them up and weighed them in his hands for a bit, then clapped the shoes together, facing the wall. "I don't mingle well with your crowd Anderson."

"So you're just going to let that scare you away from going?" Anderson smiled slyly as he pulled the clothes from the dryer. Vlad had stopped clapping the shoes and was staring at the wall. Slowly, his eyes narrowed and his mouth scowled as his hands smacked the hole littered converse together.

"I guess so."

Anderson gave a false sigh and stood up. He closed the door of the drier with his foot and turned to leave while Vlad followed. "Then I'm not going either."

"What?"

Anderson fixed his grip on the pile of clothes in his arms, frowning when his glasses began to slide down his nose. He jerked his head futilely to fix them. "I'm not going to the party if you aren't…though I've been looking forward to it and all."

"Shut up." Vlad growled, tempted to throw the shoes at the blonde head. "Don't guilt me with your stupidity. Go if you want to, stupid bastard fat ass. Go."

"No."

"Damn you! Go to your stupid goddamn party!"

"You need to stop using that word, or else one of these days I'm going to beat the snot out of you Vlad, but no. I'm not going unless you go, you runty coward."

The argument continued up the stairs and into Anderson's room, enduring a full half hour until Vlad conceded. They were going to go to the 'stupid goddamn party', after all.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

"Fuckin' Hell."

Anderson was caught between a smirk and a glare as he looked at the boy sitting in the passenger seat of his car. Vlad was gawking at the building and the people around them, close to being horrified of the sight.

"Oh my fucking God! Shit, Anderson! Why in fucking God's name did you bring me here? HERE? WHY? You dick! You fuckin' bastard rich ass bastard, Anderson!"

"Okay." Anderson growled, fists squeezing his steering wheel as he forced himself to overlook the language. "Enough with that, Vlad. Let's go in."

Vlad pushed back into his seat and gaped at Anderson, his hands gripping the handle of the door, as if to hold it shut himself. "No way in hell! This is a fucking police station, you God damned bastard! I hate you, Anderson. That's it. I hate you, and you are taking me to a street corner away from this place and letting me out so I can go home. Now."

Anderson opened his door and pushed a button on his key chain that would unlock Vlad's door. Vlad just locked it again, making Anderson scowl.

"You said you were taking me to a party, Anderson, not to jail, you freaken bastard. Damn you." Red darted about to the different uniformed persons and he gritted his teeth and sunk deeper into his chair, as if to hide. "I hate you." He mouthed with burning eyes cutting into Anderson's frustrated expression. Anderson huffed and pulled Vlad so that he was sitting normally.

"This is the party. My mom's work party. You aren't going to be arrested. I promise…like with the shoes…and as you can see, I was right about that, wasn't I? Let's go." He sighed when Vlad hissed at him like a feral cat. "Don't do that while you're here. People will think you're crazy or high on something…'kay? No weird hissing sounds. Now out. Out of the car before I have to get my mom out here."

"Fuck you." Vlad hissed again and his hands melded to the sides of his seat as he held himself down. Anderson muttered to himself and stalked over to a nearby cop who smiled and greeted him friendlily. Anderson gave a half of a smile and informed the policeman and the other man he was standing next to, that his friend had a phobia for police stations and was afraid he was going to be arrested if he got out of the car. Vlad, who could hear him from the open car door, snarled and tightened his grip on the seat as the two policemen came to the car and then went to his window. They took one look at him and lost their cheery mood. One pulled out a flashlight while another set his hand instinctively on his walky talky. Vlad glared at the light that stung his eyes while the man holding the flashlight sighed at the red eyes he saw.

"Are you currently under the influence of any…" He began, but was cut off when an infuriated Vlad hissed, his red eyes going to Anderson who was taken aback by the new development.

"See! I'm not even out of the damned car yet and I'm already getting arrested, Anderson! You dumbass! I'll even let you take me home if it means getting away from here!" Then he glowered up at the policeman, still holding onto his seat. "And you! I am not on any goddamn drugs! This is my natural eye color, you bastard! I haven't done anything illegal! Let me go home!"

The ruckus was slowly attracting the attention of other officers and they alerted those inside that there was a dangerous and confrontational individual, whose hands were hidden from view, screaming at cops from inside a car. Integra, interested in the news, came out as well, and then stared at her son's car and the growing number of police that were coming to look at it.

The flashlight was removed from Vlad's face but he continued to snarl at the faces and held onto his seat. "Anderson! You stupid fat ass! You're a freaken retard! You took me to a fucking police station! I hate cops!"

A loud laugh turned heads and quieted Vlad as he found Integra moving to the door that her son had left open. She leaned in, shocking the other police officers, and patted Vlad's stiff shoulder and sat down in the car with him, smirking and chuckling as he frowned at her, refusing to let go of his seat. "Come on out, Vladimir. You're welcome here, too. You're not going to jail tonight."

Tonight? A few thought as Vlad slowly relaxed his grip on the seat, but his cautious eyes continued to sweep about to the individual cops surrounding him. "Your son's an idiot for bringing me here." He muttered, causing the woman to chuckle and find Anderson with her eyes.

"He knows our Christmas parties are fun, Vladimir. Come on. We have food and soda, I have beer for myself and others over twenty-one, you can't have any, but we also have a Wii and a projector set up. Have you ever played Wii?"

Vlad stared at her blankly, as if she were a lunatic being carted off to an asylum. He hesitantly shook his head to say he hadn't played Wii before. She tugged on his shoulder again and chuckled before getting out of the car. She went to his door and knocked on it. He received the wordless order and unlocked the door after a moment. Satisfied, she opened the door and smiled warmly at the pale face before undoing his seatbelt and grabbing his black sweatshirt. Integra pulled him all the way out of the car and left him sprawled out on the wet parking lot asphalt. Ignoring the stares she received from those watching, she turned and went inside.

Anderson helped the stunned boy to his feet and he escorted him passed the sea of uniforms, and into the police station.

Chapter Text

please excuse the language

"God fuck it all to Hell." Vlad murmured with a cough he didn't bother covering as he slunk into the shadows by the walls inside the police station, and pinned himself up against one, hoping to blend in like a chameleon. Anderson stood in the dead spotlight where he was in plain view of the stares the two were receiving. The green eyes narrowed into a glare at the disgusting new curse phrase Vlad had come up with. Vlad coughed again, muttering to himself crossly. "Damn it. I shouldn't have agreed to this…I need to get home, damn it. Who knows what's going to be left when I get there? The rent… Goddamn it all…"

"Shut up Vlad." Anderson shot off the end of the boy's sentence with his sharp words, earning a hiss. "Get away from the wall. You look like a…loon the way you are." He had almost said freak, but there was such a bitter aftertaste in the word that he couldn't spit it out.

Vlad grumbled something that Anderson couldn't make out and then darted further along the wall, aiming to follow Integra as he brushed off some dirt that still clung to his sweatshirt. Anderson sighed but caught up and walked beside the teen as they continued. The staring police officers were quiet, but they began to return to their festivities gradually as time went on and the tub of ice that was keeping the drinks cool began to melt. It started to rain outside, as the boy's heard it hit the roof and a nearby window. The clouds darkened the sky as stars began to appear.

"Do you want to get some food? You didn't eat lunch, did you?" Anderson offered, in an attempt to draw the dark haired teen away from the wall. His eye twitched at the abnormal behavior.

"Stupid fat ass, all you think about is food… You're a retard for taking me here…. And I still hate your guts for this." Vlad denied his suggestion, his eyes darting around cautiously as the shadows thinned out and he was left exposed in the raw light.

Anderson sighed when he saw that the boy was tempted to go backtrack just to remain in the wall's shadow. "Oh, come off it, Vlad. You're being stupid…" His mouth jerked up at the edges and he stealthily approached the unguarded back. "Enjoy the party." He smirked with these words, taking hold of the thin shoulders and steering the boy quickly into a darkened side office.

Vlad stiffened as he saw the collection of people playing a video game, and even though it was much darker in the room, he wished that he could go back into the bright part of the hallway. Anything but this small space with only one escape route.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Integra was pouring herself a little wine that had already been passed around amongst most of her officers. She swirled it in her stubby glass, eyeing the bottle before she decided to take a sip. But when the glass reached her lips the bottle was lifted from her desk by a familiar, pale hand, and she frowned, lowering her glass to look at the boy. "What do you think you are doing, Vladimir?"

The boy smiled wryly and swung the bottle in a tight circle, then stopped it to hear and feel the liquid move. "Can I have some?"

The frown deepened and Integra's blue eyes narrowed dangerously, but the boy just grinned as if his question was something pure and innocent. "No, of course not. You're underage."

"But it's just like Church, right? It's just wine."

The woman's eyes widened and then she snorted with amusement, sitting back in her chair and crossing her legs as she observed the gutsy boy who was behaving much more boldly than the night before. She set her glass on her desk. "You're horrible." Integra smirked darkly, despite herself. She had to admit, the boy was quite a character.

Vlad chuckled and swished the wine again. "All I want is a taste."

"No."

"No?"

"No." The woman ensured, flatly.

"Not even if I say please?"

"Not even if you were dying." Integra smiled warmly.

Vlad snickered at this and held the bottled by his side. "I just want to know what good wine tastes like."

"You're going to have to wait for a few more years…" Her gaze swept across the wall near the door where Vlad was standing in front of her desk. She blinked. "Where's my son?"

"Wii game. I don't know how to do it so I suck." Vlad's humor faded a little as he began to frown. "It wasn't fair."

"You lost?" The woman smirked at the frown that finally arrived on the boy's face. Vlad looked at the wall and made a move as if he was going to get the chair that was leaning against it to make himself at home in the office, and sit down. Integra caught onto the movement and shook her head quickly. "No Vladimir. You need to go back out there…" She pointed at the door. "…and learn how to play Wii."

Vlad delayed following the order until Integra scowled at him to leave so she could enjoy her wine and then go out to the party as well. When he slipped out through the doorway, she smiled and let her eyes fall to her desk where her glass was. When she took a sip and held the glass in her hands, she realized that the table was empty. But…it wasn't supposed to be empty. The wine bottle was supposed to be… The woman's face deadened and she gazed blankly at the desk. Mechanically, the woman's eyes rose to where Vlad had been standing. With a hasty curse, she got up and marched to the door, catching the frame in her gloved hand to swing herself around to stride down the hall so she could find the teenager that had stolen her wine. But she stopped at the doorway, surprised to find Vlad waiting for her with the wine bottle suspended before him in an outstretched hand. She scowled and snatched the wine away, then shook at finger at the amused face, annoyed by the smug look. Unable to speak, she decided to give the teen a final glare and then retreated into her office. Vlad turned as well, walking down the hall to find Anderson as he lifted a plastic cup to his lips and took a sip. He passed the refreshment table on the way, void of people, and turned into the next doorway. Anderson was leaning against the wall in the darkened room, watching as two cops played a gun and war video game, shooting at each other madly as a small crowd watched, entertained when the men reacted as their digital selves were shot, growling and cursing lightly, swearing to get revenge. It was all in the name of good, wholesome fun.

Green flashed with the light of the projector casting this image on the opposite wall when something blew up in the video game, and then dimmed when the eyes moved to Vlad who was waiting by the door, halfway out of the room. Anderson went to him and then followed the boy out as Vlad moved to a less lively location. They went outside. It was raining, but a generous ledge kept the two nice and dry while the wind was blowing into the back of the building, so it couldn't reach them. Vlad took another sip from his cup and he hummed contently after the liquid went down his throat. Anderson noticed and squinted at the drink curiously.

"I thought we were out of punch."

Vlad shrugged, only glancing at Anderson, and then he smiled to himself. "I'm not sure. I didn't check."

Anderson blinked, watching the cup as it rose again. "Then what are you drinking?"

"Mn?" Vlad swallowed and held the cup to the other teen with a brash smile. "I think it's some kind of grape juice."

"Grape juice? … I didn't see any grape juice…." A tan hand accepted the plastic cup and Anderson tilted it to peer down at its contents. It sure looked like it could be grape juice. He moved the plastic cup to his nose and he sniffed it. He started and tore the cup away from himself as if it was a toxic poison, and he gasped, sending round green eyes to Vlad's chuckling face. "Where…? Where did you get this? This is wine! Vlad! How in God's name did you…? Just where…?"

"I got it from the Chief…" He chuckled again. "…a.k.a., your mom." Vlad smiled and reached to take the cup back. He froze, surprised when Anderson moved it away from his hand and glowered at him.

"My mother did not give you alcohol, you lying runt."

The boy gave a crooked smile, watching Anderson's anger for a moment to see just how far he could push his joke. "Who ever said that she gave it to me?" Red glinted at Anderson's aghast expression.

Anderson gaped, astounded. "You stole it! You thief! You pistachio, wine stealing thief, Vlad! Not cool! Not at all, so stop laughing! I'm being serious!"

Vlad continued to laugh anyway and reached for the wine. "She was drinking it right in front of me…and she saw me pick up the bottle. All she didn't see was me pouring it. I gave her back the bottle with the cup in my hand, and she didn't care…or didn't notice. Either way, I only took a little and what she doesn't know won't hurt her."

Anderson moved it away again, switching it over to his right hand, furthest from Vlad. "No…" He shot back, a deepening simper weighing down his features. "But it can hurt you." He moved to the wet asphalt, where the ledge didn't stop the rain, and poured the wine out onto the parking lot where it splattered and was dissolved into a harmless puddle. Vlad's jaw dropped, desolate eyes gazing at the wine as if he was watching Anderson pour out his life's blood. He gawked as the irritated teen washed the cup out with the falling rain and then returned to the wall to throw the cup at Vlad's expression, real rage growing brighter in his eyes with his mounting disappointment. "You idiot, Vlad. You're an idiot!" He wiped off his wet hand with his other sleeve, glowering at it while his teeth grated together, unable to shake off his anger.

"No…!" Vlad snatched the cup from the ground with a growl and then chucked it at Anderson who jerked to dodge the attack, but was too slow. "You're the idiot! That stuff was good!"

Anderson growled as well and retrieved the cup so he could throw it at Vlad. The boy got out of the way in time and the plastic cup rebounded off the wall with a dulled hollow sound. Both of the teens dove for the rolling cup, but Vlad was the one who got to it first and he raised his arm to throw the projectile again. Anderson retreated back, away from the armed individual, and he ended up in the rain, forced to stiffen with shock when the cold water hit him. With an evil laugh, Vlad threw the cup and nailed the other teen in the shoulder. He continued to laugh when Anderson went under the ledge again, humored by how wet the boy had gotten. The cup forgotten, Anderson grabbed the black sweatshirt and dragged Vlad out into the rain, almost ripping the it from his back as the skinny teen struggled. They fought to keep the other from a place that was dry, pushing and chasing and hissing, and at times, laughing. With time, they returned to their original place by the ledge and one of Vlad's converse crushed the cup, distracting him for a moment….which was long enough to allow Anderson to catch him in a headlock. The struggle ensued.

Vlad was still in a headlock when a gruff voice from the door told them that a cop had found out about their battle in the rain. They looked up as the man spoke. "What's going on here? Is there a problem?"

Vlad snorted at the familiar words, commenting on the limited vocabulary a cop has, or something along those lines, earning a good choke from Anderson that made him gag.

"Nothing. It's just for fun…I swear. Nothing's wrong." Anderson's earnest smile and truthful tone, along with his superior position in the fight with the delinquent, convinced the man to leave them alone and he went back inside without questioning them further.

"Dumbass cop. Take one look and it's obvious that a Neanderthal is trying to kill me." Vlad snickered weakly, but the humor turned into a broken cough when Anderson choked him again with an irritated growl.

"Stupid…stupid…!" He struggled to come up with an original insult that would rival Vlad's new name for him. Black hair was plastered to Vlad's face, and he spat out a few strands that made their way into his mouth. The pale teen tried to laugh as he fought with the constricting arms.

"Neanderthal Anderson…can't even think of something to say." He jerked to the side with a grunt of effort, but his slick shoes slid over the asphalt, forcing the boy to lose his footing, and he was left hanging from the headlock. The pale face was reddening as he struggled to stand again while his black converse continued to slip, pushing up waves of mucky water. Vlad realized, as spots appeared before his eyes, that he was in a puddle. The puddle where Anderson had poured out his wine…which was now seeping into his socks. …Fantastic.

"Alexander! You're suffocating the poor boy!"

Anderson jumped at the voice, dropping Vlad who collapsed to his knees in the water, and the green eyes searched for his mother. Integra stood before them under the shelter of the ledge after walking from the door, having been told of their fight/game in the rain. The woman glared at her son until he squirmed under her intimidating gaze. Then, he finally realized that he had dropped Vlad in the water, where the teen was still on his knees gasping and coughing.

Oops.

Anderson went forward to help Vlad to his feet and then walked with him to get under the ledge, holding onto his sweatshirt. "I didn't realize…that I…I swear I didn't mean to do that Vlad." The red eyed teen hissed at him and then was struck by a coughing fit. Anderson's eyes grew. "Hey, are you okay?"

Integra did not comment at first, but she glowered at the boys when she saw this ragged coughing fit. "Are you both IDIOTS?" A hand smacked her son in the back of the head, upsetting his already slipping glasses so that they went to the edge of his nose, and then slapped Vlad's forehead just as he began to straighten. "WHAT TYPE OF MORON DOES THIS IN THE RAIN? OR AT ALL?"

"I do it all the time." Vlad mumbled indignantly, refusing to rub his stinging red mark like Anderson had degraded himself to doing. "It's a guy thing, Chief."

"No. I've seen girls do it too…though, they were less…um…violent, I guess." Anderson added, hoping to save face.

Finding the extra information to be irrelevant, the woman frowned and then bumped Vlad on the shoulder with her fist, hissing between her teeth when it caused him to cough. "And now look at you!" The teen flinched when she gestured angrily towards him, expecting to be hit again. "Now you're SICK! You two are…idiots! WHO does THIS in the RAIN?"

Anderson hung his head in shame while Vlad coughed through a forming, slanted grin. He liked the Chief when she was mad. It was fun to watch.

"Now we'll have to go home. We can't have him here sick! Alexander? What was going through your mind? You should have forced a bowl of soup down his throat and shoved him into bed! Not take him here! Bed, Anderson! Not a party! Not Wii!"

As the woman continued to rant and berate her son, Vlad coughed with a content smile. Finally, he would get to go home. He snickered at her words. "So cruel, Chief. Stuffing down a whole bowl along with the soup would probably cure my sickness, yes…by killing me. Very nice strategy for healing a…" Vlad coughed when a shove was aimed at his ribs. He had to fall back a step to stay upright as Integra shook an impatient fist.

"I swear you boys will put me in an early grave. How could two people be born so equally stupid, is beyond me." Integra sighed as she turned, her hand going to her pocket. The police woman patted it and groaned when she found that she had left her keys inside. Never mind the keys, she thought, and turned a steady eye on her fidgety child that towered over her, yet feared her bark. The woman was humored by the sight. "Alex, take him home."

"My home. No more kidnappings… Not over the holidays." Vlad cut in, maintaining his mild grin as he looked at the vacant faces. "Anderson can drop me off at a street corner near my home…that'll be enough."

Integra bit her the side of her mouth, watching the boy. She closed her eyes and took a conceding breath. "Fine, Vladimir. Go home." She snapped, her eyes open, and threw a finger in his direction. "But I'll be by to check on you, and I better not find you passed out on the floor. You got that? Take care of yourself and contact us if you need something. There's no shame in needing assistance when you're ill."

Vlad gazed down at her, his face a blank mask. "I need to go home, Chief. I'm not your puppy…" The woman's mouth twitched, but she turned to go back inside. "…I still have my uncle."

That stopped her dead in her tracks for a moment. She struggled to compose herself with a poorly constructed cough and strode to the glass door. Integra yanked it open violently and then marched inside, letting the door close on its own. Her voice managed to squeeze out before it shut completely. "Go home Vladimir."

Anderson waited, distracted by the closing door, before he managed to stick his hand into one of his pants pockets. He pulled out his keys and tossed them in the air and caught them a few times, sighing. "Alright then. I guess I'll take you home, Vlad… Come on." He trudged through the layers of water that were scattered over the surface of the parking lot, with Vlad following behind him, and they made their way to the blonde boy's car. They didn't bother caring about the rain. They were already soaked through as it is.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

"Turn here?" Anderson glanced at Vlad for a second to make sure he was listening, and then he shifted his eyes back to the road.

"Yeah." The hands that had so far remained in the boy's lap separated for a moment as Vlad pointed to Anderson's left. "Right down there…" The suspended finger bobbed a little as the car's tire dipped into a shallow pot-hole. With nothing to say or point to as the car turned, the hand returned to Vlad's lap. "Alright." One of his hands was already on the door handle as his gaze narrowed in on the street corner. "Let me out here." He unbuckled his seat belt, ready to get out of the car. It was drizzling at present, but the rain seemed to be dying away now and the clouds had thinned out so that glimpses of starlight could be spotted in the brief intervals of black sky.

Unwillingly, Anderson slowed to a stop, watching as Vlad got out and caught the door before it managed to close.

"Thanks for the ride…and for the rest, Anderson." Vlad shut the door and took a step back, waving a hand. "Bye." Came a muffled voice that Anderson frowned at. Vlad was beginning to frown as well when Anderson didn't leave. "Shoo, Anderson. Go on. Shoo."

Anderson's car didn't move, and the engine continued to hum.

With a glower brightening his eyes and twisting his mouth, Vlad's hand dropped by his side and clenched into a fist. "Go Anderson."

The blonde bit his lip, then took a breath and let it out. He rolled down the window by pushing a button, not caring about the flecks of rain that misted the interior of his car afterwards. "Why don't you want me to see where you live? You do have a place, right? With your uncle?"

"Yeah. I didn't lie, okay? Now go…" Vlad moved away from the curb in long, drawn out steps, headed towards the wall and the gloom that loitered lazily around its perimeter. "…Go home. If you park here someone's going to lift your hubcaps."

The blacked haired boy pivoted and began to stride down the sidewalk with his hands shoved into his pockets, never looking back at the car that lingered behind him. Anderson didn't leave though he did close his window, resting an arm on his steering wheel as he watched to see where Vlad was going. In the distance, Vlad turned at a corner and was lost from sight. Chewing on his cheek as he debated on whether he should snoop around in Vlad's business or not, Anderson drove down the street, slowing when he came to the corner Vlad had turned on. He wasn't anywhere is sight. Bit by bit the high school jock turned the steering wheel, doubtful of his decision. Anderson drove down the scantily lit street, keeping an eye out for a sign of the other teen. There were a few shady characters that passed him odd looks when they saw his car.

Ignore them, Anderson told himself, though the hair on the back of his neck was standing on end when he passed an obvious crack user, who, for her clothes, could possibly also be a…an…individual who…. No, he didn't want to think about that. Anderson cleared his throat and then took a deep, calming breath. He stopped abruptly, surprising the few eyes that were still watching him, and the green gaze shot to a specific building, to the stairs where he could see a rather familiar teen conversing with a short, middle-aged man. They appeared to be arguing, or at least the little man was. Vlad was standing perfectly still and Anderson couldn't see their expressions, though he heard the man's disruptive, one sided, dispute without understanding what he was saying. Then a hand shot out from the man and it jabbed Vlad in the chest, unsteadying the boy when he flinched. Because of their position on the stairs, it worried Anderson….especially when the man did it again and stepped closer to Vlad, obviously trying his best to intimidate the tall teenager. The voice became louder, but Anderson couldn't hear what it was saying…still.

Without thinking, the boy took his keys from the ignition and pushed open his door, then rounded the back of his car, oblivious of the stares that were locked onto him and the needling cold that seeped into his damp clothes. As he got closer he could make out the heated words.

"You ungrateful punk! You disappear for that long! Of COURSE I would know that you're trying to skip out on your damned rent! You're late! Again! … AGAIN! I should get the police on your sorry ass! Seize all of that crap you have stored in there and, maybe, if I sell it I can make half of what you owe me this month! And what about last month, eh?" A hand caught Vlad's sweatshirt, but the boy's expression remained unchanged and he did nothing to oppose the false accusation, there was more truth than falsehood in the man's words. "Ya still owe me most of that too! Filthy…ugh!" He pushed away from Vlad, realizing how wet he was. "God! Disgusting! How can a human being live like this? Wet and filthy and doesn't even pay the rent! Scum! That's what I say! Destined to be trailer trash, scum!"

Anderson was standing at the bottom stair, inspecting the situation like he had just discovered it. He leveled his voice, making it as hard and sure as he could manage. "Hey… Is there a problem?" His hand was on the thick wooden rail, so he tapped it casually with his fingers, to feign forming impatience. The little man was staring at him, too puzzled to find a way to confront the stranger, while Vlad shot the boy a look full of contempt, one that resembled the way Vlad had looked at Anderson's friends at school. He was quiet while the short man squinted at Anderson and then Vlad, then Anderson again as he pointed at Vlad.

"Ya know him? Do ya? Cuz, that'd be great!" He sneered and the pointing hand opened, indicating Vlad as the boney, sun browned man laughed. "He owes me money, you know. You got money to pay for this punk? Eh?"

Anderson didn't say anything and his hand stilled on the railing. The little man's face deadened. Then he snarled.

"THEN GET OUT OF HERE! GET YA ASS, OUT!" The back of the man's hand patted Vlad on the arm, belittling the boy as he continued to glare at the blonde stranger. "You either pay for him, or you mind your own business!"

"Stop yelling at him." Anderson narrowed his eyes and squeezed the railing, blood draining from his knuckles.

The man paused, taken aback momentarily, and then he let out a low, wheezing howl of offensive hilarity, cackling to himself. "It's my business to yell at my tenants, buddy. They don't pay, I don't get paid." He smiled an oily, leering smile and patted Vlad's arm friendlily, smug as he was able to do this without so much as a frown or a complaint from the pale teen. "This is my business. None of yours…got that?"

Anderson kept his glare, staying where he had planted his feet in front of the stairs. Humor faded from the man and he stuffed his hands into his pockets, throwing Anderson a good hard look. "Hey, punk…you know this guy or is he a total wack-job I should call the cops on?" He spoke to Vlad while he kept his squinting eyes on Anderson, frowning as he took notice of the stranger's height.

"…Don't know him…" Vlad responded dully and turned to go up the rest of the stairs. Anderson stiffened for a moment and then clenched his teeth, watching the back ascend the stairs.

"Vlad. You know you can just come back with me…you don't have to stay here if you don't want to." He called up to the figure that stopped in mid step and didn't turn around.

The little man was peering curiously up at Vlad as he observed this response. Then he grinned. "Oh yeah? I didn't know you had a name, punk… Still rather call ya Street-shit, ya know? No hard feelings, punk?" He snickered and swung around to look down at Anderson's wide expression, his grin stretching to a disgusting length. He ducked his head and then threw it back, laughing madly.

Suddenly the man left his amusement and lunged up the stairs, catching the back of the black sweatshirt. He yanked on it as hard as he could. Vlad's shoes slipped and he staggered down a few steps, until he was two below the man's current position. They were almost at eyelevel now as the little man snarled at the pale face. "Ya don't make rent! Ya smell like filth! And now ya lie to me! Punk! Give me one reason why I shouldn't get the cops down here RIGHT now!" He shook Vlad the best he could. It was a pathetic attempt, but he did not see this as he continued. "Why'd you lie to me, Street-shit? Why, you ungrateful, worthless punk! EH? GONNA SPEAK NOW?"

"Hey!" Anderson went up a few steps, but he stopped when Vlad twisted away from the hands and snarled down at him.

"Get out of here! I told you to go! Just leave!" Vlad hissed, his eyes shining with rage, masking the self mortification that was battling to beat down his remaining pride. "GO HOME!"

The man was taken aback by the show of aggression, but then he smiled and clapped his hands, delighted with the entertainment. "That's the most I've ever gotten out of you. Where'd ya learn to talk so good all of a sudden, eh?" He snickered again and patted the boy on the back, leaving him to go down the stairs. He passed Anderson a wide smile, but he spoke to Vlad. "I'll be getting my money sooner or later, punk…you can't go anywhere without your crap, now…can ya?" He laughed and walked around Anderson who couldn't do anything else but glare at the man. When the teen looked up the stairs, he found that Vlad had disappeared. There was the sound of a door slamming, then it was quiet. Gradually, voices and other sounds made themselves known from the different rooms. Anderson lingered there, unable to figure out what he should do. There wasn't anything that didn't have consequences attached to it, so the teen turned and walked back to his car, his hands buried deep in his pockets as he bit his lip and scowled at the ground. He kicked a piece of litter into the street and then got into his car. As he left, the empty bag moved a bit over the surface of the puddle before it sank as water climbed over its side, tipping it down into its murky depths.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Anderson went back the next day, driving his mother when she announced that they were going to check on Vlad to see how he was managing his cold. They got up to the second level, and then paused as they looked down the length of the cement walk way. Their eyes swept from window to window, door to door as they passed by them and reached the end. They stopped again, and turned, looking at the doors. "You know for a fact that he lives up here?"

Anderson didn't look at his mom, but he nodded. They were quiet for a time.

"Vladimir!" Integra waited, ignoring the flinch that came from Anderson, glaring up and down the line of doors. She sighed, scowling when she knew that they couldn't do much more on their own. "Do you know where the land lord is? Who's in charge?"

Anderson's mind went back to the night before and he shook his head. "I didn't see where he went. It was dark."

The woman gave a harder sigh and went down the hallway, then descended the stairs as Anderson followed behind her. "I'll find out who that guy is and I'll get him to show us where…"

"No." Anderson interrupted her, dreading another conflict, especially one where his mother was involved. He knew his mother would have a hard time controlling her temper. "Don't cause trouble... I did enough of that last night."

They were quiet when they reached the bottom of the stairs, sharing the single thought. Without a word, they returned to Anderson's car and left.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Integra sighed, muttering something about her stupid children drinking all of the eggnog as she got out of the car with Anderson apologizing behind her. He closed the door and tried to catch up with her long strides. "I didn't finish it off! I promise! I left you some!"

Integra shrugged. "Sure, Alex."

"No. Really! I did!"

She ignored him this time and walked up to the grocery store, leaving the parking lot behind. The ringing bell of the donation collecting Santa sounded in her ear, causing her to wince but at the same time wonder if she had any extra change in her pockets. No. But she would if she paid for the eggnog in cash. She pulled on her jacket as she suppressed a shiver. It was getting pretty cold at night.

Anderson walked by the ringing bell, glancing up absently. Then he paused, slowing as he saw the sun glasses that seemed rather out of place, given the time and the person's uniform. He gazed at the thin Santa with the extremely white skin and the red gloved fist that jerked up to cover a cough. Anderson stopped and stared, dumbfounded.

"Vlad?"

Integra started and turned around as the glass doors slid open when she stepped on the black mat sitting in front of them. The Santa had become rigid, bell in mid air, mouth hanging open in horror as the sunglasses reflected Anderson's expression of amazement.

"Oh shit!" Santa spun and ran into the immediate wall, then pushed away and made to dash down the sidewalk, but Anderson caught up with him only after a few yards. The skinny Santa was forced against a pillar as he fought desperately to get away, cussing and hissing. Integra walked around the wall Vlad had run into, and watched as the struggle against the rough plaster covered pillar intensified and then died down. She stared as she came up to the pillar and stood next to the snarling red figure. "Hey!" Santa called to a random person that had stopped to watch. "Hey you! Can't you tell Santa's gettin' killed here? Hey! No! Don't go inside, damn you! Freaken bastard!"

"So Vladimir…you work at the North Pole now?" Integra smirked at her lame joke as well as the frown she received. She took off the sunglasses, revealing the aggravated red eyes.

"I'm trying to get a job here…if they see this they'll never consider giving me a job." He muttered and shook off Anderson as the tan hands eased their grip. Vlad brushed off the red uniform, checking for any wear and tear he might have caused on the cloth. Nothing was found, so he relaxed, fixing his red hat as he composed himself, and then returned his attention to the smug looks he was receiving. "What?" He grumbled and stubbornly went back to his post by the donations stand, still holding his bell which was turned upward to prevent it from making a racket as he moved around. The two followed, and Anderson laughed a little as he stood before the pissed off Santa while his mother played smugly with the dark sunglasses in her hands. Vlad scowled at his feet, trying to muster some motivation to ring the bell again.

"I can't believe you're dressed up as Santa." Anderson chuckled while the boy glowered at him. Suddenly, the bell starting ringing in Anderson's face, the sound piercing his ears and forcing him back. Vlad stopped when Anderson had been effectively punished and he switched his attention over to Integra.

"Can I get back to my community service, Chief? Or do you feel like staring at me until I get fired from something I volunteered for?" He remembered the glasses in her hands and growled, sticking out his hand. "And give me those!"

Integra smiled as she handed the sunglasses over, chuckling lightly. "Have to keep your identity a secret?"

Vlad grumbled, fixing the glasses on his face. He finished and got ready to ring the bell. "Yeah…but they aren't mine. I'm borrowing them from the store…" So I wouldn't scare away customers. "…nobody else wanted to do this at night…" The bell rang once and Vlad paused as he left it by his side. "What are you two doing here so late?"

Integra glanced back at Anderson who quietly moved his feet towards the door. "Alex here drank all of my eggnog."

"I didn't and you know it." Anderson countered bitterly, casting a grimace at the black mat he was stepping on. Vlad looked at the muttering teen and smirked, beginning to ring his bell again. He didn't say anything as the two went inside. Several uneventful minutes went by before they reemerged. Integra smiled when she saw Vlad. She walked over to the donation box and stuffed a few dollars into it, stopping before they had all fallen into the container. She kept a dollar in her palm and gave it to Vlad.

"It's a tip for the wonderful…bell music and for the amusement I received from seeing you wear a Santa Claus costume."

Vlad glared at the insulting hand, but he accepted the money and held it as he saw that it was a one dollar bill. Without warning, he jammed the dollar into the donation box and rung the bell by his side as his rebellious, steady gaze went to Integra's unanimated features. "Thank you for your donation. All donations will go towards a homeless shelter…or an animal shelter…." The bell stopped as Vlad's eyes unfocused and he rolled his shoulders when he felt a chill. "…one of the other…I don't remember which."

Integra's eyes marked the path of the bell, moving up and down while Anderson waited quietly behind her. Blue eyes blinked when the boy Santa coughed. "What are you doing for Christmas, Vladimir?"

The bell continued while the red eyes flowed towards the store windows. "Work, probably." The bell rang out a few times. "I'll be busy, Chief."

Integra watched the pale face, seeing the windows' distorted reflection in the sunglasses. "I'll give you our number so you can call us if you have a change of plans." The woman started to take out her cell phone but Vlad's cutting tone stopped her.

"I don't have a phone to call you with, Chief. And I'm pretty booked up. I'm not going to have a change in plans." The bell sounded in the crisp air as Integra took her hand from her jacket's pocket. It was a while before she spoke again, staring at the boy with partially narrowed eyes.

"Vladimir…don't lie to me. I work with liars too often to be fooled by your sorry excuse for a fib, boy." She frowned at the sunglasses that refused to reflect her. "You're looking for a job. That means you're still trying to fill up your time. If you don't get a job here you won't have any plans at all going for you…" Vlad licked his lips and shifted from one foot to the other with a stubbornly set mask of indifference for her words.

"I'm busy, Chief. I've got things to take care of."

Anderson took a breath that he held for a while, watching Vlad. He could tell that he wanted them to leave, he was restless with impatience. "Did you get the rent problem under control?"

"Yessss." The hiss replied and Anderson found himself staring at his own image in the glasses. "Now go Anderson. If I'm talking to people no one will donate to the damn hungry people or their dogs…now get. I'm supposed to be a responsible future employee right now."

The two blondes watched Vlad look away and move to the other side of the donation box. Integra turned and pulled on her son to get him to come with her. They didn't say anything as they walked through the parking lot and dumped their eggnog into the back of the car and drove home. It bothered Integra, as she looked out the window. She had only seen Vlad wear the same set of clothes every time she met the boy… that black sweatshirt was more of an off grey…and it looked pretty thinned out…bad for cold weather, especially for a scrawny kid with a cold. She should've bought him some coffee or hot chocolate.

Anderson didn't say anything, but he was having the same thoughts. He asked a different question that was hanging on the fringe of his mind.

"Do you think he'll get a job there?" Anderson broke the silence. Neither of them looked at one another. Integra focused on her window, eyes keeping track of the trees they passed.

"No."

And she was right.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Vlad shut his eyes as he felt his stomach vibrate as it growled. The fussing was drawn out…and annoying. Vlad wrapped his arms tighter around his stomach and dropped his head to his knees as he reclined, touching his back to the wall behind him. His bare feet were buried in the comforter he was sitting on, surrounded by the dark sea of blue fabric. It was warm and comfortable on his futon. It was cold everywhere else.

He couldn't plug his heater in, as he had yet to pay his rent so his electricity had been shut off. He couldn't boil hot water without power either, and his stomach complained loudly about this. The sink was useless now as well. The water had been cut out too. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, making him wonder if he had accidentally eaten paste when he was dozing by the wall. Because his mouth tasted of like he had, as he tried to move his tongue around to wet it. The boy stayed like this for a time, then his head turned on his knees so that his cheek was pressing against them now and his eyes could wander over the stacks of things that slopped like a range of mountains, filling the room. He closed his eyes again and pressed them into his knees as he took a deep breath, keeping it so that he could let it out a little bit at a time.

He hated selling his uncle's stuff, but he wasn't able to get a job. No one would hire him when there were 'better' kids out there searching as well…adults even…who needed the money to help their families. The delinquent couldn't even get hired to do chores. Others had already grabbed and scheduled to do all of them… No more cars to wash…no sheds to paint. No more newspapers to steal and resell…people had caught on that someone was stalking the paper 'boy' (a man who drove a car by houses and chucked the bagged papers out his window), and had begun to take the newspapers inside earlier in the morning, or they had lengthened the chains of their dogs so that they could bark at any trespassers or steal the newspaper themselves, just to rip it up and snuggle in the scraps. Anything was better than allowing some crazy person to steal them…no one considered how desperate a person would have to be in order to feel compelled to do such a degrading thing. Vlad chewed on his lip, his stomach gurgling loudly.

"Alright." The employer would look Vlad up and down and then pause, noting his pale skin and crimson eyes. A hand would rise and gesture to them. "Take out the contacts fist, kid. Then I can take you seriously and consider giving you the job."

Vlad would keep quiet until the demand was made again. "They aren't contacts."

That's usually when people got rid of him. They thought he was a common druggy…or that he had tattooed his eyes like the other 'freaks' were doing now adays…getting cat irises, horns, and whiskers…they wanted nothing to do with those type of people. It made them uncomfortable…it would make their customers uncomfortable, if they had any. Then his clothes…and his willingness to work for less than minimum pay…and his tall stature… His shifty eyes and quick fingers made him suspicious…like he was going to rob them blind when he got the chance. Or maybe he had some strange illness? Maybe he was mentally disturbed? Who knew? It would be best to see him to the door, and remember to make sure to watch those hands. Don't let him steal anything on his way out.

Vlad sighed. He would have to sell some stuff…again…before his land lord was actually tempted to give in to his threats to call the police to come pick him up. Vlad shuddered at the thought of going to jail. He'd heard stories…

Jail food sucked…and the beds were uncomfortable. The boy curled up to keep warm for a while longer…a while longer before he would have to move some of this stuff to the nearest pawn shop. That was the worst part. Vlad gritted his teeth together, dreading the awful 'move'.

He would have to throw away his dignity again today.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Cloudy skies, grey and smoke-colored, without rain. Anderson drove under them, stopping occasionally at stop signs that allowed other lanes to go before him. The teen was quiet, fixing his glasses to make them more comfortable. He pushed on the gas and moved away from the stop sign to continue roaming through the town to find a place to finish the Christmas shopping. He hated shopping especially with…

"Alex! Alex, Alex!" A hand yanked on Anderson's jacket, pulling a sigh from his lungs as he consented to responding.

"What?"

The girl pointed at the window…or rather up ahead, at the sidewalk. "Pull over. I want to give the homeless man some money."

Anderson grumbled but drove up to the curb where he saw the grungy figure pulling a cart with part of a green tarp draped over it, to keep out any rain that might start to fall. He draped an arm over his steering wheel and rested his chin on it, thrumming his fingers as he waited for the girl to take a few dollars from her purse. She lowered her window and smiled at the dark figure that looked at her from his shadowed hood. She waved the money out the window. "Here. Merry Christmas."

Anderson muttered something about giving the man some food. Who knew what he would do with the money? The teen jumped out of these thoughts and stared blankly at his gas meter when he heard the homeless man snarl at the money.

"I'm not a hobo you bitch!"

Green eyes rotated to the window and Anderson leaned down so he could get a good look at the man's face. He couldn't see it very well, but he recognized the worn sweatshirt immediately. He sat there, mute for a moment, while the girl gasped an apology and then stammered angrily.

"D…Don't call me a…that word! I was only trying to give you some money!"

"Feh." The man lurched, pushing on his cart while the two watched. Anderson blinked calmly, his mouth a dead line on his face.

"Hey Vlad."

The man and the girl jerked in unison. Vlad went rigid, the tendons on his hands straining as he tightened his grip, popping a knuckle or two. He was paralyzed as the curious girl gawked at Anderson and then the hobo that wasn't really a hobo. "You know this homeless man?"

Anderson frowned at the girl while Vlad didn't hear her, too horrified of his position to do anything other than stand where he was. Anderson opened his car door and got out, then leaned with an arm on the roof of his car and peered across it to watch the teen. "What are you doing with that cart?" He waited for a response, not really expecting to get one. "I thought you told me that you had a place to stay…or did that guy throw you out? What are you doing?"

Vlad's hands shook with anger and hatred, reserved for himself. In his passion, he ripping his hands away from the cart and faced Anderson, tearing off his hood to allow his black hair to spill out and the gloomy sky to brighten his eyes. "I'm doing stuff Anderson. Leave me alone." He glared at the green eyes while the girl gazed up at his face, shrinking back into her seat for a moment, before pulling away from it to get a better look at the red eyes and this rather young 'homeless man'. She saw his wretched stand for human dignity in this position, and the girl bit her lip, eyeing the pocket on his sweatshirt as she flipped the edge of her money with her finger, listening to the sound as the two boys didn't speak.

"What are you doing with a grocery cart? You know those aren't free…" Anderson's bare features never moved from their untelling expression.

"This looks worse than it is, Anderson." A pale hand moved to touch the cart. "I don't have any other way to move this stuff. I'm selling it down there." The hand traveled with the words as Vlad looked down the sidewalk to find the shop he was trying to get to, in the distance. He looked at Anderson as the other teen continued to search for the place Vlad had pointed to. "It looks bad… But I don't have a car…so how else am I supposed to move this stuff?" A heel bumped the wheel of the cart. As Anderson held his silence, Vlad noticed a hand emerge from the car, attempting to slip the money into his pocket. He growled and moved out of the girl's reach, hissing fiercely at her disappointed face. "I'm not a hobo, bitch, and I don't need your God damned money!" He glared over the top of the car at Anderson when he saw that he was scaring the girl. "And you! You and your girlfriend should just go! Do whatever it was you were going to do and let me and my business be!"

The girl gasped while Anderson's lips parted, his eyes widening as a weak laugh came from the car. Vlad glared at the girl, a bit confused now. She smiled at him and threw a thumb back at the blonde teenager behind her. "That's my little brother, not my boyfriend."

"Oh." Vlad stepped back to get a better view of the blue-eyed, blonde haired girl. She wore her hair in two pig tails at the back of her head…and her pink sweater made her look like one of those teenage dolls girls like to dress up and push around in pink convertibles. Vlad frowned, tilting his head a little and slipping a hand into his pocket as he observed the girl. "You look a little like the Chief… No, never mind. It's just the hair and the eye color. You're too cutesy to be like her."

Baffled, Anderson's sister blinked but smiled at what she took as a compliment. "Aw." She beamed at Vlad, making his face lose its expression. "You called me cute? Thank you." She laughed to herself and looked back at the dark jacket that was all she could see of her brother. "Hey Alex. Your friend thinks I'm cute."

Vlad's screwed up face made Anderson smirk and he looked down at the top of his car, pulling back the blind for the sunroof with a blind hand that went though his window, so he could see his sister's face. She was smirking back up at him. Then his eyes went back to Vlad who was currently trying to sneak away. "Hey, wait! Vlad!" The boy ignored him so Anderson left his car and marched up to the now hooded head and grabbed it. "I can take the stuff there in my car. How about that? Is that okay?" Anderson demanded gruffly, considerably less patient than before. Red was staring over a black shoulder, mulling the offer over.

Vlad pulled free from Anderson so he could turn the cart around to go to the back of the car. "Fine." He passed the blonde girl. "But no kidnapping, got it? I don't have time for that shit right now, Anderson."

Blue eyes flinched at the curse word, but Anderson let it pass as he went to his door to pull the lever that would pop the trunk. He helped Vlad, who had already pulled off the tarp, unload the cart. The jock paused once in a while to look at the odd objects, and he held on to a bottle that had what looked like a baby great white shark sitting in some clear liquid. He moved it around and around in his hands, mesmerized by the shark. Vlad noticed as he unloaded the last thing and he left his hand on the top of the trunk, watching Anderson and the fish. He recalled all the time he himself had spent looking at the unfortunate creature, sometimes imagining, when he was a kid, that he would go to the beach and break the bottle open with a rock and then carry the little shark out to sea where it would swim away and be happy and free, coming back to visit little Vlad once in a while just to tell him thank you. Vlad shook his head to get rid of these thoughts, and he slammed the trunk closed, startling Anderson who looked up and stuttered about having one more thing to put in.

Vlad looked at the shark, ignoring the teen, and then turned to get into the car. "Keep it Anderson. I've decided not to sell it." His hand went to the door where he paused, seeing the blue eyes that blinked up at him. Slowly, he moved to the back door and got in since he considered it wouldn't be very productive to sit on Anderson's sister. Anderson sat down after he did, and a tan hand gave him the baby shark before going to the steering wheel. The girl replaced him, big blue eyes watching the mysterious, red-eyed boy. Vlad scowled at her, but she didn't care.

"My name's Seras. Seras Victoria Anderson….you?"

Vlad stared at her, unused to such friendly people…more specifically girls…he had a hard time with girls. He had nothing against them, well…hell…he liked girls, you know, for their perks, but they seemed to have something against him. The teen's eyes went to the mat on the floor as he buckled his seat belt. "I'm Vlad." He replied automatically.

Seras paused, mulling over the name while Anderson shot her a look of warning, which was wasted on the back of the blonde head. "What's your whole name? I like knowing people's whole names…usually tells you a lot about them." She smiled brightly.

Vlad hesitantly replied. "Vladimir…A. Dracula."

Seras blinked, dissatisfied with the middle initial. "Dracula…like drake, a dragon?" Surprised, Vlad's shoulder's flinched and he nodded as his eyes flicked to her face. She was frowning now, her gaze considering his holey black converse. "What does the 'A' stand for? Hm?"

Vlad refused to tell her as she hounded him for a block or two. Then the girl pouted and asked Anderson if he knew what Vlad's middle name was. Anderson told her to leave Vlad alone, so she turned around and asked a new question, one of her pink sleeves hugging her headrest as she smushed one of her cheeks into it. "How old are you?"

Tired of this, but seeing that he owed Anderson, and even the girl, for giving him a ride, he answered. "Seventeen."

Seras gasped, causing Vlad to jerk a little. "Whaa? Really? I thought you were way older! You're a baby!"

"I'm a what?" Vlad shot back as the girl giggled at his anger. She calmed with a comfortable sigh, swiping back some hair from her eyes.

"You're younger than Anderson and I always think of him as the cute chubby baby he was when my Mom brought him home." She smiled when she knew that Anderson was glowering at her out of the corner of his eye. "So…you're in high school? Junior? Senior?"

"Senior."

"When do you turn eighteen?" Seras moved about in her seat, searching for a more comfortable position while Vlad was getting ready to jump out of the car as it began to slow.

"June."

Seras watched Vlad as the boy looked out the window, waiting for the buildings to stop moving past it. "You don't say much, do you? You're pretty quiet."

The car stopped and Vlad undid his seat buckle and pushed open the door, hurriedly, almost hitting an old woman walking near the curb of the sidewalk. The old lady squawked in alarm, swinging her beaded, white purse to reclaim her balance. Vlad caught a hold of it, along with her arm, to steady the woman. The wizened eyes widened and the old woman gasped, jerking away weakly.

"No! Don't take my purse! I need to buy gifts for my grandchildren, you beast! Oh! Help! Help!" Vlad cursed and let go of the old woman so that she, in her confusion, tripped over her own feet and fell down, still calling for help. Seras was hanging outside her window, unable to open the door because the old lady was collapsed in front of it. She waved her arms, trying to fix the misunderstanding as people were drawn in by the commotion.

"No! No! He's not stealing your purse! Ah! Please! Quiet…!"

Vlad was backing away, surrounded by glares as grown men and fearless women approached. Anderson appeared and was helping the old woman to her feet, also trying to calm her. Once she was on her feet and fit to listen, Vlad had taken refuge on the other side of the car, closest to the street. A few cars honked at him to get out of the way, some giving him a few curses or a lovely hand gesture, making use of their prominent middle fingers.

"He didn't mean to scare you." Anderson ensured the woman, aware of the group that was watching them. "He didn't want you to fall…right Vlad?" He turned back and it took him a moment, and another honk from a car, to find Vlad. The boy was watching all of the people warily, glowering back at a few. Anderson didn't agree with this so he ordered Vlad to get away from the street. Vlad moved to the trunk and stopped there, reluctant to get his stuff out now that he had such a large audience. When he took the cart and kept his hood up instead of accepting offers like this, he blended in easily with the crowds…and nothing like this ever happened. The boy chewed on his lip and looked down at the rain stained car.

Little by little, the crowd was moving on, but a few gifted Vlad with a few sharp remarks.

"Get some respect punk." Or "The least you could've done was help her up." And "Kids just have no common sense anymore. Jesus Christ, what a look that boy gave us too!" "Damned freak."

When they were gone, Anderson opened the trunk and Vlad pulled out a few things without looking to see what they were and he went into the shop, asked the guy to watch his stuff because he had a lot more outside, and went back to the trunk. Anderson started to help and Seras joined in, though Vlad frowned at her when she dropped a book. "Don't drop stuff in front of the guy…he'll mark down the price if you do that."

Seras' eyes grew as Vlad passed by her to make another trip, and when she went into the shop, she stared at the shop keeper until he grinned at her suggestively. The girl squeaked and ran off to join the boys again, coming back in with nothing in her hands as Vlad carried in the last stack of books. The front counter was covered in his uncle's least favorite possessions. Vlad kept his eyes from them and instead watched the man behind the counter, his glare glinting dangerously to tell the man that he would not stand to be ripped off, though Vlad knew that this was going to end up happening anyway. He turned to the first blonde he saw, found that it was Seras, and then turned to the other one. "Thanks Anderson…that's it…" Go now! His eyes screamed, but Anderson didn't pay them any mind, interested in what was going to happen next. Vlad cleared his throat. "Goodbye Anderson."

"I want to watch."

Seras chirped in when Anderson said this. "Me too. This is interesting." She leaned over the counter to look at the odd trinkets and books. The man smiled as the pink cloth tightened about her chest.

He lifted up a book with an air of expertise, and then sighed dramatically and passed Vlad a practiced compassionate look. "I'm sorry kid, but I can't offer much for such well used books. The binding is wearing, already…see?" Instead of showing this to Vlad, he leaned forward to push it near the blue eyes. Seras looked closely at the binding and saw that it was worn and scuffed a little. Was this the one she had dropped?

"Oh, sorry! My fault!" She took the book and used her sweater to rub off the scuff marks, fading them. "I dropped this one on the way in. The rest are still good, right?" She handed the book back to the man as the boys watched his eyes glint over a little. He seemed to like the girl's sweater a lot. Anderson growled, about to say something, but Vlad pulled him back, analyzing the two. His eyes realized that there were two very significant sources of exploitation hidden beneath the girl's innocent, pink sweater. They ought to make the price go up.

Thank God for magic pink sweaters.

Seras continued to worry over the trinkets, remarking on how cute some were, polishing them with her sweater when she found dust on them. When she asked how much it would sell for, the man would puff up and complement her before naming a price Vlad had only dreamed off in the past. "Ten dollars for that pretty little trinket. Sparkles like your eyes, girly."

Vlad hid a smile at the mouth watering price, and he went forward to snatch up the deal when Seras began to speak. If he got ten bucks for a few more trinkets…he'd be set for months.

Seras smiled, then worked her mouth into a pout. "Only ten dollars? I would have thought it was a lot more. My mom has some stuff like this at home and they were…hm…about…in the fifties. One was a hundred, now that I think about it."

Vlad froze by the counter, in a dumb stupor as he looked at the girl and then the little figurine. His uncle must have swiped this from a pretty well-to-do place… To the shop keeper, Seras' chest had suddenly lost its charm and he coughed and then turned on Vlad, irked to find the boy in such a state of hope and disbelief. The man's head jerked towards the girl and her brother. "Al…what's up with these guys? The girl's not yours…way out of your league." He sneered and plucked up a book. "Get rid of them before I do, Al."

Vlad's mouth twitched and he lost the thrill he had just experienced, turning to tell Anderson to go with a dimmed, tacit look. Seras, flustered by the rude remarks and the unfamiliar reference, had to be dragged from the shop by Anderson, who understood that they had only made things worse for Vlad now, as the shop keeper grunted out ridiculously low prices. The figurine was in his hand as green eyes watched from the door.

"This is crap, Al." He shook his head and moved the glass angel figurine through the air carelessly "Crap. Maybe… twenty-five. That's decent."

Vlad's eyes grew a little and he caught his breath before he could speak. "Twenty-five dollars?"

The man jolted, and gaped at Vlad. His face puckered in a look of disdain, as if Vlad has spat on his shirt. "No! What…what…? Where did you get such garbage into your head, Al? It's that girl! Christ!" He glowered at the door where Anderson's eyes were watching from the car. He glared at the teen, then looked at Vlad. "Twenty-five cents! Jesus! This is something a mom might pick up on the side for her whiney brat! Jesus!" He set the angel down and moved on to the next stack of books. "Ninety-five. Ninety. I'll be generous, cuz it's Christmas, and give you this ratty one for thirty." The man paused and jabbed a book in Vlad's direction. "Cents, Al. I gotta make a living here too, you know. No one else is going to give you more for this stolen shit."

"I told you…it's my uncle's stuff." Vlad spoke, eyes straining to remain calm and confident as the man jeered and laughed at him, flipping open a cover to look at a neatly scrawled name, one that had nothing to do with Walter. He slammed the cover closed.

"Al. You're uncle was a bastard! He was a regular dirty thief!"

"He isn't and has never been a regular thief, Greg. Don't talk bad about him… and don't use past tense. He's not dead."

The man grumbled, sifting through the objects. "Yet."

Vlad's eyes widened, shaking with untamed fury as they swirled with a sudden storm of animosity. His hand shot out, claimed the angel figurine from the counter, and threatened to throw it on the ground, to shatter it into a million pieces as he lifted it wildly above his head. The man gasped before he could stop himself, and the pale hand froze as a sparking glare went to him. "You're a fucking thief, Greg, and I know it as well as you do!" He put the figurine in the pouch of his sweatshirt, but sold the rest of his uncle's stuff for the price that Greg gave them. All of the other shops assumed that the stuff was stolen and refused to pay one cent, or even the gum stuck to the bottom of their shoes, for it. Well..it was probably stolen... But he wasn't the one who had done the stealing.

When Vlad left the shop, Anderson and Seras were gone. "Good." He muttered before throwing himself into the Christmas crowds.

He snuck up into his room and stashed away most of the money before leaving to go find the little man to pay him for the previous month's rent as well as part of this month's. The man complained, and Vlad took the heat, allowing it to die down. He knew that his room was actually a large storage area, a janitor closet…or a laundry room that had never been completed. Vlad wasn't sure, he had only heard rumors…but what was sure of, was that there wouldn't be many other bidders that would want to pay the money he was putting out to stay in it. Soon the man cooled down and Vlad was able to return to his room. In a few hours he expected the power switch on his heater and the tap for the sink to be in working order, so he settled down to wrap himself up and nap, buried under the comforter, coughing once in a while as he dozed.

He looked forward to his Cup Noodles.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Anderson was in less of a shopping mood than he had been in before, so he could barely endure the time his sister spent buying gifts. Luckily it was a short shopping trip. He stored the three gifts he had bought in the back seat while his sister got in the passenger side, having finished piling her gifts into the trunk. Anderson was still turned around when she buckled her seat belt, so her blue eyes peeked at the back seats as well.

They both stared at the baby great white in the bottle. Seras blinked and looked at her brother. "He gave it to you."

Anderson didn't say anything, but he turned around and put his keys in the ignition. Seras reached for the bottle and brought it to her lap before they left the parking garage. She played with it curiously, her face reflected in the glass. "Kinda cute, I guess."

Anderson grunted a 'that's nice', and was quiet. Seras lost interest in the fish and watched her brother instead. Finally, his patience gave out and he snapped at her to stop staring at him.

"Is Vlad your friend from school, Andy-Alex?"

"Don't call me that." Anderson kept his eyes on the road, watching the traffic. "Yeah…he's a friend of mine from school."

Seras focused on the shark again. "Is he poor or something, Alex?"

"Obviously." He growled.

"Aw." She played with the shark, making it turn in the bottle. "That's sad. He was a nice boy."

The green eyes froze on the bumper before them, and Anderson took too long to move at a stop sign so other cars honked at him. He hurried forward after missing his turn to go the first time. The two siblings were quiet as they continued on their way.

Seras blinked, gazing out the window when she saw that they had made a wrong turn. She told Anderson this.

"No. We're going to see Vlad."

Seras gazed at her brother's face, seeing how much it had changed from the drooling, chubby cheeked baby face it had once been. She watched the buildings and people as they drove, not commenting on the sudden change of plans.

When they pulled up to the right location, Seras was looking around while Anderson got of the car. Her eyes found a familiar figure heading for the stairs and she got out to get a better view of the boy. "I found Vlad…over there." Anderson followed the finger that showed him where Vlad was, at the bottom of the stairs. He rounded the back of his car, passing his sister to move to a tree situated in front of the stairs, yet far enough away that Vlad would not notice him there. Seras came to his side, easily hiding behind him. "I'm too old for hide and seek, Alex. What's…?" Anderson shushed her and pointed at the figure that had just reached the walkway on the side of the building. They watched Vlad as he passed out of sight, cut off by the angle the two were watching from. When they heard a door close, Anderson led the way as they cautiously went to the stairs and ascended them.

Then they were lost. They still did not know which door was Vlad's and when they knocked on one a voice threatened to 'knock' their 'lights out' if they 'tried that shit again', so the siblings hesitated. Finally they resorted to asking random people if they knew which number Vlad's room was. No one knew, though a few promised to tell if Seras did them a favor. Anderson easily scared these individuals away, and their search continued. Then, the little man from before emerged and Anderson saw him just as Seras caught his attention to ask him about Vlad. The man looked her over with a deepening frown.

"Vlad?" He thought, finding the name familiar for some reason. Anderson's appearance helped him remember, and he sneered at the tall jock. "Oh! You again, I see. Here for Street-shit?"

"What?" Seras gasped, drawing the man's eyes to her again.

"Hey sweetie, so how bad you want to find 'Vlad'? Eh? Why ya wanna find him anyway?"

Flustered, Seras frowned at the man and her hands formed fists. "Are you going to tell us? …And if you look down one more time I'm going to have to hit you."

The man sniggered and put his hands in his pockets. "Guess ya don't wanna find him. Fine by me." He strolled away, ignoring Seras when she yelled after him.

With a sigh, the girl traveled back to the stairs and walked up them. Anderson stood beside her as they readied to knock on all of the doors to demand to know where Vlad's room was. But a set of steps coming up the stairs behind them made the two turn and watch as a man appeared. He stopped and watched them as well, taking in their well kept clothes and the girl's modesty. He crossed his arms, still on the stairs, when he saw that they were going to talk to him.

"Do you know which room Vlad is in? Do you live here…on this floor?" Seras asked, a bit timid now that she saw that this man, who was only a few years older than her, was rather large and mean looking. The man glanced at Anderson and then kept his eyes on Seras.

"Vlad?" He asked. The girl nodded, her cheeks coloring a little as she pushed down her apprehension, which was building as she looked at the dark eyes.

"Vlad, Vladimir…we heard someone call him Al… Last name…Dracula?"

The man's demeanor changed abruptly, his eyes growing and then easing as he realized who they were referring to. "Hell Dog?" He offered, waiting for their response.

Seras stared, wrinkling her forehead at the name, but Anderson stepped forward, uneasy now about this new character. "Yeah…Hell Dog. Do you know where his room is?" Seras watched her brother and then the man as they looked at one another. She slunk closer to her younger sibling, hiding in his shadow.

"You come here to fight him?" The man asked. Anderson paused, then shook his head.

"I'm a friend."

"Oh? Really…" Eyes roamed over the two again, doubting the claim. "Alright… What'd the punk steal from you? Or was it W.C.D. who done it?"

Anderson hid his disturbance and shook his head. "I don't know who W.C.D. is, and Vlad hasn't stolen anything from me. I want the information, that's it. Maybe I'll talk to him, nothing else."

The man sighed, scratching the back of his head, thick fingers running through his short hair. "Walter C.D. is his uncle. But fine…I'll show you where he lives." He walked up the last two stairs, making Anderson wince when he saw that the man wearing a dark blue jacket that was only partially zipped and didn't cover most of his black shirt, was actually taller than him….and he was built like a tank. A tank, for God's sake. He moved passed them in a lumbering kind of step, akin to the giants of fairy tales. Fe Fi Fo Fum….ran through Anderson's mind as he followed the man down the walkway to an unnumbered door. A large hand pounded on the door, not in a hostile manner, but in one that was made acceptable and to be expected because of the man's size. "Yo Alucard, you in there?"

Anderson and Seras were quiet, keeping some distance from the man as he referred to the skinny teen by this name. Alucard…Anderson might have heard of it at some other time…along with the name Hell Dog. For some reason, they were surprised when the dark head of messy hair poked out of the door and looked up at the man. Vlad didn't notice Anderson or Seras down the hall. "Yeah." He aimed to close the door again, but the big man scowled and grabbed it with a vice-like grip. Vlad didn't seem to realize their difference in size and weight as he smirked up at the giant. He leaned on the seized door as if it was a wall. "Am I in trouble for something, Jack-bean?"

"Shut up, Alucard. Call me Jake like you're supposed to." The man sighed out of habit, already used to the name.

Vlad nodded. "Okay Jack-bean." He grinned as his eyes finally left the giant to go to the people he could sense down the hall. Once his eyes saw Anderson, all humor fell from the boy's face. Vlad leaped into the room and then went back to yank and pull on the door, unable to budge it. "Close the door, Jake! Close it before they get in!" He tugged, succeeding in installing the fear of breaking the door into his mind. "Damn you! CLOSE IT!"

Jake smiled as the scrawny teen worked himself into a coughing fit as he fought in vain. "They said they were you're friends, Alucard. Why are you hiding from them? You don't hide." Vlad left the doorway and tried to push instead of pull the door close.

"Just close the God damned door, Jake! Close it now before I kick your ass!"

A deep, throaty chuckle came from the giant as he laughed at the absurd threat. The man let go of the door and it slammed shut. Vlad also smacked his head against it and sank to his knees, cursing furiously. He punched a tree-trunk leg to get revenge. "I'm going to get you one of these days, Jack-bean."

"In your dreams…" The dark brown eyes of the giant went back to Anderson and Seras. He watched Seras for a while as he waited for Vlad to get to his feet. "Who's the girl? I thought you were a natural girl repellent, Alucard. This one's got jugs bigger than my hands, which is saying something."

Seras stammered something and hid behind Anderson, shielding her burning face. Anderson frowned at the distasteful remark, but kept his temper. "I don't appreciate you talking about my sister like that, Jack-bean."

Vlad sniggered and then laughed outright at Anderson's words, while Jake blinked and worked his jaw, assessing the blonde. "How old are you, Blondie?"

Anderson's mouth twitched and he hid his hands in his pocket, slouching back a bit to make it seem like his age was irrelevant. "Eighteen."

The man blinked again. "You're pretty big for eighteen…you'd be good for football."

"I play quarter back for my high school team."

The man nodded, holding some respect for the well-off teenager now. He saw that Vlad had managed to stand up, and he ruffled the black hair, then cocked his head as Vlad hissed and batted his hand away. "You're fluffier than normal, Hell Dog. Not as…matty. You been to the groomers lately?"

"Stuff it Jack-bean….and don't call me that." Vlad leaned against the door, a red mark throbbing on his forehead as he crossed his arms. "Anderson and female Anderson, what are you two doing here? I'm sure as Hell that I didn't invite you over for a play date."

Female Anderson? Play date? "Um…yeah." Anderson moved his weight from one foot to the other and he cleared his throat. Why had they come? "You're sick, how are you managing that?"

Jake watched Vlad as black bangs hid the teen's expression. "I'm fine Anderson."

"My mom's worried about you."

This caused the giant to arch an eyebrow, but he didn't interrupt them. Seras was also surprised, and she reappeared from behind Anderson, remaining close to him and flinching when Jake decided to test her out by sending her a friendly wink.

"Go home Anderson…and take female Anderson with you before Jack-bean takes her up the beanstalk."

Anderson, more comfortable now as he considered Jake to be something of a gentle giant as he harmlessly teased his sister…and from what interaction he had seen between Vlad and the giant. He began to relax. "I wanted to see what you're trying to hide, Vlad."

"That's nice. Now go home. You're not seeing anything today."

"What's in there, then?" Anderson pressed. Jake took the initiative to speak up.

"He's hiding the Amazon jungle in there." He chuckled and tapped on the door, upsetting Vlad who moved to cover the door handle with his back. "He stole the Rocky Mountains."

"Now you know. Mountains." The red eyes were unable to hold up against the strong green gaze, and the weight forced them to the ground. "Now go Anderson." Vlad's hand gripped the door handle behind him, hoping to hear their departing footsteps. He heard footsteps, but they were approaching, not leaving. His expression fluidly slipped into a regretful scowl. "It's none of your business, Anderson."

"I want to see what you're hiding."

"Get lost." Vlad moved to face the teen when he felt a hand try to coax him away from the door with light tugs. Green eyes went to the window, but found that it was covered, so Anderson continued with the door. He reached for it. Vlad pushed him away. He grabbed Vlad. Vlad grabbed him. And everything deteriorated into a contest of shoves and a wrestling match as they fought for the door or to keep it away from the opponent. Vlad managed to trip up Anderson's footing so that he stumbled back, away from the door. Panting a little, Vlad triumphantly pointed down the hall and ordered the blonde to leave.

Vlad was suddenly struck by a solid wall of force. Jake held the door open, trapping the protesting teen on the other side while Anderson crept forward and peeked into the room. His jaw fell a bit as he gazed at the tiny room, made smaller by the amount of stuff that was stacked and organized so meticulously, planned and laid out to supply the greatest measure of free space. Jake was right. It was like a forest or a mountain range in there… Anderson flicked on the light to get a better view of the layout of this man-made geographical replica. But the light didn't turn on. He stared at the switch and tried it a few times, and then looked though the space made by the hinges of the door, where Vlad was glaring at him.

