Midnight of My Soul

By Diamondback 

a side story from the Devil's Road AU


Email address: diamondback158@yahoo.com
Rating: NC-17
Fandom: Magnificent Seven
Pairings: Chris/Buck, Vin/Ezra
Summary: Vin takes a walk on the dark side after brawling with another vampire master. Can the rest of the Seven help him snap out of it?
Category: Slash, H/C, Devil's Road AU-Closed
Warnings: Vin is not himself, 'nough said there. Violence, gore.

Disclaimers: Characters from The Magnificent Seven belong to MGM and Trilogy Entertainment. All content is for entertainment only. No profits are received from the presentation of this material.
Notes: The pilot story Camino Del Diablo (The Devil's Road) is inspired by John Carpenter's Vampires for the movie's interesting use of Western homage. Some terms and hunter practices are borrowed from Vampires, but Devil's Road is actually NOT a crossover. Some original as well as folkloric "rules" concerning vampirism apply as well.

Caught up in a hurricane
That never seems to end
Hard to know the devil
When he looks like your best friend
Nowhere to hide
I'm in too deep

- Kenny Wayne Shepherd, In 2 Deep -


Ye who read are still among the living;
But I who write
Shall have long since gone my way
Into the region of shadows.

- Edgar Allan Poe, Shadow: A Parable -

Vin Tanner was perched on the roof of a twelve-story building, facing west for a fantastic view of the Continental Divide under moonlight.  If the Seven decided to stay in Denver another night, he'd have to get Ezra up here; it was too perfect not to share.

Currently, the others were scattered throughout the city, on the hunt to feed.  Vin had done already, and luxuriated in the warm rush through his veins, and the satisfaction that it was over, at least for another week.  He'd fed relatively early and cleaned up, made sure his mark would not rise again.  He'd turned his cell phone back on—standard procedure—and set out for a stroll.

Damn, Vin thought.  It would have been nice if Ezra liked to hunt in pairs, then he wouldn't be missing this.  The snowcaps seemed to float, like someone had taken a giant paintbrush and dabbed strokes of pure white against the horizon.  To the north a swollen pearl moon glowed in a clear sky.  The roads stretching down off the plateau branched into the distant lights of smaller towns and parkways, reaching toward the hidden base of those mountains.

Had he the time, Vin thought he might take his bike up there.  Glancing down toward the base of the building, he noted the Harley—a gleam of polished chrome and leather—parked on the curb, right where he'd left it, and decided he'd risked a ticket long enough.  With a sigh, and one final look at the scenery, he stood and walked fearlessly along the brick ledge that lined the roof of the building.  At the corner he made a controlled jump, dropping all twelve stories to land firmly on his feet, in a partial crouch.  There was a soft pad as his boots hit pavement, the balls of his feet taking the initial impact before his heels lowered and dispersed his weight.  Were he human he couldn't have made the jump without killing himself, and even if he could have, it would not have been such a quiet and stealthy landing.  He remained crouched, double-checking that no one had seen him, and then rose to full height and strolled toward the bike.

A breeze stirred his hair, billowed in the length of his black duster, as he started to hike a leg up over the seat and stopped.  He straightened, distracted.  The same breeze carried a scent that varied greatly from the dryness of aspen leaves or the tar-like pungency of city smog.  This was a piquant, earthen scent, underscored by the tiniest waft of decay, but utmost flavored with fresh blood.  Tangy, coppery, warm; it enticed Vin all over again.

Vin sniffed more deeply, tracing the scent down the street.  Three blocks down, his keen night vision made out the play of a shadow in a zone where the streetlights were not working.  Over a century ago, after his conversion, he'd learned quickly to tell the difference between the scent of a master and the more rank, rotten odor of a goon.

This was a master.

Vin analyzed the breeze for any indication of goons in the area, but there didn't appear to be any.  Could this be Fowler? he wondered.  The Seven knew, from the recent additions to their Clarion sources, that Fowler preferred to roam and hunt alone and didn't like to be bothered with too many minions on his heels.  And of course, the Seven could not identify Fowler by scent. . . not yet.  The last time they had encountered him, they had been human and lacked the preternatural skills that now gifted them, so they had no scent marker to go on.  Vin could only wonder, and follow.  He slipped away from the bike and crossed a narrow side street, past a small neighborhood park. Ravens were roosting in the trees there, black ink stains against the night-shaded branches.  The breeze gently cajoled an old children's swing set in the park, the chains on the swing creaking eerily as the seat swung to and fro.

Another block down, Vin spotted the shadow again, more clearly seeing a tall figure with shoulder length black hair, in a black long coat.  Light from a window cast across broad shoulders as the figure moved on, soundless, graceful.  Vin was certain, from the height and the breadth of the shoulders, that this was not Fowler, but he was still inclined to investigate.  He ducked into an alleyway, out of sight as a car passed by, tires hushing over the old tarmac.  The traffic here was sparse, but greater scores of it could be heard moving along more distant streets, in the well-lit, more populated areas, the places Vin avoided when he hunted. It stood to reason that this master must do the same.

Vin drew out his cell phone and auto dialed Ezra.  It was impulse, really, to call his lover first and tell of his discovery.  He should be dialing Nathan, who normally relayed messages to the others. The phone to his ear, he waited out three rings before Ezra's voicemail picked up. Apparently, the gambler wasn't finished hunting and feeding, so his phone was still off. Ezra was so damned persnickety about his marks he could take all night choosing between the pimp in the Versace shoes or the lawyer in Tommy Hilfiger tie.

"I am, at this moment," a southern accent drawled blandly, "indisposed with a most sacrosanct mission. Leave a message."

Vin grimaced. Ezra had a habit of changing his phone messages every other day. "Hey, Ezra, listen," he said in a hushed tone, "I'm on Dayton Street North. I've had a sighting. It's a master. I haven't gotten very close yet, but he seems to be alone. I'll be on quiet mode, so contact the others ASAP." He turned off the phone and stashed it in his coat pocket before reaching underneath his duster to the rear holster nestled at the small of his back to make a gun check. His firearm rested with the handle turned outward, easy to access but well hidden. The clip was fully loaded with one in the chamber.

He wasn't carrying any more clips, or a blade of any sort; it occurred to him that he'd left his utility knife bundled in one of the saddle bags on his bike after using it for clean up earlier in the evening. No time to retrieve it; he could easily lose the scent if the winds shifted. If he had to cap this guy in the heart, he'd have to figure out another way to remove the head. Carefully he slipped around the corner and back onto the sidewalk, looked up and down the gray and moon-lit street, then proceeded. The scent lingered, a blatant trail curling through the air, pulling him onward like Theseus' thread.

When he reached the block on which he'd first spotted the shadow, he paused, cocked an ear, and listened. Only silence responded. That, in itself, told him he was close. Moving on, and staying downwind, he found the scent partially covered by the rotten food stench of a dumpster positioned at the mouth of an alleyway. Vin eased past the opening and sniffed the air from up the street. Nothing. That meant his quarry had turned into the alleyway. Backtracking to the corner, he peered down through the damp passage that was little more than ten feet wide and littered with trash.

At the far end of the passage stood a rear door for one of the businesses on the paralleling street. Presumably, it was a dance club, for the building shook with the muted BOOM-BOOM-BOOM of industrial music coming through the rear wall. A tangerine 1971 Chevy Chevelle convertible—hood up—in cherry condition was parked at the end of the alleyway, and probably belonged to an employee of the club. A blue neon sign hung over the door, and read in cursive style lettering: THE END.

Vin wondered if his quarry had gone into the club from the rear. It would be harder to locate the scent again if he followed and found himself in a room full of excited, sweating, dirty-dancing humans, the likes of which might also stir up his own hunger all over again even though he was fully fed. If he were close enough, he would hear the other vampire's heartbeat, if the filtered beat from the music didn't manage to drown it out. There was only one way to find out.

Moving stealthily past the dumpster, he drew in a breath and again analyzed every molecule. The scent he was looking for was faint, but still there. The blue light from the sign gleamed on grease-slicked pavement, and Vin crept the rest of the distance toward the door, passing the remnants of a partially collapsed fire escape that clung to the alley wall. He felt his own heartbeat locked in its eternal, even rhythm, while his nerves hummed, anxious, uncertain. Before he reached the Chevelle, the scent grew heavier, telling him that he was either right on top of his quarry or. . . the other master had backtracked. . .

As he turned, looking back toward the entrance to the alleyway, he began to distinguish a separate rhythm from the beat inside the club. It came from close by, though he didn't immediately spot its owner.

"Looking for someone?" a calm, deep purr of a voice asked from above.

Vin almost startled, but held it back as he looked up to see the figure perched on a ledge of the fire escape, well above the unstable lower section. Such a climb would be a piece of cake for a master vampire, no need for steps or ladder.

Vin partially played submissive, knowing that this master was likely much older than him, and like a lone wolf on the prowl, he must show some respect. "I caught wind of ya up the street," he replied. "Wanted to make sure I wasn't trespassing on someone's territory."

The other shrugged, and tilted his head, looking down wistfully, his face a pale collection of almost Arabic features: heavy dark brows and piercing black eyes, his hair a tumble of black waves around his face. "Not necessary," he said casually, and suddenly vaulted over the railing on the landing. He dropped three stories, his black long coat billowing out around him, and landed neatly not far away from Vin. He straightened and stood proudly, authority permeating the air around him. "Territories are old school. Hunting certain areas for too long draws attention." His voice bore the slightest edge of a deep, rolling accent, definitely Middle Eastern.

Vin frowned. That sounded like the alleged Fowler philosophy on hunting: don't stay in one place for too long. Hell, the Seven followed a similar rule, but they knew there were plenty of masters out there who laid claim to whole cities. He gave a quirky, unreadable grin, and replied in a simpler Ezra-sort-of-way. "Indeed."

"So, if you knew this, why didn't you go on about your business?" the other asked. He stepped closer, taller than the tracker by a full head. The blue light glanced over his handsome features, sparking in eyes that were not the dark brown Vin had first thought them to be but a deep blood-red color. Masters did typically have more jewel toned eye color, but this was the first time Vin had encountered red. The tracker held his ground, weighing each movement as the other vampire came within five feet. "You are young, aren't you?"

Vin drew in a breath, casting a determined look. "I've made it a century or two," he half-lied.

"I'd say not much more than one."

Vin conceded and shrugged back casually. "Like I said, I was just passing through. I didn't want to step on any toes."

"You've fed, and in no small amount. So if I did claim this town, you'd have already stepped on toes." He approached further, and Vin found himself captivated by the richness of those red irises, like tiny shards of blood-ruby had been inlaid with the spokes and cones around the murky pupils.

Damn, he was good. Vin blinked, waiting.

"And I can smell your sire on you."

At that, the sharp edge of caution cut into Vin. He had not thought of Selvik in months, not since the Seven had taken out Ella Gaines and freed Chris. Not since Ezra had liberated him of Selvik's lingering death grip. Furthermore, it had been over a century; how could Selvik's scent still linger on him so? Too late, his shock and silence had given something away.

"So where is your sire?" the other continued calmly. "Is he in the city, too?"

Vin tensed, the urge to go for his gun sending a twitch into his hand as it hung at his side. And yet, he couldn't move. He only stood there, realizing the roles of hunter and hunted were switching rapidly. Hopefully Ezra had gotten his voice mail by now and contacted the others, if they were finished hunting. Hopefully they were on their way, because he would certainly appreciate the back up. For the time being, he could only keep trying to fake out the bastard, until he found the right moment.

"I am—“ he started rustily through his teeth. God, he didn't want to sound endeared toward Selvik, but he needed to for this ploy. "I. . . I lost him."

"How and when?" It was such a straight forward, and demanding question.

Vin lied again. "Almost a year now.  A hunting team.  I have been looking for them."

Now there was no doubt about it, he was being tested.  He'd allowed too much verbal contact. Should have just drawn his gun and gone to work first thing.

"What is your name?"

This question, too, stirred up a dust devil of emotions Vin had thought long buried. Selvik had asked him the same thing, right before raping him. He had to wonder how this stranger was gaining so much power over him so quickly. "Vin," he said. "Vin Tanner. And you are?"

A smirk twitched at the corners of the other's mouth, and he drew in a deep breath as if savoring the rank air in the alleyway. "I've gone by many names, but the one with which I began is Amenahkte."

