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Becoming

Benton's life had always been filled with stories. Sometimes, when it was quiet and he was alone, he could conjure up his mother's voice: verses half-sung and rhymes recited in a rhythm that reverberated in his head, even now. He could remember the way she would pause a moment too long as she sent the hero into the dark woods, and he would know that there were monsters lurking there. And he would know that the hero would defeat them, because that was what heroes did. (He could remember too that he was not always right.)

Then there were his father's stories, savored for their rarity. Sometimes it would be months between visits. Once, when he had first come to stay with his grandparents, the first time that his father returned from a long absence, Benton had asked him to stay – had begged him to stay.

"I have a duty to attend to, son," he'd said. "Someday you'll understand."

Most of his father's stories were about duty. And honor. And justice. Well, the ones that weren't comical renditions of the time Three-Tooth McGrew mistook a House of Ill Repute for a dog kennel. (Benton had not been sure what a House of Ill Repute was, and his grandmother had not been very forthcoming – he could still taste the soap.)

Wherever he and his grandparents moved, they were surrounded by stories. By the time he was 10 years (3 months and 6 days) old, he had read every book in their library home, including his grandfather's, which were never lent out.

Then there were his grandparents themselves, who had their own tales to tell.

*

"The world is full of monsters, Benton. They come in many shapes and sizes, and some don't look like monsters at all," said his grandfather.

George Fraser always looked out of place in the world. Benton sat on a moose-hide rug and watched him put an antique pipe to his lips, wondering if he would ever see places as distant as London, or Oxford or any of the exotic locales his grandfather had once called home. It seemed about as likely as reaching the moon.

"But monsters can be defeated. There are those who fight them, because they must, because it is their duty, because it is the only way." His eyes misted over, as they always did at this point in the tale. "To each generation a champion is born. One girl in all the world. The Slayer. She alone is chosen to fight against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. And for every Slayer, a Watcher, called to his vocation by destiny, and chosen by a council of his peers to look after the girl, to train her for the trials of combat, to equip her for the ongoing war. It is a great honor, a task reserved only for those most worthy."

He never entirely managed to keep the bitterness from creeping into his voice.

*

"They're a bunch of blind old fools," said his grandmother. "Books are a wonderful thing, Benton. An invaluable tool. But not when you read with the pages pressed so close to your nose that you can't see a thing that's going on around you." She slid a book back onto its proper shelf, pausing to reverently stroke the binding as she did so. "A convent of nuns cloistered on Mount Everest would still see more of the world than the Watchers' Council. Hand me that encyclopedia, please."

Martha Fraser was like a chameleon, as comfortable shelving books in her library as she was driving a dog sled, and as comfortable walking through Inuit villages as she was in any large town. She had manners and etiquette for every occasion, but that had never stopped her from speaking her mind.

"There are more forces of darkness in this world than you and I can comprehend, and they send one skinny teenage girl out to face them all. To each generation – hah! A Slayer hasn't lasted a whole generation since the human race began. Once she's called, she's got a lifespan of about three years, if she's lucky. When she dies, another takes her place. It's as simple and dreadful as that."

*

"Once," said his grandfather, "there was a Slayer born in the far north. An Inuit girl. Because she was an orphan, her Watcher took her in. He raised her, and he trained her, and he waited for her to be called forth by her destiny."

*

"Her name was Kimalu," said his grandmother. "Her parents died in the fire, when she was six years old."

Benton did not need to ask which fire she meant. He had seen her scars. He could not imagine his grandmother being nineteen, but he could well imagine her herding the children into the river, keeping them from drifting away by sheer force of will. "Even then, she tried to help me with the other children. We would have lost little Lutaaq if she hadn't held her arm so tightly."

"Your grandfather turned up not a month later, and the village elders put her in his care after a good deal of deliberation that I would have given a limb to be privy to. The Watchers' Council's got more than a bit of magic up its sleeve, and that can be a very convincing argument. I didn't understand it at all, at the time. I put up quite a fuss." She smiled fondly at the memory. "Insisted on being taken on as her nurse or governess or what have you – anything that would let me keep an eye on her. I wasn't about to leave her alone with some English stranger – I thought it was nothing short of small-scale imperialism. It never occurred to me that as far as the village was concerned, I was nearly as much a stranger as he was." She laughed, hollowly. "That girl was lost to them before she was even born. Chosen, by the forces of God knows what."

"Still," she added, "I can't say I regret my part in it, all things considered. I don't think they'd have made it through winter without me, magic or no magic."

*

"It was winter when the Slayer was called, and the northern world was drowning in darkness."

It was anything but dark today. The sunlight beamed down on Benton as he scattered corn for his grandfather's prized Andalusian hens. But he knew what his grandfather was talking about. He'd seen many endless nights and two hour days throughout his childhood. It had never seemed frightening, or strange.

"The vampires had heard tales of a land where the sun never shone, and they were drawn to the place, for the sun is their mortal enemy."

Sunlight, holy water, decapitation, stake through the heart – his grandmother had given him explicit instructions on the disposal of vampires.

"Terror seized the villages. They found themselves under constant siege. Children disappeared, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters – every day more bodies were discovered frozen in the snow, or new demons wearing familiar faces would come to prey on their grieving loved ones. It was worse than a plague, for a disease does not taunt its victims."