"You don't have electricity?" He demanded with a cool air that sparked with storming outage.

"I will in a bit. I paid the rent…it was only out yesterday and part of today. Nothing big." The boy tried to downplay whatever effect this was having on Anderson, but to no avail.

To Vlad's displeasure Anderson went into the room and had a good look around, turning on the currently useless sink. Vlad heard the creak of the knob being turned for the water. "Water will be turned on when the power's back. I paid for the rent today, like a said." Anderson still didn't come out. "Jack-bean, move your big ass." He muttered, and was allowed to go around Jake to get into the room as well…or at least stand in the doorway. Anderson was glaring at the futon he had found when he lifted up the mass of comforter.

"This is not okay, Vlad." He dropped the comforter and glared at the covered window.

Vlad watched him calmly. "It's okay. It's not like I'm living on the streets."

"Shut up! This is not okay!" The boy stalked over to Vlad and then stood close, glowering down at him with bright green eyes. Then his hand gripped the black sweatshirt and pulled Vlad out of the doorway and into the hall as Anderson attempted to drag him. "I'm taking you back to my house."

"No!" Pale fingers tore at the hand attached to his clothes. "You stupid fat ass! Let me go!"

"You're coming!" Anderson yanked on Vlad and managed to move him a few more feet until a heavy hand caught his wrist. Jake pulled Vlad away and shoved him towards the open door. It was quiet as Anderson read into the blank look on the giants face, and he remembered what kind of situation this really was. Jack-bean wasn't a gentle giant. He was a man-eater with a sense of humor. The big hand pushed Anderson towards Seras, causing him to come close to falling.

"Alucard's not going anywhere, Blondie. You said you would look, maybe talk, but not do anything else." A thick finger pointed at Vlad as the man continued to look down at Anderson with his blank, dark eyes. "There are people worse off than this stray mutt, Blondie. He's surviving on his own. He doesn't need rich ass kids like yourself trying to adopt him like he's a pet you found out in your back yard… Now, I got business with him tonight anyway. He's busy, so come back to play some other time."

Anderson stood with a stiff and determined posture. "I'm not scared of you, Jack-bean."

The brown eyes became pitch black as the giant looked down upon the blonde head and the defiant green eyes. He worked his jaw and then spat out over the ledge of the walkway, into the tops of some trees. Moving his arms from his sides to cross them over his chest, he allowed his eyes to narrow. "You should be, kid."

It was quiet, and Vlad watched the giant carefully, looking for signs that would suggest that Anderson was in danger.

Jake jerked his head back at the red eyes. "I've known this brat behind me since he was ten, eleven years old, and I've known his uncle all my life. The only man my father ever served under… I think I have more say about what's going to happen to him than you do, a kid who doesn't even know who his uncle is. There's a reason why people know Hell Dog and W.C.D., Blondie. You're out way over your head here."

Anderson didn't move, not intimidated by the man before him. "Move Jake…you seem like a descent enough guy…." Anderson was cut off when Seras kicked him, giving him a dead leg so he staggered to stay on his feet.

"Let's go Alex. We know where to find him, that's good enough. You can't take the boy by force." She looked at Vlad and waved without a smile, then turned and went to the stairs. Anderson couldn't deny her words, and he couldn't meet Vlad or Jake in the eye, so he followed Seras quietly. They both disappeared down the stairs.

The two remaining presences were silent. Faces that had appeared in nearby windows, left them. Jake turned around and found Vlad staring at his converse.

"Punks got into our territory…spray painted one our walls…and claim not to fear us anymore since Hell Dog's gone soft and W.C. 'dead', so the rest of 'us' are weak now too… You got responsibilities…a name to uphold cuz of your uncle, Alucard. You're somebody people recognize, someone they remember… No more rumors like this or that's only going to mean more trouble for everyone, got it?" Vlad looked back over the ledge at the end of the second level's hall, and he watched the wind that was ramming into a tree. Jake watched the pale skin and then moved his eyes to an idle hand.

"You skipped out! What the Hell were you doing? Nothing? Nothing ain't an answer, Hell Dog!" Someone yelled at the skinny teen that stood in the middle of the alley, standing before a jury of his peers. The oldest of the Junior leaders, the son's of Senior leaders, stood against the brick wall, facing Vlad, watching for his response. The teen refused to answer.

"We told everyone, Alucard! They noticed that you weren't there! This was a big deal!"

"Not like anyone died because I wasn't there." Vlad moved a foot as he spoke, and then looked up coolly at the forming glares. "I don't see the big deal."

"You fucking brat!" Jake snarled and moved to the boy, close enough to tower over him. Vlad smirked up at his face.

"So you think it was a big deal, Jack-bean? I thought you were the biggest thing around here…nothing's big to you…"

"Damn it!" He grabbed the boy's arms and shook him, sick of the mouthing off. "This is a big deal! If you do this then others will do this! They look at you and see a leader, now you better start acting like a goddamn leader or…"

"You plan on stepping on me until I turn into jam for your bread, Jack-bean? Or will you swallow me whole?" Vlad snickered and pulled away from the stilled hands, and moved back, like he was planning on taking his leave.

"Get back here!" Jake grabbed at a pale hand, catching only the fingers, and he wrenched Vlad over to him again. The pale teen gasped, and then swallowed a cry of pain as he felt his fingers pop out of their sockets, and then was pulled by them again. Jake crushed them in a fist, sending Vlad to his knees with a hiss. Jake had felt the fingers pop, and he knew what he was doing now, though he hadn't planned on it. He kept Vlad there, on his knees. "You're a dense little bastard, Alucard… I have to do this just to get you to listen." Vlad didn't respond, and he was quiet as he received his lecture from the others by the wall. When they were done, they began to leave while Jake pulled Vlad to his feet and took his hand. He forced one of the fingers back into place, a jolt of white hot agony searing through Vlad's nerves as he threw his head back, biting down on his tongue. "Sorry about that…" Another finger was pushed back into place as a whine climbed up Vlad's throat. He shook his head to dislodge it, and gasped.

"Don't worry about it…Jack-bean. They'll…heal fine…right?"

"Yeah. I've done this loads of times." Jake muttered, finishing off with the third finger. Vlad had to sit down for a while and Jake let him stagger off on his own, to go to the wall. When he saw that Vlad would be fine on his own, Jake left.

With the end of the flashback, Jake touched a thin shoulder with his knuckle, to get the teen's attention. "Let's go."

Chapter Text

Jake had never seen the pale, red-eyed child before, but it wandered up to him with a shy little smile. Other boys were with Jake and they laughed and greeted the odd child. Almost immediately, the pale boy melted into the background as the silent member of the group. But this was Jake's place. He was supposed to be left alone, included at times and heard when he contributed, but left to his own devices. Not forced to talk or initiate anything based off of another's incentive. But this little boy had climbed up on the trashcan next to where Jake was leaning against the wall of a building, and had perched on the secured lid, tapping restless heels on the metal can at times. He was looking up at Jake, though the teenager's dark eyes refused to go to the child's. Someone else noticed and stepped in to satiate the boy's curiosity.

"This here is Jake. And Jake, this is Alucard." The other teen's interest was diverted when two boys stumbled out of their collected group, fighting and growling in response to one calling the other a 'bitch'. The boys ran from the wall, into the middle of the back alley behind an anonymous building where their fathers were conducting some business. The alley branched two ways from the building, allowing sound to roll down the pavement.

The boy called Alucard looked up at the quiet, unreadable face that remained, and he smiled. "I'm Vlad, but lots of people like to call me Alucard so that's the name I go by a lot."

Jake's eye twitched in annoyance. He had been left to babysit the shitty little brat. "We've already been introduced, kid." He grunted in a low, impatient voice, crossing his arms to show he wasn't in a social mood.

The boy's head ducked away for a moment, and then turned up to watch the big teenager again. "You're really tall."

Jake ignored the comment, though he gritted his teeth. He would have let it pass over his head, like he usually did, but the brat kept on talking.

"You're tall and big…like a giant. I've never seen anyone as big as you. Do you have to eat a lot to get that big? Do you sleep a lot? Do you have a really big bed? Do you have extra big spoons and bowls and stuff? Is your dad as big as you? Is he as big as a house? Do you like the story Jack and the Beanstalk? I like that story. I like a lot of stories. Can I call you Jack? No. Jack-bean? That's a cool name. Can I call you Jack-bean? Hm? Jake, can I call you Jack-bean?"

The boys had moved down one of the allies and they were getting farther away as all of this passed. Jake's eyes were large and twitching, and his hands were shaking fists he had dropped to his sides. He finally snapped and turned on the little boy. "Do you ever shut up?" He snarled, startling Vlad so badly that he fell off the garbage can, almost taking it down with him. Vlad sat on the ground, gazing up at the other boy timidly.

"Sorry. Please don't smush me Jack-bean. I'll be quiet. Please don't smush me…."

That was the last straw. A shutter closed on Jake's mind…and his hand closed around the boy's arm. He dragged him down the alleyway opposite of the other boys' direction and made a turn down another, then turned into another, and into another…where no one would find them or hear the boy protest and beg him not to 'smush' him.

"I'm sorry Jack-bean! Please!"

There was a dull thwack as a large hand forced Vlad into the wall, his head only partially cushioned by the hood on his sweatshirt as the strength lolled his head backwards, into the wall. It was dark, without windows on the buildings' walls that built up the isolation. The white noise of the city was cut out as well, and without that sound, there was little hope of being heard. Vlad whined softly at the pain in his head, and then whimpered as he felt his feet dangle, held up by the angry fist. The white collar of his shirt could be seen as the sweatshirt was pulled forward in Jake's grip.

"Shut up!" He snarled, lowering his volume for the sake of not pushing his chances of being found by some wandering soul. His face lowered into the child's, causing red eyes to grow as bid as saucers, terrified of the glaring black gaze. Jake shook him sharply and then hissed. "You think you're a funny brat, don't yah? Well, you're not, you stupid little punk!" He shook him again. Vlad would have cried for help, but his diaphragm was paralyzed with fear, and he was having a hard enough time swallowing air without wasting it on words. Jake held him against the wall, glowering at the boy, hearing all of the names he had been called in the past, all of the comments and sniggers, and he saw every one of those laughing faces in the scared boy, who, at eye-level, had lost the mercy of his small and meek characteristics provided by youth, that were forgotten now to Jake... Because of their level eyes, Jake forgot that this was a child half his size. The eyes of a demon helped to have this effect as well.

"I'm sorry." Vlad whispered, finally managing to breathe again, and he did so quietly. His hands were holding onto Jake's fingers, to make his position more comfortable as he trembled against the wall.

Jake sneered, and his grip tightened. "You're scared of me, aren't you?" He looked at the red eyes that spoke for the mute boy. "You're scared of me! Of course you stop now! You're scared now! I got you scared now, so you're sorry! Right? RIGHT?"

Vlad could feel the heat of his breath and hear the teen's teeth grating and snapping together as he raved and pushed the boy harder against the wall. He was quiet, hardly about to understand what Jake was saying as panic clouded his mind. Finally he managed to gasp in a wavering voice. "Don't….please don't….please don't….don't kill me."

Jake's eyes widened. Stiffening, he looked into the red eyes and read the pale features. He snarled but also laughed, though he wasn't amused by the plea. "You think I'm going to kill you? Of course you would! You think I'm a terrifying, mindless, violent brute! You think I'll crush you!"

"Please don't crush me! Or smush me!" Vlad yelped, desperate to get away but too scared to move. "Don't kill me!" Tears were beginning in his eyes, and the jerk that separated him from the wall made them spill onto his cheeks. They flew from his face entirely as he crashed back into the wall. He gasped, wide eyes bulging for the air that had been knocked out of his lungs. It happened again so quickly that he could not tell that it had happened, believing that his pain was only part of the first assault."Stop! Stopitstopitstopit!"

"Shut up!" Jake pulled Vlad up by his face, away from the wall. "Shut up!"

Vlad sobbed, stark white and trembling. "I'm sorry Jack! Please! I'm…!" He hit the wall again, and this time he saw stars and black blotches in his vision.

"My name is Jake, you piece of shit!"

A hoarse sound spoke. "I'm sorry Jack. I'm sorry Jack." It became a whispering mantra, the only thing left in Vlad's mind. He could hear the voice yelling at him and the words, but his mind never connected them to what he was saying.

"My name in not Jack! Don't call me that! Stop calling me that!" A hand made contact with the pale face.

Shock made the head droop and lift a little, round glassy eyes, the same color as the red that dribbled from his parted lips, staring at Jake, shutting with a wince as he hit the wall and his sight spotted. He closed his mouth and the blood seeped across the line between his lips. Jake didn't appear to be able to see the blood as another fist crashed into the boy's head this time, calloused knuckles freed from the threat of being damaged by something as weak as human bone and flesh. He panted, livid with hatred after the fist fell. But then the breath stopped and the glare shot open into a wide gaze. Vlad's hands had fallen from his and the small body was limp, though Vlad retained enough consciousness to keep his eyes open as his head dipped lower and lower. It finally rested on his chest, too weary to keep it up anymore. Everything was foggy…clouded by a thick dark mist, and the world was muffled, the voice a distorted drawl without meaning. Closing his eyes did nothing for this except disorient him, the world moving, slanted…falling.

Jake gaped, unable to believe that this was reality, that he had done this, that this boy was real. His hands shook as he held Vlad and the boy's eyes closed and opened. "Oh….Christ." Jake murmured, a hollow sound, and he lowered the boy slowly, easing himself to a crouch with Vlad. He put the boy against the wall, one hand holding his shoulder as the other fixed his feet so that they were not crumpled under him. He laid them out straight and fixed the languid posture, both hands steadying the thin shoulders. Then they let go. Vlad began to wilt and they returned and fixed him, but Vlad slid over the wall, slumping down or to the side. Jake desperately tried to make him stay upright, but his attempts weren't working. "Sit up! SIT UP!" He cried, shaking Vlad with his frustration and then pushing him against the wall, hopping he would stick that way. But Vlad slumped again. Jake did not catch him this time and the boy fell to the ground and laid there on his side, eyes closed now. He was unconscious.

Jake jumped back and retreated from the boy. "No…no…please no. Oh, God no…." His back touched the opposite wall, startling him, and he whipped around with an airy cry. He stared at the wall, then peered down at the lifeless child. "Oh God!" He dashed forward and fell to his knees, hands picking up the boy from the ground, sitting him upright. He slumped against Jake, and hands held him there, quivering with fear and gut-wrenching anxiety. He clutched the boy to his chest as he clumsily fell back from his feet and sat on the concrete, one knee remaining bent and upright. He stared at the wall, a nervous mumble creeping from his mouth. He caught the sound and swallowed, shutting his eyes as tightly as he could, hoping, wishing, praying that the weight he was holding would disappear. He needed it to disappear…or else he would go mad.

Unsteady hands lifted the pale face up and then moved to Vlad's nose to find his breath. It was there. He wasn't dead…but that didn't make a difference! Jake's lips quivered and a strange hiccup came from his throat. Dark eyes darted about, searching for a solution and fearing that someone would come. His conscious created sounds, imaginary sounds, footsteps, voices, people that weren't there. Jake struggled to get to his feet, clinging to the limp form. He held Vlad like an infant, in both hands as he searched for a way to dispose of him. The jerking head stopped, and Jake stared at the derelict dumpster, colored by curling paint and rust. He walked like a drunk man, weaving and tripping over his own feet. He reached the dumpster and gazed at it.

He couldn't do it. He couldn't make himself open it. It was too disgusting, it was all too disgusting to be,…real. That's it! Jake's eyes sharpened and then dimmed. That's it! None of this is real! It's only a dream! Only a dream! It was only a dream! He moved forward and threw back one of the two coverings and manipulated the insensible thing into the dark, empty belly of the container, and then quickly slammed the lid shut.

He stared at the dumpster, a chill prickling his skin and then fading. It wasn't real… See! Nothing! Nothing! It didn't happen! Nothing is in there! Nothing! Jake staggered back, hitting the wall, and then he leaned towards the exit to this nightmare, walking with a gradually strengthening step. Soon, he was back to normal, moving with sure strides down the alley, through the maze of passageways. His hands went to his pockets and his whole being sighed with relief and breathed a liberating breath of air. He was soon confronted with city life, easily joining with the street crowds, glancing at florescent lights. He smiled a little and shook his head. He had dozed off and had experienced the weirdest dream...

Good thing it was only a dream.

Jake went home that night, nodded to his father who was in the kitchen as he moved down the hall to go up the stairs, to where his room was.

"Jake?"

The teen stopped and looked at the man casually. "Yeah?"

"Where'd you disappear to? Just wandering about again?"

Jake shrugged. "Sorry, I went for a walk and I guess I fell asleep somewhere along the way. I woke up and came home after that."

The man blinked and then looked down at the meal he was throwing together for himself. He shook his head as he chuckled. "Jake…you're one of a kind. I gotta say." He smiled a bit. "Did you eat?"

Jake shrugged away the question. "I'm not hungry…I ate some stuff with the guys earlier." The teen went to the stairs. "Goodnight."

"..'Night then."

Jake closed the door to his room and went to sleep.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

A day went by and the night arrived like it always did for Jake. He was playing poker with a few guys around a wooden table. Hats were pulled low, the visors shading their concentrating, shifty eyes, guarding their hands as one or two exhaled a cloud of smoke, and then one grinned while the other scowled. Bottle caps were stacked about like chips, accompanied by a few dimes and nickels. Nobody played for big money here. They were friends, buddies. You didn't joke around with money with your buds.

Jake's father entered their area and stood, checking over his shoulder before looking at the faces that realized he was there. They nodded or lifted a hand in recognition, then went back to their game. Then a pair of steps walked from the wooden floor of a cluttered hallway, to the carpet where the table and poker game were situated. Eyes glanced up and then froze. A few cards slipped from some loosened hands as the boys were held by the blue gaze that wandered over them, lined by a scowl that was not meant for anyone particular. Jake was stunned, staring at the black haired man behind him. His father was near him…the man…standing near Walter C. D."

Walter looked at the teens, but expected that they would be useless. He spoke anyway. "Have any of you seen a little boy hanging around anywhere?"

Jake's dad spoke up, used to explaining what Walter decided not to say. "He lost his nephew."

Walter turned the scowl to the man, but Jake's dad just grinned crookedly and then looked back at the teens' startled eyes. Jake's mind was as innocently surprised as the rest.

"He's a cute little boy, pretty shy…" Walter sighed irritably at the father's words while the man chuckled and then quieted.

Blue watched the boys blankly, not suspecting much. "Some of you know who I'm talking about."

"Alucard?" ventured a teen and a handful of them nodded. The teen answered the initial question as he saw that he was pretty much obliged to now. "We saw him last night. We thought he went home…"

"Do you know around what time he left?"

Boys shook their heads and apologized, though they didn't need too. Jake murmured with them, aware of a fuzzy sensation in his brain. But he refused to let himself think. He just acted, did things, did what the others were doing. Alucard was not a name he knew.

"Little boy with pale skin and bright red eyes, how could you lose him?" Jake's dad joked, trying to ease the mood. "Jake would get lost all the time when he was young."

"Yeah, but my brat is a runt. He's thin and scrawny and has been babied most of his life." Walter murmured with Jake's father, but the teen could hear them, though he tried not to. The words broke through his determination like it was nothing but a thin thread of a spider's web…a web that fell and caught him…made him helpless…made him nervous. Jake shook his head to get these thoughts out of it. He did not know the red eyes.

"He'll turn up." The man by Walter reassured him, but Walter didn't take the bait. He turned on the teenage boys.

"Go search for him. You were the last ones to see him. You're not doing anything important. Get off your asses and look for the boy before something happens." He watched the dazed eyes, sweeping his gaze across them, and then he turned and left, followed by Jake's father.

All of the boys threw down their cards and pulled on their jackets and sweatshirts before they went out into the streets as well. Jake followed, a machine, functioning without thought…until they reached the familiar back alley behind a certain building, where the trashcan with the lid was sitting by the wall. The boys split up, strolling about, looking in trashcans and peeking into windows, asking a cat on a fence or a yapping dog if they had seen the boy. They had grown up here and nothing had ever happened to them, why would it be different for the red eyed brat? Jake knew, though he denied it. They had no real bond with the boy. Nothing had ever happened to them because they always had someone to back them up when things got rough…and they still did. No one had Jake's back. He was too big to need support. No one worried when he got lost. They didn't really care now, for the odd looking boy.

This ate at Jake, turning him down corners and alleyways, moving through the labyrinth to find the destination he could no longer hide from. He stared at the dumpster, leaning back against a wall.

It was too quiet. Nothing was in there. It was empty. Jake told himself to go. There was nothing there, it was a dream. But he couldn't move as his nervousness sped off with his reason. If he let someone else get to the boy first, he'd tell…he'd tell people. He hadn't just beat up a little boy…he had beat up W.C.D.'s fucking NEPHEW!

The teen gulped and slowly pushed away from the wall and approached the dumpster.

It was just too quiet.

Chills slithered through the teen's skin, making him shudder as his hand touched the lid. He struggled to continue, to do more. Closing his eyes, he flipped the lid with a push of effort.

It was so damn quiet Jake wanted to cry. He hated the quiet. Hated it.

His eyes didn't want to open. They didn't want to see a dead boy. They couldn't bear to see a dead boy in that dumpster. But there was a shuffling sound that stopped, followed by some dull thuds, and then there was sniffling. Then…

"Help me out…pl…lease. I….I can't…can't…pull…"

Jake's eyes flew open and he gasped, backing away from the close face. It was bruised and smeared, on the chin and above and around the lips, with dried blood. An ugly black and blue swelled lump rose from the side of his forehead and touched his left eyebrow. It looked like the boy had got blue paint on his face and had tried to wipe it off, but it was the bruise…from Jake's fist. Jake stared at the boy, the red eyes, the bruises, the tears and the trembling hand reaching for him as Vlad clung to the side of the dumpster, holding himself up.

But there was no fear in the boy. He didn't recognize Jake… The teen returned to the dumpster and hesitantly lifted the boy and set him down. Vlad swerved a little before he could control his feet to find his balance, then he gazed up at Jake, trembling lips and puffy eyes streaming tears over the ugly blue blotches by his mouth and his busted lip.

"Thank you…I…I..I don't know how I…I got there….but…" a hiccup stopped him and he bent his head as his face went through a short spasm and his tears fell. "Co…ould….y..yyou…help me..find my….uncle? I…I don't know…." He hiccupped and sat on the ground. "…I don't know….where I am. I…don't kknow how…to get home."

Jake stared at the boy, shivering and watching. It was all real…all of it…was real. He felt dizzy, so he crouched down as well, closing his eyes. But this only allowed him to hear the child cry and whimper, so he opened them and looked at the black hair. "Yeah." He whispered, pulling up the red eyes with his words. "I know your uncle…I don't know where he lives. But I think I know where he is right now."

Vlad's mouth opened and he gasped, white fingers digging into his jeans, covering his shins. "Thank you…Thank you!"

"But no more crying." Jake added without thinking. Vlad's tears made him want to throw up.

"Oh…yeah." Vlad was rubbing his eyes, moving his feet to keep himself from falling as he stood up while he did this. He was calming down quickly now, and he even laughed a little when he uncovered his eyes and looked at the dumpster. "I was in there? A big trashcan?" He laughed a distorted giggle.

Jake felt his chills return as he stood as well, watching Vlad swerve a little as he laughed. "Why are you laughing?"

Vlad looked up at Jake and smiled slightly, suddenly conscious of the stranger. "Because it's funny. I was in a trashcan…I thought I got eaten by a monster…or something like that. But I was just in a trashcan. It's funny, right?" He laughed quietly, glancing back at the dumpster as he tripped on one of his feet.

Jake tasted bile in the back of his throat and he had to touch the boy's back to steer him away. They went back to the building with the (real) trashcan, but they didn't find any of the other teens. Vlad was tripping too often, and he asked for a rest when they continued for a while longer, taking the back way to the guys' poker hangout. Jake waited a while as the boy sat by the wall, then offered to give him a ride on his back. Vlad accepted and they carried on.

"I'm up so high…!" The boy looked around at the things they passed. Jake didn't say anything. "You're so tall… I wish I was big."

"You're yelling in my ear." Jake grunted to avoid the subject. The boy apologized and rested his check on Jake's shoulder, earning a grumble that made him straighten. Vlad began to look around again.

"It's like flying."

"Can you be quiet, kid?"

Vlad started and ducked his head and apologized again. "I only meant to say it…as a good thing. My uncle always tells me I'm too skinny, I'm too weak, I'm no good…all I can do is run away…" Vlad's chin went to Jake's back and the teen told him to sit up. The boy was quiet. "I don't think my uncle likes me very much."

"If you chatter as much as you are now, I wouldn't blame him." Jake growled as butterflies flew about in his stomach. He did not need to be hearing about W.C.D. at this moment. He needed to psyche himself up…get himself under control. If Walter C.D. found out about what he did…that he did this to his nephew… God. He would be lucky to die with all of his limbs intact. His father had told him stories about Walter C.D.'s torture techniques…the people he killed…the bodies…never found. He was unknown to the police…and no one dared tell of this secret…that he wasn't a normal guy…that he had killed people, mangled people, robbed and ransacked houses, never getting caught. How he split money from jobs even though he did all the work…how he had no taste for money…rather for possessions. If he liked something he'd give you his wallet if you'd take it for the thing. Money was paper…something to barter with for stuff you like and sometimes need, like food…so it did have some meaning to him… It was hard to explain. But having a lot of money…never made him feel wealthy…so he used it. He stole stuff, trinkets, antiques, chairs…not cash and rarely jewelry, unless he had a woman he planned on giving it to. Walter C.D. was a strange man, but a terrifying man, none the less. Jake didn't realize he was trembling until Vlad touched his forehead with a cold little hand. The boy felt like death, he was so cold.

"Are you sick? Or cold? I would give you my sweatshirt but I think it's too small."

Jake growled again, telling the boy to keep his hands to himself and keep quiet. Vlad followed this order as they made a turn. When they were walking straight again he whispered.

"Can I tell you a secret?"

Jake ignored the boy and kept walking. There were more important things he needed to figure out right now.

Vlad, used to this kind of response, continued. "I'm eleven."

Jake jolted, and then snarled to himself, covering his spike of fear. Did the brat know? Was he goading him? "So what?"

Vlad was quiet. "I was ten yesterday. Now I'm eleven. I'm almost a teenager, aren't I? Big like that? Go to high school and drive a car, right? Eleven is close, right?"

Jake shivered once, and then told the boy to shut up as he saw their destination in the distance. Holy fuck…he had done this to the kid on his birthday? Or was his brains all scrambled up now? He licked his lips and decided not to speak anymore…then changed his mind. "Hey kid…you really don't remember what happened to you?"

The boy looked at Jake's head for a bit then shook his head and cringed as it ached. "No. It felt like I was in there forever…but I guess it wasn't that long. It's still night."

Jake took a breath and sighed. He almost tripped when Vlad suddenly spoke.

"What's your name?"

Jake's pupils dilated and then he closed his eyes to focus them. "Jake."

"I'm Vlad."

The teen blinked and slowed his pace. "Vlad?"

Vlad smiled. "Vladimir Alucard Dracula…" His face lost its brightness, becoming a bit sullen. "Do you think my name's weird?"

"No…" Jake frowned at the odd question. "Why would I think it's weird?"

Vlad was stunned, amazed by the response. Excitement welled in him, sending tremors down his arms as they held onto Jake, worrying the teen for a moment. Then the boy blurted out, "Will you be my friend Jake? Even if you're an adult?"

"I'm sixteen." Jake replied flatly, passed the surprise from the first question. He hoped Vlad would be quiet as he scoped the area, looking for signs that would tell him someone was there. The lights were off, the windows were dark. He set Vlad down and tried to open the door, but it was locked.

Now what?

He looked down at the little kid and caught his hands, wringing them out as his anxiety started to come back. What if his memories return? What if W.C.D. can tell I did it? Can they match the bruises with my hand? He rounded the building, looking for a side door. He found it, with a sigh of relief and told Vlad to come in with him.

"Hey, Jack?"

Jake started, gasping and hitting a wall as he spun to look at Vlad who was just as startled by his reaction. "My name is Jake." He muttered, looking away to hide his twitching expression.

"Oh…sorry. But…you know….you remind me of the story of Jack and the Beanstalk…"

Oh God…not this again. Please not this. Not this. Not this! His features stiffened.

"…can I call you Jack-bean?"

"NO!" Jake snarled, scaring the boy so much that he fell back into the wall and sunk to the floor. His mouth was hanging open as he stared at Jake. The teen saw the familiar sight and turned, hands tearing his hair. "Don't call me that…!" He whispered, unable to find his voice. "Don't call me that, brat. I'm not the fucking giant from that goddamn story!"

Vlad jerked at this and got to his feet quickly. "I didn't mean it like that! I didn't! Jack's the human anyway! He's not a giant! Your names sound alike…is all…" Vlad's voice fell and died at the sight of the stricken face he saw above him, the quivering lips, the jerking muscles…the tears. "I'm so…so sorry!" Vlad shook, scared of what he had done, he held onto the end of his sweatshirt for comfort. Big people weren't supposed to cry, in Vlad's mind. Only little kids could cry. When you grew up, you weren't able to make tears anymore. "I didn't mean to make you cry. I didn't mean to call you a bad name. People call me a freak all the time…it doesn't feel good to be made fun of. I didn't mean to…I swear."

I'm so stupid. Jake used his sleeves to clean his face and he cleared his throat. "You didn't…brat. Just some dust in my eye."

"Oh…" Vlad didn't believe him, but he didn't say anything about it. He looked about, and then back at Jake. "Is there a bathroom here? …I just realized… I really have to pee."

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

They stayed in the building until Jake's father came around to see why the lights were turned on. The man stared at his son who was sitting on a couch, head on his hand with his elbow on the armrest of the furniture, with the boy leaning against him, dead asleep. The man left to fetch Walter, and they both returned and pondered the odd picture. They saw the swollen, bruised face, but didn't think much of it. He had been playing with the bigger boys, it was bound to happen. They probably stepped on him or something and he ran off crying and got lost. He was just a quiet timid boy…who didn't talk much.

Jake woke up as his father shook his arm. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and then dropped his hands into his lap and looked at Vlad. He froze, unable to breathe. Walter was leaning down, close enough to touch, and he was looking intently at his nephew's face. The man was able to smell fear, and his eyes flicked up to Jake's, but the usually scowling face was calm.

"No need to be so stiff, boy. You found my lost nephew for me…" He actually smirked at the paling face and then turned his eyes back to Vlad. He flicked the blue bruise with his finger, expecting to get a yelp from the boy…not a yelp and a head butt.

Eyes stared as Walter reeled back and stood, blinking as his head wrung. Damn that brat has a hard head. He glared down at the wet eyes. Vlad was whimpering and clutching the throbbing injuries he had just made worse.

"Boy…you just hit me with your head." Walter spoke with a threatening growl, widening red eyes. Vlad looked up and gazed at his uncle, mouth open.

"Uncle?" He still had his hands on his head as he gawked at the scowling man. He realized he was in trouble so he bent his head, though it hurt to do so. "I'm sorry Uncle."

Walter growled but let it go, ignoring the man and the boy that were staring at him. "Where were you hiding, brat? I had to go looking for you…" Jake couldn't breathe, his heart was pounding in his ears, but he was saved when Vlad perked up.

"You were looking for me Uncle? Really?" Vlad's eyes stayed with Walter as the man's face became shadowed with thoughts. "I didn't think you would notice if I was gone for a while."

Jake gasped and retreated away from the couch as the slap rang in his ears. Vlad was dumbstruck, then he felt his bruises and he whimpered and bit his lip to stop the tears, afraid they would make his uncle mad….madder that is.

"You little shit! Is that what you were doing? You wanted to see if I'd notice you were gone?" He snarled, scaring Jake while his father stepped forward to calm him, but was unable to. Tears dripped from Vlad's nose as he blood touched his chin. His lip had reopened.

"N…no. I didn't…I…" The boy mumbled, trying to hide his fear and his tears… Why wouldn't they stop?

"Then you decided to go off on your own? What were you doing?" Walter wasn't yelling anymore, but it was easy to read the anger still flickering in his eyes.

"I…I was only gone for a little bit, Uncle. A couple hours, right? I…don't remember…" His lips were red now, and he cringed at the taste of his own blood.

No one was able to speak. They stared at the boy, cold with confusion. Jake was suffering from his chills again, feeling that his end was near. Walter looked at his nephew and watched the blood pearl on his chin and then stop and slip down over his throat. "You were gone for a couple hours?" He spoke quietly.

"Yeah…? I think…"

Vlad cowered into the couch when his uncle bent down and held his face. He squeezed his eyes and managed to stop the tears. Walter looked at his lip, touching it lightly. Vlad whined, and the man instantly pinched down on the wound, drawing out a cry. "Be quiet. You need to accept that it hurts and then ignore it, brat. You don't cry and you don't make a sound." Vlad was quiet, though he felt ill now, and he opened his eyes. Walter rubbed the blood from his hands, working it into his black gloves so that it seemed to disappear. Then he turned his attention back to his nephew's head. He eyed the large bruise and then clucked his tongue.

"They got you good, boy. A good solid hit to the head…no wonder you can't remember anything." He stood as the bemused boy blinked up at him. "What day is it today?"

Vlad blinked again and then hesitantly replied. "It's Thursday, Uncle. Did you forget your days of the week?"

Jake's father smiled grimly at this while Walter scowled, tempted to flick his bruise again. He decided to do it, and to his satisfaction, Vlad swallowed the pain.

"It's Friday, Vladimir."

Vlad showed an expression of horror that his uncle couldn't understand, then the boy looked for the window and gaped at how dark it was. "No!"

Walter hated being confused, so he barked at the child. "Shut up! What are you so worked up about, boy?"

Vlad looked at him and then the floor, mumbling something no one heard. Walter ordered him to speak up as Jake realized what was wrong. Vlad spoke. "Thursday was my birthday, Uncle. I missed my birthday…"

"Oh." Walter looked down at the fretting little boy, unable to understand why this was such a big deal. "How old are you then?"

"Eleven."

Walter paused and then nodded slightly. "Alright…good for you." He sighed and looked at his audience with a scowl. "What?" He singled out Jake's father whose son was behind him, leaning on a table. The man had a strange smile on his face.

"You know…C.D….you're not the greatest uncle in the world, but you're not the worst."

Walter frowned and was about to protest when Vlad did it for him, holding his own frown. "My uncle is the best uncle out there. Better than any uncle!"

The men stared at him while Jake closed his eyes and tried to disappear. Everything he saw only made his guilt worse. He had fed the boy some snack food they had in the hangout and then they had retired to the couch to wait things out…and then fallen asleep, he guessed. The boy drank two glasses of water and every gulp had made him cringe. Now the boy was…acting like a little boy he guessed…a bit immature and naïve, though, for his age. But it churned his stomach…he volunteered to go home first. His father bid him goodnight while Walter just glanced at him, and then Jake tried to leave before Vlad could say anything, but the brat was too eager. The boy scampered up to him and gave him a hug, surprising Walter and causing the other man to chuckle.

"Bye Jack-bean."

Jake bit his tongue and nodded, quickly leaving before anyone could begin commenting on the new name. He didn't care anymore.

Jack was the human, after all.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Walter took the boy to a doctor he was personally acquainted with, aware of the consequences that would result from taking the child to a hospital. Someone would call child (welfare) services on him…and they would evaluate his house, which would probably lead to jail time…and worse things, and they would ultimately take the little boy away and put him in a foster home. This kid was a piece of his flesh and blood. He was not willing to hand him over to strangers who would, more than likely, abuse the freakish looking child. Walter wasn't a monster, at least, not a whole monster. There was some wasting thing that resembled a heart, left inside his chest.

Now little Vladimir was sitting on one of the mismatched chairs, gazing at the black mummy hand on the shelf with one eye. The other was covered partially by an icepack swaddled in a paper towel he was using to coax down the swelled lump on his head. His pale skin had reddened from the cold, but the boy didn't seem to notice as he looked at the hand, nibbling on a piece of bread. Peanut butter was smeared over the slice, so the boy ate it slowly, careful not to make a mess as he had already taken a shower and was wearing a large shirt along with some pajama pants as his night clothes. Walter appeared the moment the bread was gone and he told the boy to get some rest as he removed the icepack from the boy's head and left to throw it in the sink, planning to take care of it in the morning. He was too tired to do much else at the moment. The man sighed and checked on the boy one last time before going to his own bedroom and shutting the door.

Vlad turned off the light and curled up under his blanket, his futon positioned on the rug by the table with mismatched chairs. With a wide yawn he gingerly lowered his numbed face to his pillow and fell into an exhausted sleep.

Hours later, fear rattled through the boy's small frame as he bolted out of his slumber and held himself, trembling under his blanket, his eyes wide with fear. He had had a terrible…and very REAL nightmare. The boy panted in order to catch his breath, ducking his head into his knees to stop himself from seeing the memories play out in his mind…again.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

He was scared and confused, in need of something sure and comforting. So he went to his uncle's room and opened the unlocked door timidly, ready to bolt if the man told him to leave. Nothing happened. Curious, the boy peered at the bed as he ventured forward, taking silent steps. Vlad blinked, his lips twitching as he saw that Walter was asleep. Alright, good. He thought and moved around to the left side of the bed, carefully pulling back the covers and spreading his weight out on the mattress to make the indent he made, smaller. Vlad was good at this. He had done this many a time before, sneaking into his parents' bedroom to sleep by his mother when it was cold or when he had dreamed about something scary. His presence would often surprise the woman in the morning.

I wonder if Uncle will be surprised too?

The boy smiled slightly with this thought, finding an extra pillow and claiming it for himself. He fell asleep.

Survival does strange things to people. It revives animalistic senses and instincts within them, anything that would give them an edge in a threatening situation. Walter…was one such case. He turned over in his sleep and instantly felt the foreign presence, and his hand, out of its desire to preserve its owner's life, grasped the threat and forced into a helpless state. A vice constricted the small throat with cruel fingers, and, if not for the smallness or the startled, childish squeak, he would have broken the trespasser's neck without hesitation. Blue eyes gazed down at the wavering white of the face below him and saw the frightened red eyes. Walter let go and leaned back, disoriented and staring at the coughing boy that gave a trembling whine and hid from him in the blankets, curling up.

Walter continued to stare until he could scowl and rub his face tiredly. He hissed at the child, knocking it with his knee as it remained in the blankets. "What are you doing?" A glare stayed with the lump as Vlad didn't come out. A knee rammed into an injury this time and the boy gasped a shriek he tried to muffle. Shaking and terrified of more pain, the boy threw back the covers and sat up, gazing at his uncle with a meekness that resembled a chastised puppy. Walter scowled at this and shook his head. The boy had horrible luck…getting the snot wacked out of him and then nearly strangled the next night, the man shook his head again and sighed, closing his eyes, reclining on his arms as he propped himself up. His head went back, closed eyes directed to the ceiling. The boy had yet to answer.

Vlad finally mumbled. "I…had a nightmare."

Eyes went to the boy. "I don't care."

There was a quiet sigh that Vlad let escape before he could stop himself. He had been afraid of such an answer…now he felt like no one cared, nowadays. Not since his parents had died. He hung his head and muttered an apology for waking up his uncle. He started to leave, hesitating as he hoped his uncle would pity him and let him stay. The man didn't. Walter only told him to hurry up, so the boy did and closed the door firmly behind him.

He wanted to cry, but what would come of it? Nothing. Crying was stupid, Vlad thought as he buried himself under his blankets and shut his eyes, biting his hurt lip so that it bled and lances of pain would shoot through his nerves. Then, with the iron contaminating his sense of taste, the boy forced himself to sleep.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

There was a change in the boy that should have been noticed, but no one paid enough attention or knew the boy well enough to see it. Vlad was quiet. That wasn't different. But he had a sense of bitterness about him now, and his eyes were sharper. His behavior had made others believe that he was small and younger than he really was. Now, if anyone had chosen to look, they would have seen that he was the proper height for his age, perhaps even taller than the average height. He was skinny but he also had a sense of sinewy strength in his limbs that allowed him to pull his own weight up vertical walls. But Vlad was not entirely different. He was more cautious and pessimistic than before, but he was still shy and rather ignorant of the world.

But with more beating, as with any kind of animal, he would become mean and he would become manipulative and sly. He would, if the beating and neglect continued. If he continued to have friends that were merely presences he haunted like a spirit, and an uncle that forced him to fend for himself and pushed the child away if it ever sought any affection or closeness from the only family he knew.

But for now, he was still shy and ignorant, not one ounce of meanness in his body. He was only a bit more bitter.

Vlad watched Jake across the darkened room. He didn't know what the teenagers were up to, but they had shoed him away when he had gotten too close. All he knew was that it smelled awful and he didn't want to play their game, even though they seemed to be having fun. Jake wasn't participating, along with two other boys who were dealing out a game of BS instead. The red eyes stared at the broad back, sending shivers down Jake's already traumatized nerves, leaving a twitch in his brow that went unnoticed by most. Jake finally pretended to stretch his arms, actually peering around anxiously to find whatever presence it was that was bothering him. It took two false stretches before he caught sight of the boy.

The red eyes were glimmering like flames in the gloom, freezing the teen in place. Vlad licked his hurt lip, blinking before getting up from the arm of the couch, where he had been sitting. He went to the table and picked out his own chair. The teens frowned at him and then scowled at one of the boys when he told 'Alucard' that he could play the next game. Jake fidgeted as he continued to play, keeping his gaze from the pale child. Vlad watched the pile of cards in the middle of the table grow, and he narrowed his eyes when one of the boys said he was putting down a Jack of Clubs.

"BS"

The boy froze while all eyes moved to Vlad as he looked at the frozen teen. He blinked innocently, thinking that this was an odd reaction. He looked around and shrunk into his seat. "I thought he was lying." The boy mumbled.

The others stared at him and then the card. They agreed that no form of punishment would be in order, so they could turn the card over just to quench their curiosity. They paused and then congratulated little Vlad for catching the lie. Then they continued to play again.

A bead of sweat trickled over Jake's temple. He couldn't sit still for another moment. He excused himself and gave Vlad his cards, hoping the boy would stay and play while he disappeared. To his discomfort, the other boys added his cards to the pile and told Vlad to wait for the next game….so the boy chose to follow Jake out the door and into the back alleys.

Jake led the way, moving to an isolated area while Vlad's silent steps came behind him. The teen stopped without turning around. How could such a little brat make him so damn uneasy? It had to be those red eyes… He sighed at the voice, a shallow breath he almost didn't notice.

"Why did you beat me up?"

Jake tried to swallow. "What are you talking about?" He questioned. It was a sad attempt, in his opinion. Vlad didn't say anything. When Jake turned around he saw that the boy was staring at his black sneakers, moving one to tap a rock with his foot.

"You beat me up…and then I woke up in a dumpster…" His voice became quiet as he began to move his other sneaker. "Do you hate me?"

The teen inhaled through his teeth and watched the black hair that swept before the black and blue bruise. "No…you're making a mistake, kid. I didn't…beat you up."

"You're lying. You hit me…twice."

Jake shivered, fear and hate beginning in his chest. "No I didn't!"

"Yes!" Vlad looked questioningly at the taller boy. "You did! Why are you lying? You did, and I know you did."

The chills were attacking Jake now, causing him to stiffened and form his hands into fists. He was quiet for a time. "Did you tell your uncle that?"

Vlad stared and then shook his head. "No."

"Now you're lying you piece of shit! That would have been the first thing you did!" Jake snarled, alarming Vlad who retreated a few steps. Jake noticed this with mixed feelings. Should he be trying to win the brat over? To save his own skin? His demeanor changed as he closed his eyes. He really didn't feel like dying anytime soon. "Hey, kid. Sorry…I'm not trying to scare you, alright?" Hell. How was he supposed to make this work? Fuck! He wanted to scream, but knew he couldn't right now. He opened his eyes. Vlad's gaze was on his shoes again. Jake suddenly realized the boy was as nervous as he was…or even more. He thought that Jake could beat him up again or kill him, right now, without breaking a sweat. This consoled Jake, for some reason and he ran his hand through his short hair. "I didn't mean to hurt you…"

What? Spoke the wide red eyes, gaping at the teen. How could you not mean to beat the shit out of me?

Jake's throat twisted with a demented form of humor that he didn't really find to be funny. He chuckled emptily. "It won't happen again." Shit. This sucked.

"Hey…Jake?" The teen reacted to his real name with a flinch. Vlad looked up at him apprehensively. "You really didn't beat me up because you hate me? Or because I'm ugly?"

Jake's mouth opened and then he licked his lips, analyzing the boy. There was no confidence in the skinny brat, none at all. The boy was beaten down and lonesome looking. It was sad to look at him like this, with those bruises... He looked like a victim of child abuse. Jake had to turn his eyes away, conscious of his part in the boy's appearance.

"I don't really care, Jake…I just want to know why."

Why? Could Jake himself admit it? Then…as he considered the option, looking at the boy again…he felt like he needed to. Vlad would benefit…a lot, if he told the boy…Jake would benefit a lot as well… And then, if the kid thought of him as a friend, he'd never want his uncle to kill him. Jake licked his lips again and watched the red eyes, and then the bruises. "Hey kid, do people make fun of you because of the way you look?"

Vlad's face darkened a bit and he chewed on his hurt lip. He could only nod.

Now that he had the answer, it didn't make sense for a moment. Who would dare make fun of W.C.D.'s nephew? …Anyone would. Walter C.D. wasn't going to do anything about it…if he wanted to he could be searching the city, looking for the thug that beat up the brat…but he wasn't. He was content to know that the kid was alive, and that's about it. Jake felt depressed, just thinking about it. He prolonged a blink and took a breath. "Well…yah know…people like to do that, a lot. Happened to me all the time…and still does, sometimes." Vlad's eyes were wide, entranced by the confession. He was completely absorbed by Jake's presence now, and he moved closer to the teen.

"Why? Why would people do that?" He asked, needing an answer to a question that had plagued him for months. His bleeding lip was twitching as a single red pearl formed.

"Because I'm big. I'm different. You're different. They feel good when they do it…it's a game for them, like chucking rocks as a mangy stray cat. It's just a game."

Vlad was standing before the boy now, as if he were a magnetic force drawing him in. The boy really wanted to touch Jake's sleeve, and he didn't know why. "I don't think it's a good game…like the one those big boys were playing back in the room, with the smoke. I think it's a rotten smelling game."

Jake watched the child, anxiety flushed from his system. He smiled slightly at the words. Yes. Cruelty was like a drug, addictive, harmful, and rotten smelling. He ruffled the back hair and a pale hand caught his sleeve as it left his head. Jake let the boy hold onto it for a while, mesmerized by this strange development.

"I won't call you Jack-bean anymore if you don't want me too."

Jake shook his head. "Naw. It's fine…Jack's the human, right?"

Vlad smiled up at him and then dropped the sleeve, somewhat embarrassed now. He was eleven. He wasn't a little kid anymore. The boy plucked up his courage with this thought and looked at the blue jacket Jake was wearing. "Do you want to be my best friend, Jack-bean? I've never had a best friend…except maybe one."

Maybe not a best friend…but he's like a little brother I've never had… Jake mused and then took interest in what Vlad had added. "Who was the 'one'?"

The boy became nervous again and he held onto his own sweatshirt. "Tammy, my babysitter. She was really pretty."

Jake chuckled and nudged the boy teasingly, aiming to get the kid to start walking back to the hang out with him. "I wouldn't mind having a hot babysitter." He joked, stunning Vlad who tried to laugh as well.

As they continued to discuss the pretty/hot babysitter, they bypassed the hang out and wandered through the labyrinth and then out into the streets. When someone asked them about Vlad's face and his red eyes, they just said that he had fallen down the stairs and that his eyes were always red. People avoided the two for the most part. They were just jealous because they were all short and didn't have red eyes.

Chapter Text

Gloom and shadow enveloped every form and hid this world from the illuminated city. The creaking of bones, the straining of muscles, the gasping of lungs, and the wild thudding drum of the heart, beating, pulsing blood in every vein, all at once. Diving to the side, the rush of winter air, invigorating when contrasted to the heat of conflict, soothing any aches that were overlooked for the moment.

Vlad smashed his sharp knuckles into a nose and felt the wet blood spurt into the crevices between his fingers before the foreign body staggered away and hit the ground with weakened knees. The blood soaked up the cold air as the fingers splayed out and Vlad spun to catch hold of a jacket. He used the other teen's momentum to help drive his enemy into the black grime of the concrete, the filth marking the jacket on contact. Vlad gave his stunned foe a kick in the gut. Satisfied by the grunt and gasps for breath that filled his ears afterwards, the red eyes darted about for the next assailant, but none offered themselves to him. The enemy was retreating, yelling to one another as they fled.

Vlad peered about in the gloom, observing the victory as he coughed into a bloody hand. He eventually picked out Jake among the other boys. As his steps started forward, they halted and shifted back to the teen he had kicked on the ground. Unable to run away, the injured teen was doing his best to protect himself from the trio that had decided to take advantage of his vulnerable position. Their ring of assault was broken when Vlad snarled, tearing a boy away from his place in the ring. The others stopped, throwing glares at Vlad until they realized who he was. Then they backed down and wandered, hesitantly, away while the red eyes burned. "Pathetic vultures." The pale teen muttered, never looking down at the mute and bloodied boy on the ground. The black, starred converse abandoned him and went to catch up with Jake who was turning a corner, about to be lost from sight.

But, before the pale boy reached the corner, yells started up from the direction the other teens had taken. Vlad heard voices and running feet heading for the back lot of the storage building, made into a natural dead end by the two brick buildings that acted as walls on either side of it. Vlad pivoted, gazing back at the three sides of wall, noticing the teen on the ground as his eyes swept over the area. He picked the wall to his right and took a running start at it. As his shoes dug into the spaces between the bricks, police officers reached the back lot. His hands were pulling him up the wall to help him climb when he heard voices yelling at him. The cops that were just arriving were told to run around to the front of the building, to go to the roof in order to pursue the escaping suspect.

Why did this wall have to be so damn tall?

Vlad cursed as his vision became a fuzzy and a trembling hand caught the ledge of a window. The boy hung from it for a moment, losing his footing as his shoes slipped from the crevices. He was panting and becoming light headed. A savage cough almost cost him his grip on the ledge, bringing a sense of urgency to move his arms and dig his shoes into the bricks. He struggled to conquer the last few feet to reach the roof. The concrete that jutted out from the pattern of brick offered him a place to pull himself up. With a groan, the boy managed to bring himself over this last obstacle and he collapsed, falling onto the flat rooftop, where he lay, gasping for air that darkened his mind. Blindly, he attempted to crawl to his feet. Barely on his knees, he tried to stand. He swerved as he staggered forward and swayed when he stood still. Eventually his knees gave out and the teen hit the concrete of the roof. Vlad closed his eyes and his world became darkness.

The next thing he knew he was being carried past the back lot where his eyes were allowed to see that it was now empty. Panicking, he jerked and fought the hands that were holding him under his arms and carrying his legs. There were gasps and a struggle to catch Vlad before he hit the ground, but he still fell, hitting his back and busting up his elbow. The boy let out a feral snarl, glowering up at the cops as he tried to get his bearings. He got into a crouch, flattening the pads of his fingers on the asphalt, ready to dive in either direction to find his escape. But he paused, blinking away the murkiness in his mind as he saw that the two uniformed men were waving their hands and speaking to him. The voices finally registered.

"Hey kid! Hey! Calm down!" "We know you, remember? Chief Integra's boy brought you to the station one time. Calm down!"

"Vladimir." An approaching voice turned the pale face to the woman that had a creasing frown on her lips. "You're coming with me…there's no way to connect you to the fight, so it's okay. Sit down…" She motioned with her hands. "You fainted…and you have a fever…"

Vlad gazed up at her, in a daze. Without knowing what to do and unable to make sense of what was going on, the boy followed her instructions and sat on the ground, taking deep breaths to collect his thoughts. His eyes gazed at his hands in his lap and saw the obvious smear of blood on his knuckles. He scrubbed it off on his jeans as Integra stood over him, pretending not to see. It was obvious from the blood stains and the state of the teens clothes that he had just been involved in the street fight. Whether or not it was gang related was the only question on the cops' minds right now. But, with Integra's persuasion, they had chosen to let Vlad off with a warning that she would give the boy, along with some medicine and a warm meal. Anyone could see from the boy's weak appearance that he was in no state to be hauled back to the station and questioned. He needed to rest…and Integra said he was a good kid.

"Vladimir?" Integra touched his shoulder with a gloved hand, but the boy didn't look up.

"I just need a moment, Chief." He mumbled. The woman nodded and chose to wait for him, telling the other officers to leave the boy in her care.

Integra took the boy home with her, presenting him with no other alternative (other than being carted off to jail). Vlad understood what she had done for him, so he easily consented and got in her police vehicle.

"What were you thinking?" Integra demanded, a glare fixed on the road as Vlad sat, slouched, in her passenger seat. Her fingers shifted on the steering wheel. "Going out there…doing THAT in your condition! You're sick! When was the last time you ate a proper meal? You need red meat! That's probably why you fainted, Vladimir! Your blood needs iron!..." She continued for a time, until her voice gave way to a sigh. Then it was quiet.

Now the woman spoke calmly, expecting answers. "What did you eat today?"

Vlad's unfocused eyes were on the dash board. He didn't want to speak, but couldn't refuse. "You have to let me explain…" He said slowly, causing the woman to glance at him as he hid his hands in his sweatshirt's pocket. "I needed to pay the rent…so my water and power were turned off last night. I got the money and paid the rent so everything would be turned back on by tonight. I would have eaten something, because I do have food. I was going to have soup, which is good for sick people, right? I ate some of those dried out noodles earlier today, but they hurt my stomach, so I just decided to wait for the power and water to come back on."

Integra's expression darkened, her hands tightening on the steering wheel before her. Vlad's landlord had just succeeded in making himself a very powerful enemy. The woman gritted her teeth. "So you haven't eaten anything since last night."

"I ate a little." The low voice grumbled back. This was humiliating. Vlad slumped deeper into the seat, trying to hide his face in the collar of his sweatshirt. He managed to hide it up to his nose, and he made his bangs cover the rest. Integra noticed, somewhat amused by the odd sight. She decided not to comment for the time being, hoping that he would feel like answering more of her questions if she didn't. The woman stopped at a light and flicked on her turning signal.

"I see that the blood on your hand wasn't your own."

Vlad didn't answer, keeping his mouth closed as he shut his eyes.

The light changed so Integra followed the green SUV in front of her as they both turned. When she was driving in a straight line again she looked at the boy and then the road. "What was the fight about? I'm not going to ask you for any names, unless you'd like to give them to me, but I'm just naturally curious."

Again, Vlad owed the woman too much to deny her. "Guys doing stupid stuff…so we had to get them to stop."

"We?" Integra asked with twitching lips. She frowned, though she accepted her assumption. "What gangs were involved in this, Vladimir? I'd like to know since gang rivalry is dangerous for both the gang members and the people in the area…luckily, the police have managed to keep gang activity low so there aren't any large fights, usually. But, even for the small street gangs…"

Vlad listened to the woman, his eyes creaking open. She was wrong about most of the stuff she was saying. There weren't multiple small-time street gangs littering the city, sometimes permitting territorial disputes to become contained fights. There was one super-gang, and then two smaller gangs that had recently allied with one another, and now had even combined, towards the edge of the city, primarily the east ghetto area. There was one large gang that was controlling the streets and keeping gang violence at a record low for the area. The police weren't responsible for the regular absence of shoot outs. The one who should get the credit for that…was his uncle. Vlad focused on her voice again when she restated her question.

"I don't know what you're talking about." Integra stared at the black bangs, listening to the slightly muffled words. "It was just a bunch of punks slinging it out because of…stuff."

Integra scowled quietly, watching the road. "What kind of stuff, Vladimir?" Vlad knew that she wasn't buying the bull he was trying to give her, but he stuck by what he had already said, giving a bit of the truth this time.

"A few punks sprayed graffiti on a few houses and some guy's work, so we went to tell them to cut it out."

Integra was silent for a time. She didn't approve of anything that was coming out of the teen's mouth at the moment. "If I catch you doing it again, Vladimir, I'm going to arrest you…you got that? You inform the police about…this kind of harassment or defacement of private property. You don't take matters into your own hands. That's how you get in trouble."

Red eyes blinked open and then moved to reflect in the side window, looking though it to see the open sky and the passing trees. "If they do it again, I'll tell you Chief." There's no way after the beating they got today that they'll be back anytime soon. Vlad glanced at himself in the side mirror and sat up when he saw how stupid he looked right now. Integra watched him shift around in his seat, out of the corner of her eye. They drove in silence after that. There was no need to push for answers right now. Integra had all night, and more, to do that.

They parked in the garage, next to Anderson's car, and Integra led the way to the kitchen, that seemed to be in use at the moment. Vlad rounded the curved wall and slowed his pace, reluctant to reveal himself.

Seras was rummaging around in the fridge while Anderson was gathering the silverware. The scent of food was in the air, making Vlad's stomach shudder and yowl for sustenance. The boy smothered the sound the best he could, but he still thought that the family of blondes heard it. When no one looked at him, he calmed and dropped his hands to his sides. On a second thought, he moved to hide them in his sweatshirt as Integra told Anderson to set an extra place.

The green eyes questioned the woman, so she threw a thumb back at the curved wall where Vlad was idling. Anderson flinched and stared at the pale face. Then he returned to the drawer to grab the rest of the silverware, though, he still doubted why they really needed silverware for what they were eating. His mother was so demanding sometimes. He sighed as Seras finally noticed Vlad and slammed the refrigerator close, jostling the bottles inside, with a startled gasp.

"Vlad!"

Integra frowned at the girl, unaware of the shopping trip incident. "You know Vladimir?"

Seras smiled at the boy and then her mother. "Yeah. We ran into him while we were Christmas shopping. I thought he was a ho…"

"Hey, Vlad?" Anderson's loud voice drowned out his sister's, making her pout while Integra knew better than to stick around and allow her daughter to say something she shouldn't. "Wash your hands and help me out with the plates, will you? You remember where they are, up in there." A handful of forks indicated the wooden cabinet as Vlad quietly went to the sink. When he passed Seras who was grouchily leaving the kitchen to bring the drinks to the table, the girl gasped and stared after him.

"What happened to your CLOTHES? You're like covered in black gunk!"

"Thank you for your input, Female Anderson." The boy muttered crossly, having wanted to avoid bringing his clothes into consideration. Anderson was staring at him with a deepening frown.

"Did you go dumpster diving or something, Vlad…because, God, she's right. You're filthy…"

"I do not have a hobby of rummaging around in dumpsters, fat ass."

Seras, who was still gawking, sputtered at the name and looked to her brother to see if he would be angry. To her amazement, Anderson didn't seem to notice, though Integra's voice came from another part of the house as she headed for the dining room.

"Alexander. Can you get him a change of clothes and throw what he's wearing in the washing machine? Seras can set the table. Then, you need to make sure he eats some meat. I'll wash his mouth out with a bar of soup later."

Anderson eagerly dropped his collection of utensils on the nearest countertop, ignoring the indignant huff Seras gave him and the frown on Vlad's face. He grabbed the dirty sweatshirt, and then let go and decided to just tell Vlad to follow him as he brushed off the dirt that now marked his hands.

When they reached the carpeted stairs, Anderson noticed when Vlad stopped to take off his shoes and socks, both of which had a generous layer of dirt that could be rubbed off by the shaggy carpet. Vlad left his socks tucked into his shoes on the tiles and then ascended the stairs to go to Anderson's room.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

He probably should have taken a shower first, thought the teen as he pulled on a bluish-grey T-shirt. Remnants of dried blood crumbled from the gaps between his fingers so Vlad bent down to try and pick up the flakes so he could throw them away. Luckily, Anderson had left to put some of his clothes, along with Vlad's stuff, into the washing machine, so no one was able to watch the boy go into the neighboring bathroom and wash the persistent blood off his hands. Once they were white and clean, he went to the dining room and found that Anderson hadn't returned from doing the laundry yet. A huge box of pizza acted as the centerpiece of the table while the two blonde females sat with empty plates, waiting for the boys. Seras was chattering about what gifts she had bought today. The girl spotted Vlad and grinned at him and then her mother. "Vlad called me cute today."

Integra looked at the boy, blinking at his puzzled frown.

"No I didn't."

Seras puckered her brow at him now. "Yes you did. Remember?"

Anderson walked into the room with a smirk ready for his sister. "He said that you were 'too cutesy' to look like Mom." The boy encouraged Vlad to sit while Seras demanded to know what the difference was. Vlad sat with a nod, recalling the incident.

"But you still think I'm cute." Seras asked him, uneager to lose the compliment.

Vlad paused and then shrugged. "I guess… Cute like a…" Seras was beaming as the rest of her family watched Vlad lift his hands from his lap to show a round shape. "…like a fluffy little rat or something."

Integra snorted and leaned her face over her armrest as she struggled not to laugh too enthusiastically…like her son. Anderson had gotten a kick out of what Vlad had said and he was loudly professing his agreement with his howling laughter, while Seras' face was red and she scowled at the pale boy who couldn't understand what he had done wrong.

"Cute like a rat?" She growled at her plate.

Vlad stared at her and then snapped at Anderson. "Shut up. What's wrong with rats when they're clean and fluffy? People have pet rats. I know a guy who has a few. They're kinda cute, and there's a blonde and white one that squeaks a lot, so she reminded me of your sister."

Seras' face only got redder and she bit her lip and glowered at the boys sitting across from her while Anderson laughed at her face. "Oh, be quiet Andy-Alex!"

That shut Anderson up and his head refused to turn to see the red stare. He cleared his throat and folded his hands. "Time for grace? I know I'm pretty hungry…"

Anderson sighed when Vlad didn't comment on the nickname and they were able to say grace and then distribute the veggie, sausage, pepperoni pizza. Anderson took three while Vlad took two, and Seras and her mother took one each.

When Anderson was pouring himself a glass of cranberry juice, Vlad smiled. "Can I have the juice after you, Andy-Alex?"

Seras giggled triumphantly at her brother's hiss and Anderson glared at Vlad. "If you call me that I'm going to pour all of this on your head, runt." He continued to pour the juice.

"No you won't, Alex." Integra held out her empty glass with her own glare. "I intend on drinking some of the cranberry juice I paid for." Anderson, shame faced, poured her drink and then gave the container to Vlad while Integra nodded. "Good boy, Alexander, you do know your manners."

Vlad snickered with Seras while Anderson filled his mouth with pizza. Taking time to think while he chewed, he grinned when he swallowed. "So Seras looks like a cute little rat?"

Thus reminded, Seras glared at her brother and then Vlad. She pointed her crust at the red eyes. "You don't have a girlfriend, do you?"

Vlad's face was blank when the attention turned to him. He lifted a piece of pizza. "No." He took a bite, trying not to show the relief his stomach felt, on his face. He took another bite before he had swallowed, but Seras was ignorant of his empty stomach as she dwelled on his rat comment.

"You'll never get a girlfriend if you say they remind you of squeaky rats."

"But everyone says it's a cute rat." Vlad was halfway through his pizza and rarely looked up at the blonde girl.

Seras flushed. "That doesn't matter! No one wants to look like a rat!" She turned on her mother, searching for an ally. "Mom, would you want to look like a rat?"

The woman didn't make eye contact with her daughter as she smiled to herself. "That depends on how cute the rat is."

Deflating, the girl slumped into her chair and nibbled on her pizza. Her eyes flicked to Vlad, watching him begin his second pizza. "Who told you rats are cute?"

This time Vlad looked up. "Jack-bean."

"Oh." Seras' eyes widened as Anderson paused, reminded of the giant. Integra stopped eating as well, pondering the odd name. She looked at Vlad, laying her wrists on the side of the table, waiting for an explanation. Seras cocked her head thoughtfully. "Well, to a guy like that, I guess rats would be cute. They'd be like little mice in his hands."

Anderson snorted in humor while Vlad simply nodded and went back to eating. Integra waited for a moment and then asked her question. "Who is Jack-bean? Why do you…" She looked at her children. "…know him? He…is a person…right?"

"Jack-bean's a giant Vlad has befriended." Anderson offered, having mixed feelings about Jake. He didn't mention them as he ate.

"A giant?" Integra blinked and directed her eyes to Vlad who looked up in mid-bite. She let the boy chew and swallow before asking more about the mysterious giant. She was a bit cautious…about allowing her children to mix with the crowd Vlad was acquainted with.

"He's a friend of mine." Vlad explained.

Alright, Integra thought. That doesn't make me feel any better, Vladimir. "Is Jack-bean a nice boy, then?" She asked politely, not wanting to expose her inner thoughts.

Seras and Anderson glanced at one another and then watched Vlad smile awkwardly and nod. "I guess so…though…he's not exactly what you can call a boy." Integra blinked. "He's almost seven feet tall."

The woman eyes fluttered, replacing a flinch, and she stared at the red eyes that were ignorant of the problem containing a probable juvenile of that…size. Now that she thought about it, she only knew a few shady characters that were that tall. "And his name is Jack-bean because he's like a giant?"

"No. We make a point of saying that Jack is the human. He doesn't like being thought of as a giant…and Jack is just similar to Jake, so…." Vlad stopped when he saw the woman's eyes grow and her body stiffen significantly. Anderson and Seras were as alarmed as Vlad when they saw this response in the woman.

Integra's eyes narrowed and her jaw clenched for a moment, watching Vlad's surprise. "Is he a big…young man, about 24 or 25, dark brown hair and a…medium complexion?"

Vlad watched the woman, wary now of her profession. "He's 23, Chief, but yeah…that sounds like Jake."

Integra took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of her nose with one hand while the other clenched into a fist. She folded her hands on the table and glared at Vlad, bringing out inherent hostility from the boy. "Vladimir…you're a good kid and we like you. I…approve of you." This caused Vlad's lips to dip into a frown. "But, I do not want you introducing…strangers to my children. They might be good, nice people, but I like to know…."

"Is this about the car theft thing?" Vlad cut in bluntly. Integra didn't respond, but her look told Vlad that it was. The red eyes closed with disappointment. "The reason why he was arrested and then released is because he didn't do it. He was framed." Red and blue watched one another, and eventually Vlad looked at the table with a sigh. "Jake's a part time mechanic and some guy didn't want to pay what he owed, so he thought that he would get out of the bill if he got Jake into trouble…and he was right for the most part. Only paid half price while Jake got locked up for three weeks for no reason…getting out when the charges were dropped."

Integra nodded slightly at this, but didn't lessen her eyes. "But he does have a record, Vladimir. Petty theft, violence, assault with and without a deadly weapon."

Everything's a freaken deadly weapon…hell, even a freaking toilet if you swing it around. Vlad didn't look at her, but he shrugged, slouching down in his seat and playing with the end of his borrowed shirt. "A lot of guys like to pick fights with him…trying to be tough or whatever."

The woman shook her head now. "We had him tested, Vladimir. A psychiatrist wanted to put him on mood stabilizers but he said that it was just a scam to take his money and he refused the prescription."

