Once Bitten (Twice Shy)

Quatre/Duo. NC-17. ~37, 000 words. Duo POV. AU. Supernatural.
Duo sticks his hand under the bed and finds out the monsters are real.

She stared at me in disbelief for the space of a heartbeat. A thin trail of smoke trickled out of her mouth. Finally, shaking her head and blowing out the puff of grey, she jabbed the cigarette into the already full ashtray. The red glow lingered. I shrugged.

“I know you’re kidding me. You just can’t be serious.” She ground out the smouldering tip. It was the third time she’d said that.

“For Christ’s sake, Hil, I’m serious.” I wrapped a hand around my glass, slicking off the condensation. “You’ve heard all the rumours, same as me.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard them.” She folded her arms on the tiny, round table, pushing her drink aside. The ice clinked against the glass, loud in the dimness of the noonday bar. “I didn’t think you were nuts enough to believe them.”

I gave her my best goofy grin. “Didn’t say I believed it; just want to check it out for myself.”

“You want to get messed up in that cult stuff, your choice. But it’s a bad idea, Duo L. Maxwell. A really bad idea.” She reached for the pack of cigarettes on the table and tapped out another in the quick, practiced movement of a long-time smoker. “You remember that.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t forget it. You keep reminding me.” I laughed, picked up my water for a drink. “So…guess you haven’t heard from Catherine.”

Something flickered behind her eyes, the cig unlit in her hand. “Is that why you called me out here?”

“Yeah, guess so,” I said, leaning forward. “She went off with the bunch in Chicago, didn’t she?” I waited a beat, her expression turning worried. “And you haven’t heard from her since.”

“No, Duo. I haven’t.” She shoved her chair back so quickly she knocked her glass over, spilling ice and water across the scarred table. “And if you had any sense, you’d stay away from freaks like that.” Snatching the open pack off of the table, she bundled her sweater in her arms and stalked to the door. The bright sun burned across the floor when she yanked it open, slowly crawling back out behind her as it closed.

I sat back, stared at the water seeping over the table and dripping to the floor in a tired, steady rhythm. The bartender – Noddy, no last name – went back to wiping down the spotless counter with his dirty white towel.

I’d seen some weird shit before, so yeah, I wanted to see this for myself. I didn’t really believe that vampires had set up shop in a few choice cities and were snatching people off the streets like Happy Meals on legs. Still, I was curious. I was going to stick my hand under the bed and find out if the monsters were real. Hil was right. It was a bad idea. But I was going to do it anyway.

*

On my way home that night, I stopped at a newsstand and poked through the tabloids. The headlines were pretty much the same. ‘Man Attacked By Giant Alien Bird!’ ‘Michael Jackson the Missing Link!’ ‘Vampire Nest Taking New York Homeless!’

Yeah, same old, same old for the gossip rags. Right beside them, on the professional black and white front pages of the Times and the Globe, was the same thing. Vampires. Vampire cults they called it, still trying to be a step up from kitty litter liner.

Six months ago it had been one dead body with fang marks out in the middle of nowhere. Four months ago it had been two teens in Chicago. Two months ago it had been seven unidentified people burned to a crisp in the Toronto suburbs, and one hysterical survivor with dainty little fang marks on her wrist. This month…this month it was whispers and rumours of vampires living where the old money did. Shacked up out in the tamed wilderness where people had golf courses for front lawns and Jacuzzis the size of swimming pools.

“You gonna buy, buddy? It ain’t a public library, yanno.”

“Heh.” I dropped a few dollars in the guy’s hand, taking the Enquirer and tucking it under my arm. “Yeah, I’m buying. Thanks.”

“Hey, yeah. Sure, no problem.” The money vanished in a blink. “Just gotta keep an eye out, yanno. People are cheap fuckers.”

I laughed at that and waved a hand. “I know, man. I know.”

My apartment was two blocks from Noddy’s bar. The place was one leak shy of a black little hole in the wall, but at least it was mine. It took money to live, and I was pretty much flat broke. Student budgets suck ass. Unemployed grad student budgets suck the whole enchilada.

I kicked the door closed, flipping through the pages for the article I wanted. Folding the paper over in one hand and turning the lock that I could probably pick with my eyes closed, I started to read.

The police had another dead body and no leads, and the journalist – term used very loosely – wasn’t really subtle about pointing the finger at vampires. There was even a black and white photo of the victim’s neck, last term also used very loosely. There wasn’t a hell of a lot left. Even without colour it looked raw and ragged, more like a wolf had tried to take a chunk of the throat. Nice and savage. It didn’t look much like any vampire bite I’d ever heard of. Unless someone wasn’t careful with their food and didn’t care about table manners.

I leaned back against the counter in my pitifully small kitchen, scanning the rest of the page, but my eyes kept being drawn back to the photo. I couldn’t help wondering if that had happened to Catherine. Some wacko jazzed up on drugs taking a bite out of her neck. It was still murder even if she went because she wanted to. Or maybe it was suicide. No wonder Hil didn’t want to talk about it.

The article mentioned vampire clubs. I knew about those, but the number of them had exploded in the last half a year. Places where people went to pretend, nibbling on necks with plastic teeth. Safe fun. Have a drink and a scream and not worry about getting your throat torn out.

I didn’t really put much stock in the idea, but the groups had to be getting members from somewhere. If I ran a vampire cult, vampire clubs sounded like pretty good recruiting grounds to me. I figured I’d check it out tomorrow night. If nothing else, at least I wouldn’t be sitting home on Friday night keeping my television company.

The paper went on top of the pile next to the table. I started rummaging around in the fridge for something to eat and came up empty handed. Looked like it was Mr. Noodle for dinner again tonight.

*

I spent the next day running around downtown, looking for someone to take pity on my skinny ass and give me a job. Of course, no one would. Maybe it was the hair. You don’t see many guys with braids down to their ass even these days. It could have been bad timing, or maybe it was just plain dumb luck. I decided that they were all a bunch of cheap pricks and left it at that. Newsstand Guy was right.

I did a little bit of poking around, trying to find out what people who went to vampire clubs looked like. I didn’t want to under or overdo it, since I had a feeling I’d stick out like a newbie no matter what. Fresh blood. Ha ha.

So, black and red was the order of the evening. One, because that seemed to be the thing, and two because it was pretty much the only half-decent clothes I had left. Dark jeans, red tee, black boots. Not really snazzy, but I didn’t have the time or the money to go buy leather and fishnet or something just as crazy. Fishnet sounded itchy. Not my cup of tea. Besides, I looked alright and I could take the bus without ten pairs of eyes drilling holes through me. A definite plus.

The club I picked out was in the warehouse district. Right, where else would it be. Somehow, I couldn’t picture a Dracula wannabe in the middle of bright glittering crystal and gold, sweeping over light marble tiles. I guess uptown ballrooms didn’t really match the whole Lord of the Undead, Mistress of the Dark motif.

The cavernous room I stood in didn’t have much in the way of lighting. Dim and murky, tasting faintly of smoke and something else I didn’t recognize. I heard music playing in the distance, far below me.

Twisting metal stairs to the side were the only open route, so I started heading down those. My steps made deep, echoing clangs, shaking the entire structure. I hoped there was a different exit; I didn’t trust this way out.

I wasn’t sure what I expected at the bottom. What I got was almost a sheer veil of black, pounding music and the taste of something almost bittersweet on the back of my tongue. I could see shapes moving in the darkness, and beyond that, people bathed in the soft glow of frosted, low-hanging bulbs.

Everyone seemed to be sprawled haphazardly around. Some danced wherever they stood, looking more like they were trying to crawl into each other’s skin than anything. Others were lounging on cushions and couches, a few half-naked and groping their neighbour. As I glanced around, I saw more than a few flares of red and puffs of grey, and not all of it smelled like cigarette smoke.

All in all, it looked like the opening scene to a really bad porno flick.

Still, this was the only lead I had, and I was already there. I wandered deeper into the room, looking for a place to get a drink and trying to not inhale too much of what everyone was smoking. I started to feel light-headed before I found the bar. I sat on the edge of a chair, ducking my head down and waiting for the bit of dizziness to pass. I couldn’t stay much longer if I was feeling woozy already.

“Hey, cutie, you okay?”

A woman in a screaming red dress was standing beside me, nails painted the same colour touching my face. Her lips were blood red to match, her hair a rich white blond.

“Cutie?” I said, trying for charming.

She laughed, deep and full-throated. “Sexy, then.” She smiled and showed off one wicked looking set of canines.

“Nice teeth.”

She ran her tongue over them, leaning down to give me a good view of what were two very superior breasts. “You like them, do you, sexy?”

I didn’t know if she was asking about the teeth or the tits, and she didn’t give me time to figure out a response.

Those scary pointed teeth were tracing along my jaw, skipping down to press against the side of my neck as she sunk down to balance on her spiked heels. Her hand was on my thigh, chest pressed up against my arm. The dress felt cool and slick.

“Smooth,” she said. “No one’s had a taste of you yet, have they?”

“Whoa, hang on.” I put a hand on her shoulder, pushing her gently back. “What do you mean, taste? Those teeth yours?”

She smiled again, flicking her tongue against the left one. “Kiss me and find out for yourself.”

Alright, so it was a little weird, even for me. I still felt disconnected, not really sure that even if they were plastic teeth she wouldn’t try to do something that involved poking holes in my skin. I wasn’t ready to let a stranger suck blood out of my neck.

“Thanks, but no thanks.” I pushed myself off of the chair, and she followed. Standing, she was only an inch shorter than my 5’10″.

She stalked around me, hips swaying and full of confidence. “You’re new, aren’t you? No one comes here unless they’re looking for something, and you don’t look like a doer, honey.”

Dropped down from sexy to honey in the blink of an eye. Woman, you fickle creature. “So what’s that make me?”

Her eyes were almost feverishly bright, and she looked at me like something she would like to roll around on her tongue. “The one who’s done.”

Both my eyebrows went up. “Right, okay. That’s enough for me.” I really didn’t want to know what she meant, and I didn’t want to wait around for the vampire dominatrix to fill me in. “Nice meeting you, good luck with the…” I gestured at my mouth. Yep, I was leaving.

“Hey.” She wrapped one of her long-nailed hands around my arm. “You want to find out the answer to those questions, here.” She handed me a card the same shocking red as her mouth. It had a phone number on it in little white letters. That was it, just the number.

“Whose number is it, yours?” I flipped the card over, but the back was blank.

“Call it and see.”

She stalked away then, off to terrorize some other poor sap. Or hell, maybe the next sap in line wanted her to give him a vampire hickey. Yeah, I watched her go. She definitely knew how to move in that dress.

I glanced at the card again, almost tossing it down to the chair. But I didn’t. I tucked it into my pocket and climbed back up the rickety staircase. Looking back down into the dark pit, I had the feeling like I was crawling back out of one of the lower circles of hell.

I knew it wasn’t a good thing when hell gave you its phone number. It was even worse when you seriously considered using it.

*

It was still early when I got home, just after eleven. The television would be my company for the night after all, if the headache brewing just behind my eyes didn’t get greedy.

I flopped onto my decrepit couch with a cold bottle of water and took a long gulp. I was feeling better, not entirely good, but better. The card was still in my pocket, and I drew it out slowly. The white numbers almost looked like they were raised off the paper, dancing above the red. I knew the back was smooth, so it was all optical illusion. I skimmed my fingers over it, and they went through the hovering digits.

Was I really going to call? What harm could it do? I was curious. More than anything, I was curious, and the feeling of the woman’s warm breath and sharp-edged teeth against my skin was painfully clear.

I was out in the hallway before I really thought it through. Walking a few blocks away from my place, I found a payphone with a fizzing light. There was a quarter mixed in with the change in my pocket. I dialled the number and listened to it ring, an odd counterpoint to the buzz of the light.

“Hello.”

I blinked. It was a man’s voice, I was sure, and it was the kind of voice you’d never forget once you heard it. It was almost touchable, like fur or body-warmed silk pressed against your skin. It held a hint of something foreign, exotic.

The other end was silent. “Um…hello,” I said.

There was a long pause. “…yes?”

“I was given this number.” When in doubt, go for truth. Usually.

“I see. Might I ask who is calling?”

I had to take a deep breath before answering. The sound of his voice was raising goosebumps along my arms. “Duo,” I said. It wasn’t really a common name, but I didn’t think it could be easily traced back to me.

I stopped. I was justifying. I’d wanted to give him my name, I’d wanted to give him my entire name. And I didn’t like that.

“Well, Duo,” he said, his voice sliding smoothly down my spine. “Are you coming to visit us?

That threw me way off. “Visit you?”

He made a low, affirmative sound.

“I don’t even know who you are, man. How the hell can I visit you?” I bumped my forehead against the glass of the booth, suddenly not even sure what the hell I was doing.

“I believe you were given this number for a reason. If you would offer a location, it would be a simple matter to have someone fetch you.”

Fetch me? “I don’t need to be fetched.”

The voice on the other end gave a long-suffering sigh. “Must you be difficult?”

That one got my back up. “Hey, buddy, I’m not the one handing out little red cards with my number on them, okay?”

“No, you are not,” he agreed. “You are the one calling that number.”

He kinda had me there.

“I will make it easy for you, Duo,” he continued. “I will send a car to the corner of 43rd and Dumont at ten p.m. tomorrow night. Should you wish to, join the driver there and he will take you to us. I look forward to meeting you.” He hung up.

I turned my head slowly and stared at the buzzing phone, his voice still echoing in my head.

Great. Now I was going to go and do something really stupid.

*

After I’d had time to think about it, I realised that the woman could have given me almost exactly what I wanted: an invitation to the cult. Maybe. I wrote off my odd reaction to the voice on the phone as a side effect of whatever I’d been breathing in the air last night.

If I was going to follow Mr. Voice’s instructions, there would be no way in hell I’d just saunter up to the car and let them drive me off to who-knows-where. I was going to make arrangements.

Howard’s place is a little broom closet tacked onto one side of a huge open-air warehouse. He worked on everything from motorcycles to jets, with the jets being his personal Eden. The air was filled with noise when I showed up early that morning. Voices, drills, and music pumped the space full of noise. Good noise, the kind that tells you you’re somewhere familiar.

“Heya, kid,” Howard said, plodding towards me wiping his hands on a rag.

His big feet were in sandals, the ever-present Hawaiian shirt complete with hula girls flopped out over oil-splotched shorts. The sunshades were reflective and pointed at the corners, and the three fuzzy patches of his hair stuck out like grass tufts in the desert – one tuft on top, the other just over his ears in a floppy grey halo. Howard, as far as I knew, didn’t really qualify for disciple-hood.

“Hey, Howard. How’s tricks?” I grinned at him and he barked out a laugh.

“Can’t complain, little man. Can’t complain.” He slipped his hands into the pockets of the shorts and rocked back on his heels. “What’s up?”

“Just a favour-”

“Uh oh.”

I gave him a look that plainly said to clam up. “You still got an office around here, Howard, or are you sleeping with the engines these days?”

He gave me a look of his own and stepped aside, waving me towards the back. “You need money, or a place to crash?” He’d lowered his voice so no one else would hear over the din.

“Jesus, Howard, c’mon. I’m not that hard up that I’m going to mooch off you.” I closed the door behind us and instantly the noise vanished. I didn’t know Howard had a soundproof office, so I guess I’d never been in there with the door shut before.

“You look serious, kid. What big shit deal are you tangled up in now?” He sat in his chair, kicked back and relaxed.

“You’ve got no confidence in me, my man. None at all.”

“You’re just like me when I was a kid, Duo, and I got tangled up in my own share of shit.”

That was a scary thought. Me, like Howard? I shook my head. “Listen, will you?” I pulled the envelope I’d gotten ready last night out and tossed it on his desk. “I need you to hang onto that for me. If I’m not back by Tuesday to pick it up, drop it in a box in time for the mail.” I wasn’t sure if two days was too much or too little. What I wanted was enough leeway for whatever happened to happen, but not too much that it would be too late by the time something bad did. Right. That made sense.

He looked at me and then turned to look at the plain white envelope. Picking it up, he started tapping it against the scarred wood of the desk. His expression was blank. “How deep are you in?”

I should have known Howard wouldn’t let it go. He was like a dog with a bone. “Still in the shallow end, Howard. I don’t even have my toes wet.”

“You’re not gonna tell me a damn thing, are you?”

I shrugged. “Nothing to tell. You going to help me here, Howard, or not?”

“Kid,” he said. If I was back to being ‘kid’ again, he was going to help. “I’ll give you a hand this time, but when you show up here Tuesday, I want to know what the hell’s going on.” He opened the top drawer of the desk and tossed the envelope in. “Some people’ll drown you in three inches of water just as easily as they can in three feet of it. You got that?”

“Yeah, I got that,” I grinned at him. “See you Tuesday, man.”

Howard sat at his desk and watched me go. He wasn’t happy. I was. I had a backup plan, or at least the best one I could figure out. The envelope had the details of what I’d done, and where I thought I was going. Either I’d make it back and stop it from going out, or I wouldn’t. If I didn’t make it back by Tuesday, I’d have a lot of explaining to do. Or I’d be up to my eyebrows in shit. I kinda preferred that first option.

*

I spent a little while standing buck naked in front of my closet. Mr. Voice hadn’t given me a hell of a lot to work with. I didn’t know if I was supposed to dress up, go casual, or go freaky. And since I didn’t have freaky and dressing up meant my dusty weddings-and-funerals suit, casual it was. The vamp chick seemed impressed enough with the red tee and jeans, so I went with that again. Could have been her own kink talking, though. She seemed to have a thing for red.

If I was right, and I did have a ticket into the cults, the idea of going in blind and helpless didn’t really sit well. I didn’t own any sort of gun, and a part of me still thought that was overkill.

What I did have was a four-inch switchblade that fit snugly in my pocket and didn’t show. Why did I have an illegal knife? Because sometimes I did illegal things. I didn’t hide out in alleys and mug passers-by, but like I said, I’d seen my share of weird shit. Maybe I was a bit more like Howard than I thought.

Nah.

*

It was a nice night, as nice as you can get in the summer. Warm, calm and a little more quiet than you’d expect. 43rd and Dumont was one of the less-busy corners downtown. I hopped off the bus about a block and a half away and hiked it.

In front of a pawn shop that had probably seen better days was a tall guy leaning against a plain blue car. He looked like he was waiting for someone. I could go stand somewhere like an idiot and wait for him to move, or I could walk up and ask him who he was waiting for and be an idiot that way. I went with the second kind of stupid.

The guy spoke before I did. “Are you Duo?”

“Who’s asking?”

He wasn’t Mr. Voice. Still, the man was pretty damn good-looking. In his twenty-somethings, maybe a little older than my twenty-four. Light brown hair, almost blond in places, pale blue eyes and skin dark enough to tell that there was someone not quite as pale as whoever gave him those hair and eyes in his family tree.

“Kurt,” he said, giving me his hand. The grip was strong, solid like the rest of him looked. He assumed I was Duo. Considering it was five to ten and I was probably the only other guy on the street who’d approached him, guess you couldn’t blame him.

“Yeah, I’m Duo.” I took my hand back to stuff it in a pocket. I waited for him to say something else.

He smiled at me, the type of smile that said he’d seen it all before. It wasn’t the first time he’d done this. “Where’s your card?”

I fished it out of my pocket and flashed it at him. I’d thought about tucking it in Howard’s envelope, but had slipped in a copy of the number instead. Kurt studied it for a minute, flipping it over a few times. I wondered if they had a problem with fakes.

“Looks good,” he decided finally, handing it back to me. He gave me the once-over. “You’ll do, too. Hop in.” He opened the passenger side door, walked around and climbed into the driver’s seat.

I stared at that open door. Once I got in there, I’d be committed. Did I really want to let some guy I’d just met cart me off to god-knows-where to meet Mr. Voice and a contingent of the vampire-obsessed? Since I settled in and buckled up, yeah, guess I did.

*

Kurt didn’t say much. He was friendly, chattered on about this and that if prompted, but he didn’t say anything useful. We’d left the suburbs about twenty minutes into the drive, and were sailing down the seventy-two when I asked, “So, where are we going?”

He looked at me as if I’d just told him he smelled like rotten fish. “We’ll be there in another forty minutes.”

“Oh,” I said. I tapped my fingers against my knee, looking out at the scattering of trees visible just beyond the headlights. “If I ask you what we’re doing once we get there, you going to give me that look again?”

He grinned, eyes still on the road. “You’ll see when we get there.” He looked like he was enjoying himself.

“Figured you’d say that.”

“Then why did you ask?”

“Couldn’t really hurt to try, could it?”

He glanced at me, then quickly back to the highway. “Sometimes it could. Word of advice, Duo – don’t ask too many questions. The old ones don’t take very kindly to it.”

Whoa. Old ones. My man Kurt was a true believer. “Got any specific advice on what to avoid, since you’re being so helpful?”

He shook his head and slowed down for an off-ramp. There was something a lot like fear in his eyes. Suddenly I wasn’t so sure I wanted to get to wherever we were going. “Just don’t ask personal questions. They’ll tell you everything you need to know.”

“Okay.” I nodded. That made some sense. I wouldn’t want to tell my life story to someone I’d met through a cult, so I could sympathise. The fear in Kurt’s eyes didn’t do a hell of a lot to make me feel relaxed, and I hoped he wouldn’t be my ride home. He didn’t seem completely with it, did Kurt.

We left the well-travelled roads behind and bumped along what could have once been a country path. He took another turnoff, tree branches creeping out of the dark to scratch along the paintjob like nails on a chalkboard. I winced, but Kurt didn’t seem bothered. Maybe he was just used to it.