Son-of-a-bitch, Vin thought immediately. The name was known in hunter circles as that of one of the oldest, most powerful vampire masters roaming the earth. Clarion had just a little bit more than a name and a title: Amenahkte - The Egyptian, formerly a priest of the pharaoh Ramses II. As Ezra had taught him how to read in the early years after the change, Vin had developed a fascination with the hunter archives. He'd read about Amenahkte, and knew the ancient master to have been one of the most elusive. Certainly Amenahkte's name was known among the undead ranks, and he probably used it now to humble what he perceived to be a young upstart.

Obviously, Amenahkte had read the surprise that ghosted over Vin's face. "So you know who I am," he stated.

Vin nodded vacantly. "I know," he rasped. No sense lying about that. "I. . ." He tried not to stammer. "I'm sorry for disturbing your evening." He couldn't just walk away, but he had to fake the guy out some way or another. If anything, he'd pretend to walk away, then turn and draw. Would have to be quick; there was no telling how fast his opponent would move to evade.

"Nonsense, it's all rather amusing to me," Amenahkte said with a purr. He came closer, examining Vin from his boots and chaps, and on up to his shoulders, until he was standing directly before him.

Vin frowned, and continued to hold his ground, prepared for any sudden movements. This, he realized quickly, was a mistake. While his mind stayed fully alert, his body suddenly began to respond to the close proximity of another vampire gorged on blood. Sexual heat, sparked by the feeding, swarmed inside him. Swallowing a hard lump, he tried to put a damper on it, thinking how Ezra would be the one to assuage such craving. "Why amusing?"

"You have a lover somewhere, don't you?" Amenahkte husked, an unnatural growl creeping into his voice. "One whom you created. I smell him on you, too. And I am wondering how you could be so loyal to your sire as to want to hunt down his killers, yet you have taken a child of your own. Now you are the sire, yes? It gives you a sense of power."

Vin resisted speaking an objection. He'd never thought of Ezra as anything other than an equal. By contrast, however, he could smell no remnants of previous lovers on Amenahkte; perhaps time erased such markings. Maybe, he hoped, it would eventually erase Selvik's scent permanently. "Look, I should be going," he said, attempting to squirm free of the presence invading his space. "I've bothered you enough."

"Oh, please," the Egyptian chuckled, his breath tickling Vin's cheek. "Bother me some more."

Vin's brows sank together as he tried to back up a step, but instead looked right into Amenahkte's eyes a little too sharply. He froze, taken in more deeply by the crimson hue, and couldn't help but stare. Was that the sign of an ancient, those red eyes? In a second, the pupils reflected red-orange from their depths—just a flash of glow—like tiny furnaces, and he could feel the blood-heat radiating from Amenahkte's body. No doubt about it, the master vampire had fed twice over what he needed. It made him strong, both mentally and physically, and the sense of it stirred Vin's loins, provoking a moan of protest.

"Shhhhh," Amenahkte hissed, and a hand came up to caress Vin's cheek. "You are young," he repeated more affirmatively. "The one who created you. . . he must have been quite a visionary." He leaned in, parted lips hovering inches away from Vin's.

Vin was willing himself steadfastly not to fall into any kiss the other had to offer. Captured by those eyes, and the thick dark lashes framing them, he couldn't deny the exotic appeal Amenahkte exuded. It was something to be resisted with every fiber of his being. His hand tensed at his side, started to draw up under his coat and reach toward the small of his back, and then—

Amenahkte grabbed Vin by the shoulders and slammed him up against the alley wall. With a grunt, Vin felt the smart as the back of his head hit brick. Stars danced in his vision for a matter of seconds before he felt the other body pressed solidly against his.

"You wanted something, didn't you?" Amenahkte said under his breath, and he slid one spread hand down Vin's body to his crotch and cupped it around the bundle of denim. Vin moaned at the pressure applied to his balls and cock, which were already tingling anxiously. "This is why you were following me." The same skilled hand caressed Vin's inner thigh, while the other stroked Vin's chest, pulling down the rim of his tank shirt and finding one hardening nipple. "Kisses in the dark," he whispered.

The instinct to fight back surfaced under Amenahkte's weight. Visions of Selvik's rape stabbed into Vin's mind, his most loathed memories jumping forward. . . cold cavern floor under him, goons lapping at his blood, pain spearing up through him. . . and Ezra. . . he couldn't. . . wouldn't. . . do this to Ezra. . .

"Tell me," Amenahkte crooned. "This is what you wanted."

Vin's hand came to life again, slid back behind him and couldn't reach deeply enough between the small of his back and the wall. Disheveled bronze locks spilled around his eyes, hiding the display of anguish. He gritted his teeth and fought back the gleam of tears. "Yes," he hissed back, and thrust out his hips, allowing himself to be cupped deeper into that inviting, caressing hand. The ploy worked, giving him enough room behind him to reach the gun. His thumb flicked the safety snap on the holster and he felt the weapon skim free. "I wanted it. . ." Vin bit down on his lower lip with partially extended canines, drawing blood as he wedged the gun around and up against Amenahkte's side. It was all he could really do, pinned as he was.

He pulled the trigger.

The crack of the gunfire echoed off the alley walls. Amenahkte tossed his head back and issued a deep, thundering roar, his fangs at full length, as the specially designed graphite bullet seared through his side. It didn't go into his heart, but it still caused damage and pain. The projectile exited his right side, blowing out a neat clean hole. Then instinct drove the master to defend himself by slamming the side of his fist hammer style into Vin's wrist.

Vin cried out as the blow broke bone, and his hand went slack, dropping the gun, which flung into the alley way and clattered down somewhere near the car. Baring his teeth, he forced his body forward, slamming into his opponent, creating enough momentum to separate himself from Amenahkte's hold. In seconds his wrist healed, and he was backing away into the greater alley near the dumpster. He had much more room to maneuver there.

As Amenahkte's shout died down, the master leveled his gaze at Vin, one hand clutching at his side, while the other curled in the air, displaying sharp claws. He looked out from under lowered brows, his eyes blazing, his teeth bared. "That," he growled, his shoulders hunched and heaving with each breath, "stung like the original motherfucker."

Vin braced himself, allowing the beast within to rise to the surface and manifest the means of natural self-defense. His fingernails grew, transforming into claws, and his canines reached full extension. For a moment he waited, poised to spring.

His foe slowly straightened. As the wound in the Egyptian's side healed, he came back up to full height, and his temper appeared to quell as he simply eyed Vin thoughtfully.

"I know who you are," Amenahkte rasped.

Vin didn't reply. He was too coiled for an attack to be concerned about conversation now.

"There are whispers. . . rumors from the west. . . of the Seven who hunt their own kind." Amenahkte tilted his head as if intrigued, but his expression melted into a sneer. "I thought you were just a cheap urban legend."

Neither confirming nor denying anything, Vin curled his fingers, ready.

And then they were on each other, launching from their separate positions and colliding in the air, going for each other's throat. The heavier weight of Amenahkte slammed into Vin and they went over, hitting the pavement and rolling, long coats flapping around them in windmills of black. Vin took three vicious slashes across the face while delivering a few of his own to Amenahkte's chest and jaw. The injuries healed, leaving ashen smears on their skin where blood had been. As Amenahkte recoiled to go for a second shot, Vin rolled back, got his legs bent up over him, and his feet wedged against the Egyptian's chest. He kicked out, propelling his attacker backwards, and up into the air.

Amenahkte recovered before he even landed. He made a graceful back flip and came down solidly on both feet, just as Vin rolled up into a predatory stance. They went for each other again. Vin arced out with his hand, palm and fingers flat, claws turned out like the serrated edge of a knife, attempting to slash his opponent's jugular, to weaken Amenahkte as much as possible, but he was slow compared to the millennia of experience the other had on him. The Egyptian deflected the strike with an outward sweep of his forearm, with which he also grasped Vin's arm and flung him. With a strangled cry, Vin felt his feet leave the ground and he soared sideways, hitting the lower section of the fire escape. The iron railing slammed into his ribs and snagged his coat.

Pain seared through Vin's ribs as they took the blow, and he roared as he started to fall from the railing. His coat stopped him briefly before his weight pulled at the entire fixture. The landing rattled, breaking away from the brick wall that barely held it in place, and then all of it crashed down. Vin landed first, followed by a rain of ironwork, the main platform for the landing, and several loose bricks. He bowed up in agony as a rod from the railing speared straight down into his lower right side, while brick work pummeled his chest and head, leaving him drifting momentarily in and out through a haze.

He felt like he could detach from his body and all would be over, just like that. Then the wounds healed, his head cleared, and he looked up through the lingering dust at Amenahkte approaching him, slinking hungrily as if he were half vulture and half lion. Vin was still impaled on the rod, and he struggled to get a firm hold on it and pull, but it had gone all the way through. The jagged end, that had exited his lower back, threatened to do worse damage going back through. Vin's body reacted in spasms, and he tried to pull himself backwards, through the rubble, away from his opponent's advance.

Amenahkte stepped up onto the pile of brick and effortlessly kicked aside the section of iron platform. It rattled and clanked over the pavement and landed against the side of the dumpster. Swiftly he dropped to kneel and leaned over Vin, grabbing the lapels of his coat. "Did we get an owie?" he snarled.

Vin let go of the rod and reached up to clasp Amenahkte's wrists, to keep those deadly hands from doing any further damage. But the pain in his side proved a distraction, and he could barely clamp his hands tight enough.

"Too bad," the Egyptian whispered, lips close to Vin's ear. "I was really looking forward to fucking you." Then he stood, dragging Vin with him. A spill of dust and brick fragments fell away from Vin's coat before he was pulled sideways and Amenahkte swung him up into the air and let go.

Vin came crashing down on top of the Corvelle. His descent crushed the convertible canopy and shattered the windshield and side windows. Glass sprayed out from the car and tinkled on the pavement. His spine cracked over the front seat. The rod remained firmly lodged in his side. The agony of his injuries paralyzed him, left him staring up past the walls of the alleyway, and the blue THE END sign glowing above the car.

Was this really his end, he wondered, his last battle? Here in a dirty, stinking alley? At least, some twisted part of him rationalized, he wasn't going to die at the hands of some piss-ant goon or a wet-behind-the-ears hunter.

Coughing, he tried to move, but couldn't budge his torso out of the awkward bend it had acquired over the seat. He could only watch as Amenahkte came forward, stepping up onto the bumper of the car, then onto the trunk, where he hovered, admiring his handy work. He stepped down, onto the crushed vinyl of the hood and into the back seat, where he propped one knee against the back of the front seat. For what felt an eternity, he just watched as Vin struggled, attempting to roll sideways and relieve the pressure on his spine without disturbing the rod jutting out of his side.

Amenahkte looked around casually, at the damage to the car's hood and windshield, at the broken jags of glass still standing where windows had been. He chuckled then, and his brows rose in mock amazement. "Look what you did."

Vin's hand groped across the seat, and he forced himself up, taking hold of a shard of glass that had fallen into the crushed hood. With a cry he propelled himself into motion, turning toward Amenahkte and stabbing, burying the shard in the master's gut. Amenahkte growled and made to swipe at Vin, but Vin rolled over and over, along the back of the seat, his long locks tossing in his wake. One last bump and he went over the side of the car where he smacked down onto the pavement with a grunt. The back end of the rod smeared blood ashes on the pavement and raked hollowly, the vibration reaching into Vin's middle. With a gasp he found a moment to pull at the rod, but he was too weak, too beaten, and his adversary was giving him only the minimum of time to heal.

"Fucker," Amenahkte's voice hissed from somewhere above.

Vin lay staring into the darkness beneath the car, smelling oil, gasoline, and dusty rubber. His back bone creaked and cracked its way back into alignment. He watched underneath the car as Amenahkte's feet appeared, stepping down from the rear bumper. There was a grunt, and then the blood-stained shard dropped into sight and shattered on the pavement. Vin tensed, watching the feet step toward the corner of the car. As his vision tracked with the movement, he found, lying near the rear wheel, something of extreme value to him: his gun. Swallowing hard, and wincing as every nerve screamed bloody murder, Vin reached for the weapon, worked it around until the handle nestled into his palm, and waited.

Amenahkte came around the car and looked down at the presumably helpless younger vampire cringing there, melded with the iron rod. "This has all been very entertaining. I haven't had sport like this in a while." He knelt down again, red eyes evenly meeting the vacant and glazed stare of defeat in Vin's blue ones. "Now it's time to say adieu."