Vlad had stopped playing with the shirt and his arms were crossed, gazing down at the tablecloth. "He's not crazy, Chief. He's fine…"

"Medication doesn't mean he's crazy, Vladimir. It just means he has an…illness, and needs the medicine to help control his behavior." She looked at the boy and regretted having introduced this topic because of the strain that had been created between them, but she knew that this was serious. If Jake was dangerous for her children to be around, he was dangerous for Vlad to be exposed to, as well. The fight came to mind, widening her eyes. She concealed this with a blink. Calmly, she questioned Vlad, cautioning the limits of his comfort zone. "Have you ever noticed any problems he might have with impulse control? Or problems with rage and anxiety? Varying moods?"

Vlad bit his lip, aware of these characteristics within his friend. "Everybody gets moody." The boy mumbled, eyeing his pizza when his stomach gurgled for it. He wanted to sit up and eat, but he wasn't able to move with the three sets of eyes burning into him. He felt like he was on trial for murder or something. "There's nothing wrong with Jack-bean…and he's calmed down as he's gotten older, you know? More mature, or whatever. He's a pretty laid back guy, Chief. And he's my friend. I don't consider many people as being actual friends."

Integra closed her eyes, loathe to do this, but she did it anyway as she opened her eyes and watched the boy's face. "Has he ever hit you? Or hurt you badly?" A twitch appeared in Vlad's features but he hid it with a scowl. The woman hissed through her teeth now, tiring of the game. "Vladimir!" Vlad jolted. "Sit up and look at me when I'm talking to you! Has he hurt you or other people before? With or without intending to? Because maybe there is a way to get him some cheaper pill that might help…"

Vlad cut her off with a wolfish snarl that shocked the woman into believing that the boy before her wasn't the one she knew. Her face hardened over but was opened by surprise as Vlad growled at her.

"So he needs a pill? Because he's rough around the edges, eh? Well, the whole goddamn world is rough around the edges! Look at you!" He gestured at the woman, unnerving her as he strummed her temper. "The first time you met me you tried to arrest me! And what was I doing? Just walking around at night with my hands in my pockets! Are you paranoid? Do YOU need some goddamn pills, Chief? You forced my face into your counter top without considering why, if I was robbing you or whatever the hell you thought I was doing, I would be eating soup?" Integra was mute but her eyes narrowed and she almost protested when Vlad turned his hand to Anderson. "And what about your son? He's slammed my head into a tile floor! Twice! In succession! I was seeing fucking stars! Is he a violent, crazy, troubled teen? Does he need freaken medication?"

No one spoke as Vlad sat up and directed both of his hands towards himself, never looking away from Integra as his eyes danced with a flickering light. "And what about me? Should I be medicated? I mean, I yelling like a flippin' insane person! I had to beat the shit out of some guy I've never seen before, today, and I didn't even want to! If I hadn't, he'd have beat the shit out of ME! Will you dope me up with so many drugs that I can't tell an ass from a face? Oh, but at least I won't be VIOLENT?"

Vlad was glaring at the woman, instinctively baring his teeth at her, but after his final outburst, he heard the dead silence and instantly lost his anger and was overcome with shame and remorse. He ducked his head and glanced at Anderson whose expression made him cringe and cover his face with his hands, resting his elbows on the table. "I'm…sorry Chief…" His voice was weak and he swallowed, taking his hands away to look at the woman who had gained control of her features, removing the fear and pity she had worn moments ago. Vlad demeanor was sullen and drooped with sagging shoulders. "I'm just tired…and I shouldn't have yelled at you. You didn't say anything and you even gave me food and helped me out… And I… I'm sorry." It was quiet for a while as the atmosphere calmed with Vlad's regret. "I should just go home, Chief. I can walk, you know…it's not really too far. You or Anderson always drive me…but you don't need to."

The woman sighed, glimpsing Seras' horrified expression for a moment. Afraid that Vlad would look at the girl, she made herself into her usual, gruff…self. "Don't be a fool, Vladimir. You're still sick and you fainted barely over an hour ago. And I told you…" She watched Vlad as her children looked at her. "…we like you. Alright? Now eat your pizza, and you won't be excused until you've eaten three slices and the third one better be loaded with meat, boy. I don't permit fainting in my house."

Vlad nodded and began to eat again, to make the woman happy. But he wouldn't lift up his head or look anyone in the eye. Slices of pizza moved to individual mouths and Seras reached for another slice and then gave one to Vlad as well. Anderson got another slice and bit into it as he observed the boy. His eyes caught on something red, speckled with black.

"Hey, Vlad." He pointed at the teen's elbow, but Vlad didn't move. "I think you're bleeding."

"No. It's not bleeding anymore."

Integra took interest in this. "What are you talking about?" She looked at both of the boys while Seras did the same.

"I just scraped my elbow, Chief, when the cops dropped me…I busted it up a bit. But it's not bad…and I heal fast…don't need a band aid or anything. It'll be scabbed over soon."

"You should at least use disinfectant, Vladimir, or wash it out."

The boy's hair moved as he shook his head. "It didn't touch the ground…it was covered by my sweatshirt…the sleeve."

Those at the table recalled the filthy article of clothing and wondered if touching it was the same as rubbing the wound in the ground. Integra told Anderson to show Vlad where the hydrogen peroxide was after dinner, and then changed her mind and told him to make the boy shower, and that would be enough. Anderson nodded as Vlad drank some of his cranberry juice. The pale hand paused and suddenly Vlad found that he had drained the glass in one sitting. He guessed he was thirsty…since his water had been turned off for a while. He asked Anderson for more juice and he filled his glass and drank most of it, somehow feeling that the juice was too syrupy…and that he would much rather have water. Integra caught on to this, taking a sharp breath.

"Vladimir…" She paused and looked at Anderson. "Would you like some water?"

Vlad didn't say anything at first. He drank the last of the juice and then got up. "I'll get it. I know where the sink is."

"No, we have a water dispenser on the refrigerator, and that water has been filtered so it's better for you."

Vlad just nodded to the woman and left the dining room, disappearing down the hallway. The Andersons looked at one another once he was gone. Anderson spoke in a low voice.

"He fainted?"

Integra watched her pizza. "I found him passed out on a roof… He climbed up the side of a building and, I've been told, that officers were waiting below to catch him…because he seemed like he was going to fall. He was shaking and his movements became sluggish near the top." When her children continued to watch her she explained that there had been a fight 'between two groups of delinquents', as had been reported, and Vlad was observed fleeing from the scene. One boy had been sent to the hospital, but there was nothing seriously wrong with him. Just some damage done by repeated blows to the back and shoulder, and come cuts on his face that needed to be cleaned out. She had finished and was drinking from her glass when Vlad returned. He sat in his chair and tried to eat his final piece of pizza. Once he got halfway, he couldn't take another bite. Anderson was done and ready to be excused as well, but he waited for his mother to let Vlad go.

"There's only a little bit left, Vladimir. You need to eat it even if you feel full. Your stomach has…shrunk because you never eat much in one sitting…like for someone with an eating disorder." She waited for Vlad to touch the slice again, but he didn't. She sighed. "Eat the pizza if you think you won't throw up."

Vlad thought he would throw up so he left his chair and went with Anderson into the kitchen. He had filled up any space that might have been able to take in more pizza, with water, unfortunately. So he couldn't do as Integra asked. This bothered him as he watched Anderson rinse off their plates and put them in the dish washer.

After this, Anderson got Vlad a towel so he could take a shower. When Vlad was done, he put his borrowed clothes back on and walked to Anderson's room. The door was open, so he went in. Anderson was sitting on his bed, reading a college magazine. This seemed to depress Vlad further, but he hid this feeling when Anderson noticed him and put the magazine under his bed.

You idiot. Vlad's mouth twitched as he watched this. That's where you're supposed to hide your freaking porn…not college crap.

That cheered the boy up a bit and he got the wheeled chair and moved it to the desk when Anderson told him too. They sat and waited for their entertainment to be provided by the technology of the laptop. Neither of them knew what they wanted to do on the laptop, but once they were on the internet, Anderson decided to type in Youtube and search 'piano songs'. Vlad corrected him by reaching over and back spacing, typing in 'piano music', instead.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Seras heard the pipes rush with water as the boys' occupied the showers. She was sealing the lid of the tubberware that contained the left-over pizza from dinner. When she moved to the refrigerator, she passed her mother as the woman rinsed off her dish in the sink. "How well do we know Vlad?"

The fridge opened just as Integra opened the dishwasher. She closed it again and looked at her child. "He has stayed at our house before…and I know a bit of his background. He won't hurt Anderson, or you for that matter…or even me. How you saw him towards the end of dinner is how he acted, for the most part, the last time he stayed here." Seras was leaning on the door of the fridge as she listened to her mother, watching the light hit the white tiled floor. She looked at the woman as she continued to speak. "As for his anger…and the hissing sounds…" Integra shook her head and gave a worn sigh, allowing her eyes to keep the tiles company now that Seras had abandoned them. "…I guess he does that when he feels threatened…or in this case, Jake, who he believes is his friend. But the boy is not a threat to us, Seras."

The girl waited a moment, and then changed the subject. "Vlad didn't introduce us to Jake…" This caught Integra's attention, and she stared at the girl who crossed her arms and tried not to fidget like her younger brother, but failed. "Alex and I met Vlad this afternoon and then Alex wanted to visit Vlad…at his apartment, I guess. But we couldn't find his room, or the number, so we asked around." The girl frowned suddenly, tightening her arms unconsciously around her chest. "And we met this really rude…little man who gave me some pretty lewd looks, and he called Vlad 'Street-Shit'…" Seras shook her head in disgust as Integra's eyes became slits for a moment, holding the same feeling. "And we met Jake on the stairs…well, he was on the stairs, we weren't… But, anyway, Vlad had nothing to do with it. He didn't even want us around there. He kept on telling Anderson to leave…and for me to leave too, but we wouldn't listen." She looked at her mother, able to conquer her timid nature. "I think he knows he lives around dangerous people…and I can't help but think…would he…" Her eyes dropped to the floor and she relaxed her posture, to create a pause. "…would he make those strange sounds…would he curse and get involved in street fights if he hadn't grown up in that kind of environment? Because…sometimes…I see him like he's two people." Seras was quiet after that, and the look in her mother's eyes told her that she wasn't alone in her opinion.

Integra turned away after telling her daughter that she was a good girl, and wished her a good night. Yes. Vladimir was like two people…as were most kids his age. One was the child he was when he was younger…and one was whoever he was becoming. But that doesn't only involve teenagers. You look at any individual and you will find that something of who they were as a kid, is still in them. You see it in a fifty-five year old business man who bends down to pet and throw a ball for a dog. A prisoner that adopts a hurt animal and makes it their best friend, buying it toys with the little money he or she can earn. So Integra couldn't help but see an abandoned child in Vlad, even when he snarled and bared his teeth like a dog. There was a look in his eye and a ring in his laugh that spoke of hollowness…that he needed people to care about him and see the child within him without taking it as a sign of weakness and pummeling him into the ground.

The woman retired to her bedroom with these thoughts.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Big blues eyes blinked from the doorway, observing the two teenage boys that were watching a computer screen. But…what were they doing? The girl asked when Vlad glanced back at her. "Are you guys listening to classical music?"

Vlad sat, swiveling back and forth in his chair as Anderson answered, moving to show the girl the computer screen. "Pianists. We're looking up pianists or just piano music on Youtube."

Seras frowned, baffled by the response. "Why?"

"Because Vlad likes the piano."

Red went to the blonde boy and then his sister, interested in how she would react while he didn't appreciate the fact that Anderson hadn't asked him first if he could tell the girl this information. Seras' face showed even more confusion as she focused on Vlad. "Do you play the piano?"

Pale lips parted to answer, but Anderson cut them off by readily responding with a hint of antagonism in his tone. "He's awesome, amazing, a hundred-million times better than you, Seras." The boy grinned as his sister's features darkened. Rivalry sparked from the girl, but Vlad would have none of it as he shook his head and jabbed Anderson in the shoulder.

"Stupid fat ass doesn't know what he's talking about." He hissed and bit down on the inside of his cheek when Seras ignored this.

"Andy-Alex…bring your friend downstairs. I want to show him how to really play the piano." She marched off while Vlad stared at her and Anderson chuckled, rubbing his shoulder. He pulled the reluctant Vlad from his swivel-rolly chair…dragging the chair halfway across the room before it snagged, sinking into the lush carpet, and toppled over. Muttering heinous curses at the jock, Vlad took his time making his way down the stairs, burying his hands into the oversized jean's pockets. Once they made it to the white chairs and sat down to listen to Seras who was waiting smugly on the white bench, Vlad's cheek felt like he had bitten right through it. He stopped biting his cheek as some interest passed through him, and he left the chair to stand behind Seras to watch as her fingers poised for the first note.

She was good…all of her notes were exactly as the music sheets instructed…but it didn't have enough emotion. It was…a little flat in Vlad's opinion, but he didn't care. He couldn't remember the last time he had seen a live 'performance' like this, so when the girl was done he was smiling, surprising Seras when she turned to smirk at him. She looked questioningly at the expression until Anderson's loud voice made her brow furrow and her eyes glare at Vlad and the blonde boy.

"Vlad would beat you easily. You'll see…hey Vlad, play a song. Or, play the song you wrote." Came the haughty voice. Vlad glowered at the teen in the chair while Seras pouted.

"So you compose?" She patted the bench and got up, crossing her arms. "So play…make my little baby brother happy, Vlad."

Vlad stood like a fixed statue, narrow eyes hidden by his hair. The siblings waited patiently, but to their amazement, Vlad left them. When Anderson went after him, asking why he wouldn't play, the boy locked himself in the spare bedroom and refused to answer no matter how many times Anderson knocked or rattled the door. Anderson kept his hand on the doorknob as his sister watched him awkwardly, back by the stairs.
"Alex…" Anderson didn't look away from the door as Seras chewed on her lip and gazed at her baby blue socks. "Don't make him play if he doesn't want to."

"But he's good at it!" Anderson spun around, his mouth heavy with confusion and frustration. He gave up and marched to his room and shut the door. Why did Vlad have to do this? Now he felt so guilty…when he hadn't done anything wrong!

Seras went to her own room and closed the door behind her, going to her alarm clock-radio and switching it on. She knew that the wall separating the guest room from her room wasn't good for blocking out sound, so she turned up the volume and switched it to her favorite channel. Alex wouldn't be able to hear the music because the bathroom spaced the two siblings' rooms too far apart.

The girl knew that it would be better to let the boy chose to play on his own…and that her indirect persuasion was more effective than banging on the door. To her disappointment, she wasn't able to hear Vlad play the piano that night.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Anderson was reading his magazine, glaring at the words as he had to reread a sentence multiple times to make sure he was listening to his own thoughts and could remember what it had said. He remained on the same page for five straight minutes, and never managed to get any further. Vlad opened his door. The green eyes turned their glare to him and Anderson dropped his magazine on his bed. "What was that all about? Why wouldn't you play? Why did you lock yourself in…"

"I told you, Anderson. I don't play for just anyone at any time."

It was quiet as the teens eyed one another. Anderson couldn't recall having been told this before. "What are you talking about?"

Vlad frowned at him and then lost the expression as he realized his mistake. "I told the Chief that…not you." Oh…. You retard. He crossed his arms to take back some of his dignity. "Sorry. But…now I've told you. I don't play just because someone asks me too. I play for someone, or I just play in general, because I want to."

Anderson sighed and then furrowed his brow. "What's the big deal? It's just Seras. You don't hate her, do you?"

"No, it's not that Anderson." Red was wandering about the floor, finding the upturned wheely chair and a left shoe poking out from under the bed. "I don't know her very well, and I didn't want to play just to compete with her or show off. I'm not into that kind of stuff, Anderson."

This time the boy understood and he lowered his gaze to the floor as well, exhaling an 'oh'. Opps. The one being stupid here…was him. "Sorry…didn't mean to pressure you or anything like that. I thought you wouldn't mind…that you'd enjoy it…for some reason."

They didn't say anything for a while. Then Vlad told Anderson to stop hiding his college magazines with his porn, and left the room to go to bed.

Chapter Text

Dates are mixed. It is still December (in the story) at the moment, but current (January) news reports were used.

Chapter 2: I found a typo that I will eventually fix. Vlad does not have health insurance. I accidentally put that he does not have life insurance. Walter has health insurance but Vlad, who pays the hospital bills (and some other bills that deal with his uncle) with the money in his uncle's bank account, does not have health insurance.

Sorry about that.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

The hallway beyond the partially opened door was dimly lit by the soft lightened darkness of an approaching dawn. It was the pale sort of light that casts all that it falls upon under a colored shade much like its own. Since this light was a mixture of grey and blue, the white paint on the walls and the threads of the carpet were bluish and grey. The quiet that is only possible within a closed room, empty and ghost-like in the early morning hours, threw its own shadows to mingle with the dawn's light. Vlad observed the effects of these unsubstantial and generally unacknowledged powers of the inanimate, before dispelling their influence for an abrupt moment by widening his door and leaving the room, his bare feet brushing the carpet as he walked down the hall to reach the white railed stairs. He descended them slowly, allowing his hand to run over the cool surface of the rail while his ears listened to the unique quiet. Somehow he could feel that it was not undisturbed. Following this sense, his feet met the much colder touch of the tiles at the bottom of the stairs and he wandered through the house. His presence fitted the early morning time, so it kept him quiet, allowing him to move through it without displacing any of the shadows, the dim light, or the silence.

Vlad entered a part of the house he had never visited before, coming across a room that was not walled off from the rest of the house, yet was distinctly separate from it. Three tiled steps lowered the boy onto the carpet and he stopped there, examining the room. It was an office, homey though, with a couch a few paces from the three stairs. Beyond the couch were two windowed doors that revealed a patio Vlad had never known had existed. In front of the doors was a stationary bicycle, sitting beside the couch, watching the blank television screen that was mounted on the wall over an unused fireplace, surrounded by framed photographs of the Anderson siblings. A few protruding shelves were weighted by various sports trophies and ribbons, some certificates were framed on the wall along with the photographs, praising more of the younger Andersons' accomplishments. Across the room, towards the corner by the two windowed doors, an 'L' shaped desk snuggly fit the shape of the two adjoining walls, creating an isolated space for the woman who had her back to the rest of the office, the light of a computer monitor visible around the outline of her head. Neat stacks of papers and files, along with a plastic storage cabinet, occupied most of the longest stretch of wood that constructed the shape of the 'L' desk, but they were being ignored at the moment as the woman read something on her computer screen. The clicking of the computer mouse disturbed the morning quiet, forcing it to recede, following the dawn's light which had fled when Integra had turned on the lights in her home office.

Vlad took his gaze from the blonde hair, finding the sliding glass door, covered by a black screen, behind her chair. He stared through the glass for a while, hit with disbelief.

The teen would have preferred to tell the woman 'Good morning', or at least 'Hi' to reveal his presence, but the Andersons' back yard, if it was really their backyard, Vlad couldn't tell where he was in the house, distracted him and absorbed all of his attention. So Integra jumped in her seat when Vlad cursed to himself, glaring at her sliding glass door.

"You have your own pool too?"

Eyes on the pale teen, solidifying the fact that he was actually standing there, Integra did not respond to the question that was more of a statement of the obvious. She could only see the edge of the pool when she turned her chair. It was a familiar and uninteresting sight, while Vlad was not, so she looked at him instead, beginning to frown. But there was not enough motivation for the expression, and it fell away as her mouth moved to speak. "You're up early, Vladimir." The boy's attention shifted to her now and she could visibly see his awkwardness, being in such an alien setting. It was as if either he or the office were unable to accept one another. He stood out, unable to blend and become another occupant in the room. He was outside its touch. Seeing this, the woman blinked and tried to rub the vision from her eyes. Then she glanced at the time on her computer and her mouth twitched, caught between amusement, curiosity, and disapproval. "Do you even know what time it is?" She asked the boy whose eyes wandered about aimlessly before he could shake his head. A sigh floated up to a high window and a hand pulled on the knobbed string to lift the blinds. "It's still five." And the sky is still a bluish black…

When the boy didn't show any surprise, Integra watched him, at this distance, able to take in his full form while only meaning to look at his face. Anderson's clothes were baggy on the teen, right on down to the three inches of length that made the legs on the pants too long. They spilled onto the floor, hiding most of the pale feet. Vlad wasn't saying anything, and he didn't seem like he was going to say anything either, but the boy did not show any intention of leaving the office to return to the unlit house. He wasn't looking at her. He was more comfortable looking at her furniture or the trophies on the shelves. Vlad left the three steps that had brought him into the office and moved closer to the awards, to stand in front of them.

His face was blank, both aware and unaware of the woman behind him, sitting in her desk chair. Baseball, football, soccer, lacrosse, hockey, and swimming; red scrutinized them all. Cold, without jealousy, Vlad was affected by awe and the cooler feeling of his own empty 'shelf'. His life felt wasted, all the time he had spent on Earth had amounted to nothing. He could play the piano, but he had not accomplished anything through that single, developed skill. Science fair, middle school and high school accomplishments…Anderson was well-rounded, while Vlad was just plain flat. He moved to Seras' shelves and read through her smaller collection of trophies. Water polo, gymnastics, cheer, and volleyball, then there were certificates, plaques, and ribbons for swimming, essay contests, and overall academic recognition, along with her high school diploma and her acceptance letter into college, framed beside the manila envelope it had come in. Vlad's eyes stayed with the letter, taking note of the font and its layout. He did not read it. He did not feel inclined to, though he analyzed the letter. This would be the only acceptance letter he would ever see, this was the closest he would ever be to actually touching one, he thought in his mind, so he made sure to copy its form so he would not forget what one of these looked like, what an accomplished, well-rounded life looked like…what a good life was. That was it, the feeling of the office with its television and furniture and other things…it was nice, warm, and pleasant.

"Do you always wake up this early?"

Thus reminded of the woman's presence, Vlad nodded to her over his shoulder and returned his gaze to the letter and the trophies. "Yeah."

"Why?" Seras usually sleeps until six thirty or seven and Anderson can sleep until nine (at night) if no one remembers to wake him up, so Vlad's apparent attentiveness during this early hour was strange to the woman.

Vlad took his time responding, going over the different pictures on the wall. "I get bored. Sleeping's boring…you do nothing but lay there. If I'm not tired, I don't like forcing myself to lay there and do nothing."

Boring? Amused, Integra smiled, sliding her hand over to her abandoned computer mouse and clicking it as she swiveled in her chair to see the screen. She let the boy do as he wished in the room, be that staring at the shelves and pictures, sitting on the couch and watching the blank television, or sitting and experimenting with the stationary bike, the little noises all of this activity produced did not bother her as she worked. Without warning, the pale teenager appeared, leaning over the side of her desk to look at the screen as well. She stiffened, considered what she was working on, and then focused on Vlad again.

"What are you doing?" Red was highlighted by the light from the monitor as Vlad continued to strain his neck to get a clear view.

"Reports, paper work you don't have the authorization to read, Vladimir." A glance at the time told the woman that it was not yet six o'clock. Begrudging the boy slightly, she changed the window on the screen and began to look up the morning's news reports instead. Vlad watched, enamored by the routine.

"Why are you watching the news on your computer? You have a big-ass T.V. over there…" Integra frowned at his language, and Vlad paused to chew over what he was going to say next, to make sure that it didn't include curse words. "…and a…very comfortable couch. Why use MSN…?"

"Because I prefer it." Integra cut in, watching the bar that told her the video was loading. "I can choose specifically what news story I want to hear and I won't be bothered by more than one fifteen second commercial at a time."

Vlad blinked at the monitor as a commercial commanded the screen for a moment before fading away to reveal the news report. "Can I watch?"

Integra couldn't come up with a reason why she would want to say no, so she nodded at her computer, giving the boy a careless, 'Sure, if you want to Vladimir. But don't disturb me if you get bored'.

Vlad smirked at her words, finding humor in her resolute expression of concentration. He watched the internet video, his arms resting on the desk as he leaned on it. NBC News…Egypt in Revolt…

"Focused on looting…people are afraid….basic collapse of law and order….the army has been called in, but the soldiers have not been firing on protestors…government is allowing a degree of chaos to punish them…thousands of inmates were allowed to escape onto the streets…all allowed to happen to show an alternative to a strict state…if you protest, the alternative is chaos…"

Egyptian-Americans…another video replaced the last.

"Calls for Egypt political reform echoed a world away…information isolation left a terrible hole…what about my father, what about my family, what about my sister…boil over…especially the poor people that make up the majority, supply the animal instinct…"

Integra had forgotten the boy as she clicked on a new video, also related the Egypt and the Middle East.

"…we do not want to be on the wrong side of history…Egypt related Tweets…21st century revolution…didn't have anything until Tweeter and Facebook came along…impossible to suppress the views of their people now…military is critically important in Egypt now, you can see them in the streets taking order but embracing the demonstrations…they will oversee a democratic revolution…"

A Boeing commercial came up, so Vlad took this chance to speak. "Is it like an American Revolution, or the Civil War, but…you know…in Egypt? And it's not about the colonies or the representation or slavery…it's about something else? Just government stuff? Do they not like their president?"

The next video was already beginning, so Integra paused it so she could sigh and look at the boy, barely impressed by his broken knowledge, but still able to appreciate his thoughtfulness. "You're on the right track. There's no fighting, as of yet, only peaceful protests against the thirty year reign of their president, Mubarak. Mubarak is a democratically elected president, which, on the surface, seems innocent enough, but when one considers that their government runs as a one party system, this presidency takes on the form of a dictatorship… The citizens are also upset over other issues such as Egypt's inverted unemployment. In the US those who go to college and earn a degree tend to be employed while an individual who only has a middle school or high school education is more likely to be unemployed. People with a higher education only make up one and a half percent of the population that is currently unemployed in the US. But in Egypt, this is not the case. It's the opposite. Educated people find themselves in a position where they can't get jobs because there is simply no industry for them. Many of the college graduates leave the country in search of employment…but they would prefer to be able to find work in Egypt instead... If you watch and pay attention, you'll understand, Vladimir."

"I was paying attention." He mumbled back as her mouse clicked. "I didn't know that they were having a Revolution…or whatever…over there."

"Shh."

Dictatorship, Egypt, Arab world, vacation for one hundred years, has to play rapid catch-up, Mubarak…thirty years…okay, for sure that's their president. Vlad's brain began to fuzz as he continued to concentrate, trying to understand the familiar English language. He would hear the words but then they would slip away and he would try in vain to retrieve them while he struggled not to let the oncoming information escape him as well. But he did not have enough background to understand the significance of what was going on. How did this affect him? He had never heard of this problem before, hence, it was not important…was it? Muslim Brotherhood…it sounded like a gang to him…did they want two gangs to cooperate with one another to help rebuild their government? No. Then WHAT WERE THEY TALKING ABOUT? His brow furrowed as he helplessly frowned at the screen. The people in the nice suites and ties and their fancy tables and their book shelves and giant T.V. screens, made him feel stupid. Well, this was the government's problem. It was up to the elected politicians to deal with it. Even if he knew what was going on, he was in no position to do anything about it. Understanding anything about this, would only quench his curiosity and give him something to talk about with the Chief. But...he didn't get what was so important. Peace Treaty…like the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and the Treaty of Paris…peace, land, end of war…? He saw tanks but the protestors that, he thought, the tanks were supposed to be enemies with, were cheering the tanks on...and being friendly with the soldiers. Oh…Terror Threat to the United States…he knew about 9/11, and the Taliban, but what did this have to do with them? Was this discrimination against the people in the area? No. It didn't seem like it. A 21st century Revolution….moving quickly…that connected with Facebook and Twitter. Now they were looking at a video about the president of the United States… Vlad gave up, and set to watching and listening to the arguing news people. He couldn't pick up the purpose of their discussions, but that didn't matter. It was nice just listening to the news and watching the screen with Integra. She seemed to understand what was being said. That was good enough.

As they continued to watch video after video, relating to different topics, Seras appeared by the three descending steps, her hand holding the edge of the wall so she could hang over the steps, leaning forward without the fear of falling.

"Hi Mom. Hi Vlad, you're up early." Integra paused the internet video and gave her attention to the girl so she could tell her 'Good Morning'. Her daughter smiled, anticipating their reaction to what she was going to say. "I'm going to make some pancakes. How many do you guys want?"

Pancakes? It's not Christmas, is it? Had he lost track of the days…? Vlad stared at Seras while Integra gave the question some thought.

"I'll have two…if they're the medium sized ones, Seras. Can you put them on a plate and leave them at my spot on the table? I'll be there when I'm finished." She returned to her news, and then waited for Vlad to respond to the question so she could select play. But Vlad wasn't saying anything. He was just watching.

Seras noticed, blinking expectantly. "How about you, Vlad? How many do you want?"

Oh. "Two…I guess." Vlad flinched when the news blared from the computer speakers and Seras left. The teen searched for the time on the computer. It was passed six. Okay…now what? He didn't feel like watching the news reporter people anymore…could he leave? Or would the Chief be mad? But…why would she be mad? She probably wants him to go…

"You can go or stay if you want, Vladimir, but let Anderson sleep for a while longer…at least until breakfast is ready."

She did want him to leave. "Okay…" Vlad watched the back of the woman's head, and then the glass door where the pool was. He wanted to go outside, but he felt like he shouldn't, so he wandered back to the steps and left the office. Might as well see how Seras was going to make them all pancakes... He hadn't watched someone make pancakes…he hadn't had someone make him pancakes since he was ten, or even nine years old. He recalled the mix, the eggs and measuring cups, water, milk, and the frying pan… The teen followed the sound of opening and closing cabinets and the clang of a pan hitting the stove top, so he soon found himself standing by the counter with the hanging lights, where Anderson had been studying one night. He watched as Seras measured out the ingredients and mixed them in a large metal bowl. A few minutes sneaked by before she gasped, discovering the spy when she closed the refrigerator doors. Recovering, Seras laid the milk carton on the counter and unscrewed the pink cap. She smiled at the mixing bowl when she poured some of the white liquid into it.

"I make awesome pancakes."

I'm glad you're proud of that…Vlad's mouth twitched, unable to decide if this girl annoyed him or not. As he watched, Seras moved the bowl to a different counter so he could see what she was doing. Okay, mixing…now checking on the pan…somehow it was kinda boring. Not at all like how his mom used to make pancakes. With her, it had been fun and exciting. He felt no excitement when he watched Seras…it was only slightly interesting. He moved around to a stool and sat down as Seras poured out a half cup of batter onto a pan…but it wasn't really a pan. It was big and flat…what was it called? A grill? No. A…skillet? Maybe. That sounded okay. The big black rectangle thing was a skillet. Whatever, he wasn't a cook…he was a guy, it didn't matter if he knew the name or not.

"Do you want blueberries in your pancakes, Vlad?" Seras asked the boy as she held a transparent box of berries in her hand. She had made two pancakes at the same time…Vlad assumed that they were for the Chief.

"Okay." The girl whipped around and cheerily poured some more batter onto the skillet and then began to stick berries into the pancakes. That was a weird way to do it, Vlad frowned, but then felt bad when the girl hummed and chatted to herself….or maybe she was talking to him, he couldn't really tell. Seras was being nice, and here he was getting annoyed. He sighed and closed his eyes, opening them to view the marble counter top beneath his nose.

"Do you play any sports Vlad?"

A twinge of pain stabbed into the boy, but he ignored it, keeping his eyes on the counter after glancing at the girl. "No."

"Then what do you like to do?"

"I don't know…" He muttered back, but Seras was not to be deterred.

"Well," She smiled at the pancakes, exaggerating the word. "…I like to swim and I used to really like gymnastics, but ever since…" She stopped, blushing slightly as she caught herself. The girl looked at her chest and chewed her lip, flipping over a pancake to distract herself. Yeah…those had made the floor routine a challenge. She cleared her throat to continue. "Since I got to the high school level, I stopped. I was…too tall." She pressed the spatula on a pancake. "How about you? Do you like swimming, or football…soccer or something?"

Vlad didn't say anything so she looked back at him while she waited for the pancakes to cook. "Vlad?" She began to frown, but she recalled the night before and her eyes flew open with another gasp she turned into a beaming smile, startling Vlad who stared at her. "Oh yeah! You like to play the piano, I forgot, sorry. How long have you been playing? Do you still take lessons? Because a lot of people stop taking lessons when they're your age…"

His mother had started teaching him how to play when he was three and a half…and his lessons had stopped when she died…so that was seven…no, six and a half years? "I took lessons for a little over six years. I started when I was about three and stopped when I was ten."

Seras frowned, unable to make sense of why he had stopped if he liked playing so much. "Why did you stop?"

"Just did…no reason." Red was directed to the counter.

"But if you liked it, actually liked it, then you should have continued, Vlad. Why would you stop…? You can't just be like, oh I'm good enough, and then stop…"

"I stopped because I moved in with my uncle and he didn't have a piano and I didn't have the money to pay for lessons." Vlad cut in to stop the girl before she succeeded in making him mad. It wasn't her fault…she just didn't know.

"Oh." Seras was stiff as she tried to take the pancakes off of the heat and transfer them over to a plate where she planned on stacking them all so they wouldn't get cold as quickly. "I'm sorry." I forgot he was poor…Seras' lips quivered as she was overcome with guilt. "I'm really sorry, Vlad. I didn't mean it…I take it back. It's not your fault."

"I got it…I got it, Female Anderson. Just calm down. You're gonna spill the pancake glop everywhere." Seras poured the measuring cup of batter onto the skillet and refilled it again while Vlad watched. He didn't realize he was carrying on the conversation. "How long have you been playing the piano?"

"Oh, um…" Seras lifted the spatula as one of her fingers flicked her cheek, trying to think past her guilt. "My mom got me started when I was five and I stopped taking lessons when I graduated from high school."

"Do you like it?"

"Yup." The girl chirped brightly and checked to see if the pancakes were browning properly. She stuffed another blueberry into one.

"You ever thought of becoming a pianist? A concert pianist?"

Now Seras was smiling at the compliment she found in Vlad's words, and in his social mood. "No, but thank you. I don't think I'm good enough to become a professional pianist." A giggle slipped passed her lips and then she sighed, flipping a pancake while Vlad watched the side of her face, and then the circled pancakes.

"What do you plan on being then, after college?"

"I'm not completely sure…but I might just enroll in the police academy and follow my Mom's footsteps." Seras spun on her heals suddenly, holding the dangerous spatula like a gun, aimed at Vlad. A smug smile showed her white teeth when Vlad gave her a peculiar look. "So you better watch out, Vlad, because one of these days I might arrest you." She laughed after the joke, moving the spatula harmlessly through the air and beaming when she received a crooked smirk from the teen. It was fun making Vlad smile, she decided, and focused on her pancakes for a while, putting on the next batch. Minutes blinked by on the microwave's mini black screen, noted by Seras who had finished off the batter and was beginning to clean up some of the mess she had made. "Hey Vlad, can you go wake up my lazy brother and tell him to set the table? Tell him he also has to remember to get the drinks out too."

"Alright." Vlad slipped off of his stool, spinning the revolving seat as he left the kitchen, and then stretched his arms over his head, trying to crack his back as he walked over to the carpeted staircase. Releasing his arms with a deep breath, he jogged up the steps and pulled on the end of the rail to help propel himself down the hall towards the jock's room. After a rapid knock hit the door, Vlad casually waltzed in and went to Anderson's bed, smirking at the sleeping lump. A lonely pillow was very handy in this situation as it successfully managed to wake up the blonde teen when Vlad smacked the deflating object onto his sideways face. Anderson gasped, eyes snapping open as he jumped out of his sleep, turning over and sitting stupidly with his mouth open. He groaned and threw himself onto his warmer pillow, throwing aside the colder one that had come to cover it, and he mumbled into the soft fabric.

"Go away, runt. I'm sleeping…."

Vlad stared at the boy and found an uncovered foot. He grabbed it and began to tug and pull the teen out of bed, causing Anderson to yell in surprise and come close to falling off his mattress. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" He demanded angrily, grabbing at his sheets to keep himself where he was.

"Pancakes." Vlad dropped Anderson's foot, and a confused face looked back at him. The pale boy smirked. "Your sister made pancakes and you have to set the table and remember to get the drinks. The longer you wait, the colder they'll be…and they have little blueberries in them too."

"Oh…" Anderson blinked, his face split by a yawn a second latter. He got up and shook his head a bit to dislodge his remaining fatigue. "Okay…" Green shot a glare at Vlad who was quietly laughing at the blonde. "Don't do that again…wake me up like a normal person, alright?" He sighed when his growl was dissipated by the chuckles coming from the departing figure. He got up and followed Vlad down the stairs, grumbling when he had to set the table, though Vlad helped him out with the plates and knives. Because Anderson had to get the maple syrup, he forgot about the drinks. At least…that was his excuse when Seras reprimanded him mockingly and pointed towards the kitchen.

"I even got Vlad to remind you, Andy-Alex, but you still forgot? Maybe we should write it down on your plate every meal, and then you'd remember, most of the time."

"Oh, be quiet." The teen muttered back, stifling a yawn. Integra was not yet seated at the table, so Vlad and Seras were alone again, for the moment. But Anderson soon reappeared and he passed around the orange juice, cranberry juice, and finally the milk after he finished pouring himself a glass. He eyed Vlad's cranberry juice as he gulped down some of the milk. "You should really drink the milk instead…it's better for you."

Vlad chewed on a piece of pancake, not having bothered to put butter or syrup on it. He was unscrewing the cap for the syrup as he spoke. "I don't like milk."

"You should drink it anyway."

"But I don't like it."

"But you should still drink it anyway."

"Eat your pancakes and leave me the hell alone, nosey fat ass."

"You're so rude…" Anderson sniped back, but then stuffed some of the soft, sugary breakfast cake into his mouth. Vlad looked down at his pancakes and paused. He stared at them for a while.

"There are faces…on my pancakes."

Seras smiled at the teen's blank expression. Anderson noticed as well.

"They always have faces, Vlad. My sister makes pancakes out of people."

"Alex!" Seras frowned in disgust while Vlad chuckled and took a bite that contained an 'eyeball'. He swallowed.

"Now we're all cannibals."

Anderson grinned and ate another bite while Seras growled at her plate, frowning at the smiley faces.

"You guys are horrible. Ruining my pancakes with your…twisted little minds. And shut up, Andy-Alex. Next time I'm not making either of you pancakes."

Next time? That stuck in Vlad's mind, blocking out the siblings' voices as they commenced their familiar banter. The teen's eyes were picking out the details in his syrup coated pancakes while the sweet taste was remembered by his tongue, as well as the fluffy texture… "They're good pancakes."

The sudden statement broke through the others' argument, quieting the table as footsteps drew nearer. Vlad was eating his food with Anderson and Seras watching, when Integra claimed her place at the table. Her eyes shifted among her blonde headed children and then the black sheep Vlad stood out as, when put in the company of the blondes. They began eating, naturally, never noticing her attention. The woman began to eat as well.

She did not look at anyone except her faceless pancakes as she carved into their flat features and readied to take a bite. "I expect you both to clean the house today…" There were groans and grumbles that rained down on the ruined happy faces, but the sullen children continued to eat and did not put their complaints into words. Integra received some sadistic pleasure from their misery, and it showed itself as a small smile on her lips. As she chewed, blue drifted towards Vlad who was concentrating on his pancakes. She returned her eyes to her food. "It would be helpful if you'd clean as well, Vladimir. And since Alexander and Seras are each paid for their 'labor', you would also receive an…allowance that would make all of your trouble worthwhile."

The clinking of active knives and forks ended as all eyes were focused on the woman that steadily returned Vlad's stare. Anderson might not have put his glasses on this morning, but, still, his mother's intentions were as clear as day to him. Vlad had pride. Pride that forced him to feel indebted to their family, owing them for the food and for letting him sleep in their home, and it was a pride that prevented Vlad from accepting donations. If he worked and was paid for his 'labor', while the Anderson children were also getting paid to work as well…then the money was not a donation. It was not pity…on the surface. The proposition could be interpreted three different ways: a) Integra was being entirely serious in her suggestion, and she was doing this because she needed another hand to get the job done b) It was an extension of familiarity, of welcome or acceptance into their family c) It was a poorly concealed attempt at helping Vlad make some money. Anderson knew that they didn't need help, though he wouldn't mind having Vlad contribute since it would allow them to finish faster and Anderson had better things to do with his vacation time. The teen wasn't convinced, after last night, that his mother was ready to take Vlad under her wing…completely. Vlad was a dangerous component that she was not entirely willing to add to her family quite yet.

In Anderson's mind, as well as in Seras', two people who knew this woman better than most, believed this request was based off of pity, more than anything else.

Vlad considered the woman's words as his eyes slowly descended to his plate. He would help out. He had no problem with that, but should he accept this 'allowance' Integra wanted to give him? As long as it was the same as what the other two got, he saw no problem in taking the money. But… "I'll help out if you want me too." Integra smiled and ate her breakfast quietly as she explained to her children that she would be going into work for most of the day, and then began to list off what needed to be cleaned, vacuumed, and dusted before she came home.

"Especially you, Alexander, if you don't finish you aren't going anywhere today, no matter what plans you have with so-and-so. And, this goes for both of you, cell phones must be turned off and put in the kitchen cupboard until the house is clean. If you need to call me, make sure you use the house phone. I will be checking your phones just to make sure."

Vlad was the only one who didn't have a problem with any of this. He didn't have a cell phone to miss anyway. So while the pancakes and syrup dulled in the mouths of the other teens, Vlad was able to thoroughly enjoy his pancakes.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

They were splitting up the work, gathered in the kitchen and debating the serious matters of fairness, sexism, and issues of morality. It seemed morally wrong to make Vlad clean any of the bathrooms, as he would then be assigned to clean something that he would probably not want to clean in his own home. Anderson and Seras would clean their own rooms, so it was fitting that Vlad would clean the upstairs guest room. Seras would clean the office while Anderson cleaned their parents' bedroom and the larger bathroom the siblings often shared. Vlad would be in charge of the downstairs guest room and dining room, as well as the sitting room where the piano was. Now the two blondes were fighting over who would clean the small upstairs bathroom next to 'Vlad's' guest room, who would clean the Master bedroom's bathroom, and who would clean the kitchen and the living room. Anderson wanted Seras to clean the bigger bathroom and the kitchen. Seras claimed that he was being sexist, and that having to clean the kitchen and the largest bathroom in the house was unfair. Anderson was convinced that it wasn't since he had often been traumatized during the holiday 'cleaning day' (day before Christmas Eve) when he had been forced to take out the trash in the siblings' shared bathroom and had come across feminine products he would rather not have seen. Seras called him a baby while Vlad tried to close his eyes and will away the horrible mental images of what Anderson had gone through. As he had his eyes closed he remembered the pool and asked who was going to clean that. Anderson muttered darkly. "I always do that. Now that's being sexist, but am I complaining? I clean the pool. You clean the kitchen."

"Why do I have to clean the kitchen? You do it!" Seras snapped, slamming her palm on the counter. The two glared at each other, sparks cracking through the air.

"No. It's your job. It's not like I'm telling you to make me a sandwich." Anderson scowled at the girl and she scowled back at him.

"I'll clean the kitchen." Since I obviously don't have any problems with my masculinity, while the lady-bug fag over there does… Vlad was becoming impatient with the drawn out squabble as he leaned dully against the granite countertop, watching the two.

The storm dissipated and an awkward calm settled over the kitchen as the siblings looked away from one another, glancing at Vlad and mumbling, 'That's not fair for you'. But the case was closed. The rooms were, for the most part, split between the three, and Seras went to a cabinet and pulled out some old rags while Anderson went to the doors beneath the sink and took out the Windex and other cleaning chemicals that they would be using. The last thing to be done in each room, Vlad was informed, was the vacuuming, since the dusting and everything else would make the floor dirty. Seras had departed to start on the Master bathroom, leaving Anderson and Vlad behind. The two were ascending the stairs as Anderson attempted to explain how Vlad was supposed to clean, what he was supposed to clean, and in what order.

"I know how to clean, Anderson. My uncle's a clean-freak, so I was put to work cleaning the house when I was younger, too." The teen smirked, lifting up a bottle of Windex, handling it like a gun. "I know how to switch it from 'OFF' to 'SPRAY'."

"Oh…yeah." Anderson stopped before the door to the bathroom, watching as Vlad walked towards the room he had slept in. Through the door, Anderson could see the blinds lift and he heard the Windex bottle spray its bluish contents onto the window that was skillfully cleaned away by a ratty cloth and a pale hand. When he thought about it, it made sense that Vlad would be good at cleaning, in an unpleasant kind of way. The boy had probably cleaned countless windows to earn a bit of money… Anderson watched as an arm came into view, observing the practiced motion. No. Anderson shook his head and turned to open the door to the bathroom, setting down everything he had carried upstairs, as a frowning face was reflected in the mirror that stretched across the wall. Vlad wouldn't be a janitor or something like that when he grew up…even if he didn't go to college. Anderson could only see Vlad as either being the student he currently was, or as a pianist playing on a stage with an orchestra… As seconds of this 'movie' carried on, the scene degraded to a classy restaurant with Vlad wearing a suite and sitting at a piano, and then Vlad was not wearing a suite and he was playing for a less expensive looking-restaurant...and then Vlad was playing the piano, tutoring a kid…and then Vlad was playing an old looking piano by himself, and then Vlad wasn't doing playing…and there was no piano. He saw Vlad standing before a window, wiping up the Windex he had just sprayed on the glass. Anderson chose to ignore this picture as he dumped powder into the sink and left it there to sit and do its job while he went to the bathtub with a bottle and a sponge.

Vlad was going to do something significant with his life, Anderson convinced himself. He was going to do something great. There was nothing stopping him.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Vlad was berating himself for being distracted as he cleaned the window for a second time, having had to do so after remembering to dust the blinds. Now he was done and was moving on to swipe away the grey dust that was collected in the corners of the windowsill. This was fine. This was easy work that allowed one to choose to either focus their thoughts on their hands or on something else. It didn't require much concentration, but it was just enough movement and attention to detail that it was possible to whiten the mind and think of nothing while one worked. Vlad covered a bedpost in Pledge mist, enjoying the citrus scent as his rag gave the wood a pleasant sheen.

This wasn't a strange custom, cleaning for the Christmas holidays. His uncle had showed him how to carefully empty the shelves and then dust off the grime that had gathered during three weeks of relative neglect. The only difference about holiday cleaning, were the standards that had to be met in order for something to be deemed acceptable by the man's sharp blue eyes.

A bare finger was purposefully dragged across the back of a shelf, skimming the wall as it journeyed over the wood. Anticipating red eyes gazed at the gloved hand as the young Vlad held his breath and stopped his heart by pressing the cloth he had used for dusting, to his chest. The finger broke away from the shelf and was turned over for inspection. A streak of grey marked the side of the man's finger tip, pulling Walter's lips into a hard scowl that, when it was thrown to the boy, forced a hurried apology from the child.

"I'm so sorry Uncle! I'll do it again! Please let me do it again! I'll do all of them again, just to make sure!"

"Hmph." Walter's fingers snapped faintly as they dusted off the dirt. He said nothing as he left the shelves, moving towards the front door while Vlad dashed forward to find any other spots he had missed. "Don't be so lazy and careless, next time, boy." The voice from the door froze Vlad's joints, leaving him paralyzed with his arm stretched out over his head, reaching for a corner of a higher shelf. Walter had the door open and the crisp winter air drifted towards the boy, and then passed him by as it saw that it could do nothing more to chill the child. The blue eyes were colder than this seasonal breeze, and their absence left a thawing Spring in their wake, melting Vlad's joints so that he could command them once more.

Those were nice memories, Vlad smiled as he worked on the headboard. It had always made him happy when his uncle said he did something well, or just nodded, acknowledging his satisfactory results. Vlad hadn't needed an 'allowance' or any form of reward. His uncle's word was law, and positive recognition from him was worth more than the Buddha's weight in gold. Warm memories brightened the black haired teen's face as he finished cleaning the guest room, aside from vacuuming which he planned to do later, and kept the corner's of his mouth tilted upwards as he walked down the stairs, noticing that Anderson was still hard at work in the bathroom while he was in the hall. His next destination was the dining room, since it was relatively simple to clean, and he knew where it was. The teen was stacking up the placemats as he moved about, clearing the table.

Finished with the shelves, little Vlad positioned all of the trinkets back into their normal arrangement after dusting each one of them off. He turned around with a sigh and began the task of removing the placemats and anything else that was on his uncle's table. Vlad had never seen his uncle use the table to eat anything, but he had found his uncle reading a book under the lights that hung over the table, sitting in one of his many mismatched chairs.

The chairs around the Andersons' table, Vlad noticed as his hand polished the wood with the rag Seras had given him, were all uniform in design and color.

Vlad had been in the middle of dusting the mismatched chairs that belonged to his uncle when the man came home. The man's eyes searched for the child, and found it kneeling beside a chair, watching him anxiously. Walter's finger tested each of the shelves while the red eyes followed him. No dust was discovered. Once this was done, Walter gave a nod to the boy and moved to enter the kitchen, but was sidetracked when he glimpsed the boy's thrilled response. Vlad gave a weak gasp and beamed at the man, before quickly hiding the smile in the gloom hanging over his work space, within the shadow of the table. The boy was ignorant of the prolonged presence of the man as Walter watched the white hands enthusiastically perform their cleaning duties. The man went to his kitchen and pondered, for a fleeting moment, whether or not he should give the boy a frozen strawberry for his efforts. But he decided against doing so. If he gave the boy a strawberry once, the child would demand, or at least expect, to get one every time he did his chores. So, Walter never did give Vlad a strawberry, through the years, but he gifted him with many a satisfied nod.

"Uncle?"

Walter looked at the doorway that presented him with a view of the front door and the divider that separated it from the space that contained the table with his many mismatched chairs. He would not answer unless the boy came to him to speak while looking him in the eye. It was a matter of respect and disciplined action that would keep the boy submissive to the man as Walter grew older and was obviously not as strong as a younger man in his prime. Walter C. Dornez planned to never allow Vlad to look down on him, even if the child outgrew his six-foot one stature. That was the case for everyone else, as well. No one, including Jake and his father, ever noticed that Walter was not an exceptionally tall man, or that they had to look down in order to speak to him. They were always looking up.

Vlad scrambled out from behind the divider and went to the kitchen to speak to his uncle properly. Excited curiosity had forced him to speak before he had intended to, so he spoke again, peering up at the blue eyes. "Uncle?" The gaze told him to continue. "Why are all of your chairs so different? I like them all, but why aren't any of them the same?"

The man blinked, laying his hand on the counter as he considered the boy and his question. Confessing that the furniture had been jacked from several different houses might not be appropriate, because of the child's age. But then again, Vladimir was eleven, already enrolled in sixth grade. He was old enough to know how to keep his mouth shut. And if he wasn't, Walter would have to train the boy eventually, anyway. "They come from different places."

Vlad was wearing an 'Oh' expression as he looked up at the man, taking a breath while his little mind digested the explanation. It made sense. The child smiled. "Which one is your favorite, Uncle? I like the black one with the little trees and leaves carved on the back part."

No thoughts were wasted on the man's answer as he frowned at Vlad and returned his hand to his side. "I don't have favorites, Vladimir. I like them all the same. Now finish your chores so you can eat something tonight."

Vlad ran back to the table and disappeared behind the divider while the frown followed him and lingered in his direction.

The teen now knew that the chairs had been illegally acquired by his uncle, but the knowledge didn't bother him while he worked on a tall cabinet with prettily decorated glass, detailed with a large white flower with a vine-like stem and wide leaves. He realized that his rag was damp, through and through, and that it wasn't cleaning as well as it should because of the amount of Windex and dirt it had collected. When Vlad examined his dusting rag, it was also caked with dirt. As were Seras' instructions, Vlad returned to the kitchen to place his damp rag on the counter, starting the 'dirty pile', and he stuffed a clean rag into his pocket. His dusting rag was beaten clean over the sink, to limit the number of rags that would have to be loaded into the washing machine later, and then the teen returned to the glass doors of the cabinet. Painted dishes and figurines, similar to the glass one his uncle owned, were on display on the shelves. Vlad cleaned them off before setting them on the table so he could dust the individual shelves. A few Christmas decorations amongst the figurines called forth the spirit of the holiday and it played with the boy's mind as he worked.

It was cold and the breath trailing from the people walking on the sidewalk, condensed into a misty steam as it left their lips. Vlad was warming his hands in his pockets as his eyes wandered over the various display windows they were passing. Some contained trees surrounded by wrapped boxes, decorated with magnificent bows. Others showed off seasonal merchandise, arranged in a blanket of snow. Vlad knew that the snow was fake, that the trees were plastic, and that the presents were empty, but the Christmas music that pervaded every child's mind as it poured from the open doors, made the displays seem like they were real, for a heart-throbbing moment. Christmas was full of magic.

Little Vlad blew out a cloud of steam as his face directed his gaze to his uncle who was walking before the boy, alongside Jake's father. Jake was busy, so he wasn't present at the moment and Vlad was just a tad bit lonely as he trailed the two conversing men. His black sneakers hurried the child up to his uncle's side, breaking off their concentration as the red eyes watched them patiently. Walter easily let his expression form a scowl, and his face demanded a quick explanation.

"Uncle? Are we getting a Christmas tree?"

"We?" Walter caught onto the word before taking in the whole question. "Would you be paying for it as well?"

"No…" Vlad confessed to his shoes and then looked at the blue eyes. "Are you going to get a Christmas tree, Uncle?"

Walter watched the direction in which they were moving. "No."

Vlad blinked, amazed by the answer while Jake's father watched the child's response. "Why not?"

"Because I have no need, nor any desire to bring a tree into my home, boy. They're a fire hazard, and they're messy and expensive, and I don't want one."

"Oh…" Vlad sighed out in meek disappointment. "But…Uncle…" The man frowned at the boy as he timidly brought his eyes to his uncle's glare. "But…where is Santa supposed to put the presents if there's no tree, Uncle? He's not going to know where to put them."

The glare and annoyance had fallen from the man's face, dropping like clattering stones onto the sidewalk as his steps ended and he stood still. Jake's father had halted as well, while Vlad carried on for a few more paces before stopping. Confusion filled the boy, twisted with a touch of fear as he watched the blank look coming from Walter and the man beside him. The moving crowd behind them, broke over the stationary obstructions, and they passed the three without paying them much mind.

"Santa?" Walter finally spoke to the wide red eyes. The boy nodded slowly, mumbling a 'Yes Uncle'. "You still believe in Santa Claus?"

Vlad stiffened, standing straighter as his chest filled with breath and his eyes blinked rapidly. "Santa is real, Uncle. He always eats the cookies and milk and he leaves a few presents under the tree and a handful of candies in everyone's stocking. Some people don't think he's real, but I know, Uncle. I know he is."

Jake's father sucked in a breath that split over his teeth and whistled faintly through his lips. Walter was still staring at the child, but now he looked away with a grimace, pinching the bridge of his nose and rubbing his eye. He looked at Jake's father with a tired sigh. "How did you tell Jake?"

The man shook his head, occasionally glancing at the watchful child. "Didn't have to. He figured it out on his own, bright boy that he was. He was about eight, though…" The men stared at the boy.

"You believe in Santa Claus, Vladimir?" Walter gritted his teeth and rolled his eyes to the side with another sigh when Vlad nodded vigorously and began to recount all of the amazing attributes owned by the large, red wearing man.

"But I don't believe in Rudolph. That's only a story."

"Good for you." Walter muttered through his cigarette as he leaned into his hand, shielding his lighter from the breeze and the air being pushed around by the moving humans passing them by. Walter puffed the cigarette a few times and snapped his metallic lighter closed. He tossed it in the air once before stuffing it, along with his hand, into his pocket. His lungs sighed out a seeping cloud of smoke that made Vlad edge away from him and shorten his breaths. "Santa Claus isn't real, kid."

Vlad eyes bulged and he gasped, taking in the cigarette smoke that irritated his throat and made him cringe. "Wh…what do you mean…he isn't real? Uncle, he is real."

"I'm saying he's made up, imaginary, boy. He doesn't exist."

Walter's legs moved forward as he began to walk again. Jake's father kept by his side, while the astonished child hesitated before jogging after him, rarely blinking. "But he is real, Uncle. He is!"

"Don't raise your voice." Walter growled back impatiently. Jake's father appeared as if he were going to discourage the man, but Walter spoke too quickly. "Santa is a fraud."

Vlad's chest grew with heated emotion, and he in turn frowned at his uncle and furrowed his little brow. "You're wrong."

The men's faces slackened, then Walter's stiffened with fury, stabbing a undiluted glower into the child, breaking Vlad's own anger immediately, and replacing it with terror as a fist yanked on his clothes and Vlad was forced to stand against a hard wall while his uncle stood over him. "What did you say…you little brat?" Walter hissed in a deep voice, his knuckles feeling the rapid beat of Vlad's distressed heart, held against the boy's chest as the man's fist remained holding the front of the jacket the child was wearing. Vlad's chest jerked with shallow breaths. Jake's father stood at an angle cutting the two off from the eyes of the night crowd. No one even blinked at the two men. They could not see the child in the dark shadow given off by the overhanging canopy that was fused to the face of the building that owned the wall Vlad felt against his back.

The pale face trembled as quivering lips were stilled for speech. "Santa is real, Uncle."

"So you're calling me a liar?" The man growled, hating the stupidity of the child and the subject that consisted as the momentum behind this conflict.

Vlad stared up at them man, giving no answer for this question. "My mom told me that Santa Claus is real, Uncle. Maybe your mom told you he wasn't, but my mom told me that Santa is real, and my mom never lied. Never, since she was born. She never lied, because she said it was wrong…and that lies are bad."

Walter's temper had cooled some, but he was unamused as he moved the cigarette between his lips. "The fat bastard is fake, boy. She lied to you."

Vladimir stopped breathing and his eyes dilated, staring at the man's cold face. A flame flitted into the crimson eyes, brightening the blue ones above them. "My mother was not a liar, Uncle."

The rigid voice was alien to the men's ears, at least, for it to be coming from the shy little boy that was being held against the wall. Walter glared. "I'm saying she lied to you."

"She was not a liar." The red narrowed into a pointed glower as lips receded from the boy's teeth, slightly, showing their white forms. "I don't care what you say, Uncle. My mother was not a liar."

Knuckles cracked and veins bulged on the man's fist, still grasping the black jacket that was keeping the boy warm. The child was steadily becoming less of a child, and more of a demon as the red eyes burned and the white teeth hissed at the man. Walter pushed against the boy, adding pressure to his chest as his rage boiled in his own veins. But they were in public… "We're going to have a talk, Vladimir." Walter snarled, and turned his eyes to the man beside him after spitting out his cigarette, not even bothering to grind out its burning tip. "I'll get back to you after I take care of this brat…" Walter broke off his own sentence by dragging the boy down the sidewalk, pulling on Vladimir even as the child attempted to keep up with him. They disappeared around a corner.

Walter shut the door after ordering the boy to enter their home before him. Now he stood, glaring at the child that returned the look. Infuriated by the red eyes, Walter's hand shot out to claim the b lack hair and twisted it painfully, tightening his grasp when the boy did not show any signs of fear or submission, like he should have. "You're in for quite a rude awakening, boy." The man spat out his words with growing hatred for the red eyes.

"My mother was not a liar!"

Walter snarled, marching forward so that Vlad had no choice but to shuffle his feet backwards, snagging them on the flat floor at times. "Don't talk to me like that, boy."

"She wasn't a liar! You can't call her a liar!"

"I can call her whatever I want, you insolent little shit! You don't know your place!"

They were passing the table with its mismatched collection of chairs, and the pain from Vlad's scalp was beginning to radiate with heat. He closed his eyes against the pain and the fear he was hiding. "You can't call her a liar!"

"You can't tell me what I can or cannot do, boy! I'll call her a liar! I'll call her a bitch, if I want to!"

"YOU CAN'T CALL MY MOTHER NAMES!"

"Shut up!" Walter hissed as he pushed the boy onto his couch, and stood, looming over it. He touched his belt. "Do you want me to belt you, boy?"

"YOU CAN'T….MFF!" Walter's hand was a vice, clamped over his nephew's mouth as the man hissed through his teeth.

"When I tell you to do something, you do it! I told you to shut up." His volume had dropped as he spoke, and he tightened his hand over the boy's mouth with a snarl. "Don't you dare try to bite me, you fucking brat. I am sick of this behavior. I will not stand for it, boy."

The boy's glare was weakening as he seemed to gradually calm, so Walter scowled at the smaller face and released the child.

Vlad breathed in heavy, angry pants. "Do not call my mother names." He whispered.

Walter's eyes exploded with light and he snarled with bared teeth, startling a yelp from the boy as he grabbed Vlad and violently turned him over so that his face was buried in a couch cushion. A splayed hand pressed on the boy's shoulder blades, keeping him still as Walter's other hand undid his belt and caught its two ends to hold it as a comfortable oval-shaped loop. "Don't resist, Vladimir, or I'll belt you until you can't sit down."

Fear stole reason from the child as his wide eyes beheld the belt, and the fear jerked his limbs, desperately struggling to escape. Walter grasped a moving leg and the belt collided with the back of the boy's thigh, producing a yell that was ended by a hiss as Walter ordered him to be quiet. The belt snapped against the boy's jeans again. Vlad yelped. The third time, Vlad stifled the sound the best he could, but the forth time tore a whine from his throat. Walter let go of the boy and held the belt in both of his hands as he watched Vlad's reddened face struggle to hold it the tears that were forming when his thigh continued to sting.

Walter snapped the belt in his hands to get the boy's attention. He was wearing a deep scowl. "If you want to continue your behavior, the pants come off. This will hurt a hell of a lot more on bare skin, brat."

The child took in deep breaths, blinking with his watery vision. His body trembled, so he tried to make it stop, and did, before he spoke in an airy, stumbling voice. "U..Uncle…but…"

The man's eyes narrowed automatically and he moved the belt. "You want to continue?"

"No." Vlad gasped, rolling away from his uncle to cover his leg with the back of the couch. "I'm sorry…"

"Good." The belt lowered to the man's side and the scowl become shallower.

"But…" Red fell to the couch as the boy slowly brought himself to sit up, flinching when his leg stung a bit. "But…Uncle…"

Walter waited for Vlad to continue.

"…please…can you please not call my mom a liar…please?"

Now that it was a question, now that the boy was practically begging him, Walter considered the plea. His gaze narrowed slightly when he sighed. "I have no reason to cal your mother names. But you will not speak to me in the manner that you did, boy. Understand?"

"Yes…"

"See? It isn't that hard…but now you've wasted my time and disrupted what I was doing earlier..." Muttering, Walter began to fit his belt through the loops of his pants while Vladimir watched sullenly from the couch cushions.

"I'm sorry Uncle. But…my mom told me Santa Claus is real, so he is real."

The man paused, in the middle of pushing the black leather belt through the last loop on his waist, and he observed the hunched child that was nervously tugging on his sleeves, and then his pants, and then the pockets of his jacket. Walter looked at his belt as he worked it through the loop and buckled it. "I told you that he is not real. Your mother told you a white lie, a fib a lot of parents tell their children. But she should not have kept this going for so long, Vladimir. Most children learn that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny…" Vlad's head snapped up, and then he ducked it to his chest as he chewed on his lip. "…are not real, before they're eleven years old."

Vlad was quiet for a time, and his uncle waited for a moment, and then went to the open door.

"We'll see if Santa comes tomorrow, Uncle."

The man looked back from the doorway, and then continued on his way, and left the boy alone in the room.

The next time he saw the boy, Vladimir had his face buried in his arms on the table, slouched in a chair. It was Christmas morning. Walter stood in the doorway that led into the room containing the couch. He watched the boy move his shoulders and then give up on fixing his posture. His throat was thick with spent tears. "My mom did lie to me, Uncle."

"So you're crying because Santa doesn't exist, boy?"

"I'm crying b…because she lied to me when she said Santa Claus was real, a…and she lied to me when she said she never l…lies." The boy let out a sob that darkened the man's face with distaste, but Walter let him cry for a minute.

"It's not the end of the world. If that's the worst thing she's ever done, you're pretty damn lucky." Steps brought the man to the table where he made sure the boy had stopped crying. Vlad was rubbing his face with his sleeves, making it redder as he tried to hide his disheveled appearance, not wanting to anger the man more than he already had. He sniffed with his nose a few times, and let out a deflating breath.

He continued to hide his face. "Merry Christmas, Uncle." Vlad wiped his hands on his jeans and then leaned over to pick up a red, tissue wrapped bundle hidden on a different chair, and the boy stood it up on the side of the table, closest to the man, and then dropped his arms into his lap and stared at them as his bangs veiled his face. "I didn't have any money, so I couldn't buy you anything, but we made stuff at school…so I made you a present. But…I don't think you'll like it." The boy mumbled as a hand appeared by the gift. "I don't know what you like…" The little red ribbon at the top of the gift, which had blended with the tissue paper, was undone and the noisy, crinkling paper was untwisted. In the midst of the red wrapping, stood a thin, almost vase-like cup made out of clay, with a thick base stabilized further by four clawed feet that were attached to a dragon whose tail lifted and curved back to form a handle while its neck wrapped around the cup, just under its rim. There were folded wings occupying the space left near its hind legs. It wasn't perfect. There were a few fingerprints hardened in the clay, accompanied by a sprinkling of trivial scratches and imperfections, and it appeared as if one of the clawed toes had fallen off. When Walter flicked his eyes to the tissue wrapping paper, he found the missing toe, and then looked at the cup again, and then the glum boy that had made it.

Vlad's shoulders slumped when he heard the man return the cup to the tissue paper and then walk away, but a moment later an arm reached over his head and laid a familiar box in front of the boy. Vlad sucked in a quick breath, gaping at the blackened hand he could clearly see through the glass display window. The gape traced the progress of the man as he picked up the cup, took the missing toe and dropped it inside, and then walked over to the shelf and added it to the collection. "Merry Christmas, Vladimir…" He looked back at the boy, but was stopped when a growth attached itself to his stomach. He frowned down at the boy, staring as the child hugged him warmly with a sniffling smile. Gradually, Walter permitted his hand to pat the boy's head. When the growth detached himself from his uncle, the man nodded to him with a finger indicating the box. "It's yours, but it's not a toy. You keep it on the shelf and you look at it. Nothing else." The boy nodded happily, and then Walter took his leave.

They were all nice memories, Vlad smiled as he headed for the kitchen. He heard some noise down the hallway, and figured Seras had decided to start fixing up Integra's office now. Once in the kitchen, the teen went to the counter and read the different labels on the cleaning chemicals, determining which one he would use to clean the cupboards, the sink, and the counter. He was in the middle of finishing up with the cupboards when Anderson threw his dirty rags onto the counter and dragged his feet over to the clean ones. The teen stopped, gazing emptily at the sloping row of dishes, platters, bowls, and glasses that Vlad was beginning to organize, placing them back in the confines of the cupboard. Vlad glanced at Anderson over his shoulder, pushing a stack of plates onto a shelf.

"What are you staring at, fat ass?"

Anderson flinched out of his stupor, and broke his gaze away from the hidden counter top. "You don't have to do all that too, Vlad. I mean, no one even looks in there." He stared as Vlad ignored him with a developing frown.