We drove for another half an hour, winding deeper into the blackness. It might have been a nice drive if I could see more than the dirt road straight ahead and if I wasn’t busy kicking myself in the ass for agreeing to come along.

If I’d been smart and stayed home, I would have regretted it. I was having fun. The twisted sort of fun that you get from doing things you know you’re not supposed to do. Kurt was smiling again. It brought my attention back to the road, and the soft glow of lights through the trees. I had no idea where we were.

He stopped at a wrought-iron fence that loomed above us about fifteen feet or more. We just sat there with the car idling, and I felt stupid.

“The gates will open in a moment,” he assured me.

On cue, they split down the middle and swung inward, and Kurt crawled through. It might have been impressive, but I was feeling cynical. Besides, if I’d wanted to impress someone with my big-ass gates, I’d have had them open just as the car pulled up instead of making visitors wait.

Of course, that might have been the point.

The front drive was dark. The lights I’d seen from the road were flickers in the windows. The place looked big, a few giant, sprawling floors, impressive because of its sheer size. When Kurt stopped the car and I climbed out, I got my first look at what a hell of a lot of money could buy.

Wide stone stairs led up to the main door, where twin torches burned on either side of it, flames highlighting the figures carved in the wood. I couldn’t tell what they were from a distance. There was a wide porch, stretching across the front of the house, full of deep shadows. Some of the windows were taller than I was, the curtains drawn so only the edges of light showed. It was the sort of place that you imagined had a Ballroom, a Conservatory, a Library, a Master Bedroom; all capitalized and full of their own importance.

Kurt gave me time to finish gawking, still smiling that little ‘I know something you don’t know’ smile.

“Nice place. Must be a bitch to heat in winter.”

His smile wilted just a little around the edges. I smiled back. He turned and climbed the stairs, opening one door so light and sound spilled out. I heard laughter, faint music, and the clinking of glasses and high-heeled shoes on hardwood.

“Welcome,” he said, and it sounded just a little too formal.

It was either go up the stairs behind him or turn around and cower in the car like a chicken-shit. I went up the stairs. I wanted to see what was inside, just like a kid wants to know if that burner really is hot.

*

The entry foyer, because that’s the only thing you could call it, was huge. Right in front of me were twin staircases with red carpeting, starting on opposite sides of the room and curving upwards to meet on a landing where two sets of double doors were pushed wide open. The laughter and music were coming from up there, louder now. At least someone was having a good time.

There was a soft glow of hidden lighting, with candles set into wall sconces, golden candelabras and chandeliers dangling down twenty feet or more from the ceiling for atmosphere. Two darkened hallways led off to the left and to the right, the firelight only reaching down the first few feet into the blackness.

Kurt closed the door, standing like a good little errand boy beside it. He was alright when we first met, sort of an instant liking for him on my part. Now that he was being closed-mouthed and spooky, he’d dropped down a few points.

Under the balcony was another set of double doors, closed. More candles burned in slim holders, giving it a darker, more sinister look than the cheerful entrances above it. I hoped we were going upstairs.

“So,” I said, looking at Kurt. “Are we going to crash the party or what?”

That damn smile was back. “No,” he said, finally stepping away from the doors and walking ahead of me. He led the way to the doors straight ahead. I really didn’t like him, but I followed.

He paused and rapped on the door. “It’s Kurt, with Duo,” he announced. I didn’t hear a thing, though he seemed to, since he stepped back, putting me in front as the doors were opened. He gestured for me to go first.

I’d already come this far, so I walked in. Kurt stayed outside and I felt suddenly abandoned. Sure, I wasn’t too fond of him right about now, but at least he was someone. A woman closed the door and stepped up beside me. She said something, but I didn’t catch it. I was too busy staring.

The carpet was deep, blood red. Antique furniture was scattered around, some in little groups with tables in the centre, some facing the back of the room where the carpet ended in a semi-circle and about a dozen square feet of bare marble began. I stood on a wide tiled path that led down the centre of the room to a lit fireplace, huge and encased by marble, set deep into the wall. Its light glinted off of things silver and gold, was reflected by long-stemmed wine glasses filled with liquid too dark and thick to be wine.

All of that was secondary. What had caught and held my attention were the people. There were at least thirty of them scattered about the room, lounging idly. Closest to me was another woman, a redhead dressed in a dark green evening gown reclining on a loveseat. Her hair, swept up in some complicated knot, was real red, not the orangey tone you usually see, but deep ruby red.

There was another woman kneeling on the floor beside her, also dressed formally. The redhead’s fingers idly trailed through her dark blond hair. It was a casual touch, almost possessive; the same absent touching families, long-time friends and lovers had. If someone had asked me, I would have said those two were lovers. Her hand in the other’s hair was sexual. The woman looked at me with dark brown eyes and turned away without a word. The one on the floor never blinked.

Everywhere I looked, it was the same. One woman lay almost on top of a man, wearing slacks and a top cut so low and sharp down the centre that you knew she wasn’t wearing anything under it. His hand was stroking her side, her face hidden against his neck.

Another two men were lounging on a couch, one man’s back pressed to the other’s chest, cradled against him. The second one had his hands on his companion’s thighs, a lingering, caressing touch. The woman watched eagerly, like she knew that this was just the preview. She laughed at something one of the men said, and lifted her glass in a toast.

One after the other, my gaze drifted from group to group. If I’d thought the vampire club had looked like a low-budget porn set, then this was what the rich jerked off to.

I heard a low cry, a woman’s voice, and my eyes jumped back to the fireplace. In front of it, a man was on his knees with his back to me, sliding his arms around a woman wearing a flowing dark blue dress. He lifted her from the tiles, one of her arms dangling to the floor and her legs limp. When he turned, I saw that the front of her dress was open a little, displaying the soft, pale curves of her breasts. Her head lolled to the side, and I saw the shocking red stain of blood trickling down her throat.

No one noticed, or cared. I shot a glance at the woman beside me, and she was smiling bright and empty as a lightbulb. I’d backed up a step for no other reason than I suddenly wanted to distance myself from everyone else in the room. The man with the bleeding woman held loosely in his arms walked away from the fireplace, away from the group and headed straight for me. He moved easily, like the woman weighed nothing at all. His movements were liquid, graceful in a way dancers were. He didn’t walk so much as he glided across the floor.

“Jesus Christ,” I whispered, too shocked to say anything else. I backed up a few more steps and felt around for the doorknob, not taking my eyes off of the room. I’d reached my quota of weird for the day.

The door was locked. I had a quick flash of panic before calming. “I’d like to leave now,” I said to the woman standing in front of me.

She looked perplexed.

“I’m going,” I repeated. “Unlock the door, please.” The man with the unconscious woman was getting closer. I was still being polite. I was damn proud of myself.

Another man who’d been standing near the fireplace turned to me. The cut of his clothes was foreign, Eastern in design, and just as fine and formal as the rest. Loose black pants, shirt as red as the woman’s blood, and small black shoes that looked like slippers. It surprised me just because it seemed so out of place, but on him, it worked.

“You must be Duo,” he said, and it was Mr. Voice speaking. I looked up, met eyes blacker and deeper than the lowest pit of hell, smoky and smouldering with a light of their own. His skin was dark, almost a sort of golden bronze in colour, and with the darkness of those slanted eyes framed by shoulder-length hair just as black and high, slanted cheekbones, you knew it was just him. Not a tan, just the real colour of him.

I didn’t know when he’d gotten close enough for me to see his face. He smiled, a slow parting of his lips. The cat who got the canary.

“Yeah, I am. I’m also leaving, if one of you would unlock the damn door.”

“You accepted our invitation, Duo, I am afraid you are our guest for the evening.” He smiled wider. “I am Wufei. Join us,” he said, giving his name a slight accent. He gestured towards the seats surrounding the fireplace.

I shook my head, more to shake off the feeling of his voice echoing in my ears than anything. “I don’t think so, thanks.”

The unconscious woman was tucked cosily on a couch, the man who had carried her gently re-lacing the ties of her gown. Her red-painted lips were curved in a small smile. She was dozing, happily. Her neck was still wet with her own blood. She was as nuts as the rest of them.

Coal-black eyes grew hard. “You say that as if I had offered you an alternative.”

I was afraid. Standing in that room with him staring at me, the attention of the others gradually turning to us, I was more afraid than I’d ever been. I’d thought that, ultimately, people were people. You could talk to them. What a time to wake up and smell the shit.

While I tried to figure out something to say, the rest of the cultists had shifted around to watch this end of the room. The space in front of the fire was bare, so I guess I was the new entertainment.

Wufei was smiling again, stepping closer on silent feet. My back was pressed to the doors, I had nowhere left to go. But I didn’t want him to touch me. I started edging to the side, and he threw back his head and laughed. The room erupted behind him, peal after peal of delighted laughter.

Normally, I didn’t really care about being laughed at, especially if I’d done something to deserve it. There was an edge to this sound, sharp as broken glass and cruel. I could hear Wufei’s laughter clearly over the din. It was just as cruel as the rest, but the edge was hidden under something softer, like claws hidden in fur. It washed over me, caught my breath in my throat. I really didn’t want him touching me, they could laugh all they wanted.

Wufei’s laughter died first. His head was tilted a little to the side, studying me as he smiled. “You can walk to the fire, Duo, or I can have you brought to it. It is your choice, but I do not think you will like being…” he paused, savouring the moment, and when he spoke again, his voice was a whisper, “…fetched.”

Alright, so he had a point. What I wanted to do was turn around and march right back out of that house and never look back. Since I wasn’t getting that, I’d settle for keeping anyone from touching me.

Wufei stepped aside, indicated the fireplace with a sweeping gesture.

“Sure,” I said. I straightened up a little, moved away from the door. No one had tried to hurt me yet, so why was I so afraid?

“Sylvia,” Wufei said to the blond girl beside me. “Bring our guest some refreshment.”

I glanced at her, and she was smiling again. She did a quick little curtsey and trotted away. Apparently, good help was not all that hard to find.

Wufei turned and began walking to the back of the room, confident that I would trail along behind him like a good boy. Which I did, very reluctantly. I felt dozens of eyes burning into my back as I walked down the wide path between the furniture. Being the centre of attention here seemed like a bad idea.

Wufei took a seat, his legs crossed and arms resting along the back edge of the ornate couch, very much at ease. Beside him was another Asian man of mixed descent. Dark brown hair, cut short and a little messy, the same high cheekbones and a softer shape to eyes the colour of midnight blue skies. He looked the most casual of them all with black slacks and a blue dress shirt that matched his eyes. He slumped a little, fingers laced low across his stomach.

I ended up standing near the fire, trying to find something to do with myself. I didn’t want to sit. Blue Eyes watched me, gaze piercing and steady like he could know every little thing about me if he just stared long enough.

“He doesn’t believe,” he said, and I stomped down the urge to shiver. They either sat around and practiced those smooth voices, or those two had more than a few genes in common.

“No,” Wufei said. He sounded pleased.

“Then why is he here?” The other’s voice dropped to a growl, and I felt a shudder travel down my spine. It was so low, such a grinding bass that it almost hurt my ears.

“Dorothy selected him. If you have questions, Heero, I suggest you direct them to her.” He gave the name an accent like he had his own, a slight roll as it slid off his tongue.

“Whoa, guys – don’t talk about me like I’m not here.” That brought both of their attention back to me. I had to learn to keep my mouth shut.

“You don’t understand,” Heero said. He rose up on the couch, leaning forward with elbows on knees, hands clasped under his chin and eyes all for me. “You have no idea, do you?”

“Man, an idea about what? No one’s told me shit.” I held out my arms, palms up, and shrugged. “You’re all too busy playing spooky.”

“Playing spooky,” Wufei echoed, smiling wider. He got to his feet in one graceful movement, stalking around me. “I do not think you have seen ‘spooky’ yet.”

I fought the urge to turn and keep him in sight. I didn’t think there was a lesser evil to keeping my back to one crazy close enough to touch me, and putting it to thirty of them. I stepped out of his reach.

“He’s afraid of you,” Heero said. His eyes caught the light of the flames, glinted as he smiled a tiny little smile.

“I know,” Wufei answered. He’d finally come to a stop facing me, but not blocking the other’s view. “He is afraid like so few of the willing ones ever are.” He took a deep breath, let out a low sound of appreciation that was meant more for a bedroom. “It is intoxicating. You cannot tell me you have not missed this,” he said.

“No,” Heero answered. “I can’t. It’s the one thing from the hunts that I miss the most.” He dropped his voice again, speaking mostly to himself. “The thrill of fear the chase gives them.”

I was scared. Scared fucking shitless, and the more they talked, the more they watched me, the more scared I got. I could taste my pulse in the back of my throat, heart pounding in my chest. I wanted to run, and I had nowhere to run to. If either one of them touched me, I was going to do something really embarrassing and scream my damn head off.

I tried for calm, and managed to squeeze my voice out in something close to my normal tone. “Look,” I said, “I came here because I was invited-”

“You were curious,” Wufei whispered. He stood close enough for me to feel the warmth of his breath.

I swallowed my heart back down my throat and took another step away. “Yeah, I was curious too, but so far all you’ve done is prove to me exactly why this was a really bad idea.”

“Would you like us to show you why it will be worth it?” Wufei asked.

I didn’t like the sound of that. He touched my arm, and I flinched. But that’s all it was, just his hand on my arm. I don’t know what I’d been expecting. He turned me to the side, giving Heero our profiles.

“Um, no. What I’d like is for good ol’ Kurt to take me home.” I wanted to pull my arm out of his grasp. But I didn’t.

Wufei lifted his other hand, fingers hovering just above my lips. I jerked my head back and he smiled. “So afraid.” His fingers touched the side of my neck, pressed against the frantic beating of my pulse.

I sucked in a breath and looked up. And then I stopped breathing. His eyes were so very dark, so comforting. The soft blackness of night after the burning sun has finally set. Just a little cool, a breath of air to soften the heat, soothing. I wanted to stay in that dark little place and rest. Be cradled by it, held by it. I knew that I could stay there forever.

I swayed slightly on my feet, staring at his eyes. I couldn’t look away. Under the calm, panic started. His hand cupped the back of my neck, tipping my head to the side as his lips touched the side of my throat, soft and warm. The panic started to fade, and I wanted it back. I couldn’t move, and all I could feel was cool darkness, the warm brush of his lips. He kissed the pulse there as my vision started to black out at the edges. I needed air, I needed to breathe.

The sound of a door slamming open jerked me back to myself. Wufei lifted his head from my neck, lips curled back in a snarl that bared wickedly-sharp, pointed canines. I stumbled back from him, and the world spun. I caught myself on the edge of the mantel before I could fall to my knees. Sagging there, I relearned how to breathe.

Four people stood in the doorway, one I recognized as the woman, Dorothy, from the vampire club, with Sylvia hovering nervously behind them. The two men were new. Sylvia quickly closed the doors behind them as the three strode into the room.

“What is going on here!?”

I couldn’t tell which man spoke, but his voice echoed like the crash of thunder. I struggled to stand up, and settled for leaning back against the wall. My eyes cleared, and I saw the group halt in front of Wufei. Dorothy looked worried, the brunet looked mildly amused. The blond was furious. His anger filled the air until it was almost impossible to breathe. I was getting sick and tired of not breathing.

“Wufei,” the blond continued, his voice harsh and seething. “Explain this.”

Wufei regained his composure by a thread, his own anger like a rising tide. I was going to choke on it. “I owe you no explanations.” His voice was cold, frigid, and I shivered.

The blond snarled something I didn’t understand, twisting his hand in the front of Wufei’s fine shirt. “You will answer me,” he grated out.

Wufei’s eyes flashed. It was the only warning I had before the blond stumbled back, blood streaking across one pale cheek. Wufei clenched his fists, a picture of barely contained rage. “You will listen to me this time, Quatre. You have sought to ruin us. You have taken the hunt, taken our way of life from us in your idiot quest. This one came to us, and we will have him.”

Quatre pressed the back of his hand to his lip, and when he drew it away, there was a smear of crimson across it. He ignored it. “You’re wrong,” he said softly, his anger tempered for now. “We’ll ruin ourselves. You know it, Wufei, or you wouldn’t be here.”

Wufei remained silent. Heero had risen to his feet at some point during the confrontation and stood apart from the two, watching quietly.

Quatre nodded toward me, and the brunet stepped forward. I stepped back. “Hold on there, buddy. I can walk.”

He smiled at that, waiting patiently while I tested my legs. I could stand, so things were looking up. He smiled an echo of that small one Heero had given me, tilting his head a little to the side. His hair was brown, but closer I could see shades of almost-red slashed through it, catching on the firelight. His eyes were green, greener than anything I’d ever seen, and deep like the colours of a forest.

“Are you sure?” he asked in a voice like old whiskey. A deep baritone, smooth and nice and just right because it didn’t make me want to either shiver or scream. I appreciated normal right about now.

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

Quatre seemed satisfied. He stepped aside, still keeping an eye on Wufei, and let the guy lead me away from the fire. If my choices were staying here and getting my neck chomped or going with the really nice man who had just stopped it, I was going with the nice man. I followed. Quatre brought up the rear, and Dorothy stayed behind.

I was getting away from Wufei and Heero, and out of that room. Things were definitely looking up.

*

I sat in an honest-to-god sitting room, complete with little footstools, wing chairs and a wet bar. I had a whiskey on the rocks balanced on my thigh, and slumped back as much as I could in one of the chairs. Trowa, the brunet, had asked me if I’d wanted a drink. Hell, yeah, I wanted a drink. In fact, I think I wanted two.

Quatre sat across from me, legs crossed and hands clasped in his lap. He was dressed in a business suit, charcoal grey with a light blue shirt and matching tie. His eyes were blue, blue like the Caribbean was blue. His blond hair was cut short, a little longer on top and just a little ruffled, like someone had been running their fingers through it.

“Dorothy gave you the card at this club, then?” he said. His voice was nice and normal, too. Pleasant to listen to, a faint British upper-crust sound to some of his words.

I nodded, clinking the ice absently in my glass. It was a bad habit. I deserved to indulge in a few bad habits right now. “Yep. I called, and Wufei invited me here.”

Trowa leaned against the wet bar, arms crossed loosely over his chest, and listened quietly. He wore plain jeans and a tee tight enough to show off firm muscles, his skin darker than mine but not the same hue of Heero’s and Wufei’s. He didn’t seem the type to sweat the small talk.

Quatre’s eyes were gentle. Maybe they weren’t really, but after looking at Wufei’s for the last half hour, they were damn gentle to me. His tone, though, was all business. “Why were you at a…vampire club, Duo?”

I shrugged. “I was curious.”

He just looked at me. “About?” he prompted.

I rubbed my fingers across my forehead, dragged them through my bangs. “Vampires, what else? Okay, so I don’t really buy into the whole creature of the night business, but this sort of thing.” I gestured at our surroundings. “People’s fascination with them.”

“Are you fascinated with them, Duo?”

He kept using my name like it was something important. “Yeah, I guess so. A little. I mean, who isn’t, right?” I laughed, and it sounded weak.

“But you don’t believe in them,” he said slowly, looking for clarification.

I thought about what had happened downstairs. I couldn’t have imagined that feeling when I met Wufei’s gaze. I had no explanation for it. And his teeth…from that close, those teeth had looked – and felt – real. “I don’t know.”

“Ah.” That seemed to satisfy him for the moment. “According to our agreement, Wufei is right. You came willingly, so he has the right to ask for you.”

“Wait a minute, here. I didn’t have a clue what I was getting into,” I protested.

Quatre laughed, and it was a little sad. “Ignorance is no excuse, Duo. You contacted him, he sent someone for you, and you came. As far as the others will be concerned, that’s enough.”

“Enough for what, damn it?” I was getting frustrated, and I think I had a right to. Quatre might have literally saved my neck, but I was tired of all the mysterious crap. “Would you people just say what you mean already?”

He grinned, and it made him look years younger. There was a little boy somewhere under all that poise and polish, and under different circumstances, I think I would have liked him a whole lot more.

“Occupational hazard, I guess.” He stood, and would have been graceful if I hadn’t had Wufei’s movements to compare it to. With a shrug, he said, “Wufei is a vampire, a very old one. Over half of the people in that room were, though not many close to his age.”

I gaped. I closed my mouth and stared, and then I gaped again. I took five minutes to perfect my fish-out-of-water impression, and then I went back to staring. Staring was good, since it didn’t require a lot of brain power and Quatre had just broken mine.

“You’re kidding, right?” I laughed a little nervously, not so comfortable with my saviour now that he was starting to sound crazy. I glanced at Trowa. “Ha ha, right?”

Trowa merely smiled that little smile that meant absolutely nothing at all, and Quatre shook his head. “No, I’m not. Wufei’s family held power under the Song dynasty.”

I looked at him blankly.

He smiled, patient. I was sick of that expression too, like I was a slow child that he had to teach. “He’s either close to or over a thousand years old, Duo. I don’t know his exact age.”

I looked at the drink in my hand and set it aside. I shouldn’t have trusted anything here. “I appreciate the help, guys, I really do. And no hard feelings or anything, but I’ve had my fill for tonight. Do I get a ride home, or do I have to hike my way back?”

Quatre started to say something and halted as someone knocked politely. Trowa moved automatically to answer it, opening the door just enough to talk with whoever was on the other side. He pulled it open after a minute, and Heero strode in.

“Treize is here,” he said shortly. “They’re looking for him. Wufei’s talking with them now.” Short and blunt seemed to be Heero’s standard MO.

“Damn it,” Quatre said, with feeling. “They weren’t supposed to be here for another week. We’re not settled yet.”