Vin worked his lips and breath, forming a pitiful plea. "N-n-n-o. . ." His hand shook as he held tightly to the gun, his arm still extended out of sight under the car.

"I promise, I'll make it quick." Amenahkte reached down and took a fist full of Vin's hair as he pulled him up close, cradling him almost tenderly for a moment. "Such a pity. You weren't long for this world, child. Parting is such sweet sorrow." His hand came up, fingers together, claw tips piercing fabric to prick at the skin below Vin's rib cage. In seconds that hand would be spearing up inside there and gripping his heart.


Vin felt the body above his jerk, and Amenahkte's hand that was gripping his hair tensed. Gun smoke curled into the air from between their bodies. The bullet had grazed the Egyptian's heart, causing him to stall as he stared down in shock. Vin found the strength to reach up and grab the hand poised at his belly, keeping it back. At the same time, he held the gun in place, wedged against Amenahkte's side and angled upward.

The look of surprise smoothed out of Amenahkte's face, and his eyes bored into Vin's.

Vin fired again.

And again.

With each round, the Egyptian jerked, and his hand let go of Vin's hair to fall slack at his side. Vin worked his way to his knees, pushing Amenahkte back as he fired continuously. He felt the powder burn spray his hand, smelled the pungency of sulfur. The clip had been holding eight rounds, minus the chambered shot he had already sent through Amenahkte's middle.

There were no exit wounds, only the violent jerking as Amenahkte's heart was pulped, and blood bubbled up in his mouth. Vin gritted his teeth, growling viciously as he emptied the clip. With each explosion, he found new strength in the realization that he was not going to die this night.

Amenahkte's strength appeared to have seeped out, lost to the eight tiny stakes buried in his chest. He hung against Vin, eyes wide and glazed. His blood drenched lips moved, whispering something unintelligible.

Vin snarled at him for good measure and started to shove the dying vampire away when suddenly Amenahkte's body surged back to life, and his hands locked onto Vin's shoulders.

"I give you," he gurgled, "a new eternity. . ."

Before Vin could pull back, the ancient master's mouth locked over his. The taste of fresh blood flooded in, as Amenahkte's tongue forced past his lips. Vin's gag reflex kicked in, first attempting to expel the blood, but then followed with a suction action, which pulled the blood down his throat. Another surge of the tangy, salty fluid flooded his mouth and made its way down. Vin mumbled a protest, cringing back only to be held tighter, and then it all went to his head.

The most powerful sensation gorged his limbs and mind, carrying with it thousands of years of darkness, sending ecstatic shudders down into his groin where he felt his cock harden. Suddenly he saw the way of the world and where he fit into it, that he was no less than a demigod, and he could feed off of and fuck anything he pleased.

When the body crushed against his grew completely limp, the bloody kiss weakened into little more than a dribble, Vin pulled free, finding the Egyptian trapped full in the death stasis. With a growl, Vin dropped the corpse and stood to gaze on the body. Amenahkte's face—so beautiful and exotic—stared up at nothing with those ruby eyes, his raven hair spilled around his head and over the pavement. The blood that had exploded out of his mouth now dried, turning to dust. He'd paled out, his skin taking on an alabaster hue.

Vin caught his breath and wiped the blood from his own mouth, and only then did he realize that he still had an iron rod running through his side. Clenching his teeth, he reached down, and with one fast motion jerked it forward and out. He felt the sickening pain as his flesh tore on the rod's jagged end, and yet it meant nothing to him. Tossing the scrap away, he leaned back against the wall and breathed evenly. . . in and out. . . while the wound finished healing, leaving a hole in his tank shirt, and remnants of blood ash on his coat.

Another ecstatic surge wracked his middle, an aftershock to the taste of the Egyptian's blood. He all but draped against the brick, eyes glazing as he enjoyed the rush and without so much as lifting a finger, came against the inside of his jeans.

Then Vin Tanner laughed softly. . . at the mess. . . at Amenahkte's body. . . at the smashed car. . . at the sign over the club door and its ironic message.

"Somebody sure is gonna be pissed," he murmured, and then couldn't help it as more laughter poured out of him and rose past the alley walls to greet the full moon, which was rapidly falling behind dark clouds.


"Goddammit, Ezra, how could you forget to turn your cell phone back on?" Chris Larabee gruffed as he paced, keeping his body slightly turned and his eyes on the gambler. Like the others, he was fused with warmth; feeding had perked up his skin to a lively flush and he almost looked human if it weren't for the green intensity of his angry eyes.

"I believe I am not the first to forget," Ezra reminded him curtly then threw a glance around the hotel room. The others had found places to be; J.D. sat on the edge of the bed; Buck hung back in the open doorway, his thumbs hooked into his belt loops, the night forming a backdrop behind him. Nathan was hovering near Chris as if the man needed support for his argument, and Josiah was sitting at the room's one table, his strong features played up by the hanging lamp overhead. Their faces were all grim. "Don't any of you deny it, gentlemen," he all but snarled the warning. Frankly, he felt like if a single one of his sorry-ass companions voiced denial, he'd draw and shoot the liar in the foot.

Upon that last thought, Ezra blinked and wondered at his own ill temper. He'd been feeling. . . edgy. . . for the last few hours; well before he'd discovered Vin's voice mail on his phone. It didn't help that he'd been waiting for his lover for so long before he noticed the phone was off.

As usual the Seven had chosen a hotel on the outskirts of town, one where they could rent up to three interconnected rooms and have plenty of privacy. This one wasn't nearly as bad as some of the crash pads they'd chosen before. At least the carpet didn't smell like a wet dog, and the rooms were all furnished with two queen size beds each, and it was well away from any airports or major centers.

Ezra had come back first, looking forward to meeting up with Vin and feeling that touch warmed by blood. It was the only time they could really feel hot skin, after a fresh feeding. It would last a few days, and then slowly their bodies would go back to tepid, only measuring up to room temperature, just like any corpse, and they wouldn't feel much difference between hot and cold. Therefore, the first hours after feeding were coveted. Chris and Buck certainly didn't like to waste them. Josiah might take that time to sneak into, and observe, various late night church services. Nathan might go volunteer at a soup kitchen. J.D. liked to ride his bike like a bat out of hell, feeling the cool night air. For Ezra and Vin, those hours had grown precious. So ironic, that for a few hours of being their most human, they had to commit such an inhuman act.

It was almost four in the morning when Ezra realized his phone was still off. He turned it on, the phone chirped notice of a voice mail waiting, and Ezra uttered a disturbed, "Oops."

By then the others were filtering through the doors: Nathan, then J.D., and Josiah. Buck and Chris came in together, but there was no Vin. Ezra dialed Vin's phone back immediately, but when there was no answer to follow up, the voice message was replayed with the speakerphone on for all to hear. Chris paced while it played and went into lecture mode.

Ezra narrowed his gaze at the man, pondering how deep such concern over Vin Tanner ran. He reached up and massaged absently at the back of his neck, feeling the hard jut of a vertebrae. If he'd been in a sour mood before hearing the voice mail, Ezra now felt emotion turn physical; the muscles between his shoulder blades tensed; nervy lightning bolts stabbed at his heart, which remained trapped the same rhythm.

"And hell, we don't even have time to get back into town to check the scene," Larabee went on.

"Dawn," Ezra argued smoothly, "doesn't begin for another two hours. We can make that trip three times around if we have to."

"Shit," Chris hissed. "There's another master in the city, Ezra. We could have had the jump on him sooner."

"Sooner than when?" Ezra asked, his teeth tightly braced. "Are you concerned about Vin, or about the mark leaving town?" He studied Larabee's reactions, inhaled the scent of all that hot blood.

Chris stopped pacing and turned to face the gambler straight on, head tilted.

"Hell, Chris," Josiah volunteered, "like you said, it's close to dawn. We get into town early tomorrow night and check the street Vin named, we might still catch the scent."

"But Vin?" Chris asked.

Ezra closed his eyes slowly, feeling a small pain stab into his throat. Taking a deep breath, he replied coolly. "He's alive. Trust me." Vin was his sire, after all, and he could feel their blood-link consistently.

And speak of the damned devil but what Ezra looked up and found Vin standing outside the open doorway, out in the night merely watching them all. Ezra started then froze. Gradually all other five sets of eyes followed his gaze.

Buck, who had not moved from playing at casual during the whole discussion, jumped and took a few steps backward into the room. "Uh, Vin," he chirped happily. "We were just talking about you."

"So I heard." Vin stared evenly at him, then smiled as he strolled through the door and closed it behind him. "Is this a public meeting?" he asked in a low warning tone.

"We didn't even hear your bike," Chris said. "Is everything all right?"

"Hey, it's cool," J.D. chimed in to Vin's question. "We're the only ones renting on this block."

Vin looked at the kid with a strangely blank expression, eyes calm but narrow, and then he nodded. To Chris he replied, "Ran out of gas about five miles back. Bike's sitting at a station now, but the place was closed, so I'll need a ride in the evening."

Chris nodded to that. They weren't exactly staying in an area that was equipped with twenty-four hour service stations.

"I'll take you," Ezra said. Some of that tension between his shoulder blades melted out now that Vin was here and safe, but he was far from completely unwound. "I'm sorry I didn't get back to you. My phone. . ." He threw a glance at Chris. "I forgot to turn my phone back on."

Vin shrugged. "It's okay."

"What happened with the mark you were tracking?" Chris asked, obviously put off that Vin hadn't at least tried to contact someone else besides Ezra.

Another shrug and Vin looked at his old friend with a frown. "Lost him. He veered into a club off Dayton and blended in. Too many humans around."

They all understood that. Too many smells, too many bodies and flashing lights. It also implied something far more.

"Damn," Buck muttered. "There'll be hell to pay tomorrow night."

Chris nodded. "Looks like we'll have clean up detail."

Vin stared at him. "Yep."

"Why didn't you call with a follow up?" Chris asked, his voice grating and dry.

Vin's brows shot up and he blinked as he gave each an embarrassed look. "Um, well." He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out his phone, which he presented and showed around. The digital face was thoroughly cracked, a shard missing from what appeared to be a primary impact point. "I still had to feed after trying to track this guy, and well. . . the mark put up a fight."

Josiah tried to repress a chuckle. Ezra shook his head and threw out his arms and slapped them down on his thighs in resignation. A moment later Buck snickered.

"All right," Chris conceded. "We'll get you another one tonight."

Vin grinned sheepishly. "I'm sorry."

Chris waved him on.

"You got a description?" Nathan asked. "I could run it through Clarion, see if any matches come up."

"Uh, sure." Vin excused himself, skirted around Chris, and went to join Nathan at his computer.

Ezra lingered in the middle of the room, watching as the others found something else to do. Josiah and J.D. chose to take a walk out to the bikes and give them an inspection. Chris and Buck sauntered into the bedroom they'd claimed on the other side of the room. Before the door was closed, Ezra saw their silhouettes merge, one taking the other into his arms, and their lips pressed together. Then the door, like a silent curtain, swung into its frame and the lock clicked.

Blinking, Ezra banished himself to the room he and Vin would be sharing later. He sat down for a moment, taking deep drawn-out breaths. He could hear Vin's soft drawl out in the other room, describing what features he could on the mystery master.

Damn Tanner. Ezra had not exactly been worried about his lover.  Every man here could take care of himself, and had done so for over a century, but he felt a need to scold the man for time lost. Well, Vin did have an excuse, Ezra reminded himself as he leaned over and untied his shoes. His feet met cool air as he slid them free and shed his socks. Wiggling his toes, he stood and shucked off his Polo Sport golf shirt and shook it out. There was that feeling still niggling at the back of his mind, making his nerves prickle. When he paused to seriously ponder its cause, the response was a sudden flipping sensation in his stomach, as if he'd just gone over a sharp rise in the road and felt the gravity pull him back down.

A hushing over carpet, the slight creak of the door's hinges, and Ezra froze. He heard steps progress toward him from behind and a pair of hands wrapped around his waist. Fingers, like licks of flame, probed up to his right nipple and worked at it. His body seemed to bow of its own accord into the inviting touch. Reaching behind him, he felt out the narrow hips encased in chaps and jeans, noticed the brush of oiled duster canvas against his knuckles.