"No wonder there was so much dirt in there. I found dead moths in the corners, Anderson….along with crumbs and dust…"

"Oh, shut up…" Anderson mumbled bitterly and snatched up a handful of clean rags. He glared at the back of the sweatshirt. "I hate cleaning, so it's not my fault…and Seras is supposed to do that…" He received no response, so the blonde stalked out of the room, to finish with the smaller upstairs bathroom, but he stopped by the stairs when he heard Vlad call to him.

"Where's the other guest room you wanted me to clean?"

"Near the laundry room, just down the hall, on the…" Anderson turned, as if he were walking down the hall he spoke of, and he lifted his left hand. "…on the left. It's the only other door over there."

"Got it."

Anderson began to ascend the stairs while Vlad continued to put the dishes away, filling the kitchen with the sound of clinking glasses and other objects. While he was polishing the faces of the cupboard doors, Seras wordlessly entered and left the kitchen, dropping off a full bag of trash by the sink before she left. Vlad didn't know what to do with it, so he just left it there and worked around the white obstacle.

The downstairs spare guest room was…Vlad didn't want to admit it, but it was obviously much nicer and more accommodating than the up stairs guest room. The upstairs room was…blander, while this one had the atmosphere of a real bedroom. He cleaned a dark, mahogany bedpost, admiring stolidly, the luxury contained in every piece of furniture in the room. He might have thought that this room was nicer than the one he had slept in, but he preferred the up stairs room. He was more comfortable being in it, while this one was a little overwhelming. As he passed the laundry room door, a short feeling of pity for the neglected room passed through him as the teen made his way towards the white sitting room. He left the piano for last, and while he was tempted to play it, he resisted the weighing desire and closed the cover over the keys, spun on his heels, and left the room. Wandering around, Vlad opened a door that appeared to be a closet, and then wandered over to another door, and in this closet he found a vacuum cleaner which he hauled up the stairs and proceeded to vacuum the stairs and the hallway in addition to the guest room. Down stairs, all he had to vacuum was the 'luxurious' guest room. Afterwards, Vlad set to wandering again, searching for one of the Anderson siblings to figure out how he was supposed to mop the tiles and polish the wood flooring in the dining room. Anderson was found descending the stairs, and the green eyes blinked at the question. He remembered the sound of the vacuum cleaner from earlier, and he had noticed that the hallway and stairs had been vacuumed.

"Did you do the stairs and the hall?" A tan thumb jerked back at the end of the stairs. Vlad's eyes followed the direction.

"Yeah."

Anderson's hand dropped to his pocket and he scowled at his socks as he began to walk down the rest of the stairs. "You don't have to do all the extra stuff, okay? You can just let us do it…"

"Where's the mop, Anderson?" Vlad cut in as they continued to walk when they reached the tiles.

The teen sighed away his irritating guilt, and spoke. "I'm showing you right now. You use the Swifter for the tiles, switch the pad, and then use it for the wood with a different spray I'll get for you."

Vlad nodded, though Anderson wasn't looking at him. Once the Swifter was revealed, Anderson left to tackle his parents' room while Vlad started to 'Swift' the tiles in the kitchen. It was kind of fun, so he continued down a hall, to the stairs, and down the corridor that led to the laundry room and the other guest room. He changed the pad, and continued on with the piano room. Then, he concluded with the dining room floor. When he had returned all of the supplies he had used to their rightful places, the boy stood in the kitchen and gazed at the stools while he leaned on the counter before the sink. As minutes ticked by, his fingers tapped restlessly on the granite counter top and he shifted his weight from one leg to another. With a sudden huff, he pushed himself off the counter and strolled away from the kitchen, burying his hands into his pockets. He skipped one of the three steps leading into Integra's office, and moved directly to the sliding glass doors. He paused when he saw a figure working under the blaze of the cool winter sun, holding a long, metallic blue pole with a net fixed at the bottom of it, skimming leaves and dead caterpillars and bumble bees from the surface of the pool.

Anderson looked up, surprised when Vlad opened the sliding glass door and walked towards the edge of the pool. "What are you doing out here? Taking a break?" Anderson had had to take a few liberating breaks so far, so he didn't blame Vlad. These were pretty strenuous chores…

"No. I'm done."

The pole stopped moving and the green gaze stayed with the black clad figure as it crouched down to analyze a caterpillar that was twisting about in the water. It was too far away for Vlad to scoop it out, so he just watched the drowning, fuzzy insect. You have the damnedest luck, Vlad thought to himself as he watched. You could have been born in a meadow out somewhere, where there aren't any pools or pesticides, but no. You had to be born here so you could drown in this freaking chlorinated pool…

"What do you mean you're done?"

Red looked up at Anderson and noticed that he had stopped working. Vlad blinked.

"I'm done. I did all the rooms you told me to do, and the kitchen. I cleaned all the floors, did the dusting. There wasn't any trash to pick up, though, so it was fast work." He was reminded of the trash bag Seras had left in the kitchen. They had given him relatively easy rooms to clean.

"Oh." The net pushed the chlorinated pool water as it swam about, picking up a few drifting particles. It was quiet for a while and Vlad returned to watching the drowning caterpillar, and then a few nomadic leaves. He heard the water move and saw the ripples travel to his end of the pool as Anderson worked. Vlad spoke to his reflection.

"Can I try?"

"What?" Anderson stopped again, lowering the pole so that the net was resting on the bottom of the pool and he could gently lean on it.

"Can I clean the pool for a bit?"

Anderson gave the pale teen an incredulous look, then frowned and bent his head as he began to clean again. "No. You've done enough. My mom's going to get mad if she thinks we made you do all of the chores. You've already done a lot, Vlad." Now I have to check and see how much he actually did. The blonde sighed regretfully at the water. He probably did a sloppy job…he had to have done a sloppy job, to get done so fast… Darn. And how am I supposed to clean all that before Mom gets home without him noticing? Maybe I can take him home really fast…no, that'd take too long. Anderson worked one of his shoulders that seemed a bit stiff. Maybe we'll get out of having to do those rooms… It was Mom's idea, getting Vlad to help. She can't punish us by making us do those rooms again… But the guest room…she always checks that one, and the dining room. Darn it…I really…

"Can I just try for a sec, Anderson? Come on, don't be so stingy. I rarely ever get to be around pools, though I've cleaned a few. People don't mind having me in their backyards, there's never that much to take, anyway. Except inner tubes, and floaties…and nobody wants to buy those used when you can get them so cheap at the store."

"I said no." Anderson grumbled impatiently as he dragged the net around the corner of the pool. Vlad watched him quietly for a while, and then redirected his eyes to the clearing water.

"Do you think the pool's too cold to swim in?"

The jock grumbled again but consented to give an answer. "Not really. We can warm it up a little, or we could heat up the Jacuzzi."

"You have a fucking Jacuzzi too?"

"Don't cuss!"

Red stared at the moving figure now, taken aback by his biting tone. The eyes narrowed. "Sorry." He glared at the pool, wishing away his own growing bitterness. "You don't have to act so goddamn bitchy…"

Anderson blew out a growl, fixing his glasses and then stepping along the perimeter of the pool. "Sorry…I'm sick of cleaning." He paused. "Do you know what time it is?"

"No."

"Can you go check for me?"

Vlad waited a moment and then shrugged as he stood up and went to the glass doors. He came back and crouched beside the pool again. Anderson had moved closer to his spot now. "It's almost one." The sound of splattering water drew the boy's eyes and Vlad watched Anderson lay the pole on the ground with an easy smile. "Great. We can take a break for lunch."

"Fat ass and his food." Vlad mumbled to himself as he stood again, but then he chuckled at his words and cracked his neck as he passed into the office. In the kitchen, Anderson opened the fridge and looked through its contents. He flipped a bag of tortillas onto the counter, followed by a bag of shredded cheese. As he got himself a plate, he spoke.

"Do you want a quesadilla?"

Not expecting the question, Vlad hesitated. Now Anderson was looking at him, holding a plate in his hand as he waited for Vlad's 'yes' or 'no'.

"Sure."

Anderson retrieved another plate and commenced the process of making their lunches. The prepared tortillas were popped into the microwave, one at a time, while Vlad was told to pick out a drink and to pour some cranberry juice for Anderson 'while you're at it'.

When they went to sit at the stools under the hanging lamp lights, Vlad was looking at Anderson's brown, leather flip flops. They were nice… He focused on his hot, cheesy, quesadilla, his mouth beginning to water with the thought of more food, though he wasn't especially hungry at the moment. Anderson was on his third bite when Vlad took his first.

"Good?" Came a muffled voice and Vlad glanced at the boy beside him and nodded slightly.

"Do you eat these a lot?"

"Not really." Anderson munched on his food, stopping to take a sip of juice as Vlad chewed his own lunch carefully. Seras arrived after a few minutes.

"I thought I smelled food." She breathed in the scent and sighed, tossing another trash bag towards the sink, creating a group of three white bulbous forms. She went to the refrigerator and ended up making her own quesadilla. Anderson had slowed, taking smaller bites, trying to prolong his break, so he was still eating when his sister set her plate on the counter, near him, and began to eat while standing. Seras was leaning on the edge of the counter when she looked over at the boys. "How much have you guys done so far?"

Anderson spoke first, while Vlad's reluctance to answer presented little competition. "I finished both of the bathrooms, I started my room and then did half of the pool." He took a bite and swallowed seconds later. His remaining quesadilla was used to indicate Vlad. "He finished everything already."

The blue gaze grew a little, staring at the telling green eyes. She would check the rooms and start on the touch ups that would be necessary when she finished her food…and her other chores. The girl began to eat at an un-leisurely pace. Anderson noticed and it sent his eyes to the counter as he forced himself to stuff the rest of his food into his mouth. He rinsed off his plate and left to finish cleaning the pool while Vlad saw him go, still chewing on his food. His eyes shifted over to Seras as she ate steadily. Vlad managed to finish all of the food and his blank features were directed to the cleared white surface of his plate. "I can help with anything you…"

"No. I'm good, Vlad." Seras threw the last bite of her lunch into her mouth and went to the sink to wash off the grease and put her plate in the dish washer. She came back and took Vlad's plate and glass and she loaded them into the dishwasher, dumped in some soap, snapped the cap that would hold the powder, and the machine beeped when she pushed the start button. Instantly the sound of water and mechanical movement hummed from the dishwasher, the noise drifting after the girl as she left the kitchen. Vlad sat on his stool, unmoved as his unfocused eyes watched the time on the microwave. It was a little after one. He sighed and thrummed his fingers on the counter and then folded his arms and rested his head in them. Something seemed off with the siblings today. It must be the cleaning. Work was making them…mad…impatient…something. Oh screw them. He was bored.

Vlad abandoned his stool and gave his company to the pool instead. Anderson was scraping the sides of the pool with a metal bristled brush that had replaced the net on the end of the blue pole. The boy didn't say anything to the new arrival. Vlad watched him.

"Yo."

"What?"

Pause.

"Fat ass."

"WHAT?" Anderson snarled, glaring at the amused pale features. His temper cooled, sending Anderson grumbling around the pool as he scrubbed with the brush. "Sorry. What do you want?" If you cuss I'm going to yell at you again, his frown said in the absence of words.

"I'm bored, fat ass. Entertain me. You're being a lousy clown. "

A scoff was given to the black haired teen, and Anderson smirked to himself. "Don't call me fat."

"Then I'll just call you an ass."

"You're a butt, Vlad. Leave me alone, if this is all you're going to do…"

"You're a butt."

"You're a butt." Anderson countered with a faint growl.

Vlad stared at him until he was sure the other teen was looking at him. "I'll fight you if you say that one more time."

Anderson was quiet. Then he frowned, beginning to become annoyed again. "You're a distraction." He muttered to the blue pole as he forced it to scrape the side of the pool.

Nothing else was said as the meaningless chitchat became too tiresome to keep up. A white face gazed at its reflection in the caterpillar-less pool as the sun journeyed overhead, even after Anderson had finished and gone inside. There was nothing better to do, so Vlad went inside to get out of the sun, debated on whether or not he would play the piano, decided against doing so because he didn't feel like 'distracting' the Andersons, and instead plopped himself onto one of the white sitting chairs, folded his arms, and fell asleep. Sleeping was less boring than staying awake at the moment.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

It's a nice tune. I wonder if I could play it on the piano?

Vlad's sleep fuzzy mind was still muddled as he followed the sound that was coming from one of the kitchen cupboards. He opened the door and picked up the origin of the ring tone. It was Anderson's cell phone.

Rich ass, fat bastard… Vlad glared at the iPhone and then lost the expression as the phone continued to ring and he looked at the caller ID. Heinkel Wolfe. That was the cross-dressing blonde that liked to wear sunglasses… Vlad carried the phone with him as he left the kitchen, returning to the white sitting room as he tapped on the touch screen and brought the cell to his ear.

"Hello?"

"Hey Alex. I just wanted to make sure about the time you gave me, earlier, for tonight. I know you said six, but we were wondering if you could pick us up at six thirty instead, because…"

Just how long would it take until she stopped talking? He had expected her to say 'Hi' and then he could tell her that he wasn't Anderson, but the girl wasn't giving him a chance to say anything. So…he had no choice but to cut her off. "Yeah… Sorry. I'm not Anderson."

Dead silence came from the speaker, and for a moment Vlad thought that Heinkel had hung up on him, but then an irritated voice shot into his ear. "Who is this? I don't like jokes like this. Who are you?"

Vlad sat on a white sitting chair, hearing the cushions sigh as he ran a hand through his hair and leaned back into the chair. "I'm bored as hell at the moment."

Hostility touched the girl's tone now. "Who are you?"

"If I tell you, you'll hang up on me."

It was quiet. "Where's Alex?"

"I think he's cleaning his room or something right now. I haven't seen him in a while… What time is it?"

"It's past two."

Pause.

"Who are you?" Heinkel demanded.

"I told you. If you know who I am you're going to hang up on me. Hey, I have a question, since you're a girl. Do you think…would you be flattered if someone said you were cute like a rat?"

"Excuse me?" The girl was obviously offended, so Vlad shook his head and leaned over to rest one of his elbows on his knees.

"No. Let me explain. Is a rat that's soft, clean, blonde and white, eats ramen or whatever out of your hand and licks your fingers when you put them near its face, a cute rat? It's friendly and clean as hell and loads of other people, guys, say it's cute, but do girls just not get it? You guys just don't think rats are cute?"

A very confused Heinkel stammered, collected herself, and then frowned at her phone while someone else asked her who she was talking to, and that she shouldn't talk to some guy she doesn't know. "I don't know… But…no. I bet some girls think rats are cute… Why?"

"I told Female Anderson that she was cute like a rat and she got mad."

"Female Anderson?"

"Anderson's sister. Her name's Seras. Blonde, blue eyes…"

"Yeah, yeah. I know her. Do you?"

"Since…only yesterday, I guess."

Heinkel stared blankly at the wall of her bedroom while a hand was tugging on her sleeve to get her attention. She blinked. "So you're at Alex's house right now?"

"Yeah."

Her eyes narrowed in thought. "Are you one of Alex's friends? Do I know you?"

"…Kinda. And we go to the same school. I know you. You're Heinkel Wolfe. We've been going to the same school for four years now…I think. But…okay. You wouldn't mind if someone said you were cute like a rat?"

"N o…I mean yes. I don't want to be like a rat at all. Even if it's cute."

"Who are you talking to?" Yumie badgered her friend as the girl continued to give these strange responses. "Don't talk to some weirdo. Are you nuts, Heinkel?"

"Shh! Yumie, I'm trying to figure out who he is. He goes to our school."

"He could be lying." The black-haired girl grumbled as Heinkel seemed to be listening to the person on the phone.

"Is someone else there with you?" Vlad was sitting upright again. He thought he heard someone coming, and he looked around but no one came into view.

"Yeah." Heinkel responded while Yumie told her not to tell the 'weirdo' her name.

"Who?"

"It's none of your business." Heinkel snapped, becoming more cautious now about what she was doing. She looked at Yumie and pointed at her door. "Go get a phone. Call Alex's house and ask him if he lost his cell or if someone's at his house." Yumie agreed with this plan so she dashed out of the room and was dialing on the phone as she ran back to her friend's bedroom.

"Fine." Vlad frowned as he heard muffled voices. "You don't have to tell me, I don't really care. Do you have brothers or sisters?"

"No. I'm an only child."

"Me too. Hey, are you going out with Anderson or something?"

"What?" Yumie was listening to the line ring for the first time as she saw her friend's face color a little. "No. Alex and I are only friends." This response calmed Yumie, so she could focus on the phone in her hand.

Vlad was distracted by the ringing that filled the Andersons' household. "The Chief is calling…"

"What?"

"I think Anderson's mom is calling because all of the phones are ringing. Damn. How many phones do they have? They're freaking everywhere."

Heinkel's eyes widened a little and she looked at Yumie. "He's really at Alex's house. He said the phones are ringing."

Yumie stared at Heinkel, biting her lip when someone picked up the Anderson's house phone. "Hello?"

"Hey, Alex…"

"Shit. How many girls are calling him? How freaking popular is he? Or is this like his own freaking harem?"

Oh my God. The girls looked at one another as they heard the same voice on their phones. Yumie's mouth creased as her teeth clenched. "Who are you?" She growled.

Vlad paused. "I'm not going to tell you. You'd hang up. I promise. You don't really want to know. But, who are you?"

"Give the phone to Alex!"

Yumie's heightened volume rung in Vlad's ear, forcing him to cringe and take the phone away from his face. He returned it, annoyed. "You don't need to yell. I can hear you perfectly fine when you don't yell. You want to talk to Anderson, I'll go get him. But it might take a while if he's not in his room. This house is a goddamn mansion, and I might get lost…. If I do, would you call up a search party for me?" Vlad was chuckling as he got out of the chair and headed for Anderson's room. "But I have to warn you. Anderson's not in a good mood. He's been cleaning all day. It's just his fault. He's so fucking slow it's unbelievable. Can't believe he's an athlete. Pampered, rich guys bug the shit out of me…when they act all whiney and crap."

"I'd prefer it if you didn't cuss." Yumie cut in bitterly.

"Sorry. Bad habit. I can't help it sometimes….here we go. Fat ass!" Vlad entered Anderson's room where he saw the boy was making his bed. A pale hand waved the phone in the air while the iPhone stayed at his ear. Yumie and Heinkel flinched at the reference.

"What are you doing?" Stunned green eyes stared at the two phones, but Anderson took the one that was handed to him while he was still trying to grasp the situation. As he raised the phone to his ear, Vlad answered.

"Heinkel called your cell. Some other girl called the home phone... Didn't you hear it ring?"

Anderson's brow furrowed, still confused as he focused on the phone. "Hello?"

"Alex." Yumie sighed in relief while Heinkel took a deep breath to sigh out after her. "It's me, Yumie. Who is that? Who's at your house?"

"What? Um…" Anderson jerked as a hand waved at him.

"Don't tell them who I am."

"Why?" Anderson blinked, finally adjusting to the current circumstances that were creating this disorderly moment. "Vlad! Give me back my phone! You can't take other people's stuff! And… YOU RUNT! My mom's going to be pissed when she checks my phone…she'll think I…"

"Damn it." Vlad's quiet curse silenced the room and the boy handed the phone over to Anderson as his features came to hold a dull expression. "She hung up on me because you yelled out my name."

Anderson took the phone with a frown. Yumie had gasped, he realized, when he had said Vlad's name.

"HIM?" The girl exclaimed, aghast.

Anderson's eyes dulled as they wandered about over his carpet. Did I just do something really stupid? Yumie's voice was raised, so he spoke in order to quiet her. "Yeah. Vlad's here…" The girl's tone irked him as she scoffed and tried to give him a lecture on common sense. He barked at the phone without necessarily meaning to. "So what if he's here, Yumie? Do you think there's something wrong with that?"

The girl was quiet. "Okay, fine… sorry Alex. Heinkel was just calling to see if you could pick us up a half hour later. We're still working on our project and it took us a while to go get more supplies, and we want to finish it today to get it out of the way. Plus my mom won't let me go anywhere if my homework's not done."

"Okay…" The air quieted with the return of calm and order. Anderson spoke softly. "Sure. Six thirty is fine."

"Thanks Alex…be smart…and bye." She hung up, giving awkwardness to the empty line that began to beep as Anderson stood, staring at Vlad, trying to determine whether he was angry or not. After his anger had been redirected to Yumie, his opinion of Vlad's invasive actions, dropped. It meant nothing now, so the blonde teen put the phone on his bed and his iPhone in his pocket. After quickly fixing his blankets, folding them back and setting his pillows on top of them, Anderson addressed the presence that was watching him idly. "That's it. I'm done."

Vlad blinked at him, waiting for the meaning of these ambiguous words. But it didn't seem like Anderson was 'done' dealing with Vlad, so it was a shallow suspense that did not do much to affect the mood. Anderson sat on his bed with a sigh, looking at his feet and then sweeping his vision up towards the black hair. They were quiet. "So you're going somewhere at six thirty? You with them both…a threesome?"

A scowl ruined the tan features as disgust contracted the muscles on Anderson's face. "I'm going with a few friends. I'm just giving Yumie and Heinkel a ride. I've known them since…forever." He had calmed, relieved of the weight of his holiday chores. Exhaustion closed the green eyes. I want a nap, Anderson took a breath and let it out gradually.

"Can you drop me off at my place when you go to pick them up? I need to get home."

The eyes opened and began to watch the red orbs that were peering back at them. A hand ruffled Anderson's hair and then was used to support him again as he leaned back. "Sure thing, around six, then."

A nod was Vlad's response. He was looking out the window now. "Sun's already going down. Crazy how short the days are."

"My phone says it's almost three, or just past it, by now." Sure didn't feel short, Anderson thought and a groan vibrated in his throat as he stretched his cramped muscles. His eyes meandered about the room and settled on the trash bag by his closet doors. It was only half way full, and contained only articles of clothing he was planning on giving to his mom to donate to the poor. "Hey, Vlad? You want some clothes that I'm getting rid of?" He looked at the boy and saw the beginning of ire in the red eyes, so he quickly sat up and swung his arms anxiously, his mind racing. "I let my friends pick out some clothes in case they want them, or else they're donated and stuff." At least Seras did that all the time. He didn't really share clothes with his own friends, but it was only a harmless lie. And it worked. He saw the friendlier expression come up behind him and watch as Anderson opened the bag.

"Why are you getting rid of them? They're pretty nice."

Because the logos are fading and they're a little small on me. "I grew out of them, that's all." He gave a jerky smile to the boy as he handed him a grey sweatshirt with a partially faded blue word on it. Please don't notice. Just think it's the style. Apparently Vlad thought the sweatshirt was supposed to look this way, because neither his eyes nor his voice ever expressed any different opinion on the matter. Vlad was turning the sweatshirt around and holding it up to himself experimentally. It wasn't black, but it had blue on it so he was allowed to wear it. Blue, white, and black; those were his uncle's colors and everybody needed to have something to do with these colors on their clothing as a show of loyalty. That wasn't really Walter's rule, but the Senior leaders thought it was important for the gang to have this policy. Luckily, they were common colors that 'average people' wore as well. Pale lips smiled as they picked up another warm jacket that was mostly black. There was also a pair of blue jeans and even black athletic shorts with a vertical white stripe on one of its sides.

"Mind if I take them all? Or is there a waiting list?" He asked both seriously and jokingly to the jock.

The green eyes widened a bit, but returned to their original size when Anderson blinked and waved his hands. "Sure. Take 'em. They're all yours." He snapped his fingers and started for the door as Vlad looked his new clothes over. "I'll go get your clothes out of the drier so you can change."

"Cool." Vlad hung the shorts on his arm and examined the jacket again. "Cool…"

Chapter Text

Faster. Everyone was running, splitting up, doing anything to escape. Because the cops were coming. They were coming. Run faster.

Faster. You can't get caught. If you get caught, you go to jail, you lose your job, you lose it all. Run faster. Faster.

Jake was panting slightly as he staggered through the old hang out, bumping into a body that appeared around a sharp corner. He caught the teen and only had to look him in the eye to explain that there was no need to apologize. Jake was glad that the boy had made it, because the teenager was no more than fifteen years old. He didn't need to start up a rap sheet yet. He needed to stay in school, the look said, and the teen nodded, a bit pale and jittery after the fight. Others were wandering in, like stray cats that would slink off to a corner and begin to lick their wounds, content with resting for now. Groups started to form, though they were not distinctively separate from their neighboring group. The groups formed only because of the layout of the room and its contents. The couch was filled up. The table was occupied, along with any other surface available, until the last boy wandered in. Then voices lifted. Jokes were made. And the spirit of the fight was in them as they found one another, received texts from those who had text messaging, phone calls from those who only had calling on their phone plans. No one was missing, Jake's mouth wore a slim smile, just as content as the others in the hang out, and he watched as some teens began a game of poker while someone else handed around cans of beer, or Coke for some who didn't feel up to it - supplying a group that the others could single out and pick on for the rest of the night. He saw a kid with wild brown hair, tall and twiggy as he gulped down his soda. Reminded him of Hell Dog. Brown eyes scanned the room, and then Jake sipped from his own canned beverage. Alucard was missing, but that was fine. He usually didn't mix well with the others and he purposefully excluded himself from them. But he usually hung out for a while if Jake was there. Especially if Jake was there. But it was fine, Jake told himself again, taking another sip and quickly claiming a seat when someone stood up. Alucard was always fine in the end. He was a damn lucky son-of-a-gun, most of the time. Or he was the damnedest, most misfortunate bastard he'd ever met, the poor kid. …Poor kid.

Poor kid, Jake thought as he watched the boy smile at him from across the back lot and then dash towards him, his face bright with excitement. He had Band-Aids covering one of his eyebrows and a scrape on his cheek. Other little cuts on his hands were left exposed. Maybe he had run out of Band-Aids? He had a new cut about every other day. He said kids pushed him down in the sand at school, and the tiny rocks make red, shallow grooves in his skin, taking on the appearance of a rash rather than actual cuts, most of the time. Vlad didn't mind because the kids said it was just a game…it thrilled the boy when they said he was good at it... Poor kid.

Jake watched the teens in the hangout as he drank, sitting and watching and thinking of nothing. He felt uneasy, thinking about Alucard at the moment. His gut was trying to tell him something, but Jake ignored it and watched the people around him instead.

"No way in hell! You're a lying s.o.b. if I ever saw one!"

Excited voices were raised and heads turned to the couch. The poker game was paused and people gave one ear to their own conversations and the other to the loud voices.

"Hell Dog? No fuckin' way, man. NO WAY!"

They were howling with laughter, taking all ears. They commanded the whole hang out's attention, and Jake had left his seat. As he got closer to the group, any questions he had thought of asking left him, for the boys were still talking. One of them had a bad lisp. He was missing his front teeth. This boy was laughing the hardest and it tampered further with his impaired speech, making one have to concentrate in order to understand what he was saying. This is what Jake heard.

"Yeah! The bastard was caught by the police! I saw him!" He laughed, keeping the lead he had so far maintained. "But, you know what the bastard did? He got right in the front seat with none other than…the fucking Chief Bitch herself!" He howled. "No cuffs! No nothing! What kinda shit is that all about? He friends with Chief Bitch? Why does he get the special treatment? Bet he's got himself doing the old woman some special favors, right, RIGHT? She's old but she's got a killer body!"

The lisping teen choked as his audience became mute. A hand could be felt, with a grip like a metal tourniquet, cutting off the blood flowing through his shoulder. His eyes dilated with fear and his mouth became dry and pasty. The boy could not look up at Jake's hard, black eyes.

"What are you talking about, Squirrel?"

Squirrel stuttered, and couldn't spit out a single intelligible word. The grip tightened, forcing a wince from the boy. "Hell Dog…" His dry throat made his speech a bit raspy as he spoke, so he moved his tongue around in his mouth in an attempt to fix this. It didn't help. "I was saying about how Hell Dog…got picked up by the cops…" Squirrel's voice faltered here as he heard others stand and come closer to the couch. His hands shook as he held the aluminum can between his knees. "But Hell Dog got in the front of the cop car…with Chief Bitch…" His voice declined to nothing with his final statement. "…And it didn't look like he was being taken in…or anything,…Black."

The moniker was synonymous with Jake's name, used among those that didn't know him well. He had acquired it in his late teens, on account of his eyes which darkened with his mood. They were black now as he let his gaze torture the teen called Squirrel. Others whispered amongst each other without any form of authority commanding their silence. Jake was in the leading position over these members, at the moment, and when he decided to look at the boys that were whispering, they were instantly silenced. Squirrel gasped when the tourniquet was removed from his shoulder and he covered it protectively with his hand, leaning away from Jake until the man was far enough away that Squirrel was no longer intimidated by his presence. Jake went outside, and a few figures followed him.

The night was dark and clouds had arrived to knit a barrier between Man and the sky. The blanket of cloud was preserving more of the day's heat, so the night was not cold enough to bother Jake as he stood on the steps, moving his arms through his sleeves. His hands were cupped by his face for a moment, and when they left, the ember of a cigarette reflected as a glowing pearl in his eyes.

"You think Hell Dog's betraying us?" The question came and the light of the cigarette burned brighter as Jake inhaled. Then it dimmed as the others continued to speak.

"Hell Dog might be the Angel of Death's nephew…but…you know…that doesn't mean anything…especially now that he's…gonna... He's the past..."

Angel of Death was W.C.D.'s official moniker, his nickname. Jake only heard a few of the Senior members, including his father, ever refer to him as anything else. But everyone knew that W.C.D. was the Angel of Death, though they might not know what his initials stood for. Everyone knew Alucard as Alucard and Hell Dog. And Jake…he was called Black…

…by some of them.

Jake's thoughts were drawn back to their topic when a stout pillar of ash tumbled from his lips. The guys who had followed him were talking heatedly now.

"That bastard doesn't know anything! Damn it! He's got this name behind him and he thinks he can go out there and do whatever the hell he wants!"

"He's telling the cops stuff…that freaks squealing on us, I know it! He wants out, doesn't he? Yah know what he fucking does? He looks down on everyone! He thinks he's better than everyone! You all seen Squirrel, right? Hell Dog knocked out his fuckin' teeth for no goddamned reason! That fucker is crazy…. I'm gonna kill him, I swear, if this is true, I'll fucking murder that little freak. Teach him a lesson…"

"If you touch him, I'll killyou." Rigid bodies shot wide eyes at Jake as he glared down at them, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest while his jacket sleeves hung emptily from his shoulders. His muscled forearms were still visible in the darkness; they only seemed bigger than they actually were, in the absence of light. Teeth chewed on several lips as they waited with fluctuating apprehension. Jake looked away, over and across the backstreet. "I don't think Hell Dog's giving them anything…but if he is…" The cigarette moved and then was stilled. "Then I'll deal with him. Just me. No body touches him, and I don't want word of this gettin' around to the wrong ears… You know what I mean. And tell the others that as well." He looked at the darkened faces. The white cigarette dipped as Jake turned, moving down the steps as he pulled his arms through his jacket sleeves, and then zipped up his jacket as he strolled down the empty backstreet, disappearing into the shadows and out of sight.

Jake didn't give himself the luxury of sleeping that night. He had too much stuff to take care of and only a limited amount of time in which to do all of it. This was established as his merciless reality when he knocked on the pale teen's door, and no one answered…regardless of how many times he asked Alucard if he was there.

God he wished Alucard had answered the door. That brat was the unluckiest, most unfortunate bastard he'd ever known.

Alucard… He was like a dog…if you gave him scraps, scratched him behind the ear, he'd be loyal and faithful to you, until the end… He was just the wrong type of dog, or something…for this life.

Poor kid.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Vlad was tying the white laces of his converse, sitting on the stairs as he tightened the looping knot. Anderson was off somewhere, in the kitchen, talking to Seras. He couldn't hear them, but Anderson had said that he just needed to talk to her about tonight. Apparently Heinkel and Yumie were friends of hers as well, and the blue eyed girl would probably want to go to the movie with them tonight. Vlad tied his other shoe, eyeing the hole that allowed him to see his sock.

Seras and Anderson weren't in the kitchen when Vlad walked in, wandering the perimeter of the granite counters. Where were they, then? Red glanced at the time on the microwave and then moved about the kitchen again. There was plenty of time left before the movie. They couldn't be getting ready…they definitely couldn't have left. But the siblings seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth. Vlad sat on a stool and then left it, slowly strolling down the hall that led to Integra's office. If they were going to leave him at the mercy of boredom again, he would just have to entertain himself. So he jumped, clearing the three steps, and walked towards the two sliding glass doors.

As Vlad's hand pulled on the door, a shadow appeared in his peripheral vision. The boy's heart sunk below his chest, and he stared at the figure that took a few steps before finding him with its dark brown eyes. When they made eye contact, Vlad's skin grew cold and prickling goose bumps ran up his arms and the back of his neck.

He shouldn't be here. Why is he here? Why? He isn't there. He isn't there. Disappear, Jack-bean. Disappear… But the man was approaching the unlocked door. All Vlad could do was stare, stuck in a horrified stupor.

Because Jake shouldn't be here. He shouldn't know where the Chief lives. Nothing good could come from any of this, Vlad thought as he looked up at the dark pair of eyes on the other side of the glass. The teen flinched when the door slid open and Jake's deep voice entered the office.

"Come on."

Jake saw that the teen was too stunned to initiate movement on his own, so an oversized hand pulled the faded black sweatshirt through the doorway, and cut off Vlad's path into the office by closing the door. A soft shove got the teen's feet to move. Beside them, their distorted reflections traveled down the length of the pool. They did not speak, and made quick progress down the sloping land, through the trees, and to the tall barred fence that surrounded the property. The two easily found a divot in the rain softened dirt where Jake had deepened a hole when he had slipped under the fence to trespass onto the Andersons' property. A hand made Vlad go first, and then Jake followed. He covered up the wide, yet shallow, hole, spread a coating of crackling leaves over it, and then took the thin shoulder and directed it forward, down towards the thick black road they could see and the car that was parked to the side of it, obscured by the shadows from a cluster of trees. Trees were numerous in the area. Vegetation was everywhere, clearing the air of the haze of smog that hovers over the horizon, brightening the sky.

Fast. Everything had changed so quickly, Vlad blinked at the colored sky. One minute he was there, the next he was here. What were they going to think? He had disappeared. He didn't take anything with him, he didn't steal from them, so they wouldn't mind if he left without saying anything. Right? Anderson wouldn't have to drive him home now…

Vlad's mind cleared as the car turned onto the road, and, with the return of comprehensible thought, the teen sighed and looked at the passenger window where he could see the ghost of Jake's and his own reflections with the landscape behind it. This was reality, everything else was a dream. But a nervous knot that he could not ignore had tied itself in Vlad's stomach, and the stubborn thing refused to go away, or loosen in any way.

The boy licked his lips and casually shifted his eyes to the driver's seat and then to the glass in front of them. His voice was quiet, but steady. "How did you find me?"

Jake didn't look at him as he took his time answering the question. He could sense the boy's unease. A few extra seconds would tighten the knot and shorten the teen's breaths, so Jake took these seconds and prolonged them. Half a minute passed. "I have my sources." Then he continued as Vlad's jaw tightened and released repetitively. "I didn't get anyone to look them up… It was just me and my computer. Her husband's in biogenetic whatever-you-call-it crap…just a bit of looking up and I found a likely area and went on from there. Helped that her daughter gave out directions for a party on some blog. Stupid girl…" Most of it was a lie. He had found the Anderson family online, discovered who they are, but he went to a different source to find the woman's address. He had his sources…

Vlad's muscles relaxed, allowing his body to slouch and fit the contour of the seat. Jake noticed, and the reaction moved his hands along the curve of the steering wheel, altering his grip, and he cracked his neck as he blew out a short breath.

He inhaled. "You thought I was going to do something to them?"

Vlad blinked at the man, observing the details in his face that showed his weariness, the darkened rings under his eyes that only made their appearance as Vlad continued to stare at him. His tone told the boy that he was insulted by Vlad's anxiety. He was cross, and tired.

Vlad closed his eyes and maneuvered his hands into his sweatshirt as he slipped down in the seat. His chin touched the collar of his sweatshirt.

"I'm sorry." The teen spoke over the collar.

The brown eyes blinked sharply and the tired face hardened. "You should be." The car was turning along a bend in the road. "You're making my life Hell, right now, Alucard. I told you to stop this…" He sighed a growl and glanced bitterly at the boy. "You're a royal pain in the ass. You know that? A pain in the ass."

Red opened and received the look through a shield of dark bangs. He held his gaze as Jake looked away, a low frown pulling down the rest of his features. The dark eyes were narrowed at the road.

"Sorry."

The frown grumbled but eased up a little. Vlad's eyes were running over the distinctive impressions that spelled 'Airbag', in front of him. Hoping to end the discussion there, a pale hand rose and clicked the button to turn on the radio. The antenna could be heard, extending from the back of the car, but it stopped and retracted again when Jake turned it off. Shit. Now he's going to be mad and want to talk again…Vlad leaned towards the door, pretending to be engrossed in the passing view of eucalyptus branches and leaves. The boy grimaced when the man's eyes glared at him in the reflection. Stupid glass…

"What were you doing there?"

Vlad muttered back. "I hate interrogations, Jack-bean."

"Jake."

"Jack-bean."

Jake's countenance stiffened as his eyes flickered between black and dark brown. He hissed a vicious verbal assault. "You're not a kid anymore, Alucard! You can't do whatever you want without thinking about the consequences…damn it!" Jake wasn't looking at Vlad and the boy had closed his eyes. The voice made his nerves cringe. "I told you to stop this! To stop adding to the shit that's going around about you! You know who saw you get in that cop car, being familiar as hell and the devil…god…damn…it was that twit! Squirrel! He goes around and tells everyone this kind of…" Aggravation growled through the clenched teeth, as Jake bit down on his frustration. He cursed under his breath for a while, complaining to himself about the 'stupid little mutt' that made his life a 'living nightmare'. His twitching glower darkened and spread from his lips to contort his eyes. But it was a quiet anger and his eyes were brown. "One of these days, I'm going to get enough money to buy you a brain, Hell Dog."

Vlad moved up in his seat, seeing that the storm had passed for now. "I have a brain…and I like my brain, Jack-bean. People would pay good money to have my defective brain. I should rent it out to people, have a sign advertizing…'Be an Idiot for a Day'…" He had moved his hand before the window to visualize the sign, but it dropped back into his sweatshirt's pocket.

Jake wasn't laughing, so Vlad was quiet. Silence was always worse than the yelling. Yelling kinda messed up the guilt you were feeling. But silence…silence only helped the feeling…sharpened the blade. It was quiet for a while, so Vlad pushed the button for the radio. Jake shut it off before the antenna could extend, but he didn't say anything. Vlad stared at the 'Airbag'.

A serious, flat tone filled the car. "I learned that girls don't think rats are cute."

"What?" A low voice grunted, secretly befuddled by the random nonsense.

"Girls don't think rats are cute and they get pissy if you say they're cute like a rat."

There was a pause. Jake was trying to reclaim his anger, but it escaped his grasp and he gave in to a sigh. "You're a complete dumbass, Alucard. It's pathetic."

"At least I'm not half a dumbass…that would be worse."

"At least you're not half a dumbass, that's for sure." The man's mouth twitched into a weak smirk, but it was forced to fade when his thoughts brought up recent events. Vlad drooped when he felt the changing atmosphere. "Just make sure you stay a complete dumbass…you messed up big time, Alucard. Guys are freaking….and I don't think you can weasel out off this one."

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Green eyes behind translucent lenses stared at the drizzle that peppered the surface of the pool. The shy was blotchy and grey, melting the outline of the leaves that were rustling in the trees. Alexander Anderson leaned against the back of the couch, standing with his arms on the furniture behind him. Seras was roaming about the house, perplexed as she was unable to find the missing boy. Anderson had checked every room, but Vlad was gone. He had disappeared while the two siblings had snuck off to check the rooms he had been in charge of cleaning. It had been awful, going through the rooms, full of negative thoughts, just to find that everywhere they looked, everything was…immaculate, perfect… They had been bitter about the boy earlier, but they had no need to be, or to come to the assumption that Vlad would do a careless job. The guy who had been so distraught when he thought his shoes would break their washing machine… That was a person who was aware of others, of how his laziness could cost them…or at least, it showed Vlad knew how to repay them and show appreciation... Anderson closed his eyes and listened for the soft patter of sprinkling rain, but he could not find the sound.

What if Vlad had seen them inspecting his work? What if Vlad had been offended and left on his own? Was Vlad walking out in the damp and cold? Stupid…stupid! And what in God's name was he supposed to do about any of this? Go out there and hunt him down? At least he knew where the teen lived… But he should have invited Vlad to the movie… Vlad could have declined if he didn't want to go, but he should have at least offered. It would have been a good opportunity for him to make some 'good' friends. Yumie would have been a problem, but Heinkel was more patient and she wasn't as quick to judge by appearance…and she would at least listen to him if he told them Vlad was a good guy. The group he was going with was nice, overall, he liked all of them, for the most part. He should have invited Vlad… And Vlad left the clothes in the white trash bag… And he had never gotten a chance to ask Vlad if he was really giving him the bottled shark, or if his cold was gone. Vlad wasn't coughing today, so that was a good sign. …Should have given him soup to clear out the gunk that had accumulated in his chest… He should have done so many things differently, but it was too late now. Vlad was gone again.

Integra came home. Anderson heard her find Seras. His sister's voice had a higher pitch so it was easier to hear what she said, but he had to listen carefully in order to pick up his mom's responses.

Seras said the chores were all done. Mom said that was good.

There was a pause.

Vlad did a good job. That's good.

Pause.

Integra asked her what was wrong.

Seras finally told her that they had inspected the rooms to see if Vlad had done an adequate job, because he had finished so quickly, and the siblings thought Vlad had found out what they were doing, and left. So Vlad had basically disappeared.

Quiet.

Did he take anything?

Anderson opened his eyes and threw them to the side with a groan when his mother asked this question. Seras said she didn't know, but she didn't think so. Anderson pushed off the couch and made his way through the house and found the two females near the dining room. "He didn't steal anything." The blue eyes turned to him as he came to join the discussion. "He wouldn't steal from us."

Integra watched her son's resolute expression while Seras moved her feet nervously, staring at them. The woman waited for Anderson to fidget, but he didn't as time passed. She was the first to look away. Integra was staring at the wall as she spoke. "When did he leave?"

"We noticed he was gone…" Anderson looked to his sister when he realized he didn't know how much time had passed.

"About half an hour ago, but he could have left before then. It took about ten minutes to check the rooms…" They were quiet until Seras mumbled. "I feel bad. I was rude at lunch…he wanted to help out more and I told him that I was fine…didn't need help…"

I did the same thing…but I also had a reason, Mom would have gotten mad… Anderson looked at his feet.

Nothing. They could do nothing about it, so they broke up and went their separate ways. The siblings would waste some time and then go to pick up Yumie and Heinkel. That much had been true. Seras did know the two girls and she did want to go to the movies with all the others. Integra was going through the house, checking on the work her children had done, and she entered Anderson's room. He was reading on his bed, sitting with a white trash bag by his feet at the end of the mattress. Green watched her stare at it.

"Are those the clothes you want to donate?" She looked at her son. He was reading again, or at least pretending to read. He turned a page slowly.

"I wanted to give them to Vlad."

She watched him pretend to read. His eyes weren't moving over the pages, they were stationary. The woman frowned at what he had said. "Don't give him used clothes. If you want to get him something, buy him a new sweatshirt, or a scarf. …Something for Christmas."

The teen's face deadened, and his eyes closed, wincing when he failed to keep his face still. "Yeah…" He heard the bag leave his bed, and his eyes cracked open to watch the woman leave with it. She turned at the stairs and descended them. Anderson's eyes dully rotated down towards his book. He stared at the words and read nothing for a few minutes. "…but I don't buy my other friends Christmas presents…" The mutter drifted through the room. Vlad should be a normal friend. He shouldn't be treated differently. Forget he's…how he is…and let him be normal. The 'giving your clothes to friends thing' was easier to believe than, 'I buy all my guy friends jackets for Christmas'. Maybe he'd give them an old or new video game or a hat for someone who gave him something…but not a jacket or clothes. Girls didn't even buy each other stuff like that. It would be too expensive at thirty or so bucks apiece. His Mom just didn't get it.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Integra went through the guest room, a finger running down and parting the individual blinds. They were clean and the dark wood picked up the light nicely, as was the case with the bed frame and the armoire and the dresser. It was clean. She felt like she had stepped into a well kept inn as she stood in the room, turning slowly to view everything it contained. The woman regretted the boy's disappearance, more so when she gave her children a twenty, each, for their allowance, and saw how reluctant the receiving hands were. Twenty dollars would have been a lot of money for Vlad. It was money he needed, money he deserved for this work.

He had done a thorough job. A better job than her own children… The boy knew how to work hard and how to take pride in what he did.

Nothing was missing from any of the shelves. Vlad hadn't stolen anything, just as Integra had hoped.

Thank God nothing was gone. She wouldn't have to arrest him for a petty crime, now.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Word had slipped through the gaps in Squirrel's teeth…so they knew. Almost everyone knew Vlad was mixing with the cops. Even Jake's father had received the news. It was unacceptable. The Senior leaders were unsettled, some were furious, and the few that were in attendance just glared at the pale, red eyed boy, or stared. Jake had taken Vlad to his father's place. Four men watched the teen sit on a couch placed behind a counter that was part of the kitchen. Jake was leaning on the counter, watching Vlad on the other side as he ate a sandwich that constituted as his lunch and dinner. He had grabbed something quick for breakfast. He couldn't even remember what it was, but all he knew was that he was hungry now, so he was eating something.

It was demanded that Vlad explain himself. He was W.C.D.'s nephew. He knew more than the other teens. He was more influential and important than the other teens. If Walter died, Jake's father or one of the other Senior leaders, would take over. But Vlad was seen as the individual that would take over when the one who inherited Walter's position died, or fell out of favor because of their age. Hell Dog was as famous as his uncle, to the extent that his name and face were well-known. But he wasn't Walter. He wasn't even close to being Walter. No one could replace the Angel of Death…but maybe someone who shared his blood…could come close. If the boy had ambition, he had a hell of a start going for him.

But he wasn't doing himself any favors right now. He was refusing to tell them anything. Jake told him to say something, but the boy refused. Nothing else could be done, so the teen was taken out into the damp night and his punishment was doled out…with some interest thrown in as well. Jake had avoided the whole ordeal and turned in early. He woke up in bed, while Vlad woke up in a parking garage. The overweight night security officer had received his pay and gave the group that took the pale teen along with them, the place for the night.

It was the early hours, when the light of an approaching dawn casts a spell of quiet on the world and dusts it with gray. The sky held clouds while the pot-holed street contained small pools of water that danced with rings when a car drove over them. The driver did not see the hooded black figure that slowly walked down the length of a sidewalk. The grass was wet and the leaves of the tree were dripping when Vlad passed them to reach the stairs that would take him to his bed. As soon as his sore and battered body curled up on his mat, he fell asleep.

It was Christmas Eve.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

It hurt to breathe. It hurt to think. Everything was sore and dead, but more than anything, the teen was exhausted. So Vlad threw himself into the sanctuary of sleep and would have liked to remain there, but the rest of the world crashed into his fragile haven and tore him out with its ruthless fists, pounding on his door when the wind had cleared the sky of clouds for a moment to let the sun shine. Red eyes opened dully, surrounded by the pillow-like mass of his comforter that was piled on top of him. They stared at nothing as the knocks came, again and again, blinking when a voice accompanied them.

"Vlad. Vlad, answer the door."

Vlad had no intention of letting the boy in, so he closed his eyes and attempted to incorporate the knocks into a dream, trying to go back to sleep.

"Open the door or else I'll have to file a missing person's report."

The eyes remained closed. "Fine by me, fat ass. Go away."

A stunned pause came and was knocked aside by Anderson's frustration. "Open the door, Vlad. Look, we're sorry about yesterday, okay? Open the door…"

Red returned to the room when Vlad lost interest in sleeping. He sighed a breath when he spoke. "What are you sorry about, dumbass? Yesterday you were being an ass, right now you're being a dumbass. You're always an ass, Anderson. Accept it already and go home."

"I wanted to apologize…"

"Don't care about it."

"I'm sorry we checked the rooms, Vlad. We didn't mean to…it was stupid…"

"…What do you mean you're sorry you checked the rooms?" Anderson didn't say anything and Vlad sighed and turned to face the wall. "Look, I don't care right now, Anderson. I'm trying to sleep. I was up late last night."

"…Why'd you leave all of a sudden like that? We thought you were mad at us or something."

"I left…" The teen growled, moving his head back to make sure the wall wouldn't cut off his voice. "…because I was bored. I wanted to leave…now let me go back to sleep already."

Anderson stared at the door, his mind as blank as his face. His Mom and Seras…all of them had been worried about Vlad, and now he says he left just because he was bored? He made them go through all that guilt and anxiety…JUST because he was BORED? Anderson's rage boiled as he suddenly struck out at the door, making Vlad start and then wince when his body protested against such abrupt movement. "You're so selfish, you're just…just unbelievable, Vlad! You left because you were bored? Do you know how beat up Seras was about you when you disappeared? It ruined everything for her last night! And it was ruining our Christmas Eve! My sister couldn't come here herself because she felt so bad about how she had acted towards you yesterday!" Vlad's head had turned on his comforter and pillow, to watch the door. Unfocused eyes rarely blinked while Anderson yelled at him through the door. The boy knew his neighbors would be listening, but he wasn't thinking about that right now. "You're oblivious of everyone around you, Vlad! Think about how you hurt other people through the choices you make…you…you…!" Anderson scowled and cut himself off here to turn and stride away from the door and go down the stars. That idiot! That idiot had put his mom and his sister through all of that, just because he was bored! Vlad deserved to be yelled at! This was just unbelievable!

The red eyes stayed with the door as the shadow swept over the curtains on his window. When all evidence of Anderson's presence was gone, the boy turned his head to face the wall as his eyes closed. He lay there in silence, his eyes opening occasionally to see the comforter. Jack-bean, and now the Chief, Anderson, and Female Anderson… Jake was right. He needed to grow up and realize there were consequences for everything. Ignoring them…didn't work for very long. It was impossible for him to mix with the Anderson family and still be a part of his normal, everyday life. It didn't work out that way…

He was such a dumbass, it was disgusting.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

It was sunny, but the air was freezing with a biting wind picking up any heat it could steal from a living body. If one stood still and allowed the sun's rays to build up around you, then it wasn't too cold. But Jake wasn't standing still, and the sun was lowering in the sky, so he had to hide his hands in his pockets to preserve some of their warmth. He took them out when he ascended a few concrete steps to reach the front door of his apartment. A key was revealed and then inserted into the keyhole, unlocking the door so Jake could seek refuge from the cold inside. The wind helped close the door as he shut it and turned the latch to lock and bolt the door, like he always did. His lumbering, giant steps brought him to the end of the narrow, green-tiled hall. To his right was his green-tiled kitchen, the first thing most noticed when they entered his house. Flipping on the lights illuminated the tan carpet area that constituted as his living room, with a desk and an old computer against the wall that built his second narrow hallway leading to a bathroom and, at the end, his bedroom. He laid his ring of keys on the green countertop, and passed the kitchen to walk into his living room, going beyond the outcropping wall that kept his computer company. He stopped by the desk with a lurching halt and his eyes widened, staring at his couch and the black shape that was sitting in the dead middle of it. Slowly, the sound of munching registered in his ears as the figure stuffed a few pieces of popped popcorn into its mouth, watching Jake's entrance as if it were part of a movie and then lifted a piece of popcorn to its dark clad shoulder. A brown and white rat emerged from the hood of the sweatshirt and it's slightly yellowed fangs bit down on the carb-puff and dragged it back into the hood where additional crunching sounds soon came to fill Jake's ears.

Vlad ate another handful of popcorn and felt the rat come to his shoulder, expecting more food. The rat was ignored while an amused grin came to the pale teen as he chuckled at Jake's dumb look. "I popped some popcorn. If you want some, you'll have to get your own, though. Esmeralda doesn't want to share." He smiled and threw a puff into his mouth as Jake frowned. A giant's arm leaned on the wall by the computer while Jake assessed the situation.

"How did you get in?" He frowned at the hooded boy and then shifted the expression to the popcorn-eating rat. He pointed at Esmeralda. "And don't feed the rats popcorn. It's not good for them."

Vlad chewed while he looked at the rat that sniffed his mouth. "Poor, deprived rat… Jack-bean won't let you eat popcorn?"

Jake sighed and dropped his hand to his pocket, doing the same with the other as his shoulder now leaned against the corner of the wall instead. "I asked you how you got in."

"Picked the lock." Chew. Crunch. Shrug. "The usual."

Jake watched the teen, gradually beginning to pick up on the white features that were obscured by the shadow given off by the hood. A large bruise that bled up into the eye, giving the illusion of a black eye, and a bottom lip that was busted up pretty bad... Jake noticed when Vlad looked down at the rat, his head moving without shifting the hood, that there was a series of cuts on the left side of his brow that looked like the work of gravel or loose concrete. He was as filthy as ever again. Brown eyes blinked at the image, saying nothing when more popcorn was offered to the rat that greedily devoured the puffed snack. The bag of popcorn lay on the teen's lap, and the popcorn and kernels inside the paper bag rolled noisily when it was lifted by the pale hands. Red observed the glasses wearing old man on the bag.

"Orville Redenbacher's Gourmet Popping Corn." The rat came out to look at the delicious smelling bag, full of curiosity and wonder. Vlad was frowning. "Why the hell can't they just call it popcorn? Gourmet Popping Corn sounds so snobby. Jack-bean…" He looked up at the man with a hint of a scowl. "You have snobby, rich-ass popcorn. Why do you buy this stuff? Get the generic kind…like the Safeway Popcorn. Safeway is not snobby."

The red eyes were looking at the old man and his polka-dotted bow-tie. Jake didn't say anything, and then he bit his lip, sighing while he chewed on it. A moment expired and Vlad turned the bag around to read the instructions that seemed to be in Spanish. "How come they don't have the instructions in English? I'm telling you, Orville Redenbacher is a racist, snobby bastard. They don't put the instructions in English because they assume that all the English speaking people have the fancy-ass microwaves that have the popcorn button on them, and that all of the Spanish speaking people will have the poor-ass microwaves so they have to put in the time themselves in order to cook their popcorn…pop their popcorn…or whatever. EVEN his damn bow-tie is racist!"

"How is it racist?" Vlad looked up at Jake and then scowled at the popcorn bag, turning it around in his hands to find Orville.

"Give me a second. I'll figure out how it's racist…" Vlad concentrated on the bag while Jake's lips twitched, giving a fleeting smile that was more of a grimace. The man sighed and dropped his eyes to his shoes and their black, thick laces. He was about to speak, when Vlad suddenly spoke up again.

"Oh! I found the English instructions, the bastards… They have a cartoon for the English ones but only boring numbers for the Spanish ones. Everyone likes cartoons…racist bastards…give the Spanish one a cartoon too, and don't make the guy such a white dumbass looking snob with his big, elephant ear…" The boy grumbled for a while, scowling at the cartoon that informed the consumer to 'listen to the pop to know when to stop'.

When the grumbling died away and it was quiet again, Jake was looking at the teen's swollen, cut lip. "What are you doing here?"

The paper crackled and Vlad tried to quiet it by taking his hands away from the popcorn bag. Not knowing what else to do with them, he put one hand in the pouch of his sweatshirt and the other in his hood to pet the brown and white rat whose whiskers were tickling his ear. A rough tail swung around the back of his neck as the rat tried to keep its balance. "I was feeling down, so I needed an upper. Esmeralda gives you a good, natural high." He rubbed a soft ear and felt the rat lick his knuckles. His eyes were in the direction of the wall across from him, but they did not see it.

Jake waited for something to change. He regretted the wait when he rolled his eyes and looked away in response to Vlad's sudden question.

"How do the girls you bring over react when they find out you have pet rats?"

"At least I get girls to come over, Hell Dog. You don't even have enough room in your place to bring a girl inside." Jake frowned when he realized that the teen had brought him down to his level, and he turned back to go through his kitchen. He opened a cabinet that had a jar of money in it, and then closed it to find the one he was actually looking for. He found the box of popcorn packages, tipped it towards himself to see how many were left, and then pushed it back on the shelf. "Do you expect me to feed you scraps whenever you scratch at the door, Alucard? If I did that, all the strays in the city would come over and eat me out of house and home in minutes…"

Vlad didn't comment as he stared at the red and yellow ink coloring the paper bag in his lap, petting the rat that he had moved to his arm. He could hear Jake rummaging through the kitchen, deliberating on what his 'giant' stomach wanted to eat. "Hey, Jack-bean…"

The rummaging continued as the red eyes wandered up the wall in front of them.

"…can you drive me to the hospital tomorrow?"

The kitchen was quiet and Jake was standing, looking at the couch over the counter and the short dividing wall that was behind it. "What for?" He chewed his lip again when Vlad didn't look in his direction.

The teen was watching the rat now as his hand ran across its back. "I'm planning on visiting my uncle tomorrow, so I was wondering if you could give me a ride."

Brown gazed at the green countertop for a while, and then Jake went back to his cabinets and opened one that creaked loudly. He needed to oil the hinges. "Sure. What time?"

Vlad got to his feet and took the rat into his hands. He started for the rat cage sitting on the carpet that ran into the short wall in front of the kitchen. He stooped down to open the door on top of the cage. "Whenever." The door of the cage closed, and Vlad stood. He headed for the narrow, green-tiled hall.

"I'll drop by."

"Thanks." Vlad was unbolting the front door while he listened to Jake in the kitchen. "You're gonna have to lock the door again."

"Damn you."

Vlad grinned to himself when he caught the humor. "Bye Jake." He called through the door and then shut it, bracing himself against the chilled wind that hit his face. He ducked his head, pulling on his hood to make sure it was covering as much of his face as it could, and walked down the grey paved sidewalk against the traffic of cars beside him, with the sun falling under the horizon somewhere off in the distance where one could see it hit the curve of the Earth. The city always darkened before the rural areas, because the taller buildings raised the horizon closer to the sun. Vlad submersed himself in shadows as he walked down the sidewalk. Here, he had entered the night.

The teen walked amongst the night crowds and passed the snow filled shop widows when he reached them. But he had an uneventful journey home, and was soon in bed, forcing himself to fall asleep. He coughed a few times before he was able to.

Chapter Text

Blue swept over the stiff sheets of paper in his hands, the enlarged photographs that had been sent home with Vladimir several months ago, but had failed to ever reach his uncle's hands...until now. Walter's eyes noted, in general, the young faces of the boy's sixth grade class. The bottom row, to the right, where the teacher stood, the layout looked odd to the man as she seemed to be made less prominent, overall, because of her obscure placement in the photo. They were focusing on the children, he assumed. No one really cared about what the teacher's face looked like, what her gender was, only what grades her lessons produced on her students' report cards. The eyes moved to the smiling young face beside her, and then to the one that followed, all the way down the first row containing the smallest of the children. Vladimir wasn't among them. Walter blinked, but thought little of it for surely the pathetic child would be in the next row. He looked. Vladimir was not present. Four rows. Two more to go. The third? No Vladimir.

Now Walter paused to let his eyes check the first two rows again, and then the third. His lips twitched involuntarily, affected by the man's slight surprise. Well, they're all brats. They're all scrawny and small, and especially this batch. Some look like they still have baby fat on their cheeks…the eyes lifted to the final row and slowly progressed across the line. He reached the end and the blue eyes twitched again, but this time it was meant to suppress a cringe.

The abnormally white skin was shocking when made in such a close comparison with the healthy child standing next to the boy…be it that they were separated by more space than the other children tended to be from one another in the photo. The red eyes even picked up the light, if the camera had flashed, and they glowed eerily in the gloom that seemed to be sucked towards the child. There really was no shadow, no gloom at all. But looking at the boy and his dark clothes, mostly black, and his face, the only one without a smile…this boy was nothing like Vladimir, the shy, timid boy… This boy, this stoic face and the cold, granite-like characteristics of a statue coupled with the red eyes…more like a gargoyle, in just the feeling, the prickle on the back that chilled a strong heart with peculiar awe… The child, that really could not retain the definition of such an innocent, warming youth, could not compare to the nervous little boy that lived in his home. Vladimir was a meek, affectionate little creature, like a deformed or mutated lamb. But the student in this class picture, was like a ghoul, a haunt…a demon. Walter didn't blame the boy that had been assigned the place next to his nephew, for keeping that breadth of space between them. This thing, his nephew…not a thing…was something one would see in a ghostly horror movie, a specter child that appears behind the main character with bloodied clothes…the one that might whisper into an ear with a frigid breath…I see dead people…they're coming…or other such nonsensical things that managed to make a heart skip a beat in a dark room.

Walter stared at the picture of his nephew, expressionless features adorned with only the unlit cigarette hanging from his lips. The white stick moved, rolled to the side as the blue eyes narrowed and the picture was brought closer. The stiff sheet behind it was shuffled to cover the class photo. Four basic positions for taking a year book picture were presented. They were cheap, meant to be examples that a parent would choose from and purchase in wallet or other dimensions of size. Timid little Vlad wasn't in any of them. The stoic white statue and the burning hellish eyes had replaced him.

No emotion. None, absolutely nothing like human emotion could be found in the child's face. It was simply blank, like he had no soul, only the fire of his eyes. Walter looked at the photo and gradually passed this interpretation of the picture. There was nothing hellish about it. Vladimir seemed like he was bored, or tired, and that he would rather not be there, so his face was blank for those reasons. If a different child had such an expression, that is what they would come across as being; bored, tired, and possibly unhappy, while Vlad took on the form of a supernatural thing…creature. Not a thing…this was his nephew…a miniature person…not a thing.

The other sheets were more pliant pieces of paper and they folded, making paper-sounds when they were shifted through. They covered the photographs before a hand shoved the stack back into a drawer that was organized with all of the boy's school papers the child was supposed to keep track of. The man flipped the corners of papers, removing one when something caught his eye. This one was tinted pink, possibly to make it more noticeable and seemingly important. Valentines Day Party…no, not important, just crap…but Walter still allowed his eyes to glance over the message. Why was the boy keeping useless scraps of paper? He would have to tell Vlad what to keep and what needed to be…

Walter's thoughts stopped, and his eyes went to the beginning of the paragraph again, oblivious of the nauseating heart border and the fancy print.

This is a reminder for parents to help their son/daughter decorate their own Valentine's box and bring enough Valentine's Day cards for the entire class. We have twenty-eight students this year, so there should be twenty-eight Valentines. Candy is optional. The Valentine's box is a homework assignment that will be graded for completion, not artistic skill.

This year the fourteenth falls on a week day, so our class party will be held on February 14th, after the student's lunch break which ends at 12:25 p.m. The parents responsible for organizing our much awaited Valentine's Day party and card exchange are the following: Mrs. Blair, Mrs. Lee, Mr. Stanton, Mrs. Clifford, Mr. Dracula, and Mrs. Kirkpatrick. Please plan one holiday activity and communicate as to who will bring food and who will be in charge of bringing utensils, cups, and paper (or Styrofoam) plates. Unfortunately, as we remember for our Halloween party, there were not enough disposable cups for all of our students. Keep in mind, we have twenty-eight students.

Thank you…

Walter stared at the paper, a frown beginning to dent his mouth. Mr. Dracula, he read it again. February 14th…this notice was several weeks old…but the boy had never mentioned it. Maybe he hadn't read the paper before stuffing it away in the drawer… The frown came and Walter put the paper on top of the order forms for class pictures. Then there was a pause, a moment of consideration. A hand drew out the stack of papers, emptying the drawer, minus a few orange pencils and a paperclip that were left behind. The papers were brought to the table while one of the mismatched chairs was occupied as Walter sorted through his nephew's school papers.

Vladimir had never made a Valentine's box…or any Valentines, for that matter. So he had failed to complete that assignment. Now other papers, only a few, told of the other assignments that had been skipped. Well, not skipped, but left incomplete or done without answering a majority of the questions correctly. A handful of progress reports listed the boy's grades for the first, second, and third quarter. Two B's and the rest were C+'s. The second quarter, before the end of the semester, straight C's. Third quarter, one B, mostly C's and one D.

The kid was a moron. The blue eyes narrowed, nailing the accusation to the surface of the paper. An incompetent moron. This wasn't high school, this was grade school. This was supposed to be EASY, and he has a D?

D for disgusting, Walter scoffed and threw the papers into the drawer and forced it shut, crinkling a paper that caught and folded up and out of the drawer in the process of closing. Walter opened it and slipped the paper back in, flattening it for a moment with his knuckles. Then he closed the drawer and gazed at it, thinking of the class picture, the one that showed, by the students' order in the rows, that his runty, pathetic nephew was the tallest and most intimidating looking child in his class. He was also one of the youngest…if the boy's birthday was in the summer. July…or was it June? He couldn't remember.

The man stared at the drawer for a long while, thinking seriously, for the first time, about what the boy living in his home was like. Shy, timid, puny? But kids his age seemed to be scared of him, in the picture…and he was bigger than them… And he was a fucking moron, to boot. Walter scowled at the thought and turned away from the drawer, moving the cigarette in his mouth. He took it from his lips and slipped it back into the package in his pocket, and then opened the front door. It closed behind him.

….

….

Walter sat on a concrete structure that surrounded a planted tree and a few flowers that burst with color in the sunlight. He supposed the structure was meant to double as a bench as he was aware of the friction smoothed corners and edges. A 'Guest' badge glinted in the light while the man sat quietly with one leg crossed over the other, eyes fixed on the open door that emitted a cacophony of children's voices. They were gathering their things, preparing for the bell that would set them loose upon the land. Walter couldn't see any of the students, but he could see part of the whiteboard and the teacher's desk at the front corner of the room. The woman didn't notice him as she spoke to her students, hurrying before the bell would send them running out the door.

"And don't forget…"

Biiiiing!

The bell cut off her reminder and children poured out of the classroom followed by pairs of more obedient students that had stopped to listen to the woman. Walter waited, looking at the little faces, waiting for his nephew to appear. Vlad materialized suddenly in the doorway, his head down, watching his steps. He split off from the stream of children to head in a different direction. His back was to Walter, missing the man completely. Walter frowned, surprised by the development. He stood and followed the shorter steps, turning the corner to find that Vlad was passing the after school pick up crowd the other children had immediately dissolved into. Only a few children were making their way towards the sidewalk to go home on foot. Walter paused, and then ducked into the office to turn in the useless 'Guest' badge. He emerged, going in the direction he knew the boy had taken. Kids traveled in packs, giggling and joking together as they walked home. Or maybe they were going somewhere else? Walter didn't know, and he didn't care. He only looked at them because of his faint interest to know how other grade school children behaved and interacted with one another. Otherwise, his eyes were searching for the black mop of hair that belonged to his nephew. He turned at the end of the border of black fencing that enclosed the school and saw, down the sidewalk shadowed by trees and the beginning of a street-long line of shoulder touching buildings…there was his nephew, walking by himself. None of the other children had turned at the corner. They had crossed the street with the crossing guard holding up a stop sign to assure them safe passage.