An old rooster squawked indignantly at them as they entered the hen house. As they began collecting the eggs, his grandfather continued:

"That was when the Slayer was called, into these dark times. She was ready to meet the challenge, a warrior from her first breath. She charged into the fray with the courage of Joan of Arc, like an avenging angel. And she was triumphant. By God, was she triumphant."

They vacated the chicken coup, but his grandfather did not lead him back into the house. He stared out across the landscape, smiling into a vast expanse of wildflowers.

"The vampires were driven from the villages. Dust stained the snow gray. The people celebrated. Their Slayer was made chief among their heroes, and half the children born in the village for years afterward bore her name."

Benton smiled too. In a better world, this would be where the tale ended – Good triumphed over Evil, and the hero lived happily ever after, immortalized in story and song, until the end of time.

But that was never where the tale ended. Not for a vampire slayer.

*

"Why does he always tell it like that?" asked Benton, as he followed his grandmother out to feed the dogs. "As if he wasn't there? Like it didn't happen?"

His grandmother paused, and looked at him with an expression he couldn't read. "I thought you'd already read all the books on psychology," she said mildly.

Benton thought about this. "It's… He has to make it seem… distant. From himself. He has to talk like it happened to someone else because it hurts too much to talk about it at all, otherwise." Benton examined his snowshoes, feeling rather horrified by his own pronouncement. It felt terribly invasive, thinking about his grandfather this way.

"A coping mechanism," said his grandmother briskly.

She started walking again, but Benton was still frozen, shivering in his fur-lined parka. "I should stop asking him to tell me the story," he said.

His grandmother turned sharply. "Don't you dare," she said, and marched on.

*

"The armies of evil are innumerable – some say infinite, though I do not believe this to be the case. No matter how many are struck down, more will rise. If they leave one place, they will surely take up residence in another."

"It was summer. The vampires who had not fled the Slayer's wrath fled now in fear of the midnight sun. The Slayer travelled south, leaving her Watcher behind. She had made a promise to an old friend, to destroy the creature who had murdered the girl's poor brother, who was a great warrior in his own right, though still no match for a vampire. The Slayer tracked him for many nights. When at last she confronted him, it was in a great city. He had led her there, deliberately – for it had once been his home. He knew the streets well. He had friends there, inasmuch as a fiend can be said to have friends. He led her straight into an ambush."

"She fought bravely. But they were many, and she was alone. They knew the city well, but she was far from her homeland, and all the things she knew. She fought bravely, but that was not enough to save her. She died in service to something greater than herself." The old man's voice grew quiet. "But she died alone."

"Did you find her? Did you follow her there?" asked Benton. He immediately regretted the words. This was his grandfather's story to tell as he saw fit. He shouldn't have said anything.

For a long time, he grandfather did not look at him, and did not say anything. So long, that Benton was sure he never would. Then at last he spoke, voice soft and slow and filled with deliberation.

"Yes. I followed her," he said. "Though I knew I was too late."

*

"Lutaaq, that foolish girl. Her brother was a village favorite, and a very fine young man, but that was no reason to beg Kimalu to abandon her post."

"We set out after her immediately, of course. I left your father with one of the women in the village, and I tracked her all the way to Anchorage. Your grandfather paid lip service to the Council – said that it was the Watcher's duty to send her out into the world to fight, that he should not stop her, but sit idle and wait for her return – he said it, but I knew he didn't believe a word of it. He cared too deeply for her, like she was his own child. She very nearly was. His and mine."

*

Benton imagined that in his other life, his grandfather had had a study: a room full of books, with a large roll-top desk to work at, and fountain pens and leather armchairs. Such a thing would be an absurd luxury here, even in the home of librarians. Instead, his grandfather had a sturdy old rocking chair in the corner and three large wooden chests, where his books rested under lock and key. When he was younger, Benton had not understood this. Knowledge, his grandmother said, specifically the knowledge that came from books, should be available to all.

One day, he returned from an unproductive ice fishing venture and found his grandfather sitting on the floor, all three chests unlocked. There were books scattered across the floor, and the room had taken on a strong aroma of must and aging parchment.

"These should have been your father's," said the old man. "Had he become a Watcher. He could have, if I hadn't…"

Benton said nothing, but sat down cross-legged amongst the books. When it was apparent that he wouldn't be scolded for doing so, he began picking them up and leafing through them.

It was nearly an hour before his grandfather spoke again. "I left the Council, when Kimalu died," he said. "They told me to report back to England, and I told them to – ah, I told them to do something which your grandmother disapproved of. I stayed here, and that was the end of our association."

Another hour passed, during which Benton learned more about comparative demonology than he had in his whole life.

He could feel regretful eyes watching him, all the while.

"This might have been your destiny," said his grandfather.

*

"You make your own destiny," said his grandmother.

 

Hush

There were things you didn't talk about. Things you knew. Things you half-knew. Things you couldn't name even if anyone named them, which they didn't. Because there were things you didn't talk about. The whole neighborhood was in on it, like a well-quarantined plague.

Ray wanted to be a cop when he grew up. Sometimes he thought that it was because of his dad, so he could lock him away and stop his mother crying, and sometimes he thought that it was because of Frank Zuko, because maybe if he was a cop he'd be brave enough to make him stop. But sometimes, he thought that it was because of the… other things. The things you knew were there but hardly saw, and couldn't mention. Cops could pull things out of the shadows, make them visible and tangible and real, and take them down. Nothing was as scary under a fluorescent light bulb, safely behind bars.