Letting out a long, deep breath, Ezra closed his eyes and leaned his head back on the shoulder behind him. Lips descended on the side of his neck, kissed and played with his ear lobe. The body behind him was incredibly hot, sated on blood and enriched with sexual need. God, he wondered, how much had Vin fed for his entire being to burn so? He looked down at the hands caressing his navel and chest and focused his vision to its keener ability. The glowing trail of fresh blood flowing in the veins came into perspective, contouring along digits and wrists, moving in cadence with each heavy, even heartbeat. Ezra could hear and feel the organ beating behind him, with Vin's chest pressed up against his back. His own heart held the same rhythm, like two drums synchronized.

"Ezzzzzra," Vin hissed into his ear, searing breath tickling around the lobe.

All right, Ezra began to figure, he could forgive Vin for being so late. . . for not calling . . . for. . . Wait! Ezra lifted his head and straightened, wrenching himself out of the fiery grasp. "Just one cotton-picking, infernal moment!" Wriggling totally free he moved away a couple steps and faced Vin full on. "Why the hell didn't you try to call from a pay phone?" He cocked his head, feigning patience as he waited for an answer.

Vin blinked innocently and stepped in, closing the gap between them all over again. "I had to feed, Ezra," he said in a rusty-soft voice. "After I lost the trail, that was all I could think about."

Ezra couldn't argue too much with that. He knew what it was like to reach the craving point and be able to focus on nothing but finding the right mark. "And when you were finished?" he asked weakly, finding himself looking into the other's azure eyes and unable to even blink.

"Come on, Ezra," Vin said, and there was a strange tone of laughter in his voice. "I just forgot, okay?"

Ezra frowned, his focus suddenly shifting to the shared rhythm of their heartbeats, to how intense and blue Vin's eyes were with—he thought he saw—little tiny tinges of red. The heat radiating from Vin enveloped him, drew him closer. He took an unconscious step, barely acknowledging a sense of panic that stirred his belly and then disappeared as Vin's gaze bore deeper into him. Ezra gasped passionately as he recognized, all over again, his feelings for this man with whom he had shared everything. Those eyes, ablaze with blue fervor, were all he could see, the features around them fading into a blur of flesh tones and bronze hair. He felt their link, sire to progeny, cinch tightly around his soul, and his nerves tingled with the thought that he was willing to do anything and everything for Vin, the world be damned.

"Have I ever given you trouble for not calling?" Vin drawled in a gentle tease, and Ezra couldn't help but lean in to kiss him.

The question was left hanging as their lips met, and Ezra moaned at the sensation of silken skin. His tongue traced the edges where dry skin met the wet interior, and then thrust past to collide with the narrow, sharply pointed column of one canine. He moved past that, into Vin's mouth, moaning again, while his hands went wild, probing the tracker's body, tugging on his tank shirt to pull it out of Vin's belt line and up, only to realize that there was a duster in the way.

Vin shrugged the coat off. It fell into a semi-circular pattern on the floor behind him, as he stood letting Ezra touch and kiss him. Ezra pushed the shirt all the way up past Vin's nipples and fingered them, finding himself just as aroused as if Vin were touching him back.

As he broke the kiss, Ezra murmured hungrily, "So warm. . . so. . . so. . . warm. . ." and barely heard himself speaking in breathy gasps. He kissed down over Vin's throat, smelling the fresh blood coursing the tracker's veins, salty-coppery-sweet and so alluring. He nipped gently, not enough to draw any fluid, and felt Vin tense against him.

And God, Ezra wanted to break that skin, wanted to taste the inside of his lover. It wouldn't be the first time they shared in such communion.

"Go on, Ezra," Vin husked into his ear. "Drink."

The invitation pierced the strange veil around Ezra's mind and, for whatever reason he couldn't figure out, set off a series of bells and whistles. As much as he wanted it, the gut churning feeling that had burdened him during the last few hours pulled him back to the surface. What, he asked, was going on here? He'd looked into Vin's eyes and found himself enthralled. That was not something Vin had ever done to him. With a gasp he pushed away and stared, taking huge deep breaths.

"Vin. . . what are you doing?" he asked weakly.

Without a word, Vin gazed back evenly, unmoved by the question.

Then Ezra was distracted by the sharpest of tingling sensations coursing up the middle of his belly. On reflex he sucked in his gut and looked down to find Vin's fingertips stretched out, the nails just the slightest bit pointed, but not fully formed into claws. They barely touched his skin, leaving a trail of fire in their wake.


Ezra looked back up into vague eyes, and finally noticed how Vin's lips parted, his long canines peering through, sensuous and deadly at the same time. He wanted to ask why the exhibition. It was so strange, so totally and utterly not Vin, and yet he couldn't say a word. His body moved before he told it to, taking three careful steps backward until he met the edge of the bed, and Vin ushered him down into a sit. He looked up as his lover leaned deeply over him, their eye contact never wavering.

"Don't ask questions, Ezra," Vin stated in a lulling whisper. "Just don't. It. . . kills the mood." Then he covered Ezra's mouth with his own, a quick tongue darting in and out, the tip licking at Ezra's soft palate, drawing out a moan of delight.

Ezra rolled back until he was fully reclined, legs dangling over the edge of the bed. Vin's fingers quickly unfastened Ezra's slacks and slid them free, followed by his briefs, until he lay completely bare, looking up, unable to move, his chest expanding with each breath, arms outstretched, offering all of him.

Vin drew one knee up onto the bed and propped forward, staring down, his face lingering in that unreadable mask. He finished skimming off the tank shirt and dropped it to the floor, exposing his lean torso, the room's one light casting golden glow across his abdomen and pectorals. One hand went to his crotch and cupped a palm full of denim between the inner hems of his chaps, while the other hand reached down and smoothed along Ezra's belly. He tilted his head, long wavy hair falling to the side, and the look of hunger that ghosted through his eyes sent shivers up Ezra's spine.

Of its own accord, Ezra's body bowed up into the touch and undulated under its weight. His cock jumped, brushing the underneath of Vin's forearm.

"Kisses in the dark," Vin whispered.

Ezra gasped as the room went dark around him. No, not dark. If it were dark—totally dark—he would still see, though his vision would shift to monochrome. Again he wanted to ask why, but Vin's order not to ask questions spiraled around his mind, leaving him blind and on the verge of panic. His mouth bobbed open, trying to form words, and his fingers grasped the bed covers. His other senses filled in for his eyes, the scent of Vin's heat, and all that fresh blood, crowding his nostrils. The threads in the comforter's weave felt coarse and acutely defined against his fingertips. He heard what sounded like a lusty chuckle issue from the throat above him, and the bed jostled gently, mattress springs creaking. There came the sound of a zipper and the slide of denim and leather hushing down lean legs.

Ezra formed a "V" with his teeth and lips, but still no sound would come out. It was as if his voice had been cut off, along with his sight. His breath quickened, and he started to sit up, grasping across the covers, blinking constantly in hopes that his vision would return. Then the bed moved, and he felt the close proximity of hot skin before a naked body descended over his.

"Shhhhhh," Vin breathed into his ear. "Go with it, Ezra, enjoy. Just feel."

The panic eased under his lover's weight, under the furnace of blooded skin and lips pecking gently along his collarbone. Ezra closed his eyes as hands lay upon him, one between his legs, the other sliding along his side, brushing his ribs. A thumb caressed his nipple, and he felt the fleshy rod of Vin's fully erect cock press against his thigh. All the while, the unsettling dance in his stomach persisted, telling him that something was wrong here, and in his blind and mute state, he still felt the razor edge of fear. It was strangely alluring, not knowing what his lover would do next. Perhaps that was Vin's game? Ezra wondered as he felt wisps of hair sweep over his navel.

The hand stroking between his legs moved up through a smattering of pubic hair, causing the follicles to prickle, to his balls. Two fingers massaged one of the spheres in its sack and moved to the second, working it expertly until Ezra's scrotum tightened and he squirmed happily at the nasty little tickle of an itch it provoked.

The same fingers crept deeper, and Ezra's legs opened, allowing better access, spreading wide. His ass puckered as one pointed nail grazed the skin, but Vin did not press the digit inside or proceed with any of his usual preparations. There was more movement, the bed quivering, and then Ezra sensed that Vin was on his knees. This was confirmed when hands gripped his spread thighs and lifted, positioning his legs to straddle Vin's lap. Ezra felt the firm nudge of Vin's cock pressing into the underside of one ass cheek, and tensed as he made the realization that there would be no preparation at all.

Vin was about to enter him right now.

A murmur of denial escaped his throat, and Ezra tried to twist to the side, to drag himself free but he seemed so damned weak. What the hell was happening to him, and what had happened to Vin that he should do this?

He felt Vin lean over him, strong arms encircling his waist, hands gripping him tight, and in one swift motion, he was pulled up into a full sit, perfectly aligned with Vin's hard shaft. Ezra had only seconds to wonder how Vin had come across such strength as to lift him this way. Then he stiffened and his eyes flew open, still seeing nothing as he was impaled, his anus stretching around the intrusive organ. Ezra bucked, his back arching, but he remained supported by Vin's hands grasping his sides.

"Easy now," Vin purred and moaned happily as he slid further up into his lover. "Wait it out. . . just wait it out. . . you'll like it."

Quick little breaths shattered through Ezra, the pain intense with the rip of dry skin. And memories. . . the onslaught of memories that poured in with that pain. . .

This was what Vin used to do. How Vin used to take him from time to time, when Selvik, even dead, still held sway over the tracker's sensibilities. Blind eyes watered at the thought. Something had happened tonight that caused Vin to look back, Ezra figured and swallowed the knot that formed in his throat. Unable to speak, he could only wait this out. His buttocks came to rest on Vin's lap, the rod completely encased inside him. Vin held him that way for a while, the tension in his quivering body all the foreplay the tracker apparently needed—this demonstrated by the pleased groan that rumbled out of Vin, carrying with it a preternatural, tiger-like purr.

Gradually, the pain subsided, torn skin healed, and Ezra still stared into darkness, fighting back tears, his throat constricted and sore with the need to vocalize something. . . anything. . . a scream, a curse, a moan. . .

"Shhhhhh, that's it," Vin crooned. He flexed inside his lover, and Ezra tensed as the lower wall of the shaft pressed against his prostate.

As pain melted into pleasure, Ezra sat confused, his weak and trembling hands climbing up the sides of Vin's arms and holding onto his shoulders. Desperate fingertips dug into the flesh, felt hard, inflexible muscle beneath, as if what lurked below the skin of Vin Tanner was nothing but stone that somehow moved.

"It's the bitter with the sweet, Ezra." Vin's breath gusted along his cheek. A tongue licked at his lips, and Ezra only frowned, wide eyes now begging to see the face of the man to whom he was attached. "Makes it much more interesting, doesn't it?"

There came that low, dry chuckle again, just a breath of a laugh, and Ezra worked one hand up Vin's shoulder to the juncture with his neck.

"Won't you drink now?" Vin whispered.

Ezra felt the pulse beneath Vin's ear, and then traced a fingertip along the hard angle of the jaw. The offer still provoked that strange feeling. Even plunged into this distorted realm of agony and bliss, Ezra couldn't bring himself to do it despite the aroma that still oozed out of Vin's pores.

Please, Vin. . . please. . . let me see you. . .

If his sire heard the inner plea, Ezra didn't know. He wasn't sure any of this was even happening, even when Vin began to pump, gently at first. Remarkably strong hands spread under Ezra's buttocks and pushed up, then brought him down again, the friction of dry skin against slick cock invoking a shiver from his core. At last his voice came to him, and Ezra moaned, the sound searing up from a dry, hurting throat. Up and down, he was moved, faster, a little more forced with one thrust, gentle with another. Every other stroke kneaded his erogenous wall and pushed a gasp out of him.

Vin's breath came harder, curling around Ezra's face and neck. Ezra's fingers found locks of hair dangling around his lover's shoulders and tangled therein, clutching the silken strands as though he might find some control again, like reining in a stallion. Vin thrust harder, faster, and Ezra could have sworn that he was breaking a sweat, something he hadn't done since he was human. His cock rubbed up against Vin's belly, the head occasionally grinding into the shallow depth of the tracker's navel. The organ gorged to full hardness, and Ezra finally found his legs and began to pull himself up. As he slid down again, the sensation sent an upsurge of warmth and nervy tingles through his middle.