He followed the figure until it disappeared, going into an alley. Walter hung back to preserve his secrecy, but was able to watch as the boy unzipped his backpack and rummaged through some loose papers, selecting the ones he would crinkle up into balls and throw into a trashcan. Then the child hitched his bag onto his back and strolled down the sidewalk. Walter glanced at the trashcan, but didn't bother himself with touching it. He knew what the boy had been doing, or he at least had a good idea of what papers his nephew had thrown away. Following the boy again, they managed to travel down a few blocks before Vlad diverged from his path once more and disappeared into a side alley. When Walter reached it, however, the boy had disappeared.

Bemused, Walter peered around in the gloom before giving up and making his way home on his own.

The sound of muffled voices…and then nothing again.

It was always so quiet. When would his nephew be coming home?

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Can a man in a coma dream?

"Can my uncle dream?"

The nurse that was leaving the sterilized and overbearingly plain room stopped by the open door and looked back over her shoulder at the teen that had his eyes on the man in the bed. Months without sunshine, Walter's gaunt skin still managed to hold more color than Vlad's. The boy's appearance had alarmed the nurse as she had never observed such a severe genetic skin defect before or such brilliant blood-red eyes. But the question was soft, a voice that belonged to a human being. It warmed her to a state of compassion and she smiled. "I see no reason why he can't dream."

Her smile lingered on the boy a moment longer as he continued to stand and watch his uncle. He wanted privacy, she realized, so she quietly exited the room and closed the door behind her. Once she was gone, a pale hand delved into the teen's pocket.

Vlad had observed the multitude of holiday decorations twinkling throughout the hospital, teeming with visitors that had come to see their friends or loved ones on Christmas morning. They had brought gifts and their own decorations to cheer up the patient they were visiting. His uncle couldn't appreciate any gifts or decorations in his state, but Vlad pulled out the Christmas tree ornament despite this, and hung it on the IV stand next to the man's bed. It made a shitty Christmas tree, but it was okay at getting rid of some of the plain room's depressing atmosphere. Vlad was able to smile at the man when the ornament rocked back and forth on the stand. The teen brought a chair to the bed and sat in it.

"Merry Christmas Uncle." The grin became awkward for only a moment before joy made it into a real smile, and the red eyes sparked with light as he watched the man. "It's been raining tons, enough to flood the whole city. I'm expecting to see Noah's Ark come sailing through the streets sometime soon. You like rain, don't you Uncle? Or you don't really have favorites. You like everything and dislike everything too. It's funny, kinda. But I don't mean anything bad by that, don't get mad… It's just raining a lot, even right now, on Christmas. I didn't get you a present, though. When you can sit up and open your eyes to look at it, then I'll get you something, or I'll make something again. That okay?" The smile filled the boy's face and he looked down at his lap and moved his hand over his thigh, thinking.

"Y'know, Jack-bean's doing good…pretty well for himself with the cars and stuff. He has a nice place to himself. Still has his rats. Saw Esmeralda yesterday, and I fed her popcorn and stuff. Her ears are nice and soft…hm." The eyes flicked up to the man, but did not focus on his gauntness or pale skin, only his form and the face the boy's memory constructed, broadening the smile. Hands squeezed the teen's knees. "I made a new friend." He broke out laughing. "Ah, I sound like a stupid little kid still, right? Hope I'm not annoying you, cuz it's not fair…you can't leave the room or tell me to shut up…" Eyes dropped to Vlad's lap and the smile faded. "His name's Alex…Alexander Anderson, a football player from my school. Plays quarterback, or something. Not sure, I've never really been interested in school spirit or the sports there. His season's over now, I think…so yeah." Vlad stretched his arm and then moved it over his mouth to cover an odd yawn. His hands slapped onto his thighs. The boy directed his eyes to the curtain that glowed blue from the light outside. Shadows would dot and dribble down it, mimicking the rain that was hitting the glass. "I went to his house and stuff. His mom is Chief Anderson, but it's okay, she's cool. She could've arrested me a lot of times…she knows I'm in a gang…she caught me after a fight… But she's cool…and I'm not going to tell her anything. She cooked me dinner. She made shark…yeah, shark. That was pretty freaken badass food." He chuckled and glanced at the man, expecting him to laugh, and then lost the expectation. "I played for them, Anderson and the Chief. They're…I like them. I think you'd like 'em too. The Chief's kinda like you, but, you know, a lot different and a lot more female." Vlad smiled to himself, recalling the time he had spent with the Andersons. Then he remembered Anderson's most recent visit and how angry he had been. The smile was gone and the eyes dimmed. "I've finally realized that I'm a complete and total dumbass, Uncle. I messed up and got myself in trouble. It wasn't as bad as it could've been, though. Still got all my digits, nothin' cut off, nothing broken. Just bruises and a few little cuts. I got off easy, I think. But I don't think…Jack-bean was a little…about it… And I made up some stuff cuz Jake came to the Chief's house and got me, because I was there, Chief took me there and I slept over…well, I said I had left without saying goodbye or thanking them…because I was bored and that pissed Anderson off, and now his family hates me. But, whatever. I had to do it, you know…had to, no choice, dumbass thing to let it happen at all, though. Dumbass thing…" Vlad's chin touched his chest as he slouched in the chair, gazing at nothing. "I'm a real jackass, Uncle, and I don't want to be one. I don't like to be a dumb jackass, but I am. I piss off everyone and make them all worry, when I'm not worth worrying over. And I call Anderson an ass all the time, when I'm the real ass." It was quiet as the wind picked up, slamming the rain into the glass and howling faintly over the edges of the building. Vlad blinked a few times, focusing his vision as he took his hands from his legs and dragged them into the pocket on his sweatshirt. It was a little damp from the rain that had hit him on his way into the hospital. His hood, which was covering his head, was still a bit damp as well. A cough came and Vlad turned around with a jerk to keep it away from his uncle. His throat stung afterwards, and he remained sitting in the chair at an angle to keep his breath away form the man. "I feel lousy, Uncle. Not the coughing or anything, that's nothing, just annoying. But I just feel lousy. I-I…"

Vlad choked and turned around to stare at the door and the head that poked inside. The woman's eyes widened with a blush on her cheeks and she stammered an apology before shutting the door. "So sorry! Wrong room…!"

Vlad stared at the door and then fixed his position in the chair, again reminded of how bland and quiet the room was. He looked at the hanging tree ornament to make himself happier. Pale lips were bitten cruelly when Vlad blinked a few times, hating the fact that the ornament just made him want to cry. But he wasn't going to let himself be reduced to a crying pansy. He wasn't gonna let it happen. Never. So he bit his lip, which was already split in two different places, and blood tainted his mouth with iron. He swallowed while his hands came to grip his knees as he bent over. Drops of water splattered onto the tiles between his shoes and on the jeans he was wearing.

Stupid fucking Christmas. It should all burn in Hell, every last God damned Christmas tree and fuckin' elf out there. Fuck Christmas…he hated it. It made you too damn lonely.

Tears dripped down the boy's nose as blood slipped over his chin and mixed with the water that had fallen onto the floor. The first shaking sob came and filled the room as the rain fell harder outside.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Vlad thought he had done it because he wanted to walk home in the rain, that's why he had told Jake not to bother picking him up, he'd take a cab. A cab, where the hell would he find money for a cab? Jake was so stupid sometimes, it was funny. That's why he liked Jake. He was funny, like a clown, like Anderson…aw fuck. Screw Anderson and Jack-bean and Christmas and Hell. His socks were soaked through and he could feel water move around like tiny oceans in his converse. It had seeped in through the cloth and the ringed holes on the sides of his shoes. Whoever designed these shoes were freaken retarded, no offense to the mentally disabled. But Vlad couldn't understand why, after years of being in use, WHY nobody had made them WATER PROOF. Goddamn motherf… Stupid idiots.

But he didn't really care that his shoes squelched as he walked or that his sweatshirt clung to him like freaken plastic wrap or something. His hair and clothes were plastered to his skin, only his jeans had a hard time sticking to his flesh. They were too baggy.

The rain was falling and cars splashed the boy when they dashed through puddles and the river of rain water running along the side of the curb.

He was soaked and he was cold, but it felt good, for some reason, so he didn't care that the cars were drenching him with dirty rain water. He just didn't care.

The boy trudged through puddles that managed to collect on the water darkened sidewalk, walking block after block, making his way home. The wind howled and a chill caught his frame, playing with his nerves and tingling his spine with convulsing shocks. He shivered without noticing. The dripping tree that grew near the stairs could be seen across the swamp of slushy grass. He skirted the building and reached the stairs. There the roof covered him, so the absence of rain managed to jolt his senses with the loss of the familiar sensation of continually falling droplets landing on his sweatshirt. The wind hit him from behind, freezing his clothes until he figured that they had turned to ice, and the sky moaned as the trees seen over the ledge of the walkway, at the top of the stairs, creaked, threatening to fracture into pillars of splinters. But all of this went unnoticed by the boy's senses in a moment of nerve numbing surprise. He could not hear the wind or feel its chilled fingers dig into his skin and run up his spine. The red gaze stared at the tall figure wearing an elegant red trench coat that fluttered because of the weather, about the man's shins. His skin was light, only given some additional coloring because of the influence of sun it appeared to be accustomed to feeling, his hair was blonde but with a reddish tint that kept it from being golden, and cobalt blue eyes shone with the blaze of electric fire, though the face was lined heavily with age. Vlad stared at the stranger and the stranger stared back at him, analyzing the story the wind whipped hair and soaked clothes told. There were others that seemed to pull themselves from the old man's form, detaching as they appeared and watched the dripping teen. Pure gold swathed the tan face as the wind swirled through the walkway, and then it was blown behind the woman again as a hand brushed it aside. There were two others, one that was taller than the old man, and a curvy figure wrapped in a pink raincoat that glistened from the light emitted by the buzzing light bulb protruding from the wall.

It was the Anderson family…as blonde as ever…

"Vladimir, you're soaking wet. Where have you been? Wandering around out in the rain again?"

Vlad didn't move, frozen by this surreal situation. Integra was already walking towards him, and then Seras edged closer as well, while the old man and Anderson hung back and merely watched as water dripped from the pale boy's face and streamed steadily from parts of his clothing.

They weren't supposed to be here…it was like having Jake go to their house. They were separate worlds; they shouldn't be able to overlap. He felt the wet, heavy clothes weighing him down and his face twitched with horror. He hadn't allowed himself to get wet to have people see him like this and pity him. He had done it with the intention of hiding it, of keeping it to himself, to enjoy the damp and cold feeling, not for pity, not for sympathy. His stomach knotted as the woman approached and stretched out her hand. He jerked and avoided the touch, glaring warily at the floor and then glancing the look over the humans before him. The look told them to go away, if they were actually real and not a dream, before the boy spoke quietly, bristling at the sound of his own growl.

"Leave." They stared at him, none of the eyes leaving his figure. He bent his head, darkening his features as he narrowed the glare. "Go away. I don't want you here."

Integra watched the boy and her eyes also narrowed. She was frowning, toughening her expression to combat the red glare. "We've been waiting for a while, Vladimir. We'd very much appreciate it if you'd join us for dinner."

Vlad stared at her, but his eyes were relaxing as his muscles clenched his jaw instead. "You're ruining your Christmas…to invite me to eat dinner with you?" He questioned, reading the blue gazes and then the green. "I thought you were mad at me."

"I'm not stupid enough to believe the bull you sent my son home with." A sharp voice cut back, demanding to have the red eyes again. Integra was stiff and authoritative, watching the boy as her arms crossed. A dullness passed over her eyes and then burned away. Water was still pouring from the black sweatshirt as if it contained all of the seven seas in its swollen threads. Damn. The kid looked a wreck. His face was blue where the bruises were obvious as they registered in the woman's eyes when she focused on what the hood was attempting to hide. His hands were hidden in his pockets, but she had noticed that his fingernails had turned purplish blue with cold, and as he stood there, he began to shift around as the cold and wet began to affect him. She wasn't sure, but she thought she could see him shiver.

Integra scowled, conscious of what her children were also observing. This was something that made one doubt humanity. "You're going to eat dinner with us and change your clothes. I can't ignore a puppy when it's hungry and shivering in the rain."

"I'm not your dog." Vlad leveled his voice so that it was low and deep with disdain or annoyance. He looked at the face calmly, wiping his mind clear of emotion and complicated thought. He just needed to get in his room and lock the door. Then it would be over and he would be free to do whatever he wanted. Just get to the door…his body angled as if to slide past the blondes along the wall, to reach to his room. But Integra moved to the wall, discouraging him. Seras copied her, closer to the door. Even Anderson had taken a step towards the wall. Vlad glowered at them rebelliously and took another step forward, coming close enough to touch Integra if he wanted to. Red wouldn't look at her, secretly mortified to find that she had a better view of his clothes and face right now. "Go away…this is illegal, right? Harassment. I'll call the cops."

Even though you don't have a phone and would sooner die than have police officers near your apartment. Integra's teeth grated as she stared intently at a bruise shadowed eye. "You're coming with me Vladimir…or I'll get a warrant to search your room." She added quietly.

Red flashed at her, outraged as a ripple flowed through the pale lips. "Are you threatening me now, Chief?"

Tan features tightened. Their voices were low and she doubted that the others could hear them well enough to know what they were saying. "I'm doing this for your own good, Vladimir."

The teen's face lost its expression, and then sneered at Integra, shocking her eyes into widening at the twisted humor that composed his smirk. It was full of hate and ironic, depraved amusement. "Is it for my own good, Chief? Or do you feel like playing the hero, the good guy, the sympathetic cop? You want to rescue a little lost puppy to pet and cuddle. Oh, so cute." The smirk stretched into a mocking quiet chuckle. He saw the wide blue eyes and blank features, but he didn't care. He couldn't feel anything right now…he couldn't think…a voice was speaking through him, never reaching the phase of an unspoken thought. His teeth flashed in a wicked smile as a step brought him closer to passing the woman. "I'm not a cute little puppy, Chief. I'm a rabid stray…so you'd better leave me the fuck alone, before something goes wrong." Vlad smiled when he slipped past Integra and gazed easily upon the confused features of her daughter as he readied to go around her. Instead, he gasped when a hand gripped the back of his sweatshirt and slammed him into the wall, forcing the side of his face to touch the ungiving structure. A pained hiss shot from his teeth, but the shock cleared his mind, widening his eyes. He didn't move as his eyes flicked to the wall, the door, Seras, the trees beyond the end of the walkway; moving without focusing on anything. A deep growl bled through the thickness of his hood, by his ear.

"You can't use empty threats against me. You're a pathetic child and nothing else, Vladimir. I will dictate what you can do and where you can go. I will take you home. You will be the hungry little pup that you are. You will not threaten me, my family, or my children, again."

Limp with shock, Vlad eyes dilated, blurring his vision as he felt the rough wall dent impressions into his cheek and irritate the red scratches left on his brow from the night he had spent in the parking garage. Integra released the teen and the boy slid for a moment before catching himself and straightening. He pulled away from the wall, standing and watching the eyes around him. None of the windows were occupied by his neighbors, at least.

The Andersons' watched his empty look and his wide, observing eyes. Integra softened with a small sigh, lifting a hand to clasp the teen's shoulder. It flinched under her fingers and Vlad's face went to her with evident caution. She only nodded and patted the wet shoulder. "Come along, Vladimir. We're going." The woman was pleased when the boy followed her quietly as she walked towards the stairs. The others trailed behind them.

The sound of dull thuds lifted Vlad's eyes to the stairs. He noticed the dark cane that made the sound as the old man carefully picked his way down the steps. Vlad moved to the side to let Seras pass him, so he could help the old man, but Seras stopped beside him, thinking that he was trying to sneak back to his room, while the wizened blue eyes of the cane bearing man sparked with hostility. Vlad blinked and then chose to descend the rest of the stairs to follow Integra's lead.

The grass squished when he cut across a length of the lawn to continue on the concrete path that bordered the building and took them to a cramped parking lot. He saw Anderson's car and wondered, grimly, how they would all fit into it. Someone would have to take the middle back seat…

Seras did, with her brother on her right while Vlad sat on her left looking out the window. The car was awkwardly silent and Vlad felt the old man in the passenger seat stare at him in the rear view mirror. He caught the reflection's eyes and held them, curiosity starting to emerge. It seemed to interest the man that the boy wasn't looking away, and his eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Vlad broke the quiet as his curiosity displaced his uneasiness. The teen spoke with a straight, slightly guarded, face.

"So you're Grandpa Anderson?"

All eyes, but Integra's and the pair that was already watching Vlad, went to him. Seras was having trouble finding her voice, so Anderson responded to the stated question with a low murmur. "His last name isn't Anderson."

Vlad let his gaze flick over Seras to see the green eyes. Anderson was still being pissy, he figured. Vlad blinked and returned to his staring contest with the old man. Normally, he would have smiled and cracked a joke of some kind, but he wasn't in the mood. His eyes…and his features were too heavy to smile. "Do you have a name old man?"

"Vladimir." Integra's warning made Vlad jump a little and he looked away from the mirror to stare at the seat in front of him.

The was a pause.

"So, Grandpa is here for Christmas? Are you staying in that room by the laundry room?"

Talking was not something Vlad really wanted to do, but he was close to squirming under the pressure of the odd quiet that came after…something as awkward as what had just happened. The first impression he'd made on the old man had been utter crap. He just wanted the old guy to say something. When the man remained mute, Vlad licked his lips and wished that he was in his room, away from the stares that were burning into him. He rubbed his hands as he laid his arms on his legs, but sat up when he realized the position was uncomfortably invasive of Integra's personal space. The car felt claustrophobic, in Vlad's opinion. "You don't mind if I call you Grandpa? I'll call you whatever you want, but Chief, Female Anderson, and Anderson are already taken. I don't really like to call people by their names. Gotta have a nickname. Everyone has a nickname…mine's Vlad."

If the old man didn't speak now, Vlad was going to give up and curl into a ball of condensed humiliation. He looked like the Chief…so he must be her father. That revelation shot his eyes to the mirror, to the blue orbs that reflected in it. "You're the Chief's dad? Good job."

Integra scoffed or spluttered while surprise widened the cobalt blue in the mirror. The first hint of amusement crinkled the old man's eyes, deepening the creases that always marked them.

"Vlad…" A voice on the other side of Seras muttered in disbelief. Red met green and Anderson almost smirked but looked away instead. "…you're a piece of work."

Vlad paused and then frowned, looking at the blue eyes in the mirror and then Anderson. "Is that a good thing? Kinda hard to tell when you start talking in code."

"Don't know." Anderson couldn't suppress a snort. Seras was a little ruffled, but she eased back into her comfort zone and smiled at Vlad, causing him to stiffen a bit and then turn to face forward and watch the mirror. The old guy staring at him for all this time without saying anything, was really bothering him now.

"Hi." He spoke to the mirror. The old man was amused again when he noticed how he was affecting the delinquent. Vlad dropped his eyes to his lap with a mutter that said nothing. But his eyes widened and his breath caught when he realized how much water had collected around him. If it weren't for the stitching on the seats, Seras would be sitting in a puddle as well…and it looked like she might be by the time they got to the Andersons' house. He forgot about the blue eyes that were still watching him as he bit his lip and looked at the siblings, hesitating. He released his lip. "Anderson, you don't happen to have a towel anywhere? You might want to save your leather seats…since I'm not going to be paying you anything for ruining them."

Anderson looked at him and then his soaked clothes while Seras discretely shifted away from the threatening water. The jock leaned over and dug around under his grandfather's seat and then drew out a dirty old towel. He threw it at Vlad with a hint of a smirk. "I think it's clean. Just a bit stiff."

Vlad caught it and felt what Anderson was talking about. He scowled and dropped it unceremoniously onto the puddle. "Sweaty old football towel…great. Thanks a ton, fat ass."

"You're welcome."

Vlad's face twitched with disgust as he imagined the dried sweat melting into the puddle that surrounded him. He moved away from it and growled in frustration. "Absolutely disgusting. Fat ass-sweat." He made a gagging sound that got Anderson to laugh while his sister smiled with a soft chuckle. Red went to Seras with a frown. He lifted the cloth up a bit. "You want some of this?"

The girl's face blanched and she held up her hands, ready to push it away or slap the boy. "No. Get it away from me."

Vlad smirked at Anderson as he dropped the towel again. "See, you're gross." Anderson scowled back at him. Seras giggled a little during the intermission.

"You're one to talk about cleanliness, boy."

The Walter-like reference to him made Vlad's eyes dart to the blue in the mirror. He stared at the eyes and part of the old face he could see. A sudden smile lit his face, distracting the man. "Hey, you think your room's nice and clean right? It's freaken amazing, because I cleaned it." The boy smugly crossed his arms and chuckled at the blank expression. "I'm a soap junky. A packet of free Tide, ah, that's my cocaine." He chuckled devilishly to himself when Integra growled in disapproval.

"Not funny." She frowned upon her father when he chuckled. Vlad was delighted when he succeeded in making the old man show this much humor, and he laughed along with him.

"Naw, Chief, it was loads funny. Anderson, you should pick up some humor tips from me since you've been such a sucky clown lately. The only funny thing about you right now is your fat ass and your occasional sarcasm."

"I'm not fat, runt."

"Funny." Vlad got Seras to laugh at Anderson's sulking mumbles. It was as if the rain was gone and the silence had never existed.

The old man sitting next to his daughter continued to watch the pale red eyed boy, pensively. The boy, as had been mentioned to him, was supposedly a gangster. He looked the part, but he didn't speak like one. His pronunciation was oddly crisp sometimes. 'Occasional sarcasm' and other words caught the man as being off for a young gangster to use. Not to mention that he was pretty malleable under his daughter's hand. Integra was the Chief of police with a wide area under her jurisdiction and this…delinquent, a.k.a. criminal, was easily interacting with her kids and listened to her and let her push him around. Vlad was a few inches taller than Integra, and the old man was not naïve enough to assume that malnourishment would do anything to reduce the physical threat presented by a street-wise thug. His grandson would be able to handle his own, but Seras, no, not even with the self defense training her mother had drilled into her. And Integra…without pepper spray, a tazer, or the dissuading presence of her gun, would have some trouble if the boy wanted to harm her. But he had let the woman push him into a wall and then had done nothing about it afterwards. What influence did this family have over the boy?

"Hey, Grandpa, how long are you staying?"

The pale teen was smiling at the mirror. Blue observed, never wavering. "One more day."

"So, until tomorrow? Cool."

Seras and Anderson were talking while Vlad was quiet, listening contently. The boy was interesting, the blue decided and then picked up on a stifled cough. The cough returned, intensified, as the hacking sound passed through the sleeve Vlad had over his mouth. The siblings stopped and commented, 'that doesn't sound good' only to have Vlad grin and wave his hand as if offended.

"Really? I thought it sounded fantastic…music to my ears."

"It sounded like you were hacking up a lung, Vlad." Anderson stated impassively, the humor going straight to Vlad's smile. The jokes continued and the cough was forgotten.

"Vladimir, why were you walking around in the rain?" Integra's voice overwhelmed any other conversation that was taking place. The car became quiet. Vlad watched his hands in his lap, playing with his fingers.

"Jus' went to visit my uncle, Chief. It's Christmas, you know?"

It was quiet again.

"The hospital is a pretty long walk from your apartment…and it's been raining all day." Integra's lips tightened as they were drawn into a thin line. Vlad didn't answer right away, and he only responded when his eyes had been turned to the window for a few seconds.

"I got a ride with Jake in the morning when visiting hours started."

Integra ignored her distain for the familiarity between the man and the boy, for now. "And he didn't give you a ride home?"

"I told him I didn't need one. Told him I'd get a cab or something."

"And you didn't."

"No. I wanted to go for a walk in the sunshine, Chief, to get some fresh air. The smog does wonder's for your respiratory system. Almost as good as a cigarette."

The boy didn't smell like smoke, so those listening assumed it was a joke, similar to the one made about cocaine. Integra didn't have anything else she wanted to say in the car, so the siblings began to talk while Vlad contributed or listened quietly as the car drove through the storm.

Chapter Text

They were odd, stiffening twitches that resembled shivers, or they were stiff shivers that resembled odd twitches, either way, they produced the same effect on the teen, jerks tightening and loosening his nerves, playing with him as if he were strung up like a marionette. He moved his hands, rubbing his fingers, hiding them in his sleeves, breathing on them, cupped by his face; but they weren't getting any warmer. The cold had the effect of a drug, keeping his mind jumping as quickly as his spasming muscles. To bring his teeth apart, to speak, would permit them to chatter if they were kept too close together. To separate his hands, would be to give them permission to tremble. Overall, when the boy stepped out into the closed garage as the others exited the car, the effect of the twitching shivers drew an outraged snarl from Integra, a fright that paralyzed the boy's nerves for a moment.

Her fingers were like talons as she snatched the boy's sweatshirt and half dragged, half shoved, him to the door, passing her father on the way. The man said nothing as he watched the woman's behavior and the stunned response from the teen.

"Get him inside! Throw him in the shower! And make sure the water is boiling! Alexander!" She threw a hiss back at the blonde boy standing dumbly by the car. Integra thrust the door open and pushed Vlad through the doorway, stabbing at it with a pointing finger. "NOW! Go get him in the shower, or a hot bath and get him some dry clothes! MOVE IT!"

The command was heard and followed, scuttling Anderson through the door where he took Vlad's arm to hurry him upstairs. Seras was hiding in the car, unwilling to emerge until the woman's temper had cooled. Her mother wasn't violent. She was just extremely intimidating…and made you want to piss your pants sometimes. Seras ducked her head as she heard an exasperated, rumbling growl that bordered an exhausted sigh. Integra's fist knotted her hair as her feet turned her away from the car, and then back to it. She dropped her hand to her side with an obvious sigh, bringing blue eyes to the old man watching her. She looked away with a scowl, tucking a hand into her pants pocket.

"Do you know how aggravating it is when no one takes care of a child?" Her hiss rode on suppressed and simmering fury. The man blinked and looked to the door into the house as he shut the car door quietly. His attempt at minimizing the sound led to the door not latching properly, so he had to open and close it again. By this time, Integra had marched into the house and her timid daughter was slowly slipping out of the car. The man looked at his granddaughter and she looked back at him, waiting patiently for the man to ask the question he seemed to be balancing on the tip of his tongue. The pause burned away.

"What do you know about the boy?"

Seras bit her lip, her gaze wandering as she debated what her best answer would be. She finally looked up with a little sigh, an apology written in her features. "You'll have to ask Vlad if you want to know anything about him. I can't…really get my head around the kid. But I think he's nice…don't know much about him, really, though. But he's nice."

The two watched one another for a moment before the grandfather nodded with a warming smile, a touch of pride for his granddaughter passing into his eyes.

"I will then, if that is your advice."

"Yeah." Seras beamed and took a step forward to pause, allowing the old man to enter the house before her. "Mom should be taking care of the food. I'm going to see if there's anything she needs help with. Do you need anything, Grandpa?"

"No." Seras had stopped by the curved wall at the end of the hallway while the man shook his head with the same smile and carried on to his room, his cane barely audible as it hit the floor. "I'll be getting ready for dinner."

The door to the laundry room was open, the old man observed, slowing to stand and watch his grandson pour soap into the washing machine as the boy muttered to himself. Deciding against making any comments, the man moved on, entering his room and closing the door behind him as Anderson left the laundry room.

The teen ventured into the kitchen to ask how long it would be until dinner was ready. He was told it would be another thirty minutes. With that information, Anderson hurried off to his room before he could be asked to set the table. Better that Seras got stuck with that job; he was taking care of the delinquent.

Clothes. Shoot, they'd slipped his mind completely. Anderson rummaged through a few drawers and pulled out a T-shirt, and then shoved it back in with a frown, shutting the drawer and going to his closet instead. He'd almost forgotten that it was Christmas. Vlad needed to wear something more respectable than a T-shirt and a pair of baggy jeans. A nice dress shirt…and pants, black…shoes…didn't matter…should he wear a coat? But there was only one…he'd have to go without…

Meanwhile, Vlad was staring at the bare counter by the sink in the bathroom, not appreciating the fact that he didn't have anything to wear right now, except for a towel. He was fixing it, tucking in the side to make sure it wasn't going to suddenly drop to the floor at some random moment, when the door finally opened and he hid a scowl, lifting a hand to grab the clothes that would be offered to him. "'Bout time…"

Red widened to stare at the set of round blue eyes. The door slammed in the pale face, causing the red eyes to flinch. Then Vlad was quiet, a little taken aback by what he thought had just happened. There was a sharp yowling sound, that soon registered as being Seras' voice.

"ALEX! YOU IDIOT! GET HIM SOME CLOTHES! YOU LAZY BUM!"

There were thudding sounds and the door swung open again, this time revealing Anderson's sheepish expression. The teen gave an awkward laugh, handing the bundle of clothes over to Vlad who frowned at him, aware of the fact that the girl had been able to observe his skinny-ass-edness.

"Sorry." Anderson offered. Vlad stared at him, and then scowled.

"Screw it." The door slammed, and Vlad proceeded to dress in relative peace. Only relative peace, because his mind became troubled when it was confronted with the task of putting on the clothes Anderson had given him, all of which were wholly uncomfortable for him to wear. The jock needed a good kick in the ass for this one.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Seras was getting ready in her room while Anderson was getting ready in his. When Vlad opened the door and peered at the empty hall, he only saw closed doors. Lost and uncomfortable, the teen decided to go down the stairs. In the kitchen, the clanging of pans hitting the stove top after being removed from the oven tinkered with the workings of Vlad's mind. The sound must have done something, because, for a moment, he saw his mother standing with her back to him, in front of the stove, pulling off her oven mittens. But the illusion dispersed and Vlad observed the long mane of hair that cascaded down the woman's back. Integra didn't notice the boy as she made sure all of the food was hot and fully cooked. Seras would come down and transport the food over to the dinning room and Alex would set the table and get the glasses…if he didn't forget again, that boy…was football bad for his brain? She thought his skull was thick enough to ward off any potential damage, but now she wondered if he had a brain in his cranium or a big puddle of pink mush. Of course his grade point average suggested otherwise, but his memory was often lacking. She sighed, going to the sink to scrub her hands clean. Alexander was her little space cadet.

Integra turned off the tap and turned to dry off her hands. Her drying ceremony slowed to a stop, and the woman's blue eyes blinked, finally noticing the teen that was watching, not quite in the kitchen as he stood in the tiled hall. She wiped her hands on the towel for complete dryness, with a low hum of curious thought.

Wasn't his face swollen before? Now the swelling was barely noticeable beneath the bruises…must have been the lighting and the dirt. Integra shook her head, releasing the towel before a smile quirked her lips as she went to the boy, her hands going casually to her pockets. Her eyes ran over the familiar clothes and a slyness entered her expression. Red eyes just stared at her. "Look at you, all dressed up. …Comfortable?"

"No." Vlad replied without a second thought, causing the woman to smirk.

"I thought so… Good." Her hand clasped a thin shoulder and then let go as she proceeded to her bedroom to get ready for dinner. Since her husband was absent, there was no way in hell she would wear that blue dress, even if it matched her eyes. She was going to wear whatever she deemed appropriate.

Her departure left the abandoned Vlad standing in the hall with nothing to do. He could set the table and remember to get the drinks... Touching the food…was too daunting of a task; it sent shivers down his spine. What if he dropped something? He would just lay down and die, right then and there.

Vlad suppressed an inward shudder and took his first step into the kitchen. His eyes caught on the buffet of food occupying the counter space. The teen gravitated closer, distracted. Then he snapped out of his daze, swallowing, he rummaged through the drawer to get the silverware he needed. He'd get the napkins next, and finish up with the plates, carefully bringing them over the steaming, absolutely amazing feast. God. Was he really going to take part in all this gorging? He'd stuff himself until he exploded, that's what Vlad planned to do. He smiled wickedly at the thought as he carried his stack of dishes to the table and gently set them in the dead center of each placemat. It was a very nice green table cloth; it caught the light in a pleasing way. Vlad glanced at a shimmer, laying down the last plate at the end of the table. Grandpa would sit at the end across from the Chief. He would sit next to Anderson, and Seras would sit across from her brother, a whole side of the table, all to herself. Vlad couldn't help but feel a bit smug as he looked at his handiwork. It looked like one of those furniture adds in the newspaper, kinda, at least the placemats and stuff. It gave him a warm fuzzy feeling that he sneered off because he thought it was stupid to feel this way about a table and some placemats.

A soft, approaching tapping sound took Vlad's eyes from the dinning room table and he watched as Anderson's grandfather materialized, coming into Vlad's line of sight. Vlad stared at the old man and the old man's brow rose as he gazed back at the boy. He had heard the dishes clinking together earlier, so he had thought his grandson or granddaughter would be out and about, setting the table, but instead he found the red eyed delinquent teen standing in their place. The man analyzed the red eyes, the perfectly white skin, and the boy's sharp features…the boy was also tall and very thin… What interesting eyes he has, was all the man could think for a moment, and then his eyes brought his attention to the bruises and the scabbed cracks on the pale lips, the various healing cuts. An interesting specimen indeed.

"Hey Gramps."

The man frowned at the slang but didn't say anything against it as he watched as the boy grinned and chuckled, the white hands diving into the pockets of his black slacks. He was wearing a white, long sleeved shirt with black buttons and a stiff collar. The shirt blended with his skin…only…his skin might have been even whiter than the bleached garment, if that was possible. Clorox Bleach would not want this boy in one of their sock commercials, that's for sure.

"I set the table."

Blue blinked, realizing that the boy was still trying to converse with him. Vlad seemed to be perfectly comfortable with the man not contributing, content to talk on his own, still smiling. The boy was talking about a feast in the kitchen, and other nonsense. Such an odd mind, the old man leaned forward slightly, putting weight on his cane as he listened to the boy. He seemed to have some practice for this type of conversation, talking alone in short statements that trailed along like passing thoughts. He would ask a question and then answer it himself. It was peculiar. In the car, yes the boy had been talkative at first to liven up the atmosphere, but afterwards, the teen had been relatively quiet, listening to the man's grandchildren speak.

But he certainly did not come off as being a gangster. Not in the least. His language, mannerisms, posture; none of it fit the mold of a street thug, except for the occasional dark joke and curse word.

When the man decided to ask the boy the questions on his mind, it was too late. Seras came into the dining room, carrying a bowl of yellow corn, cut fresh off of the cob. She stopped, surprised to find the two in the dinning room alone, but she smiled and put the bowl on the table, pausing when he blue eyes noticed the plates and silverware. Vlad looked at the table as well.

"I was going to go get the drinks and glasses next, but I got…kinda side tracked."

"Oh." Seras looked at the boy and then the table, struggling with something that brought color to her cheeks and brightened her eyes. Vlad began to leave, but she stopped him. "We use wineglasses on special occasions, and my mother takes care of the drinks. Champaign and sparkling apple cider…" Her voice was quiet, Vlad and her grandfather noticed, but did not comment.

Vlad blinked, and then grinned wolfishly. "We get champaign?"

"What?" Seras' head snapped up, it had been drooping, and her eyes widened. "No. We…I mean, you definitely do not get alcohol, Vlad."

The teen sighed with disappointment and then brightened again. He seemed to be excited about everything now. "Should I go get Fat Ass?"

The girl winced. "Alex…sure, go see if he's delaying on purpose." She watched Vlad go, and as soon as he was gone, she sighed at the table, crossing her arms and then propping one up to smush it into her cheek. "Ah…I don't have the heart to tell him we use the nice plates and silverware for Christmas." Her grandfather came to the table and saw what she was talking about. The little flowers on the center of the plates were nice, but they…hm. The man blinked at the silverware. Why was the spoon on the left side? And why was the fork on the right side of the knife?

"He got the spoons and the forks mixed up, didn't he?" Now the girl seemed charmed by the mistakes and she smiled at the spoons and then her grandfather. "Would he mind if we switched them?"

The old man considered for a moment and his hand touched one of the spoons. His lips cracked into a smile. "Why not leave it? We'll all eat with spoons tonight." The two shared the humor and then Seras left to go to the kitchen while her grandfather walked around the table, leaning on his cane once more when he stopped. He usually sat on one side of the table, across from his grandchildren, and Integra and his son in law would sit at the ends. How this was set up, it seemed that the grandfather would be replacing the father for tonight. An interesting boy, the old man mused, lowing himself into his assigned seat. He gazed upon the table from this new view, and then traced his gaze to his place setting. His eyes crinkled with amusement at the sight.

Spoons.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

The kid shouldn't be alone on Christmas, Jake sighed as he shut the door of his car, maneuvering his hands into his pockets as he trudged through the grass for a few steps, disliked the mud that was ruining his shoes, and then went the long way to exploit the available sidewalk and cement path to the stairs that would take him up to Alucard's level. It was raining at a slant, so large shoulders moved instinctively inward to shield Jake while he reached up to pull the hood of his rain jacket farther over his brow. He would drop by, say hi, ask him about his uncle, tell him Merry Christmas, and then offer to take him to one of the group's gatherings where there would be food, beer, anything. Alucard might refuse or he might decide to go with him, either way, Jake would have made the effort and the kid would know that he doesn't have to be all alone, cooped up in that cramped room. Guys were still uneasy about Hell Dog and who he had been affiliating himself with, but no one would be able to do anything or say any stupid crap with Jake there. And an appearance would probably kick start the process of mending his reputation.

Jake had these thoughts in his mind as he met the stairs, leaving the rain behind him. Water beaded and slipped off of the black rain jacket as Jake continued his journey, reaching the top of the stairs and going down the walkway to knock on Hell Dog's door. Brown eyes blinked as Jake waited, stuffing his hands back into his pockets, expecting the door to open at any moment. But it was quiet and the door handle never moved. With a developing frown of perplexity, knuckles rapped on the door again, quickly, sharply, demanding a response. Nothing happened except a curious neighbor peeked through her window along with another face from another room, to inspect the source of the knocking. Once they saw Jake, their attention was seized, but their courage wavered and the drapes were shut as the faces decided to become only listening ears.

"Alucard."

Silence.

"Alucard, are you in there?"

Silence.

"Damn it, this had better not be one of your games."

Silence. And then the silence overtook the dialog as Jake became quiet, hands by his sides, watching the door. His frown darkened his features as his hands returned to his pockets, standing before the door and glancing at the curtained window. It was dark in there. Hell Dog had said his electricity would be back on by now…so he wasn't in the room.

Jake's weight shifted from one foot to the other as he pondered the situation. Alucard couldn't be at the hospital still. Too much time had passed and Jake wasn't sure if the visiting hours went on for this long. It was raining, so Alucard wouldn't be wandering around. It was Christmas so he couldn't be out looking for a place where he could apply for a job. No school. No money, so no shopping or getting food. No other friends, so there wasn't a chance of the kid…

Brown eyes widened as Jake's lips parted, gazing at the door without seeing it. His teeth snapped together and the gaze became a glower as a growl crept up Jake's throat, anger sparking to catch on his thoughts and begin to smolder, the rising smoke clouding and darkening the man's eyes.

The stupid little bastard had gone off with them again. Jake turned, looking down the walkway towards the stairs, seeing the memory of the two blonde siblings standing before the stairs. Teeth clenched in a malevolent scowl. I never should have shown them where his room was. Damn it…damn that stupid brat…he never listens to anything I fucking tell him! Damn it! Now I have to go get him back again!

Heavy steps marched forward, drawing out the timid faces that glimpsed the passing giant. The steps continued down the stairs with Jake muttering under his breath, fists by his sides as he glared at the concrete below. "A pain in the ass. Just a royal pain in the ass. And a stupid little brat that can't grow up…fuck!" The muttering decomposed into thoughtless grumbles when Jake's shoe hit the concrete and he left the stairs behind him.

The grumbles could have gone on for minutes or hours, as they had in the past, but the endurance of these grumbles pouring from Jake's mouth ceased as a small, flee-like presence stepped in his path. It was a wonder that Jake had not trampled over the little man and walked on without even noticing. But now Jake's dark eyes peered down at the little sun browned man that squinted up at him with a look of outrage and disapproval at Jake's towering height. The landlord puffed his chest in a façade of pride that poorly masked his indignation, and he gave Jake an ugly little smirk. The giant and the smurf said nothing for a moment, and then the little smurf-man's teeth moved with speech.

"And how can I help you?" Sneered a chuckle that Jake didn't care to hear. The man's head cocked to the side, as if amused by Jake's presence. "I think I've seen you 'round here a couple times. Why, is what I'm thinkin' to myself when I see you. You don't belong here. There's no reason for you being here, right? Am I right? So I just begin to get a wee bit suspicious now, since a guy like you seems likely ta be up to no damn good, ya know what I'm talking about?"

Jake said nothing as his face remained emotionless, watching the snickering little being below him begin to dance around on its little smurf feet, moving over to the stairs behind Jake, still chuckling and watching Jake's stolid face as if it was something that was supposed to be laughed at. The little man went up a few steps and grinned lopsidedly at the giant as he saw that the dark eyes had followed him and he still had Jake's attention. Even on the steps, the man still had to look up at Jake and Jake had to look down at him.

"I might jus' have to call the cops to know what you're up to, unless you want to do the smart an' polite thing and tell me what you come here for."

It was quiet for a moment and some of the man's humor began to wane, but his face lit up with delight when he believed he had intimidated Jake into responding. The low tenor of Jake's voice contrasted with the last words the small man had left in the air. "I come by to check up on a friend of mine."

The little man snickered rudely and threw his thumb back at the rooms his tenants were occupying on the lower and upper levels. "Which friend?"

Jake blinked and his eyes narrowed slightly. "Are you the guy that owns this place?" Just to make sure…

Pride welled up from the little man, twisting his little sneer. "Yeah. I own the place, bud. Now tell me which room you're visiting so often." When Jake didn't say anything and appeared to be ready to turn and leave, the landlord gave another little chuckle and shrugged his shoulders in an exaggerated, very pawn-shop-owner-Greg manner. Fake sympathy dripped from the man's mocking tone. "Oh well, if you're not ready to tell me anything, I'll jus' have to ask around, call up some cops ta look into all this shady business, because how do ah know whether you're coming around with drugs or conductin' some illegal business on my property? Yah, so do I have your attention now, bud?"

Jake stared at the man, reluctantly amazed by the disgusting and feeble threat that he had just thrown at him, casual as can be. Jake's mouth tightened, dipping into a frown as he felt that the man wasn't worth his time but could prove to be rather annoying if let alone. His head jerked up, indicating the upper level. "I come by to check on the kid."

Beady eyes blinked at the giant. "He have red eyes?"

A nod was all that was given, but it was enough to rip an ugly cackle from the man, a laugh that widened Jake's glare. The landlord laughed, glancing over his shoulder at the second level, as if to look at the teen, and then he laughed in Jake's face. "So it has to be drugs or something! I can't believe how popular Street-shit is nowadays, an' I guess tha's the reason!"

A dark brow rose and the giant's eyes narrowed, focused on the irritating cackling smurf. "What did you just call him?"

The laughing stopped and a full grin was delivered to Jake, the beady eyes twinkling with delight before a hand ever came to touch Jake's shoulder, limited by its stubby reach. There was a snort.

"I jus' called yer little scummy friend what yah all really are. Street-shit."

Thud.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Thud. The last platter of food came to rest on a place mat and three pairs of blue eyes accompanied by one pair of green eyes, gazed down at the spoons, while red eyes stared at all of the food. Green flicked over to the pale boy and Anderson wetted his lips hesitantly.

"Thanks for setting the table for me."

Vlad smirked at the teen and then gazed down at his placemat. "No problem. I did it all right…right?" Red blinked expectantly at Anderson who couldn't meet his eyes. Finally Anderson, despite Seras' frown, admitted that the spoons were mixed up with the forks. No one mentioned that this was the wrong set of silverware and the wrong set of plates. Changing the spoons was enough.

After grace, food began to make its way to the empty plates, filling them in a matter of seconds. Other than Anderson's question the only other time Vlad was distracted from the food that was being passed around, was when he realized that Integra was wearing a women's suit. Integra noticed when Vlad began to stare at it, and she smiled and tossed a bread roll onto his plate, snapping his head up. Vlad turned his attention to eating his portion of the amazing feast, already drunk on its intoxicating aroma. Ham, corn, green beans, bread ball things, other bread thing that came in a loaf and smelled sweet, fancy mashed potatoes, gravy, red berry sauce stuff; there was enough to explode five Vlads. Vlad snickered at the thought, attracting the old man's attention, as well as Anderson's.

Anderson looked at him for a bit. "What's funny?"

"Nothin'. I just decided that I'm going to eat until I explode. I think it'll be fun." A smirk went to Anderson who scoffed at it and began to eat again. Vlad inspected his food, tasting a bit of all of it and mixing some of it together, acting the part of a chemist in a lab. Corn in mashed potatoes, good. Red berry sauce in mashed potatoes, not so good. Red berry sauce on ham, not so good. Red berry sauce on bread ball thing, not good. …I think I don't like the red berry sauce, period. Next…green beans and potatoes, good. With gravy, eh…okay. With the sweet bread and potatoes, …cannot waste food by spitting it out. Vlad examined the sweet bread that had been cut off of a mini loaf, and then he looked over at Anderson and pointed at it.

"What's this?"

Green went to the bread while Anderson's mouth was occupied. He swallowed. "Pumpkin bread."

Vlad stared at him with blank eyes, and then looked at the bread he was still pointing at. Never heard of it. But the boy ate some of it anyway and checked it on the good list, and went on, exploring the food. His head popped up when a conversation was started between Seras and…everyone. It was a random subject, Vlad guessed, having missed hearing it. He continued to eat while the family talked, looking around curiously from time to time.

Finally the topic turned to Vlad when Integra took advantage of a break of silence. She asked him, smiling, "How is your uncle doing?"

Um. Looking around, Vlad hurriedly gathered his thoughts together. He eventually looked at the woman. "He's doing pretty good, I guess. Just…sleeping…" Red dropped to the plate when pity touched Integra's expression. He didn't want her damn pity. Couldn't he just answer something like that and expect to get a normal, emotionally detached response? Well…no…that would be weird…now that he thought about it. Vlad filled his mouth with corn, not noticing when Integra asked him something. She had to ask him again before he noticed.

"Oh uh…" What was I going to do for Christmas before she made me come here? "Nothing, I guess. I don't really celebrate holidays. No reason though. Just don't…not really interested in them."

"Oh?" Integra was holding her wineglass full of bubbling champaign, distracting Vlad who looked for his glass. Golden, carbonated liquid…what had Female Anderson called it again? He'd forgotten. Vlad lifted the thin fragile glass awkwardly and tried to get used to holding it before he took an adventurous sip. It was…really sweet but pretty good. He took another sip and then put it down with a hint of a grin as he saw all the food and the people that had carried on with another conversation around him.

Red wandered towards the aged blue eyes and then settled on them, eating and sipping at the sparkling apple cider. With time, the aged blue eyes found the red gaze and the two looked at one another for a moment. Vlad's lips smirked and he looked away to take a sip of his cider, glancing back at the old man when blue didn't move. The teen put his drink down. "So Grandpa, I gave you my name, I'm just wondering when I'll get to know yours."

Not the politest way of asking, several blonde minds noted without real disapproval. It was just Vlad, it was part of his personality. How could they really disapprove right now? The old man read their thoughts as his daughter across from him did not comment on the boy's lack of reverence. Now the aged cobalt orbs sparked with renewed curiosity, finding Vlad's gaze unmoved. The man smiled. "I don't see any harm in telling you." The smile warmed a bit, the eyes growing brighter with humor when he saw the boy return the smile. "My name is Abraham Van Hellsing, but my telling you does not give you permission to call me by my first name."

At first awed by the name, Vlad took a moment to hear the rest of the man's words. When he did, the teen chuckled and scooted his chair closer to the table, suddenly unsatisfied with how he was sitting. "I call people by nicknames, mostly, so you might get stuck with me calling you Grandpa, if that's okay with you."

Abraham kept his smile and nodded, still thoroughly amused. He lifted his champaign. "That I don't mind at all, boy. I'm old enough for that." He drank, inserting a pause. Vlad's mind found more questions before the old man was able to set his drink down again. By the time the wine glass had reached the table, two questions had been piled on the man.

"Do you come out here every Christmas? Do you live around here?"

Abraham smiled knowingly, allowing his eyes to pick out the place he was lowering his glass. Then, patiently, they returned to the expecting teen, with a warm smile. "I come for the holidays, but no, I live in Holland."

There was a pause in which Vlad stared without an apparent response. Then his face lit up, curiosity erasing the presence of the food for a moment. The others watched, each with their own curved smile, eating their 'feast' and basking in the full radiance of the Christmas holiday. A few sparsely strewn curses only made them wince slightly as conversations rose and ebbed away. Even when their stomachs were content, their plates relatively bare, with plenty of the rich aroma of food pervading the air, the family continued to talk, recount stories, listen, laugh, and accept the black sheep in their midst as their own. The stream of gold was not ruined by the ebony presence, the healthy pallors unblemished by the pale, thin delinquent.

And as for the pale, black sheep, he fit in with this flock, oblivious of the feat he had accomplished.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

With dinner coming to a close, Integra and her reluctant son began the task of relieving the dining room of the source of its thick fragrance, the food disappearing into the kitchen to be wrapped, foiled, and lidded and then tucked safely away in the refrigerator. Vlad offered his assistance but the offer was refused, though Anderson grumbled a protest. As a response, his mother gave him the duty of rinsing the dishes and loading them into the dishwasher…with the privilege of wearing, for the sake of his nice clothing, a pink apron that thoroughly entertained Vlad and Seras, as well as the adults, heating blood that burned in Anderson's cheeks. The jock had a chronic scowl pulling at his lips as he worked, one that split with an angry growl of outrage when he realized his darling sister had taken several pictures of him. Memories, she explained, that needed to be thoroughly documented and shared with the masses. Anderson didn't care much for the masses and threw suds at the girl's red camera heating her own blood so that she blushed with fury. Before total warfare could commence, Integra guided the girl out of the kitchen to give her 'sister' some peace and quiet for 'her' agitated nerves.

With giggles and chuckles, Vlad and Seras were given the duty of entertaining Abraham who claimed that he had no need for so much attention. The wisdom of the old man was ignored and he resigned himself to following his granddaughter as she gave him a tour of the house, stopping by important monuments, such as the statues of academic achievement on the shelves of Integra's home office, and strolling down memory lane as she took Abraham to see each of the picture frames that littered the house. Vlad followed, sharp eyes finding each object the girl's authoritative finger pointed out and he listened to the stories she recalled from the depths of a recent past. Abraham was obviously quite familiar with most of the past that Seras recounted and his attention wandered back to the pale boy that was in his company. Several glances went to Vlad's face during their journey, but the boy only returned a few of them.

The journey failed to last as long as Odysseus' Odyssey, and within minutes the trio found themselves reaching a destination only Seras had been aware of being at the end of their path. The towering Christmas tree, sparking to life as the girl plugged in the Christmas lights, reflected as a large, twinkling mass in the wide red eyes. There were still presents beneath it, which Seras informed Vlad, as her Grandfather had been present when the gifts had been opened that morning, would be opened later. Two a day, until they all ran out, was the tradition in their family. One on Christmas Eve, to kick-start it all.

"Is it cool? I decorated it, mostly." Seras smiled proudly, circling the grand tree as Vlad stared at it. Her finger indicated a few specific ornaments. "These gingerbread cookies are real, though they're mixed with paste so that they'll last longer. Alex and I made them in second or third grade. And these ones are pictures of us from kindergarten. And this one is mine from fifth grade. The reindeer, yes it's supposed to be a reindeer, not a fuzz monster, is Alex's. He made it in fourth grade, I think." The girl led Vlad about the tree, rarely looking at him until she had finished. She beamed at his dazed look, taking as a response to her superior work.

"That's got to be the biggest damn tree I have ever seen." Vlad stared at it, his mouth remaining open for a moment after he spoke. Seras blinked away the 'bad-word' and heard only the 'clean' statement from the boy. It made her smile, while her grandfather's mouth eased to a faint frown, thoughts containing the boy producing the expression. I think it would be best to move on, he decided, and brought a smile to his mouth to request that Seras take them somewhere where they could rest. The girl responded energetically, giving a light laugh that radiated from her cheerful mood, her face glowing as she took them into the white room where the piano was. She instructed her grandfather and Vlad to sit where they liked as she prepared to play some holiday music. She lifted up the seat of the bench and rummaged through the stacked music books until she found a slightly faded one with a green, decorated Christmas tree on it.

Silent Night flowed through minds, causing Hellsing to close his eyes for a time while Vlad gazed at the wall with clouded eyes that blinked lazily. Seras had a charming style that reflected her own personality. Strong, sometimes meek, but if necessary, bold and harsh, as was heard in Deck The Halls and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree…the music sang as Seras sometimes added a hum of the tune with her own voice. Anderson eventually wandered into the room, accompanied by his mother, and they sat together with Abraham on a white, soft leather couch. Vlad was sitting in a chair, a cushion on his lap, and he glanced at the newcomers that commented on the rather passive way the trio had been enjoying the holiday on their own.

It was dark outside because of the pittering weather that fell upon the roof.

Seras had finished, and was turned about on the bench to participate in what her family was talking about. They were trying to decide what they would do next or if they would stay here and talk while listening to Seras on the piano, but Seras said she didn't feel like playing for too long. Anderson's head lifted suddenly, as if confronted with a revelation, and he grinned at Vlad, confusing the teen for a moment and then pausing the voices in the room with his idea.

"Vlad… Vlad you should play." The blank response he got from the boy prompted Anderson to put his hands together in mock prayer, a slim smile overwhelming his act. "For Christmas' sake?"

Vlad mouth opened to respond, but he hesitated when Integra grinned and cut in before him.

"Would you?"

"Um…"

Red wandered for a moment, ruffled by the request and the staring eyes.

"You play the piano?" The old man's questioning look received a nod, an acknowledgment that seemed to obligate the boy to play. So he rose from his seat, going to the piano as Seras hopped up excitedly and plopped down in another chair. With awkwardness, Vlad seated himself at the bench and rested his fingertips gingerly on the keys, glancing back at the blondes.

"Should I play Christmas music or just anything?"

Integra shook her head, cheer in her face. "Anything you like."

Alright. Vlad took a breath as his eyes went to the keys, flicking to the music book in front of him. He didn't want to play one of the songs in the book at the moment, but he figured that he should play holiday music because of what day it was, so his hands crept closer together, finding their positions, and the boy exhaled gradually, closing his eyes and then opening them. Auld Lang Syne. Soft, light, gradual and building like his breath, faster and slower, melding together with the generous use of the pedals, never dulling the notes to preserve their crispness as much as possible. He played and a small smile moved his lips, shifting ever so slightly with the music. The ending built and then eased like a final graze of snow, red eyes closing for the last two notes. Then they opened and, for his curiosity, he looked back over his shoulder to see if it had been acceptable, and the teen received several content smiles and some surprise from Seras and her grandfather who both said the music had been very nice. Anderson and Integra knew though, that the easy level of the song had dulled the wow-factor of the performance, so they were keen to convince the boy to go on with another song, hopefully one that would make the others realize his skill. Vlad committed himself to the piano once more. Silver Bells. Pleasant, beautiful in its grace and bordering on simplicity in its rhythm, but without the factor of amazement the mother and son wanted. Anderson cut in abruptly when Vlad finished, hoping to satisfy himself. "Can you play Silent Night?"

Eyes blinked at Anderson, though he tried to ignore them. Vlad's brow crinkled a little. "Female Anderson already played it."

Shrugging in a way he hoped was convincing, and feigning sincerity in his tone, Anderson sighed. "I didn't hear it, I guess…" Did that sound disappointing enough? Apparently it had been enough for Vlad, because the teen shrugged as well and consented to play the song. Abraham and Seras perked up, caught by the difference between Seras' version and Vlad's. Vlad added notes and the flow of the music was…almost romantic, and there was never a time when a note expired without another one to prevent silence from ever cutting into the composition. Abraham glanced at his granddaughter as she stared, confusion scrunching her forehead as she tried to make sense of it and ward off the feeling of jealously that touched her for a moment. But it passed and the song ended. None of them realized that they were supposed to be listening to the music to have something in the background as they talked amongst one another. They were completely focused on the dawning mystery.

Integra's wit came into play as she smiled and complimented the music indirectly and then asked if Vlad would play a song he favored, to surprise them. Vlad nodded with an okay and a grin, enjoying himself now as he took advantage of the requests and the presence of the instrument. At that moment, he believed he could play forever.

Op. 39, No. 16 – Old French Song. Slow, like the voice of a spirit, but not haunting, just…reminiscent, a voice of its own. The listeners were swallowed by the brief composition, watching the pale hands flow as a functioning part of the instrument, like its very heart and soul that gave it its purpose and life. And yet, it did not have the complexity that Integra and Anderson knew could only bring the full scope of Vlad's ability to be seen by the others. Once the song was over, much to their surprise, Abraham distracted Vlad from playing again with a question the others then pondered as well. The man was leaning forward thoughtfully gazing at the teen that looked at him.

"How do you have all of these songs memorized?"

All eyes were focused on Vlad, but he didn't notice as he watched the old man's face. "I just do. I don't remember everything…and it's not really memorization…it's more like…the…the familiarity of the music so that I'm not really sure exactly what note follows until I reach that point. My fingers memorize the music, not really my head."

There was a pause as the family digested this concept, but their backs straightened when, unexpectedly, Vlad began to play…or…really, as it first seemed and the way their hearts raced at the shock, he seemed to suddenly pound the piano because of the volume of the notes. His handling of the keys never reached violence. Bang, bangbang, bang…and then a lighter ting…and then his hands came together and played a series of drawn out and nimble notes that rose like a wave and then ebbed, and then lighter notes suddenly made themselves known, creating the focus of the fluctuating melody. Chopin piano sonata No. 2…the porcelain fingers flying with the notes, touching and melding with the keys and then breaking away…then the music slowed at another part and became something else entirely.

Peaceful…and complex. It turned Abraham's eyes to his daughter, a gaze that told her he realized at least some of the boy's superiority. His eyes held amazement.

After six solid minutes, Vlad felt faintly aware that he should move on to another song, so he ended at a place that seemed acceptable, and then positioned himself to begin another song.

"That was great!"

Vlad jolted at the loud exclamation, and his eyes swept towards the girl that beamed, clapping as her white teeth shone. "Do another one! A really, really, really, just awesome one! Please?"

"Yeah." Vlad composed himself, lips twitching between a frown and a smile. Blinking rapidly to settle himself again, he pressed on the keys, unaware of the sharp blue gaze that was narrowed on his movements. Abraham's hand came to grip his armrest loosely.

The cobalt eyes widened slightly in recognition and some disbelief. Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2…and the boy's performance…was remarkable, at a level that exceeded any that a common teenager, or any gangster, should be able to reach. As Vlad played, he had no age, no defining identity at all, except for the music and the interpretation he presented. It didn't seem strange at all when he moved with the music. It seemed like it was supposed to be that way, that the music could not exist without the swaying, the bending as he brought his eyes closer to the keys... It was somewhat intimidating, though.

The soft notes took all thought away, as the mind sought to capture every varying voice it offered, and then all smiled when the notes became playful. None cared or were conscious of the extensive length. They all came to recognize the song, though they did not know the name or the composer, besides Abraham.

"Woohoo!" Seras clapped and Anderson joined her this time with Integra smiling. Abraham's face could not be read, but Vlad failed to notice this as Anderson commanded the attention of the room now. They could all feel that the performance was coming to a close, vaguely aware of the limits of time. Anderson was requesting a final one or two possible songs.

"Can you play one you wrote?"

Seras' face brightened with recognition and she too turned to Vlad and seconded the request. "I'd really like to hear it."

Integra and Abraham were caught by this unforeseen detail. Integra's uncharacteristic expression of surprise took Vlad's eyes and made his voice quiet when he responded her following question. "Do you write much music?"

He paused. "Some." The boy admitted with his shoulders sagging a little.

"Could you play one of your own songs for us?" The woman saw the reluctance in the teen, but was unwilling to let this opportunity go to waste.

"The one I heard you play at school. Remember?" A few eyes glanced at Anderson but he was oblivious, gesturing to Vlad with his hand before Vlad seemed to recall the memory. The pale face adopted an odd expression as he thought back to the day the two had met, officially.

His eyes sparked with humor when he smirked at the blonde teen, dimming Anderson's expression. "The one you heard back when you were spying on me? You know, now that I think about it, that was kinda creepy, Anderson. You always spy on people, or was it just me?"

Anderson now became acutely aware of the stares, and his lips trembled in frustration and embarrassment as he heard the voices of judgment in his head. Vlad was still smirking when the boy scowled back at him, a hand hitting his armrest in a show of aggression. "I was not spying on you, really…not like creepy or anything, okay? I just heard the music." He looked around, searching for an ally as he tried to explain himself with urgency now. "I heard someone playing and I went to see, but the person ran away. Okay? It was late too, when the season was done and we were doing a few more after school kind of practices. I didn't even know who it was. I thought it was-" Anderson's voice caught and he almost cursed to himself, head turning away to cut off the stares that were burning his face. Never, never, never going to…

The gasp came, and eyes went to Seras while Anderson's blood froze, stiffening his body and widening his eyes so that he stared at his own reflection in the window he was facing. He saw his own look of horror as well as a ghostly image of the rest of the room, and Seras' huge eyes.

"Wait." He cringed at her voice, squeezing his eyes and clamping his teeth, hunching away as he readied himself for the blunt of the blow he expected. The girl was blinking, shock slowly falling to wild humor that stretched her mouth in an open grin of disbelief. "Wait. The person playing…beautifully haunting music just after the sun set?"

Eyes blinked, recognizing the romantic tone of the words. Seras' grin gaped at her brother before it erupted, spewing a loud, high pitched cackle that startled even Anderson who felt the pitch as a damning knife in his back. With a snarl, he whipped around, making his mother flinch beside him. "Shut up Seras!"

"Alexander!" Integra frowned with raised brows, unable to make sense of what was going on. Indignantly, Anderson scowled to himself and Seras, pointing at the laughing, watering eyes with near-hatred.

"She's going to say something stupid! Make her shut up! She's-!"

Seras doubled over violently, assaulted cruelly by her humor, distracting Integra from her son as all stared at Seras. Vlad fidgeted uncomfortably when he realized that this might have something to do with him. "Alex- Alex thought-", laughs broke her words and she gasped. "Alex thought Vlad was a GIRL! Bwahaha!" She howled, holding her painful cheeks that threatened to rip under the stress her grin was putting on them, her muscles cramping. She laughed through the stunned looks while Anderson told her to shut up again, almost begging.

She looked back at Vlad with effort, biting her lips together to hold off her laughter for a moment. "Did-" Giggle. "Did you know?"

Vlad's brow furrowed with a frown, tempted to defend Anderson at this point, but also cross as he knew the truth in the girl's claim. "Yeah. Anderson is a dumbass, too stupid for it to be his fault."

Seras' smile bulged, straining to hold in a laugh. She gave in, and laughed into her lap now, shaking her head. Anderson saw his doom before him, and knew that there was no escaping it, but he stood, never the less, to try and order her to 'shut up now, Seras'.

She smiled deviously up at him, with a dark chuckle that turned into another cackle forcing her eyes shut, and choked her lungs, doubling her over again. "ALEX- YOU HAD A CRUSH ON VLAD!"

The scream of laughter paled the tan boy and his eyes dulled and then flared with rage. He glared at Seras and then lost the kindling for his anger, too mortified to prolong its life as he found his mother, his grandfather, and Vlad's blank stare. Hands swung by his side in uncomfortable frustration and dismay. The words blurted out as he became desperate. "I DIDN'T KNOW, OKAY?"

There was a bang of low notes as something hit the piano. A ringing quiet occupied the air as the family looked at Vlad whose head now rested on the piano keys.

Did…did he faint again? Integra wondered with numbed nerves that began to take on the feeling of concern. Anderson was frozen in place as he stared at the teen, and then he jolted with everyone else when he heard Vlad suddenly expel a laugh. A real, full laugh that stunned Anderson and removed his desperation now so that he felt stupid about how wound up he had gotten. Vlad just thought it was funny…just like Seras… Green glanced at Integra and then Abraham They were smiling awkwardly, and then grinned. Integra chuckled and looked at her son's deflated expression and motioned for him to sit down. So Anderson did so, sheepishly, and folded his hands and then released them when it felt that it was unnatural. Vlad removed his face from the piano and gave a faintly awkward grin to the other teen.

"Shall I play some beautifully haunting music for you?"

Anderson frowned, but slowly nodded, surprising Vlad for a moment, but the pale teen just snorted and turned his attention to the piano.

He never began the song.

Thud.

Thud.

Thud….

Round red eyes gazed at the piano, his body stiff as the blondes looked around curiously while Integra's eyes narrowed. She didn't like this. They weren't expecting anyone…and she didn't like the sound of the knocking fist on her door. She rose and started slowly and then picked up her pace as she went to the hallway, through a door, passing the Christmas tree and heading for the front door. Vlad snapped up and followed her just as Anderson considered doing so, so the tan teen followed the delinquent tailing Integra. The woman was seen dithering before the door, deciding whether or not she should risk opening it. She was searching for the logic, not the courage. Should she open that door…or should she ignore the person outside…or get her gun…?

No. She would look through the hole to see who it was, and then she would call the police if- The thought made her snort discreetly. Calling the police…she was the police. She cut off her grim humor, stepping towards the door. Her sight focused as she closed an eye, splayed fingertips skimming the door.

Vlad knew who it had to be once he saw the woman's spine straighten, and the mechanical way she retreated from the door, her face a mask when she looked at Vlad, not surprised even though she hadn't been conscious of the two that had followed her. She stared at him in a distant way that twisted the teen's stomach and drained what little blood his face had, chilling his flesh.

It almost said, What have I done? Or bordered hostility, viewing Vlad as the component of danger he was in reality, what he was involved in and what he brought with him. Risk. It came to risk and involvement and her children, and her father…and…also…Vlad. Her pupils dilated a bit, thawing her gaze. Her rigid jaw loosened as she looked at Vlad's empty features and the guarded look in his eyes, and then Integra looked at the door again. Anderson stood behind them, staring at his mother and then the door, chilled and somewhat heated in his muscles as he recognized the potential threat. Whoever was at the door wouldn't be able to touch his family. He wouldn't allow it.

Vlad's eyes darted to Anderson as the boy passed him. Integra saw Anderson enter her peripheral vision. In alarm, she caught his sleeve near his shoulder, catching his eyes, her face telling him to stay back. But his face already told her that if she stepped forward, he would be beside her.

They stiffened, losing thought when the knocking returned for a few seconds.

This was not something was would just disappear if they ignored it. Integra's eyes narrowed at the door, bristling with hostility, but it all escaped as her lips parted and her eyes widened when Vlad swept passed her so abruptly she didn't have enough to time realize what was happening until she saw her son reach to grab Vlad. But the pale fingers were too fast, and when Anderson pulled him back, he only helped Vlad to open the door. Green grew, observing the towering form that seemed to fill the frame of the door.

Dark eyes peered down at the red pair that shone up at them. The man blinked, his gaze going to Integra's hostile glower and then to Anderson's astonished look that flashed with a streak of hostility as well. When the dark brown eyes viewed Vlad again, they found his strange attire and had to blink again, lightening a shade.