Heero shrugged. “Too late now.”

“How do they know we have a virgin here?” Trowa asked.

“Hey!” I sat up. “You people have a bad habit of forgetting I’m in the room, you know. Insult me after I leave.” Sue me, I’m a guy. I felt the need to defend myself, or more precisely, my sex life.

“You haven’t been tasted,” Heero said by way of explanation.

“Bitten,” Trowa supplied.

“Oh.” I was still riding my ‘I don’t believe in vampires’ train, but the track was getting a little rickety.

“How, Heero?” Quatre called all of our attention back to the matter at hand, though I think I was included mostly by default.

“It’s been a while since we’ve had a show like that,” Heero said, closing the door behind him and leaning against it. “They were talking about it when Treize and his company arrived.”

Quatre pinched the bridge of his nose, one hand on his hip as he paced. “Who’s with him?”

“Everyone of his own that he has left.”

“Wonderful.” Quatre stopped pacing and started tossing out orders like a field general. “Heero, open up the banquet hall and have it prepared. Assign someone to find refreshment or partners for everyone in Treize’s escort that wishes it, and let Wufei handle the greeting – he enjoys politics. Take Duo with you, Trowa, and get changed. Find him something appropriate to wear.”

“Hey, whoa.” I stood up, looking from face to face. “I didn’t agree to go to any banquet.” I really didn’t want to know what was on the menu for a bunch of people who played at being vampires.

Heero gave me a hard look. “No one asked you to agree.”

Quatre’s lips firmed into a thin line. “Go, Heero.”

The man’s shoulders stiffened, but he left without another word. The door closed softly behind him.

The blond turned back to me. “If we’re going to keep you safe tonight, Duo, you have to play the game.” He paused, something dark creeping behind his eyes, and for the first time, I was afraid of Quatre and his soft voice. “You might not believe in the monsters in the closet, Duo, but most of the time, the monsters just don’t care.”

I stared at Quatre for a long time before I walked to the door. So far, I’d gotten everything I’d wanted, and more. So why wasn’t I happy? Because I’d never really thought anything would bite my hand if I stuck it under the bed. But it had, and it was holding on tight.

*

“This is appropriate?” I squinted at a dark shirt that looked like it was more holes than material and held it up.

“Yes,” Trowa said, buttoning up an expensive-looking black shirt and tucking it into black slacks. He went to the closet and started rummaging through it as if it were the most normal thing in the world to be attending a vampire banquet. Hell, for him, it was.

He pulled out a long coat made out of some sort of material that shimmered blue when light hit it just right, and black when it didn’t. He shrugged it on and looked in the mirror. I thought he looked pretty good, but I wondered why I didn’t get a spiffy new coat.

“This is insane,” I muttered. I’d made the decision at some point to play along, but damn, it was hard. Every time someone opened their mouth to talk, I just wanted to start protesting all over again. And I wanted to begin with screaming that vampires weren’t real.

Trowa gave me that quietly amused look of his.

Stripping off my shirt, I started trying to figure out how to climb into the new one. I finally found what I hoped was the neck of the shirt and tugged it on. I ended up poking my hands out the wrong holes twice before getting it right. Clothes should be simple. Simple and functional. No, I wasn’t bitter because the shirt outsmarted me.

It wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. The neck was high, with my shoulders left bare by two larger cuts in the material. More holes trailed down my arms, top and bottom pinched by little sliver clasps, with the pattern repeated on the sides of the shirt. Most of my back and chest were covered. Trowa had tossed me a pair of black slacks that were only a little too long. He’d eyed my boots for a few minutes before deciding that they would do.

“Why couldn’t I have kept my red shirt and just changed the pants?” I asked. I was getting more than one draft.

“Do you always ask this many questions?”

“You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

He chuckled. “Try to contain yourself in the hall.”

Someone knocked on the door, and Quatre let himself in. He glanced at Trowa and nodded in approval, then looked to me. “It will do,” he said. “It would be easier to just leave you here, but Treize and the others already know about what happened earlier. Wufei has agreed to leave you alone for the night.”

“Peachy.”

He gave me a look that was part amused, part annoyed. “If you’ll let the rest of us handle the talking, and try to keep your smart-ass remarks to yourself, there shouldn’t be any problems.”

“Shouldn’t be?” I made it a question and added a raised eyebrow for kicks. I’d indulge my smart-ass self while I could. It was hard to take any of them seriously while they were still toeing the vampire line.

I was also very firmly in denial about what had happened with Wufei. The more time that passed, the more the experience faded. I liked denial. It helped keep you sane.

“Treize, like Wufei and Heero, doesn’t agree with what we’re doing here.” He stepped farther into the room, hands in his pockets. “While they’re more willing to at least attempt a change, Treize spends his time waiting for it to fail, and trying to help that failure along.”

“Sounds like an asshole,” I said.

He laughed, and Trowa smiled a little wider than before. “They’re waiting for us. Stay by my side, Duo, or with Trowa at all times.”

“Okay, Captain.” I didn’t salute. But it was tempting.

Quatre merely shook his head and left. Trowa and I followed him like good little minions. I managed to make it down the stairs without tripping over the slacks, and when we passed the front door, I didn’t make a run for it. I wanted to, but the way my luck was going, it’d be locked. Or worse. Whoever was waiting for us couldn’t be all that bad.

Technically, Wufei was on our side. And that wasn’t the most comforting thought I’d ever had.

*

I had to give Heero credit, he’d whipped up a nice looking spread on short notice. Of course, for all I knew, he just stood in a corner and glowered until everyone scurried around like rats to get it all done.

The motif for the evening appeared to be black and silver. Black tablecloth, silver inlay. All of the silverware was, surprise surprise, silver, with bands of some sort of black stone running in an outline. The dishes were the same. We were standing in the entryway, and I wanted to go pick up one of those nifty spoons and get a closer look. You just don’t see that kind of stuff everyday.

It took me a minute to realise that we matched the décor. Heero had joined us outside the hall, and he’d changed into an outfit exactly like Trowa’s. They flanked Quatre like sentinels. I hung back by Trowa, a step or so behind like I’d been told. So far, I was doing fine with behaving.

Quatre had ditched the business suit for a black one, with an inside shirt that, as far as I could tell, had no buttons. It gaped slightly, held together midway down his chest by a silver pin. His skin showed pale and smooth when he moved.

We paused in the doorway, and obligingly, all eyes turned to us. At some cue I didn’t get, the three of them walked forward, and I was left to take a few hurried steps to catch up. Wufei joined us halfway across the room but somehow remained separate, not falling into place like I’d almost expected him to. He hadn’t changed, and stood out like a slash of blood on a blackened field.

Quatre halted in front of a tall man I pinned as Treize. Since I had time to size them up, I did. His hair was an odd not-quite blond, reddish-brown colour, short and combed back from a face with sharp features and shocking deep blue eyes. He wore what looked to be a uniform, a blue jacket with decorative clasps, form-fitting white pants mostly hidden by glossy black boots that crawled up his legs past the knee. On his right was a man with white-blond hair, loose and down to his waist, wearing the same uniform except his coat was red. A woman stood on his left in the same colour outfit as the blond, dark brown hair done up in some sort of knot at the base of her neck.

Everybody had a real thing for presentation. I felt like I should have been on stage, everything was so carefully coordinated and choreographed. I would have enjoyed the show more if I wasn’t in it.

Treize smiled. It was the sort of smile you’d expect the snake to give you when he offers you an apple. I couldn’t see Quatre’s face, so I didn’t know if he smiled back or not.

“Quatre, my friend.” His voice was warm, pleasant, and sounded like he was used to giving commands. I disliked him on principle at that point. He held out a hand and drew Quatre closer for a full-body hug. I hoped that greeting wasn’t expected of us flunkies.

“Treize, welcome.” Quatre stepped back, gestured at the rest of us. “You remember Heero and Trowa.”

“Of course,” Treize answered. He inclined his head in greeting, and the two men returned it. “And I am certain you recall Zechs and Une.” More nodding. All very proper.

“Heero, I’ve looked forward to meeting you again.” It was the blond who spoke, and my legs almost went out from under me. He had a voice to rival Wufei’s, but deep, resonating like Heero’s and Trowa’s were. I had a sudden sharp image of pale, pale skin and endless white-blond hair spread across sooty black sheets.

I shook my head, happy when my legs didn’t go to rubber. No one else had seemed to notice, so I tuned back into the conversation. I’d missed Heero’s reply, and Quatre was speaking again.

“…hadn’t expected you for another several days, Treize.”

“Ah, my apologies.” He smiled and didn’t look one bit apologetic. “I was encouraged to step up my pace, much to my disappointment. I was enjoying my leisurely world tour.”

“Will you be staying the anticipated two weeks, then? Quarters are prepared and available, despite the late hour.” The was the tiniest bit of rebuke in Quatre’s voice.

“Wufei has most graciously already offered us company, refreshment and quarters. Your hospitality is legendary.” More smiling.

Quatre nodded, took the compliment for what it was. “In that case….” He turned and indicated the sprawling banquet table.

“A moment, Quatre. I believe there is one in your party I’ve not yet met.” Treize turned that electric blue gaze to me, and I swore that I could feel it burn along my skin.

“You know everyone of import,” he replied. Ouch. Guess I really was a flunkie.

“There are many kinds of importance, my friend.” Treize, eyes all for me, angled around Quatre and Trowa. He stopped with less than a foot between us, and I had to tip my head back to see his face. “I hear you caused quite a stir.”

“I’m just one of those people,” I said. He was talking directly to me, I figured giving him the silent treatment was a bad idea.

“Duo is our newest guest,” was all Quatre said. His voice was plain, no hint of feeling.

“I see.” Treize looked at some point over my shoulder, then stepped around me. “He has hair the length to rival yours, my dear Zechs. Perhaps you’d enjoy his company for the night?”

Zechs looked at me like he was honestly considering the option. I started to say something, but Wufei cut me off.

“I am afraid that Duo is unavailable to you tonight, Treize.” He stayed where he was, apart from everyone, but he spoke with a confidence that said he knew he would be heard. “By the law that Quatre has proposed and we have agreed to follow, he may only be taken by the one who has invited him here.” He paused, gave Treize and company a level look. “We gave our words; it is a matter of honour.”

“A pity,” Treize said, “but I wouldn’t dare to soil your honour, Wufei.” I’d expected a mocking tone in his voice. There wasn’t. He turned his attention back to Quatre, and suddenly I could breathe easier. “How goes this little experiment of yours?”

I was pretty sure Wufei had just saved my ass, but I was having a hard time being grateful. His voice still raised the hair at the back of my neck. It was harder to stick with my denial plan while everyone and their dog were doing voice tricks.

“Fine and well enough.” Quatre gave up on trying to seat them, since it looked like all Treize wanted to do was chat. “There are no difficulties as long as all obey our laws.”

One finely arched brow winged up. “And are they?”

“You’re well aware that some aren’t,” Quatre said. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here.”

Treize was unruffled. “How are you dealing with the renegades, my friend? Have you found some new pacifistic way to chastise them, or are the old ways truly better?”

I was lost, plain and simple. It felt like they were all talking a different language, and the subtitles were in Greek. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to understand. The vague little ideas I came up with weren’t all that comforting. The guys on my side – wishful thinking – didn’t look happy.

Quatre’s voice was low when he spoke. “I don’t approve of torture, Treize.”

My eyeballs nearly jumped out of my head. No one looked surprised, or even unhappy anymore. Everyone’s faces were carefully blank. It was just as well to stare at a wall.

“We rule by power and by fear,” Treize said. His face was as blank as the rest of them, but his voice was resonant. He believed in what he said. “You will fail because they do not fear you, and because you lack the power to force obedience.”

Things were getting hairy. Someone starts tossing around words like torture and forced obedience, you know you’ve fallen in with the wrong crowd. Goosebumps started to rise along my arms, and I wasn’t one bit cold.

“They’ll die,” Quatre said in a low, even voice. Dark with no touch of regret. “If they don’t obey, then they will die.”

I backed up a step. Then another. They were talking about murder. I wanted to leave. I wanted to forget I’d ever heard of them. I kept backing up until I hit the closed doors. They were all staring at me.

“He’s afraid,” Zechs said. A fresh wave of dread washed over me, tinged with something I couldn’t identify. I was fucking terrified. He looked at me, eyes narrowed. “He doesn’t know who we are.”

“I don’t need to know.” I rattled the doorknob a few times. It was locked, but I rattled it some more as if that would help and shook my head. “I don’t want to know.”

Treize smiled again. Trowa, Quatre and the woman looked carefully indifferent. I didn’t look at the rest of them. I didn’t want to see the expressions on their faces.

“He doesn’t believe,” Wufei said, that smooth voice of his like a cool caress. The sound of it forced me to look at him. I froze, back pressed to the door, and stared at him. His voice might have been cool, but not his eyes. His eyes burned.

“You have been very careful around this one, haven’t you, Quatre?” My eyes tried to jump to Treize, but they wouldn’t move from Wufei. “Very, very careful.”

“Leave him alone, Treize. He is, like the rest of the humans here, under my protection. You won’t force any of them.” It was Quatre who spoke.

“Will you stop us from feeding while we’re in your lands?” A woman’s voice, Une. I felt compelled to look at her, though the sound of her voice was nothing like Wufei’s. Just pure compulsion, no seduction.

“Feed on the willing.” Trowa’s voice, Trowa’s perfectly normal voice. “There are plenty of them here.”

“We were meant for this,” Zechs said. I shuddered, ached with the need to turn and look at him as he spoke. And I couldn’t. Wufei’s gaze held me like something tangible, forcing me to watch him. If the building fell down around us, I would die watching him. I broke out into a sweat, caught between the urge to look at Zechs and the need to keep watching Wufei.

“He is not a toy!” Quatre’s shout echoed like an explosion in my head. It broke whatever ties Wufei and Zechs had on me.

I sagged to the floor, gasping. My legs just wouldn’t hold me any longer. Wufei looked annoyed, Zechs was pleased. I covered my eyes with a hand and fought the urge to scream.

“He is more than that, and less.” Treize was speaking again. “We may need his kind, Quatre, but never mistake him for something more important than food. Something to be tasted, enjoyed, and disposed of at the end of the day.”

He was talking about killing me. Coolly, dispassionately, tossing me out like a piece of garbage. I did scream then, a strangled sound of fear and anger. I’d had enough.

“I don’t give a fucking rat’s ass what kind of shit you people are on, but that’s it.” I managed to make it to my feet, but it would have been more impressive if I hadn’t been leaning on the door for support. “Leave me the hell out of it.”

Treize looked at me, they all looked at me. “You wish to go home?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I want to go home.”

He started to laugh. Rich, echoing laughter filled the hall and crawled like biting ants over my skin. I jerked back in surprise and scrubbed my hands down my arms. I couldn’t get it to stop, and he just kept laughing.

“Stop it, stop it!” I scratched at my arms with blunt nails, voice high with panic. “Jesus Christ, stop it!”

“Treize, enough!”

Abruptly, the burning itch stopped. It stopped, and I had time to draw in a single breath before the air heated, crackled with electricity. It burned through my lungs, drove me back to my knees. It was a weight against me, crushing me down to the blessed cool tile.

My vision blurred, darkened. Everyone but Quatre was on the floor, flattened like grass in the wind. Wufei was on his knees, staring up at him. His hair streamed back from his face like a raven’s wings, tears of blood staining his cheeks.

In the centre of it all was Quatre, pale skin shining and eyes like cold, hard crystal. His mouth open, lips pulled back in a snarl with teeth like fangs bared in fury. He was terrifying, and beautiful. Beautiful like you knew the end of the world would be. You stopped, you stared in awe, and you cried. And then the world went black.

*

I woke up to find it still dark. I wasn’t in my bed, I wasn’t even in my apartment. The moon shone white and full through the high window, splashed cool light across the floor and bed where I lay. The room was dark except for that light.

“It’s about time you woke up.”

I sucked in a breath sharp enough to make me choke. I started coughing, slumping back against the sheets. Once the wracking cough had passed I wheezed for a while, trying to get my breath back. The back of my throat felt sticky and raw.

“Here.” Heero stepped into my field of vision, a glass of water held out to me.

“I don’t want that.” My voice was weak and rough. Talking was like having sandpaper rubbed inside my throat. I tried to clear it and ended up in the middle of another coughing fit. “Christ,” I rasped.

“Fine.” He set the glass on the bedside table and shrugged. “When you’re finished being an idiot, drink the water.”

I glowered. I sat up slowly and caught sight of the long, ragged scratches on my arms. I remembered, then, what had happened. Something must have shown on my face because Heero snorted.

“You believe now, don’t you.”

I stared up at him and felt more vulnerable than I ever had in my life. It was how a rabbit must feel staring into the beady black eyes of a hungry fox. I wanted to panic. A nice, long screaming fit seemed to be just what the doctor ordered. Instead, I sat there and tried to make myself believe what I’d seen. It was harder than it sounded.

“Holy shit,” was the only thing I could think of to say.

I heard the door open. Quatre stood framed in the dim light from the hallway. I saw him there, and I remembered what he looked like right before I’d passed out, and it didn’t fit. It just didn’t fit.

He nodded at Heero, and the other turned to leave. He shut the door quietly behind him. I sat there and tried to figure out what the hell to do.

“I’m sorry, Duo,” he said sadly. “I’d hoped…” He trailed off with a bitter laugh. “Well, it doesn’t matter what’d I’d hoped, does it.”

“So, what now?” I was proud of myself. I wasn’t screaming, or shouting. I was calm. Too calm. I think I was in shock. You see enough, get frightened enough, and at some point, you just don’t feel anything anymore.

He looked a little surprised. “That’s your only question, what now?”

“No, it’s the one I care about the most.”

“Practical.” He sat in a chair close to the bed, one I could see now that I was sitting up. He looked so normal, so human. But he wasn’t. “Usually, when a human is invited here, he or she stays. One or two, sometimes more, of my people select that human as their… partner.”

I didn’t like it already. “You mean they feed off of him.”

“Amongst other things, yes.”

“No,” I said. Just no. There was no way I was going to play entrée to a bloodsucker.

Quatre stood, walked to the window and stared out at the moon-washed forest. He clasped his hands loosely behind his back. “Treize supports the old ways. A human would be hunted, caught, drained and disposed of.”

I sat very still. I think I stopped breathing for a moment.

“This is my answer to that. A society where we don’t kill those we feed from.” His voice was soft, with a touch of sadness. He turned back to me. “Those are the choices left open to me. Either one of my people selects you as his or her companion, or you die.”

“That’s it, huh.” Entrée or pushing up daisies. Choices, choices. I wanted a third option. “You going to kill me yourself, or serve me up as a main course first?”

He winced like I’d struck him. I felt vicious satisfaction from that. I was kicking myself, telling myself I should’ve stayed home. Should’ve, should’ve, should’ve. Cats weren’t the only things that didn’t mix with curiosity.

“I can’t just give you my word that I’ll forget you all exist and go home?” Call me hopeful.

Quatre shook his head. “Even if I accepted your word, Duo, the others wouldn’t. We have no basis on which to trust you. Releasing you would undermine all I’ve done here.”

I let my hands drop to my lap. What the hell kind of choices were those supposed to be? I didn’t want to die. I also couldn’t convince myself that all of this was some sick joke, or that I’d finally gone off the deep end. I’d seen what I’d seen.

“So, you’re a vampire.” I let out a slow breath. “An honest-to-Jesus vampire.”

He nodded. If I agreed, he wasn’t going to kill me. Poke a hole in my neck and drink my blood, but not kill me.

I still had a little hope. If I was alive, I could escape. Maybe. I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the rest of my life running from vampires. But if I was dead, that was it. Dead is dead. I looked up at Quatre. Or at least it used to be. But I had the feeling that if he killed me, I’d stay dead.

“…fiend of the night, lord of the undead….”

“Duo.” His tone was lightly amused, despite the warning.

“Sorry, sorry.” I’d made a decision. I was going to let one of them latch onto my neck. Death or entrée, I’d go with entrée. At least, that was the plan. Once the teeth came out, I might change my mind.

*

I leaned against one of the wood-panelled walls, still dressed in the borrowed shirt and slacks, warily watching a room full of vampires. I’d been out for a day, according to Heero, making it late Sunday night. I guess I couldn’t complain that it was another lonely, boring weekend. I was starting to miss boring.

Trowa lounged on the bed, perfectly at ease and seemingly unconcerned with the proceedings. Quatre sat on the window sill, Heero, arms crossed and scowling, like a thundercloud beside him. Wufei smiled ever-so-slightly, pleased with the turn of events.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I said.

Quatre sighed. “No, Duo. We’re not. If you’re alive, Treize will demand proof that you’ve been taken. As an envoy, it’s his right.”

I didn’t like how they kept using the word, ‘taken.’ It had distinct sexual tones to it. Not that I’d complain about sex, especially with any of them… except for that whole vampire part. That was a bit of a stumbling block. If they’d been human, I don’t think I’d have had a problem at all.

“So, I need bite marks.” I could probably do bite marks.

“Not merely bite marks, human,” Wufei said. “You have to give yourself to one of us.”

“Whoa, hang on. No one said anything about sex-”

Trowa laughed, a low roll of amusement that cut me off. “I’m not surprised you assumed it was sex.” He flicked a bit of hair out of his eyes, lips curved just a little at the corners.

I blinked. “Well, what?”

Heero answered this time. “You remember what Wufei was doing to you downstairs?” He waited for my slow nod, and then didn’t bother to say anything else.

Wufei smiled more, and I caught the flash of fang. I was hoping to have a good panic attack any time now. I was long overdue. “What’s that mean?”