Vin bucked hard, drew one hand out from under Ezra's thigh and clamped it over the cock sliding up and down against his abdomen. Ezra issued a growl of approval at the attention and continued to maneuver himself up and down. They moved faster, to and fro, up and down, hips undulating to find new angles, groans, purrs and growls rising together.

In an explosion of light, Ezra saw again. He blinked to make sure it didn't go away as he found blue eyes boring into him, almost feverish in their intensity, and then they closed, squeezed shut tightly as Vin came. The tracker thrust his hips up, causing Ezra to bounce as he shoved in harder. Ezra cried out and held on, his own climax not far behind. Milky drops spurted onto Vin's skin and rolled down, gleaming in the dim light.

As they finished, breaths heaving then gradually dying down to even out, Ezra leaned forward, his forehead coming to rest against Vin's. Both stared down through the crevice between their bodies.

"What. . ." Ezra croaked and swallowed to get some moisture back into his throat. "What just happened there?"

Vin didn't reply.

"Vin?" Ezra drew back and angled his head to look up under the drape of bangs.

Slowly the chiseled face raised, eyes now neutral, much more recognizable in hue and expression. The silence implied that Vin didn't have an answer. With a gentle but strong heave, he hauled Ezra off his lap and scooted toward the edge of the bed. Ezra situated himself back on his haunches and continued to examine his lover's strange behavior. Vin hunched over, head bowed, face hidden under that veil of hair again.

"Vin, I. . . I couldn't see," Ezra said in astonishment. "Did you do that?"

"Go to bed, Ezra," a voice growled back from within the shadows of the tracker's posture. Then he pushed off of the bed and stood. Drying cum gleamed on his belly. His half hard cock remained partially suspended out in the air before him. He turned and strolled into the bathroom, shoulders hitching back and flexing as he went, whipcord muscles flexing around his spine. He emerged with a towel and rubbed the giz off his middle before throwing the wad of cloth into a corner. A few flakes still clung to his skin, but he paid no mind.

Still staring, Ezra shifted to his side of the bed and turned down the covers to get under. He propped up on his elbow and drew back the covers on the other side for Vin to get in. Clearly he could see that now wasn't the time to persist for an answer. After conjuring a century of patience in their relationship, he could put forth a little more.

Vin sat down facing away, his tight and perfect little ass cushioned in the mattress and sheets, before he lay down and drew only the top sheet over himself, leaving the comforter peeled back. Rolling onto his side, his back to Ezra, he adjusted the pillow under his head and reached out to turn off the light.

In the dark that followed this time, Ezra could see clearly the pale gray form of his lover against the other shades in the room. A thread of light still shone from under the door into the adjoining room, gracing the monochrome perspective with little flashes of color.  The television in the next room murmured softly, Josiah and Nathan catching the early morning shows.  Ezra remained upright, his gaze following the pour of Vin's hair on the pillow behind his head, the downward sweep of a lock before it waved upward again.

Could Vin be slipping? Ezra wondered.  Was all that they had fought to put in the past somehow creeping forward to haunt them again?  Or was Vin just trying to experiment?  Was all of this, the blindness and muteness—and the fear that came with it—some attempt to make their sex life more interesting? Ezra hiked up a brow at that thought and recalled Vin crooning to him in the void, telling him to just go with it and enjoy. Interesting that. If only Vin hadn't seen fit to dry fuck him. He listened now as Vin's heartbeat persisted while his breathing dropped off into nothing and he knew his lover was asleep, mind quieted and cut off.

Why, Ezra also thought, had Vin seemed so persistent that he drink from him? It wasn't uncommon that they take from each other, but something about this just felt wrong. Perhaps he was so sated himself that the desire wasn't as deep as it seemed. Whatever the situation, Vin had offered more than once, a most bizarre gesture on his part.

Ezra blinked slowly, sensing the approach of dawn outside, and laid his head down, still staring at the spread of Vin's hair. His own breathing was on the verge of collapse when Vin suddenly rolled over and looked at him.

Ezra perked up and rubbed at his eyes. He refocused and realized something was different. Vin's fangs were retracted now, not so much as a tiny point gleaming through the part in his lips. His eyes caught the light from under the door but were not their usual jewel hue; they were the softer blue they had been long ago, graced with a faint conglomeration of wonder and fear. And then Ezra heard the thing that prompted him to sit up, gasping as he tilted his head, certain he must be imagining things.

Vin's heartbeat raced, rampant as that of a spooked rabbit, hammering from out of his chest. How had it broken its usual rhythm, that which came with the curse of being undead? Ezra leaned down closer.

"Vin, what's wrong?"

Facing up, enshrouded in the sheet, Vin appeared unable to move. So. . . human. . . and so calm. . . He blinked sad eyes that appeared tarnished, tired.

"Ezra," he said then, "help me." There was no inflection in his tone, nothing to indicate he was pleading or stressed. His voice was deadpan, detached. Only that raging, extraordinary heartbeat indicated feeling. It pounded louder and faster, echoing off the walls and carrying into the dark.

Ezra jerked up from his pillow and gasped, realizing he was flat on his back and had dozed off some time ago. He turned his head. To his left, Vin lay on his side, self-confined to the death sleep and quiet, his heartbeat unchanged and fixed as it should be.

Frowning, Ezra faced up into the ceiling. Wonderful. Now his confusion was ten-fold.


From somewhere off camera, police strobe lights flashed, glancing off the angular contours of the young reporter's face as she spoke into her microphone. She stood before a backdrop of damp street and police tape strung from one light pole to another.

". . . so far police do suspect a connection between the murders in Lakewood and Arvada but decline to comment on whether they are cult related. . ."


". . . Police Chief Charles Raimey has scheduled a press conference for ten o'clock this evening, pending reports from the investigation. Chief Raimey encourages any witnesses to come forward. All identities on possible witnesses will be protected. Once more, this is Lisa Chan with Channel Nine News."

"Protect witnesses my ass," Buck added as he flipped off the television with the remote and turned to face the others. "I'll bet you my last red cent any witnesses are dead already, sweetie." He was still speaking offhandedly to the anchorwoman.

The Seven had gathered in the central room of the suite to watch the evening news, already prepared to hear the grim reports. Nathan had his laptop out and was in heated online discussion with Clarion over the identity of the mysterious master vampire Vin had witnessed the previous night.

"So we're on," J.D. stated, his voice young but tainted by a century of hard-earned wisdom. He already had his motorcycle helmet under arm and his leathers on, ready to drive into town.

Everyone looked from one to the other, until Josiah bowed his head in sad and silent prayer fashion, Vin scratched absently at his chin, and then all attention fell on Chris, who was sitting at the table across from Nathan. The laptop's erected screen formed a black division between the two men. A second later the machine beeped, indicating a download had finished.

"Chris?" Buck asked nudgingly.

Larabee's eyes roamed to the now dark television screen and he took a deep, contemplative breath. "Usual procedure," he said. "We break up, check the crime scenes, listen in." He looked up, focusing on Buck. "Then we meet at the morgue."

A few vacant nods answered that.

"We have four crime scenes," Nathan added. "You all can decide how to divide up. I'll stay here and monitor reports. Keep your cells on, and if you have to call in from a public phone, use code speak."

"No need to remind me," Ezra remarked, "I've learned my lesson." This earned him a poke in the ribs from Vin's elbow.

"You need to take me up to my bike," the tracker added.

"Yes, Sir." Ezra turned on his heel and headed into the other bedroom to get his jacket.

"Vin," Nathan said, turning the laptop around so that the screen faced out. "This look like our mark?"

Chris inched around in his chair for a better look as well, and Josiah and J.D. crept in closer.

A series of sketches crossed the screen, the first two scanned from old, yellowed paper, while the others were more recent. The mediums for the renderings ranged from charcoal and Conte Crayon to regular graphite. A handsome and angular face, inset with intense, feline eyes, and framed in long waves of hair, stared out from each scan. Two of the renderings bore beards, one full around the jaw, the other a goatee, but beardless or not, it was clear that the face was the same in all.

"That him?" Chris looked up at Vin, whose head was tilted in thought.

"Uh," Vin blinked, snapping out of some daze. "Yeah, that's him."

"Day-am," Buck murmured. "Amenahkte."

Nathan gave a grim nod. "If this is who we're up against, we may need to call in reinforcements."

"Shaw and company can be here in a day's time," J.D. offered. Then he shook his head and sighed.

"If?" Buck arched a brow.

"If Amenahkte stays in Denver," the kid finished.

"Ah, shit, Chris," Vin said, worry stressing his brow. "I'm sorry I didn't try to stay on his trail."

Chris shook his head to that. "Don't know if it would make much difference by yourself. He's an elder, probably would have caught onto you."

"So, who is our mysterious perpetrator?" Ezra said as he strolled casually back into the room, slinging a leather jacket over his shoulder.

Simultaneously, six glares cocked his way, and six sets of eyes narrowed, the room's dim light catching in jewel-hued irises.

Ezra tensed and straightened, hitching his shoulders back as he frowned.



The road passed with a soft hush in the path of the Jag, the windows down and night air buffeting Ezra's hair gently. Vin stared out the passenger side window, his eyes turned toward the stars and moon. J.D., Buck, Chris, and Josiah had all long since sped by on their bikes. To the west, the murky remains of sunset still clung to the sky, the light well past the safe point for the Seven to be out and about.

Ezra wore his shades anyway, having found that headlights in the oncoming lane could be just as intolerable as sunlight to his sensitive vision. And speaking of his vision, he couldn't help thinking about what had happened the night before. By this evening, it had all felt like a dream. If he had been torn and hurt when Vin fucked him, he was well healed now, and if he had been blind and muted by Vin's will, he was certainly able to see and talk now: properties which he decided to put to good use.

"Vin?" he began, glancing over at his partner, his attention briefly distracted by a lock of Vin's hair as the wind caught it and swept it up and around the side of his head like a wisp of bronze smoke. "About last night?"

"What about it?" Vin's soft drawl answered with an indifferent tone.

Ezra shot a glance at the road, then back. "Well, I. . ." He took a breath, catching the distinct scent of road kill somewhere up ahead, while the wind forced him to speak louder. He reached down with his free hand and hit the window button on the middle console, sending the glass buzzing up on his side. "I could have sworn you mesmer—“

Vin's finger snuck over and hit the button again, rolling the window back down.

Ezra clenched back a snarl and wrinkled his nose.

"I like it," Vin said firmly, his hair tossing rampantly in the resulting wind. "Smell that night air."

"What I smell is bloated prairie dog." Ezra hit the button and sent the window soaring up again. While he was at it, he managed to get Vin's panel up, too, and be quick enough to hit the window lock on the driver's side door. The situation well in hand, he let Vin sit for a moment before he started over. "I could have sworn you mesmerized me."

Silence answered the statement. Stark, disturbing, silence.

Keeping his attention on the road, Ezra continued to take glances at the primary source of that silence. "I admit, it's all like a dream now, but I could have sworn you took away my sight and my voice."

Vin shifted sideways, the leather seat creaking under him, and stared back with something between a frown and amusement. "Now, Ezra, what the hell would I do that for?"

"I. . ." Ezra grasped for his usual colloquial eloquence and failed. "I. . . I. . . You tell me."

"And how could I do that?" Vin persisted.

This was the most important question, Ezra realized. How and why would Vin do such a thing? Ezra shrugged. Sleep had apparently suppressed the strange feeling of the night before, leaving only unpleasant, if nebulous, memories of its presence. "Well, my point exactly. Considering that Mr. Wilmington is the only one among us who seems skilled at that degree of charm."

"Must'a been dreaming," Vin said.

"But it felt so real, Vin." The road barren enough of other traffic, the sun completely sunken, and the sky speckled more vastly with stars, he took off his shades. "I'm serious."

"Ahhhh," Vin growled under his breath. "Nag-nag-nag, Ezra."

Clamping his mouth shut, Ezra took a deep breath and cursed to himself that the windows still hadn't blocked out the aroma of something dead. Something's rotten indeed, he mused bitterly to himself and tried not to bat one lash at his partner again.

"Wifey," Vin added, the mocking word filtered through clenched teeth.

"What did you call me?" Ezra asked thinly, pondering on a swift means of retribution.

"Hey, over there," Vin said suddenly, sitting up straight and pointing ahead. In the distance, a few scattered lights marked a ratty construction of a gas station with old, manual pumps and a battered Coke machine gracing its front.