The first dead body he ever saw had blood dripping from its neck. Ray recognized the man from the barber shop that his father often went to, even though he never seemed to get a haircut. The old man who ran the place was nice, and often gave Ray chocolates. His sisters were never allowed to come so he didn't have to share them, and that was the main reason he liked these outings. The other reason was that his father seemed to turn into someone else there, someone who grinned and told jokes and struck fear in nobody's hearts.

It was late, and Ray was the first one to reach the door, so he saw everything. He heard his mother scream behind him and command his sisters and brother to stay back. Then she pulled Ray away from the door and slammed it shut, muttering a prayer and signing a cross over her chest. But Ray had seen, from a distance, a woman in a black coat and heels, who smiled at him like a wolf in a fairy tale.

He was eleven years old, and had never had cause to doubt the existence of monsters.

His father was the last one down the stairs, and he smelled so heavily of alcohol it was a wonder he had been roused at all, even by his wife's shrieks.

"Who is he?" his mother demanded. "Why has he been left here, for our children to see?"

"He's nobody," said his father, and even Frannie knew that was a lie. Under his wife's glare, he added, "A bookie."

There would be an argument later; he could see it in his mother's eyes. But she wasn't going to draw them into it, not if she could help it. "Call the police. I'm going to put the children back to bed." Much protesting followed that proclamation, but soon she'd wrangled all of them towards the stairs, except Ray, who hadn't moved.

"Leave him," said his father. His mother hesitated, but she had her hands full with the younger kids. She shot Ray a look that said that she would be back for him later, before disappearing upstairs in a flurry of 'But Ma!' and 'Not fair' and 'Why does Ray…?'

He followed his father into the sitting room, careful not to trip over Maria's tea-set or embed any legos in his bare feet.

His father picked up the phone, but the number he dialed was not 911.

"Mr. Zuko." Ray's father was a man with fight in his soul. He had a bone to pick with the whole world. Ray heard it in his voice, every time he spoke; but not tonight. Tonight, the fight wasn't just over, it was gone. "Get it outta here. You made your point." A sigh. "Yeah. Of course. I'm a man of my word."

Even from his place on the opposite couch, Ray heard the bark of laughter ringing down the phone line. The creases on his father's brow deepened.

He hung up the phone and stood up. "Stay here," he said, and left. Ray could hear his heavy feet thundering up the stairs.

The house was eerie in its silence, but Ray knew that he couldn't go back to bed now, because that would look like hiding, and he was the oldest, and it was his job to look after the family when his father wasn't around (which was often).

The knock on the door nearly made him jump out of his skin. He hesitated, waiting in the darkness. The knocking was persistent: tap-tap-tap. Pause. Tap-tap-tap. Slowly he moved to it. The noise stopped when he put his hand on the doorknob, as if in anticipation.

There was a woman on the doorstep. Blonde, thick lipstick and too much eye-shadow, dressed in a white sweater and black coat.

"Hello, little man," she said, kneeling down on one knee. Her eyes were too bright in the darkness. Slam the door. The thought hit him with perfect, urgent clarity, but he could not do it. All he could do was stare into her eyes. "What's your name?"

Ray didn't answer.

The woman giggled. "Cat got your tongue?" Her smile widened. "It's alright, sweetheart. I'm here to help your daddy. Why don't you invite me in?"

"You will do no such thing!"

A large hand clamped around Ray's wrist and he was yanked away from the door. His father stepped in front of him, blocking his view. He leaned just far enough to peer up at the woman's pale face. "I've talked to Zuko. What you think he'd do to you if you-" Here his father stopped, and swallowed the words as if they were too dangerous to utter.

The woman laughed, wide-mouthed and full of gleaming teeth.

"What do you think he could do? Mr. Zuko understands this better than you, human. That is why I've never been granted an invitation to his home."

"You won't get one here, either!" His father sounded like a cornered bear, snarling down the barrel of a rifle. Ray began inching towards a niche on the wall, the one that held wooden salvation.

The woman continued as if he had not spoken. "Do not think, Mr. Vecchio, that I am Mr. Zuko's pet, to be summoned and commanded at his snapping fingers. I am well-paid for my troubles." She licked her cherry-red lips and smiled over at Ray, who took an involuntary step backward. "That is all. Do not delude yourself into thinking that his word is enough to protect you." Ray reached for the crucifix, and in one fluid motion, moved to press it into his father's hand.

The woman's grin died when his father lunged at her, crucifix out. In a flash, her face was horribly transfigured.

No sooner than he'd seen it, it was gone. His father slammed the door, and made the sign of the cross against his chest, which rose and fell rapidly beneath his fingers. Ray watched as he slid to the floor, and put his head in his hands. Ray sat down next to him, saying nothing. They would not discuss the matter further. They would not mention it to anyone, especially not his mother. There would be no heart-to-heart, no revelations, no solidarity of shared experience.

There were things you didn't talk about.

 

Lovers Walk

It was getting dark, and Stella's parents were going to kill him if she wasn't home soon, and they would be seriously displeased if they knew where their daughter was now.

Though on the list of things that two thirteen-year-olds might be doing at night without their parents' consent, this probably wasn't high on the list of concerns.

“Why do you want to see a slaughterhouse, anyway?” asked Ray. “It’s really gross.”