“It means that no matter how Quatre tries to deny us, he can never take this away.” Wufei stalked closer, dark eyes glinting in the dim light like that fox’s. “He cannot even deny himself this.”

I couldn’t back up because of the wall, but I had the severe urge to. I planted my feet firmly and said, “You won’t be the one with your fangs stuck in my neck.”

That made him laugh, that same feeling of coolness trailing down my spine as it echoed. “And who said anything about your neck, Duo?”

My eyes widened.

“Wufei, enough,” Quatre snapped. He looked more weary than angry.

“He is mine to ask for if I want him,” Wufei said calmly.

“We all know you won’t,” Trowa replied.

Wufei tilted his head a little to the side, spoke to Trowa though his eyes never left me. I stared very hard at his shoulder. I didn’t want to fall into that blackness ever again.

“He is terrified of me. Even if he allows any of us to touch him, he will be frightened the entire time.” Wufei paused, let his voice drop to a whisper of silk. “Is that not right, Duo?”

My chin jutted out and I ground my teeth together. So he was right. “What’s your point?”

“Fear, Duo,” Wufei reached out as if to touch my face. I jerked away. He laughed, and it sounded like wicked things done in the dark. “It makes many things that much better.”

“Are you that bored, Wufei?” Quatre asked. “Is frightening one human all that’s left for you?”

Wufei’s hand clenched into a fist. I almost thought he would punch me, but then he went very still. There was no sense of movement, no sense of waiting, just a stillness. Quiet like stone, quiet like death.

“‘How the mighty have fallen,’” Heero said. There was no derision in his tone. His voice tasted like sorrow. He believed the statement. “‘And the weapons of war perished.’”

I flicked a glance his way. That was the last thing I’d expected any of them to start quoting. But at least it shut Wufei the hell up.

*

I paced back and forth, wearing a hole in Quatre’s expensive carpet. Wufei had slunk off somewhere, sulking for all I knew. The others were waiting for me to scream bloody murder and run for it. Tempting. Very tempting.

Don’t go through with it, and die. Do it, and then what? I suddenly wanted to know more. When people start talking about ‘life changes’, do they ever consider becoming a vampire entrée for the rest of their natural lives? Maybe there was a book in the self-help aisle. Maybe they had little pamphlets printed out. I stopped in front of Quatre and almost asked him. With my luck, the answer would be yes. I didn’t want to see the diagrams.

I looked at Trowa. He seemed too normal. Wufei wasn’t getting close to me if I had it my way, and Heero just creeped me the fuck out. Quatre apparently wasn’t an option. I was trying to find a lesser evil in the middle of hell. Good luck to me.

“Alright, man.” I marched over to the bed and plunked myself on the edge, arms crossed. Trowa looked at me, I tipped my head a little to the left. “Bite me.” So it wasn’t suave or debonair. Sue me, I had a lot on my mind.

His lips twitched at the corner. “Sweet-talker.”

“I’m serious.” I tapped a finger against my neck. “One-time offer, get it while it’s hot.”

Trowa glanced at the others, looking for all the world like he was going to laugh himself to death all over again. “He’s not the most romantic we’ve had.”

Quatre had a hand over his eyes, his shoulders shaking just enough to notice. “I’m sorry, Trowa. He’s…” he trailed off, swallowing his laughter. Spreading his hands in a helpless gesture, he looked at me and said, “He doesn’t understand.”

I didn’t have a clue, and was winging it all the way. Damn right I didn’t understand – I was pretty sure understanding would mean panicking. And panicking is never good.

“Perhaps, Quatre,” Wufei’s voice slid into the room. I jerked and nearly fell off the bed. “You would be interested to know that Treize has left.” He stood in the doorway, one eyebrow raised as he looked at me. It was a superior look, one reserved for when people do obviously stupid things.

The amusement wiped clean from Quatre’s face, no trace of it left. It was fucking disturbing when they did that. He just stood there, and waited for Wufei to explain.

“Do not ask me where he has gone. I was told he had business, and would return shortly.” Wufei’s lips twisted into something close to a sneer. “So very like him.”

“That could mean hours or days,” Heero said. They’d started talking like I wasn’t there again. I could live with that for a little while. But then I had a thought.

“Wait, wait – does this mean I’m off the hook?” I gave Quatre hopeful eyes.

They exchanged looks. Looks with a capital ‘L’. “Zechs and Une remain,” Wufei said.

“Hey, lackeys don’t matter.” I glanced around. “The lackeys don’t matter, do they?” There was silence, more looks. Shit, the lackeys mattered.

“I think, Duo, you’d prefer to stay in our company, rather than risk theirs.” With that little nugget of comfort, Quatre turned away, speaking to Heero in quiet tones.

*

“You’re real thrilling company, you know that?”

Heero gave me a flat, very I’m-not-amused look in reply.

I was being given a (censored) guided tour of the mansion. It was a pretty impressive place, things older than dirt secreted away in its nooks and crannies. I enjoyed the illusion of freedom, even if Heero was a looming shadow of doom beside me.

“So,” I tried again. The way I figured it, if I was going to be stuck with the legions of the undead for a while, I might as well make the best of it. Now that they’d put the teeth and the arcane vampire shit away, I was doing better. Not a whole lot, but some.

Heero actually cut me off. “I was told to guard you, not to entertain you.”

“Sorry, man.” I held up a hand defensively, worried that he was going to go spooky on me again. If it had been my choice, I wouldn’t be wandering the halls with him. Obviously, it wasn’t my choice.

We walked in silence, Heero doing nothing to stop me from poking my head through the open doorways. I’d found lots of interesting things, but nothing useful. What exactly was I looking for that would be useful, anyway? A stake and a cross?

“Can I ask questions, or is that just going to piss you off even more?”

“Fine,” he said. “Ask.”

Wonderful conversational companion, was Heero. I guessed I only had so many questions before he’d tell me to shut up again, or until some other pile of shit hit the fan. “What the hell was it? That Wufei did, downstairs.” My curiosity was killing me. I couldn’t help myself.

“Rolling your mind.” He kept walking down the hall like it was the most normal thing in the world. What did I know, maybe it was. But I doubted it.

“That doesn’t help.” I frowned, forgot about the tour. “What does it mean?”

Heero sighed and turned towards me. I glanced at his face and then quickly away, afraid of a repeat performance. He wasn’t trying anything, but I didn’t trust him. “Why don’t you already know this?”

I shrugged. I didn’t know it because no one had told me. Because I hadn’t honestly believed there were really things that went bump in the night. And they didn’t. You never heard them coming.

I didn’t hear him move, but he was leaning against the wall, arms crossed again. He looked at ease and irritated at the same time. “You don’t even realise the price of saving your life.”

“Why don’t you tell me, huh?” Frustration was chasing my fear away. “Why doesn’t someone go ahead and tell me?” Yelling at him was probably not the best way to keep on breathing.

“Killing you would be easiest. You’d enjoy it, Duo.” His voice had dropped lower. It still didn’t have the pull of Wufei’s, but it sounded good to me. Good like the comfort of warm blankets on a winter’s night. I had looked up at his eyes before I realised what I’d done. His face was blank, but his eyes smiled. “Let Wufei kill you, and you really would go softly into the night.”

It took a few tries before I could get my mouth to form words. “No one wants to die.” I sure as hell didn’t want to die.

He laughed, a sharp bark of sound that had nothing to do with joy. “Quatre wants to save you, I don’t know why. Maybe he feels guilty. He only wants the willing here.” Heero pushed away from the dark wood. “So he wants one of us to take you. Why won’t he do it himself, if he wants you to live?”

I shook my head slowly. I didn’t have any answers. I didn’t know the answers to my own questions, let alone Heero’s.

“Once you’re one of ours, you’ll always be ours. There isn’t an escape – I know you’re thinking about it.” I stood there and tried to make sense of what he was telling me. “We take your mind, we take your life, Duo. You’ll still live, still breathe, but your life isn’t your own anymore. You’ll live with us, for us.”

“What, I’ll turn into some sort of zombie?” My voice sounded strained in my ears. That overdue panic attack was finally starting, and can’t say I was happy about it.

Heero gave me another one of his flat looks. “What I’m trying to tell you is that you might have free will, but you won’t want to be anywhere else. For the one who takes you, it’s either keep you, or kill you.”

My mouth and throat worked, but no words came out. He watched me, calm and impassive. Death or servitude, that’s what he was telling me, wasn’t it? Either way, I’d be over. There’d be no more me. I backed up a step, then two, but there still wasn’t anywhere to run. They wouldn’t let me leave. I had one of those moments of screaming, blind panic. Where the world falls away and all that’s left is the mantra of, “No, no, no.”

As I watched him, his eyes started to change. Somehow brighter and softer, all at the same time. I thought I knew what he was about to do. I didn’t wait for the pull, for the feeling of falling. Finally, I ran. I tore down the hallway, trying to get away, and there was nowhere I could go.

It felt like Heero chased me, stalking through the dark corridors after me. I kept running until my lungs burned and I realised I was alone. And I was lost. Very, very lost. I panicked, ran, and got my stupid ass lost in the middle of Blood Manor.

I huddled beside an unadorned pedestal. Straightening slowly, I tried to see if I recognised anything. Of course I didn’t. One hallway in this place looked pretty much like another. I didn’t even know what floor I was on anymore.

My usual motto was, when in doubt, be nosy. Being nosy in a vampire’s lair probably wasn’t the best idea I’d ever had, but compared to the ones I’d made in the last few days, it wasn’t that horrible.

The first door I found was locked. So was the second. The third time really was the charm and I let myself into an empty sitting room. It wasn’t the same one from before. There was an assortment of expensive-looking furniture, another fireplace, and a single painting on the wall opposite it. I ignored it all and went straight for a cabinet loaded down with antique bottles. Sooner or later, Heero or someone was going to find me, and I wanted another damn drink before that happened.

I hoped Trowa found me. Why him? Because he was the only one who hadn’t scared me shitless yet.

I clinked the glass stopper back on the whiskey bottle and had just lifted my drink when I heard, “Duo.” I whirled around, bottle hefted like a club, and saw Quatre standing less than a foot away. His eyes flicked up, back down to mine, and then his lips gave a self-depreciating little twist. “I’d probably deserve that.”

“Sorry,” I muttered automatically. I wasn’t, though. Bashing him upside the head with a whiskey bottle would have been a little satisfying. Stupid, useless, but satisfying. “Wait a minute – no, I’m not. You’re damn straight you’d deserve it.” The bottle settled back on the wood with a muffled thump.

“I’d apologise, but I don’t think you’d believe me.” He walked over to a chair and sat. The movement didn’t have any of that otherworldly grace that Heero and Wufei tossed around. Was he working at it, or were they?

“Maybe,” was all I said before taking a drink. He didn’t reply, and the silence grew. I wondered if he could hear my heart beating. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Quatre remained still, his eyes on the painting. Slowly, his gaze turned to me. “So you could scream and run away sooner?”

“That’s not fair.” I leaned against the drink cabinet, glass clasped loosely in both hands. “Were you planning on telling me, or were you just going to let someone chow down?”

He shook his head, a ghost of a smile around his lips. “Trowa wouldn’t have.”

“Says you,” I muttered.

Quatre ignored me, and continued. “I don’t know what to do with you, Duo. If I could send you home, I would. Believe that.” He crossed his legs, looking completely at ease. I risked a glance at his face, and there was a different story there. It was almost enough for me to believe him. “They’ll want proof no matter what my choice. If you vanished, they would hunt you.”

“Right. Instead of killing me, you’ll just enslave me. Great choices there.”

There was a quick flash of irritation in his eyes. “Better alive than dead.”

“Yeah, you’d know, wouldn’t you?” As soon as I said it, I wanted to take it back. I don’t know why. Maybe it was the hurt and sorrow I saw pass over his face. Maybe I’d imagined it, or it was a trick. Vampires are supposed to be evil bloodsucking fiends, right? I’d seen the bloodsucking part, I thought I’d seen the evil fiend part. But no one ever talked about them being sad, and I’d seen a lot of that going around, too.

“It doesn’t matter now,” he said. “Treize knows you aren’t ours.”

“Shit,” I said, and with feeling. It seemed pretty important before that he didn’t know that. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know how that changed the plan. Okay, so I hadn’t liked the plan. With my luck, it was just going to get worse. “What now?”

He looked at me like he’d expected another screaming fit. Guess you couldn’t blame him. “If you don’t want to die, then nothing really changes,” he said, as if dying was really a viable choice. Apparently, it was. Yikes.

“No,” I said, gripping the glass a little harder. It had started to shake. “I don’t want to die.” I didn’t want to be Reinfield, either, but if nothing had really changed… if I could, I wanted to stay breathing. I still thought death was the worst thing that could happen to me. Silly, silly me.

“Treize wants to make a show of it,” Quatre said, very softly.

That brought me to a stumbling halt. “A what?”

“Eternal life is boring without entertainment,” his said bitterly. “They find games to play to pass the time.” I didn’t stop him to ask who ‘they’ were. I was pretty sure I knew. “There’s nothing I can do – none of what he’s asked is against our laws. I’m sorry.” And he looked it.

That time, I believed him. I sat in the chair facing him and watched the amber liquid in my glass tremble. “Tell me.”

*

What they needed was a new set of laws. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it one bit. In fact, dying was starting to sound pretty good. I was going to die of embarrassment anyway. I said as much to Trowa, and he just shook his head and chuckled.

Comforting, that.

I felt like some sort of life-sized doll. We were trying to find something for me to wear. Everything they hauled out looked like costumes to me. It really was going to be a show on Monday night. Trust the vampires to be dead literal. I was still foolishly holding onto that thin sliver of hope. It was only Sunday, that gave me a full day between now and then. As far as I knew, vampires didn’t mix well with sunlight, or daytime. I had time.

“No frills,” I said. Trowa was next to a classy cherry wood armoire, his hand on a white shirt a la 1600. The sleeves were huge and billowy, with lace framing the cuffs and neck, and there was no way I was wearing that. The pants I had on were bad enough, clinging to every nook and cranny I had.

“It would look good on you,” he said with the lilt of France, still holding the sleeve.

I narrowed my eyes suspiciously. “You’re not French.” It was pretty easy to pin where most of them had come from. There were traces of accents and appearance that gave it away. So far, all I had on Trowa was that he was European. I think.

He just smiled that odd little smile of his that didn’t tell me a damn thing and tucked the shirt away.

I shook my head. “I know this is supposed to be a snazzy deal, guys, but c’mon.”

I wasn’t comfortable by a long shot, but I was doing okay again. As long as I was doing something normal, I could forget for a little while what they were, and what was going to happen. What else was I supposed to do? Lie down curled up in a little fetal ball and cry?

“You are being difficult,” Wufei said. He’d said it at least five times since he’d first met me.

“Would you wear that thing?” I pointed at the pile of clothes.

He seemed to honestly consider it for a minute. “If the alternatives were unappealing, yes.”

The alternatives were getting the same reaction as the shirt did. I wanted my jeans. There seemed to be a ‘no jeans’ rule.

“No jeans,” Trowa said, and frightened the shit out of me again. Vampires didn’t really read minds, did they? Because I’d probably be in a hell of a lot of trouble soon. I had a hard enough time keeping my mouth shut, let alone my thoughts quiet.

“You will be the victim. You must look the part.” Wufei tilted his head to the side. “Be thankful Treize does not appreciate men in dresses.”

“You do, huh?” Baiting Wufei. Not smart, Duo. Not smart.

He gave me a fanged smile. Either he’d mellowed out in the last few hours, or he was happy with my predicament. I’d put my money on happy. Unless he really did like crossdressers. Hey, you never knew.

“I am going to enjoy this.” Wufei was suddenly behind me, his hand brushing wisps of hair behind my ear. I jerked away, and he laughed. “For once, Quatre cannot stop us.” His hand lifted to touch me again, but Trowa caught his wrist.

“Stop frightening him.”

“Hey,” I protested after my heart had dropped back down from my throat. “I’m okay.”

Green eyes flicked to me, then back to Wufei. “Find something else to entertain yourself with.” He released Wufei and stepped back. It took me a second to realise he was between the other vampire and me now.

“I think I will be quite entertained very soon.” His arm was mottled, the pattern of Trowa’s fingers standing out in stark white. He ignored it and shot me one last look. “I look forward to it.” Then he was gone. Like I’d taken the world’s longest blink and missed his exit. Trowa didn’t look impressed. I sure as hell was.

“Right,” I said, more to fill the silence than anything else. “What’s his problem?”

Trowa took me seriously, and answered, “Wufei doesn’t know much more besides terror and pain.”

Did I want to know? I tried to tell myself I didn’t, but there was that damn curiosity thing again. It really was going to be the death of me. “Quatre said he was old. That’s a long time not to learn a new trick.”

That earned me one of his tiny smiles. It was a lot like Heero’s, but not. I wasn’t sure what the difference was yet. “Centuries old, but that’s not why he’s the way he is.”

“So why?” I didn’t bother to pretend I wasn’t interested.

Trowa busied himself with putting a few of the rejected outfits away. “His family was noble, and powerful, but fair. Honourable.” He shrugged, a slight movement of his shoulders. “Someone didn’t think so, and used politics to bring them down. His clan was shamed and murdered. He lost his wife, his children, his family.”

I glanced at the doorway, worried that Wufei was still lurking. I doubt he’d have liked me knowing all that. It made me pity him, in a way. I didn’t like the bastard, but I still felt sorry for him. He’d have hated that.

“How did he survive? Was he already a vampire then?”

Trowa shook his head and folded a pair of slacks over a hanger. “He devoted himself to vengeance against the ones responsible after that. He tracked them down one by one, bringing them ruin and death, until there were only two left. One had started it all. He challenged him first.”

I was going to throttle Trowa if he didn’t knock off being the dramatic storyteller. “So what happened?”

“He lost.” I whipped around to see Zechs standing in the doorway. “He lost, and we killed him.” He smiled, like it was a really good memory. For him, it probably was.

“What do you want, Zechs?”

Zechs tilted his head to the side, almost a perfect echo of Wufei. “Must I want something?”

Trowa’s eyes were hard, though the rest of his expression was neutral. He didn’t bother to answer. I played it smart and stayed quiet.

Zechs must have found that really entertaining, since he started to laugh. It was cruel, the sound like when kids were pulling the wings off butterflies. They couldn’t feel its pain, and didn’t care. Neither did he.

“Fine, then. I’ve come to visit with our guest.” That was one visit I could do without.

“We’re busy,” Trowa said.

“Really.” That one word almost brought me to my knees. He was playing voice games again, and those were never fun. At least, not for me. He seemed to be enjoying himself. He did that gliding walk thing across the carpet, shiny black boots making no sound. “Perhaps I could help.”

Another vampire fashion consultant? Egad. “No thanks. We’re good.”

“Yes,” he murmured. He gave me the once-over, and it chilled me to the bone. “You are.”

Trowa started to speak, but Zechs cut him off with a sigh. “You’re exhausting, Trowa. Much like your master. Fortunately, your master isn’t here right now, is he?” Ice blue eyes started to gleam. I gave Trowa a worried glance. “Off taking care of more worthless human lives, isn’t it? A pity that he can’t even control his own.”

Trowa’s face was a blank mask. He wasn’t telling Zechs anything, but he wasn’t helping me out either. I swallowed a lump in my throat and wondered what the hell was going on.

“You’re not stupid enough to do this in Quatre’s own home, Zechs,” Trowa said.

Zechs smiled. A full-fanged, happy smile. “Nor am I stupid enough to go against my master’s wishes.”

Trowa’s head snapped back and blood flew. My heart was suddenly trying to jump out of my chest. I hadn’t seen Zechs move, I hadn’t seen anything. I heard someone snarl, and then Zechs laughed again as Trowa crashed into the wall. The wood cracked and grey dust spilled down. He was dazed for just a moment, but that’s all Zechs needed. I saw his hand draw back, and white light exploded behind my eyes as I fell to the floor. I shook my head, trying to clear it. I heard Trowa’s shout, caught the metallic scent of blood before I tasted it, and then there was nothing.

*

I woke up and thought, shit. My head pounded and I could taste blood on my lips. Light shone red behind my eyelids. I blinked them open slowly, sitting up at the same time. My fingers brushed grass, and then I smelled it. Fresh air and flowers, and wind against my skin.

The stone bench under me was cold. I put a hand to my head and felt the stickiness of my own drying blood before I noticed what I was wearing. The same brown clingy pants, but soft leather boots and one of those white billowy-sleeved shirts had been added. No frills, just like I’d asked. How considerate.

My shadow stretched long across the grass, and for one quick flash, I thought it was dawn. But the feeling was wrong. It felt slow and sleepy. I looked up and saw the manor, and the sun setting behind me.

This wasn’t what Quatre had told me would happen. Sure, it hadn’t been great, but it’d been better than this. Then I remembered Zechs. It wasn’t Quatre’s game anymore. I kinda doubted it ever really was.

Still, I was outside, and I didn’t have a clue what had happened. For all I knew, there was some crazy turf war going on inside that quiet house, and I’d been whisked away to safety. Yeah, right. And Santa Claus brings me presents every year, too.

I scrubbed at my eyes and got my hair out of my face. Wouldn’t do me any good to just sit there. The world tipped a bit when I stood, but straightened itself out pretty quickly. All good to go.

The garden was beautiful, now that I took the time to really look. Taken care of, but not manicured to within an inch of its life. The beds lining the stone paths were a riot of colour, flowers of too many shapes and sizes for me to even attempt to name. I recognised the smell of honeysuckle and looked up from the beds to the trees sheltering the garden. The place was huge, and I didn’t have a hell of a lot of time left until sunset. I hitched up my britches and started walking.