As the Jag cruised closer, Ezra spotted the gleaming chrome of Vin's Harley parked on this side of the little brick building. He steered into the vacant and dusty lot and pulled up along side the bike. Shifting down, he jerked the gear more than he should have and winced when the car groaned a protest, before he rolled to a stop.

A new silence encapsulated the compartment and both men stared out the front window.

"Something happened last night," Ezra said more calmly. "I'm just confused, Vin." He looked at his lover in full now, and couldn't help but admire the untamed cascade of hair around Vin's shoulders or the upturned triangle of the black collar on his duster.

Topaz eyes full of dark mystique leveled with his own, and Ezra felt the same trance of last night creep around his mind. Blinking, he shook it off. It was almost as if Vin were doing it unintentionally, and he wondered if, after a century, the tracker was finally discovering other abilities long masked by his own fear of what he was.

"Look, Ezra," Vin husked, "we'll talk about it later, okay?"

Ezra nodded. "Of course." He reminded himself that there were more important, more pressing matters to deal with right now.

"I'll catch up with you at the morgue, okay?" Vin's right hand felt for the door and pulled the latch. "I'm going to go back where I started. Try to pick up the trail."

Ezra sat with one hand on the wheel and the other on the stick, waiting. . . aching. . . Thoughts of Vin trying to track an elder like Amenahkte on his own did not settle well on his already raw emotions. "All right." And before he could stop it, Vin had leaned over and locked his mouth in a fierce kiss. He felt the prick of two needle sharp teeth barely graze his lower lip and a hot tongue licked at him, teased him into submission. It snaked into his mouth and collided with his own tongue, rolled sweetly around the tip and stroked along one set of molars. Ezra melted, moaning as his dick squirmed in his pants and he eagerly anticipated getting the investigation over with and returning to the hotel.

He felt devastatingly cold when Vin pulled away, leaving his lips numb and wanting. Then with a smile that speared further chills deep into Ezra's core, Vin slipped out the door and eased it shut.

Ezra closed his eyes as he listened to boots crunch over the gravel and heard the groan of metal as the bike was erected off its kickstand. The motor roared to life and dropped into a putter as wheels carried it out of the lot and toward the road. With a greater roar the bike took off, kicking gravel behind it and then shrieking on the asphalt before Vin was gone.

Then Ezra's eyes snapped open as something occurred to him. Vin hadn't bothered to put gas in his bike, and from the sound of it, hadn't needed to.


Mingled with a sparse group of curious humans, Buck and J.D. stood as near to the police tape as they dared. A portly officer strolled along the line, eyes darting between the CSI team scattered within the confinement, and the news crews who lingered, looking for one more morsel to add to their nightly reports. Pedestrians skirted the area, trying to get a look without looking like they were trying to get a look.

"There ain't much here to work with now," Buck whispered as he leaned casually up against a phone booth, his gaze lingering on a pretty young woman on the forensics team. She was down on her knees, in jeans and white coat, going over every inch of the pavement around a dried puddle of blood near a body outline. "We don't even have a scent marker on this guy."

"No, but Vin does, and he's following up from where he started. The real job's gonna be at the morgue," J.D. added blandly.

"No doubt about that." Even if they found no evidence of vampire attacks here or at any of the other crime scenes, they would know when they located the coroner's lab to which the bodies had been removed. There would be a distinctive scent on them; death warmed over was Buck's favored term for it. Not necessarily the scent of the vampire who killed them, but converting corpses had a stale-blood and earth smell about them that gave away the cause of their demise.

"That stain she's looking at," J.D. pointed out, "it's bled out from the neck area on that outline."

"Yeah, I noticed. Looks like we've got a sloppy eater." Buck watched the young woman get up and walk over to one of her teammates. They whispered back and forth quietly enough that even his sensitive hearing couldn't make out what they were saying. "I'm gonna do the deed."

J.D. gave a solemn nod and—bless him—a knitted-brow look of concern. "I'll be with the bikes." He turned and strolled away, his bike helmet in one hand and dangling at his side.

Buck wandered along the police line, pausing to smile and drawl out, "Hi, how ya doin'?" to the officer who was making sure the audience in the street kept out from behind the yellow tape.

"Move along, Sir," the rotund man replied. He was obviously on a Barney Fife kick, Buck figured and did what he was told.

He pretended to wander on, eyes taking quick but attentive glances at the scene. From what he could see, the victim had been right on the sidewalk when he was attacked. There was a fire hydrant nearby, but it was centered in a red zone well over thirty feet long, so no car had been parked near the kill area. The street wasn't some deep dark enclosed little alleyway. It was a wide open boulevard with a full, landscaped medium between the opposing lanes of traffic. With this kind of space, the victim should have seen his attacker coming. That was, unless that attacker was a master vampire.

Buck stopped near one of the cars parked near the line, presumably one of the investigator's vehicles. He now stood where the young woman from the crime lab could see him just over her teammate's shoulder. From here the streetlight fell full on him, and he had to focus past it, narrowing his gaze down on hers.

Once upon a time, when he was human, he would have loved to have the ability to mesmerize. Add that to the charm he'd exercised on numerous ladies and he'd have had it made. He recalled the time he'd bothered Nathan all over Four Corners about whether animal magnetism was a condition or not, and if he was at risk of losing it. Strange to think that had been him making that query. Strange to think that person then was even him at all.

He didn't like what he was about to do, but he'd learned to just look at it as part of the job. And sometimes you needed to do shit you didn't like to get a job done, especially for a cause like this. Her gaze captured by his own, he reached out with his mind, gently, giving just a little beckon. Wide green eyes blinked at him then locked open, captured and glazing. The girl's deep auburn hair glowed in the streetlight; he tried not to let it distract him.

Come here. He projected the thought at her.

She had stopped talking to her companion mid sentence and zoned out before she stepped around him like he wasn't there and wandered toward Buck.

"Rebecca?" the young investigator said, staring after her. "What are you doing?"

"Hi there, Rebecca," Buck called to her, now that he knew her name. He never broke eye contact, even while the young man trailed behind her. He moved his lips, whispers carrying through the air and into her mind. He's a friend of mine. . .

"He's a friend of mine, Jake."

"Oh, okay."

Buck resisted sighing his relief when the young investigator didn't bother to try to shake his hand or make any other introductions. I'll be back over there in just a moment. . .

She smiled softly as she repeated it. "I'll be back over there in just a moment."

Jake shrugged. "All right."

Buck waited for the third party to walk away, sneakers shuffling uneasily over the pavement. He gave Rebecca a soft smile of his own, willing her warm fuzzies. "I have to ask you some questions, all right, darlin'?"

She nodded.

"I need the estimated T.O.D. on the vic, and details on his wounds."

Her brows knitted, the warm fuzzies obviously interrupted by thoughts on the gory nature of her job. "Death was estimated at between two o'clock and three a.m. last night." She paused, and he sensed her mind fluttering against his own. Just a tiny struggle, but nothing he couldn't handle.

"And his wounds?" The news segment the Seven had watched had already reported that all of the victims had their throats torn out, but those were generalizations.

"A single laceration to the side of the neck appears to have been made by. . . teeth. . ." Even in her trance state, she didn't sound like she believed it.

Likely, Buck guessed, a molding had been taken and hopefully it would be at the coroner with the body, another piece of evidence to be purged. He was about to ask her another question when something made him blink, breaking contact, his thoughts skewered.

She stiffened and frowned, life and will pouring back into her eyes. Buck backed away from the line, tilting his head to sniff the air. Rebecca stared at him, confusion evident as her peaches and cream complexion turned beet-red with automatic embarrassment and wonder at what the hell she was doing standing here before this stranger. Buck didn't pay her any more mind as she turned and hurried back to the scene, casting glances behind her.

The wind had shifted slightly, carrying with it a latent but familiar scent from the area where the body had been found. Buck inhaled more deeply, analyzing the odor: earth. . . leather. . . blood. . .

It was a dusty yet tangy scent, and he couldn't quite figure out how it had gotten here, unless. . . Buck swallowed before he completed putting the thought together.

Unless Vin was here last night.

No, he couldn't believe that. There had to be an explanation for it.

Scanning the crowd anxiously, Buck noticed J.D. about fifty yards up the street, near the alleyway where they had parked their bikes so that it wouldn't be obvious they had come to eavesdrop on the investigators. Then just near the young-looking figure in black, he noticed another familiar one clad in a long duster, wind tossed hair cascading past the shoulders, stepping onto the sidewalk from the street.

With a deep sigh of relief, Buck shook his head to himself. The source of the scent had obviously just arrived, and he was standing downwind, so the aroma had carried across the crime scene. Vin had probably managed to pick up their mark's trail and follow it here, thus confirming that Amenahkte was indeed the perpetrator of the crime.

Scolding himself for misreading the scent, Buck went to join his partners, leaving the scene behind.


J.D. was about to round the corner into the alleyway when he heard the rumble of Vin's Harley pull up curbside a few yards down. He stopped to wave at the tracker, who killed the engine and gave a nod back before he dismounted. J.D. waited, watching as Vin strolled closer, passing around the outside of several parked cars before he veered into the narrow drive into the alleyway. Black duster catching a gust of wind, he crossed through a steam vent in the sidewalk, streetlight haloing his hair.

"Hey, Vin. You picked up anything?"

"Yep." The tracker stopped as he reached the smaller man's side and looked up the street. "Where's Buck?"

"Over there." J.D. pointed. "Trying to get info out of one of the investigators. You found anything on your end?"

Vin looked past him then, noticing the bikes—Buck's Big Dog, and J.D.'s Ninja—parked safely halfway down from the entrance to the alleyway, where the shadows fell, safe from the reach of streetlights. "Let's step out of ear shot," he husked and gestured toward the opening.

"Sure." J.D. turned and moved ahead, his companion visible out of the corner of his eye. "So did you pick up the scent again? Is that why you're here?" he asked when he figured they were far enough away from the sidewalk.

The alleyway bore a strange kind of silence, as if snow had fallen there and nowhere else, muting the echo of steps despite the brick walls to either side or the pavement. Only a broken pipe at the far end dripped water in a steady rhythm, forming a shallow stream that coursed the middle of the passage, gleaming faintly. J.D. went to his Ninja and plopped his helmet down on the seat.

"Oh yeah, I found the scent again," Vin said, lingering behind J.D.. He seemed pensive, or distracted, and J.D. guessed the tracker must be beating himself up over not staying on Amenahkte's trail the previous night. But Chris had been right; The Egyptian was no fish one of the Seven should attempt to catch on his own.

"Did you follow it here?" J.D. asked. He started to turn around when he swore a hand brushed his ass, fingers cupping around one leather-clad cheek. "Whoa." Scooting sideways from the touch, he stepped away from the bike and spun awkwardly around, looking at Vin, who was unfazed. He blinked his surprise away. Must have imagined it, he thought, or it was the breeze still swatting about the tracker's duster.

"Yeah, I followed it here." Vin's eyes narrowed, head tilted wolfishly. Something in his voice didn't sound right. Like he was too at ease given that they were on the hunt for an ancient master who had likely slaughtered four people last night. "J.D.?" His brows knitted, but the glint in his eyes sent mixed messages. "You all right?"

"Um." J.D. gaped. "Yeah, I'm okay. So the scent. . . it was Amenahkte's?"

"Amenahkte's?  No."  The corner of his mouth twitched, unreadable as a frown or a smirk.  He stepped closer, raising one hand and tilting his head forward as he beckoned J.D. into a huddle.

J.D. leaned forward just slightly, anticipating that the tracker must have come up with some new evidence.  "You don't think it was him?"

Then before he knew it, Vin's hand shot forward, faster than J.D.'s sharp vision could detect, and reached behind him, grasping the nape of his neck. J.D. opened his mouth to cry out as sharp claws clenched around his spinal chord and tore into the flesh with an iron fist. At the same time, Vin shoved him up against the wall, pinning him, and clamped the other hand over his mouth, cutting off the cry.

J.D.'s eyes clenched shut as pain speared from the back of his neck up and down, and he heard his own vertebrae breaking, cracking in two, bone fragments stabbing into his spinal column before he couldn't move. His eyes flew open again in panic, his mind racing to figure out what exactly had just happened, and he found himself still held up by the force of Vin's body.

Slowly the tracker removed his hand from over J.D.'s mouth, and his face lingered close to his captive's, eyes calm. A quick tongue darted out and licked his lips as he simply continued to stare, waiting.