Stella wrinkled her nose, but he could tell that she’d already considered this. “Because I’ve never seen one before,” she said. “And besides, it’s a matter of ethics, knowing where your food is coming from. This book I read says that consumers are too removed from the process, and that means that we don’t care enough about anything that happens to animals, or workers, or anything.”

Ethics had lately become one of Stella’s favorite words. She told him all about her many and varied concerns for the world, and all the books she’d read, and she always talked to him like she thought he was smart enough to understand everything she was saying. He didn’t, and was generally too awestruck by the awesomeness that was Stella to contribute much to the conversation anyway. He loved her more with every word. He would do anything for her.

It was going to get him into trouble, one of these days. They’d been at a rather grungy park on his side of town, and he’d mentioned that his dad worked in the area, and somehow they’d ended up here. He was glad that everything was closed down for the day, and his dad would be home by now.

Except for the part where he wasn’t.

They’d turned the corner and bam, there he was, standing with one hand in his pocket and the other clasping a brown-paper lunch sack.

Except that he was holding it like it had a small, vicious animal inside, waiting to escape and claw his face off, and that made Ray think it wasn’t a lunch bag at all.

“Get down,” Ray hissed, grabbing Stella’s arm and dragging her behind a gray station-wagon. “What’s he still doing here?”

“Is that your dad?” asked Stella, frowning.

“He’s supposed to have gone home by now. What’s he doing just standing around like that?”

It wasn’t like this was the greatest of neighborhoods – not a good place to be taking in the scenery, alone, at twilight. And it was getting darker.

They waited, watching. Ray was torn – he should get Stella home. She shouldn’t be out here this late, they were gonna be in so much trouble. There was no way they were getting into the building with his dad guarding the door.

But why was his dad still waiting in front of that door? Ray couldn’t shake the curiosity. And Stella’d caught it too, if her furrowed brow and rapt gaze were anything to go by.

Plus, she was still holding his hand.

The streetlamps clicked on, just as the first stars began to appear overhead.

“Look,” whispered Stella.

Ray’s eyes weren’t as good as hers, but he could just make out the dark, shadowy figure she was pointing at. The one that was headed straight for his dad.

“Bob said you two had some kind of agreement,” said his father, as the figure approached. “I don’t wanna know what you do with the stuff.”

“You really don’t,” said the man. He was tall and well-built, wearing a lot of black – black pants, long black coat. Only his pale skin stood out in the darkness.

His father grunted something, and then handed over the bag. The man stole a quick glance at the contents.

“Here,” he said, pressing something into his dad’s palm. Money? What the hell was this? This was like drug-dealers in the movies, but his dad didn’t even smoke.

“What do you think—” he started.

“Shh,” said Stella, pressing her finger to her lips. “Where did he go?

Just as suddenly as he had appeared, the stranger was gone. His dad looked around, blinking. Then he shrugged, shoved his hands in his pockets, and walked towards his car.

Ray and Stella waited in silence for a few minutes, shivering. But nothing else happened, and it was decidedly dark now – well, as dark as the city ever got.

“C’mon,” said Ray, pulling Stella up with him. “Let’s get outta here.”

Stella nodded agreement, her quick eyes darting to the factory door and back to Ray’s face. She bit her bottom lip.

They started back towards the deserted playground, huddled together and walking quickly. Ray didn’t like the feel of the place – it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. His body was tingling, raring for a fight and terrified that he wasn’t strong enough or brave enough if there was a fight. The bank all over again, only this time, maybe they wouldn’t be so lucky. He gripped Stella’s hand harder, flinching at the creaking of a swing in the wind.

“You’re out late,” said a voice behind them. They both jumped.

He wasn’t some skinhead gangster with a gun, like Ray’d been envisioning. He was ordinary looking. Just a middle-aged guy in an old suit wearing an ugly, paisley tie. And yet none of the tension went out of Ray’s shoulders. He’d stopped breathing. Something was wrong with this guy. Something was off. Every instinct Ray possessed was screaming it.

“We’re just heading home, sir,” said Stella. Her voice was steady, ringing with confidence, but Ray could feel her fingers shaking in his. “We’re not loitering.”

The man let out a harsh bark of laughter. “You won’t be for long, anyway.”

Ray reacted a split-second before the man moved. “Run!” he shouted, yelling it out, hoping to God someone would hear it, and pulling Stella with him.

Heavy footfalls padded on the grass behind them, and Ray didn’t know how two feet could sound like an entire wolf pack, snapping and snarling at their escaping backs. But he was gaining on them, moving with amazing speed for someone his age.

Ray’s blood went cold when Stella screamed. He felt her stumble.

“Let go of her!” he shouted, tugging hard at her arm, trying to wrench her from her captor's grasp. But the man had a firm hold on her other arm and he was strong, he was so strong, and his face—

What the hell had happened to his face?

Ray saw the fangs with disbelieving eyes, and froze. And God, it was gonna be the bank all over again, and a thousand times worse, and the embarrassment wouldn’t even matter because they were going to be dead and—

“Let her go.”

The voice was calm as steel, and familiar. But Ray couldn’t turn around, because his eyes were glued to Stella—

—to Stella, who took the monster’s momentary distraction as an opportunity to kick him in the shin.

The thing snarled, first at the stranger, then at her. “Fuck off. These are mine,” he said. “Go find your own midnight snack.”

The stranger stepped into the periphery of Ray’s vision, and Ray let his head turn, just a little. The man had dark hair, lanky and kind of gross. The shabby black overcoat looked like it had been dragged through a sewer, and smelled like it too.