I started out following the pathways, hoping one would lead to a gate. I avoided any route that looked like it was going back to the house. Now that I was out of there, I wasn’t going back in if I had a choice. Funny thing about that, though, was that I didn’t have much of a say lately.

I ended up circling back over my own route a few times. My steps were getting quicker, and I was getting nowhere. My heartbeat sounded louder to me. I’d found nothing that looked even remotely like an exit, and I really was running out of time. I abandoned the paths and started tromping through flowerbeds and under trees. Someone was going to be upset with me, and if I managed to get out of there, they were more than welcome to.

The light was fading fast by the time I reached a solid wall of trees and my stomach bottomed out. Still, I had to try. I pushed through the branches, ducking my head to protect my eyes. One hand was stuck out in front, and my palm hit stone. I pushed the branches out of my way and opened my eyes, feeling higher at the same time. The bloody giant stone wall went higher than I could reach, and I’d bet my life it went the whole way around. Hell, my life was already on the line.

I stumbled back and cursed. A branch caught on the shirt and tore through the material to scrape my side. The bastards had put me out here because they’d known what I’d do. I’d waste my time looking for a way out that didn’t exist. Fuckers were playing with me, and I’d been stupid enough to go along with it.

I fought free of the trees just in time to watch the sun vanish from the sky. I froze, not daring to breathe as the darkness finally closed around me. I stood still in the dark and trembled, waiting for something. What had I expected, a snarling rush of bloodsuckers to jump out at me? Okay, I had. I wasn’t all that disappointed when they didn’t. Counting my blessings and all.

Two choices: sit in the dark and wait for the bogeymen to come get me, or go back to Hell House and meet them head-on. I’d go insane in the suddenly menacing garden listening to every little sound and wondering if it was my death warrant. So, the house it was. Alright, alright. I was hoping to avoid the head-on part. Because my hopes always worked out so well for me.

There were lights on in the middle of the garden. I made my way to them, cringing every time I heard a sound I hadn’t made. My footsteps were too damn loud on the stone pathway. Bloody boots.

“God damn it.” I’d reached the source of light. It was the stone bench I’d started out on, but someone had added candles while I’d been out stumbling around like an idiot. Red wax had dripped down the bench, spilling like blood onto the stones below. The imagery wasn’t lost on me. I’d have given them credit for showmanship if I wasn’t busy damning them all to hell. But I guess it was really too late for that.

There was one path illuminated with flickering candles: the one that led back to the house. They were waiting for me there. I’d already decided that I’d have to go back there, but it pissed me off to have it shoved in my face. Anger was better than the mind-numbing fear that I felt licking at my consciousness. Not more practical, since both would probably make me do stupid things, but at least it felt better.

I did the only thing I could do. I followed the path. I had another flash of hell sending me an invitation, and then lighting the way to make sure I didn’t get lost. How many people had walked willingly into that house, knowing what was waiting for them there? I went, but it was far from willing.

With every step I took, I could feel my heart speeding up. The manor loomed in front of me, a giant, waiting sentinel. I couldn’t keep walking, not with my heart pounding in my ears. I broke into a run, the flames blurring by. My lungs heaved and my heart beat faster. I slammed against the door; my hand scrambled along the wood and touched cool metal. I jerked it open.

All of a sudden, I was standing there, staring into the dim light of the manor with my heart hammering against my ribs. I stepped inside and let the door close softly behind me. What was I going to do now? Try to find another way out. My skin crawled, as if there were a dozen pairs of eyes staring out at me from the shadows. Predator’s eyes, and I was the prey. The victim, Wufei had said. They were probably watching me and laughing at the silly human. Let them laugh. I was getting the hell out.

Every vampire in the place could probably hear me breathing, let alone walking. I’d lost my switchblade, not that it’d have done me much good. But I wanted a weapon. Step one: find a weapon. Step two: survive the night. Easy as falling off a bike. Right.

I passed by some sort of lounge, and a look inside showed two other doors. More chances for someone to jump me, but more chances for me to get away. I hoped. There was an unlit fireplace in there, with one of those cast iron shovel-brush-poker sets beside it. Hello, a weapon.

I glanced around before easing my way through the doorway. I walked as fast as I dared across the room and hefted the poker, wincing when it made a muffled clunk against the stand. I looked around for anything else that might help, and found nothing. Not saying that the poker was any flash of genius or anything.

I checked behind me one more time before heading for the door. When I turned back, Wufei was lounging in a wingchair, one eyebrow raised and legs casually crossed. “Fuck,” I whispered under my breath.

He nodded at my newfound weapon. “Resourceful of you.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. I settled for trying to slow down my racing pulse. “Figures you’d find me first.”

“You are safe from me for this night,” he said, his voice like a brush of silk against my skin. I hated that. “I have been forbidden by Quatre to harm you, but I have made no promises to help you.”

That made me stop. My definition of harm and his might have been two very different things. He sat there looking harmless, and harmless was one thing he never was. “What, you’re hanging around to watch the show?”

“Yes.”

Great. Peachy. “That’s nice, man. Real nice.” It made my stomach lurch to put my back to Wufei, but I did. I was getting out of there before he decided to change his mind.

“Duo.”

I put my back to the wall next to the door and turned to him.

“Do you honestly believe you will be allowed to escape?”

I thought about it for a split-second. “No. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to make it easy for you.”

I left him sitting there with the weight of his soulless eyes on my back. Did I really believe that I wasn’t going to make it? Maybe. But I just couldn’t roll over and play dead.

I crept through the hallways, most of my concentration on not panicking. I’d done that a few times already, and it wasn’t really helping matters. So, calm. I kept a firm grip on my impromptu weapon and eased down a dark flight of stairs. They were tucked in a corner, narrow and a little dusty like they hadn’t been used for a while. My luck, I’d sneeze and put up a neon sign. Free food, all you can eat. While quantities last.

At the bottom, there was a blank wall to my left, and someone sauntering towards me on the right. I did a quick about-face and beat a hasty retreat back up the stairs. Face-to-face confrontations weren’t going to end well for me, I knew that. I was trying to avoid it. Note the ‘trying.’

I glanced around when I got back to the upper landing, and there he was again, walking from the opposite direction just as leisurely as before. Caught already.

“Your efforts are admirable,” said a familiar voice from behind me. I started in surprise and narrowly avoided falling ass-first down the stairs. Treize’s amused eyes followed me.

“Yeah, I’m getting that a lot lately.” For all the good it was doing me. I watched him like a mouse watches a snake. Fearful and hopeful and resigned all at the same time.

“You are running short of time, however.” He adjusted one of his gloves, pulling on the tips of the fingers and then resettling the material while he spoke. I pictured bashing him over the head with the poker. “Very soon all will awaken, and there’ll be no quarter.”

I looked at him doubtfully. “You saying you’re giving me a chance?”

He smiled, folding his hands behind his back. “Enough of one to make the sport worthwhile.”

“You son of a bitch.”

He just kept on smiling. “You’re wasting your precious time.” He walked past me, hands still casually folded. “And that is something you don’t want to do.”

This time, I watched him go before starting back down the stairs. They were all playing with me, and having a grand old time of it. Torturing me with giving me hope, and then snatching it away. But I kept winding my way deeper into the house. Into the belly of the beast, and the beast was hungry.

A glance out a dark window showed that I was at one side of the house, on what seemed to be the second floor. I was looking for side entrances, trying to avoid the main foyer, but the locked doors and endless halls were herding me towards it. It was the garden all over again. I was the rat in a fucking maze.

“Fine,” I muttered to myself. “I know where you want me to go. Bastards.”

“Are you so certain?”

“Jesus Christ!” I whipped around to face the next tormentor hell-bent on making me wet my pants. No one was there, and that just made it worse. “If you keep that up,” I said to the empty hall, searching frantically for whoever had spoken, “pretty soon I’ll be used to it.” Sure, in about five or ten years. If I lived that long.

Zechs was standing a few feet away, chuckling low in his throat. “Perhaps.”

I backed up a few steps and swallowed my pulse before it choked me. Zechs had knocked Trowa into a wall with a slap, hard enough to split wood. I didn’t stand a chance. “I’m not moving fast enough for you, huh?”

“Not at all.” He moved with liquid grace, stalking me. I said fuck it and back-pedalled like mad. The bastard just laughed at me again. “We have all the time in the world, you see.”

He vanished from sight. I sucked in a breath, turning around in a tight circle searching for him. Footsteps purposefully echoed along the other end of the hallway, and when I turned, there he was. I kept an eye on him and started backing up again.

“It’s your time that’s short, I’m afraid,” he said with a smile. The sound of his voice made goosebumps rise along my skin. I shuddered and moved faster.

He followed, still sending that voice of his rolling over me. “You haven’t yet disappointed us….” he trailed off, his breath leaving him in a quiet hiss.

One hand was out behind me, feeling along the wall for obstacles. My fingers brushed a doorknob. It was locked, just like I’d known it would be. Zechs chuckled.

“Glad you’re getting a kick out of it.” Open air met my fingertips and I couldn’t risk a glance behind me. I inched my toe back, looking for a drop, and the vampire vanished again. His laughter hung on the air like some sort of putrid perfume. I really, really hated that guy. Especially since he scared me shitless.

Someone grabbed my hand and jerked, hauling me backwards though a gaping doorway. I cursed and stumbled, almost losing my grip on the poker. More laughter filled my ears, the high, delighted laugh of a woman. When I looked, she was gone.

The ballroom was dim, barely lit by tall candelabras and mounted oil lamps. A banquet table sat near the wall furthest from me, a dark cloth spread over it. It was empty but for two smaller lamps set at each end. Windows covered one entire wall, and outside was a blanket of blackness without even the stars to light the sky. I swore I could hear my heartbeat echoing throughout the room.

“I can hear it.” Zechs stood in front of the blank windows, the tiny flames casting fitful shadows across his face. “You’re always so afraid, Duo. Wufei is right, it’s intoxicating.”

My palms were damp with sweat. A vampire chick was in there somewhere, along with who the hell knew how many others. The back of my neck prickled. I couldn’t help it; I glanced away from Zechs and at the double doors I’d just been pulled through. Nothing there.

“There,” the vampire breathed. “It beats faster. Rushing your blood through your veins.”

The more he talked about it, the more I thought about it, and the faster my heart pounded. I took a few quick breaths, trying to get control of myself while keeping a close watch on him and glancing around at the same time. Lost causes, every one of them.

“I am surprised he has nothing to say.” Wufei’s voice floated on the still air, so cold it burned. “Silent at last.” He was leaning against the wall near the doors, not two feet from me. He crossed his legs at the ankles while he watched with an expression of mild amusement splashed across his face.

I edged away from Wufei, feeling pretty well pissed off. They finally had me backed into a corner. “If you’re not going to help, would you shut the hell up?”

A woman laughed like glass crunching underfoot. “He doesn’t like you, Wufei.” Dorothy walked beside the table, her steps echoing as one hand lightly brushed the cloth.

I muttered, “No shit,” under my breath. Dorothy laughed louder.

“Is it the knowledge that you’re going to die here that makes you brave, human?” Zechs asked. “Or are you just foolish?”

Considering my track record, I’d be willing to admit that I was probably an idiot. “It won’t be that easy.” See? Stupid.

The vampires all smiled and my skin crawled.

“I should hope not,” he said. “After all, you’ve done so well up till now.”

Right, I believed that one. “Lay off the goddamn games already. You’re gonna try to kill me, and I’m gonna try to stop you.” I hefted the poker and would have felt stupid if I wasn’t terrified. “Get on with it.”

Cold iron pressed into my throat. Zechs grinned at me from less than an inch away. I stared into ice blue eyes and had time to think, fuck. Then, flat on my ass, I skidded across the tiles, trying to get my breath back and stop myself from slamming into something solid. My joke of a defence hit the floor when Zechs dropped it, the ring too high pitched to be the death toll it was.

I managed to roll to my feet. Wufei still leaned by the door. He caught my gaze and slowly shook his head just once. Clawed fingers suddenly seized my head by the hair, jerking me off balance. I fell back against Zechs and fangs scraped my neck, drawing a hot, thin line of blood. Screaming like I’d been burned, I shoved my elbow back. Pain sang along my arm; it was like hitting a brick wall, and all I got was a grunt for my trouble.

Zechs backhanded me and I went to my knees, tasting blood. My vision blurred and blacked out at the edges; my ears were buzzing. Someone grabbed my hair again and yanked my head back. Dorothy looked down at me and I couldn’t focus.

She bent and lapped up the blood trickling from my lip. “I knew you were a victim.”

I spit blood at her.

Dorothy snarled and sent me crashing into the heavy banquet table. My fingers clutched at the draping cloth, dragging it down with my efforts to stand. One lamp fell and shattered, oil spilling across the glossy tile and shards of glass flying. I threw up an arm to protect my face and clawed fingers dug into it, shaking me like a dog with a bone. She hauled me to my feet, lips drawn back and fangs glistening.

She laughed when I tried to hit her; caught my wrist and twisted until I let out a strangled shout. If she broke it, I’d be in a whole lot more shit. My arm went limp and she stopped, grabbing my chin instead to wrench my head to the side. My neck stretched in a long, bare line as she brushed her mouth over it. I felt her start to bite down and did the only thing I could think of. My hand touched her hair, my fingers stroked down to find her eye. And I jabbed my thumb into it.

The shriek of a furious, wounded animal pierced the air. Dorothy clutched at her ruined face, blood and paler things seeping down her cheek like thick tears. She threw me again, tossed me like a doll onto the table. I cracked my head on the solid wood and fought to stay conscious.

She leapt at me, pinned me to the table with her weight. Her face was hideous, snarling teeth and streaks of blood. She drew back, ready to strike; my death looked at me from her one good eye. Gut-wrenching pain exploded along my shoulder. Fangs tore through skin and muscle, grated against bone, and I screamed. I screamed and I cried and my stomach heaved. Blackness sucked at me and I wanted to sink into it. Anything to stop the agony.

The fingers of my good arm closed over something solid and warm. I put everything I had left into it and smashed the burning oil lamp against her head. Glass and oil and fire showered down over me, but she stayed latched onto my neck. I could feel her tongue probe my wound and nearly vomited.

The smell was just suddenly there; scorched hair and burning flesh. Clinging to me, Dorothy burned. She tore away and my screams melded with her screeches. For a moment, I couldn’t breathe the choking, stinking air. And then I rolled off the table onto my feet, wavered and hit the floor on my knees.

Wufei saw me fall before turning his gaze to the blazing vampire. Dorothy still screamed, covered in bright, angry flames. His face was a blank wall. He watched her die and it meant nothing to him. He’d watched me with the exact same expression.

Zechs yanked me to my feet. He pinned my arms, made my vision swim as pain overtook me in another scalding wave. I’d fought, maybe taken one with me, but I was still going to die. I didn’t have that feeling of peace people sometimes talk about when accepting the inevitable end. My eyesight vanished and I just felt pissed off.

I heard the distant sound of bone breaking and thought it was mine. Another scream, not from me, and I collapsed to the tile again. I blacked out for a second, maybe two.

The fire still dancing over Dorothy’s body, the shrieks and the roars turned the ballroom into a slice of hell. Wufei stood unmoved at the edges, untouched by the violence raging around him. I heard the sick crunch of bone grinding against bone, the wet pop of a displaced joint, and turned with morbid curiosity to see.

One arm dangling uselessly at his side, Quatre held Zechs pinned to the wall by his throat. His fingers flexed, pressed into pale skin, and blood erupted as those slender fingers sunk into flesh. Crimson stained Quatre’s hair, his face twisted in a snarl of rage. He lifted the bigger vampire off the floor by the neck.

He held Zechs there, blood streaming down his arm in dark rivulets. Suddenly he jerked his hand away and took Zechs’s throat with him. I caught the flash of white spine, things too dark to be blood, and Zechs tumbled to the floor in a shuddering heap.

I did something, made a sound, a movement, something, and Quatre’s attention shifted to me. He flicked his wrist to rid himself of the flesh still clinging to his fingers. I cradled my injured arm to my chest, on knees watching as he walked towards me. I took a breath of smouldering air laced with the acrid stench of burnt flesh, and then he was above me.

He looked at me with eyes no human could ever have. Centuries of violence and blood and death stared out at me; a hunger for life. His eyes promised me everything and threatened to give me nothing.

I cowered in front of him and wondered if he’d come to give life or to take it.

*

I heard my own laboured breathing, the crackle of flames, but nothing else. I didn’t dare take my eyes off Quatre. I was afraid to move. Must be what a deer in headlights feels like.

He lifted his bloodied hand to my face and it took everything I had to keep from jerking away. As he sank down in front of me, his fingertips painted two lines down my cheek, slick and chilly against my overheated skin. I tried to speak, afraid that he’d finish the job Zechs started if I didn’t remind him who I was, afraid that he’d finish the job even if I did.

His other arm moved, the one I thought was broken, and startlingly pale fingers traced my lips before sinking into the hair at the nape of my neck. I sucked in a hissing breath as the movement tugged at my wounded shoulder. Quatre froze, and so did I.

I managed to croak out his name, my throat raw from smoke and abuse. His hands fell away as he rose and when he spoke, his voice was measured and careful. Straining on the verge of humanity.

“Can you stand?”

I had a dozen smartass remarks for that. Instead, I only nodded and struggled to my feet. Waves of nausea threatened to send me crashing back to my knees. Quatre moved to help me and stopped short of it. I didn’t know if I was grateful for that or not. His eyes hadn’t gone back to normal, so I was waiting for the next bomb to drop.

I wasn’t steady, but I was standing. It seemed to satisfy him. I was damn happy about it. He made for the door, probably expecting me to follow. Considering the company, I trotted right along. Up until he paused by Wufei. Neither were paying attention to me now. I tried to keep from bleeding to death and waited.

Wufei stayed leaning against the wall, turning just his head to face Quatre. From his expression, I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. I’d only seen him in two modes, pissed off or creepy. And it wasn’t either of those.

“Never again,” Quatre whispered in that voice that wasn’t his.

Something passed between them, untouchable, and Wufei silently bowed his head. His hair swept forward, hiding his face from me but not from the other vampire. I stared, my eyebrows trying to nest in my hairline.

I knew that Quatre was his saviour of sorts, but I’d only ever seen Wufei contradict him. It seemed like the way of things, with Quatre expecting what Wufei delivered.

We left the ballroom a moment later, Wufei taking up a bodyguard’s post just behind Quatre. I didn’t have a clue what had changed, but something had. And there I was, hoping it was a good thing. Silly human.

*

Wufei handed me over to Heero without so much as a peep. After being tormented by the guy for the last few days, it was damn unnerving. I’d say he did it just for that reason, except I wasn’t so sure. He told Heero he was going back to Quatre and left. Just like that.

If Heero noticed, he didn’t comment. It was all pretty surreal. While he cleaned and bandaged my arm, I sat there like a lump and wondered why I wasn’t dead. I should have been dead. Somehow, I’d cheated and come out on top. I wasn’t above cheating, especially cheating death. Too bad that usually came back to bite people in the ass. Or in my case, neck.

He stood outside the open bathroom door and told me to clean up. It was an order, and I would have argued on principle if I wasn’t so happy with the fact that I was breathing. And that cleaning up was exactly what I wanted to do. No one really wants to smell like charred vampire. Arguing seemed sort of pointless.

I flopped around in the bathtub, soaking the bandage and hissing a few choice curses at the sting. I hadn’t planned on attempting to wash my hair, but since I’d already ruined Nurse Heero’s good work, I went ahead with it. The thought struck me while I was towelling off, my uninjured arm aching from having to do all the work, that I could have saved myself the trouble and just taken a shower to begin with. I decided to blame Heero.

It had probably taken me the better part of two hours to get through the bathing ordeal. Heero hadn’t moved once. I gave a few half-hearted jabs at conversation, but to tell the truth, being buck naked in the tub while chattering away to a centuries-old vampire just struck me as weird. Weird being the order of the day, of course.

Parading around in front of him wearing only a towel, some bruises and a wet bandage was tame in comparison. I’d run out of clothes and was racking up a tab on the borrowing. I ended up in some surprisingly comfy pants and a dress shirt belonging to Heero. Unbuttoned, the shirt was broad enough in the shoulders that it didn’t aggravate my arm or mess up the new bandage. The wound wasn’t as nasty as it felt, not even to look at. But it hurt like a son of a bitch, so I was more than happy to take the offered painkillers.

Then I ran out of things to do, and Heero for company was slightly less stimulating than watching paint dry. Though he was far nicer to look at, I’ll give him that much. While he’d been doctoring me for the second time, I remembered the letter. And that wasn’t a happy thought. Even if Treize and company were out of the picture like I’d hoped, I still had to do something about Howard.

I wasn’t going to let the letter be mailed. At some point between wetting my pants and having my neck chewed up, I’d come to that decision. Calling wasn’t an option – too easy to be forced to do that, and Howard knew it. Neither was sneaking out on my own. Which meant telling Quatre that it existed. There was a fun conversation.

“I have to see Quatre,” I blurted before I could talk myself out of it.

Heero just looked at me. Probably waiting for a reason. I stared back. No way no how was I telling him anything. Half a minute later I said fuck it and went for the door.

The door was open and I was halfway through it when Heero spoke. “He’s at the end of the hall.”

I muttered a thank you more out of habit than any real gratitude. It creeped me out to be strolling down the hall again. A few hours ago, this had been a death trap. Now it was supposed to be home. Or maybe that had changed, too.