"V-V-Vin?" J.D. stuttered, finding it nearly impossible to draw the breath he needed to speak, or to even get his mouth to work. His body went numb from the neck down, helpless, and he waited for the wound to heal but Vin kept a firm, talon hold around the area. J.D. smelled his own blood as his head tilted back awkwardly. Instinct kicked in, and his fangs extended, the only means of defense left him. He refocused and gasped as he stared up into blue eyes that were gradually turning red.

At first mere splinters of crimson crept in amid the blue spokes of Vin's eyes, creating a violet cast. Then the murky hue spread, bit by bit, until it had consumed his irises. Deep black pupils narrowed at J.D., and Vin's lips parted, revealing his fangs at full extension, his overall look feral but controlled.

"W-why?" J.D. grated out. His eyes burned as tears of confusion threatened to boil up. He couldn't understand why Vin had just paralyzed him. . . why Vin held him like this. . . why Vin's eyes were red and cold. . . why Vin was so strong as to break and hold onto his spine in one clenched fist. He could hear his own flesh crawling back there, trying unsuccessfully to heal with the impediments of Vin's fingers still lodged in.

Vin maintained his hold on J.D.'s neck, while his free hand roamed up to caress the smaller man's cheek. "You know, J.D., I never realized how fuckable you were until now." His eyes narrowed as if in thoughtful amusement before he shook his head and added in what was clearly mock remorse, "I'd be tempted, but I'm afraid I owe my affections to another."

J.D. quivered, trying to force his body to move. His brain made the tiniest connection to his fingertips, which groped, unfeeling, at the wall behind him, but he couldn't even make out the texture of the brick, let alone extend his claws and fight back. The back of Vin's knuckle eased along his jaw line, and then the whole hand caressed up along his cheek, graceful fingers sweeping past his vision with long talons. The sharp tips hovered dangerously close to his eye. "I. . . I don't. . . why. . ."

Pursing his lips, Vin hissed, "Shhhhhhhh." Then he gripped J.D.'s chin and lifted, examining the younger face, looking past soppy dark lashes into terrified eyes, before he tilted his head forward and drew in a long breath. "I smell the others on you. Did you know that?"

The feel of hot, slithery breath on his face forced another shudder out of J.D. For all of the horrors he'd seen in his immortal life, he had never expected this. . . a close friend such as Vin Tanner. . . a member of his family. . . turned on him. . . hurting him. . .

"You have a little of us all in you, boy," Vin whispered. "We all gave a little to bring you back. All of us except Chris, that is. He was too chickenshit at the time to contribute."

J.D. coughed out a gasp to hear Vin speaking of his own best friend that way. If Vin would just tell him why. . . why this? Why such cruelty so suddenly?

"Do you remember any of it?" Vin whispered close to his ear. "Do you remember slipping into death the first time? It was a sweet mercy for some of us, when it finally came. Wasn't it comforting, to see the terror end? And then Buck sang to you."

"B-Buck?" J.D. sobbed. He didn't remember Buck singing to him. If anything he vaguely recalled how he could do little more than drape in Buck's arms, bleeding all over the place, only able to think about how he'd fucked up by coming back to Four Corners. He'd put himself in a position to be used against the others. If they hadn't tried to bring him back, it would have been a well-deserved final death. Hell, he deserved to be a goon for fucking up so badly. But Buck singing to him. . . no, he didn't remember that. . .

"Nobody sang to me," Vin said with an eerily neutral tone, like he couldn't give a rat's ass.

"What the hell is goin' on here?" an older, deeper voice spoke up with an edge of surprise.

J.D.'s eyes rolled toward the mouth of the alleyway, where Buck's silhouette stood. "Buck," he rasped, and heard a sickening crick-crrrack as Vin tightened his hold. Hot tears spilled down J.D.'s cheeks. Some part of him still marveled at Vin's strength. All of the Seven were stronger than they had been as humans, but this went beyond their typical capabilities. Another part pleaded for Buck to save him.

"Vin!" Buck took a few strides forward, his fists clenching at his sides. "What're you doin' with the kid?"

Vin gritted his teeth and rolled his eyes toward the voice. "Can't you see I'm busy here?" he snarled. Then immediately he pulled his hand away from J.D.'s face, reached smoothly down behind him, under his duster, and unskinned his gun. He drew the weapon in one neat motion and raised it. J.D. managed to spit out a gurgle of an objection as he found his perspective practically looking down the length of Vin's arm and over the gun's sites at its target. The gun was equipped with a silencer and full cartridge.

"Nnnnnnoooooo!" J.D. found his voice, weak, strained, but loud enough to be heard over the spit of air as Vin fired.

The first round hit Buck point blank in the chest: his heart.

The tall gunslinger stopped in his approach and a look of shock drained down over his face. His gaze fell down toward the wound, which blossomed out from a small, circular black-red stain to an amoeboid blob on Buck's shirt. A second silent shot added another wound just above the first.

J.D. bit his lip as he watched Buck waver, brows knitted, eyes glazing. His lips bobbed, attempting to call to Buck one more time, before Vin pulled the trigger a third time. No way Buck could have seen it coming, just as J.D. had not expected to be grabbed by the neck and his spinal chord crushed in a single grip, and neither of them could ever have expected Vin to be the instigator of such a horrible deed.

The next wound opened up in the middle of Buck's forehead: a clean, neat hole just below his hairline. A single river of blood spilled out and slid down between his eyes before following a course to the side of his nose, down over the corner of his mouth, to his chin. His eyes dimmed into glossy black orbs, and he remained standing by balance alone. J.D. squirmed internally, visualized shoving Vin free, getting feeling back into his body and rushing to his friend's side, but to no avail. He could only watch as Buck collapsed to his knees, arms slack at his sides, before he fell forward face down. Blood swirled into the stream of water running down the center of the alley.

Eyes locked on the still body lying on the edge of the shadows, J.D. barely heard Vin whisper to him again.

"That was one big dog I didn't want barkin' at me," the tracker teased viciously.

"Y-y-y-you. . . how. . . c-could. . . you. . ." J.D. sucked in another wet sob and pried his vision away from Buck's lifeless body, rejecting what he saw, refusing to believe any of it.

"Shhhhh," Vin murmured. Then he leaned forward and planted a gentle, warm kiss on J.D.'s forehead. "Hush little baby," he intoned, the melody of the song faint, "don't say a word. . ."

The next shot speared point blank into J.D.'s heart.


There was something wrong about the crime scene, something Josiah couldn't put his finger on. He'd wandered the park in Lakewood from one end to the other, past trees and shrubs and several small meadows where he imagined teens playing Frisbee during the day, or families picnicking. But now the grounds were spotted with shadows and void of human life, except for the CSI team, who were mostly quiet, deeply engaged in a tedious grid search under a massive oak up the way, working under portable spotlights focused on the ground. The odd cricket sounded off with a series of trills then dropped into silence. Above, branches rustled, and roosting crows perched with feathers puffed against the night air. Josiah cocked a wry grin at his birds. His damned birds, as Nathan would call them. Then he moved on, unnoticed by the investigators.

Inhaling deeply, he took in the smell of dried blood wafting in the breeze, too faint for the human nose but still there, nonetheless. Listening in, he discovered that the victim, a young woman in her thirties, had bled out from a wound in her neck. A great deal of the blood was found to have saturated the soil beneath where her body had been discovered, but the team was still baffled by where the rest of the blood had gone. Josiah didn't have to think twice about where that blood had gone, and he knew they wouldn't find a shred of evidence, not even a thread of Amenahkte's coat.

Standing back some thirty yards from the scene, the preacher fingered a piece of quartz crystal he had wired and wore on a long thong around his neck. What was it about the scene? What had him so baffled? The blood scent was still rich, even after a day, and cool night had chased off any flies attracted to the scene. But there was some other scent on the wind, something. . . familiar. . .

Well, he figured, it didn't seem that he'd find anything of help here. The Seven were all sure this was one of the Egyptian's kills, and it was getting high time to head to the rendezvous point. Turning on his heel, he strolled back toward the graveled parking lot at the far end of the park, moving from shadow to shadow, eyes and ears scanning for the slightest movement or noise.

Ahead, the lot was bathed in the light from a single pole, and Josiah peered through a natural frame of trees and branches as he approached. Then he stopped as a silhouette stepped from behind one of the trees. He knew the shape of it: the cascade of hair around the shoulders, the long duster, the biker boots. An arm raised and waved at him, and he gave a gesture back to Vin who started walking toward him, apparently to meet him half way.

"Hey ya, Vin." Josiah added a nod to his greeting as if tipping an imaginary hat.

The tracker didn't answer as he stepped closer, and just before he passed the thick trunk of another oak tree, he stopped and leaned against the bark, casually surveying the park grounds. The light from the parking lot haloed him there.

"I take it you found a scent." Josiah moved closer, glancing back through the grove to the more distant and dim light at the crime scene. "Not much here to really consider, just that most of the blood was missing from the body."

Again the silence answered him, and Josiah eased toward the tree, focusing on the silhouette until features came into clear perspective. Vin's head was bowed slightly, his eyes cast toward the ground as if in deep thought. It gave Josiah the impression he was about to hear the worst news. Then slowly the tracker's gaze rose, climbing past Josiahs' knees, past his belt, to pause on the area where the crystal hung on its thong at Josiah's middle. Vin tilted his head, eyes narrowing, before he looked fully up and into Josiah's face.

Josiah felt strangely cold inside as he looked into those eyes, finding them eerily steady and frigid of any emotion when once they brimmed with mischief, joy, sadness. . . all the colors of the rainbow. That was all missing, leaving the handsome face unanimated, void.

"Vin?" Josiah's brows rose as he pondered what could possibly be wrong.

Vin blinked slowly, the motion mechanical and disjointed with the stillness of his face. When he finally spoke, his voice was equally as vague and apathetic.

"Nice crystal."

Josiah glanced down at the piece he had wired. Its facets captured the light from the parking lot and glittered; the wire cage he'd carefully capped it in gleamed like silver thread.

"Can I have it?"

Josiah never had time to reply.


Chris had been pacing near the service entrance to the morgue for almost thirty minutes now, curses growing out from under his breath until they were fully vocalized. He always expected someone to be a little late, be it Buck and J.D., or Ezra. Josiah and Vin rarely were, but tonight everyone was on the spot for a complete and thorough ass-chewing.

The double doors into the morgue were situated on the lower floor of a four level parking deck, the place all but a cave except for the open sides. Luckily, this late at night there was little to no traffic and only a few parked cars scattered throughout the lot, their owners tucked into the building for the graveyard shift.

Chris lingered where the concrete wall gave way to a view of the street. He could get a cell signal there, and had been calling out for some time, getting no answer from anyone except Ezra, who was busy checking the club where Vin had said he'd lost Amenahkte's trail. From the other end of the line, Chris had heard little more than a ground shaking bass beat and techno trance, the din forcing Ezra to speak louder. It was easy to imagine the gambler's face fixed in a grimace of distaste at not only the music, but the young, uncultured patrons knocking into him. His report was a complaint that the trail there was cold and too overridden with the scents of humans to be of any use.

Chris grumbled back a response for Ezra to get out of there, call Nathan for an update on police reports, and then get his ass over here. He had just shut the phone off and started to tuck it back into its carrying case on his belt when it rang again.

Finally. Someone better have some damn good news to lighten his mood. He thumbed the answer button and brought the little device back up to his ear. "Yeah?" he snapped impatiently and winced, realizing he'd spoken up a little too loud and his voice bounded off the walls and columns of the inner deck.

"Through me you pass into the city of woe," the calm voice on the other end rasped.

Chris cocked his head in instant confusion. "Vin?" He stepped quickly toward the open side again, hoping to ramp up the signal so he could hear better. "Where are you?"

"Eternal and eternal, I shall endure."

Chris' brows furrowed deeper. He couldn't remember exactly where he'd heard that quote. Maybe in some poetry? Something Ezra had been reading? And face it, he thought, Vin's tastes in reading reflected those of his teacher, with the occasional pulp novel thrown in. Didn't make sense, however, why the tracker had called him only to speak cryptically. . . not unless. . .

"Vin, is something wrong?" Chris felt as if his heart skipped a beat, but it was just nerves.