When he’d stood by the slaughterhouse door, Ray hadn’t noticed the dirt on his hands.

As far as potential saviors went, this guy wasn’t promising. But Ray was not about to be picky at this point.

The monster hadn't let go of Stella. His Stella.

Then the battle started. Homeless Guy – as Ray dubbed him – versus the Monster. Homeless Guy swung a fist at the monster and it jerked out of the way just in time, dropping Stella to the ground. She screamed.

Ray forgot his own fear and threw himself down, crawling forward until he could reach her outstretched hand. Above them, the monster tackled Homeless Guy to the ground, but Homeless Guy kicked him off, sending him flying several feet into the air. Wow.

Ray pulled Stella toward him and helped her to feet and away from the carnage.

Run. Run. Run now. All his instincts were screaming it, but his feet were rooted to the spot. Stella's too. She was gaping at the figures warring on the grass beside them, just like he was. Homeless Guy had the monster on the ground again, pinning him down with his knees while he scrambled in his jacket for something –

A stick. A very pointy stick.

Ray was beginning to think that 'monster' wasn't the right word. Or, at least, not the only right word.

Homeless Guy plunged the stick – no, the stake – into the vampire's heart, and it exploded in a cloud of dust. Homeless Guy sat there with his knees digging into the dirt, staring at the grey ashes floating to form a ring all around him. Stella took a hesitant step forward, opening her mouth to speak. To say 'Thank you,' probably. It was what she would do. What he should be doing to, if he thought he could still speak.

The man turned as quick as a snake, his hollow eyes becoming sharp. "You should have run," he snapped.

"Sir," said Stella earnestly, "we just wanted to—"

The man was suddenly standing a foot away from them, so fast it was like he'd teleported. And then his face changed, becoming as hideous as that of the monster he'd just killed. "I said run," he snarled.

They didn't need to hear it a third time.

Stella held his hand the whole way back to her house. When they reached her doorstep she kissed him, right on the lips.

That was Stella for you – turning the worst night of his life into the best, in less than 30 seconds.

 

Older and Faraway

Nothing was real in Vegas.

But some things were less real than others, and the less real a thing was, the more dangerous it was.

That was how the casinos stayed in business. Dreams and disappointments. Optimism and overconfidence. Prices and promises. You could lose everything on something that never existed. Only the loss was real.

Ray was well aware that he wasn't any more real here than the rest of them.

He wasn't surprised, in the face of all that falsehood, to find that at least one of the men in Armando Langoustini's employ was a vampire. He could think the word now. He could even say it. Not that it would do him any good.

The vampire was a full six inches taller than he was, and ugly as sin. "You smell different today, boss," he'd said, and grinned.

Ray had given a bungled explanation to his FBI handler about his new concerns, trying to hint and prevaricate his way around the topic, because just coming out and saying, 'Hey, we got us a vampire,' was going to earn him a first class ticket to the loony bin if he wasn't talking to the right person, and he still couldn't dislocate his shoulder to escape a straight-jacket.

When he finished fumbling around for words, Agent Jones had nodded once in that way they had that could mean anything, from 'Yes, we understand your concerns and are taking steps to rectify them,' to 'We're going to ignore that, because you're important to our operation even if you are completely insane.' You never could tell.

As it turned out, it was the former. A day later, Jones handed him a bottle of water with a discreet cross on the inside of the cap, and a crucifix. Ray handed the crucifix back. "Got one, but thanks anyway."

The vampire, though, turned out not to be his biggest problem. It was probably off being a big problem to other people, but thinking too hard about that made him sick, so he mostly tried not to. No, his biggest problem strode into Langoustini's office one day in a tailored pants suit and designer shoes.

She was hot, too. That was his first thought. His second was that she was exactly on time, not late like the low-life henchmen or early like the middle-rung sycophants.

A glance at the day's agenda (he didn't have to write his own, he had people for that) told him she was from some big shot law firm. The kind that kept well-dressed pond scum like Langoustini out of prison. Bad news. But he knew lawyers. He'd spent years dealing with lawyers, from the other side. And this one was on 'his' payroll, so it wasn't like he was going to get reamed for a maybe-not-quite-entirely-legal search of some perp's closet.

He had no idea why she was here. Langoustini wasn't in any legal trouble at the moment, at least nothing they could pin him on – Ray had read all the files, he knew it all by heart. And it wasn't like he was working on anything new. Nothing the FBI didn't already know about. He was working for the prosecution, for God's sake. What did he need with a defense attorney?

So, when the lawyer clicked her way across the floor and stopped right in front of his desk, he let her have it, in trademark Langoustini style.

"I did not make this appointment," he said, standing and slamming his hands on the desk. "Why the hell did you see fit to waste my time by making this appointment? If you're in here it's because you've screwed something up, and if you screw something up while you're on my payroll, you'd better make damn sure you've taken care of it before you come crying to me."

Langoustini made it his business to keep everyone he employed on the defensive, constantly in fear for their jobs, and their lives, which were not worth much if the job was over. It had been… okay, maybe it had been a little bit fun at first. Now it was just exhausting, for everyone involved.

"If there is any problem here that I don't know about, it had better be a problem that's already been solved. Because if you don't, I will hang you out to dry so fast you won't even know you were wet. Armando Langoustini," he said, with flourish, "does not waste his valuable time on incompetent paper-pushers. Armando Langoustini can shred way more than paper."