The last door down wasn’t completely shut. What the hell was I doing? I’d been worried that Quatre was going to chow down on me, and suddenly I go looking for him? I really was a moron.

I chickened out right as I heard his muffled voice telling me to come in. Serious consideration to turning tail and running for it was given. Instead, I sucked it up, saw Wufei laying on the bed, and nearly ended up face-first on the floor in shock.

He wasn’t staring at me with cool disdain or snarling for my blood. He wasn’t even looking at me. His eyes were closed, black lashes brushing his cheeks, black hair spilled forward long enough to cover the hand that was curled loosely on the pillow. I stared at him, dumbstruck by the innocence of him resting barefoot and fully-clothed on top of the midnight blue sheets.

I crept closer and closer, absolutely fixated. Like this, you had time to see he was beautiful. Honest-to-Jesus beautiful. He was all long lines and sharp angles, soft lips parted just enough for me to see hard white teeth. His breaths were slow and warm like he was sleeping. With a curse, I realised I was practically on top of him. Wufei never moved. I had the horrible urge to reach out and touch him, to see if his skin really was as soft as it looked.

“I’d advise against it.”

“Jesus Christ!” I whipped around to see Quatre standing at the foot of the bed, drying his arm with a dark towel. The only thing he wore was a pair of those loose pants Wufei liked. A minute later it hit me that I was staring again, and tacked on a lame, “Don’t do that.”

He smiled, and his eyes were his own again. Calm tropical ocean blue. Everyone seemed nice and normal and in various degrees of sexy. The ‘scare Duo shitless’ part of the night was over. Hurrah, hurrah.

“What did you need, Duo?”

Not what did you want, what did you need. I gave Wufei a cautious glance.

“He’s not asleep,” Quatre said, motioning for me to follow him through another doorway. “Not really.”

“Probably pissed him right off that I’m still breathing,” I muttered.

We ended up in a sitting room, not decorated as much as it was collected. There were things from every culture I could name, and more than a few I couldn’t. If it was Wufei’s, that would have shocked me more than seeing him tucked up and napping. Ordered chaos is what it was. A cultural and chronological smorgasbord. I liked it.

Quatre sat in a comfy looking chair, casually crossed his legs. My brain did a screeching u-turn and tried to figure out what to do with him. GQ coverboy, or vicious blood-sucker. Who said it had to be either/or?

I hovered by an ornamental sword stand. “I need to visit someone.”

“Now?” He made no effort to hide his doubt.

“Yeah. Or soon.” I wanted to fidget and compromised by fiddling with a sword’s tassel. “Before morning soon.”

“I think you should tell me why.”

“Figured you’d say that.” After one more nervous glance at the open doorway, I sat down on a little stool, stretching out one leg.

I explained about the letter, the why, the when, and the instructions that went with it. The only part I left out was anything to do with Howard’s identity. I didn’t want to get the old goat slaughtered.

Once I was done, Quatre nodded and said, “Smart, and a little stupid.”

“Hey!”

He grinned, and I couldn’t help grinning back a bit. Sure, he scared me stupid, but I liked the guy. Vampire. You almost had to. That’d be why I decided to tell him about the letter in the first place. Though the potential chomping sort of got in the way of a solid gold friendship.

“You might have already killed your friend,” he murmured, the grin slowly disappearing.

“Didn’t say he was a friend.”

“Who else would you trust with something like that?” He settled deeper into the chair. “You’re right, of course. We’ll have to stop it.”

That made me a little nervous. “All I need to do is just show up while I’m still breathing.”

“I’ll be going with you.” He said it like he expected an argument and planned on stomping it into the dirt.

If you asked me, I was happy he was going to toddle along. I hadn’t forgotten about Zechs. I probably never would. “That’s good with me. So long as you don’t eat anyone.”

He gave me one of those looks, the one that was disapproving but amused. It looked good on him. When he wasn’t being Mr. Creature of the Night, he was pretty fun to be around, easy to get along with.

Then again, maybe it was just because he was half-naked.

*

I had me a pair of bona fide bodyguards. With fangs. That’s the sort of thing that’ll make you feel cocky. Right up until you realise they’re following you to your shitbox apartment to pick up most of your worldly possessions.

Fortunately for me, that didn’t include a lot. Clothes, a few trinkets, life’s little memories. I tried not to think about the future. Since I couldn’t come up with an alternative, and because telling Trowa and Quatre that I refused to move into the house because I was planning on running away screamed idiot, I went along with it.

Mostly, I was embarrassed. My place just wasn’t company-friendly. I had visions of my couch jabbing Trowa in the ass with a broken spring. Funny, but the kind of funny where you wish you could vanish into a hole in the ground.

I really had to straighten out my priorities.

The door made that homey screech when it opened and the familiar smell of mildew greeted me like an overenthusiastic dog. I tossed the keys on the counter and flicked on a lamp. “Home, sweet home.”

The vampires had the decency not to gag and started to look around. I winced. The sooner we were out of there the better. I headed straight for the bedroom with Quatre, leaving Trowa to guard/poke through the living room. I really hoped he didn’t sit on the couch.

I’d seen a lot of weird shit, and expected the sight of Quatre sitting on the edge of my bed to top the list. It didn’t. He didn’t look like he really belonged, but he didn’t look like he should have been wading through bloody corpses, either. I just couldn’t figure out what to do with him.

I dug out an old travel bag and started tucking stuff inside. Awkward, because I was trying not to use one arm, and ended up doing it anyway. I had a few books I wanted to read, one I was in the middle of, and hesitated over them. Would I have time to read? Just what the hell was life like at vampire central? Who made breakfast? Who was breakfast?

“Duo.”

I jerked out of my semi-daze, tearing my eyes away from the plain book cover. Quatre stood beside the bed, watching me with curious concern.

I plastered a smile on my face. It didn’t hold up well under his scrutiny. Finally, I shrugged. “It’s all a little crazy. A lot crazy.” I cut him off before he could answer. “I know, man – you’d change it if you could. I know.” The books went in the bag, along with a few other things I wanted with me.

“My rent’s paid up for the month.” I glanced around at everything, wondering what the fuck to do with it. I guess I figured I could live without it. Hell, I was lost. It wasn’t a trip to Florida, where you took sunscreen and a bathing suit and that was it.

“Take what you need for now,” Quatre said. He looked like he wanted to say something more, but went back to the main room and left me standing in the middle of what had been my home for longer than I’d care to admit.

I’d always sort of lived one day at a time, or maybe one week if I was feeling lucky. Now I was down to hours at a time. More like minutes. Jumping from one thing to the next without much breathing space. It’d either settle down eventually or I’d have a psychotic episode.

I peered out the doorway. There were two vampires in my kitchen, one with his head stuck in the fridge. Too late, already having it.

Trowa was thumbing through the tabloids when I finished. I had one bag slung over my shoulder, another in my hand. He lowered the paper, giving it, the stack, then me the most eloquent look I’d ever seen.

“Shut up,” was my witty response.

A few minutes later, we were on the way to Howard’s, and no one had an extra hole in their ass from my couch. If Heero and Wufei were with me, that would have been a big disappointment.

Trowa drove. He was the least vampire-like vampire I’d ever seen, including generations of Draculas and pop culture interpretations. Quatre told me most of his vampires kept up with technology, but imagining Wufei behind the wheel of a Cadillac just hurt, and I said as much. His eyes crinkled just a little at the corners when he laughed.

*

At two a.m., it shouldn’t have surprised me that the warehouse was quiet. Somehow, I’d always pictured the place lit up through the night with the engines roaring. There wasn’t one bulb burning.

“Now, this,” I said, walking across the small parking lot to Howard’s door. “This makes me nervous.”

Trowa glided along beside me. He’d been playing human before, and no human ever walked like he did. It was two parts creepy and one part sexy as hell. Okay, so maybe switch that.

“Why is that?” he asked.

“Because if you asked me, I’d tell you Howard didn’t sleep.”

The vampires exchanged Looks. I rolled my eyes. “What now?”

“It’s possible that they’ve started stalking you,” Quatre said after a moment. “Friends are the first targets. Family after that.”

I hauled out my guppy impression again, just for a second to make sure I still had it down pat. “You’re kidding. That’s nuts. You’re not kidding.”

“It’s not something I’d joke about.”

“But that’s nuts.” I was hung up on that part. “You can’t go around terrorising entire families, you’d have to… shit.”

I sprinted for Howard’s, managing to get a whole five steps before someone grabbed my wrist and jerked. I stumbled back, Quatre’s arm going like a steel band around my chest, pinning me. At least he’d been careful of my shoulder.

“Running in there won’t change a thing, except you’d get yourself killed.” His voice was measured and calm, soft because his lips were right next to my ear.

He smelled good, and I could appreciate that, but I was busy being pissed at the moment. “Let me go, man.” When he didn’t, I forced myself to relax. “Look, fine. I get it. No Lone Ranger stunts.”

Quatre backed off like he didn’t believe me. I made a show out of tugging my shirt back into place and giving him one of those looks people were so fond of tossing my way. He gave one right back. His was better. I chalked it up to practice.

“I’m still going in there. You coming or not?” I liked to pretend I was in charge. It soothed my poor, whimpering ego.

“Yes.” He nodded to Trowa, who slipped off into the dark and vanished. “Stay with me,” Quatre said to me.

“No problem.” My definition of ‘friend’ had changed to someone who didn’t want to rip my throat out. I had a whole lot of new friends, and Quatre was my new best bud.

He surprised me and went for the front door. I was expecting some stealthy vampire recon work, or at least something more than sauntering up and giving a polite little knock.

We waited a minute, he knocked again. I turned my head slowly and gave him a look of pure disbelief.

He did the same, minus the disbelief.

“Christ, man.” I scratched the back of my head, giving it a rueful little shake. “Knocking on Howard’s door. That’s just not right.” I gestured. “People walk on in.”

On cue, the door opened. A tiny sliver of light slashed at the darkness, framing Trowa. “He’s in the office,” he said. “He wouldn’t tell me anything.”

I grinned with relief. “Good ol’ Howard.”

Trowa stepped back to let me pass, and I led them both through the hodgepodge of parts and scraps and furniture to the warehouse office. And there Howard was, kicked back in the chair just liked I’d left him.

“Cuttin’ it a little close, aren’t you, kid?”

“You know me.” I perched on the corner of his desk, happy as hell that I didn’t get him killed. “Think you got a little something I need, my man.”

He didn’t look so happy. He gave Trowa and Quatre a very long, very good look. “Who are these two?”

“Friends,” I said easily. And because he’d ask for names, added, “Quatre’s the blond, and you met Trowa.”

There was a nice little moment where everyone sized up everyone else, then a few nods of greeting. No one played spooky. No spooky was good.

Howard rummaged around in a drawer, coming up with the sealed envelope and handing it to me. I tucked it in my borrowed coat. “Thanks, Howard. I’ll owe you one.”

“Yeah, you will.” He laced his fingers together behind his head. “So let’s hear what it’s all about.”

Sure, that’d go over well. Meet my friends, the vampires. “Whoa, hang on.” I slid down off the desk and found a nice piece of wall to support. “No deal.”

“Can’t make you tell me, kid. Wish you would.”

That hurt. Howard had been good to me, and he was a great guy. But I didn’t want him tangled up anymore than he already was. If I got him killed, he’d probably forgive me. I wouldn’t.

“No can do. Not on this one, Howard.”

He looked at me for a long time before sighing. “You’d better know what you’re doing, kid.” Howard tossed me an empty pack of cigarettes, with a scrap of tabloid newspaper taped on. “Girl dropped that off for you.”

My stomach knotted, turning into a cold lump. I read through the article twice before it sunk in. Another vampire victim found in the woods. Just one girl, not dead a week. I looked up at Quatre with the cutout still in my hands.

Guess Hil found out what happened to Catherine.

*

“Went missing a little over a month ago. A friend of a friend,” I added with a sarcastic twist of my lips.

We drove back through the city, heading to the manor long before dawn would be a problem. I didn’t bother to ask questions about that. Figured I’d see for myself soon enough.

Quatre read through the clipping. “Catherine Bloom, no known relatives, missing a month and not dead a week.” He glanced at Trowa. “Found near our outer perimeter. A demonstration.”

I tapped open the cig pack. “Wait a minute. Demonstration?”

He gave me a sideways look. “She’s connected to you, so the message is intended for you as much as me. She’s dead, and her body left just outside our security border.”

I made a few leaps in logic and didn’t like where I landed. I tapped the pack again and something fell onto the seat. “The message being ‘we know you,’ huh? Mind game crap.” I dug around looking for whatever it was. “Oh, shit.”

I held up a cigarette butt, only half-smoked. Lipstick showed smeared on the end when we passed under a street light. “This more games?” I slapped the butt down on the centre console. “Hil wouldn’t have left that. The empty cig pack, yeah, but not a half-gone smoke.”

Quatre picked it up and sighed. “I should have known.”

“You’re not so hot at this prediction shit. I’m warning Howard.”

“It won’t-”

“The hell it won’t.” The old guy still knew how to play it safe. I’d sure as hell given him enough reason to be paranoid. “Look, he’ll ask questions. I won’t answer them.”

Quatre didn’t look convinced.

I scrubbed a hand over my face. “If I get him killed and didn’t warn him, it’s worse, okay?”

After a long moment, he said, “Alright.”

Trowa shot him a glace. He said something quick and soft under his breath, and the two fell into hushed conversation. I sat back and let them go to it. I had what I wanted.

There I was again, pissed, worried, and suddenly, really fucking hungry. My stomach tried to digest itself, and when that didn’t work, decided to make as much noise as possible. Now that I wasn’t running for my life, even if Hilde and Howard were in trouble because of me, I had to eat.

“Take a left down here,” I said. “I want to grab a burger.”

All conversation stopped.

“What?” I asked.

Trowa spoke first. “You want to stop for food.”

“There’s an all-night pickup window over on Coleville. Jesus, man. It’s a burger.”

Trowa looked to Quatre and the blond nodded. If that surprised him, I couldn’t tell. There were other humans living in Blood Manor, they had to be used to this sort of thing. Someone had to buy groceries, right?

The girl in the window took one look at Quatre and Trowa and flirted her bubbly little heart out. Even when we found out neither one of us had a bit of money. My excuse was that I hadn’t seen my own jeans in about three days. Being creepy critters of the night, neither vampire carried a wallet. I sat there, clutching my sweet greasy ambrosia, while they started pawing through the car looking for loose change.

We were more than a buck short, but I got a free side of fries. I took it as a sign.

*

Vampire Central was quiet, only a few lights burning in the windows here and there. Guess you couldn’t have decadent and depraved parties every night, everything gets boring after a while. Okay, almost everything. Kurt met us at the door, holding it open as the vampires swept through and I did a tired shuffle along behind them. As soon as the hungry part was taken care of, my body decided it was going to be a cranky bastard and start shutting down on me. I hoped I’d hit a bed when I finally toppled over.

Kurt’s eyes flicked from the knapsack in Trowa’s hand to the rumpled takeout bag in mine and frowned just enough to notice. I saluted him with a fry. He frowned more.

Poor guy didn’t seem to like me much these days.

Trowa led the way through the right wing and up a wide set of stairs while Quatre lagged behind with me. The food helped, but I was still running close to empty. I didn’t recognise the hallway until I peered through a door and saw Heero and Wufei lounging around in that cluttered sitting room.

Lounging was the only word for it. Wufei stretched out on the couch, arms tucked behind his head, and wearing a set of silky-looking pyjamas, the shirt left carelessly open. Heero apparently thought less was more, and wore nothing but a pair of thin cotton pyjama bottoms. He had a pillow under his arm, idly toying with a tassel. It was a freaking slumber party. Then I caught sight of the television screen, stopped, and stared. My perception of them abruptly shattered into a million tiny, glittering pieces.

No one ever told me the boogieman liked Mel Brooks.

Quatre looked over my shoulder, grinned when the Merry Men broke out into song. “Sometimes, Heero sings along.”

My brain broke. For once in my life, I was totally, completely, and without a doubt… speechless. I tried to ask if he was kidding, but I just couldn’t get it out. He turned to leave, paused when I didn’t follow, and came back to put a hand at the small of my back and give me a little push. I plodded down the hall in utter shock.

Heero? Singing ‘We’re Men in Tights’? Inconceivable.

*

“Yeah, man. Yeah, I know.” I scowled at the phone. That last comment was uncalled for. “Shut up, Howard. Call me in two days.”

I hung up and ruffled my hair. Apparently, this was my room now. It had some nice furniture, a huge bed, but other than that, pretty plain. The fireplace looked like it hadn’t been used for a while, and someone had already drawn the curtains.

“So, make myself at home, huh?” I said, turning around to face Quatre. Who had decided to make himself at home while Howard yelled at me. He’d hauled something comfy to sleep in out of nowhere, and by the looks of it, was sleeping right where he’d parked his ass. In my bed.

“It’d hardly make sense to leave you alone,” he said, nice and calm and logical.

Problem was, I wasn’t much in the mood for logical. Did I want a vampire sleeping in my bed? Not really. Did I have a choice? One look at Quatre said no, and it was getting to the point where I just didn’t have the energy to bitch about it.

I pointed a stern finger at him. “Don’t eat me.”

He held up both hands, palms out. I shuffled across the carpet and flopped face first onto the mattress. A moment later, I groaned and rolled over, flinging one arm across my eyes. When he still didn’t say anything, I peered up at him, seeing for the first time how drained he looked.

“You alright?” Seemed like a stupid question to ask the walking dead, but still. I had some manners.

“Tired,” he replied, and blinked once, almost like it required more effort than it was worth. “Go to sleep, Duo. I don’t intend on doing anything besides sitting here.”

His eyes were dull. He seemed stretched too thin, pale skin a few steps shy of translucent. I had the brief thought of asking him to sit somewhere else, but couldn’t do it. I don’t know why. One breath later, I was asleep.

I woke once during the night to find him curled on his side facing me, his breathing slow and shallow enough that for a moment I thought he wasn’t. Not leaving me alone was a nice sentiment, but what the hell was he planning to do in that state? I could have probably rolled him off the bed with my big toe.

I lay in the dark and watched him until I drifted off again. It was a damn good question.

*

Sunlight crept along the edges of the drapes when I woke the second time. I sleepily tugged the blanket I didn’t remember pulling over myself closer before realising Quatre was gone. And as soon as that thought struck, I was wide awake and kicking the sheets off.

Empty. They’d left me alone. Up to this point, waking up had brought with it one or two – or three, depending on how lucky I was – nasty surprises. This time the only thing waiting for me was my overnight bag.

How novel.

I puttered around in the room for a bit, tidied up, shucked back the curtains and saw endless treetops. That distracted me for all of ten minutes. Technically, I lived there now, right? So, following that line, I should be able to wander around. Fingers tapping restlessly on the windowsill, it took me another two point one seconds to head for the door.

I expected someone to yell at me when I poked my head out into the hallway. Nothing. I stepped out. Still nothing. I closed the door and braced myself for the Second Coming.

Down the hall, a clock ticked like it was laughing at me. I flipped it off, figuring that if I’d already gone off the deep end, why not stick with it.

A woman’s voice said, “Duo?”

People always pop out of the woodwork when you’re acting stupid.

“Yeah?” It turned out to be Sylvia, and she was giving me this look that said she was trying really, really hard not to laugh in my face. It was the twitching that gave her away. “Hey. Hi.” Nice and smooth, Duo. “Sylvia, right?”

“That’s right.” She blinked at the hallway behind me, then smiled a bit too brightly. Probably afraid I was a raving loony. Come to think of it, I might have given her that impression the first night we met. “He said you might be waking up around now. Hungry?”

“Starving.”

She led me down the hall, then down a set of stairs. It took a few minutes for my brain to override my stomach and get curious.

“Who said?”

Sylvia glanced at me. “Sorry?”

“You said, ‘he’. He who?” I didn’t give her a chance to answer before blurting, “And where’d Q go? Quatre,” I quickly added. Since when did I go around giving bloodsucking demons nicknames?

“I don’t know,” she said and shrugged. “The old ones come and go as they please. They’re here when we need them.”

That made me wonder how long I had before I started tossing around crazy talk. The people I’d met so far all seemed to operate on a strict need-to-know basis, and us walking appetizers apparently didn’t need to know much.

Made me nervous.

“Here you go,” Sylvia said, ushering me through a doorway that opened up into a surprisingly cosy kitchen. “Rummage around if you’d like, or I can make something for you.”

Slipping my hands into my pockets, I shook my head. “Nope, I’m good. Thanks anyway.”

“Sure.” She smiled, the expression looking a bit more genuine this time. “You’ll probably want to poke around, I know I did. He said you should stay put, but really, why would you want to be cooped up for the rest of the day?” She let out a pleasant laugh, waved and walked out the door, saying, “I’ll see you later.”

Which left me standing in the middle of the kitchen still wondering who the heck ‘he’ was. And what the heck to have for breakfast, or lunch, or whatever mealtime it was.

Rummaging sounded like a good plan, so I started with the fridge, and found more food than I’d ever seen in mine. Cupboards were the same sweet deal. I whipped up a brunch smorgasbord and stuffed myself silly. I expected someone to wander in at some point, but the kitchen was all mine.

By the time I finished up the dishes, dusk was settling in. I hadn’t realised it was that late. And I’d like to take the time to point out the obvious oxymoron in doing something as mundane as washing dishes in the middle of a vampire-infested country estate. Took me a good long while to wrap my brain around that one.

Wandering around that evening, I figured out that the place wasn’t as big as it’d first seemed. Impressively big, sure, but not overwhelmingly huge. Unless I missed something, and I probably did. I found the way back to my room, used it as a base point and started exploring from there.