Vlad was frowning at him, but he lacked the hostility and distrust the others displayed. The pale hand shifted on the door handle, and the boy glanced back at the glares behind him, swallowing when he knew that his words would not be well received. So he cleared his throat with a choked sound, gaining their attention and sparing Jake their hard looks. "Can he get out of the rain?"

Blue and green went to the ricocheting droplets that bounced off of Jake's hood, missing the blink of disbelief the man gave Vlad at the suggestion. They would never… With grim acknowledgment, Jake noticed when Integra avoided the question, sending him a daggered glare. "How did you trespass onto my property?" She spat out with a spark of animosity that jerked Vlad's muscles. He moved to the side to distract her and prevent some form of conflict, giving the woman a beseeching look. The look was lost when Vlad glanced back at Jake.

The man was frowning at his shirt. "Where are your clothes?" They have to dress him up in order for it to be okay for him to be in their house? No. Last time he had his own clothes. Are they really celebrating Christmas with him as if-?

"Oh." Vlad found Anderson, troubled by this new challenge. "They're…in…the wash."

Vlad became aware of the mud that clung to parts of Jake's clothing…and the wind was blowing water through the door. The teen took a breath and acted with a levity that the Andersons did not respond to. "So I have to go home now? I guess…so Chief I'll trade the clothes back tomorrow or something, right?" He attempted to smile at the two, but the chill the two emitted killed his feigned cheer. The red eyes dimmed with further dread as he saw Seras and her grandfather in the background. Jake noticed the additional presences, eyes lingering on the unfamiliar old man, glancing to find his resemblance in Integra. The woman was still glaring at him, but he couldn't blame her.

Vlad looked up at him, nearing distress that he swallowed with a tightened throat. The pale teen took a venturous step forward and cringed when Anderson's grip on his shoulder tightened and forced him to retreat back.

"I'll have to ask you to leave." The cold voice was Integra's, and she moved, a hand touching Vlad to draw him back so that she could take his place. Vlad knew this. Jerking loose from Anderson, he avoided her, and stood facing the family, his back to Jake. Strained red eyes found the faces, guilt clear in his tight mouth and creased brow. He looked at Anderson, clinging to a casual air. "Can I borrow your clothes for tonight? Or I can get my other clothes…it's raining anyway…"

"No." Anderson's hard face made Vlad stare at his eyes, taking a deep breath of disappointment.

Integra spoke in a growl now. "You're trespassing on my property. If you don't leave I will call for someone, or I myself, will assist you off of my property.

Granted little space between the two fixed forces, Vlad found that he couldn't move. The pressure sharpened his tongue and expression as he cut in, aggravated now though he was looking at Integra. "I'm going."

"No." Anderson snapped automatically while Integra's eyes had widened a little.

Vlad snapped back at her son, scowling and turning in his limited space. "You can't force me to stay here."

It was quiet in the wake of Vlad's declaration. Integra closed her eyes and slowly touched her son's shoulder, telling him that Vlad was right. Anderson scowled, his glare falling to his shoes. He turned sharply. "Your clothes will be dry in twenty minutes." He strode away before anyone could protest. When the teen was gone, attention returned to Jake while Vlad took advantage of the extra room to make himself more comfortable. Red went to Integra doubtfully.

"Can-" His eyes flicked back to Jake and then Integra. "Can Jake get out of the rain now? Your floor's getting wet too."

Integra frowned at him, displeased with his stubbornness. Her expression softened and her attention twisted to the old man that clasped her shoulder, looking up at Jake. Time had stolen a few inches of his height, but he was just as tall as the red-eyed teen, or few inches taller. There was no feeble look in the aged man, and nothing had stolen the sharp intimidation of his electric eyes. A wrinkled hand patted his daughter without looking away from reading Jake's brown eyes. Brown…nothing menacing, they were even apologetic as they looked back at the blue…though not they weren't entirely apologetic… Jake's eyes were a puzzle with morphing, scattered pieces.

"Come in."

Stunned, Integra allowed herself to stare at her father as he moved her back, snapping her eyes to Jake when the hesitant giant wiped his shoes on the bristled mat outside, water oozing from mat before he took a careful step inside. He moved only so that Vlad could close the door quietly. Five eyes were fixed on either Integra or Jake. Seras fidgeted with crossed arms, lurching forward and then going back and leaving them. She returned shortly before she had been missed by anyone other than Vlad who had seen her go. His eyes blinked at the towel she brought with her, and a relieved, thankful smile helped his tired features. He stepped towards her, motion attracting eyes, and took the towel she handed to him, and he in turn presented it to Jake who stared at it. Eyes went to Seras, coloring her cheeks while toughening her expression as she gave her mother a frown. Vlad was focused on making the giant realize that he was dripping on the mat he was currently standing on.

The teen threw the towel over Jake's head, startling the others. A large hand grasped the cloth, letting it run over his water beaded jacket and hood, and then it dangled in his hand as he hesitated and then pretended that he was being watched at the moment so he could dry himself off. His stiffness told of his failure.

Abraham's patting hand on Integra's shoulder obtained her attention. The woman, with a flare of resentment, stepped away, crossing her arms and sending her glare back at Jake.

For Vlad, the entire moment became surreal, from Jake's appearance to what was now happening. The teen gazed blankly at the room, Integra, Abraham, Seras, and then Anderson when he returned. Vlad felt Jake's presence at his side and experienced another wave of disbelief that made his head swim, making his eyes fall to his shoes, too exhausted to look up at Integra's fury. Some of her anger resided with him, and ALL of this…was his fault. Again. The teen sighed with the responsibility, reaching for a brightness to throw in his voice. His head popped up and he looked at Abraham. The old man gazed back at the teen.

"So this is Jake." A pale hand lifted as if holding up an object as Jake stood behind it, peering at the gesture and then the teen. The hand fell to slap the black pants Vlad was wearing, and he pivoting to Jake to take the towel, and then went to Seras and returned it to her. "Thanks…and sorry it's all dirty." Damn it. Say something.

Seras stared at him, her mouth opening without being able to speak. She blinked, pursing her lips and then imitating the boy's smile, taking the towel. "It's fine. I'll go put it in the laundry room." She began to leave, muttering an embarrassed 'be right back'. The girl felt like she was abandoning them for some reason.

Vlad searched the remaining faces, settling on Anderson's unfriendly expression which was directed towards Jake. The red eyes surveyed the general area, unfocusing as his hand lifted again to show Jake. "So, this is Jake." He pointed at Anderson. "That's Anderson." His finger found Integra. "The Chief." On Abraham, Vlad took a moment to figure out how he should introduce the old man, but he received a pleasant surprise when the old man introduced himself.

"I'm comfortable with being referred to as Van Hellsing." Gripping his cane firmly, Abraham steadied his posture, but attempted to remove his own opposition towards the looming stranger named Jake.

Unused to the name, Jake nodded after its peculiarity had worn away some.

It was quiet for a time before Abraham moved his cane, leaning it forward and then back. "You're a friend of Vladimir's?"

The use of the name received a blink, but Jake recognized it and nodded again. Abraham paused and then nodded in return, eyes roaming as he thought. They moved between Vlad and Jake, examining the difference of height absently.

"How long have you two known each other?"

Not knowing if he should answer, Vlad said nothing, so Jake responded.

11 and he's almost 19, no 18… "Six- About six and a half years."

Integra's glare weakened as she heard this. Seras returned. Seeing her, Jake noticed the Christmas tree in the background. It distracted him. "Nice tree."

Abraham's mouth twitched and then became a weak smile that Seras also wore. Anderson looked at the tree so his expression was missed, but Integra stared at Jake, her rigid antipathy for him slowly smoothing out to become mere distaste.

"I think even you'd have to use a stool to put the star on top." Eyes went to Vlad's smirk. Jake looked down at the familiar eyes that were turned up at him. They made the giant sigh, still disliking the teen's childish comments, but admitting to himself that it was helping the situation so he looked at the tree again and didn't say anything. It was annoying sometimes, but not always…and he knew Vlad was saying stupid things on purpose…probably. He glanced down at Vlad again to find his attention shifted to someone else. Jake inspected the clothes again and realized who they must belong to. Brown went to Anderson next and received the green eyes when they realized they were being watched.

"You came all the way out here to get Vlad?" Anderson's expressionless face dampened his voice with monotone.

Jake chewed it over, hands hiding themselves in the pockets of his jacket. "You went all the way out there to go get Alucard?" He countered.

While Vlad frowned at the conflict between the two, Seras' mouth creased at the name while some of Integra's glare returned. Abraham disrupted them. "Alucard?"

Jake showed him Vlad with an inclination of his head. "That's Alucard."

Abraham mused. "Why do you call him Alucard?"

"It's his middle name."

Blue blinked, but was still curious. "But why?"

Jake looked at Vlad as if to rebound the question towards him, and shrugged.

Vlad shrugged as well, shifting his weight from one leg to the other as it became stiff. "People just started calling me that."

It's his street name. Abraham's eyes darkened but he did not allow his opinion to effect his expression as he nodded curtly.

Integra's scowl spoke up, jarring Vlad's ease and causing him to stare at her, coming close to gaping. "Who named you Hell Dog?"

Astounded looks went to the woman while Jake's lips dipped into a brief frown, and he moved restlessly. The question was for Vlad, so the teen blinked, trying not to get angry or frustrated. He couldn't look at Integra for several seconds. He finally did, with a sigh. "Just people. No one specific…" It wasn't Jake.

The woman refused to back down, one of her hands squeezing her arm as he teeth clenched and released. "Why?"

"I already told Anderson." Vlad cut back a little sharply. "Ask him sometime. I don't want to broadcast it…" His eyes burned as he saw that Integra was not going to compromise. "You know, you've seen it, so you should know anyway if you think about it."

Disturbed by the spiteful twinge in the teen's tone, the police woman was still not content. Anderson moved to try his hand at dissuading her, but his extended hand was brushed aside.

Jake exhaled a breath quietly. "It's the animal sounds."

Most did not make the connection as they gazed at the giant, minds working. Brown eyes momentarily peeked at Vlad who was looking away as his form of permission. Jake viewed his audience once more, swaying slightly on his feet in a controlled fashion, as his restlessness persisted…much like a planted sky-scraper. "Hisses, snarls…teeth…jus' habits of his." The way he bites during fights sometimes. Jake recalled a picture of a blood stained mouth…

"I bite."

The additional information Vlad offered, bothered Abraham and Seras, and made Anderson wince. Integra's eyes grew wide, her jaw slack. For the first time in a long while, she remembered the scar on her hand. The memory made it burn as if branded by liquid nitrogen, and her hand became a fist in the crook of her arm. Her face seemed to lose all emotion while the sharpness of her eyes faded momentarily, seeing nothing. This left silence behind. Abraham watched his daughter, secretly uneasy about her expression. Only Anderson, Integra, and Vlad knew of the connection that had been made between his statement and the woman's scar.

Integra's voice was quiet when she spoke again and her eyes were stationed across the room. "Alex, go check on Vladimir's clothes."

With a reluctant breath, Anderson left to follow her order. He pulled open the door of the drier, stopping the machine immediately, and bent down to test the clothes that tumbled to a stand still when the rotations halted. They were warm, but the jeans were a little damp. Another ten or so minutes and then they'd be done… Anderson crouched, his knees creaking as he looked at the clothes. His hand snatched up the socks, the sweatshirt, and the T-shirt, shut the door, and then pushed the resume button for the drier. Leaving the laundry room and returning to the living room/front door, he held the clothes in his arms as faces turned to him and Vlad started in his direction, relief clear in the pale features.

"Your jeans aren't done yet, but I can lend you a pair of mine."

The other teen took the clothes that were handed to him with a short nod, and the two went up to Anderson's room.

Back with the company the two had left, Integra continued to watch the side of the room, her arms crossed over her chest. "Seras." The girl straightened up and looked at her mother. "In the refrigerator, the container with the pink lid, can you get it so Vladimir can take it back with him?"

The girl left and then only Abraham, Integra, and Jake remained. Unable to ask her elderly father to fetch something for her, Integra turned, letting go of her arms so that they hung by her sides. The woman went to the Christmas tree, taking the eyes of the men behind her, and she retrieved two rather short (height wise) rectangular boxes and then a cube-ish box, all wrapped with red, seasonal paper. The name Vladimir was scrawled in black marker on each of them.

Vlad's eyes lit up and he gawked at the gifts and then Integra when they were handed to him upon his return, with his damp jeans draped over his arm. Seras held the container of pumpkin bread and bread rolls in her hands, doubting Vlad's skill in holding anything else with any sense of control. She looked at Jake instead and timidly offered it to him, glancing at Vlad to show her logic. Jake looked at the girl for a moment, and then withdrew his arms from his jacket and accepted the container with the pink lid. Integra watched the exchange and then gazed at Vlad as the teen thanked her for the gifts, staring at them and then the woman with an awkward, weak laugh. Jake held the container in one hand, opening the front door with the other as the family said their goodbyes to Vlad. Brown eyed the pouring rain, leaving the door open until a gust of wind howled into the room, disquieting the others.

Reluctantly, Integra bit her lip and looked back at the safe interior her home. She let her eyes go to the back of Vlad's head, turning the boy away from the door with her proposal. "I'll drive you to the car. You can't go out there with those," She indicated the gifts. "…and your clothes were just cleaned."

Now her gaze went to Jake who was frowning back at her. She looked at the rain through the door again and then turned on her heel, leading the hesitating Vlad away. She heard Jake close the door and follow with his heavier steps, wincing as she knew that she was leading this…person…through her house. She bit down on the feeling, telling her son, when he followed, to stay with his grandfather and Seras. She'd be back soon, and she would be borrowing his car. Anderson stood in the middle of the hall leading to the garage, watching as Vlad stopped at the door to look back at him, still holding the gifts. He appeared worn and tired, but the illusion disappeared with a smirk and a wave. Then Jake went through the door and it was shut, so all Anderson had to stare at was the remaining gloom.

Jake took the back seat with Vlad joining him for company while Integra's teeth grated together in frustration and distaste as she got into the driver's seat, inserting the spare key into the ignition, having swiped it up from a kitchen drawer on the way. The garage opened and Integra looked back in order to back out, but she paused, blinking at Jake who was obscuring her view. He noticed and leaned to the side, clearing the window of obstruction. She pulled out of the garage and drove down her driveway and through the gate to enter the public road.

"Left."

She turned left after hearing the deep voice in the backseat. They followed the road, no one willing to speak. Eventually Jake informed Integra that she should slow down, and then she turned off the road and found an unfamiliar car parked where passing headlights wouldn't give it away. Staring at the car, her fingers tapping on the steering wheel, Integra listened to the sounds of the leaving passengers, feeling the car shift as their weight was removed. Vlad must have told her goodbye without her knowledge, because he peered at her window with a strange expression, standing in the headlights that illuminated the unending cascade of rain falling from the black heavens. He waved to her and she heard a muffled 'thanks for everything Chief…sorry about your Christmas', and then the boy turned with scrunched shoulders and quickly went to the passenger seat of the unfamiliar car. The red glow of the back lights, was observed. Gradually, Integra circled back to the road and then pulled onto it. Behind her, she saw Jake's car turn in the opposite direction and transform into two dim, red lights shining the night. Her windshield wipers beat before her, the only sound disrupting the perpetual silence in her mind.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12 (first posted eons ago)

 

Never appear to be human. If God or Christ or even the man who came to be known as Buddha were seen as mortal and plain human beings, their names would not be known today for humans would never follow a simple mortal so much like themselves. Immortal, heavenly, enlightened, anything but what is common. The Mandate of Heaven, the Chinese emperors of the past; the pharaoh who was seen as a god himself; they are rulers that had almost an infinite amount of power because they were above humanity, idols, gods, something that could be followed just as billions of humans follow a god in their present religion. Kings and queens with royal blood, more than the typical human. Even the presidents, human but elite in some manner. Though the presidents are weak compared to the rulers of old, those who could wage wars, religious crusades, genocides with a roaring following marching in their name. Those that were believed to be more than human, were the most powerful men in history.

Walter C. Dracula rarely, if ever, appeared to be human before his subjects. He could wear masks, weave spells that made others believe that he was common so as to blend in with society, a ghost in the underworld of criminals. That's what his followers believed. Walter was feared, admired, idolized, even worshipped. If he asked for quiet in the midst of a blazing battle, the dying would stop praying, the crippled would stop screaming, the frightened would stop weeping, and even the remaining bullet casings that fell from the air would not make a sound as they hit the ground. Walter was god. Jake's father and other elite men who could not easily blend into a crowd, served as leaders below him. A younger group, Junior Leaders, mirroring the elite men, led the younger members. There was a treasurer in charge of money laundering and keeping track of profits, a man in charge of arms trafficking, another in charge of drug trafficking, another in charge of recruiting and social relations between the leaders and the other members, another in charge of keeping political influence and leverage on the law with information that could persuade legal officials, judges, and juries to look the other way, another for gathering intelligence pertaining to whatever was of interest, etc; and all of these men had members of descending rank below them that they could give orders to.

More than an average gang, Walter C. Dracula ruled over a government, an empire. His blood, the blood of a manifested god, was supernatural. The only individual to share a part of it was his nephew, a demonic being with white skin, flaming crimson eyes, and a way of fighting that was inhuman, beastlike, and terrifying. The demon did not cry out even once when he had been beaten in the parking garage. When looked down upon afterwards, there was an account that the teen had smirked with his hellish eyes swirling with fire from another world, blood painting his white skin red as it ran from a scrape on his forehead. There were even rumors that once a woman had seen the man's nephew on a dark street and she had given a cry and then died, clutching her heart. The blood of Dracula was the blood of a creature that had no share with humanity.

Those that could recall Vladimir Alucard Dracula as an elementary school and middle school student had lost the image of the boy in his younger days only to see what he was now. But, unlike Walter, they had never seen the boy make a grown man scream in fear and beg for mercy in the form of a swift death. Unlike Walter, Jake, a Junior Leader, and Jake's father, a Senior Leader who oversaw arms distribution and trafficking, knew that Vladimir was not a god. But, he was not a normal human, for unlike the Angel of Death, Hell Dog did not look like a human, the genetic mutations that altered his body changed his physical capabilities. Yes, the youth was a mutated lamb that could be seen to grow claws and fangs with which he would devour and slaughter the normal, helpless lambs around him. Even a child with flaring scarlet in his eyes and blood smeared over his face, dyeing his bared teeth red…even as a child, only a mutated lamb of an innocent nature, he could imprint nightmares in a mind. For everything that came to pass between Jake and Vlad, the pale teen was forever isolated in Jake's mind as being perpetually different

But from afar, any man may denounce a god. Walter was removed. Vladimir seemed to be growing more scarce, seen less of, heard less of, no orders from him to direct the others. Godly rulers in far away castles were absent in the minds of serfs, knights, and feudal lords. But when they are to be present, these rulers must not live among the common. They must be mysterious, able to disappear and make themselves known when they desired, ghosts in the underworld, chained to no single dimension.

A people without a god, a kingdom without their king, a government and country without their leader; who do they turn to when they lose their grasp on a rope leading them through the darkness?

They may find a relic to stand in the place of their god.

*~*~::..+..::*~*

It was quiet, the low hum of the motor sending the car down the road. The sky was dark with mountainous clouds climbing over the horizon, outreaching the trees. Highlighted by the moon, the curves and shapes of these clouds were whitened to a ghostly pearl that would seem to shimmer if observed from the starry night above them, but for the rain and the closeness of the clouds that blocked out the moon, the Earth could not view the effect of the moonlight. Any magnificence possessed by the clouds was blurred as cascades of angered water fell upon the windshield, a continuous flow of rain being parted and pushed aside by the windshield wipers, acting as the prophet Moses to allow the driver to see the road and direct their journey with less risk. Jake watched the road, oblivious to the black shapes that swiped through his vision, up and down and up and down, again and again and again, a beat that fought and coaxed the water running over the glass. Vlad's eyes were turned to his side window where the darkness gave him a shadowed reflection of himself and the driver, but he was looking through these false images to see past the rain that dribbled down the glass, seeing the darkness of the storm. He wondered if there would be a crack of piercing lightning that would illuminate the sky. But besides the darkness and the wind, the heavens were without an image or a voice.

Brown eyes caught a side glimpse of the teen with the storm beyond him, and then sought the road with the line of yellow reflectors that split the asphalt path down the middle. Restlessness came again to worry his fingers, shifting them over the taut leather of the steering wheel. His teeth were clamped together, his expression made plain as the stiff muscles were limited in what else they could produce, focused on keeping his jaw shut. The man blinked, his brow jumping and his jaw relaxing all at once. Jake let himself take a breath, preparing to confront the 'thing' that had erased the frustration Vlad had inspired. His eyes closed, for as long as they dared, and then opened to view the road with the yellow line of reflectors ahead. How should he begin? Another moment was wasted on this thought. He could say nothing…just surprise the kid, but he should tell him. It looked bad on his part not to tell. It would make it worse…so he would have to say something. Jake exhaled slowly and saw the yellow reflectors in his vision. "We're going to my place."

Vlad sat up a bit in his seat, his neck turning so that red could peer at Jake in the dimness of the car. There was a pause. "You need to get something?" The teen blinked and then shrugged, turning back to his window to watch the darkness. "I don't mind. You can drop me off after whatever you need to do." Basically, I'm just enjoying the fact that you're not chewing my ass off right now, Jack-bean. You're not mad at all… Questioning red flicked to Jake now as Vlad finally passed his thankfulness and registered the oddness of the quiet in the car, Jake's calmness. He watched the man and noticed when Jake glanced at him and then looked away quickly, not expecting Vlad's gaze. The man's face was blank. The quiet and dimly pulsing foreboding weren't out of place given the circumstances. Was he tired? Vlad felt his own fatigue settle as lead in his limbs. It had been a long day… His eyes had slowly resumed their search through the night while quiet had persisted for over a minute. Now it came to an end and Vlad's attention forsook the window when Jake's low tenor was heard over the hum of the car and the patter of the rain.

"We're not going to your place."

The teen stared at the man that was not nearly as much of a giant in the car as he was out of its confines, where he could tower above the little people. In here, he was above Vlad, but here, he did not tower. Vlad's mouth opened. It took two tries before he succeeded in speaking through a frown while his brow furrowed, unable to make sense of his friend at the moment. It has to be my fault. Can't let the Andersons know where I am now…maybe… "Why not?"

Jake focused on the yellow reflectors that rose up out of the black path when his headlights touched them, slowing to make a turn onto a branching road. He spoke while the car maneuvered through the twists in this new winding path. "You're gonna be staying at my place tonight… You're stuff's at my place."

Vlad's stare grew and he was close to gawking at Jake as he heard him speak "Why? -Why, I mean…yeah. Why would my stuff be at your place? Why do I have to stay there?" Vlad's eyes moved without a purpose when he turned away from Jake, facing forward, seeing nothing as his mind struggled to grasp what could have happened. Maybe he had fallen asleep and this all was a dream. He would wake up at Anderson's house, or in the hospital sitting with his uncle, or even back at his uncle's old place…where the man would shake him awake and scowl like always. Vlad's stunned mind wandered and Jake took a slow breath beside him.

"You got thrown out… Or you would've… It would've been trouble."

The boy was dumbfounded, watching Jake in an uncomprehending way, similar to the look a rabbit has when it jumps out of the wilderness and is caught by the fierce blazing, headlights of a truck that soon reduces the said rabbit to splattered guts and a tattered pelt strewn across the street. Vlad gaped at Jake and then looked around as he reached for a place to put his horror, finally finding his lap while his hands went to his cold, shocked cheeks. "Why the hell?" He breathed the airy words, missing the grimace that shot through Jake's features as he was consumed by his own misfortune. He blinked owlishly at his sweatshirt's pocket. Should he have put the presents or the container on his lap instead of in the back seat, he would have had something more to look at instead of his worn clothes. He blinked again and then jerked up hesitantly before peering at Jake from an off angle that was uncomfortable, but at the moment he could not fully straighten. "Why? Was I evicted? I-I was going to pay for the rest of the month. H-he knew that! That tiny bastard knew that I was going to pay him! Did he say why I was getting thrown out? Or-?"

Jake cut him off with a tired heave of a sigh. "You should've been there, Hell Dog. And you shouldn't have been at their house!" Anger strengthened the deep voice, sending a rolling growl through it. "Why would you go with them after- after all that? I mean, god! You can't be taught anything the first time, can you?" Jake threw a glare at Vlad but didn't see the boy's startled expression when he looked away again to scowl at the road, his voice rising to echo amongst the mountainous clouds. "WHY WOULD YOU GO WITH THEM AGAIN, ALUCARD?"

"STOP YELLING!" The ringing voices clashed within the trapped interior of the car, Vlad taking a deep, long breath as he watched Jake warily for signs of another outburst. When his lungs had been filled and nothing else was said, relief let out the teen's sigh. Pale lips tightened with the bright crimson eyes above them, watching Jake. "They came to me and took me with them. I told them to go away…but do you actually think what I say would matter to the Chief? Every time I go to their house, it's not my idea."

Jake looked at Vlad, his blank face asking what he did not say aloud.

Vlad lifted his hands, moving them as if physically placing down each sentence before him. "The first time, Anderson got me in his car and took me to his house, basically kidnapping me. The second time-"

"How many times have you been to their house?"

Vlad frowned with an irritated grit of the teeth. "Just listen. Okay. The second time, the Chief picked me up on the side of the road, walking home when it was pouring, and she kidnapped me, didn't even tell me she was taking me to her house, and I stayed the night there and Anderson drove me to school and then back to his house because my clothes had been washed there and they weren't dry in the morning…then, well." Vlad looked at the sweeping windshield wipers as he consented to tell more than had been asked for. He sighed and swallowed any anxiety he had. "He took me to some police holiday thing, a party at…" He chuckled, causing Jake to glance at him. "…at the fucking police station, the offices, not the jail. But, I mean, how goddamn stupid is that dumbass? I was pissed when he pulled up in front of it, but when the Chief came out, it all didn't turn out so bad. Then Anderson drove me home. The next time I saw them was when I was…er uh…trying to get that grocery job, and they came by to get eggnog or something. Then Anderson and his sister saw me another time just out and about and then they came back to see me again or something…and that's when they ran into you." The two looked at each other and then Jake shifted his eyes back to the road and Vlad's gaze unfocused, drifting towards the windshield. "After that… There was the fight, and the time I went to their house and everyone found out… The cops got me, that time… I went up the wall like usual but I guess cuz I was sick that… Well, I kinda passed out on the roof and the cops came and carried me down and I woke up and the Chief told me…that I wasn't going to get in any trouble but I had to go to her house and stay the night again to eat some food and rest. …but all that and then today when they came and got me again, is it. Nothing else except Anderson and I go to the same school, are in the same grade, and have art class first period together. And…I…bit the Chief that one time."

Jake's mouth opened and he stared mutely at the road, his memory reviving. "I forgot about that…" He glanced at Vlad questioningly with a sense of caution. "Does she know it was-?" He stopped when he saw that Vlad was already nodding, but then the teen's lips twitched into a dark smirk at the window.

"She recognized me without even having to see my face. Guess she's never run into someone as freakin' bleach white as me… Well, shit, other than freaken Michael Jackson. But that guy gives me the creeps. Good artist, but way creepy." Vlad shuddered, shutting his eyes and shaking the image from his head while Jake's mood eased into a state of numb annoyance as he saw that the boy was slipping off into his own world again. Vlad looked at Jake with a deep frown. "That guy's dead right?"

"Yeah." The man sighed, tiredly, blinking slowly as he followed the endless road. Light from buildings were beginning to congeal and clog the night with an electric glow.

"He makes me look bad." Vlad declared to the dashboard, willing to cast aside all talk about the Andersons, but a pain stabbed at him that forced him to clear up what he had said, reluctantly. "Yeah…but Jake, you know, well, I know it's still my fault, going with them and everything. And I'm sorry…again…for everything. I ruined your Christmas."

Jake closed with eyes with a sigh and then watched the road drearily. "You didn't ruin my Christmas."

"Yes I did, Jake." Vlad responded with an irritated twinge in his voice, glaring at the road as his arm landed on the ridge before the window on his door. "I ruined fuckin' Christmas, for everybody. I did, so shut up or I'll start calling you Jack-bean like I should."

"Call me that and you're sleeping outside, you little punk."

Vlad was quiet, his head turning to his side window where his eyes glimpsed his bruised face in the mirror with a passing flash of light from a building's window. "So, why was I kicked out? Can't be because I was at Anderson's…if it was that, I don't get why that bastard would get pissy about it."

Now it was Jake's turn to be quiet as he saw the sidewalk where his car was slowly preparing to park as his hands steered it mechanically. "I went to check up on you…" He felt Vlad watch him while he spoke, just pulling up to the sidewalk. He parked, leaving the engine running and his hands on the wheel. "And…the midget and I had a…confrontation."

Vlad stared, his throat jerking with a laugh at the reference before he let a cough/laugh come even after Jake's full confession. Jake stared at him dully, as if resenting Vlad's ability to brush this off as being nothing. Vlad laughed again, a short burst of humor that evened into a chuckle. "The midget and you had a confrontation…? Oh, that's beautiful, Jack-bean. You smashed my landlord into itty bitty pieces. You're a bona fide genius."

"Shut up, Alucard." The giant cut back, not willing to tolerate the teen's tone. He ripped his keys from the ignition and Vlad got out of the car and went to the back seat to gather the stacked gifts, shutting the door when Jake was standing in the street. The man shut his door and moved around the front of the car, growling through a scowl when he heard Vlad's chuckles of disbelief. Keys jangled together when Jake pointed at the sidewalk, glaring at Vlad's smirk. "Shut up or freeze your ass off. Your pick."

"I'm shutting up." Vlad nodded once, sighing with his smirk and then following Jake up the steps as the giant prepared to unlock his door. He stood behind the giant while the unlocking commenced. "So, is he dead?"

Jake glowered at the door, pushing it open roughly and then wrenching his keys out. "No." He shot back without looking for his target, stomping into the corridor and then tossing his keys on the counter in his kitchen. He split off to his room, leaving Vlad at the door with the duty of shutting and locking it. The teen set his tower of gifts on the tiles in order to do so. He took them up again and went to the mouth of the hall that led to Jake's room, finding it to be rather dark with the light turned off and the giant's door closed. Vlad passed it, flipping on the light for the living room area with his elbow before trudging over the carpet to plop himself down on the couch that he would call his bed for the night. Peering around the room without finding anything changed told Vlad where his uncle's possessions were, but he ignored the door he could see parallel to the couch he was sitting on, fixed to the wall behind the piece of furniture, and focused down at the gifts instead. Vlad took the plastic container from the top of the pillar on his lap, and lifted it above his eyes to check what food the Chief had given him. Bread stuff…good. A smile played with his lips as he set the container with the pink lid on the couch cushion beside him and grasped his first wrapped box, the smallest, tallest one. His thin fingers slipped through the crevices, peeling the tape from the wrapping paper so that he could remove it without damaging the paper. He was left with a shoe-box which naturally contained a new pair of black sneakers inside. A grin occupied Vlad's face now as he examined the shoes, taking them out from the folds of tissue paper that was packed around them. He put the shoes away and closed the box, folding up the wrapping paper and slipping it neatly inside before moving on to his next gift. A new black jacket with a soft, wooly interior. Thank God it was black. He could wear it, Vlad sighed with relief, setting it aside after providing the gift with an adequate amount of attention. The last box, when opened, revealed a new pair of jeans with a package of white socks keeping them company. Vlad was tossing the bag of socks in the air, just for the hell of it, when he heard Jake leave his room and come to investigate what the teen had been up to. When Jake's form appeared, it flinched, catching the package of socks when the bag was thrown at him. He stared at it, bringing it to his face. His eyes darkened a little, but he let it pass only to leave a frown behind. Vlad grinned at him despite this, taking it as a response to having had the socks thrown at him. Jake leaned forward and then walked towards the couch. "They got you clothes." He stated, looking at the boxes that declared this. Vlad nodded, also looking at the gifts.

"Pants, socks, jacket, and…black shoes."

Damn. Jake juggled the package of socks slowly, from one giant hand to the other, seeing the boxes. They got him everything, just about. The bag switched hands and then popped as a strong fist clasped it. Vlad started at the blast of sound and looked at Jake, but decided to pretend that he hadn't noticed. Jake did stuff like that without meaning too once in a while. It was nicer to not bring attention to it. Vlad's thoughts stopped as he saw a sock drop out of the bag to become a withered heap on the floor. The teen stared at it, his face expressionless though his eyes were slightly rounded. The guts were spilling out… Okay. Jake was mad. He was definitely mad. Vlad jerked to the side, seeing the bag that had been thrown hit the back of the couch and bounce to land on the seat cushions. Jake then turned away and went to the door Vlad had ignored before. It opened to reveal a humble closet with another door at its back wall. Jake stepped through the closet and grasped the handle of the next door, turning it before the well oiled hinges of the door moved soundlessly. Vlad felt his fatigue rush over him when he closed his eyes, wishing to escape to a better moment in his life.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Vlad's mind drifted. Space became more distant and then compact…

Jake stopped as he heard the sudden intrusion of his ringtone vibrating and chiming away in his pocket. He shut the door and stepped backwards out of the closet, pulling out the phone and flipping it open. Vlad watched quietly as the phone went to Jake's ear, and then looked down at the bag of socks he held in his hands.

"Hello?"

The caller was a mystery. No contacts in his cell phone, as was the rule for someone of his ranking. No iPhones so that the tracked history of where the phone has been would not be able to be used against them in court. No contacts, if the phone was lost or stolen, there should not be a bank of names and numbers and a labeled caller history along with messages that could be exploited by either a rival gang or the police. The phones were modified to not store any information. Memorization was needed in response. But this left the owner of the cell phone ignorant of the caller whose identity could own a certain level of importance that would dissuade the phone user from ignoring the call.

The distraught voice poured from the speaker, freezing the giant in place and widening his eyes. Vlad sensed the change in atmosphere and was left with nothing more to do other than stare at Jake, watching his brown eyes become black, as if a drop of ink had fallen into a container of shallow water, dispersing and altering the shade of the liquid, making it hostile in appearance. The giant said nothing for a long time, listening to the phone, to the voice Vlad could not hear.

"Don't let anyone do anything stupid. Do nothing for now until things get settled out and we can understand exactly what the hell is going on. Got it? Nothing. Let guys know, in case they mean to do it more than once-"

Jake's jaw clenched and his eyes narrowed, more ink bleeding into them. Red observed the reaction warily. The teen felt removed from the room at the moment, as unreal as a movie playing out on a screen, he was detached but fixed in place to see every action that would occur.

"Like I said, don't let anyone do something stupid. Call 'em, tell 'em to keep an eye out or get to their houses. Nothing else. Don't let them get it in their heads to start trouble if they see one of the bastards somewhere. That'd just make this-" Jake growled when he was interrupted, and his voice cut back at the speaker sharply. "Fuck! I know! No guns! We get guns and start shooting, they get their guns, and tonight's not a night where people are going to have the best- No. Rain, nobody knowing anything, it'll be a bloody mess, and the younger brats will probably get the wrong people. No trigger happy son of a bitches running wild out in the rain! Call them! Tell them to not do anything stupid. That's that. I'll call you if anything changes. …Too many of them don't know how to handle this. They don't know any better than to do something stupid, alright? Shit. Yeah, I'm sorry…I know it sucks, but it's the smart thing to do right now, unless be want to screw things up even more."

The phone snapped closed suddenly, Vlad flinching at the sound and then watching mutely as Jake strode into the closet and opened a door. He was gone for a few moments, too few sounds drifting from the closet to tell Vlad what Jake was doing, but the teen could guess. Vlad sat slouched into the couch, a mindless gaze resting on the carpeted floor. Numbed hands could not feel the forgotten bag of socks for a time, but feeling returned when the pale fingers twitched and found themselves restricted by the plastic that wished to hold onto his skin. Then his eyes gazed down at the bag, a hand slowly tilting it to the side until it rolled from his hand to hit the couch softly. Without the bag in his hands, Vlad waited for Jake to emerge from the closet, dull eyes lifting up to view the wall and part of the desk that was occupied by a computer. It was quiet except for the occasional sounds that made their way through the closet doors and reached Vlad's ears. He heard the giant's heavy steps returning, and Vlad closed his eyes so that he would not have to see what Jake brought with him from the place beyond his closet doors.

"Last night, a shooting occurred on D- Street at 11:05 p.m. Police say that a total of fifteen people, most under the age of 21, all of which had been drinking, were injured by bullets that shattered the windows of a residential house. The victims and neighbors have reportedly claimed to have heard what appeared to be repetitive shots of a semi-automatic weapon, too many to have been counted, possibly from more than one gun, and the sound of a car speeding away from the scene. All of those who could have served at witnesses, those who were not inside at the time of the shooting, were killed. Six individuals outside the house that had been the target of the shooting, were shot and killed. One man who was standing by his car in front of his house was also killed. Three juveniles that received no injuries are now in police custody for traces of illegal drugs or alcohol. Gang police say that this tragic crime was most likely the result of rival gang activity, as many of the victims have been identified as belonging to a street gang that exists in that area. They also believe that more shootings in retaliation will be expected should the police fail to-"

Anderson's eyes reflected the light of the television screen, staring at it emptily as the images changed, some showing photographs taken of the crime scene, displaying blood stains on an unkept yellow and green lawn, and red pools left on the sun bleached sidewalk. Yellow tape fluttered in the wind, visible trees rustling around what appeared to be a home that before the shooting had looked like any of the other houses in the area. Excited neighbors were interviewed.

"I heard the 'dun dun dun dun dun dun dun' of the gun just going off for forever! Just 'powpowpow', one right after the other, and it sounded like more than one person was shooting. But I remember the yelling and the gun just being louder than them. Then curses and the screech of a car speeding away and a few more shots down the street. Then it was dead quiet. Music had been pounding from the place before the shots, but after…it was dead quiet. Nothing moved. I know none of our family moved. Scared. Just damn right terrified. Then there were yells for help, and we all scrambled outside. I went to the phone and called. I think lots of people called the police. Then all night there were blinking, flashing lights from ambulances and the police. One –beep- of a Christmas, is all I have to say. –beep- those –beep- -beep- that are responsible for this –beep- mess. They'll have a judge to answer too, whether the police catch them or not. But this was a night none of us are going to be able to forget. No. Never. Not even if we wanted to. You just can't get that gunfire and those kids- Just… There's no reason that this had to happen."

Seras entered the room as the reporter claimed the screen again and the news shifted to the next report about drug activity in high schools in the county. The girl sat next to her brother, but he didn't even look at her. His face in his hands, elbows planted on his knees, bent over and seeing nothing. His hands slipped under his glasses, covering his eyes. Seras looked at the television and heard the familiar names of different high schools in the district. "Mom says Vlad wasn't involved. But she hasn't had time to check on him-"

"Then why can't we drive out there? It's not like it was near where he is."

The girl sighed to herself and let head lean into the back of the couch. "Mom says it's dangerous. Nobody knows what's going to happen. But it's a given that some gang is trying to provoke the other or something. She told me that there're threats spray painted over other graffiti that's supposed to mark another gang's territory, all over the city too. I can't believe…two houses shot at… The media's making a big deal out of the eight that died and the poor man that was shot for no reason. At least no one else died in the other place."

"One kid's in critical condition." Anderson broke in, fixing his glasses and sitting up to see the screen. "A seventeen year old guy from my school."

The siblings were quiet, chilled by the information that could easily be used to describe Vlad. But it wasn't Vlad. That was the only optimistic approach the two could find for the situation. Eight dead. 12 wounded. And two in critical condition… Not to mention the amount of drugs that had been discovered…

They stood outside the pharmacy. Just standing. Watching the passing bodies. Glances and frowns were given to them, but they either ignored the looks, or they returned the looks with their own. Black, blue, and white, they stood to the side of the door. Far enough to give the passerby a zone of comfort, but close enough that they were able to see each and every individual that went to the doors. In front of widely used stores throughout the city, black, blue, and white were visible. Vons, Ralphs, super malls, and this pharmacy with the large letters spelling Rite Aid on its front. Small clusters were present all day long, changing faces but keeping the steady presence of black, blue, and white. They looked like average delinquents, or just teenagers hanging out. No chains. No tattoos left visible. No weapons…that were visible. The clusters were not identified as being gang members by the everyday citizen. Should law enforcement happen upon a registered gang member, they would take note of them and those around the individual, but the clusters weren't doing anything to obstruct the peace of society. They were just standing and watching the passing bodies.

Vlad sighed, his body moving with the breath as he leaned back against the tan brick wall behind him that eventually ended with a wall of stucco as the material that reached the roof of the Rite Aid. The breeze kept the air crisp, but the sky was relatively blue with accumulating cloud cover coming in from the west with a few white, fluffy clouds hanging over them presently. Two other teens accompanied him. They were talking about something and one of them laughed loudly, but they took no notice of the other boy's sigh. A woman stared at him longer than what counted as being casual interest, and Vlad gazed back at the woman for a while. Her brow creased at him with her mouth hardening as well, but it was a look of disgust as she saw these teens wasting their precious youth doing nothing, and defacing their bodies with red contacts and piercings she saw in the other two that were talking. And they were unhealthy, the one with red eyes was as pale as a sheet and too thin for her approval. The woman shook her head and entered the pharmacy, the glass door sliding closed automatically behind her. Vlad lost interest in the woman when she was gone, so he turned his eyes to the parking lot again.

A figure became rigid when his eyes passed over it, so Vlad naturally looked at the figure again. He stared at it intently, from the other teen's shoes to the hat the stranger was wearing. There was another figuring walking beside the rigid teen. Both were wearing red bandanas. One wore the cloth around his neck and the other wore it under his hat. But they were there, they were red…and they were rival colors.

Crimson burned as a hostile glower that kept the two teens from approaching. The rivals glanced at the two that stood with Vlad and then gradually retreated, giving up when they saw they were clearly outmatched. Whatever they wanted or needed from the store was outside their reach. It was outside anyone's reach so long as they wore red and had the appearance of a gang member. The red usually came in the form of a bandana so recognizing the other gangsters was not that challenging, and neither was intimidating them.

They would be barred from entering stores within the city which were guarded by the clusters of black, blue, and white, until they handed over the ones responsible for the shooting. It had been three days. Their families wanted the goods that the clusters were denying them. Only a matter of days, Vlad thought taking another generous sigh as he watched the passing bodies dimly. Only a matter of days until they'll give in. Seeing how they're being right now, the shooting wasn't something all of them organized. A newly joined gang, not entirely unified. Eight deaths for no reason. And one boy was left crippled, at the height of his youth. There was no need, no reason, so many had said these words and Vlad found himself echoing them in his thoughts. It was a pity.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Vlad sat up sharply, heavy eyes moving with muddled alarm. The teen looked down at the couch cushions beneath him and then shivered, knuckles becoming paler as his fists clutched the end of a square cushion. Red moved along the couch, able to pick up on the shape of a folded blanket and a pillow, which were sitting on one of the arm rests of the couch. Still in the surreal state left behind by a complex dream, Vlad clumsily grabbed the pillow and pushed it into the couch, leaning on it to grasp the blanket which he unraveled when he dragged it over himself to block out his chill. With heat being returned to him now, Vlad let himself fall into the pillow and cushions to resume his sleep.

He dreamed of blood and guns and dead teenagers and drugs that ruined a number of lives and sent just as many to be locked behind bars. The dream was so real that his heart rate rose and sweat beaded on his brow as his body would sometimes jerk as he moved in his dream, his closed eyes seeing the image of baseball bats and guns and knives, blood dripping from corpses dangling from the ceiling on iron hooks suspended by thick chains, the blood building a sea whose waves grasped the teen and threw him into the murderous ocean to drown.

The teen woke up and stared at the ceiling, seeing the hanging bodies for a moment before the dim light of the morning entered his eyes and wiped away the vision. Now that he was awake, the dream seemed interesting and he tried to recall what he remembered about it. Vlad spent several minutes doing this, separated from fear as he saw the hazy images of dead bodies, no details left for a conscious mind. When he tired of this, the sneeze of a rat brought Vlad to the cage and he smirked at the excited furry faces that peered at him through the horizontal bars. The rats climbed up the side of the cage, investigating the new creature that had a familiar scent, and then checking to see if they could find the scent of food as well. They didn't, but they still saw Vlad and wanted him to take them out of their cage, so the teen obliged and soon held the weight of two rats, one on each shoulder. Thus, the lightened morning grew brighter when the beams of sunlight squeezed between the blinds over a window in the kitchen that viewed the street.

When the giant emerged, a tired scowl went to the teen petting rats that were crawling up and down his arms, but Jake didn't comment when he lumbered into his kitchen.

"Jack-bean."

"Jake." The man's irritated grunt retorted, fixing something to eat. Eggs, milk, and a bowl sat on the counter as he added butter to a heating pan. Vlad teased a rat with his finger, tricking the blonde and white beast into believing that it was possibly something edible so that its nose sniffed around in a circle, following the finger that would soon disappoint it.

The teen wanted an answer, so he nodded with his finger, making the rat nod for him. "Jake, do you have dreams often?"

The sound of activity in the kitchen filled a pause as the man sighed off his ill humored mood. "Sometimes, Alucard, but enough with the randomness in the morning, or could you keep it turned down? Not used to having to deal with it right when I get up, you know what I'm mean?"

Vlad didn't respond for a time, focusing on the blonde rat on the back of his hand. "I just had a weird dream, that's all. Not being random, or whatever you mean by that."

A fork scraped the side of the bowl, swirling the yellow and white together before Jake added water to the mixture. "Just as long as it wasn't the type of dream that would ruin my couch, I'm fine with dreams."

A startled Vlad gawked at the back of Jakes head from where he was sitting on the floor in front of the couch. His teeth clamped shut with an annoyed growl vibrating in his throat when he heard chuckles. "Talk about randomness in the morning…and maturity…"

Jake shrugged at the mumble, smirking to himself as he poured some of the yellow mixture into a pan. "Trying to humor myself. I'm not the best morning person, so be thankful brat."

"I'm sticking my tongue at you in my mature mind." Vlad's voice replied, earning a partially amused chuckle. The teen frowned at a rat, moving it to his other arm so that the two rats could be together. "My clean-couch dream was about-" Another growl broke off the sentence and Vlad raised his volume to overwhelm Jake's snicker. "Was pretty much about dead people hooked on those hanging hooks you see in one of those slaughter houses where the pig bodies are hung up when they're cut open and stuff. And before that it was about people getting shot and how we-"

"Hell Dog." Jake was looking over the divider that separated the kitchen from the living room, showing little expression other than slight disturbance on his face. The pan sizzled in the background. "That's messed up. –Now what do you want in your omelet, you have the choice of plain or with cheese. Not a chef, so I can't guarantee you won't find a piece of shell in yours."

Red blinked at Jake, somehow taken aback by what he was saying. "I can't take your food."

"I already broke the eggs so you've got no choice. I could give it to ya raw if you feel like being a pain in the ass." Vlad was staring at him blankly, so Jake gave up on him and turned back to the sizzling pan, folding the omelet over. "You got plain."

"…Thanks…" It was quiet until a spatula transferred the omelet to a plate and the sizzling ended. "I'm going to steal some ketchup."

Jake paused, holding the steaming plate in one hand, his other hand in a drawer fishing out a fork among the jumbled mess of silverware. "Ketchup?"

"Ketchup, Jack-bean. Pulverized tomatoes and people. That's how murderers hide bodies. Make 'em into ketchup, that's why it's red."

Jake made a sound of disbelief and disgust before placing the plate on the counter away from his working area. "Whatever, the ketchup's in the drawer, the packets."

Vlad searched the drawers and found the said packets, claimed a few, and then ripped them open to spill their contents onto his omelet. As he coaxed the remaining ketchup from the corners of the packet in his hand, he shrugged. "I like it. You ever tried ketchup and eggs? It's good."

"After your story…" The giant sighed, shaking his head over his cooking omelet. "…I'm not gonna be able to eat ketchup the same way again. You're getting messed up in the head. Dead bodies in a slaughter house, dead bodies in stuff people eat, it's like a bad omen."

With a mouth full of egg and ketchup, Vlad hummed and nodded at his food as he stood at the counter. "I see dead people everywhere Jack-bean, perfectly normal. But they're not nearly as interesting as the voices." Dark chuckles made Jake's features become heavy and he frowned at the stove.

"Guess you know how it feels to be me with you tagging along for six years, talk about annoying voices."

"Interesting voices, not annoying voices. Hell, it'd suck if they were annoying. Might have to drill a hole in my head to get 'em out."

Brown eyes twitched. "Okay, enough." He murmured over the plate he set aside with an omelet covering most of it while he poured out the remaining contents of the bowl into the pan. "Your sense of humor's damn sketchy sometimes."

The teen chewed in silence after that, watching his food with his arm on the counter so he was leaning over the plate. Jake was eating now and he looked at Vlad until the teen noticed.

"You're going to have to fix the mess you're in. You need to be more involved."

Flashes of his dreams shadowed Vlad's eyes and he watched his plate, only one bite remaining. He took that last bite with a nod.

Involved…in what? His uncle's specialties had been in theft, robbery, and killing for 'blood money', contract killing, things that required little collaboration and contact with the 'customer'. Both were done with complete secrecy.

Vlad didn't mind shoplifting. It was easy, didn't involve trespassing onto private property, and it was common. Teenagers and kids shoplift. A toy, a pair of shoes, a CD, or maybe something like an iPod; he could do, though the electronics were hard, those trigger alarms, but it was do-able. And it went down as a misdemeanor. He could steal things under a thousand dollars and it wouldn't be that bad. Drinking would be illegal, but again, lots of teenagers drink. Most teenagers drink. And then socializing isn't illegal, and socializing was important. It wouldn't be too bad, and he needed the money anyway.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Integra would hiss whenever the memory of Jake's appearance at her house came to mind, and her lips would scowl on their own whenever she recalled her father giving Jake permission to enter her home. She couldn't press charges for trespassing. He hadn't done anything illegal, other than the trespassing itself. There had not been a no trespassing sign that the man had ignored. And her father had given him permission to come into her house and she had not stepped in and refused, so she could do nothing. If he had returned, she could file for a restraining order and probably have an ex parte to fill the time it would take for the judge to determine whether she (and her family) required one. But Jake had been coming for Vlad. The one that would look bad if she tried to press charges…was her.

But the other pressing issue was…Vladimir had told Jake where she lived. That was a nightmare, in and of itself. With her children, her family, in possible peril…

God, was that a nightmare. But there was no waking up from it, if it was true.

Then…when she had checked on the boy, she had discovered that Vladimir had moved out of his 'apartment' completely, on Christmas Day…the same day the landlord fell down the stairs and was hospitalized with a mangled jaw and a fractured skull. It was fishy, but no evidence and the insistence of the landlord himself prevented the development of a case. So the woman was left with nothing, once more. Only Jake's criminal file saved on her desktop and the knowledge that Vladimir Alucard Dracula had yet to be registered as a gang affiliate and had yet to enter the system at all. So far, the boy's record was clean…nonexistent.

Days passed without an appearance from the pale teen.

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

 

Vlad couldn't remember much of what happened that night, how he came to be in that dark ally with the black towering structure of the city in the moonless distance, no horizon, no escape, the darkness surrounding him like a tomb, puddles on the filth blackened asphalt while buzzing electric wires strung between the buildings to his sides dripped meager droplets of water. He remembered no sky, no lights, no people; only his uncle, the blazing icy fire in those blue eyes, brighter than any mortal fire, and the dark crimson of the blood, a spray like a mist across the man's face. Vlad had stared at the man with his eyes wide, unable to blink as the burning blue watched him, a dot of blood slowly rolling down Walter's cheek. Vlad was still eleven when he witnessed his first murder and learned what paid for the food he ate and the roof over his head. Blood money, money earned through the death of another.

Walter's face betrayed nothing, as blank as an inhuman mask. He hadn't noticed that the boy had been following him until he had slit his target's throat with his glistening wire sliding through the soft bone and flesh like it would through water, stopping short of decapitating the man entirely. The blood had erupted from the wound, peppering Walter's face, and then had cascaded down the dead man's front until he fell, flowing to form a puddle that bled into the more innocent collection of rainwater beside it, swirling and dyeing the water red. The blood was still tainting this water as the bright blue eyes watched the wide horror displayed in the lightless red, pale skin making it easy to read the child's expression. Fear, terrible fear, shock, and a mixture that prevented the child from recognizing his own feelings. The bloody wire glistened with its new color, red running along the length of the wire until it touched the exposed fingers, never reaching the man's gloves. The blood dyed his skin red, just as it had done with the water.

Should he kill the boy? No. No reason too. A foot stepped towards Vlad but the stunned boy didn't react, only gazing at his uncle with the same open horror that seemed empty, like an empty void had just been torn into his eyes. The child did not look away from the blue orbs even as they came closer, seemingly growing larger and brighter, flashing with nonexistent light with each step taken by the man.

Pale lips moved, opening a fraction and closing just as far, unable to form words. A breath was the only voice the boy possessed, and even it was inaudible. Walter stood over his nephew and looked down at his shadowed features and the unblinking, empty eyes.

"Boy."

The eyes continued to stare, paralyzed, lips moving, twitching into shapes, into words, a word. The breath became a whisper. "Uncle?" A moment of breathless struggle tightened Vlad's chest, choking him until it passed and he could gasp and even blink away some of the haze of his disbelief. "Are you my uncle?"

The blue eyes darkened in degrees as they narrowed, almost a glare that bore down on the child whose breathing was heavier now. A crisp, hard, and very real voice shattered the boy's daze and left him to the raw and nonexistent mercy of reality. "Go home, boy. Do not speak to anyone until I get there." Vlad stared, lips parted, his lungs frozen, blinking incredulously when the man continued. "I'll be home late."

The boy couldn't move, so he did nothing for too long and a hand roughly gripped his face, covering his mouth and marking his jaw with bloody fingers, wrapping horizontal bars.

"Go. Home." The blue eyes were burning again, chilling Vlad and sending a tremor down his spine. When the hand released him, the boy ran. He ran into the darkness, seeing nothing.

And he did not go home.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

"J-Jack-bean."

The broken whisper tugged on the teen's shirt, pulling two brown eyes that gazed at the quiet, familiar boy. Jake was sitting outside on the front steps of an apartment where the opened windows emitted the sound of music and voices. The teen had been smoking, but now he choked on the fumes at the sudden appearance of the boy sitting beside him. He hadn't even noticed Vlad until that moment, the kid was so quiet. The pale hand gripping the teen's shirt was unrelenting, yet, unsteady. It was trembling faintly in an erratic, twitchy way as if his arm couldn't decide if it was supposed to tremble or be still. Jake removed the cigarette and the red ember moved down to his side, so that he could give his whole attention to the distressed pale face. "What?"

Vlad hesitated, his eyes wandering as he thought, his fist tightening on Jake's shirt. He wasn't supposed to speak to anyone. He was supposed to go home. But he couldn't. He just couldn't. His uncle- His uncle-

Vlad shuddered, bending over and bunching his shoulders as if cringing from an external and internal attack, his eyes shut tight and his brow creased with helpless confusion and regret. Regret for having witnessed such a thing, for having discovered such a secret…a secret.

"Hey, hey kid. Alucard, you're gonna tear my shirt. Hm? What's up? Why're you like this?"

Vlad responded to the pat on his head by jerking away from Jake, startling the teen, and then the boy sat, hugging his knees on the steps, looking in the opposite direction, taking a deep breath. Jake watched him, perplexed and then uneasy about being discovered by the others inside. This wasn't a good time to have them around the kid.

"Jack-bean…I- I need- I was wondering…if, if I could…stay with you, live with you…for a while."

Jake was quiet, listening to the small voice as it caught on the breeze and was brought to him, Vlad still facing the opposite direction so Jake couldn't see the boy's face. Brown eyes blinked, a street light that was giving the sidewalk in front of the apartment and the steps most of its light, brightening his eyes with white specks. He blinked again, his mouth opening twice while he stared at the narrow back. "Why?" The back stiffened and the black head of hair drooped and was soon held by white hands as Vlad's fingers knitted themselves into the midnight strands.

The whisper was hoarse, blowing a chill down the teenager's neck when he heard it and observed the child's position. "My-my uncle…he- he…I can't…go home. I-I can't. N-no, Jack-bean. N-no."

Unable to comprehend or respond effectively to the boy's fear, Jake's spine stiffened and he looked up at the street light, dragging on his cigarette so that the ember flared with searing sparks turning the tobacco into withered ash. "I gotcha, kid. I gotcha, just ease up a bit for me, okay? Ya want me to take you to my place for the night? …I…" The sound of Vlad's voice in his ears and the large, hopeful and yet desolate eyes that now gazed up at him as if he were the kid's savior, prompted the teen to breathe in a lungful of black tar and then sigh it out with purpose darkening his eyes and tightening his jaw. What he was butting into couldn't be anything good for his health… "I think I can do you that favor. …I was planning on leaving now anyway. How about it? Gotta hell of a nice couch and I have some friends I think you'd like to meet." Jake smiled encouragingly and got up with a faint grunt, his body wishing to stay on the steps when he refused to let it.

The child, oblivious of anything other than the fact that Jake was taking him to an enclosed, private location where he would be warm and hidden, didn't react to Jake's other words. Any childish excitement could not be contained within his troubled mind. Everything was jumbled and messy, fumbling around inside him like something broken put in a container and shaken, making it impossible to fit the pieces together to get a clear picture of what it was supposed to be anymore. Messy, shuffled, damaged puzzle pieces that wouldn't fit together even if they were supposed to.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Jake was seventeen now, and Vlad was still eleven. They hadn't known each other for very long, but the amount of time Vlad spent with Jake and the consistent reminder that he was the kid's only close friend, made it seem like they had known each other for more than nine or so months. And Vlad was special. He was different, in looks, behavior, and actions. He was different, so he stuck out as being different for Jake. Different made Vlad particular, set aside, something…special and one of a kind. If he lost the red eyed boy, he would never find another person who could replace him, so Jake was protective of the kid, looking out for him a bit and teaching him indirectly how to be streetwise, though to call the boy his own close friend…was pushing it. Vlad could think of him as a close friend, but it was more difficult the other way around. Jake's father, meanwhile, was not sure what his opinion of the child was when he found the boy sitting in his living room with a black and white rat on his lap and his son explaining to him that the boy would be staying the night. Jake's father, at a lofty stature of approximately seven feet in height looked down upon the scene, at the troubled, meek little creature that gazed up at him with anxiety and misplaced dread. Dark eyes picked up the faded lines of dried blood on the child's cheek, and then looked at the lengthy black hair, subconsciously recalling the identity of the child and whose blood the boy shared. Joshua Collin Savage, father of Jake Hunter Savage, a man sometimes known as Joel, Tripwire or Gunner, the weapons merchant, smiled carelessly in the way his mouth had become accustomed and left the room. A phone was removed from his pocket and Walter's number was dialed. No ring, just the answering machine, so the Angel of Death was preoccupied… Jake's father snapped the phone close without leaving a message. But he would wait for a call in return while leaving the pale boy in his living room.

"Does the boy get bullied often? You told him to fight back yet?"

Walter showed his impatience for the topic by not looking at the man when he responded, disdain evident in his voice. "The boy says that he doesn't want to hurt people. 'Hurting people is bad'…it's stupidity. The boy's a moron. I'll leave it at that."

Jake's father had chuckled after a moment. "Are you sure he's related to you?"

Then Walter had scowled in response and ignored the man completely.

The boy wasn't his uncle, but he was young and malleable. He would learn. He would have to learn. Passiveness throws you under the feet of people who have a goal, those who will aggressively pursue whatever they set themselves up to, no matter who they trample in the process. But, when Joshua Savage looked at the pale face and the blood-red of the boy's eyes, an otherworldly feeling would prick at the back of his consciousness, leaving him with the impression that the boy could never be so carelessly trampled without a pile of casualties being the result.

For now, Vlad held the friendly, licking rat, trying to smile but failing to do more than give an odd grimace that disturbed Jake, though the teen said nothing, only encouraging his pet rats, Bell and Jasmine, to interact with the kid. Vlad wasn't hungry, but he said he liked holding the rats. The rats, he claimed, helped and made him feel a little better. They took the rats with them into the room where the varying models of computers Jake's family owned were kept. When offered the chance to play a medieval game where the player builds his own kingdom and battles other kingdoms, the boy declined, content to watch with the black and white rat on his shoulder. Time passed quietly, the quiet easing Vlad's frayed nerves slowly.

Vlad was asleep on the couch when Jake's father received the call he had been expecting.

"What?"

W.C.D., no one else had such a way with words, the man smirked beginning to pace in his bedroom, aware of his seclusion and Vlad's ignorance. "Have you gone home yet?"

There was a quiet pause while Walter made sure he had heard the question correctly and then scowled, trying to see what reason the man could have for asking him such a thing. Joshua knew that Walter didn't want other people to have information about him, that he didn't tolerate questions that touched such forbidden territory. So he allowed a pause.

"Why?"

Joshua smiled to himself and stood still, one hand going to his pocket before he answered. "I have your nephew."

Quiet. Walter stared dully at nothing while the heat of anger flickered in his eyes and the lines of his scowl grew deeper. The anger was lightened for a moment with the deeper voice on the phone.

"I have your nephew and if you want him back alive you will have to…actually, give me a sec C.D., I don't know what I want yet."

"I didn't know that he knew where you live."

The man sighed, disappointed as Walter ignored his humor, and he turned, his hand going to his hair for a moment, smoothing over the black strands that were collectively gathered into a stub of a bun at the back of his head. "My son brought him here-"

And…he hung up on me. Jake's father slipped his phone back into his pocket and left his bedroom to check on the sleeping lump under the blanket in the living room. The boy was curled up into a ball, tucked into the corner of the couch. The man went to the hallway that led to his front door and then leaned against the wall to wait.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

"I thought I told you to go home, boy."

With a sharp gasp Vlad bolted upright and stared at the blue eyes above him where his uncle was standing before the couch. Red darted about the lit room, unable to accept that he was still in Jake's house where he was supposed to be safe, and yet his uncle was standing before him, glaring at him. Oh god, oh god, oh god. Vlad's eyes searched and found his uncle, making his body cringe and retreat back to seek protection with the couch cushions. Huddled and gripping his knees with his hands, Vlad finally found the man named Joshua towards the wall. The feeling of betrayal washed over the child, welling in his eyes as dry tears and a shudder that Joshua observed all too clearly with his gut twisting itself into a knot. The man's arms were crossed and this did not change, neither did the blank look in his dark eyes, but he leaned back to rest some of his weight against the wall with an unnoticeable sigh. Betrayal in any form was difficult for him, his character incompatible with disloyalty and going against any of his other moral codes of conduct which he had laid out himself. The man abided his codes almost religiously, but in this case his duty to call the Angel of Death had been a priority.

He would watch. That was the least he could do for the kid. W.C.D. in a rage was not a pretty sight, and it was a time when the man was at his peek of unpredictability, when he was at his most dangerous level. W.C.D. was an odd, brilliant, terrifying individual. Joshua pitied the boy at the moment, filled with dread at the notion of being in Vlad's place. …Just don't rip the kid apart in my living room, C.D. He's just a kid, a scared kid… Jake's father tried to send his thoughts telepathically to the long haired Angel of Death, but could not tell if his message was getting across as he watched the man's back.

Vlad stammered, gazing up at his uncle, gaping in horror when he tried to speak. Walter's eyes became slits at the show of cowardice and weakness. He leaned forward slowly, gradually coming to hang over his nephew with the boy pressed into the corner with round eyes, a gloved hand gripping the back of the couch to support the man. The glare, at such a close range, almost stopped the boy's heart. Shallow breaths and an irate heart beat hammered in the child's chest, his whole frame quivering with fear. The leather of Walter's glove creaked slightly, making Vlad swallow and shiver violently. "I'm," He swallowed again and tried to stop shivering, failing to make himself blink though his eyes stung so sharply that they were beginning to water. "…very sorry Uncle." His voice cracked.

The glare deadened, the blue dulling but providing an effect that was more terrible than the previous glare. Vlad stared, his head jerking with a shiver and his chest heaving with a hard breath. He could kill me and not feel a thing. The child's mouth opened, as if to scream, but the muscles of his face never tightened to show the fright that was required to make him do so. The undeveloped mind struggled to cope with the situation. Walter watched, his gaze just as detached as it had been before. "Why are you sorry?"

"I-I didn't go home, Uncle."

The room contained only the boy's shallow breaths, blue staring into the red orbs as time pierced Vlad's mind with lances of panic.

"You know that I told you to go home. Is this home, boy?"

The child shook his head desperately while he answered with a croak. "No."

Walter continued to take his time, speaking slowly in a well controlled voice. "No? Then that's too bad for you... I'm considering not sharing my house with you any longer. Then your home will be the streets, the gutters, wherever you can find a card board box. Would you like me to put you outside so you can find your home?"

Red gaped, the shivering escaping as the pale body numbed with chilling shock. Dismay made his fear combine with this new threat, and the boy stopped pressing into the couch and blinked up at the man with a pitiful crinkle in his brow. "No! No, please! I want to go home! I want to go home! I do, Uncle! I'm sorry! Really sorry! Please-!"

The other gloved hand which had been forgotten shot out at the boy's hair and twisted it before shoving Vlad into the corner he had been cowering in. Walter leaned closer to Vlad, a menacing glower erasing the wince of pain Vlad had on his face. "Then why didn't you go home in the first place, boy, if you wanted to so much? Do you think that it will always be there for you to go back to whenever you want? Why should I house and feed a little shit like you? I hate kids. Did you know that Vladimir?" Walter's face moved closer to his nephew's while his voice grew quieter again. "I hate children. Why shouldn't I send you away to some foster home or orphanage, whatever will take you? I've treated you a hell of a lot better than I should. No one else would take in a little mutated freak. There's no way for you to earn money as you are now, a fool and a freak…"

"C.D…" Jake's father moved uncomfortably and then bit his lip, watching as Walter intimidated the child. He could no longer see Vlad clearly, but while his voice was ignored, he did nothing to stop Walter.

Vlad's mouth was open, his face creased with many compiling emotions, from fear to agony, and tears built in his eyes, threatening to spill down his grayed cheeks, his flesh drained of blood. "I-…I am sorry, Uncle. I'm sorry. …I… won't do it again."

Walter didn't draw away from his nephew, not allowing the child's heart rate to drop. "How do I know that it won't happen again?"

Vlad's eyes blinked and a shudder of deformed hope made his eyes earnest. "I promise. I'll do everything you say, Uncle. I won't do it again. I'll go home. I'll always go home when you tell me to, Uncle. I'm sorry. I- I don't want to go to strangers."

Walter stared at the boy, his glare replaced with his removed look that offered no foresight of hope or dread for the receiver. The man spoke again while Jake's father continued to watch, never looking away from the scene. "Then you do what I tell you to do, when I tell you to do it. You never disobey me. Do you understand the consequences that come with disobedience, Vladimir?"