"You are not Armando Langoustini," said the lawyer. "Armando Langoustini is dead." Her face might have been carved out of marble, for all the expression it showed.

His heart stopped. It was a cliché, but that didn't make it feel less real. Fraser probably could have explained the physiology and psychology and whatever –ology of it, had he been there.

When had he started hearing Fraser in his head whenever he panicked?

"You are Detective First Grade Raymond Vecchio, of the Chicago Police department, in the 27th Precinct."

"Who're you with?" he asked, eyes narrowing.

"I am with the law firm Wolfram and Hart. We represent Mr. Langoustini."

"Even if he's dead?"

"It suits our purposes, for the time being, for Mr. Langoustini to be seen to be alive and well. Mr. Langoustini has been and will continue to be one of our most esteemed clients. This government sideshow does not concern us. You, however, do. You are now our concern. And if this association becomes… unsatisfactory, well, let us say that your mother could become a concern of ours. Your sisters may become a concern of ours. Or your friend, Constable Fraser. Is that clear, Mr. Vecchio?

"Crystal."

The lawyer smiled. He remembered a smile from long ago and far away, inviting him to cross a doorway, straight into its jaws. The lawyer's smile was just like that. But less honest.

"Thank you for your time, Mr… Langoustini," she said, drawing out every syllable. "We will be seeing you again very soon." On that ominous note, the woman clicked out of the room on her expensive heals.

Ray collapsed into his chair, shaking. Where were they anyway, if the law represented the dead, and failed to protect the living?

He didn't know why he was surprised.

Nothing real mattered in Vegas.

 

Fool For Love

It started with a girl. Didn't it always?

Ray snorted into his beer, then wondered what was so funny.

It started with a girl. Beautiful. Blonde. Blue-eyes. Smile that lights up a room, though he hadn't seen that in a while.

It started with a girl. Love at first sight. His whole life started with that girl.

Now that it was over, did he end? Was that how happily-ever-after worked in real life? In Chicago?

And then there was the other thing, with the guys in the suits telling him that he could go be someone else, someone who wasn't Ray Kowalski. Game over, insert coin, new life right here in Chicago.

He'd thought about it, and then he'd got the hell out of Chicago. Gone west. Bypassed Arizona and his parents and their disappointment and gone straight to his brother in LA. He hated his brother, but at least his brother didn't care enough to be disappointed. He was on marriage #3, so it's not like he could judge.

The prospect of spending his currently sleepless nights listening to his brother and wife #3 alternately fighting and fucking through the thin walls of their apartment was too much, and sent him out to the nearest dive bar every evening. That was where he found himself tonight, on a barstool next to some other – albeit better looking – loser with an expression blacker than his hair.

The guy looked familiar, though Ray couldn't place him. Maybe he was a model or an actor or something – it was LA, after all, where out-of-luck actors were a dime a dozen, no matter how good they looked in a trench coat. He had that tall-dark-and-studly thing going on, and too much product in his hair, and Ray might've picked a fight with him if he'd had more alcohol in his system, or if the guy didn't look as low as Ray felt.

"Lemme guess," he said, instead. "It started with a girl."

The guy stiffened, every tense muscle in his broad shoulders screaming leave me alone, bold and underlined. Maybe Ray would get that fight after all. Fine. Whatever. It was all one to him. The guy turned to look at him, and slumped. Maybe the both of them looked too pathetic to hit. That wasn't exactly a comforting thought.

"Doesn't it always?" he said.

Ray grinned stupidly at this, and pressed on. "Blonde eyes. Blue hair. Smile that lights up a room."

The stranger shrugged. "Something like that."

"Beautiful?"

The man nodded as if admitting the fact made him miserable. Ray smiled his sympathy. "And I bet it was love at first sight, too."

The man ignored this, and spoke to his half-drunk glass of ale. "She's in trouble. Or she's going to be in trouble. She needs my help."

"But when you look at her," said Ray, "you think that maybe you need help – like if she looks at you the right way, your heart might stop beating."

"Little late for that," he muttered. "I don't even know her."

"Them's the worst kind," said Ray. Who do you think I am, Ray? Do you know me at all anymore?

"What am I going to do?" he said, speaking to his drink again. "I can't love her – that would be just be – sad. And absurd. But I don't know if I can be near her and not love her. How can I help her and stay away from her? And if I can't help her, what use can I be to anyone?" He glared up at the ceiling. "How can I be anything if I'm set up to fail from the start? And this? Me and her? That can only fail – even if she…" The man trailed off hopelessly, still begging entreaty from a stain in the bar ceiling.

It was all a bit too much for Ray. Whatever the guy was babbling about, Ray sure couldn't make sense of it. Except…

He offered his words of wisdom anyway, because he'd had just enough alcohol to do it. "Love isn't fair," he said. The stranger jerked his head around to look at him, as if he'd forgotten Ray was listening. "Love always sets you up to fail." He twisted his wedding ring off his finger, and stared at it in the palm of his hand, a small lump of skin-warmed metal, dingy and scratched from years of bumping up against handcuffs and following his fist through walls. His companion stared at it too.

"Love sucks. It chews you up and spits you out, and you don't notice until it's too late, and you've already been digested."

"I think that metaphor got away from you somewhere. But I know what you mean."