I worried like hell about Hil, and Howard. But there was fuck all I could do about it, that much I admitted to myself. Howard was doing his thing and getting his ass out of the fire, and Hil… I didn’t know what to do about Hil. And when you didn’t know what to do about one thing, you did something else.

Quatre found me with my ass plunked in a wingchair and my nose stuck in a copy of Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. I know, I know. The irony killed me.

“Out of all these books,” he said, “you would find that one.”

I grinned, I just had to. I’d found the Library. Again, note the capital. Bloody big room, stuffed from floor to ceiling with books. It deserved the capital.

“I had to feed myself, now I have to entertain myself. You’re not earning any gold stars here, Quatre.” I caught myself just short of calling him ‘Q’ again.

“I’ll have a word with the help.” He hitched a hip on my chair’s arm, hands folded loosely in his lap.

Somewhere, tucked away in the back of my mind, there was a little alarmed voice trying to scream at me, something about ‘vampire’ and ‘danger’. Unfortunately, it wasn’t yelling as loud as certain other things. Like the voice that casually informed me that Quatre smelled pretty damn yummy. Or the other one that pointed out his slacks pulled tight over one very nice lean-looking thigh when he sat down. And maybe the last one that suggested copping a quick feel was a good idea.

I ignored that last one. Mostly.

He said something about Hil, and all I caught was her name. I didn’t really feel like asking him to repeat it, since I was too busy sizing him up to listen, and went with what I hoped was a nice safe, “You said what now?”

He smiled, a bit too smug for me to believe I’d fooled him. Why the hell was I suddenly fantasising about him? I slept with him last night, for the love of Christ, and didn’t have one stray thought.

Right, okay. That might not be entirely true. But I can’t be held responsible for my dreams. Nothing to do with me at all. I also dreamt about a giant talking vegetarian platypus, and that didn’t mean a damn thing. I hope.

Quatre kept right on looking at me, laughter sparkling in his eyes and his smile managing to turn just a little bit more self-satisfied.

“What’s got you so happy, grinning like a loon,” I grumbled, sticking my finger in the book to hold my place. “What did you find out about Hil?”

“I didn’t say anything about Hilde,” Quatre said, shaking his head once. The backs of his fingers brushed my cheek, warm and gentle, and sent a shock straight through me.

I burbled something that vaguely sounded like, “Oh.” He was making a move on me. A very smooth move. And what did I do? I stared at him like a shell-shocked virgin. Nice.

His hand touched my lips, softly. My brain raced a mile a minute. Was he going to kiss me? Was he going to bite me? Was I being a complete and utter dork and imagining it?

And why the bloody hell was I still thinking about it instead of kissing him back?

His fingertips cupped my chin, tilting my face up as his tongue slipped between my lips. I tasted something sweet and foreign, warm like sun-baked beaches. He slid his fingers through the hair loosely caught at the nape of my neck and deepened the kiss.

I snapped out of my dazed reverie at the sound of a low moan. My hand fisted in the collar of his shirt and dragged him closer. The man knew how to kiss. My brain shut down somewhere between that first wet brush of his lips and the slow teasing flick of his tongue against mine.

Sharp teeth scraped my lip, the sudden sting followed by the metallic taste of blood. I jerked away and cursed, back of my hand pressed to my lip.

Quatre stood between my legs, bent close with his hands resting on the chair back on either side of my head. He licked the droplet of my blood from his bottom lip with the tip of his tongue.

I had time to have one really good thought about why this might be a bad idea before he kissed me again. The first one was good, this was better. Rough and demanding and tainted with the small thrill of fear that he might go too far. The voice in my head that continually screamed ‘Vampire!’ gave up in disgust and let me have my fun.

His hand touched my thigh, his lips leaving mine to trace the curve of my jaw. Breath, hot and heavy, teased my skin, and he waited until I automatically tipped my head to the side before he pressed open-mouthed kisses to my neck. He found me already half-hard and gave me just the barest edge of teeth.

Panic flared and died as fast as a falling star. My breath caught in my throat, anticipating pain and instead getting pleasure, his palm pressed warm and firm to my groin. The sudden urge to let him bite me, to feel whatever it was that drew so many people to vampires rose up strong enough to have the words already on my lips.

Distantly, I heard the sound of a brisk knock and Heero saying, “She’s back.”

Quatre drew away, deliberately slow as if we hadn’t been interrupted. I stared at him in disbelief for a split-second and then slumped back in the chair. His eyes were human, his breathing only slightly faster than normal. The look he gave me spoke volumes.

“Thank you, Heero,” he said, still watching me. “You know where to assemble.”

I glanced past Quatre to see Heero nod and disappear from the doorway. I clung to the hope that we’d pick up where we left off, and at the same time, felt a little relieved that we didn’t. I wasn’t actually just about to let him snack on me, after all. I wasn’t.

Honestly, I wasn’t.

*

I slumped in my seat, hands folded loosely on my stomach. We’d migrated to Quatre’s rooms, scattered in a rough circle in his sitting room. Trowa had kindly provided me with a stiff drink to go with the stiff dick from Quatre.

I tried to concentrate on the conversation, considering it involved Treize and his band of Malicious Unmen, but my brain had other ideas. Specifically, my cock was in cahoots with my imagination and both were determined to make me cream my pants.

Alright. So he was a vampire. A bloodsucking fiend of the night. It could have been worse. He could have liked smelly cheeses.

Across from me, Trowa stopped mid-word and quirked an eyebrow. I straightened up a little and tried to look attentive.

“Treize is responsible for the murders, I heard you,” I said. I thought about that for half a second and then said, “Wait. Treize is responsible for the murders?”

“Is this necessary?” Wufei asked, apparently meaning me. I thought I was necessary, but colour me biased.

“Treize is one of the oldest of us,” Quatre cut in. “He travels from time to time, checking on various groups like a lord reviewing his vassals.”

“We owe him nothing,” Wufei hissed softly.

“Regardless.” Quatre waved his hand to silence him, and for once, Wufei shut up. “He visits, we offer him our hospitality, just as any other group would to us. Just as we have before.”

“What changed this time?” I asked. “Aside from the obvious ‘I don’t like you’ vibe he had going on.”

Surprisingly, Heero answered me. “Dead bodies have been following him around.”

That conjured up an image of a zombie parade I didn’t need. Trust me to take Heero literally the one time he wasn’t. I made another leap in logic and said, “You mean Chicago and Toronto, all those murders? Treize has been gallivanting across the continent killing people for kicks?”

“Idiot.” Wufei leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “He marked a trail of blood leading straight to our door. There have been five killings in the city since his arrival.”

Now I was paying attention. “How the hell do you know for sure he’s the one doing it?”

“Because I told them, of course.”

My head whipped around so fast I’m surprised it didn’t go flying right off my shoulders. Dorothy stood in the doorway, about as alive as she could be and downright glowing. No one else seemed the least bit startled to find her there.

“Jesus Christ. You were charcoal,” I murmured in disbelief. Can’t say I was all that happy to see that she wasn’t, since the last time I’d had the pleasure of her company, she was trying to eat me in a very bad way.

She tucked her hair behind her ear. “Treize would have bribed or tortured someone into following his scheme. Quatre thought it best to provide him with an easy target.”

I scrubbed a hand over my face and tried to make sense out of it. “Okay. You all knew Treize was on some crazy crusade to….” I trailed off. What the hell was Treize trying to do?

“Sabotage Quatre’s efforts here,” Trowa supplied helpfully.

“Right, right.” I knew that. I was just drowning under too much unexplained information, that’s all. “So. He knocks off a few dozen people, concentrates the bulk of the murders here, and all this in an attempt to put pressure on you to give up on this and go back to blissful communal slaughter?”

Several Looks went flying high and low across the room. I crossed my arms and scowled at the whole damn lot of them. Bloody vampires.

“More or less,” Trowa said.

“You’re all nuts,” I muttered, and slumped back.

Conversation picked up again while I chewed on the insanity that was a vampire’s logic. All this crap over some disagreement about lifestyles. People fought and killed over stupider stuff, yeah, but if you had a good few thousand years under your belt, weren’t you supposed to eventually smarten up?

Evidently, no. Made me wonder how Treize managed to live as long as he did when he was obviously a raging moron.

I heard something weird, and glanced up. Trowa and Quatre kept talking, and I heard that odd little wheezing snigger sound again. I looked at Wufei. My jaw hit the floor.

Wufei was snickering. Why was he snickering? Wufei. Snickering.

A few hundred of my brain cells twitched and keeled over in shock. One of them struck a nerve and suddenly, I had a damn good question I wanted to ask.

“Wait a minute. Hold up,” I said.

Five pairs of eyes fixed on me.

“If you knew what Vlad was up to, what the hell was going on with that card stunt?” I asked, looking straight at Dorothy. I really didn’t like that chick.

“An anomaly in the system would provide an opportunity for Treize to continue his efforts,” Dorothy explained, arms across her stomach and palms cupping her elbows. Her entire demeanour, even the way she spoke was different. “It would distract Quatre and tempt those unsatisfied with this arrangement.”

Of course. “And you knew?” I said to Quatre.

“No,” he replied. “Had I known, there would have been time to prepare. Very little would have changed – you would still be here, and I would still be bound to my own laws.”

“You’re in charge,” I grumbled. “Change the fucking laws.” Another thought struck me. “So, what did I have to do with everything? And Catherine, and Hilde?”

Quatre’s face darkened. I got the feeling I wouldn’t like the answer.

“You?” Wufei said. “Nothing. A convenient piece for Treize to manipulate.”

“Wufei,” Quatre snapped. “The fact that you knew one of his victims was a coincidence,” he said in a softer tone, and his voice turned regretful. “You were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“That’s it!?” I exploded, fists slamming against the chair arms. “I’m tangled up in all this shit because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time? What the fuck about Hil? And Howard?”

“He took Hilde to torture you,” came Trowa’s quiet voice. “Because he could.”

I couldn’t take it. My life turned upside down because of a fluke. Because I picked the wrong night, the wrong club, the wrong fucking chick to talk to.

“Why me?” I choked out. It sounded useless and plaintive even to my ears. Stupid question. But I had to know.

“You looked like a victim,” Dorothy said, and shrugged.

*

I stared out my blackened window. I didn’t have anything to do with any of this. I meant nothing to them. Nothing. They had Hilde, tortured or dead or both, just because it amused them. I closed my eyes and let my forehead rap against the glass. Sick, twisted bastards.

Not all of it made sense. Treize’s part did; he was a malicious fuck and that was that. Dorothy played a role. She said she wasn’t sorry for what she did, said that it was necessary. I could understand it, but that didn’t mean I liked it.

Quatre confused me. Treize knew exactly how he would react to finding me here, exactly what he could do and how to manipulate that to his advantage. And Quatre did exactly what Treize had predicted.

He knew what Treize was up to, and he still played into it. Mostly. All the time I was running around screaming for my life, they were playing vampire games, setting up plots and counter-plots that made my fucking ears bleed to hear.

Why didn’t I know about it? Because I didn’t need to, of course. Why didn’t they leave me the fuck out of it and just kill the bastard, like they were planning to tonight? Because I could have ruined it, because they couldn’t trust me, because playing it their way kept me out of the most immediate danger.

Excuse me, but Zechs tried his damn best to kill me, and I didn’t really think Dorothy was acting.

I was a bit player. A bystander. A fucking pawn.

I let out a harsh, strangled shout, beating my fist against the window. It pissed me off. I wanted to go with them and kill that fucked up bastard. They’d vetoed that idea before I’d even finished talking.

I’d get in the way, get myself killed. One human in the middle of an undead turf war. They were right, I’d be canon fodder. So I agreed to stay here and seethe in my useless little human way.

“You can stop lurking,” I said, not bothering to turn around.

I heard a quiet intake of breath, and Quatre said, “I’m sorry, Duo.”

“Yeah, and that makes it all nice and shiny again,” I snapped.

I didn’t know what to think about him. Had he played into Treize’s plan because it suited his purposes, or because he really wouldn’t go against his word? You couldn’t be fair and ruthless. Could you? Maybe he could.

“You’ve heard the best explanations I can give you.” I felt more than heard him step closer, and the air around me grew warm.

“It’s not fucking good enough.” I finally turned around to face him, slow and barely in control of the anger that’d been churning inside me. “Hilde could be dead because I was curious. Curious, for the love of Christ.”

His eyes were calm, but I could see the storm threatening to break. He was angry. At me, I thought, and felt the quick rush of fear.

“Then you understand why I did all of this,” he said, gesturing at the room, taking in the mansion and the rules and the entire scheme. “I’d do this and more to stop him.”

Abruptly, my rage burnt out. I could rant and scream and point fingers, tell him he should have done it another way… but what did I know? Really, what did I know? Nothing. And that pissed me off even more. A nice, useless feeling that ate me up inside.

“You’re a dick,” I said, and couldn’t keep my lips from curving. That was it, I’d finally done it. I’d gone nuts.

“Sometimes,” he said, uncannily mirroring my expression.

“Do me a favour? For once.”

He nodded, and I had the weirdest feeling. Hadn’t I seen this in a movie before? Great, my life was a bad cliché.

“Bring Hilde back in one piece and still breathing, eh? If I get her killed, I’ll never hear the end of it.” I grinned, but my heart wasn’t in it. Joking about it was easier than admitting it was probably already way too late.

I didn’t hear his answer over the sudden rushing in my ears. Five days of shock, horror, confusion laced with a good dose of conflict over vampire equals evil or vampire equals wet dream finally caught up with me.

Quatre was the gorgeous exotic tiger at the zoo. All you wanted to do was pet it even though you were scared shitless it’d bite your hand off. And damn me straight to hell, I thought losing the hand might be worth it.

My back hit the cool glass, his mouth on mine. A million reasons why it’d be a bad idea screamed through my head, every single one of them dropping dead on the spot as his body settled against me in one long, solid line. He kissed me like he’d own me, full of rough tongue and sharp teeth and the heat of breath heavy between us.

I dropped my hands to his hips, hooking my fingers in the beltloops of his slacks to jerk him forward. His palms slapped against the window behind me, and I gave him a little smirk that he wiped clean off my lips when he dipped his head and nipped at my neck.

Vampire. Fangs. Blood. He shifted and the firm heat of his cock ground into my own. My breath stuttered and I felt the edge of fangs scrape my skin. My heart picked up the rapid beat of fear pounding through me, and he took it and twisted it into pleasure. His hand slid under my shirt, cool from the glass, and ghosted up my side.

He pulled back long enough to strip off my shirt, one hand pressed to the centre of my back to force me forward. His mouth closed over my skin, tongue lazily circling sensitive flesh, and suddenly I felt the sharp prick of teeth. Sensation spiked through me, fine lines of heat that ripped a gasp from my throat and turned my breath into a long, low moan as he sucked.

My fingertips dug into his lower back, holding him hard against my rocking hips. I’d probably come in my jeans and embarrass myself, and I couldn’t care less. I wanted him to do it again. Whatever he did, I wanted it again.

Quatre lifted his head, lips red and inhuman eyes staring at me with a lust so deep-seated that I’d never be able to comprehend it. I felt warmth trickle over my skin and glanced down. Two thin lines of blood seeped from twin pinpricks right above my nipple. I sucked in a breath and held it, staring at the bright damning red.

“Do you want it?” he whispered, lips brushing my ear. “Just a taste of it.” His mouth skimmed down my neck as he spoke, his tongue marking a wet line to my pulse that prickled as cooler air struck it.

Blood glistened on my fingertips and I didn’t remember touching it. I looked from them to Quatre and suddenly I couldn’t breathe. Fangs scraped my neck and sent a jolt of something not pain and not pleasure but a bastard mix of the two screaming along my nerves.

He backed off and I had time to draw a shuddering breath before I felt his fingers drag down my stomach to my jeans. His groin pressed against my hip and the hand at my back slid upwards into my hair, gripping and tugging just enough to bare my neck in a smooth, clean line.

Fear and lust curled like wind-tangled smoke in my stomach. Every touch was intense, every sound vivid; I felt every little tug and release on the material as he undid my jeans. He dragged blunt fingernails through the thin trail of hair, slid just his fingertips over the wet head of my cock.

I jerked and let out a hissing breath, and his teeth raised slim red welts on my shoulder that were quick to fade. My eyes flew wide. I liked the teasing edge of pain. I liked the taste of fear and uncertainly, the seductive threat pressed to my throat. My grip tightened, and Quatre’s shadowed laugh mingled with my groan.

I wanted more. He was going too slow. I scraped nails over his sides and tore at the clasp of his slacks, suddenly desperate to feel naked skin under my hands. Yeah, I’d probably regret at least part of it when the sun rose, but right then, all I was thinking about was the moment.

He grabbed my waistband and hauled me away from the wall. I stumbled, breath catching, and fisted the material of his shirt. Buttons popped and I smiled a self-satisfied smile.

I ran my hands up his chest, tracing sharp angles and firm muscle covered by soft, pale skin. The shirt fell off his arms. My lips hovered over his, and I breathed dirty words into his mouth, hands dropping down to get rid of the last bit of clothing in my way.

We stopped in the middle of the floor, my hands down his pants and my jeans barely hanging onto my hips. I wanted to feel his teeth on me again, and didn’t know how to ask, couldn’t just bare my neck to him. Instead, I went with what I knew and pressed one hand to the small of his back, the other tightly gripping his ass, and rubbed cock against cock. Muscle flexed under my hands, and he gave me what I wanted.

I felt the razor sting of teeth parting flesh, a thin, shallow slice right above the pulse beating thick and full in my neck. I swallowed a breath, tasting fear like a drug burn its way down my throat. Everything was so hot, rubbing against raw-edged nerves. So close.

Quatre growled, an honest-to-Jesus growl, fangs glinting red and white in the dim lamplight. He grabbed my arms and flipped me around, my heart leaping in my chest and pounding hard against my ribs.

“Not yet,” he said in a voice not his own. It crawled over my skin, raising the hairs along my arms and sending shivers rippling down my spine.

His chest pressed to my back, his fingers smearing slick red blood across my skin. I felt him tug at my jeans and the edge of his teeth graze my earlobe.

“I want you on your knees.”

You couldn’t mistake his tone. Either I got on my knees or he’d put me there. I wanted it. I wanted it, and because I’m a masochistic fucker, I stayed standing.

His cock pressed wet and hot against the cheeks of my ass, so goddamn tempting. I bent my knees just a little, shifting and straightening again so that he slid between them. My eyes closed and I let my head fall back on his shoulder.

A strong hand wrapped tightly around my dick, fingers stroking across the tip and smearing precome along the length. He squeezed, my thighs trembled, and I stubbornly widened my stance, rocking between the hot glide of his cock and his hand.

He whispered something in my ear, I don’t know what, and I felt his other hand push the cheeks of my ass apart, settling himself more firmly between them. He kept stroking as he started to thrust, slick fluid easing the way for his cock to slide along my crack. I struggled for breath; short, quick gasps that stumbled over the tight pleasure coiling low in my stomach.

My knees buckled and my hand flew to the edge of the bed for support, still stubbornly on my feet. I bent slowly forward, eyes clenched tight and mouth falling open as sudden pleasure burst white-hot along my nerves. I felt his grip on my cock grow slippery, not stopping as I coated his fingers in my come.

I finally dropped to my knees, arm braced on the mattress and forehead resting heavily on it. My chest heaved, skin tingling as small aftershocks coursed through me. I licked my dry lips as he settled behind me. That wasn’t how I expected him to get me to my knees.

His hand ran lightly down my spine, one slick knuckle brushing between my cheeks and slowly uncurling, his finger pressed deep between my legs. I felt warm come smeared over my skin, around tight muscle that twitched under his fingertips. He stroked my thigh, my side, endlessly circling until I moaned and spread my knees wide.

The back of his hand trailed over my hip, flipping around at my waist to run his palm up my side, pushing my arm out straight as he leaned over me. He stretched my upper body across the mattress, his hand pinning my forearm to the sheets. I rubbed my cheek against the cool cotton, turning my head to the side.

I couldn’t see him, but I could feel him. I could feel the heat of him pressing against me, long fingers forcing me open so just the tip of one could push inside me. I clenched and groaned and he drew back, stroking only once before pushing in again.

Slow, maddeningly slow. I curled my hand into a fist on the sheets and breathed a harsh curse, trying to rock back against him. His weight kept me pinned. I heard whispered words, soft groans as he sunk his finger into me to the knuckle. He curled it inside me and stroked impossibly sensitive flesh, nerves that felt exposed to the air. I thrashed in his hold, wanting more, and every time I drew the breath to demand it, he pulled back and shoved deeper, forcing it from me in explosive rushes.

It felt like he teased me for hours, endless hours of being driven to the edge again and held there, quivering. My vision wavered at the corners, bright white one moment and pitch black the next.

“Stop,” I rasped. “For fuck’s sake, stop.”

He stopped, fingers buried to the knuckles. “Do you want it?” he breathed against my neck.

“Christ.” I scrubbed hair out of my face, reached back with a shaking hand to spread myself for him. I tasted salt on my lips. “Alright. Yes. Christ,” I swore again. I couldn’t take any more. Sadistic bastard.

Quatre spread his fingers and wrung another low moan from deep in my throat. The blunt head of his dick pressed against me, beside his fingers, and I sucked in a hissing breath. I stopped just short of chanting, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon.

He sank into me in one long, lazy push. My fingers twisted in the sheets and I murmured something incoherent, already flexing around him. He groaned and my back arched in pleasure, body clenching tight to force that sound from him again. He filled me, thick and deep, so fucking hard. Perfect. I might have told him that.