He said my name. He said my name! Hope flashed across Vlad's face and he moved his own eyes closer to his uncle's. "Yes, yes, yes I do. I'm sorry. I very, very sorry, and I promise I won't ever disobey again. I…" want to stay with you… Vlad stopped and all expression faded from his face as his eyes unfocused, a change that caused his uncle to watch and slowly move away to stand up and look down upon the child. Vlad's eyes were hazy and distant, as if stunned by a blow. White of the eyes rolling back with the spray of dark blood and the droplet of blood that fell from his uncle's hand and the one that slid down his cheek…he saw these things again and no longer knew what he should think or do or say. Beyond hesitation, the boy had revoked all of his pleas and now stared dimly at his uncle. His eyes drifted to the side to look at Jake's father, lingering there before they descended to find the floor, seeing and not seeing it. The quiet was everywhere, filling the room, more so now than before without the boy's fear. Walter came to understand, in this quiet, what was happening to the child. Vlad finally spoke. "Are you a person that does bad things?"

Walter's face didn't change, already wearing his detached expression, but Joshua Savage's face darkened and his head tilted to the side vaguely. So the boy was ignorant of everything. The boy was damn stupid…damn stupid. But… Brown eyes widened a little and the muscles in his neck tightened. That meant that this was more serious than he…no, it was one of the most unfortunate scenarios he had considered.

Walter hadn't said anything, so Vlad glanced up at him emptily and then watched the floor. The boy wasn't sure what he should say with Jake's father present, so he chose his words carefully. "What I saw…you do that? You do that…you- have you done that a lot before?"

Walter was a silent specter, observing the boy to see what would happen next. While deliberating, Vladimir looked less of a child than he ever had in the man's memory. It amused him to some extent, how this was always the case, how a state of urgency or trauma made people seem deceivingly more experienced and removed some of the influence of age. It was the time that distinguished the religious from the faithless, the moral from the monsters, the heroes from the people that just thought they were good. Interesting, nearly fascinating, but mostly amusing.

Vlad dithered for another moment. "You…do that…to people…a lot of people…just whoever-people…walking-people…good-people or bad-people? Or is it…just…anyone?"

There was a pause as attention was diverted to the sound of a lighter sparking a flame to ignite the end of the cigarette hanging from Joshua's mouth. The transparent blue plastic allowed the sloshing of the liquid inside the lighter to be seen before a large hand stuffed it into a denim pocket. The same hand went to hold the lighter while the man dragged on the filter, shortening the length of the cigarette. Walter was listening so he knew exactly what the man was doing and how he would appear. Vlad was staring at him blankly, not thinking. His mind snapped back into thought when the man blew out a stream of smoke and spoke to Walter.

"So he saw your work? Was it a messy one or a clean shot?" Brown glanced at the stunned, gawking boy, remotely touched by grim humor. "That is what he's talking about, right? Or was it another job?"

Another job? Vlad's world slowed for a moment and he grew distant, watching the man draw on his cigarette, some smoke escaping from his mouth or nose, taking another drag before exhaling a cloud, brown eyes returning to Vlad to pull him back. The boy stared, his mouth shut.

The brown eyes watched Vlad though the man spoke to Walter. "Clean? He'd be in hysterics if he saw a- 'messy' one, wouldn't he? Yeah, most likely. But he saw it."

"It was nothing." Walter's deadpan response stole Vlad's eyes and emptied them further. Both men were unresponsive to the concept of spilling human blood.

The memory exploded behind Vlad's eyes, flashes, light, fear, an overwhelming flood of emotion pouring into him... His voice erupted from his lips, suddenly, lifted to the partial screech of a heated young voice. "You cut his head off!" Joshua blinked at the force and flare of resentment in the boy's tone, as well as the remaining airy disbelief that came out as a pant. "He fell down and blood came out like all that was inside of him was blood! Like he was a bag of blood! Endless blood!"

Walter frowned and he moved to focus his weight on one of his legs and slip his hand into his pocket. The words were slow, selected. "I didn't fully decapitate him. Only two thirds or so of the way… I cut the head off later, though. The wobbling was messy and… annoying." Blue narrowed, seeking out the boy's responses. His tactics of intimidation seemed to be wearing thinner than expected on the child.

Vlad stared, filled with more disbelief, fear, and disgust with the douse of incredulity and the feeling of the surreal that washed over him when he heard Jake's father chuckle in the background. Chuckling, like it was a joke to laugh at.

"You think this is funny?" Jake's father lost his amusement at the boy's tone and Walter's frown deepened to affect his forming glare. The indifference in the brown eyes angered Vlad for a reason he could not find. The red gaze narrowed and white teeth snapped. "It's not funny! Killing people isn't funny! It's bad and wrong andsick!"

"Watch your mouth." The warning earned a cautious, yet defiant, stare from the pale child who warily kept his gaze on his uncle. "You don't get to speak to people that way when you're just a shitty little brat. You lecturing and making judgments about anything, is a joke. What do you know, Vladimir? Tell me what you know… People kill and are killed every other second. Who cares who it is, when or where it happens, or how? Dead's dead, get that through your head now and it will save you a life of trouble. There's no good-people or bad-people. There's just people. And I don't care what you think, boy, and no one does. Give people names if you want, it won't mean anything. You don't know anything. You haven't done anything. You're nothing but a worthless bookworm at this point. You think you read something somebody else wrote or heard what somebody else said and now you have the power to say anything and be right about it?"

Large red eyes blinked, following his uncle's words with an echoing conscience. Vlad spoke up with a returning meekness Walter disdained. "But even the Bible says not to kill people…"

"A stupid bookworm response. A bunch of ignorant bastards wrote that book, boy, and there's no getting around that. –Now I'm done discussing this with a brat. You can either come with me or starve in the streets for a few nights. See if your Bible can feed you and keep you warm. I can already tell you that books aren't bullet proof, no matter how many prayers you put in them."

It was quiet, Joshua Savage with his back against the wall, watching smoke collect on the ceiling and disperse. Vlad sat lifelessly on the couch with his uncle standing with mounting impatience in front of him.

"We're leaving." Walter turned and walked briskly from the room to the entrance hall where no door separated the two, and here the man paused for a moment while Vlad slipped off the couch to follow him, the child dragging his small black sneakers over the carpet. The bigger man leaning on the wall had his eyes directed straight ahead at the emptying room, holding his cigarette to his lips. He took it out.

"I'm still a Christian, W.C.D."

Vlad reached his uncle's side after Walter had looked at the other man for a time, until brown glanced at him. "Did I offend you faith, Joel?" Joshua cringed with a bitter smirk when he received the blunt of the sneering sarcasm, and he chuckled to himself, shaking his head and returning his eyes to the room, inhaling smoke and releasing it.

"Nah, I'm a messed up Christian. I thought it was hilarious. …Everything's always hilarious, C.D. Laugh at the world, for all that anyone cares… Full of shits and giggles."

Walter gave his back to the man and headed for the door. Vlad, however, hesitated and looked back at the smoking man, waiting for the eyes. When he had them, the boy gave a kind of vacant nod and spoke in a quiet voice, like a whisper. "Thank you." Joshua kept his gaze on the child after that, unable to find the reason that motivated the boy to thank him. Vlad then faced the end of the hall where he could see the back of the staircase. "Bye Jack-bean."

Walter had just opened the door and now he stopped to look back. Joshua also came into the hall to see if his son was there, but as his eyes roamed he found no sign of Jake. Vlad was looking at the staircase, so the man looked there too. The boy's just saying it to his room-

"Bye kid."

Wood creaked. Jake stood up from where he had been sitting at the top of the stairs. His footsteps were heard when they took him to his room and he closed the door, feigning nonchalance like his life depended on it. Vlad turned and went to his uncle, catching the door when the man refused to hold it open for him. The door shut, leaving Joshua Collin Savage to stand alone in his hallway looking back at it, breathing in the fumes of his cigarette. His hand against his mouth with the filter between two of his fingers, the man sought the staircase, eyes flowing along the edge of the wooden handrail, drifting to the ceiling where he knew his son was in his room.

The steps creaked faintly when the man ascended them, and the floor gave off sound when his shoes came in contact with it. He stopped and tapped on Jake's door, able to sense the tenseness that the door emitted afterwards. But he didn't make the teen come out or explain himself; he only looked at the dark wood with his cigarette hanging from his mouth. "'Night Jake."

The muffled response came after a few seconds of indecision. "'Night Dad."

And then footsteps took the man away from the door and the Savage house was silent.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

My uncle is a bad man. He goes to sleep late and wakes up early. He never eats. He almost never talks to me. He's gone all day, and at night… he cuts people's heads off. Uncle is a bad man. Jake's dad is a bad man too. Bad-people.

Vacant eyes followed Walter as he moved through his home, from his bedroom, though his open doors, and as he passed the boy sitting on the small cloth pallet on the rug where the shadow of the table with the mismatched chairs cloaked him. Blue grazed the boy when Walter passed him, but then flicked ahead to the door and did not return to Vlad. The door opened and then shut.

It was morning. The boy would get dressed, eat breakfast, brush his teeth and hair, and gather his things to go to school, just as he did five times a week, 180 days a year since coming to live with his uncle. Soon Vlad was sitting in a yellow plastic chair behind a wooden desk with a hollowed interior occupied by his books, pencils, folders, and papers. The vacant eyes watched the whiteboard, seeing the varying colors of ink without finding the words and numbers, experiencing the school day without seeing a single face or hearing a single voice. He sat in the shadows under the trees that grew on the other side of the fence around the playground during recess and lunch, wandering over to the isolated location, inherently drawn to the dark setting. No one talked to him. No one looked at him. He was invisible. Vlad was an invisible boy and his uncle was a bad man. Vlad was absent today. He was sleeping. It was so simple, it was revolting.

The day passed away and the bell for dismissal sounded out over the campus and soon Vlad was wandering along the sidewalk with his backpack on his back, leaving the school he had never entered. He didn't go to the hangout. He didn't look for Jake. He went home, took out the key he kept in his shoe and opened the door, entered, and locked it again. The boy had forgotten to eat lunch, but he wasn't hungry. He went to his mat, took off his shoes, and pulled the blanket over his head. He stayed there until the night fell and Walter opened the door and then bolted it shut.

The bad man is home. He kills people at night, but it's not late enough. Only when he comes home late. How many times has he come home late?

Footsteps thumped past Vlad's head and the dull red eyes saw the shadow that moved over his blanket, only now realizing that his eyes were open. They stared at the blanket, hearing the sound of feet and shoes and moving clothes.

Why are there so many bad people? Why are there so many bad people? Why are so many bad people bad? Why are they bad? Why do they hurt people? Why do people have so much blood in them? People are like bags of blood that spill out when they rip. Why is my favorite color red? Blood is blue inside and turns red when it's outside. I'm a bag too, and my uncle is a man that rips bags open and Jake's dad is a man that laughs at the blood and the empty bags-

"Boy. What are you doing with your head covered like that?"

Vlad didn't respond, blinking at the interior of the blanket while his uncle looked down at the covered shape. The man scowled as he bent over and pulled the blanket off the boy's face to reveal the blank eyes. Walter stared at the expressionless white features, his eyes twitching in disturbance at the blankness when Vlad's face didn't change. A gloved hand dropped the blanket and let it fall to cover the boy's face while the man walked away. Walter went to his bedroom and shut the door.

My uncle is a bad man who sleeps without ever saying goodnight.

*~*~*~::..+..::~*~*~*

Vlad was invisible on Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday. He was invisible for most of Friday, but at the end of Friday it turned out to be a P.E. day, and two captains were selected to pick teams for a game of kickball on the diamond of dirt in the elementary school baseball field. People looked at invisible Vlad and Vlad was no longer invisible. Vlad couldn't be absent from school today when people could see him. The teams were fighting over the order for picking players. Neither team wanted the freak, but the freak was forced upon one of the teams, and the unfortunate students groaned while the others cheered as they ran off to get in line to kick the ball. Vlad drifted into the outfield and watched as the game began and enthusiasm returned to his team while Vlad became invisible again. But soon Vlad had to get in line to kick the ball. He ended up at the end. The first kicker got out when someone caught the large red ball that went flying through the air. When the boy shuffled his feet through the dirt, kicking up enough for a small, creeping cloud, he stopped and looked at the red eyed boy that was staring blankly in front of himself with a generous gap between him and the next person in line. The boy who had gotten out cut in front of the pale freak, grinning smugly to himself afterwards, flashing the grin at Vlad who only blinked, before talking to the person in front of him to complain about the girl that was pitching/rolling the balls to the home plate. They cheered when two of the bases were occupied and a girl scored a home run so that three kids went to the back of the line. The boy that had cut in front of Vlad stopped them when they got in line behind the freak and encouraged the three to cut in front of Vlad so that they could 'actually have a chance at winning the game'. The other students followed suit, so Vlad was invisible again.

"He's too stupid to know anything." "Bet he can't even kick the ball." "He's too stupid to know how to tie his shoes! I bet money your mommy ties your shoes for you. Gah. So stupid, he doesn't even know I'm talking to him." "Ew! You touched him!" "N-No! I didn't!" "Your shoulder did! Gross!" "EWWW!" "You got Vlad-germs! Ew!" "No, don't give them to me! Ew!" "Yeah. Ew!" "Vlad-germs! Vlad-germs! Freak-germs!" "Stop it! Stop it! I don't have 'em! I don't have Vlad-germs! Stop saying that!" "Hey, stop. You're gonna make Emily cry, you jerks. It's okay Emily. I know you didn't touch him, and Stephie's a bitch anyway." "Ya know it. My Mama calls me a piece of work for a reason… Forget it Emily… You didn't touch him, so stop crying. I was just joking, sheesh." Sniff. "Thanks."

Vlad could disappear. No one was looking at him anyway. He wasn't his name or his germs. He would just stand still and hope no one accidentally bumped him and got his gross germs, his freak disease. He went to the outfield and stood still. He stood still in line. Out in the field a ball came to his feet, so he picked it up and threw it to second base. The girl at second base wouldn't touch the ball, she ducked away when it bounced towards her, squealing about icky germs and how Vlad was gross and had never washed his hands in his life, which wasn't true. It made the other kids laugh on the other team, but Vlad's team turned hateful looks to the boy when the other team scored a home run and the teacher made them use the ball he had touched. The boy that was pitching rolled the ball around in the dirt, touching it gingerly with his fingers like it was some kind of radioactive debris. The boy cringed dramatically when he had to pick it up and pitch, tossing it the same way he might toss something smeared with dog shit. And so, the game continued with the contaminated ball, until P.E. ended and the students returned to their classroom.

Vlad went home and pulled the blanket over his head. The bad man came home after he had fallen asleep.

The bad man woke him up the next day, and the blue eyes stared at the child that gazed back up at him, lying on the mat, rarely blinking. Walter frowned and then hissed in disgust, throwing the blanket \so that it draped over one of the mismatched chairs.

"It's 3 in the afternoon. Are you some kind of worthless scumbag that sleeps all day and doesn't do anything? You're the perfect candidate for a homeless bum, kid. Completely worthless. Get out of the house. Get out now!" Walter barked, glowering down at the gaping, vacant eyes. In a flare of disdain, he shoved the boy's shoulder with his shoe, in the movement of kicking him without injuring the child, pushing Vlad off of the mat and onto the rug covered floor. "Get up, damn it! You want to be worthless, do it elsewhere. Die in a gutter or something, brat. Just get out of my house!"

Vlad crawled to his feet and left, following his uncle's order, ignorant of the wrinkles in his clothes that made his uncle scowl and kick the boy's pallet so that the mat folded and caught in a twisted shape beneath the table and the legs of the mismatched chairs. Vlad shut the door gently and walked away, trudging through the short, descending hill of grass under the trees to reach the sidewalk. He wandered down the path of concrete and drifted through the city streets, finding darker and darker shadows to melt into.

The street was dark and the sky was dark, everything was dark when Vladimir trudged over the grass once more to reach the front door of his uncle's home. The child's fist knocked on the door and then fell to his side. He waited for a long time, but time meant nothing to him so it didn't matter that he was waiting. Vlad wasn't missing anything, there wasn't anything he wanted to do, time had no worth right now, just like his next breath or thought. He just wanted to sleep.

Suddenly light shone on the pale face and red eyes brightened when darkness was dispersed by the open door. Walter stood in the doorway, a removed gaze observing the boy. His mouth creasing with a frown, the man spoke. "You have a key."

Vlad's eyes were unfocused, seeing only the dark blur of his uncle's figure and the light beyond him inside. "I don't know if I'm allowed in." The demure voice murmured, no eye contact being made with Walter now.

Blue narrowed, lit only by their own thoughts while the light inside could not reach them. Walter said nothing but turned and left the door open. Vlad waited a few moments before going inside, shutting and locking the door behind him before he bolted it for the night. The child went to his crumpled, twisted mat and pulled it from the table and chair legs with an impassive movement of his muscles. The pale hands were smoothing the mat when Vlad noticed that his uncle was watching him from the other room, leaning against the couch with his gloves on the thick armrest. Vlad didn't look at him; instead, he took off his shoes and stuffed his socks into them so he could hide himself beneath his blanket. Walter continued to watch him, his face darkening in degrees with his thoughts, eyes analyzing the shape beneath the blanket.

At least he remembered to take off his shoes this time. "Boy?"

It was quiet, but Vlad pulled himself from the blanket to look at the man through the open doorway. The child didn't give a verbal response, but his uncle overlooked this for the time being, watching the boy's bare features and listless eyes.

"Did you eat anything today?"

Vlad blinked and his eyes traveled over the floor when his head dipped as he pondered the odd question. Had he eaten? He couldn't remember. Had he eaten anything yesterday? What was yesterday? Did he miss school today, or was today Saturday? Or was it Sunday? It was probably Saturday since yesterday had been a school day, a Friday… Had he eaten anything today? "No."

Walter said nothing. Vlad turned over and pulled the blanket over his head again. The lights in the room with the couch, along with the lights in the rest of the house, were turned off a few minutes later. The house with filled with silence.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

If his uncle hadn't dragged him out of bed and shoved him out the door, Vlad would have stayed under his blanket, but because of his uncle, the boy was sitting on the couch in the empty hangout looking around without much interest. A lot of time had past. How much, he wasn't sure, but he didn't feel bored. He was content to sit and do nothing, something, his uncle said was worthless. That was one of the bad man's favorite words right now. Worthless.

So what wasn't worthless?

Vlad was distracted from his thoughts when voices came from the alley outside, rebounding off the solid walls of the other buildings. The boy heard the door open and a small collection of teens entered, none of them seeing the invisible Vlad. Because Vlad was an invisible boy. No one could see Vlad, but Vlad could see everyone. He saw Jake so he stared at the moving young giant as Jake moved to the carpeted area where the round table was set. Cards and bottles came to occupy the empty wooden space and smoke thickened the air from the cigarettes that were just now lit or had been brought together with branches of fleeing smoke, inside. The invisible boy watched them. The sky became orange and red like someone had spilled orange juice and cranberry juice all over the heavens and it was now raining down as light. Vlad saw this light coming through the window as he sat on the couch, thinking of juice with the space and the clouds. The clouds were soaking up the juice, draining the sky to make it dark. He brought his knees to his chest and hugged them, with his chin tucked in his arms on his knees.

"Oh, wow! Alucard's here. Didn't even notice ya, kid." Faces were turned to Vlad, most still showing surprise, others with a hint of annoyance. Vlad strained his neck to see them without releasing his knees. The teens looked at him and some of them frowned and diverted their attention to their cards. "Hey." Vlad's eyes lost some of the haze that had been clouding them for the past week when he heard the familiar deep voice and his gaze settled on Jake who was turned around in his chair, watching him with a neutral expression. A large hand motioned to the boy. "C'mon over here. Don't sit over there by yourself like some loner. Sit with us."

Without a reason not to sit with Jake, Vlad quietly released his legs and went to the table, sitting in a chair that was pulled to occupy an empty spot near Jake. Vlad sat down and watched the game, easily fading into the background with Jake when the others became louder, talking, bragging, and joking. Jake was focusing on his cards, aware of the red eyes that could see them, but permitting Vlad to peek at them.

"Not saying much today?"

Black hair swished when Vlad shook his head without taking his eyes from the cards. Jake glanced at him out of the corner of his eye and then maintained the glance for longer than he had intended. The teen participated in the card game and more time passed before he spoke again. "You look like you're sick." Vlad didn't say anything, so Jake continued. "Are you?"

"No."

They were quiet in the background until the teens tired of the game and decided on a winner so that they could disperse to stalk the night life of the city. Vlad followed them into the shadowed streets but departed when they assimilated into another crowd of teens with girls thrown into the mix. Jake called them 'loose' and he said 'sluts' were fun, but the teens didn't want Vlad hanging around like unwanted baggage, Vlad would make the girls go away since he always made people go away, as a result Vlad went home.

The bad man wasn't home, so Vlad went to sleep.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Monday was a P.E. day. They ran a few laps around the track before they stretched and played kickball. Vlad didn't get to stretch or play. When he was running, he fell down and didn't get up. Scraped hands pushed him to a sitting position so that faded scarlet eyes could peer at the running feet that were leaving him behind. Then the boy sat there in the dirt until the P.E. instructor came to him. He was sent to the nurse and then forwarded home.

To his surprise, the bad man was home and the bad man was staring at him with narrowing eyes from the table where he was reading with a newspaper unfolded in front of him. Vlad stared for a moment, then looked away and closed the door quietly. He stood by the door without venturing further into the house, unsure of what to do while his eyes were fixed to the floor. Walter frowned and a gloved hand let go of the edge of the newspaper.

"What are you doing? You're not supposed to be home for another hour, boy. What happened to going to school?" Walter spoke more than he had intended, filling empty space Vlad's silence left gaping. The man's teeth clenched, his eyes hardening when a reply did not come immediately. He faced Vlad, his arm rising to rest along the back of his chair.

"The nurse sent me home. She said I was sick."

Walter didn't even blink, watching the boy. "Look at me when I'm talking to you, child. Look at me." Red lifted to meet blue. Walter analyzed the faded color, his expression unchanging. "Did you eat today?"

All of Vlad's responses were slow to come and his voice came in only one quiet volume, never a fluctuation disturbing the constant monotone. "I ate some toast."

"What about lunch?"

"I wasn't hungry."

Walter's eyes had grown meaner, his mouth creasing with a deeper frown while his brow lowered to create a glare. The boy disgusted him to the extent that he could no longer ignore Vlad's behavior. "Vladimir!"

The boy jolted, stepping back and staring at his uncle, startled by the sudden exclamation. He continued to stare dumbly at the man, his eyes wide and blinking. Walter watched him in silence, examining the boy's appearance with darkened eyes. A lowered, menacing voice went to the child, freezing his frame. "Snap out of this, boy. I'm not one to cater to your feelings. Stop moping and pull yourself together. You're not sick anywhere but in your head."

The vacant look had returned to the pale boy and his eyes had lowered, pupils dilating to remove the crispness of his sight. Walter's glare eased to indifference, gazing at the boy that stood as a shadow before the door, from his chair. His arm came down to his lap from the back of the chair and the man transferred his attention to his newspaper. The black leather of his glove reflected light in patches that were not as worn as others when his hand grasped the newspaper to adjust it so that he could read the print. Vlad's mat was by his feet, pushed to the side against one of the table legs. The boy noticed this and stared at his uncle and then the rug on the floor. He stood there without doing anything, stepping back to lean against the door. Walter looked up when he saw that Vlad's form had disappeared, his eyes flowing down the door to where his nephew was now sitting on the floor.

Pathetic child.

With black bangs hanging over his eyes, the boy remained slouched against the door, where he ultimately fell asleep.

When he woke during the hours of the night, his head was on a pillow, his feet were bare, and warm sheets and a blanket covered him. It was dark, but Vlad could tell that he was in his uncle's room, and that the blanket and sheets were his uncle's. Dark lashes rose and fell, fighting sleep before giving in when they closed and Vlad turned over to find a more comfortable position, curling up in the empty bed.

How could his uncle be a bad man? His uncle was his uncle. He was rough, cold, but took responsibility for raising him. When he had belted him, it had only stung. It had been scary but it hadn't hurt that much. His father's beltings had left his backside red and raw, the consequence for drawing on the wall for the millionth time. What were the consequences for disobeying his uncle? Abandonment. His uncle didn't need to keep him, but he was. Vlad was stupid, ugly, diseased, and worthless, but his uncle still gave him money to buy groceries and told him what clothes he should go out and buy.

His uncle was a bad man, but he was a good bad man and the two canceled each other, leaving only a man behind.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

It was late morning, Vlad could somehow feel that it was late, and he was still in his uncle's bed. The child sat up, feeling the lightheadedness of hunger fly off with his thoughts, leaving him empty, his mind echoing the quiet in the room. He left the bed and the room to find the clock in the kitchen that told him it was past ten o'clock. With nothing but empty space pressing on him from every direction, Vlad gathered his things while toast browned in the toaster and the boy left for school, eating the buttered bread as he walked.

Butter left some remnants of grease on his fingers, which he rubbed off on his jeans before touching the door to the office. He checked in and received a late pass from a woman he did not recognize. The classroom looked up with eyes of prejudice and judgment when he gave the note to his teacher. He went to his desk, pricked by the whispers of children callously complaining about his return to school. They had enjoyed the lack of germs and the absence of the freak's smell. Vlad sat down without a word, aware that he did not smell. He didn't smell clean, but he didn't smell bad…or maybe he did. He wasn't sure, but he still didn't say a word in response. Vlad followed the class and left the school at the end of the day, returning home to deposit his school things and to grab a frozen strawberry that he rolled around in his mouth when he trudged through the grass and strolled down the sidewalk.

The hangout was empty so he wandered aimlessly with the thought of coming across Jake. He wanted to follow the teen around like he usually did, accompanying the young giant when he was allowed to. But Jake's whereabouts eluded the child. Walter, however, was detected a block down the line of pavement, getting into a car with Jake's father, a few strangers joining them.

Were they bad people? They were with his uncle, and his uncle wasn't bad, not really bad.

There are just people, like his uncle had said, so Vlad climbed a fire escape and part of a wall to reach the rooftops, following the car from above, following his uncle like he had on that one night. His sharp eyesight allowed him to track the car, leaping over breaks between buildings, scaling the short distance that lifted one roof above another, or jumping down when necessary. Vlad didn't stop until the car did, in a part of the city he'd never been in. Steam rose to build clouds from the stacks on the roof from which he spied. Walter was with the men that went down some steps to enter a door that seemed to lead into a building where the first floor was beneath the pavement that turned off of the street. It was a secluded location with a lack of human presence, becoming lifeless with the exception of the billowing steam from the roof stacks, when the group of men disappeared into the building. Vlad waited a moment and then picked his way down, clinging to the wall when he found a small, rectangular window that was cracked open. A black sneaker pushed it wider without emitting sound, allowing the dark shadow of the boy to slip inside and dive down the wall to hide in the gathered assortment of furniture and objects. Vlad dropped to a crouch on a cabinet, wary of the voices he could hear, unable to pick out distinctive words. But he was not hiding from voices; he was hiding from the bodies he could see standing outside the yawning frame that lacked a door.

He was almost entirely exposed. If one of the men turned their head he would be discovered. Excitement fluttered in his chest as his muscles creaked, slowly bringing him to the edge of the cabinet so that he could get off of it to find a better hiding spot.
…Then his whole world fell away in a moment that stole his heartbeat.

The cabinet suddenly toppled when the single leg of the table it had been sitting on made the structure rock with the displacement of weight, Vlad moving the table, tipping the cabinet when he put his shoe on the edge of it. The explosion of sound drowned out the murmur of voices as objects fell to bury the boy beneath them. Vlad remained frozen, stunned and lying on his back, able to see the ceiling where nothing had come to cover his face. Foot steps. Many, hurried footsteps. He heard them, and his gut twisted, his heart pounded, his instincts screamed at him to hide…so he did. Vlad scrambled away before quiet had returned to the room, displacing more things that seemed to be settling after falling from their perches. The thin child was able to slip under something that was low and provided darkness and cover. He felt like he was hiding beneath a part of the floor, and for a moment he was convinced that he had somehow found a way to get beneath the floor boards. Heavy steps landed on top of him. Someone was searching through the jumbled ruin.

I hope I didn't break anything. It was a petty thought, but Vlad still experienced his anxious guilt along with his anxiety in his fear of being discovered. His uncle would be so mad. Please don't find me. God, please don't let them find me. I won't ever do it again. I wasn't being bad. I just wanted to see. I didn't want to break anything. I promise, God, so please- Oh God. Red eyes snapped shut and Vlad's arms crossed in front of his head to hide himself when a hand swiped at the opening into his hiding place. The hand never touched him, but its proximity injected a hardy dose of alarm into the boy's blood stream. Don't breathe! Don't swallow! Don't move! Don't make a sound! Be a mouse, a mouse, quiet as a mouse…

The footsteps stopped sounding over his head. As Vlad listened with his eyes shut tight, it seemed like they had given up on him.

"Just something fell. I think it was that cabinet over there. I told 'em not to put that damn thing on that goddamn table. It wobbles." "Of all the times for your stupid screw ups-! Enough. We apologize for this. We'll get back to busi-" "Oh. You think-? Alright. You, get him."

Vlad's chest heaved with quiet, deep breaths, ignoring the dust that tickled his throat unpleasantly and the dirt that was surrounding him. Don't think of spiders. Don't move yet. It'll be okay. I'll just leave when its quiet and they're gone. Yeah, when they're gone-

The footsteps suddenly returned, hitting the wood above his head, hard. Alien scraping sounds were present as well, along with sniffing sounds, clacking sounds, an animal sound.

Sniff, sneeze, sniff. Vlad's body drained of warmth, tingling with rising goosebumps. The way into his hiding place was blocked by the sniffing animal with the claws that scraped over the hard floor when its body jolted with a savage bark. The barking rose and came with a furious torrent of movement and voices. The dog was allowed to shove its snout into the boy's hiding space, sharp teeth snapping at Vlad so that he had to scoot away and press into the back of his hiding spot. Rank breath assaulted his senses and made his eyes water, unable to close for the terrible fangs that held them. The dog whined when hands dragged it away, and Vlad was tempted to make the same sound when different hands touched the floor and a face came level with his own.

There was a gun pointed at his face. That was Vladimir's first experience with a gun. It terrified him.

"NO! DON'T SHOOT! DON'T SHOOT! I DIDN'T MEAN TOO! DON'T SHOOT!"

Emotion altered the hard face that Vlad could see and the gun was jerked away in surprise. Then the man cursed at the dark space he was looking into, slowly registering a small outline. "Shit! It's a kid!" Without warning or a scarce trace of gentleness, the man grabbed at what he deemed to be the child's shirt or jacket and pulled on Vlad, dragging him out of his haven. Once he was out and held to the ground, too horrified to speak, the man stared at him for a moment, shock and revulsion overwhelming him so that he forgot the men that were waiting for him to bring out the trespasser. "Holy fuck! What the hell is this kid? Fuck!" Vlad was lifted to his feet and pushed over a pile of things so that he stumbled before the collected group of cold eyes that judged him with a gaze much crueler than those of his classmates. Too much chaos throwing his thoughts into disarray, Vlad could not pick out his uncle or the large form of Jake's father as the two stood in the midst of the group, watching him. The dog barked and lunged against its chain, the end of which strained in a solid grasp. "Look at this! What the hell is he anyway? Goddamn ugly sucker. How'd he get in?" The hand of the man who still held onto his gun clamped down on Vlad's shoulder, holding him captive, unable to move away from the snapping jaws of the outraged Doberman pincher. The boy whimpered and tugged at the grip to get farther away from the animal, but the man held him in place and cursed at him for trying to get away.

"Oh fuckin' Hell." Savage sucked in a breath, staring at the frightened pale child, seeing the darting red eyes. Vlad's hands clasped one another over his chest and his feet tripped, sending him back closer to the man that gripped his arm when the dog managed to gain another couple of inches in his direction. The muscles, claws, teeth, and size of the beastly creature intimidated the boy into giving a low keen which continued when his eyes swept over the men. They were talking low, full of anger and disgust, not a drop of pity to be found but in the silent giant.

Jake? Vlad gasped, blinking with wider eyes. No. Jake's dad! His eyes fell to the man's side. Uncle! My uncle! … The kindling light of hope choked on Walter's detached expression and was then doused out with fear when Vlad spied the trembling scowl. The Angel of Death was furious beyond comparison to any memory in the child's mind. He just helped me, let me sleep in his bed, and now I do this? I follow him again and get in all this trouble…? Shame cleared some of the panic from Vlad's head, letting his senses better evaluate his position.

"What should we do with him?" "I can't believe you stupid bastards let this happen! With the Angel of Death here! My god!" These were hushed voices, but full of emotion. A man was pointing at Vlad, others were as well, gesturing at his odd appearance or blaming individuals for letting him sneak in. Trouble. He was in big trouble.

Uncle. Walter had taken a few slow steps in Vlad's direction, demanding instantaneous silence from the room so that his footsteps could be heard. Vlad had trepidation tingling in his marrow while some faint relief and thankfulness also entered his body. Then he numbed and all eyes watched without thought or opinion when Walter touched the dog that was still growling at the boy, black eyes of hate glued to the pale skin and dark clothes with all the malevolence that the dog could muster for an enemy. There was a click as the chain was unhooked from the Doberman's collar, and then came the raging blast of growling snarls when the dog attacked, flying free once Walter had released it Vlad let out a strangled screech and fell back with the weight of the dog attached to his stomach where the jaws had closed on his clothes, shaking him, ripping cloth. The jaws were a flash of motion, as were the blunt claws and hard limbs that the boy's hands tried to push away. His arm was bitten, his chest, his stomach, his wrist, his ribs, and his shoulder, were tattooed with bleeding bites. The hot breath felt cold, as if the fangs were sabers carved from ice, snapping at the air close to his throat. Vlad turned over, trying to protect his face. Teeth bit his head and a snarl filled his ear after a sharp bark when Vlad screamed. It bit his back and paws attached to muscled forelegs pushed down on Vlad in a rush to get to his neck.

The boy threw himself as far as he could, which was only a few inches, turning himself with his hands and sneakers against the floor. He came face to face with the dog when it came upon his chest, black pits staring into the bright scarlet eyes. Instinct came to Vlad when no thoughts could breach his mind, consumed by fear and dread and rage. The sudden torrent of rage that this animal should take his life.

It was an urge, the need he suddenly felt, to fight back, to intimidate back. So he snarled back at the fangs, baring his own teeth, his pupil's shrinking, stabbing into the animal's glare, and when the dog hesitated, Vlad lunged, grabbing at the dog as if his hands were talons, hissing and growling like he was a beast himself. A canine mouth and a human mouth came close together, biting at air, teeth snapping together. They rolled back, claws scratching Vlad's skin and making contact with his jaw when he forced the dog down. It was like had had been punched and scratched at all in one motion. The jaws came forward, red eyes saw, so a pale hand thrust out to catch them, holding them off and keeping them apart even as the teeth cut his fingers. Vlad's mind was empty of human thought, only drive, animalistic drive to fight and survive, hatred, anger, fear, and exhilaration. He felt the pain from his body. He felt that he was losing blood, that fatigue and blood loss were weakening him, but he felt as if he had a monstrous strength suddenly, and something that made him more worthy to live than the animal. No thought. No plan. Hands bleeding, head bleeding, body bleeding, hurting, pain, panic, hatred, hatred…

The gurgled scream of an agonized beast ripped through Vlad's numbness, pushing him back and away from the animal so that he sat on the flow, panting with wide, crazed eyes that slowly returned to sanity and thought, catching up on what had just happened.

The dog's jaws were torn wide open, a gaping, mangled picture of something that barely resembled a dog's snout, left with the animal's blood and the child's blood that had come from Vlad's fingers that now trembled incessantly while he stared. There was blood on his own human mouth, his blood and the dog's blood. The blood that was pooling from the Doberman's throat as if all that was contained in the beast was flowing from it. Like the man his uncle had killed. Blood poured from the hole that had been ripped into the creature's neck by Vlad's blunt teeth, the white teeth that were now stained with the blood of a beast and a human, the dog's and his own. As Vlad watched, the dog suffered, bleeding, whining, screaming…. And then it died when its voice turned to silence.

And the room was silence as well. Silence, death, emptiness, shock, and fear. Grown men were afraid or intimidated in some way. But Walter's anger had been appeased.

"Joel. Clean him up and then come back."

That was all that was said. There were no other words. Vlad was carried from the room, barely awake, his head in a distant land far far away from Hell and even farther away from Earth. The large hands tried to be gentle, but Vlad's wounds still sparked with pain that made the boy gasp when his injuries were cleaned with water and a dabbing towel. Hydrogen Peroxide bubbled and fizzled, drawing out distant, muffled whimpers. Then Vlad remembered curling up in a corner on a soft carpet flooring, leaning against the wall with bandages and band aids beneath his tattered and torn, bloodied clothes.

Then he was in the car. After that, he saw the doctor he'd seen before when he had been hurt by Jake. He got stitches, on his scalp, on his lip,and on his shoulder near the base of his neck. He wore patches and more bandages to bed that night.

And he slept in his uncle's room.

Uncle is a bad man. Uncle is a bad man, but I still want him. I still want my uncle and I do not want to lose him.

But he doesn't care if I die. I mean nothing. I mean nothing to everybody and nobody.

But why is he giving me water?

It was morning and Vlad was propped up in the bed beneath a layer of band aids of various sizes, stitches, and bandages that held his battered, bruised, and scabbed body together. From beneath his wounds and his pain and weakness, the boy stared at the glass of water in the man's hand. His injured hands accepted the water, though it hurt. And pale lips touched the glass, though it hurt. And the boy swallowed the water, though it tasted of blood iron. He was thirsty, but it hurt, so he drank as much as he could. He missed school, sleeping without his uncle saying a word against his 'laziness'. His uncle remained in the house until late afternoon when Vlad began to wander from room to room, limping and moving slowly. The boy managed to eat, use the bathroom, and function on his own, returning to the comfortable bed with a book he was reading for school, one that he enjoyed. Vlad turned on the bedside lamp so that he could read peacefully.

Walter came home late, when Vlad had fallen asleep with the book in his hands, but as Walter stood, looking down at the damaged pale face, the large crimson eyes, again retaining light, opened and gazed back at the man. Neither spoke and neither possessed thoughts.

"Boy, are you part demon?"

Vlad blinked, but his overall expression did not change, showing no alarm. He had been asked that question before. "No..…but I'm part 'you'."

A flash of surprise crossed Walter's face, his eyes widening, lips parting, gaze clearing of darkness for a moment, and then the man's features moved to display an amused, thoughtful smirk. Vlad watched, his hurt mouth hesitant to speak, but he forced himself too, blocking out the pain.

"Uncle…are you glad I didn't die?"

The amusement stayed with Walter when the boy's words continued to hold some interest for him to feed off of. "If you had died it would have been troublesome. Sending you away would be much cleaner."

Is that a yes or a no? What had he meant by 'cleaner'? Vlad wondered, but his optimism favored 'yes' with his uncle's maintained smirk. Walter did not give him that expression often, and it was oddly consoling.

"Never follow me again. I will bring you if I want you."

A carefully preformed nod of the pale head was all that was needed to satisfy Walter.

As time passed and Vlad's wounds healed more quickly than they should have, noted by his uncle who found this to be a curious fact, Vlad coexisted with the bad man and the bad man's 'badness' became less apparent, seen only as a component of his uncle's character. And so, younger Vlad came to know more about his uncle and to understand his new life; the life the older Vlad was returning to, submerged beyond the surface he had been aware of after he had come to accept his uncle and crime, things that were both bad and not bad.

It was his life.

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

 

Dishes clinked together while water from the tap flushed away suds that expanded to form foamy mountains in the collecting water as white rubber gloves handled the dishes and glasses, putting most into the dishwasher while a select few were cleaned entirely by hand. A cascading mane of golden hair ran down a thin, yet powerful, shoulder and one of the rubber gloves twitched with the instinct to brush a few strands of hair aside, but with the contagious suds making this a messy option the trailing hair was shrugged back by the shoulder so that it could no longer bother the woman while she washed and rinsed a sink full of dishes. Her son sat behind her under the halo of a few lamps that hung from the ceiling, slouching on a stool with a pink pencil eraser against his lips, two round lenses scrutinizing his school work.

Integra Anderson's body preformed what was required to clean the dishes, but her mind wandered, as it often did when she participated in things that were considered domestic chores, falling into the stereotype of a wife for a brief moment. Her thoughts strayed to a specific topic that broadened. There was the boy who was almost a legal adult…but that was only in the eyes of the law. He was still young, a child, but at seventeen in the environment he lived in, his age was not something that could attest for innocence. Seventeen year olds, even fourteen year olds or younger children in gangs were capable of killing, of committing murders, armed robberies, sexual offences; the list was long. But for Vlad, Integra could not identify a criminal in his character. As he had warmed up to her family, she had seen him transform into a child, more specifically, a teenager. He was not like a ten or eleven year old, but he had qualities that were not always common in teens his age.

But that man, the man whose very body represented what harm he could inflict upon her children - Jake Savage, she could not accept him. Alex, her son…she glanced back at the blonde teen and then brought her attention down to the dish in her hands. Alexander was a strong, healthy, and hardy boy, but Jake's body - she could envision it overpowering her son's if the two ever met in a conflict. Then weapons and drugs, gang affiliation and violence; the thought of her children being involved in these things, terrified her as much as the thought heated her chest with the rage she would unleash on any who might taint or harm her family.

She had no fear at all, regarding her husband. She believed in his abilities as surely as she trusted her own. Integra could count on her mate to protect their brood, as well as himself.

"Alex." The rubber glove dripped water onto the counter when it reached out to place a serving platter on the drying rack. With the name, her son stopped what he was doing and looked up, giving her his obedient attention. "When did you meet Vladimir?"

Green eyes blinked, thinking back and adding up the days. "Two weeks or so ago."

That's not a very long time. It seems longer than that…and I can't even boast a whole two weeks. Integra sloshed the water collecting in the plugged sink when she lifted out a buried dish.

She wants to talk about Vlad. Anderson's thoughts were followed by grim shadows. They hadn't heard from Vlad in a few days now, but he should be fine…

"You met Vladimir because you heard him play the piano, right?"

Anderson, pushing past the embarrassing side of this memory, nodded. "Yeah. You know, because he's really good…I wanted to find out who it was."

"His playing would attract or catch your attention. …Vladimir is talented."

With a bit of pride for his friend, the teen smiled. "Yeah. But I really want you to see his art too. He's good at drawing, at least from what I've seen…and that's not really much. But he drew this amazing dragon. Hopefully you'll get to see it, since I saved it."

Integra cut in when confusion lifted one of her brows. "You saved a dragon, Alex? Really?" She chuckled, knowing well what he had meant. The teen added his own humor with sarcasm.

"Oh yeah. You bet I did, Mom. Got a sword and beat off the knight that was trying to slay it, and everything. -No. Aha. I'm joking, but the dragon- Vlad draws really good dragons…and trees…and everything."

"I think you already mentioned this before…you said he throws away his art? He doesn't turn it in?"

"Nope…but he should. The teacher was amazed too. You should have seen her face when she saw his paper. Vlad tore up the picture…but I kinda put it back together…and it still looks good. Now it just looks like…um…mysterious, like some lost ancient medieval drawing. It was some kind of horned monster guy and then other pictures showed him transforming into the dragon."

But he still tore it up? Even with a positive response? The woman frowned, scrubbing at a cup. Her curiosity darkened. "Alex, what kind of person do you think Vladimir is?"

Anderson, not expecting the question had to sit up and let his eyes wander the ceiling while he considered how he would respond. "I don't know." He replied lamely, hoping to buy a bit more time to think. He looked at the wall, his face calm, peaceful without raw emotion attached to any of his judgments. "He kinda likes to be alone sometimes. Doesn't like most people."

"Really?" Integra hummed to herself, musing what her son had said. She knew that Vlad had been reluctant to mingle with law enforcement officers, but that was understandable, expected. But she had not observed any real aversion towards people. Vlad seemed to open up and accept Seras and her own father, Van Hellsing, readily.

"Yeah, and at school he's kinda known to be dangerous."

"Dangerous?" He is possibly dangerous…but I didn't expect the boy to be recognized as a dangerous figure…Vladimir doesn't come across as being particularly dangerous…all the time that is. The woman sighed, reluctantly giving up on her childish interpretation of Vlad, a delusion she had momentarily humored herself by accepting. Yes. He is dangerous, withdrawn… He snarls…he has threatened me before…and he bit me. …It shouldn't be easy to forget these things. When Integra bit her lip, unseen by her son, Anderson spoke again.

"Did you ever notice that he had blood stains on the back of his shirt- I mean the collar…some of it came out when we kept washing it here, though."

Yes, I remember now. I did notice that. Integra grimaced, releasing her lip. I don't like remembering the bad things about the boy. He's not bad on the inside. I know he's not rotten like most of them… Disgust welled for her memories of despicable human beings she had encountered in the past. Murderers, sex offenders…burglars….forms that Vlad could easily fit into.

"Yumie and Heinkel have been trying to convince me to stay away from him."

And Yumie and Heinkel are both smart girls, Integra thought. She had known them for years. They had attended pre-school with her son. It makes sense that they would want him to stay out of Vlad's business…and maybe…he really should. But he won't. I know my son. I wouldn't be able to leave Vladimir alone either… Alexander is too much like me…sometimes, for his own good.

"Oh yeah and I've got plans with them later on. Is that okay?"

"Nothing after 7 p.m. You know my rules."

"I would be back for dinner. Yumie's got some community service activity she's doing wither her club and she wanted some extra help since a lot of people are out of town. I think it might be a bake sale or raffle thing…I don't know. I just know that they're selling something to try and raise some money."

It was quiet for a time, the sink becoming silent. The rubber gloves were hung on the drying rack and the now naked hands found themselves being cleaned by a towel, though they were practically dry. They had been completely dry while inside the gloves even though she had been dipping her hands in suds and water, but when she had removed the gloves her hands had become wet.

"Are you almost finished?"

"Huh?" Anderson snapped out of his daze, realizing that he had been staring at the wall, and his head turned to find that his mother was watching him. Finished with-? Oh, homework. Darn it. I still have more of this to do? The teen sighed, but had a smile on his face. "Almost."

"Okay. It's good that you're not waiting until the last minute. But don't stay up too late. You can always finish the rest tomorrow."

"Mn, yeah. I guess most people do that." Rubbing his hair and chuckling only because he was in a better mood, Anderson returned to his homework when his mother passed him, leaving the kitchen.

From the hall, her voice came back to him. "Oh, and your father should be coming back soon. He said it's snowing where he is, but it's not enough to keep the planes grounded."

"Oh, cool."

Then Anderson buried his nose in monotonous homework once more.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

"Can you get me Jake?"

A silhouette against the brick wall, Vlad gazed at the woman that was staring at him with her large, ringed eyes. His face remained undecipherable. He was standing on a sidewalk, the street in front of him receiving the tires of a few passing cars, their rumbling engines drowned out by the closer voices of the group, mostly teens, all of which were male, sitting on the old steps of a vacated apartment complex, graffiti on the walls and rust on the metals bars that protected the windows. The woman's wild, frizzy hair looked like a large brown mane of curls flapping discreetly in the breeze. A black bandana attempted to tame the unruly hair, but only managed to tie and flatten some of it down. Vlad looked at her as if she was standing some distance across the street instead of a few feet in front of him.

The woman's eyes darted about and she sucked her lip nervously, stamping her foot like an impatient horse before she finally released her lip again with a snap of her tongue. "You're Hell Dog, right? Right? The- the Hell Dog, not just any dog. You- you're the dog from Hell, Hell Dog. You- You can get me- You can get me Jake. Big Jake. Yeah, Jake. Right? You can- you can get me Jake?"

Vlad continued to look off into the distance where the woman was standing, off across the street, miles away. A man sitting on two cinderblocks with a cigarette hanging lazily from his lips watched with drooping eyes that seemed to find most things dull. The cigarette bobbed as he moved his mouth, passing looks to the others that were standing. He thrust his chin to indicate the woman and Vlad and then continued to move the cigarette around in his mouth.

Vlad's face was like stone. His voice was low, softened but not entirely friendly. "There are a lot of guys named Jake. And you don't look like his type of girl…"

She burst out with a frenzied waving of her hands that switched from dancing around in random motions to twisting the cloth of her jacket and tank top, pulling both down without noticing, to reveal the bones visible on her chest. She was laughing airily, a forced laugh she might not have been able to hear herself. "It's Jake. Just one Jake, and that's him. You- you know- you know who I'm talking about. Big Jake. He- he- My sister knows him. She- she tol'- told me 'bout him an'- an' how he- how he's a good guy, gives people- gives 'em- helps them out." She beamed, one tooth missing. "Yeah. Th-that Jake… I know 'im."

Vlad slowly shook his head, wanting to step back, but he held his ground. The others were watching with kindling interest, mostly amusement. "No. I don't know why you're coming to me. I don't even know where Jake is right now."

"But-"

"I can't help you."

"But-" Her clothes creased as she twisted the fabric, creating more wrinkles, adding to the ones that had existed already. She smiled and gave the strange laugh again. No cars occupied the road, and the others that were watching were quiet. "But, you got to. I hear you- I hear that you're magic. Right? Got- got special- special powers. Hell Dog, an' all." Her arms suddenly crossed over her stomach and she hugged herself, turning from side to side. "What you want then? What you want for letting me talk to Jake? Hm? I- I can let you do something. That what you want?"

Vlad frowned, looking at her arms. "What?"

She continued to hug herself, twisting from side to side, like she couldn't stand still.

The woman gave a start and dropped her hands to her sides when her observers burst out laughing. Their derision widened her eyes, making her forehead crinkle, while her lips trembled with indignity when she looked into the grinning face of the droopy eyed man.

It was a doggish, sneering smile, shaded by the visor attached to the hat on his head. "Cunt. Who do you take him for? This is Hell Dog. Try selling yourself to some other punk. He don't want any of your drugged up ass. He doesn't deal with prostitutes. And, bitch, you're too damn ugly to fuck anyway."

Vlad, who they expected to be quiet, drowned out their hilarity with the same composed voice he had used before. The teen was repelled by the woman's offer. He wasn't going to accept it, but she had caught his attention with the things she had said about Jake. She probably had no idea what Jake was like, she had probably never met him, but for her to know his name meant that she had at least dealt with someone that knew Jake pretty well. If she had called him Black, then Vlad would have kept quiet and allowed the others to mock her, revenge for trying to use Jake in a lie. He didn't believe that the woman had a sister that knew Jake. If one sister was like this, it was likely that the other would be in the same situation…in this neighborhood. No clean sister would tell her to go to a gangster for help. In fact, there was probably no sister in the equation at all. But he didn't really care about too many details. He looked her in the eye, giving her the attention a human being deserved. Vlad never considered that she might not be thinking of the Jake that he knew now, or considered whether or not she had picked out the name at random. She didn't inspire any significant amount of doubt in his mind, yet.

"What do you want from Jake? He doesn't have any drugs and he doesn't give out money to pay for them either."

Taken aback, but relieved, the worn face brightened and stuttering, nervous speech returned. Her hands twisted her clothes, holding the cloth tightly. "M-m- I- I don't want drugs." She smiled, jerking lips fitting her fidgeting body. "I don- I don't do drugs. M-no I- I don't do drugs." She shook her head, still smiling, but Vlad's face had darkened, his eyebrows flattening with his stare.

"Don't mess wit` him, you dumb bitch!" A voice yelled out, alarming the woman so that she dropped her smile and hunched her shoulders protectively. She winced, peeking at Vlad's expression with wary eyes.

"I'm not stupid." Vlad stated without anger and watched as her head fell to moving from side to side, her eyes staring at the ground. She hugged herself again and was quiet for a while.

"I-I smoke some crack wit' -with my man, sometimes…" She murmured incoherencies and the other observers snorted.

"She really has a man? God damn." They laughed in the background for a bit, losing interest in laughing when her voice spoke up again, focusing on the silent, pale teen that watched her.

"I-I got to get some money for my b-baby." She choked now and broke out with a sob. "I got a baby. An'- an' she needs food. We don't- we don't got a damn thing in the pantry. The-the goddamn fridge keeps stayin' empty." Her tears continued to build and spill while her breath hitched with despair and shame. Her arms were not comforting her. They were crushing her, claw like fingers pinching any fat her thin body possessed, hating herself. Hating everything that would make her live while her baby might die from sickness or hunger.

Some of the others in the group of gangsters were able to laugh at her stupidity and the disgust they had for her. "Then don't do crack if you got a kid! How stupid is this woman?" Laughter rang and her head sank, trembling. "Worst type of woman. Can't feed her own kid? Gotta do some crack first, right? Momma's gotta have her crack 'fore baby's allowed to have its milk." "Don't you got some milk in them boob's, woman? I see they're about half a mouthful each. That's enough for a baby, isn't it?" They laughed again, two or three standing apart from them. Those were the teens that were silent, the ones that let their eyes remain fixed on their feet or fused to the sidewalk.

Vlad watched the woman, and he saw her tremble as she fell further into despair. He watched as her nails dug into her body, forcing out a sob that did not come without pain. She could have been forcing herself to cry, but the doubt, again, did not cross Vlad's mind.

He turned away from her and walked towards the group, which had tightened when their interest had been pooled together. They laughed louder when they saw him leave her, cigarettes wasting away as embers took advantage of a body's shaking laughter in order to consume more of the stick of tobacco. Vlad stopped in front of them.

"What do you guys have on you?"

"What?" The laughs died down, tied to the quickness of the individual's brain as he registered the change. Several eyes looked at the tall teen dumbly.

"How much money do you all have on you."

Sobs choked behind him and then a frenzied rambling of 'oh God, oh God thank you' began. Bewildered faces wore gawking expression while the eyes that had been directed towards the ground looked up with new respect for Vlad, new humbleness for themselves when they compared their own characters to his. Red eyes scanned theirs.

"I don't know if I have enough to buy this baby something other than cheap crap. I might have enough for some dog food if it's on sale... But we're not gonna feed a baby dog food, alright. That might've worked for me as a kid, but it won't work for a normal baby."

Stunned bodies adopted new humor, chuckling at the joke, shifting around, becoming more comfortable.

Vlad smirked a bit, without truly joining in on the humor. "Well, maybe we could feed it dog food, but what if the kid turns out lookin' like me? Then we'd have this lady coming to us in tears, crying and tearing her clothes because she's got such an ugly ass kid now, because of us. She doesn't need a kid turning out like me on top of all the other shit she has going on for her, right?"

They laughed now, waving or sucking on cigarettes. "Hell Dog, you ate dog food as a kid?"

"Na. I ate puppy chow back when I was small. Right now I eat dog food."

"For real?" Cackles and cheers were sent up into the air, praising the joke as well as the possibility.

"Alright, alright. All us guys together got to have enough to feed a baby. Else I'm gonna shit myself laughing at how pathetic we are if we don't." The droopy eyes twinkled with chuckles he could not expel fast enough, giddiness brimming now as he shuffled about with the others, trying to see how much their wallets or pockets had while comparing the wealth.

"You got a twenty? Why the hell do you have that twenty for? You don't have nothin' to buy. Give it to me. I'll give you a five and we'll put the money in the pile."

"Hell no. I'm gonna put in a five and you put in your own damn money. I'm not stupid. Why 're you pretending I'm stupid? Try that on that fool over there. He can't count the fingers on his hand."

"I sure as hell can! I've got ten of 'em, right here. Look!"

"Dumbass…you just dropped your money."

"Oh, shit. Hey, don't steal it! Give that back. That's mine! -nuh uh, I didn't drop two dollars. I dropped two fives. Don't try to pull one over me! You know I'm watchin' you. You all can't be trusted with counting out money. You're all too stupid."

"Stupid just called you stupid, what does that make you?"

"Oh, shut up and get out your damn money. And wait- Why does Stupid have so much money? All I've got is a few ones and some change."

Vlad reached into his back pocket while all of this was going on and he felt out the edges of two folded bills. He picked them both out after a pause, and added the two dollars onto the cinderblock that had now turned into a donation pool.

When they had finished, he gathered up the sum, flipping through the bills after he organized them into a manageable handful, leaving behind any change that had been thrown in for someone else to count. Now that it was quiet, the sobbing woman could be heard again.

"We've got thirty-eight dollars here." Pale lips pronounced. A hand entered a pocket, emptying it as a few of the others had chosen to do. Vlad accepted the money and counted it. "We have forty dollars."

"And over two bucks in change! So that's forty-two dollars and sixty-two cents!"

Laughs and chuckles came again. "Sixty-two cents? Why sixty-two? What kind of number is that? Sixty-two..."

Vlad pocketed the change and folded the bills in his hands, wrapping them in the secure grip of his fist. "So who wants to go with me to buy the food? All together the store guys might just call the cops."

"Ha! Yeah, who'd think we're buying baby food? They'll think we're robbing them… Oh, god! I want to see the guy we pay when we have a mountain of baby food or milk, whatever we're gonna buy. He'll think we're nuts!"

"Or drunk."

"Who here gets drunk at 2 o'clock in the afternoon?"

"I know this guy's Mom does."

"Hey, get off me. And no way in hell - she does not get drunk at two! Fuck, she's wasted by 7 a.m., right when I get up in the morning. Two is when she's hung over and sleeping her ass off."

"Me, my old man's never hung over…cuz he's always dead drunk! I ain't never seen the man sober, and never want to neither. I'm not going back to that bastard. I'm staying wit' my mom and her new man, with my sister and my cousin. They're alright."

"You've got a hot cousin, from what I remember."

"You stay the hell away from her! She's freaken nine!"

"Oh shit! Wait! Then I'm talkin' about your sister!"

"She's fuckin' pregnant, you ass-hole!"

"Oh…fuck…damn it. Then who's damn sister am I thinking of?"

"You dumbass."

The group laughed and joked, leading the way to the nearest store that would have food for a baby.

Vlad hung back, keeping an eye on the sniffling mother.

"What kind of food does the baby eat?"

"Mn? She's still got the formula milk, b-but she- she can eat the -the jars, the baby food." Sniff. "But-but she's only got gum. Nope. No- no teeth yet. Not many - jus' a few of 'em…an' they're small. Little itty teeth. But she - she still likes her milk. She cries for milk. But- but I don't got- I don't got-"

"You're going to have to pick it out. I don't know anything about babies."

"M-kay. I- I know what ma' baby likes. She like 'em sweet potatoes kind- and the fruit ones. I-I'll know it wh-when I see 'em all there - on those shelves…wit' the light on 'em. ….Oh, I haven't been in- in the store in- in a while. It- it's changed 'lot. Oh. It's- This 's a different…a different one. I thought- I thought it was the other one."

"Is the other one better?"

Vlad stopped on the tiles, the automatic door sliding shut behind him. The group of delinquents and shady characters were in front of him, trying to figure out where baby food was supposed to be. Some wanted to go to the frozen food section, while some wanted to go to the dairy section, and others wanted to go buy the baby some candy or booze. The store's employees and other customers were rooted in place, all heads turned to the group, noting the sniffling woman who hiccupped with tears occasionally, all eyes stopping on the tall, pale man who stood with her. Was she his hostage? Were those his lackeys? Were they all going to get robbed and shot now?

Jesus Christ, not me. The poor girl at the nearest check out line dreaded the approaching thin man, the glowing red eyes and dark clothes. He had something in his hand. Oh God, he's going to take me hostage too. A young hostage is what they always want. Oh please no!

Her puckered forehead and draining pallor told Vlad of the thoughts she was having when he stepped up to her counter, cutting off the old man who was standing with his wallet in his hands, in the middle of paying for his groceries. He hid his wallet in his jacket with a quick movement and stepped back.

Down the row of check out lines, the manager was watching with others who were just arriving on the scene, a phone held at the ready, already displaying the numbers '911' on the screen. He only had to push 'Call' and help would hopefully get there in time.

They all held their breath when Vlad opened his mouth to speak.

"Where do you keep the baby food?"

Rigid with a few tears in her eyes, the anxious girl blinked, slowly absorbing the tears again when she stared at Vlad's face and heard what he had asked. When she didn't speak, a white fist, the one she had feared, was shown to the girl. The fist opened and the rolled money began to unfurl, threatening to fall.

"We've got money to buy as much baby food and baby milk as we can. Do you have stuff you can feed a baby or not?"

"Oh, um….um I…" Looking around with frayed nerves, the girl held her hands at her chest and peered around quickly for someone who could take the red eyes away. With a spark of relief and only a little guilt, her finger pointed to a uniformed employer who stood watching from one of the aisles. "He can help you- s-Sir. Over there. Him."

Vlad didn't bother thanking the girl when he left, and he didn't spare a single glance for the old man or his wallet. Meanwhile, the quiet was destroyed by laughs and yells from the group that followed Vlad's lead.

"THAT WAS FREAKEN AWESOME!" They cheered and applauded Vlad when he went to the employee that would take them to the baby food. "Did you see their faces? They totally thought we were gonna take their cash!"

"I bet half of 'em are gonna be waddling home today with a load in their pants! That girl definitely shit herself!"

"Hell Dog, you're awesome. That was perfect. She thought you were gonna shoot her. When you showed her the money - did you all see that? Oh, god I'm gonna burst a kidney laughing about that."

"See the fat guy with the phone?"

"What a laugh!"

"Now where's the baby food? …Is this stuff any good? Looks like the same stuff my cat threw up this morning, just less hair."

"My dog threw up something that looked like half a dead rat."

"Oh, don't tell Black that. Doesn't he have pet rats or somthin'?"

Vlad waited for the woman to pick out the canister of baby formula she wanted, surprised to see that it was powder. He thought they sold a special milk, like Whole or Low Fat milk, only for babies. Two canisters were chosen and Vlad ordered one of the guys to carry it.

When they picked out the jars of baby food, unsteady hands dropped one of the glass jars. It shattered into a pile of mush and glass fragments at the miserable mother's feet. The group stared at the mess, some eyeing the woman with mixed feelings before Vlad reached over it for another jar of the same flavor. The mess was overlooked and the group migrated back towards the check out lines where their sadistic hearts brought them before the same stricken check-out girl they tormented with grins.

One jar had to be abandoned when the total, with sales tax added on, exceeded their budget. The plastic bags were given to the bushy haired woman and the group was outside before anyone noticed the broken jar of baby food or the various other things that had been pocketed on the way out. Down the sidewalk and several blocks away, the woman had evaporated from their presence, having thanked the group before hurrying off with her goods, a thankful smile on her worn face and light in her ringed eyes.

While the others enjoyed bringing up the reaction they had gotten in the store and ate what they had stolen, Vlad walked with them, wondering why he had been so unlucky today. He was supposed to buy milk with those two dollars. Jake had asked him too, because they were out.

Oh well. The baby needed the milk more than Jake did. It'd be troublesome if Jake got any bigger. He might need to build a bigger door for himself, and that would be expensive. So those two dollars had actually saved him a lot of trouble in the end.

Chapter Text

Chapter 15

 

"You're gonna go check out that place, right?" A heavy arm draped across the back of a chair as Jake tilted his head back to look at the teenager that was currently tying his black laces at the couch he slept on. Vlad nodded, making a loop with nimble white fingers.

"Yeah, right now. It's a little bit more expensive than my last place-" He shrugged his shoulder and leaned his head to the side to move his hair out of his view. "-but it's a lot bigger. It's supposed to have it's own bathroom with a shower and stuff."

Jake turned back to his breakfast, taking a bite while his eyes scanned a magazine featuring new models of cars and reports on the rising or falling prices of specific car parts. One hand reached out to grab an open can of Pepsi. The giant spoke after swallowing. "It's an actual place right? It should have a bathroom. The last place you had, Jesus…that was not the usual. The shower is gonna be a good investment for you. If you're clean and presentable, someone's more likely to consider picking you for a job. But expect the water bill to go up."

"Yeah. Figured as much."

"Good." Jake took another sip of Pepsi, looking around the can to see what he was reading as Vlad passed him to go to the door. "How likely do you think it is for you to get this place? I don't mind letting you stay here for another week or so."

Vlad stopped to look back at Jake, appreciating the offer, but he was shaking his head. "No, I'm good. I think I'll get this place and then I'll be out of your hair. You need your space."

Jake said nothing, consuming his breakfast with his eyes on his magazine while Vlad shut the door behind himself and left the giant to read in silence.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

The room was a large rectangular box with three doors. One door leading outside, one door leading into the bathroom, and one door that opened up to reveal the interior of a closet where there was evidence that the teen, if he was able to live in the tiny apartment that was more of a bedroom walled off from the rest of another apartment, would have a few eight-legged neighbors for company. It was dusty, it was grimy, there was dark stains on the carpet and there were similar stains on the walls, both of which could questionably have been blood, and from outside the sounds of the city echoed off of bricks that walled an alley.

But, in Vlad's view, the room was sparkling with corny fairy dust. So, a step above being the possible location of a past homicide, the apartment looked like the possible location where Tinkerbelle had been brutally murdered.

The bathroom…at least had running water that might be used to scrub away some of the fungi forest that was growing in the shower…the crusty, black fungi forest…burnt fungi maybe…

Back by the doorway Vlad was surveying the room for a moment. Without a doubt, he turned to the dull-eyed landlady with a sharp nod of acceptance, to which he earned a raised eyebrow and then a shrug. The landlady was a broad, rather stout woman with a floral print dress and a large bust that distracted attention from her expressionless face, but she didn't say much and that was enough to please Vlad. He could tell she didn't like him, but he wasn't sure if he would ever come to like her either. But he could see that they might be able to tolerate one another in a satisfactory way.

"Do you have a number I can call?"

"Yeah. If you have a pen I can write it down."

The woman walked off down a dark, cramped hall and around a corner, Vlad following her part of the way. She returned quickly and handed him a pen and a notepad where he scrawled Jake's number below his last name. "My friend might pick up, his name's Jake." Vlad added a skinny arrow from the phone number to Jake's name when he wrote it down. "You can leave a message with him if I'm not there and he'll pass it along to me so I can call you. Is there any special time you want me to call at….or like a-"

"If I tell you to move in, then I want you to call me back within forty-eight hours, or I'm going to give the room to somebody else. I don't have patience for waiting around. If you want the room, then you had better call me back and not make me wait. You got that?"

Seeing the face that belonged to a woman in her mid forties or early fifties, the teen blinked once before handing her the pad and pen with a few nods. Her eyes were assessing him, he saw, unable to break eye-contact as his thoughts raced to figure out what she might want him to do, how he should behave in order to gain her acceptance. He needed the room. He wanted only honesty with her. She looked into the red eyes, in no way communicating as to whether or not she had seen his thoughts, and then left him behind when she went back to the room, taking out a bronze key to lock it. Vlad said good-bye after asking if there was anything else she needed, and left shortly there after.

Out on the street again with busy traffic, yells, and honking horns adding to the fumes that polluted the air, the teen strolled down a couple of blocks, his head down with his hood up, thinking and watching his feet as he relied on peripheral vision to guide him. He ducked into a liquor store, making use of the nearest door, to ask for the time before leaving to stalk the sidewalk. He had finished sooner than he had expected to. It wasn't even 9:30 a.m. yet and the overcast sky made it seem earlier. He had ten dollars in his pocket, left over from skipping a breakfast he told Jake he would pick up on the way and from the precaution he had taken in bringing the money in case the landlady wanted a deposit on the room, if she gave it to him right off the bat.

Ten whole dollars, and nothing he needed to do.