Ray put the ring back on. He felt much more sober, all of a sudden. He swished the last of his own drink into his mouth and stood up. "Good luck with your Golden Girl," he said, with more sarcasm than he intended. "Sounds like you're going to need it." The man's shoulders slumped, but he didn't say anything else. Ray took a step, then asked, "Say, do I know you from somewhere?"

"I don't think so."

Ray cracked his knuckles, and stretched. "If you say so."

Half a second later he was back out on a polluted LA sidewalk, the warm air doing nothing to clear his head. He ducked down an alley to take a leak, humming a ballad of lovelorn misery as he unzipped his fly. He heard the creeping footstep behind him, sensing it in the prickling hairs on the back of his neck just before it reached his ears. He calmly finished and zipped up, switching from hum to whistle, and reaching for the gun in his pocket. Just give me an excuse, punk.

"Listen kid," he said, "I'm gonna give you one—"

Crack. Ray was shoved head first against the wall before he saw more than an ugly camo jacket and a pair of gleaming yellow eyes.

Well. Shit.

Hot breath moistened the back of his neck, and he was almost sick at the stench of it. An impossibly strong body had him pinned to the wall and, though he struggled, he couldn't get the leverage to throw the guy off.

Then two needle sharp fangs sunk into his neck, and he knew that it was really over for him this time, and God, what a shitty way to go, in some shitty LA back-alley behind some shitty bar, half-drunk on their shitty beer. He couldn’t even go out like a cop, gun in hand, blaze of glory, all that jazz.

Then, as suddenly as he had grabbed him, the man – thing, creature, whatever – was wrenched backwards, and Ray was pulled from the wall with the force of it. The hands lost their grip on his shoulders and he stumbled forward, hitting the ground knees first. He rolled out of the way just in time; his assailant was picked up and sent flying into the wall, headfirst. This didn't faze him much – he got right back up, snarling, and Ray saw his horribly disfigured face straight on. It wasn't the first time he'd seen a face like that. It probably wouldn't be the last.

The guy from the bar was standing at the mouth of the alley, his black coat flapping around like it was a goddamn cape.

"This the best you can do?" he said. "I eat better than this, and I live on rats."

"Hey!" said Ray.

"No offense."

Ray's attacker scrunched up his ugly face in confusion. "If you're not gonna eat him, why are you fighting me for him?"

But the man didn't answer, because he chose that moment to resume his assault. His face transformed before Ray's eyes, and then, much to Ray's horror, there were two monsters fighting over him in that alley.

Well, at least someone still wanted him.

And then it clicked. The guy's human face may have been reduced to hazy memory, but his other face had been haunting Ray's dreams since he was 13.

There was an explosion of gray dust, and Ray's savior twice over was shaking the monster from his face.

He immediately turned on his heel and made to stalk out of the alley without a word. Ray wasn't gonna stop him. He wasn't sure he remembered what words sounded like.

Then the guy stopped. His shoulders drooped. He gave Ray half of a backward glance.

"You alright?" he asked.

Ray wanted to laugh. Instead he said, "That's the second time you've saved my neck."

"Huh?" The man turned all the way around this time, the better to scrutinize a face Ray knew he wouldn’t recognize. He'd changed a lot in 25 years, after all, even if this guy hadn't.

"June. 1973. Chicago. Two dumb kids in a park. Didn't recognize you until you did that thing with your face."

"Oh." He gave Ray a long look. "I remember," he said at last. He looked down at his feet. "The girl you were with – she's not the one who--?"

"Yeah, she's the one," said Ray with a sigh. "Teen love, eh? Not exactly the stuff of fairy tales." He shrugged. "At least you don't have to worry about that."

"Uh…" It looked like he was gonna say something else, and instead said, "No, I guess not."

"You should talk to her," said Ray.

"I thought you said that love sucked."

Ray sighed. "It does. But not all of it sucks. There are the good parts, too. Stuff you can look back on when it does suck."

"Does that help?"

"No," said Ray. He ran a hand through his hair. "And yes. I mean… Stell and I were good for each other, you know? We had good times. We were better together, when it was good. And that still means something. It means that I was something, for a while. We were something. And that's important. Even if it's…" he swallowed. "Even if it's over now, even if we don't live happily ever after, the way we were supposed to, that doesn't mean that it was a waste of time. I could never regret being with Stella – she's too much a part of who I am. Even if I don’t like who I am right now, I'm still something more than I would've been without her. Does that make any sense?"

"Something more…" he echoed.

Ray pressed on. "So you should… you know. Call her. Talk to her. Help her. Whatever. Maybe it'll work out." He paused. "Go be something."

As far as advice went, the guy probably could have done better. On the other hand, he was here in the same place Ray was, so maybe better advice didn't come his way all that often.

"What about you?" he asked.

"Me?" said Ray. "I'm gonna go be something else."

 

Conversations with Dead People

The vampire was new, and well-dressed beneath the layer of mud. He had crawled out of the now-defiled grave of Mr. Geoffrey Fanshaw, who had, in life, held an administrative position at a paper factory. He had perished in the alley he was dragged into while out walking his dog. The dog's neck had been snapped.

Fraser had read his obituary, as well as the police report for the murder investigation that he knew would remain unsolved. When it was possible, Fraser tried to learn the names of the people they had once been. One must never lose sight of the human being lost to the monster.

The vampire bared his teeth for the first time, blinking dazedly, and taking in Fraser's raised stake with bemusement. Then it shook itself, and snarled.