His fingers curled over my shoulder, bracing himself as he started slow, even thrusts. It felt too good, the way he stroked inside me, rolled his hips when he was buried deep and drew back, back and back and suddenly slammed forward again. I rose off the bed, hands scrambling at the sheets for purchase as he did it again. Somewhere I found a firm grip and started driving myself back onto his cock, trying to take it deeper.

One arm went around my chest, held me tightly to him. His dick rubbed against that one perfect spot, over and over, suddenly too much, just this side of pain, and he shifted his hips, letting me regain my breath before doing it again.

My head fell to the side and I felt him tense, felt his orgasm hit just as his teeth finally pierced my neck. He shoved cock and fang into me, spilling his come inside me as his mouth closed over my skin and drew hot red blood from my veins. I don’t know if I screamed, if I cursed him or begged him for more; he locked me in his arms and held me there, writhing against the too-intense pleasure. I couldn’t tell my orgasm from the rest of the sensations stealing my breath.

His arms loosened, breath flooding into my lungs. I sagged in his grip, head dropping forward with sudden exhaustion. He lifted me from the floor to the bed, settling himself behind me. A hand stroked my side, his tongue warm and wet against the small wound on my neck. I felt languid and satisfied and downright lazy as all hell.

I know I grinned like an idiot. Could you fucking blame me?

“Well,” I said, my tongue thick in my mouth. “That was nice.” I reached behind me to slide my fingers through his short hair.

He shook with quiet laughter, his arm curling around my waist. I gave in to my natural inclination and snuggled with the vampire. I drifted in and out of consciousness for a while, just enjoying the feeling of not thinking. Not thinking was good. I should do more of it.

Eventually the mattress shifted and Quatre slid off the bed. I tried to muster up the energy to say something, or maybe even roll over, but that was a lost cause. Too much basking to be done to bother.

I roused myself enough to murmur a thanks to Quatre when he came back a little later and pressed a warm cloth to the almost dainty wounds on my neck and chest. They didn’t even hurt like I’d expected. He said something about being back later, and I waved him off with a lazy smile.

It was a good half hour after he’d left that I finally came back down from my well-fucked high. I dragged myself off the bed and stumbled off to the bathroom, even more surprised to see the marks on my skin were hardly visible except for the slight redness. I poked curiously at my chest before giving a mental shrug and hopping in the shower.

And then I worried myself sick. I ran the whole gamut from pissy to scared to worried and right back again, stalking from one room to the next. I found out that the five rooms were connected, forming a square right around the upper floor of the house with Quatre’s in front, mine and Trowa’s off of his, and Wufei’s and Heero’s in the back. It was a weird arrangement, but hey, if it worked, it worked.

Having Wufei smack dab behind me didn’t really thrill me, but he played nice now. Nice for him, anyway.

I plunked myself in Quatre’s sitting room and resisted the urge to snoop. Instead, I poured myself a drink and waited. And waited. And then I snooped. But only a little.

I managed to waste a few hours, but the waiting gnawed at me. I figured one more drink couldn’t hurt and started to pour that when I heard soft footsteps on the carpet. Relief flooded through me.

“Jesus, it’s about time,” I said, turning around. “I didn’t oh fuck.”

Zechs tilted his head just a little, smiling that charming snake’s smile. “What was that?”

My first thought was to throw something at him, my second was to scream and run for the hills.

“Don’t bother,” Zechs said, gliding into the room and giving it a cursory glance. “Save your strength.”

How he anticipated the thought took me aback for a moment. They did that a lot, did vampires. Something to chew on when I wasn’t busy shitting my pants. “For what?” Since I had the damn thing in my hand, I took a drink, and kept my eyes on him.

He leaned casually on the doorjamb, hands slipping into his pockets. The very picture of friendly ease. Except for the evil bloody glee shining in his iceberg eyes.

“A game,” he said. “You know we have Hilde.”

I barked out a short laugh. His film noir villainous stylings just cracked me up.

“Yeah, I know. So what?” The ice clinked in my glass and I willed an uzi into my hand. No such luck. “She’s probably already dead.”

“Where would the enjoyment be in simply killing her?” He straightened. “Come with me.”

“Sure. Just let me get my coat. What are you, nuts?” Me and my big mouth, back in action. Huzzah.

He gave me a patient look, like a wolf waiting for the deer to settle. “If she still lives, you risk the chance of killing her by delaying. What choice do you have?”

Shit. He had me there. I could talk all I wanted, but he was right. It was a trap, sure, I knew that much. And she might already be dead, yeah, I knew that too. But what damn choice did I have?

I went.

We walked through the house and straight out the front door, not a soul or undead fiend around. He made polite conversation. I lost a few more brain cells.

“Look, do you have to do that?” I asked.

The look he gave me was politely confused.

“Talking like you’re not about to kill me.”

He shrugged elegantly. “If you’re about to die, what does it matter?”

I didn’t have an answer for that one.

He led me through the gates and into the forest, moving easily through the trees while I stumbled along behind him. When I fell too far back, he waited. I gave serious consideration to making a break for it, but to where? I’d make it maybe five feet before he went vampire on me and snapped my neck. Just because I was going to die didn’t mean I wanted it to happen any sooner than was really necessary.

“Hilde is out there,” he said as we broke the line of trees.

Clouds covered the moon, giving the clearing an eerie glow. Fitting.

“So, I find her, we go free?” Always hopeful, that’s me.

He chuckled. “She is trying to survive until morning. I hear she is doing rather well for herself. This is the game, Duo Maxwell. You run and hide from us. We hunt and kill you.”

I stared at him. He had to be kidding. “That’s it, huh?”

He nodded.

I swallowed the fear suddenly threatening to choke me. “So now what?”

“Now?” he echoed, and smiled. Fangs glinted in the bright light of the unclouded moon. “Now, you run.”

*

I ran like a bat out of hell. He vanished; I ran. I didn’t think, didn’t consider anything, just ran. His laughter chased me through the dark trees and made my heart pound in my ears. The moon winked out and plunged the forest into blackness. I careened to a halt, slamming my back against the nearest tree trunk and tried to smother my laboured breathing.

A scream shattered the night sky, and everything went silent.

I hunkered down, trying to make myself as small a visible target as possible. Probably useless, since I had psycho vampires that could sniff me out from a mile away chasing me down, but still, I tried. I couldn’t not try.

I wondered if the scream had been Hilde, or if there were more of us worthless humans out for a bit of sport. I wondered how long it would be before I died.

I couldn’t just sit there and wait for them to find me. I needed a plan. I needed a weapon. I needed a fucking break, that’s what I needed.

I didn’t think I’d be getting either one any time soon.

Cautiously, I straightened, wincing when my clothes snagged on the rough bark. I froze, waiting for someone to pop out of thin air and strike me dead. Nothing happened. I quietly released the breath I’d been holding.

How many hours until dawn? Four, five? It didn’t matter. Ten minutes or an hour, they could kill me whenever they wanted. I wasn’t stupid enough to believe I even had a chance. They’d chase me through the forest until I either broke my own neck or they got tired of their twisted little games.

Breaking my own neck just seemed like such a stupid way to die. I listened before pushing away from the tree and picking my way a bit more carefully through the thick summer undergrowth.

More than five minutes passed and I heard nothing. Ten minutes, and I heard slow, measured footsteps approaching, making no effort to hide. I tried moving in the opposite direction, and the steps stopped. I let out half a breath and froze, one hand braced on a low branch.

The steps started again, this time from behind me.

I felt like screaming. Maybe if I just said fuck it and attacked them with an oversized root, they’d just kill me. I was a dead man anyway, what fucking difference did it make? Why the hell did I have to cling to the thought of making it to morning when I knew damn well I wouldn’t?

Damn stubborn pride.

It took me a few minutes to realise the footsteps had stopped again. I would have laughed, but I couldn’t make a sound past the hard knot caught in my throat. It was stupid. It was one huge stupid cliché, being stalked through a forest at night by sadistic vampires intent on killing you. Eventually.

The thing you never think about, though, is that clichés are clichés for a reason, and this one was fucking scary.

I started off again, ears straining for the slightest sound. Thin slivers of moonlight danced over me as I walked, disappearing and reappearing like funhouse lights. Maybe I could get back to the house. Alright, so it probably wouldn’t make much difference, but damn it, the house was better than the trees. At least there were bloody lights.

I liked lights. Lights were good.

I didn’t know what had happened to the rest of Quatre’s people. I knew he took the bulk of them with him tonight. Like that did a shit load of good. Off he tromped with the cavalry and left the fort undefended. Brilliant. Just brilliant.

A body hit the dirt nearby and I jumped out of my skin. I backed up against another tree, opening my eyes wide in an attempt to see and slowing my breathing again. Was it more games, or had they killed someone? I didn’t know. I just didn’t know.

Not knowing is the worst part. Not knowing is what makes you afraid. And I was terrified. For me, for Hil, for people I didn’t even know existed. I waited and waited, and then moved off again.

Somewhere in there, I worried about Quatre and the others, and if Treize had managed to kill them instead. The possibility existed, and that was about as comforting as sleeping in a pit of rattlesnakes.

“Hoping they’ll save you?” a woman’s voice I didn’t recognise floated through the air.

“Jesus H. Christ,” I hissed. “Do you fucking read minds, or what?” It happened enough times now that I was getting paranoid.

“Yes,” she answered simply.

Oh. Well. Okay, so that explained a few things. Actually, that explained a lot of things. Gee, was I going to be embarrassed later.

I turned towards the disembodied voice, stepping carefully and checking for things I might trip over, and one hand stuck out behind me. “Honestly pluck the thoughts right out of my head?”

“Why?”

“Because I’m curious,” I said. “You’re gonna kill me anyway, doesn’t really matter if I know or not, does it?”

She didn’t answer. I stopped moving. Warm breath brushed my neck. I whipped around and no one was there, just the wind in the trees and my own frantic heartbeat. I hadn’t imagined it; they were playing with me. Cat and mouse. Wouldn’t I be a tasty snack.

“Run,” Zechs told me, voice floating like a ghost on the air.

“No fucking way,” I whispered, waiting for him to speak again. My body tensed, ready to run while I tried to convince it to fight. Sometimes the body is smarter than the brain.

Silence answered me. I drew in a breath that smelled of fresh air and green growing things. I found another solid tree to lean against and stayed there, listening and waiting.

The clouds parted and full moonlight shone down again, filtering through the branches just enough for me to really see. A breeze played through the leaves, gentle and soft. It all seemed so wrong, the night too beautiful to hide what it did.

I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and turned to look. The light dimmed, showing me a black shadow stalking straight towards me. I held my ground. I wouldn’t play the game and give them the satisfaction. Dead now or dead later, dead was still dead.

A gust of wind stirred the tall weedy grass, blew the clouds completely over the moon for the space of a heartbeat. They cleared off again, and I saw that it was Wufei, black hair loose and flowing in the cool night wind.

The sudden feeling of elation that hit me died a swift and horrible death. Wufei hadn’t helped me before, why did I think he would help me now? He could have easily betrayed Quatre, the hell with his tortured past at Treize’s hands.

Red blood streaked across his cheek, his lips stained dark with it. His hands glistened like he’d plunged them past the wrist into a vat of red-black ink. Bile scorched the back of my throat. It could be Hilde’s blood. Quatre’s. Mine.

He stopped in front of me, close enough for me to see the cold fire smouldering in his black eyes. I saw hell in his eyes, centuries of hell without hope.

I heard myself say his name. His eyes narrowed dangerously. That was it, I was done for.

“Idiot,” he said, his voice driving me to my knees. “You were told to stay in the manor.”

“What?” I said before I could stop myself. That didn’t make sense.

“You were told to stay in the manor,” he repeated, reaching out for me with one blood-soaked hand.

I let out something that was way too close to a squeak and scrambled to my feet, backing away. My ego cringed. “I didn’t have much of a choice now, did I?” I said, soothing my wounded pride with a good dose of bravado. I told him exactly what happened. He stood there and looked menacing. He did it very well.

“Come with me,” he said when I finished.

I debated for a minute. Stay alone in the dark with the scary homicidal vampires chasing me, or follow the scary homicidal vampire that seemed inclined to let me keep breathing, at least for now.

“Hey!” I said, and blundered after him. “What are you doing out here?”

Dark eyes flicked in my direction. “What I am told to do.” Trust Wufei to stuff ironic amusement, bitter resentment and a cursory ‘shut up’ into six measly words.

I heard more movement off in the darkness, more grunts and groans punctuated by screams full of rage and fear. I wanted to know what was going on but was too afraid to find out. Wufei walked on, completely unfazed.

“Wufei?” I said. My eyes were going to pop out of my head if I didn’t distract myself.

He made some sort of sound that I took for acknowledgment.

“Can you read minds?”

I caught the glimmer of an evil little smile curving his lips. “I can hear thoughts.”

Oh. Shit. “…can Quatre?”

“Easily,” he said, and you’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind to miss the laughter in his tone.

“Oh,” I said. Shit. Now I really wanted to find a nice deep pit to crawl into. Sans rattlesnakes.

Wufei stopped in a small clearing. I slowed down and looked around. He waited. I fidgeted. The hairs on the back of my neck rose and I turned around slowly, as if that’d give the boogieman hiding behind me time to slink away.

Quatre stood in front of Wufei, the wind ruffling their clothes and hair. Everything else about them was still and silent. Utterly motionless. Wufei was the one covered in blood, black as the night itself, but Quatre was the one that made my breath catch and my heart pound and every instinct I had scream, run! If it was to or from, I just didn’t know.

Quatre’s gaze slid to me. For a split-second, I couldn’t breathe. I stared back at him, caught and terrified. His eyes flicked back to Wufei, and a second later, Wufei was gone. Like he’d never even been there.

A jumble of memories rose up; fear, curiosity, lust all crowding together in flashes of first seeing him, seeing what he was, glimpses of who he really was and feeling his breath on my skin.

I couldn’t come up with a damn thing to say.

He solved the problem for me. “Heero has Hilde,” he said, moving closer. “Aside from minor scrapes, she’s fine. Scared, but not as much as some would be.”

Relief crashed over me like white waves on the rocks. “She’s a tough chick.”

“I didn’t anticipate Zechs would go after you after we’d already engaged them,” he continued, stopping about a foot away from me. “Either as an attempt to distract me or just because they could.”

My first thought was questioning if that really would distract him. I couldn’t tell, couldn’t separate what he really felt from what he let himself show. If nothing else, I knew why he was in charge and no one else. Sneaky manipulative little bastard.

The smile he gave me was knowing, and a bit sad. I laughed ruefully and scratched the back of my neck. He must have read that. Or heard it, whatever.

“I don’t have to listen,” he told me. “But you’re hard to ignore.”

I didn’t know if that was a compliment or not. To save myself the trouble of thinking about it, I said, “I thought you went off to kill the bad guys, huh?”

He nodded, and started to explain. For once. “There are no other vampires here for Treize to stay with,” he said. “Once he eliminated the possibility of remaining a guest with us, he had to find his own place to rest. Dorothy provided us with the location.”

Great. More vampire counter-plotting. My ears were going to start bleeding again. He kept talking, clarifying bits before I could even ask. My mind strayed to the bedroom potential of this thought-hearing, mind-reading thing more than once or twice.

“Right,” I finally said. “Okay. The basic gist of it is: Dorothy was a mole, Treize eventually found out and started feeding you false information.” I held up a finger. “But you knew he knew, so you rigged some true-false-true… thing, and ended up luring Treize out of his hiding place – because he switched them on you and you didn’t know the new one – and somehow you cornered him and his fucked up cronies in the forest right outside your own damn house, giving you the perfect place to knock them off at your convenience.”

“A remarkable strategist,” Treize said. I jumped a fucking mile. They just had to stop doing that. “Truly, a worthy opponent.”

Quatre, naturally, wasn’t one bit surprised to see him. He nodded in response to the compliment and that was it.

Treize smiled, his expression strangely wistful. “I suppose this leaves only you and I to finish it.”

I backed up a bit, putting some space between me and the two vampires. I didn’t want to get caught in any supernatural cross-fire.

“If you’d left us in peace, Treize, we could have avoided all of this,” Quatre replied.

“Indeed, we could have for a time.” Treize walked through the undergrowth, not a rustle to mark his passage. My skin crawled. “But this would be an unavoidable eventuality; your experiment against the proper ways.”

Quatre shook his head. “I don’t believe that.”

Treize still smiled. “And that is why we are where we are.”

The air suddenly burned, as if I was trying to breathe flames. It seared my lungs, scorched my skin. I clenched my eyes tightly shut. Pressure built and exploded, stealing what little breath I had left and throwing me hard against a tree. I fell to the ground, gasping.

I could hear the vague, distant sound of words over the unnatural rush of my blood and the heavy air. They fought like I imagined demons or angels fought; flashes of movement too quick for me to follow, ripples in the air and the beat of something you could only call power along my skin that reminded me I was human, mortal. I tasted it on my tongue, felt it push through me and knew what it was to crave what would kill me.

They broke, still and waiting, watching each other. Calm like the eye of the storm.

“Is this all there’s left for you?” Quatre asked, and I felt what he felt. Regret, determination, elation, revelling in what he was even as he loathed what he knew he had to do.

“This is all there ever was, Quatre.”

The air still smouldered, all it needed was for them to move again and it would become an invisible inferno again. Detachedly, I wondered what it would be like to watch them from a distance, to see the clear air and their otherworldly battle without being caught just at the edge.

“For you,” Quatre shot back, and set the world on fire again.

I couldn’t follow what happened, who was winning or who was losing. All I knew was that it seemed endless, and that I could die from nothing more than the backwash. On and on it raged, my senses flaring and dying as I fought to remain conscious. Darkness ate at me.

Slowly, I realised it had grown quiet. I sluggishly threw off the last of the black hands grabbing at me and blinked open eyes blurred by salty tears. The only sound was the harsh rasp of my laboured breathing.

Quatre still stood, ragged slashes in his clothing and his skin glowing with unearthly light beneath dark streaks of red blood. I watched Treize fall slowly to his knees, tattered and broken and dull beside him.

“You’ve lost,” Quatre stated, grave and formal as if it needed to be said, as if it had to be said for it to be true. His voice echoed with eons of time. “Accept that the old ways are dead, and live.”

Something familiar pressed against my skin, and I glanced up. Wufei stood at the edge of the trees, surrounded by a halo of blackness, blacker than the world without sun, moon or stars in the sky, as if light couldn’t exist where he did. Heero stood a short distance from him, bright like Quatre and still somehow entirely different. On his right was Trowa, mirroring the absence of light that haunted Wufei. All so similar, all so different.

They surrounded Treize, light and non-light, two seeming as if they would burn away the blackness and the others as if they would swallow the light whole. I was grateful neither touched me, and at the same time, I was nearly consumed with the desire to touch them all and see which would claim me first.

Treize laughed, the sound tired and beaten but somehow, not regretful. “It is impossible to go against what we are.”

“You decided what you wanted us to be, Treize, not what we really are.”

A small spark of happiness shone in his inhuman eyes. “You will see.”

Quatre didn’t answer right away, and when he did, his voice was clear and strong. “I don’t believe that,” he said.

I looked at him as he turned his back to Treize and walked towards me. I couldn’t stand, just crouch in the grass and watch, spellbound. Quatre left Treize in the ravaged earth on his knees as the other three closed in, silent, eerie, and deadly.

Wufei reached him first.

*

Hilde threatens to kill me at least once a week, and Howard still thinks I haven’t told him the whole story. I haven’t, but that’s besides the point. Hil and I talk about it sometimes, after we’ve gotten properly piss-loaded drunk. It’s the only time she asks me how I can stand to be around them.

Truth is, I don’t know. I think about telling Quatre that’s it, I’m leaving, I ain’t coming back, and I can’t. I’m pretty sure he’d let me go, I’m even pretty sure Wufei wouldn’t try to kill me if he did, but I just can’t do it.

It’s not like I can’t imagine my life without the thrill of bunking down with ancient bloodsucking demons. I can. Nice, normal, and boring as all hell. That might be it. Nice, normal and boring just don’t cut it compared to life at Blood Manor.

Which isn’t entirely fair. Idiosyncrasies like a fondness for violence, a taste for blood and an attachment to really bad movies aside, they’re good guys. I actually like the crazy bastards.

Okay, so maybe it’s a little bit more than like. Not love, because c’mon now, let’s be serious. I don’t know if I trust Quatre that much; I still can’t tell what the hell he’s thinking half the time. But you know, then I have to ask myself, does it matter? I’m happy, I’ve got a home and I’ve got friends, and I’ve got a lover that can literally read my mind in bed and doesn’t expect anything more from me than I want to give. Isn’t that really all you could want out of life? Oh, yeah – and no more Mr. Noodle.

They never told me exactly what happened in the forest that night. Sure, I can guess, and since the rash of vampire killings evaporated in a puff of smoke, I bet I’m guessing pretty damn good. The newspapers are calling them the Dracula Murders. Catchy, eh?

The clubs and cults and vamp wannabes are still going strong, but that’s no surprise. The police stopped cracking down on them after a few months, once people stopped making noise. So, that’s that, and life goes on.

Any questions?

End

One Response to “Once Bitten (Twice Shy)”

  1. Nassau Says:

    Few people can manage to make vampires seem so deadly and yet so alluring. The scale usually tips too far in either direction. This is without question the best fence-sitting story I have ever read. A huge bonus is how in character they managed to be despite the discrepancies in power (Duo) or the endlessness of a powerful eternity (everyone else). Really fantastic!

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