The teen's shoes stopped on the concrete and he stood still as the flow of other pedestrians broke around him as if he were a stone in a river. Glancing to the side, from beneath the black hood two red eyes moved over the traffic, landing on a certain green car with a list of prices on the passenger door. He approached the parked car, bending low to check the back seat. When he discovered it was empty, with his hands in his pockets, Vlad moved to the driver's door and looked in.

The cab driver was sipping at a cup of McCafe coffee with a newspaper on the steering wheel. With a start, he looked at his window, freezing when Vlad's ghostly pale face greeted him, shadowed by the hood. Vlad tapped on the glass again to snap the man out of his daze so that he would lower the window.

"How far will five dollars get me?"

Suspicious and frowning, with one hand on his coffee that was currently steaming from his cup holder and having folded and placed his newspaper on the front passenger seat, the cabdriver stared at Vlad with cold eyes. "I'm on my break."

Vlad paused and then took out his money, flashing it at the man before crumpling it up in his hand, making it impossible to tell the worth of the bill. "I've got money and I'd like to go somewhere. When does your break end? I can wait."

Damn punk. Aggravation in a growling voice snapped back that his break would be over in ten minutes, and then the window rolled up, cutting off the conversation. Vlad stepped back after a moment, wandered to the front of the cab with the driver's eyes following him doggedly over the horizon of a newspaper, and then the teen sat down on the curb in front of the car's wheel to wait out the ten minutes and insure that the cab would not suddenly drive away when he wasn't looking.

Shaking out his newspaper violently to open it wider, the cab driver grumbled to himself crossly, stubbornly focusing his attention on the newsprint and the ink letters on its surface.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

The walk to Anderson's house from where the cab dropped Vlad off after handing him a five in exchange for teen's ten, was about an hour long, on the sidewalk or on the dirt along the side of the road. But Vlad didn't mind the walk. He enjoyed the time by himself, but he still felt a slight thrill when he saw the gate that would open to the Anderson family's driveway that cut through the trees speckling their property.

Vlad approached the gate, his gaze running over a pillar of arranged stones where a button and a speaker were present.

That would blow his surprise visit. Since he had come all this way, he could at least get a good laugh out of it. If he snuck up on Anderson when the jock wasn't looking…maybe walking right into his room and waiting to see if he'd notice…. The idea spread a grin across Vlad's face, growing broader with excitement and anticipation when he followed the fence that bordered their property, aiming for the hole he could slip under. Finding it and entering through it, Vlad took his time walking towards the house, wondering which door he should try first as he brushed dirt from his clothes. His goal was to scare Anderson. All he had to do was find the Chief or Female Anderson, if the Chief wasn't home, and then they'd let him in…or he could just unlock a door or go through an open window if he could get the screen off.

Passing the pool, the teen made a bee-line for the glass door that separated him from Integra's office. That sheet of glass was all that was keeping the delinquent outside when he wanted to be inside. But Vlad wasn't familiar with these types of doors. No paper clip or wire could be used if he didn't know what to do with them in this situation, though he had one of both in his pocket, making sure to stock up when he could in the absence of having a spare key for Jake's place.

Alright, no success with the office door. Red eyes traveled over the side of the house, searching for an open window. He went closer to the glass sliding door again and pulled at it before cupping his hands around his eyes to peer into the office. It was empty, as he had assumed. All that noise with the door would have gotten the Chief's attention if she had been there. She was most likely at work.

Okay, next. What's next? No windows on this side of the house are open, now to try…the next side. Vlad proceeded to circle the house, at one point passing a partially uncovered window that showed a room the teen had never seen before. It was a bedroom, though Vlad couldn't tell the size, but he saw a bed with a red and maroon comforter on it along with an assortment of clothes. Guess the Chief didn't finish putting them away yet. Without an available entrance, Vlad continued on until, finally, he came upon an open window with a flimsy screen a wire easily coaxed from it's frame without damaging it, which was then tossed through the window towards a carpeted area. The Christmas tree was sitting in Vlad's view when he climbed through the window, taking care not to leave foot prints on the side of the house or inside when he landed on the tile floor, the same tiles that snaked back into the kitchen but cut off before the Christmas tree to begin a faint grayish-blue carpet lawn.

Success. The screen was replaced, and all was good with the world. Soon he would be up the stairs and he'd get to enjoy scaring the fat ass he had come to visit. Yup, Vlad smiled keeping his footsteps muted when he went to the door and started down the hallway, passing first the white room where the piano was kept, the dining room, the door to Grandpa Hellsing's guest room, and so on, checking his environment to make sure he didn't pass one of the Anderson siblings or the jock he was looking for (he only hoped Anderson was in his room, it was the best place to scare him) while taking a moment to feel bad for what had happened on Christmas and the fact that the old man would have left a long time ago. With a depressing sigh, Vlad lengthened his strides and added a spring to his step, shaking his head to dislodge the cold feeling in his chest.

Now I'm going to go see Anderson and it's going to be fun and when I go home, Jake's going to tell me that the landlady called and then I'll have my own place to live again and everything's gonna be good. Today- Vlad took in a deep breath, filling his lungs - is gonna be a good day.

Just at this time, Vlad went around a corner into the kitchen and walked into a stiff back, his forehead rolling forward to hit the other body. Not expecting this, Vlad stepped back, rubbing at his face with a frown while his eyes glanced over the back, noting the blonde hair and height. He opened his mouth to say 'Fat Ass', as a last effort to get a surprised response from the jock, but as the back turned around, Vlad noticed the light skin and a deeply carved scar that continued as the neck turned to face the pale boy. The body had started to the side as it turned, and a pair of green eyes were wide when they stared at Vlad while Vlad stared back at them.

There was a moment of stunned silence in which Vlad blinked and stared, lips parting as he stared and blinked, wholly bewildered by what he saw.

This wasn't Anderson. He wasn't Anderson. This man was not Anderson. And for a second, Vlad felt anger before he felt surprise again, along with a generous injection of pain, when four large knuckles were driven into his right cheek faster than his brain could follow.

Stunned, and now with his mind reeling from the blow, the teen's thought process shut down. Staggering with round, owlish eyes, Vlad stumbled backwards and tripped over himself when he dodged another punch, becoming sprawled with his back and head smacking the tiles, a dizzy spell descending upon all of the other chaos that distorted his world.

The sole of a tennis-shoe rose up, ready to crash down on the teen when Vlad mustered enough awareness in order to roll to the side and shuffle backwards awkwardly until he hit the base of a counter and slid his back up over the ascending wood drawers in order to get to his feet.

Still unable to think, only able to dodge, Vlad ducked to the right when a fist appeared before his face again and then bolted instinctively down the hall his eyes found, running into a wall and using it to propel himself in a new direction while a hand grabbed at his jacket without getting a good grip so that the teen was able to get away. Vlad ran past doors without looking back, following the tiles as if they were the yellow brick road bringing him to a magical escape route, until they brought him to the living room with the Christmas tree, but more importantly, a good view of the front door. Vlad sprinted to the door and his feet attempted to stop on the mat in front of it but his momentum pushed the mat forward, throwing the boy into the door. In too much of a hurry to step back so that he could see what his hands were doing, fingers fumbled with the door knob, turning it back and forth but having the knob stop each time, as if it couldn't turn full circle. Trying to force it to turn, Vlad kept fought with the doorknob, all the while expecting to get tackled from behind at any moment.

All movement froze when an unmistakable metal shape pressed into the black hair, causing Vlad's body to stiffen while complying with any pressure the gun supplied, moving his face against the door but leaving his paralyzed hands on the doorknob. Seconds lengthened with the quickened pace of a beating heart. Unfocused red eyes gazed at the door, blinking and not seeing it, picturing the gun that was buried in his hair. A foreign hand clasped the cold pale hands and pried them from the door, dropping one in order to grab Vlad's left arm and arrest it painfully against his back, so immobilizing, or at least taking control of the teen so that he could be guided from the door by the gun and the hand that held him. Vlad was forced onto the tiles, part of his body laying across the somewhat dirty mat used to clean shoes before they were allowed to walk through the house.

Swallowing with the cold floor taking any heat it could from his left cheek while his right cheek, which was throbbing, was turned to the air, Vlad gazed at the bottom of the door that should have been his escape, finally coming to a realization that forced Vlad to shut his eyes and bite his lips with shame for his stupidity. The door had been locked. You can't freaken open a locked door. God, am I a dumbass. Shit-

Vlad winced when a knee dug into his arm, crushing it into his back while flattening the rest of Vlad into the floor. The foreign hand released him and moved into a pocket the teen couldn't see. All the while, neither party spoke.

Without being able to see what was happening, Vlad could still hear the clicking of a phone being dialed, pulling out a groan from pale lips and closing the red eyes again when Vlad attempted to bury his face in the tiles and melt into the floor.

"Why do you got to call the police? Why do you have to get cops involved? I hate cops. I hate the friggen cops…" Vlad muttered and cursed to himself as the clicking continued, but after a while he frowned and his brow furrowed, time making his heart slow a little and his clear some murkiness from his mind. Who was this guy? I'm not doing anything wrong. And 911 is not a million numbers long. Vlad discreetly peeled his cheek from the tiles and gradually turned his head towards the man who was kneeling with one knee keeping Vlad immobile, one hand keeping the gun Vlad could still not see against his hair, while the other hand that Vlad was now focusing on was being used to slowly, with a thumb on a right hand, type away at a Blackberry.

The teen's eyes squinted with confusion, forgetting other things for a moment. "You can text the police?"

This got the blonde man's attention and he paused to stab an intimidating, icy glare into Vlad's face, obviously disapproving of the fact that Vlad had turned it to look at him. But the man didn't say anything and soon he pushed another button and his previously busy hand stilled. With a white square reflecting in the green irises that stared at the cell phone intently, the man ignored the teen that tried to wiggle away, only grinding his knee into Vlad so that the boy hissed and stopped moving.

His face hid in the tiles again, cursing at his luck and the situation he was in. Vlad ground his teeth his teeth, snarling now. "You're nuts! Okay? Who the hell are you? AND get the fuck off of me! FUCKING BASTARD!"

The gun dug into Vlad's skull hard enough that the teen became obedient and was convinced that his head was now bleeding, but he still whispered dark curses into the floor.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

Integra was walking towards a door that would bring her to an interrogation room where detectives were already questioning a suspect. Her hand hovered above the doorknob when a sudden buzzing vibration called her eyes to her belt where her cell-phone was clipped and fastened securely. With a cross frown and a knitted brow that further displayed her annoyance, the woman drew her hand back and took out the phone in order to quickly check the text message to make sure it wasn't anything important. If it was her children, they would have to wait…and she would be tempted to scold them later that night, but it so happened that they were not the ones responsible. The sender was labeled:

Hans

Oh. The woman lost the frown and stepped back from the door, giving her full attention to the phone. An hour ago she had gotten a text from her husband telling her that his plane had landed on schedule and that he was now at home, planning to get a good workout in after being crammed in a plane for multiple hours and also planning to work from home today so that he could relax. He wanted them all to go out to dinner tonight and spend some time as a family, hoping to catch up on what they had been doing lately. Her husband had also made plans to do more work from home for the rest of the week, which she had approved of. Hans never contacted her during work hours unless she asked him to, or unless it was necessary.

When she selected the message, the text popped up.

Someone broke into the house - got him on the ground - dont think there are others

"Shit!" Integra's face lined with a scowl, outrage and fear molding her face into a terrifying visage of raw emotion. God damn it! If it had been her children instead of Hans-! GOD! DAMN! IT! Her teeth snapped together while she retreated to the wall across from the door, out of the way from the corridor as she cursed without thinking, too much fury boiling in the blood that was flowing through her brain, to permit restraint. "God damn it!" Her curse filled the hall, but no eyes were in position to look at her, though her voice traveled to a few ears that were unable to interpret what it said.

Her fingers jabbed at the keys.

Ill send some help - dont let him go - do not use too much force - thatll make it harder for me

The text was sent and blazing blue eyes watched the screen as the woman pivoted to stride down the corridor, one hand already going to her walky-talky. But the buzz of a returned text took the hand from the walky-talky so that the message could be opened and answered.

Sorry - force used - needed gun - hes fast

Integra glowered at the phone, cursing again, but another message came that distracted her.

Checked him - no weapons - skinny guy - can handle it - not a big problem so stay calm

Off course I wasn't worried about that, Integra snorted without anything other than ill feelings, void of humor. But now her strides slowed to a walk and then she stopped, realizing that she didn't need to go anywhere if she had her walky-talky as well as her phone for methods of communication. She turned her steps back towards the interrogation room while responding to her husband.

The gun makes this troublesome - put it away - Ill get someone over there

A message came back.

Cant - need it - he doesnt stop otherwise - tried and stronger than I thought - hes an annoying punk

She reread the message once, twice, and stared at the words without realizing she had stopped in the middle of the corridor. 'Need it' Her gaze focused on this steadily, beginning to frown. Hans Anderson was a well built man with a youthful body though he had already reached the age of fifty-five. His hair was full though it was becoming silver in color, a platinum blonde, but his strength had barely dulled from where it had been when he was thirty-five or so. Worry tickled the back of her mind when her fingers clicked at her phone.

What does he look like - is he a big man with short black hair and brown eyes - six foot ten - caucasian - in his twenties

Though she didn't wait for a response with bated breath, her heartbeat quickened. It took some time before her husband replied.

Back in the Anderson home, Hans was making his observations after brushing aside his feelings about the somewhat unexpected question his wife had sent him. She wants to know if she can recognize him, or figure out if this is a man she has already had troubles with before. A man that hates cops, targeting my wife and family…

Hans' green eyes flashed with a hard scowl that Vlad missed as the teen was still grumbling into the tile floor, upset about having the stranger check his clothes for weapons. His paperclip and wire had been confiscated.

Tall but only 5 foot 11 or 6 foot at most 6 foot 1 - think hes caucasian - very white - black hair - not short - red eyes - not a big guy - said he was skinny dear

Within seconds after sending his last text, Han flinched when his phone began to ring, seeming louder than usual after the relative quiet that had persisted for the last few minutes. Vlad looked at it as well, his eyes following the phone and reading the bemused expression on his captor's face. Finally, the phone was brought to Hans' ear and the quiet returned for exactly three seconds, as if someone had purposefully counted out each one. Then a distorted buzzing sound of a voice shot out of the phone, loud enough for Vlad to hear.

Meanwhile, echoing in Hans Anderson's ear and the corridor back at the police station, Integra's infuriated voice roared.

"HAAAAAANS! LET THE BOY GO NOW, OR SO HELP ME GOD I WILL HAVE TO COME HOME AND MAKE YOU RELEASE HIM MYSELF! HOW CAN YOU-" Her voice fell minimally when the echoes made it difficult for her to hear herself. "How can you do that to a boy? That is -! He is friends with your children! A boy! And you- And you-! Oh god damn it Hans, I'm so close to wanting to kill you right now! I've told you not to overreact and everuse or even take that thing out, inside my house! You had better fix this by the time I get home tonight or you will not want to know what I'll have in store for you! -Give the phone to Vladimir, now!" There was one second of silence that impatience lengthened to seem like five. "NOW!"

On the tile floor in front of the door, Integra's husband winced again with the phone pulled away from his ear to avoid damaging it further. Now with a ringing (nearly bleeding) ear, a hard frown with both disapproval and confusion in it, was cast to the staring teenager he assumed was 'Vladimir' who was perfectly quiet now that he had figured out the person the stranger had been communicating with had not been law enforcement.

Hans pushed the phone against Vlad's ear in time for the boy to suffer some of Integra's fury, making him yelp in pain, trying to get away from the speaker.

"I hear you! I hear you! Stop yelling! I can hear you, Jesus fucking Christ! I HEAR YOU!"

It was silent while quiet wrath brewed in the green eyes owned by the husband of the woman Vlad had just cussed at.

The wife, in the mean time, quieted her voice and adopted a calmer tone. "Is that you Vladimir?"

Vlad stared at the tiles, letting Hans put the phone by his ear now. The only person with a female voice that called him that was…the one and only, Integra Anderson. "Chief?"

"Yes. …Vladimir, are you still on the ground?"

"Uh…" Completely lost now, the teen just followed her lead. His eyes darted about, seeing the floor. "Yeah."

"Then, Vladimir, you have permission to kick my husband, if you can."

Quiet.

A light bulb went off and all of the dots could be seen and connected, drawn out of the ignorant darkness, leaving Vlad to give a heaving sigh and lay his face on the tiles with a weak chuckle that further bemused the mentioned husband who was watching. Vlad glanced up at him with curious, still confused and wary, eyes and his lips cracked an awkward smile before he returned his mouth to the receiver of the phone. "Na, I'm good Chief. I…" His words were spaced by a strange giggle that cracked, the boy's body becoming limp and numb now, his head coming to rest on the floor again when he couldn't hold it up anymore. "I guess."

Hans watched quietly, beginning to understand what might be going on. The pale intruder was young, Hans now recognized, and he was no longer resisting or making trouble since he had started speaking to Integra. And the grin the kid was giving him now…

The man hesitated but got off of the teen and stood up, holding the gun by his side with Vlad's red eyes following him part of the way before giving up and focusing on the phone that had been left on the ground by his head. Vlad picked it up and rolled, with a level of difficulty that made him grunt, to the side so that he could lay on his back, not capable of doing more after the excitement he had just endured.

"He let me go now…so….but-" Vlad laughed again, airily, rolling his eyes up to the ceiling. Now he was at a loss for words, overflowing with relief and other warped feelings.

Integra heard the laugh and sighed, feeling disgust and shame for having done this to the boy, though it wasn't her fault, tapping her fingers against the arm that was holding the cell phone up to her ear. "Good. So, Vladimir, the man with you…is my husband, Seras and Alexander's father. …I'm at work right now and I can't leave….and both Seras and Alexander aren't supposed to be back until 2:30 in the afternoon... But I would like it if you could stay at my house until I get there. I would like to speak with you, Vladimir, about some things, alright? You're not hurt or anything…?"

"No, not really." Another chuckle bubbled up as Vlad felt his face begin to throb again, synchronizing with the pain in his back and the pounding blood that was rushing back into his arm after having Hans' knee cut off its circulation. With his instincts still on partial alert, the boy couldn't close his eyes to rest, but he let them become unfocused as he watched the ceiling. "So…I'll stay here then." With the crazy guy that almost killed me. Sounds great.

"Yes…and tell my husband to help you out if he did hurt you. Ask him for anything. I don't care. He can be your slave for the day, you understand?"

"…Yeah….I guess…" The sheepish response was murmured by the recovering teen who rubbed his face with his sleeve and tried coughing to make his voice stronger when he shifted his free hand to his hair.

Integra sighed again and closed her eyes for a time while she spoke. "You need to be patient with my husband, Vladimir. He's mute, so he won't be able to talk to you…he will most likely write what he needs to say down on paper. We generally communicate through sign language at home… I have to go now. I know Hans won't do anything else, but I'll apologize now. He's not the warmest person in the world, I'll tell you that. Okay?"

"….yeah, Chief. 'Kay."

The woman smiled sadly to herself with a nod of her head. "Goodbye Vladimir."

"Bye."Integra ended the call and refreshed herself with a long, composing breath, shaking her head at this mess. Her feet brought her to the door of the interrogation room and two flickering blue eyes looked at its occupants to find them staring or gawking at her, all of them pale while the suspect had begun to hyperventilate in his seat when she opened the door.

"Oh god….please d-don't leave me here alone with her."

Chapter Text

Vlad stared dimly at the ceiling, barely registering the sound of footsteps that stopped near his ear. His eyes scaled the sky-scraper like figure that loomed over him from where he was laying on the tiles. Vlad's expression was neutral while Hans' face was just as undecipherable. The man stuck out his hand, at first appearing to be offering his hand to assist Vlad in standing up, but the teen knew what the hand really wanted and handed the BlackBerry over to the oldest Anderson he had yet to meet. Hans accepted the phone, having to bend a little to reach it, and he stuffed the phone back into a clip he wore on his shorts, completing the work-out attire Vlad stared at without an obvious opinion while figuring out the purpose of the clothes.

The only thing out of place now…was the gun. Red eyes glanced over the weapon and then returned to it with a sharp jerk. Astonishment helped the red eyes become round when they traveled along the extended length of the barrel, blinking with fuzzy recognition. Damn. I think Jake's dad has one of those…or somebody. Shit, if I remember right, that thing's a monster. Shit…I had that thing pointed at my head?…fuck…I almost died today, didn't I?

Vlad closed his eyes, his face twitching before he erupted into a laughing fit that bordered hysteria. The maniacal laughter, however, failed to affect Hans and the green eyes bore down on the teen just as indifferently as they had before. But he refused to let this pale, red-eyed freak out of his sight. The kid, if Vladimir really was just a kid, was not someone he wanted under his roof or mingling with his children. No… the green eyes narrowed, observing the yawning cavern of the teen's jaws, locked in place as laughter poured out in an unceasing torrent… he didn't like the looks of this kid… at all.

I'm so glad I didn't fight back now. Vlad grinned for a moment, spirits rising as his mood stabilized and he stopped laughing. But wariness and forming resentment weighed down his lips when he looked up at Hans again, analyzing this man that was part of the Anderson family.

Somehow, distantly, in the back of his mind, Anderson's dad reminded Vlad of Walter. It must have been the scowl and the icy gaze…and probably that gun. Hans' punches were fast, very fast, but he wasn't as fast on his feet…if Vlad was just a bit faster, then Walter was a good deal faster. But their build was similar. Muscular but lean…nothing bulky unlike Anderson or Jake…but Walter had a body that possessed feline characteristics and stealth. While Hans was a quiet person, his body was not capable of the same stealth.

Hans had taken a different route to the front door, assuming the door was where Vlad was headed, so that he could swipe the gun from his room, still covering about the same distance that Vlad had, perhaps only a little less. So the boy was right. His speed was faster than a fifty-five year old man's, but that was nothing really to be proud of.

Two fingers snapped together, gaining Vlad's undivided attention, and the same fingers motioned back in the direction of the corridor that led to the kitchen. Vlad saw the sign, doing nothing for a moment so he could see the man scowl. He was already sore and achy, and his back cracked a few times when he stood, but Vlad managed to get to his feet and slowly toddle along after the man, stretching out his abused muscles with a few winces and a grimace for the stolid back he followed. But with time, Vlad straightened into a dignified posture and walked with longer strides into the kitchen where he parked himself by a counter while the blonde man fished around inside a drawer. Hans pulled out a large yellow notepad and a pen with a black cap that was soon removed. With another hard stare stabbing into the teen's face when Vlad slouched over part of the countertop with his elbows on the granite, green eyes flicked to the lined notepad to write in a print that was between cursive and regular characters.

How did you get in and why are you here? What relationship do you have with my son and daughter? What is your name and background? Have you stolen or otherwise taken advantage of my wife's hospitality?

Red eyes read the questions, squinting when they had a hard time making out a word or two. A pale hand reached for the notepad, taking hold of it, but Hans refused to let go. Their eyes met again, both sets narrowed and hostile. Impatiently, Hans jerked the notepad from Vlad's grasp and motioned to his own mouth with the un-capped pen, making a circular or emerging motion coming from his lips.

Speak.

Vlad blinked, taking in the message and he wetted his mouth, looking around for a way to make himself more comfortable. His legs were tired, so he moved towards one of the stools that were touched by the halo of a hanging light, where Alexander Anderson sometimes did his homework, having to hesitate and wait for Hans to reluctantly move out of the way and permit him to pass. The boy sat down, deflating a little when his body was allowed to rest, but he became more rigid again when Hans appeared on the other side of the countertop. The yellow notepad was placed at an angle that made the list of questions easier for the teen to reference.

Vlad was finally ready to speak so his eyes revisited the yellow paper and then looked up to meet the green stare.

How did you get in and why are you here?

"I used the wire you took…to take out the screen…I came in through the window next to the Christmas tree."

Hans would blink and his eyes might narrow as Vlad spoke, but his impassive expression never changed.

The teen licked his lips to get rid of any nervousness he was developing, and then continued. "I just came by to say 'hi' to Anderson….Alexander or whatever his first name is. I call him Anderson. I call his sister Female Anderson, because she's Anderson…just only female… And I call the Chief, Chief….cuz she's the chief of police and stuff in the city… Ummm-" Vlad took a breath and bit his lip, looking down at the pad again.

What relationship do you have with my son and daughter?

"Yeah… Anderson and I go to the same school…and I just met Female Anderson because she was with Anderson….and yeah, I guess Anderson is my friend…so….yeah. That's it for that one." Now the teen hummed in his throat, lowering his face more than he needed to so he could peer at the next question.

What is your name and background? Have you stolen or otherwise taken advantage of my wife's hospitality?

Vlad read this and frowned at both questions, a furrowed brow directed to the last question that made him pull away with a hint of a growl. A glower burned into Hans' unchanging face for a moment, and then the pale teen looked away with a snort of bare contempt. Hans didn't bother him that much, it wasn't contempt he bore for the man personally…Vlad resented the questions themselves. In a way taking after his uncle, Vladimir disliked giving away information about himself in too much detail, if he gave away any at all.

"I've never stolen anything or done anything to the Chief-"

The sharp sound of aggressive fingers snapping turned Vlad's head to Anderson's father again, and Vlad looked down at the pen that was moving over the pad.

Keep eye-contact when speaking to me. You will regret any lies you tell me, to be sure.

Irritated feet tapped at the floor and Vlad emitted a grumble when he read the sentences, one eye twitching when he frowned at the man that had written them.

"Fine. I can do that… I've never stolen anything or ever hurt or taken advantage of anything…I'm not using the Chief or Anderson or anyone else in your family, if that's what you're really asking." Vlad's eye twitched again, giving away the disdain he felt when something like doubt seemed to be present in Hans' face, though it hadn't changed. "My name…" The two pairs of eyes were fused together when the more personal subject was addressed, peripheral vision cut off in their tunneled focus. "…is Vlad…or Vladimir. Only the Chief really calls me that. Anderson and his sister call me Vlad. …What do you mean by background?"

Hans didn't show any impatience when he consented to make his question more specific. As for the name, he had figured that the boy's name was Vladimir (all credit going to his lovely wife who had informed him of the name in such a kindly tone - one that made his ears bleed). But now he didn't feel especially inclined to force the boy to tell him his full name. Those that strayed from the right side of the law might typically prefer to keep their full, legal name a mystery…Hans' frowned for a moment, then lost the expression with this thought.

Age. How you know my son - since you go to the same school - I want to know more about that. What illegal drugs, over the counter drugs, or prescription drugs you are on, if any. Do you regularly break into people's houses? Right now I can suspect you of attempting to burglarize my home. Your excuse for coming to see my son is weak. You only have a 5 dollar bill in your pocket and no wallet or identification. No driver's license. Have you ever been arrested? And etcetera.

Vlad sighed off the weight of the lengthy list and any aggravation it kindled, moving around on the stool like a pacing, caged animal. Interrogations, interrogations…interrogations are not fun. "I'm seventeen…and I guess it's a compliment that you're making a face like I'm lying. Cool. And….er….Anderson and I are in the same art class…he sat by me once or twice…a few times. I am not on any drugs…as for prescription drugs…I don't think I'm crazy enough for the crazy pill….and I'm not sick. I don't really break into people's houses to steal things because that's a felony that could throw me in prison…and I don't really ever want to go to prison or jail. Some guys think it's cool, but that's not my thing. I like being…not behind bars. I don't do well when I'm stuck with other people…so prison would be hell…and I'd probably get stuck in there forever and die. Ummmm….and...the next question is….oh. Yeah, no I wasn't coming to steal anything. I looked around for the Chief or Female Anderson to let me in quietly, but they weren't here, so I just used the window. I wanted to sneak up on Anderson and scare him…so…hm… Yeah, I'd like to have more than five bucks in my pocket, but, hell, that's life. Someone wants to make a million dollars a day, but they ain't gonna. Right? I don't have a wallet. A waste of money…don't need to pay for something to hold my money when I've got a pocket. I have a school I.D. back where I live…along with a driver's license. My friend is into cars and stuff, so he helped me out in getting one when I was sixteen. And…the etcetera is the etcetera… I don't have anything to tell you without a question. I can't think too much…I'm kinda stupid. So-"

Hans nodded at this, displeasing Vlad who managed to turn half of this feeling into amusement. The pen moved over the yellow pad again.

Have you ever been arrested? Was now underlined.

"Nope. I'm too fast for fat cops to catch. You had a hard time, right? And you're not out of shape or wearing the stupid uniform or anything."

Hans began to write something else, but his pen halted when Vlad suddenly asked him a question.

"Do you know when Anderson is getting back? Since he's not here, I'd still like to get a chance to scare the pants of him… It was supposed to be the highlight of my day and I spent five bucks and walked forever just to get here."

Hans was watching Vlad while the boy spoke, but he did nothing afterwards to answer the question or make any comments.

Have you ever hurt or exchanged any inappropriate comments with my children? - my daughter specifically.

Not making sense of this, the boy screwed up his eyes, wrinkling his brow. His demeanor and tongue were loosening over time, without his knowledge. "I'm not gonna hurt Female Anderson. Maybe, if she tried to kill me, but, I mean, even then that would all be by accident. If I hit a girl, I have a friend that would be ready to beat the tar out of me…and then, I don't want to hurt Anderson's sister. Female Anderson is his sister. I'm not going to hurt her-"

Vlad squinted at something Hans wrote.

You've never hit on my daughter or made any sexual suggestions to her.

In the right setting, Vlad's expression could have made people laugh when his mouth gaped and twisted to the side, his eyes becoming large and then narrowed and twitchy, an overall expression or horror that rose to display itself for Hans' eyes to view, managing, for the first time, to draw empty confusion from the man.

"Anderson's sister? Me? FEMALE ANDERSON? She's ANDERSON, only with boobs! But she's still Anderson! I'm not going to say- I- god, no… Okay." Vlad inhaled to compose himself and he set both of his arms on the counter, parallel to one another so as to make his back and shoulders as straight and serious as possible, his face resuming a more normal appearance. "What you don't get is that I…am natural girl-repellant." Hans continued to stare at Vlad and the boy's attempt at presenting him with concrete logic and fact. "Girls see me and they are pushed away by natural forces, you get it? Like the opposite of a magnet. Just-" Vlad put his hands together, green eyes following, and the pale hands were thrown apart as if the two had tossed each other way. "- pushed away, like that. That's me and girls, okay? Now, Anderson's sister is different. She isn't pushed-" Vlad repeated the example with his hands. "- away like normal. She's Anderson, just only female….you get it?"

Vlad, with both of his palms turned up, offering his explanation to Hans' judgment, waited expectantly for the man to nod with a distant look and agree with him. However, the father's face was still blank with the loss of communication between himself and the teen, unable to comprehend anything Vlad had described. He just stared at the boy, again reminded of the teen's confession to stupidity, and then he frowned down at the yellow notepad to continue with his questions, struggling to remember what they were.

Boobs are boobs, he thought with a small shake of his head and the memory of what teenage life had been like. It doesn't matter who they're related to, as long as it isn't you…. He had to shake his head once more and close his eyes in order to enable his hand to print the next question.

How did you know where this house is?

"Um. Anderson took me here one time." Vlad's eyes wandered away, forgetting the previous demand Hans had made to maintain eye-contact with him, but this time the man did not correct the boy…beginning to see him as such. The pale, red-eyed freak…intruder, was really just a kid…a 'space cadet', like his own son. Now it made some sense why Integra could tolerate this boy named Vladimir, despite his obvious background.

Vlad continued to speak with his eyes wandering while he checked on the archives of his memory. "And the Chief took me here a different time…and then another time…and another time. But this is actually the first time I've come here by myself…. Huh… That's kinda funny." Vlad smirked with a snort of humor, unknowingly pivoting on the stool he was sitting on, turning the seat one direction and then swinging his legs in the other so he would move. His eyes fell on Hans again and the smirk remained as a loose grin. "You know, you're not really so bad of a guy…not really. Lot's of people would do the same thing- Actually, no. They'd be so scared they'd shit themselves like freaken cowards, but you're actually pretty damn cool because you fought back. You didn't just run off to get a phone to call the cops to come save you. Really. It's awesome to have a guy who does things like protect himself, because I don't really think the average guy does that now adays. People are scared to do that cuz then they think 'oh nooo, if I punch someone I'll get huuurrrrt, or maybe I'll get in trooouble'." Vlad ended his impersonation that mocked the 'average coward', with a renewed smirk and a chuckle that complimented the expression. He looked directly at Hans again, taking note of his disposition and appearance. "You know what? I kinda like you now. You're like the Chief, and I like the Chief, and you're - you remind me of my uncle, a lot. I haven't seen you smile or anything yet, so it seems like you're the type of guy that does a lot of frowning and glaring, a guy that puts the cowards that are terrified of him, in line. And you've got that big-ass gun." Vlad gestured towards the gun that had been forgotten, making Hans look at the weapon. Vlad couldn't see the gun, but he assumed that Hans was keeping it in his lap since he hadn't seen him put it away or leave it somewhere on their way to the kitchen.

"And that's not just some rinky-dink gun you got there. That's some serious business. That thing can blow through walls that aren't brick or anything super hard, and maybe even cars. That thing spits out pretty big bullets- Pretty damn powerful, and the long barrel makes it scary accurate. Like a goddamn sniper rifle in your hands- but I mean that like how it's smaller, easier to carry around, and you can conceal it and hold it up with one hand-"

Vlad cut himself off to pay attention to what was being written on the yellow notepad.

Are you a gun enthusiast? You have seen this gun somewhere else before?

Vlad shrugged, not smiling anymore but not offended in any way. He had become more serious again.

"No. Not really. I don't look up guns or anything like that. I don't follow the latest models or 'weapons technology', whatever it's called. And no…I wouldn't have seen your gun somewhere before, but it's not completely uncommon to come across a gun collector, maybe, who has some interesting or uncommon guns. I know a gun enthusiast, or collector. And it's not some stupid young guy or punk who's gonna go around waving guns and shooting people like a worthless, stupid, scumbag. Okay? It's some adult. An older adult, too, older than you. He just has a collection and I've seen it. He has it protected so it's not dangerous. Everything's in cases and locked up so some dumbass can't come in and steal it to go on a shooting spree. Could've been him that had it, or maybe someone else…might've even been a movie. But…I don't know. …I do think I recognize it a little, a lot. Kinda do and kinda don't… maybe I'm making a mistake or..."

Vlad quieted, watching Hans cautiously now to see how much suspicion the man's face was capable of showing. The green eyes had hardened with hostility again.

Where did you see it? The pen demanded with a sharp jab into the notepad.

"I really don't know." Shoulders covered by a black jacket lifted and then pale hands left the counter to show in some way that he was telling the truth.

Hans' scowl darkened, but he let his eyes flick down to the counter. This 'Vladimir' is just a kid. Not a really bright kid either…

His hand swept over the notepad.

I don't want you to ever expose my kids to guns.

A few seconds went by while Vlad stared at the ink. He gradually moved his stare to Hans and the quiet lengthened. "And you say that while having one of those in your lap?"

It was quiet again, Hans frowning with an un-amused look. In the end, he decided to ignore the retort.

This gun is one of a kind. It can't be bought at a store or from any other distributor.

Hm… Anderson's dad really is an interesting guy. Red moved over the permanent scar that wrapped around the base of the man's neck, as if something had been looped around it…branding him forever so he could never forget its shape. Most likely the wound had something to do with his incapability to speak.

Not wanting to be rude, the teen transferred his attention to the notepad, scanning Hans' clothes along the way. Then he looked in the direction of the man's lap, wondering for a moment if he was sitting on a stool or a chair, assuming the latter with a second thought of how tall the chair would have to be to accommodate someone at this counter.

A custom made gun, huh. Jake's dad had a few of those in his collection, his most prized ones actually being the few guns his uncle had made for him… Walter tended to make guns only once in a great, long while. He designed them, crafted them, sometimes patenting them. Vlad was pretty sure his uncle had done some business with the army. The US army…maybe sold some stuff in England and Russia… The drawn blue-prints suggested the source of shared genes that gave the uncle and nephew something in common. Skill with a pen or pencil and putting down ideas in the form of images.

Talk of custom guns made the teen homesick for a home that had evaporated over a year ago, and the product of this sickness solidified in the form of a forlorn look that came to occupy his face, an emptiness that Hans could not make sense of.

Did the boy dislike being wrong that much? Or did he want a gun like this for himself?

Both of these possibilities left a bad impression on Hans, but the impression soon filled out again, erasing itself, when the man was unable to label Vlad's expression as one of petty desire or shallow disappointment.

I think I'll get more information from Integra. She must know more about the kid. She's not the type to allow a stranger into her home…

Though Vladimir had been identified as a kid at this point, Hans was unable to forgive Vlad for the fact that he had chosen to sneak into his house without permission. He still had doubts, but his antipathy regarding Vlad had been diminished.

Exhaling, Hans let himself check his watch, taking his eyes from the teen's expression to revive reality. He was a busy man with responsibilities that needed the attention the boy had stolen.

The hour hand was just past the eleven, and the minute hand had passed the fifteen minute mark. 11:17 a.m.

Damn it. The kid had taken up a lot of his time. An annoyed frown that affected every aspect of Hans' face directed itself to the pale teen, and then the man stood up, dragging the notepad towards himself and spinning the pen between his fingers to get a good grip to write.

Come with me.

With that Hans left the counter, pausing at the edge of the kitchen to make sure Vlad was coming with him, and then he strode over tiles with a quick pace the boy did not enjoy mimicking. But Vlad forgot his discomfortwith the introduction of curiosity that animated his eyes, giving them energy to roam about the interior of the Andersons' master bedroom.

All of the dark wood furniture….the size….and it was so shiny.

Red gawked at the expensive luxury that radiated from a single leather reading chair in the corner with a bookcase that had a rail set up in a style similar to a whiteboard at the teen's school. One bookcase in front of a much longer bookcase, that could be pushed in one direction or the other to reveal a different half of the back bookcase… And it was filled with books, even magazines related to science that were in the order of the dates they had been published.

Hans stood in the middle of the room with another shiny object in his hand, pondering where he should place the teen that was currently fascinated with his bookcase and was sliding the movable section, pausing to look at the different books. He approached the boy when Vlad was still distracted and bent down to grab the rail that cut through part of the carpeted floor, checking to see if his fingers could slip around it. Vlad looked down to see what he was doing, blinking at the odd behavior and frowning when he heard a familiar metallic clicking sound, but he forgot about the sound for a moment when Hans, without warning, grabbed the teen's arm and pulled it down towards the rail. The metallic sound came again and in the next moment, Vlad was bent over and staring at the shining bracelet on his wrist…which was attached to another metal bracelet that was secured to the bookcase's rail.

Gaping at the police grade handcuffs and stupefied into silence, Vlad stared at the cuffs, pulling at them once, in disbelief, to see if he was truly stuck. A heavy hand clamped down on his thin shoulder, startling the boy that transferred his gape to the stern man beside him. Hans shook his head and pointed down at the cuffs, in this way telling Vlad to look at them. With another jolt upsetting his nerves, Vlad was pushed down to his knees and then released and presented with a book labeled Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens, selected randomly by Hans.

When Vlad did nothing but stare at him, Hans lost his patience and resorted to stuffing the book in the teen's hood before striding from the bookcase to leave the room. Vlad's body twisted to watch him go, still gaping and numb with surprise.

Seconds before the door closed behind Hans, the boy managed to gasp out an outraged 'HEY!', but by then it was already too late. Hans had escaped and left Vlad handcuffed to a bookshelf, most likely for the purpose of encouraging the boy to educate himself and prevent him from getting into any mischief so Hans could resume his schedule for the day.

Without the heart to break the bookcase (it belonged to the Chief and it was too cool to break), the teen kneeled on the carpet, gazing blankly about the room, getting a handle on his new situation. He frowned and angrily sat back on his heels to glare at the books, guessing what Hans was trying to tell him about his intellect - that it was limited and needed two freaken bookcases worth of improvement. Feeling the hard shape of the book in his hood, Vlad snatched it out with a growl, then manipulated his body so that he was sitting on the floor with the book flattening the carpet, pushed down by his hand. But with time, Vlad's eyes drooped with boredom and he glanced at the book that was becoming more and more attractive.

Locked up without anything else to satiate his lust for entertainment, Vlad opened the cover of the book and frowned all the while his eyes scanned the tiny print, developing murderous hatred for the Beadle and the men that abused poor little Oliver Twist who was just a young boy who was hungry…and wanted just a little bit more than the pitiful amount of food he had to live off of.

There's nothing wrong with wanting just a little bit more in life.

No harm in asking a simple question.

Vlad sat with his back against the shelves of the bookcase, pulling his knees up to his chest with his cuffed hand encircling his ankle while his other hand supported the book his eyes devoured. And so, time flew by.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

When Anderson and his sister opened the garage and found their father's glistening, black Rolls Royce inside, beaming grins instantly brightened their faces. Anderson parked quickly, and safely, and threw open his door when his sister was already closing the passenger door, and both rushed into the house, aiming for their mother's office where their father occasionally set up a home office. But they found it depressingly empty. Swinging their blonde heads to scan the area, Seras' blue eyes widened and then sparkled with excitement when they landed on the glass door that opened to the back yard.

The morning gloom had burned off hours ago and a sunny blue sky, accented by a few fluffy clouds, allowed anyone who lay outside in the sun long enough to feel like it was already Spring. Hans was absorbing as much sunlight as he could with a shirt folded next to the green mat he had covered with a white and blue striped beach towel, and was using the cushioned mat to relax with a thick grant sitting under his nose. When a screen door slid open behind him, the father moved to look back at the house, peaceful happiness softening his eyes and mouth when his daughter ran towards him playfully, pretending to be a little girl again. Seras collapsed beside her father, forcing him to scoot over before hanging onto his neck with an ecstatic, giggling grin. A small, disproportional smile, almost too faint to be detected, lifted a corner of Hans' lips when he listened to his daughter, who he knew would outgrow this behavior eventually as she matured further into woman-hood, chatter about how happy she was to see him and about how he had been gone for too long. Green moved back to the house when Alexander emerged from the open screen with a cheerful smile. A tan hand lifted to welcome his father, and, with shared humor for Seras' demanding behavior, Hans mirrored the show of acknowledgement, unable to do much more with his daughter clinging to him like she was.

"Hey Dad." Anderson continued to grin, his lips unable to shake off his joy, though his tone was cool and casual. "When did you get back?"

Hans, still locked in a daddy's-little-girl-vice, could not move his hands to respond, so Anderson frowned a little and told his sister to stop trying to strangle their father so he could answer the question. Seras shot a frown at her baby brother, but then was too happy to complain. The girl sat back on her calves, smiling happily at her father and chuckling mischievously when he moved about to sit up in a comfortable position.

She calmed with a more manageable smile for the man she was kneeling in front of. "I'm glad to have you home. I was afraid that you wouldn't get back until next week, and then I wouldn't get a chance to greet you… Living in dorms is a pain…I really miss you guys sometimes…even Andy-Alex here." She smirked back at the boy who grumbled, but then the two siblings brightened, focusing on their father's hands when they moved in familiar gestures.

My plane landed this morning. I was home by ten o'clock, thereabouts. Where were you two all morning?

Anderson responded. "Yumie had a club activity, and Heinkel was there too. Seras wanted to come along, so I took her. We baked some cookies and brownies at Yumie's house and then met up with some other people, kids from our school, and sold whatever we baked in the park."

Did you make enough money?

Not to be outdone, Seras chirped her own contribution to gain her father's attention, nodding enthusiastically. "In total we made over three-hundred dollars. Luckily, there was some other community project going on today, and there were plenty of hungry people planting trees and flowers around the park. Plus the little kids came over from the playground with their moms or dads, or their grandparents, and they bought up most of the chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies. I brought a few so that you and mom could try them. …Do you want one? They're really good."

Pausing to consider the girl's offer, Hans glanced at his papers but then recalled the limited amount of time he had unfortunately been left with lately to spend with his kids, so he nodded and got up, pulling on his shirt before following his almost fully grown and independent children inside.

Hans spent almost an hour, during which he ate one oatmeal raisin cookie, listening to Seras and Anderson as they prattled on about school or things they had found amusing before he returned to his work outside. Seras soon joined him with her own towel, dyed with vibrant tropical colors and decorated with flowers, setting a book on the ground when she brushed the folds out of her towel and lay down to read in the sunlight. Anderson took longer to make an appearance, but he eventually came out to enjoy the sun with a towel and his laptop, checking emails after buying four tickets for a movie showing tomorrow night that he had already planned on attending with his sister, Yumie, and Heinkel.

Heinkel and Yumie weren't very 'girly' girls, and he hung out with them more often than he hung out with his guy friends. They'd known each other since Pre-School, and though they had spent Elementary and Middle School apart, they had kept in touch through organizing plenty of play dates when they were kids.

It was quiet while the day progressed in the way it desired, a breeze guiding clouds further inland, intermittently clearing and darkening the sky. When clouds rolled in and refused to burn off, the trio of Andersons folded up their towels and transplanted their work to a new location.

Anderson went up to his room, Seras plopped down on the couch in her mother's home office, and Hans claimed his wife's desk to get some more work done. The three were still occupying these locations when Integra came home at 5:15 p.m., when the lights had been turned on and all evidence of the sun's existence had almost completely disappeared from the horizon.

Seras sat up when she heard her mother close the garage door, and immediately the girl closed her book then took it with her when she ventured into the significantly darkerened halls, flipping light switches along the way. Eventually she met her mother, turning on another light switch that revealed her presence to Integra.

"Hi Mom. You know that Dad's home, right?"

"Thank you." The exhausted working-woman sighed, still casting off the stress that had collected as a dense weight on her shoulders through her work hours, adamant about not allowing her job to affect her family life, and she nodded, walking past her daughter. A side bag was hanging from her shoulder, containing her laptop and paperwork, with an additional purple file tucked under her arm; her outward appearance betraying the level of responsibility she possessed. "And 'hi' Seras." She threw a tired sigh to the side when an ache knotted itself in a muscle holding up her bag. She wanted to unload quickly but decided to carry her burden for a few extended seconds in order to pay attention to her daughter. "If your father hasn't already told you (assuming he's forgotten again)…we're all going out to dinner. Your father made reservations for 6 p.m. tonight."

"Oh." Seras blinked and followed her mother, catching up to walk by her side. "No. He forgot, I guess. But that sounds great." She added quickly to obscure her father's mistake when Integra grimaced. "I'll tell Alex to get ready...When do we leave?"

"In about a half-hour. Pick out something nice, but it doesn't need to be too nice. He didn't tell me where we're going yet."

Seras nodded and broke away to inform her brother of the plans for that night, but she stopped when her mother turned back to her and wanted her to wait.

"Is Vladimir here?" The woman asked, her face becoming more stern and serious than Seras was accustomed to when speaking to her mother.

The girl's brow crinkled, blue eyes blinking at the woman, giving Integra her answer before she spoke. "Vlad? Um…no…I haven't heard from him. Why? Did you speak to him?"

With a disappointed sigh, Integra shrugged with her weighted shoulders, looking away to find a place to store the irritating feeling. "Yes. Apparently he was here earlier." She glanced at her daughter as Seras' face showed surprise, widened blue blinking again. "Your father didn't mention it, I suppose." The flat voice received the answer it expected when the girl shook her head, still pondering the elusive teen's visit.

"No. He didn't say anything at all. -But he's been busy."

"Uhuh." Integra nodded, biting her lip when it twitched; the lip having hoped to create a scowl when the white teeth stopped it. "And so have I, dear, but I still remembered." She turned on her heel with the scowl escaping her teeth when she spoke, beginning to walk again while calling back to her daughter. "Seras. We're going to have to work on your father's memory. We wouldn't want him becoming senile now, would we?"

Seras, intimidated by the menacing voice scampered off to find her brother so she could tell him that he needed to get ready to leave and then warn him about their mother's poor mood, as well as the curious reason for it.

Integra continued down the hall with her bag and purple file, dismissing her anger when she thought of how hard her husband worked and how tonight was supposed to dedicated to their family. She would forgive the man, she supposed, closing her eyes when she stood in front of her bedroom door. The calmed blue orbs opened with the door and Integra took a few steps inside before her head turned instinctively towards the alien presence sitting in front of her bookcase.

Vlad perked up like a neglected puppy, displaying a wide grin that welcomed the woman's presence, eager to be freed so that he could run off to the bathroom, stretch his legs, and maybe get a drink of water. He asked for these things with his excited smile while Integra stared at him with empty features and a dimming gaze, focusing on his discolored cheek before letting her eyes drop down to the handcuffs attached to the bookcase's railing. Another moment passed with Vlad waited for her, expecting to be liberated, but to his dismay, the woman marched to the door, grasped the wood frame to swing most of her body out into the hallway and then….

"HANS! IF WE DIDN'T HAVE TWO CHILDREN, I WOULD NOT HESITATE TO THROW YOU IN A PRISON CELL TO ROT!"

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

With that, Integra released the doorframe with an additional curse asking God to damn the man she had married, marching down the hall after leaving her bag in the bedroom and throwing the purple folder onto her already cluttered bed. Seconds later, she marched back down the hall with her guilty husband in tow. The unfortunate and forgetful Hams was frowning and shaking his head, attempting to explain to her that he had simply forgotten.

Merciless, Integra growled at him, ordering the man into the bedroom so he could retrieve the key that would unlock the handcuffs, growing angrier when Hans couldn't find it. "Hans, one of these days I might forget that you're my husband, and that I'm a law enforcement officer…AND THEN because I FORGOT I might accidentally kill you! Forgettingisn't enough to make a good excuse! You hurt this boy and then handcuffed him for who knows how many hours! That is inexcusable, Hans! In-ex-cusable!" She spat out her words with a venomous tongue, a glare following the silent man as he dissected a drawer in an attempt to find the missing key. "Don't tell me you forgot where you put the damn key!"

With a heavy sigh and ruffled hair that showed Hans had indeed made an effort, the man sat back on his haunches in front of his ravaged drawers, unfolded socks and clothes sticking out in every which direction. His eyes met hers when he lifted his hands.

I'm sorry.

Fury scorched her face, adding color to it, and Integra bit her trembling lips, staring death into her almost prostrate husband before she threw a finger towards Vlad, who until this time had been curled up next to the bookcase, watching with intimidated and pitying eyes. Guilt weighed on his face now, when he saw that Integra's rampage had yet to run out of fuel

She spoke in a raised voice that grated Hans and Vlad's consciences. "Apologize to him, Hans! Not to me! You didn't attack me and then handcuff me to a bookcase!"

No. A fully grown man did not need to apologize to a stupid kid. This guy didn't deserve this. This- this was the Chief's husband, the Andersons' family- They shouldn't be fighting. Vlad looked down at his lap, cringing at the woman's unpleasant tone while feeling his stomach acids churn with anxiety when she continued to yell. His hands clenched into fists to fight off the guilt-induced nausea.

"Chief!"

Integra became distracted when she heard Vlad's voice compete with her own, quieting when she listened to him for the sake of not punishing the boy with her anger unintentionally.

"Chief." Wary red eyes watched Integra, searching for signs of another outburst. Vlad hesitated, but proceeded after swallowing and wetting his lips awkwardly. "It's okay. It's not such a-"

"It is not okay Vladimir!"

Vlad cut her off again, raising his voice and waving his hand to snatch at her attention; loathe to endure being the cause of a fight between Anderson's parents for another agonizing second. "You did the same thing too when you found me in your house, right? You got me and cuffed my wrists, right? It's kind of like the natural response for this kind of thing, Chief. It's okay. It really is…just okay." Please, don't yell anymore. Please…

The storm was subdued by a sudden gust of recollection that fought and tamed the gale of Integra's fury, taming the woman who said nothing and shielded her eyes from the boy's view by turning her head.

Her husband, who had not known of this, was surprised by the news, feeling a weak flush of indignation for the unjust treatment he had suffered, but he put off the feeling with a shake of his head, hiding the uneasiness this news inspired, and he diverted his attention back the his drawers to think of any other location the key might be found. Apparently, his wife shared the same thoughts, for she began to search for the key just as Hans got to his feet to look through a different part of the room.

Eventually, Integra spoke again; her voice almost gentle after the storm had subdued. "Vladimir, none of this should happen. You're as welcome to come to our house as any of Alexander's other friends. …I'm sorry for treating you the way I did in the past, and I'm sorry for how my husband has treated you."

Vlad was quiet, observing the strong and willful woman while she apologized to him, something no one could ever take lightly. His eyes darkened when he looked down at his lap as if to see the squirming nausea he felt, warp the appearance of his stomach. Black bangs crept into his face. A proud, respectful, and dignified woman such as Integra should never have cause for feeling shame. The fact that he had done this to her, darkened the boy's features as his loathing for himself grew.

"Chief, it's okay…before, you had a reason to not trust me. You still have reasons to hate me right now, but you're nice to me…anyway." Integra listened while she rummaged around in her furniture, her husband also listening in with a furrowing brow, grim sternness marking it.

Vlad continued. "…And today, I came by because I wanted to surprise Anderson - to just walk in on him and scare him - kind of surprise. Be like 'Whoa, what are you doing here?' and stuff. So I climbed in through the window. …I didn't see anyone to let me in, but I wanted to scare Anderson, so I didn't knock or ring the doorbell or anything… He-" Vlad put emphasis on the pronoun to refer to Hans. "-thought I was breaking in. None of it is his fault, or your fault. …It's my fault, here. I did it, so…I'm sorry. And-" He cleared his throat and sat up straighter with a 'cheerful' thought that might hold the solution to the whole situation. "And, you know, I can take care of the handcuffs if he gives me back my wire."

Both of the adults stopped to look at the boy, Hans being expressionless while Integra watched Vlad, stunned, doubtful, and wary of what he had said…or perhaps…confessed. She looked at Hans when he attracted her attention to tell her about the wire and the paperclip the man suspected had helped Vlad sneak into their house. More caution and disturbance entered the woman, but these things were forgotten when a timid knock sounded at the door.

Integra opened the door to see who it was and her husband quickly slipped out of the room, passing his sheepish daughter. He paused long enough to spare a comforting pat for her worried, blonde head. Seras, already flustered, became more confused by the relaxed atmosphere that seemed to hang to the departure, and she stared at her mother, twisting her hands in an anxious way.

Her parents never, or very rarely, fought. It perturbed her when they did, always conscious of how common divorces are these days. But when she saw how quiet her mother was, her worst fears faded away, and she sighed with relief. No, her parents loved each other and they were happy together. They would never file for divorce. Never….though, the 'impossibility' might become more possible when Alex moved out… No. It was just a stupid fear. She was sure of that now.

When Seras seemed to be busy with her own thoughts, Integra let her face soften and she told the girl that she had nothing to worry about. She had just been a little angry, but it was over now. "Your father just forgot about something important again."

"Oh." Seras' thoughts flew automatically to her mental calendar, checking to make sure there were no birthdays or anniversaries that she might have overlooked, finishing in time to have nothing to distract her when Integra swung the door back and pointed to a bruised, restrained Vlad who was staring at her with an awkward, chronic twitch in his mouth, like he was trying to give her a lighthearted smile but was unable to do so in his current predicament.

The girl's eyes became perfectly round and she stared, stunned beyond being able to function. In the background of her stupor, her father's footsteps approached. The man slipped past the blonde females that watched him go, blue eyes following Hans when he went to Vlad and handed the boy a thin, flexible wire and stepped back so he would have enough light to work.

When, in a time that did not exceed thirty seconds, Integra's nerves received an unpleasant shock of mixed feelings, none of them positive, and Vlad unlocked the first cuff, Seras finally regained control of her motor skills. The girl's mouth was the first thing to move.

"You hurt Vlad? ..Dad?"

Interested in seeing his daughter's reaction to perceive how she felt about the pale delinquent, Hans looked at the girl's face. She showed him astonishment, disbelief, and hurt confusion that lowered his eyes, removing the natural rigidity in his features that was inherent to his nature. He did not acknowledge that he had been responsible but he did not deny the blame either, remaining still and silent when Vlad finished with the other cuff.

The boy folded the handcuffs to collect them in his palm before rubbing at his sore wrists with a thankful smile. He got to his feet, rolling his ankles to dislodge the discomfort that lingered in them, while he glanced at each of the different Andersons in the room. They were all watching him, and none of them were speaking.

"That's it then." With this murmur, the teen approached Hans and offered him the handcuffs while contorting his wire into a ball and stuffing it deep into his pocket for safe-keeping. "Here's your handcuffs back. And-" He rotated to face the door where Integra and Seras were standing. "Can I use your bathroom and then go scare Anderson real quick? I've gotta go, since it's dark and everything. I looked through your books, but I put them back where I found them, so that's about everything…"

Vladimir... Integra closed her eyes and took a breath, adopting the indomitable front that would complete her character when, in a normal tone, she gave Vlad permission to use the bathroom as well as permission to scare her son. Vlad smiled, a mask with a few thin cracks the woman was able to detect, though she didn't show it, and the boy thanked her and then asked 'Female Anderson' not to betray his plans, before running off to the upstairs bathroom near the guest room he had slept in before.

Integra, after a time, asked her confused daughter to finish getting ready, if she had not already finished, in order to give Hans and herself time to prepare to go out. Time that might be spent in silence.

*~*~::..+..::~*~*

The characteristically blonde Alexander Anderson, a creature well suited for life in his natural habitat, the rather comfortable and peaceful setting of his bedroom, was currently visiting the local wireless signal to refresh his teenage body's demand for internet exposure, when, unknown to him, his natural predator sat crouched behind his computer chair, like a lion hidden in the grass on the Serengeti plains. With a toothy, hungry grin filling his face, paralyzing his other features that were molded into a display of excitement, the predatory Vlad licked his lips, steadying his aim as he crept into a ready tackle position. Then, with all the savagery of a wild animal and a vicious roar that would serve to strike terror into his prey, the Vlad pounced on the unsuspecting Anderson; long, thin fingers grabbing the muscular shoulders of the Anderson while the Vlad's open grin brought his roar next to a tan ear.

A terrified, high pitched scream filled the Anderson house, broadcasting hunter-Vlad's triumph to all of the other Andersons in the vicinity. Then the scream was followed by the victorious cackles of the beast that feasted upon his victims fear with sadistic glee and little grace.

Vlad stepped back, still laughing while Anderson gasped for his dignity, grasping the collar on his shirt and twisting around to gawk at the pale teen, the blonde sputtering nonsense for a moment. Then he finally stammered Vlad's name, sending Vlad off on another bout of laughter until the delinquent doubled over and fell to the ground, gasping for breath so that he could laugh harder when Anderson's expression didn't change.

"I got you! I got you! Oh god! That was freaking perfect!" Vlad howled his mirth and gasped some more, peeking up to see Anderson's face compose and develop a scowl that amused Vlad to no end.

Anderson allowed Vlad to have a generous amount of time to enjoy himself, spinning his chair to face the other teen while crossing his arms patiently. When the delinquent had stopped laughing and lay limply on the ground, emitting airy outbursts of hilarity from time to time, Anderson lost some of his scowl to rising curiosity, and then worry, when he finally spoke. "When did you get here?" Did he hear my parent's fighting? Mom was yelling earlier…don't need him seeing that and getting the wrong impression…

Vlad's lips curled, his eyes flashing at Anderson when he identified a new game. Then the pale teen rolled over and took his time getting up, dusting himself off to prolong the interlude. "What are you talking about? I've been here all day."

Anderson's eyebrows fell flat and he stared at Vlad, not entertained. "No. Really…when did you get here? …Did you hear anything earlier?"

Vlad ignored the last question, keeping his smile when he looked about the room, wandering a little. "No…really, I'm telling the God-honest truth. I've been here alllll day, practically, Fat Ass."

"Don't call me that." Anderson snapped back, having forgotten the name in Vlad's prolonged absence. He was unused to the name now, and less tolerant.

Vlad continued with a smirk. "I've been here since this morning."

"Right."

"Really."

"…Just tell me. I'm not up for this right now."

"…Anderson…you're boring today."

"…"

With Anderson's reluctance to join in the immature conflict Vlad was endeavoring to start, Vlad's hyper-ness toned down, leaving two pale hands laying in the teen's lap when he sat calmly on the carpeted floor. He chose to change his seating arrangement, standing to fetch the extra chair he had used once before to explore Youtube with Anderson. This time he placed the chair in the corner, a little ways off from the desk, but comfortably in his own zone of isolating space. Anderson watched without commenting as these changes took place.

Vlad pivoted on his rolly-chair, leaving his gaze on the floor, too nervous or uncomfortable with looking the other teen in the eye when he spoke.

"Hey, Anderson-"

"Now you actually have a real greeting." Anderson huffed, displaying more humor in his tone this time. The interruption that Anderson appeared to be ignorant of, startled Vlad, bringing his eyes to stare at the tan jock before the delinquent gave a quirky smile and swiveled his chair, taking his eyes to the floor and keeping them there.

"Yeah, hey Fat Ass. I forgot to say that."

The 'Fat Ass' muttered something, but didn't pronounce his displeasure to a further extent.

Coaxing his features into a casual expression, Vlad swallowed, gradually stilling the chair. He shoved his hands into his pockets. "No but…hey, what kind of guy is your dad? Like, do you get along with him? Does he seem nice? He's- just what type of person would you say he is?"

Unprepared to answer this, and not sure if he was willing to come up with a description of his father, Anderson averted his eyes, humming when quiet seemed to last too long after Vlad had asked his questions. "Um…I don't know. You just need to know him yourself…I mean-" The green eyes gained the confidence necessary to look at Vlad, meeting the red eyes that were turned to him. "I could introduce you to him. He's here right now."

Vlad's lips tipped upward ironically and the red eyes flicked away from Anderson's face, though the rest of him remained stationary. "Na. You don't need to do that, Anderson. I already met him, earlier, when I was downstairs." There was a pause which Vlad tried to fill with a swivel of his chair. He swallowed again, feeling the thirst that had accumulated through the day. "You like your dad? You get along with him? -I just never got along with my dad very well…so I was wondering."

"Hm? Yeah. Oh yeah, sure we get along." Anderson's voice seemed a bit forced, weakened for some reason, so he cleared his throat and gave a fake grin, fighting off the odd discomfort he was experiencing. As his nerves settled down, the grin became more natural, the transformation being noted by Vlad who looked up again to watch it. "No, he's gone sometimes and he's not home as often as some people's parents, but that hasn't affected our relationship or how we are as a family, at all. He knows what's going on in our lives when he's not there. Today we spent most of the day together."

Vlad looked away again, turning on his chair slowly, resuming his previous swivel motion. "You came back at 2-something though, and it's only about 5:30 p.m."

A little surprised by the knowledge, but assuming his mother or Seras had informed Vlad, Anderson shrugged off the detail. "I was busy earlier. That's all."

A quiet that didn't sit well with either teen, filled the room. Eventually, Anderson's hands itched to find something to occupy them, and he glanced at his laptop. Green went to Vlad again, causing him to look up and view Anderson's lopsided smile.

"Wanna watch something, or listen to some music? This site called Pandora is like an internet radio station, you put in a song you like and the site will play different songs that are similar to it."

Vlad saw the laptop that was now showing a screen-saver. He glanced at the window and decided that it was already dark, so it didn't matter if he stayed for a couple of extra minutes. Vlad shrugged and scooted his chair to the desk. "Sure."

Chapter Text

The sneaker was black, inside and out, top and bottom. The sneaker was simple and plain in design and universal in a color that could be worn with any of the boy's clothes. Vlad owned two pairs of shoes. One pair was black and the other pair was black. They were sturdy, efficient, and of a good quality. But Vlad was scrutinizing the shoe with a wrinkled brow and a small frown, trying to identify what faults the shoe possessed. He was sitting in the chair at the end of the table with the shoe near his face when the door opened and his uncle entered, locking the door behind him and turning to see the boy and his black shoe. Walter frowned, stepping forward with his eyes lingering on the child and the shoe, walking gradually as his curiosity slowed the moment for his analysis.

"Something wrong with your shoe, or do you enjoy the smell?"

Vlad glanced at his uncle, his eyebrows twitching with surprise, and then he frowned harder at the object of his puzzlement. He blinked after a moment. "It doesn't smell."

It was quiet and Walter stopped beside one of his shelves, his hand going to the pocket of his vest while his frown remained on his face. His eyes were on his nephew. "Is it supposed to? What are you doing with your shoe at the table? -Keep it on the floor, not where you put food. That's common sense, boy. But I guess you've shown you lack that."

The shoe hid in Vlad's lap and he slackened his frown to face his uncle. "I'm just using the light to look at it." The boy's head went down so that he could peek at the shoe, hoping to be permitted to continue his search. Walter's curiosity was diminishing, turning into annoyance that became visible with the deepening creases marking his eyes.

"What's wrong with it?"

"I don't know, and that's what I'm looking for. Kid's at school are making fun of my shoes and I don't know what's wrong with them."

Walter's frown maintained its position, but his eyes eased back from his annoyance, bringing him closer to the boy and the black shoe when he began to walk again. He stood behind Vlad's chair, looking down at the shoe. "Put it in the light."

Vlad did with a little frown and a nod of thanks, and then he stared at the shoe with his uncle. Walter's patience for such idle things as looking at shoes was thin, and soon he was scowling. He turned away and went into the next room, calling back to the boy as he left.

"There's nothing wrong with your shoe, now put it back on your foot where it belongs."

The shoe hung reluctantly in Vlad's loosening grasp until he set it on the floor beside his other shoe. They were still black and simple in the light or in the shadow. The boy lost track of time during his observation of the shoe. He was still staring at one and then the other when Walter returned and then stopped with a scowl in the doorway. "What are you doing?"

"There's something wrong with my shoes and I don't know what it is. I like them. They're comfy and they work and everything….they do everything a shoe is supposed to do. But people say they're bad shoes. ..A boy in my class got the same shoes as me and everyone made fun of him and told him to get new ones. They said that they're gross. That they're 'Vlad-shoes'. …So there's something wrong with my shoes." Vlad rattled off his reasoning and stated his conclusion in a matter of fact way.

Walter listened as his nephew spoke, watching the boy with hard indifference until the end. Then his shoulder's straightened, aware of the odd connection. "What the hell are 'Vlad-shoes'?"

Vladimir looked at the man with a plain expression, holding only his persistent confusion. "My shoes."

Red blinked at Walter, seeing no response in the man as he gazed back at the boy. But Walter's teeth had clenched and his mind had skipped between feelings that were not quite emotions and were too underdeveloped to become thoughts. Vlad-shoes. Vlad-shoes. Vlad-shoes… It sounded bad. His name had become an insult. His name had become something disgraceful, disgusting, and shunned. The boy was shunned, and he was disgraceful and disgustingly weak. Damn it. It wasn't worth the time he was wasting. Walter scowled, hissing a curse before leaving the room. Vlad went back to staring at his shoes. The boy leaned down and moved one of the shoes with his hand, gripping it and rocking the shoe as if it was on a walking foot. He left his hand on the shoe and stared at it again.

"But I like my shoes…" Red eyes did not stray from the shoe until the boy sighed and closed them. Vlad picked up the shoes and went to the closet in the next room to put them where they belonged, letting out another sigh when he bent to set them down. "Ah, whatever. I'm still gonna wear them for my graduation ceremony. They're good shoes. Good shoes…" Standing straight and peering down at the shoes with narrowed, searching eyes, Vlad took several moments before grabbing his sleeping clothes that were hanging in the closet and going to bed.