Fraser was ready for it when it hurled itself at him. He stepped forward quickly, calculating the correct angle of the stake, and let the force of the creature's assault do the work.

Dust showered around him. He held up his hands to shield his eyes and mouth.

As soon as the dust cleared, he spied red. Oh, great. "Good work, son," said his father. "But you know you shouldn't be out here."

Fraser brushed some of the dust from his shoulders. He wasn't in uniform. He never wore it during these… excursions. This was not RCMP business.

"I know that you think I shouldn't be out here," he said crisply. "You've made your thoughts on the matter quite clear."

He was going to get the full lecture tonight, from the look of it.

There was a noise of discontent behind him. It wasn't from his father. His father's feet didn't make a noise wherever he walked, and certainly not that clicking sound, as of impractically heeled shoes on concrete. Oh dear.

"Hey!" said a high-pitched voice. "That was mine!"

He turned, stake raised, to face down the other vampire. She was approximately 5'4", with hair dyed a wide array of unnatural colors, and the most absurd shoes he'd ever seen.

"Don't underestimate her, Benton," said his father. "Just because she looks like a young girl."

She had been young, when she died. She couldn't have been more than 20. Not that her appearance said anything about her real age.

"Thanks, Dad," he said. "I don't know what I'd do without your sage wisdom."

"Now, there's no call for sarcasm."

He wished his father would leave. He didn't need the distraction.

Fortunately, his presence was distracting the vampire as well. "Is that a ghost?" she said. "I've never seen a ghost before!" She sounded positively gleeful.

"Back, you unholy fiend!" said his father. Fraser suppressed a groan.

"Stick around. After I kill this guy—" she pointed her thumb at Fraser, "—we can have a chat. I'd love to pick your brain." She giggled. "Not literally, of course. Can't make any promises about yours," she added, shooting a feral grin at Fraser.

Then, she pounced. But he was ready for her. She went hurtling into the headstone behind him as he stepped aside and used her own momentum against her. Her eyes were yellow when she turned to snarl at him, teeth bared.

And so it continued. One miscalculation, and he would be dead in a manner of seconds, if he was lucky. If he was even luckier, he'd stay that way.

"You ought to bring a sword," said his father. They were standing on the roof of an old family crypt. The vampire had toppled from view a moment earlier, with a stake in her chest, but not, alas, her heart. "I'm sure I left you a sword."

Fraser jumped back down onto the grass below. "I don't know what you're talking about." He squinted around, searching for any sign of the vampire. He picked up a large stone.

He heard her a second before she leapt from the shadows and dived out of her way. Then he hurled the stone at her head. This gave him a brief window of opportunity to grapple his stake from her hands, which he managed, but getting so close also gave her the opportunity to knock his feet out from under him. He landed with a thud on the grass.

"It hung on my cabin wall for years. It was in my will, I'm certain of it. You don't forget things like that, when you're dead.

Fraser felt strong hands rolling him onto his back and pinning his shoulders down. He glanced over at his father's red form instead of up at the hideous face above him.

"Contrary to the opinions of a rather distressingly large number of people, I do not have superpowers," he said. "I need all my faculties engaged if I'm going to succeed here."

He met the vampires descending face with a head-butt and managed to push her off.

"No distractions," said his father, tapping his nose. "I can take a hint, son."

Fraser very much doubted that.

Before he could say as much, the vampire was lunging for him again. He rolled out of the way, and she landed on the grass beside him. With the speed of a striking cobra, he plunged the stake into her back. This time, he didn't miss the mark.

Fraser stood and wiped the dust from his flannel shirt.

"You missed some," said his father, pointing at his left shoulder. "The Watchers' Council wouldn't approve of all this, you know. This is a job for a Slayer. You're going to get yourself killed."

"In case you haven't noticed, I'm not a member of the Watchers' Council. Furthermore, Ray informs me that I spend every day finding new and elaborate methods of trying to get myself killed. Why should my nights be any different?"

"It's quite different, you'll find. You're in the service of the RCMP during the day, and you have a duty to perform to the best of your abilities, even at the risk of life and limb." His father puffed up his chest importantly. "This compromises that. This is not your sacred duty, Benton. Remember that."

It was not something Fraser had ever forgotten. "There is no Slayer here," he said. "It's the right thing to do."

"I never said it wasn't."

Fraser considered arguing the logical discrepancy there, but then thought better of it. He rubbed his temples, sighing. It was late. He was tired.

"I was admitted to the Watchers' Academy, you know," said his father.

"I didn't know." His grandfather had always implied that the Watchers' Council had officially cut off all contact with their family after his resignation. Fraser examined his father's face, but the old man was inscrutable.

"I turned them down," he said.

"Obviously."

Fraser's eyes swept over the graveyard one last time. All was still and silent. Well, as still and silent as you got in Chicago. But there were no unwelcome former persons there, as far as he could see.

"I suppose that after being snubbed by two generations of Frasers, they weren't going to bother with you." His father smeared the dust across the grass with his foot. "I'm sorry," he said, and Fraser knew he meant it.

"I'm not." At his father's look, he added, "What makes you so certain that I would have chosen that destiny, had I been offered the choice?"

"Destiny chooses you, son. Not the other way around."

His grandmother's voice, source of comfort and wisdom and occasionally fear, entered his head then, as clearly as if she were speaking. Knowing this family, perhaps she was. But just to make sure, he found himself repeating her words.

"You make your own destiny."

 

Finis