A dry laugh answered him, the breath a loud gust. Chris almost swore he felt its cold touch through the receiver. "Sure, there's plenty wrong," Vin replied calmly. "Buck, J.D., Josiah. . ."

A greater chill coursed down the inside of Chris' body, connecting from neck to groin. He couldn't decipher the tone in Vin's voice or the dull whisper of a laugh. Could it be suppressed hysterics? Vin falling apart? Had he witnessed something. . . something. . .

"They're all dead."

Chris' eyes snapped closed in denial, as if shutting off his sight would also shut off what he had just heard. "H-how?" Pain stabbed into his mind, sending out a domino effect through his body, tightening his throat. Buck? No, he couldn't be hearing this right. Buck couldn't be dead. Buck had already cheated the reaper once. How could he go through all that Ella had inflicted on him only to die now? It wasn't enough to convince Chris. He opened his eyes, refocused on the parking garage. "How?" he hissed. "Vin, how?"

No answer.

A figure caught his attention to the right, not far from the entrance to the garage where a shaft of streetlight fell. The shadowed form stepped through the slice of illumination, revealing Vin strolling closer, casual as you please, his brows knitted as he looked down at the phone cradled in his hand.

"Oops," the tracker said, "lost the signal." His duster whispered with his stride.

"Wait. . ." Chris wanted to storm forward and shake Vin silly until he explained himself. "Your phone. . ."

"Oh, this?" Vin pocketed it. "This is Buck's."

Chris turned off his own phone and raised it absently, shaking it at the tracker like a scolding finger. "Then what the fuck're you talking about? They're all dead?" He moved closer.

"You know, dead. But then aren't we all." Vin's voice seemed disembodied, echoing off the concrete floor and barriers, as he disappeared behind a column. He emerged quickly on the other side and continued. "Buck. . . I always liked the big guy." His head shook as if with amusement. "So I shot him."

Chris stopped short. So, this was a joke—Vin claiming that Buck, J.D., and Josiah were dead. Fuck that. Those jokers had gone and done something stupid, leaving a story to tell that probably had them all snickering, wherever they were. Wouldn't be the first time one of them kicked himself in the ass, prompting a string of endless inside jokes even while on the most serious of hunts. He waited for an explanation. The longer it took, the more sour his mood grew.

"And J.D.," Vin added, "well, I had to play with him a bit, but the poor kid died a virgin after all."

Yeah, right, Chris thought. That had to be J.D.'s worst fear. He almost laughed, but the tone in Tanner's voice was too perfectly cold, too steady. It was creepy, to say the least, and Chris Larabee rarely found anything creepy anymore.

And then his attention was drawn to something at the front of Vin's tank shirt; something that twinkled as the tracker moved in and out of the dull lights overhead. Focusing on it, Chris frowned again as all of Vin's words began to sink in a second time, with greater weight.

It was Josiah's crystal.

Vin's eyes glittered with amusement as he looked down, following Chris' gaze. "This?" He fingered the crystal on its long, coarse leather thong and then looked back up. "I've coveted this thing for a while. Wasn't until now that I actually had the gumption to take it."

"Take. . . it?" Chris stammered. He looked up, eyes watering, vision blurred as he fought through the confusion again. This couldn't be happening. This couldn't be. . .

Vin's lips were parted gently, just enough to show that his fangs were at full extension. "So," he went on, "I took it pretty easy on them all. Buck especially. Didn't see it coming. Did that for you. For. . . him." His lips curled back into a smile, sharp canines in full view now. "So, I thought how about some real sport?"

The idea that Vin Tanner had crossed the line—not just a line, but THE line—didn't have time to complete in Chris' mind. He barely had time to jump back out of the way as Vin's hand came forward, fingers curled, claws extended, and slashed across the front of his shirt. Chris sprang backwards, instincts kicking in. A split second later he landed in a crouch ten feet away, his own claws out, his fangs lengthening. A low rumble issued from his throat and manifested into a full growl.

"Heh," Vin hissed as he remained where he had been standing. "That's more like it."

"Vin, what happened to you?" Chris husked, his voice no longer his own but that of a wary predator.

"Let's just say I saw us for what we really are." The tracker moved forward in three long strides before he lunged, claws coming straight at Chris' throat.

Chris sprang again, arching over backwards, supernatural skills giving him the agility to complete a full back flip, throwing himself up far into the air, arching over gracefully. He landed on the trunk end of a car. Vin came down where Chris had previously been crouched and stood to full height, looking at his opponent from beneath lowered brows.

Red fire burned in the backs of the tracker's eyes. "Yep," he uttered, lips barely moving. "Chickenshit."

Breath heaving, Chris prepared for another attack, his throat tight as reasoning caught up with him.

This was Vin, for Chrissakes!

Vin Tanner. . . his best friend. . . attacking him. . . Vin claiming to have killed three of their number. Chris still couldn't believe it. This had to be some sick joke, or he was having a nightmare. He recalled how Ella had inflicted horrible visions on his mind, made him almost believe the others had died by the hands of hunters and been scorched to charcoal in the sun. It didn't make sense. . . it didn't make sense. . .

This was Vin. . .

Vin springing at him again. . .


Chris rolled onto his back then sideways, tumbling off the car and to his feet. "Vin!" he shouted as he spun around. "Why are you doing this!"

At the same moment Vin landed hard on the trunk, his weight denting it. Slowly he stood, tossing his head back, hair sweeping out of his eyes. "Why do you think, Chris?" He appeared to calm for the moment, and simply remained in place. His head was perfectly silhouetted against one of the garage lights, creating a halo, the softer tones of his hair aglow. "All these years we've hunted. All these years of killing our own kind, humbling ourselves to humans. All these years we could have had it all. We could have been free."

Chris staggered backwards, swallowing hard. "But we are free."

"Depends on what you call free." Vin tilted his head, eyes narrowing. "If you call it you being freed of Ella's will, then I guess that's the limit of your vision. But what about the rest of us? Huh?" His voice began to deepen back into a ferocious growl. "What about Buck feeding you for a hundred years? What about J.D. trapped in a kid's body for eternity? Hell, what about all of us stuck listening to you barking orders? See, it's not the hunger, or living for goddamned ever, never walking in the sun. It's the rules." His eyes widened, touched with a glint that Chris could only translate as madness. "Your rules. It all revolves around you, doesn't it?"

"You can't blame me for what happened," Chris snapped.

"Oh, I can and I fucking will!" Vin stepped forward and dropped off the car, landing squarely on his feet, completely upright and eyes still blazing holes into Chris. "You didn't listen to me, or Buck, when we tried to warn you about that bitch. Too damned proud to listen, and you let her get away. You let her get away so she could come back." He took a single step, the motion jarring Chris to move backwards, feet shuffling awkwardly on the pavement. "Well, you know what? I completely get Ella now," Vin concluded. "She had all of this power, and she wasn't afraid to use it. She went after what she wanted. Now I'm taking what I want."

Stricken speechless, Chris felt his hand inching toward his gun. He hesitated only because he was giving himself one more chance to wake up.

Come on, Larabee, open your eyes. . .

"And what do you want, Vin?" he asked, stalling.

The question appeared to take Vin by surprise. He didn't answer right away. Halting in his advance, he blinked, glowing eyes flashing dark then opening again.

"You don't even know what you want, do you?" Chris concentrated, closing off the instinct to catch his breath. He didn't need to breathe, so he let it go, pouring all of his focus into the situation. Vin had to be in there somewhere. Whatever force had influenced him to this darkness, the true Vin had to still be lurking beneath, perhaps screaming to be free. "Come on, Vin, you're not capable of this." He tried to keep his voice soft, though it was some task to expel the natural desire to snarl right now. "It isn't you."

The tracker merely stared at him, emitting no sign of surrender.

"What happened?" Chris persisted. His hand still crept toward his gun, fingers curling slowly around the handle, while he recalled the recent events. First Vin calling Ezra's cell with a message that he was tracking a master vampire. Then Vin's arrival at the hotel. There had been no signs of this then, no indication that Vin was on the verge of taking that final dive into the chasm that all of the Seven feared. It could happen to any one of them; they all knew that. But what on earth could have so quickly pushed Vin there? Then it came to Chris, that single clue. Only Vin had actually encountered Amenahkte. Only Vin had seen him, and tracked him. Something had happened after that. "You found Amenahkte, didn't you, Vin?"

There was no answer but Vin's unnerving stillness. From low in his throat, a tigerish growl issued.

"What did he do to you, Vin?" Chris clung to the name, repeating it as frequently as he possibly could. Vin needed to hear his name now.

The growl grew, turning into a shallow purr, before it exhaled into a full chuckle. "Chris, you are so dialing the wrong number, buddy."

Then before Chris could blink, Vin was directly in front of him, hands grabbing his shoulders, lifting, tossing him sideways like a rag doll. Chris shouted as his feet left the ground and he flew through the air, his back slamming into the side of one of the columns. The entire parking deck rumbled, and chips of concrete and dust sprayed out around his body. He collapsed to the ground, leaving a crater in the column side.

Dazed, he clamored to get his arms beneath him, to push himself up to his knees. His eyes watered, washing out grit, and he looked up to see black-booted feet coming his way. He bounded backward, got his ass under him, and kicked sideways, right into Vin's shin.

The tracker collapsed sideways, but was down for no more than a blink before he bounded back by rolling and kicking upward, throwing himself into a stand and coming forward into a crouch.

"Tell me that isn't all you've got to give, Chris." Vin dove for him again. "Fer cryin' out loud, I just killed your favorite fuckhole!"

To hear his lover referred to so crudely had the desired effect. Chris felt his brain, his heart, every thing inside him burn with raw hatred at the thought of Buck dying. He spun out of the way of Vin's next grab and then stepped back in, delivering a hard jab to the tracker's jaw line.

Vin's head swung violently to the side, his hair flying around his face, spit and blood shooting from the corner of his mouth. He moved with the strike, gracefully sweeping around and putting some distance between himself and Chris. "Ow." When he turned his face back to the light, a purple bruise stood out on his cheek, but in seconds it faded.

Teeth gritting, Chris tasted his own blood as his fangs bit into his lower gums. His vision blurred and then cleared. The blood he'd fed on a night ago heated in his veins, brought a flush to his cheeks.

"That's better," Vin hissed and moved in, dropping low, swinging one leg out, his duster flying with the fluid motion, and kicked Chris's own legs out from under him. "Turnabout is fair play."

Chris landed hard on his ass, wincing before he looked up to see Vin about to dive into him, teeth bared. He rolled sideways, dodging once, twice, as Vin bounded after him.

Then they were upon each other, tearing with claws, snarling, shrieking. Chris almost lost himself in the savagery of the fight, locked onto Vin, smelling blood as it flowed from a scratch in the tracker's cheek. They locked hands around each other's throats, but it did little good when neither could be choked. As Vin lost his footing, Chris threw himself forward, carrying his opponent along, their coats tangled around each other, hair impossibly tousled. They slammed straight up onto the steeply slanted hood of a mini van, the windshield cracking but holding up as Chris strained to keep Vin pinned beneath him. In that second, he regained his senses, remembering that his enemy was his friend.

"Vin, why!" he raged through his teeth. "Just fucking tell me why!"

"You know what's really pathetic?" Vin asked as he stared up into Chris' narrowed gaze.

Chris gripped Vin's lapels, his knuckles white, his scrapes and cuts healing as he watched those familiar blue irises suddenly turn red. The deep, deadly hue crystallized, shutting away all familiarity with the man beneath him. Chris felt himself shudder as an overpowering emptiness consumed him.

"I'm not even using my full strength," Vin answered his own question. Then he shoved his hands up under Chris, into his belly. The force, even within such a tight space, was so powerful, so blunt, it sent Chris flying backwards and spinning around.

With a grunt, Chris came down on his knees, face coming dangerously close to slapping the pavement nose first. He managed to throw his hands in front of him, palms stinging as they cushioned his descent.

Chris Larabee had had enough.

With a shout he rose, drawing his gun and spinning toward Vin. He opened fire, hot tears pouring down his cheeks. Spittle drained over his bottom lip, and the cords in his neck tightened.

BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG-click-click-click-click. . .

The reek of sulfur wafted around him, gun smoke billowing into the air. Spent shells clinked on the ground. As his vision cleared, Chris found himself merely staring back at the minivan, its windshield now completely shot out, and pock marks in its hood. There was no body riddled with slugs. Nothing.

"Okay," a voice said from behind him, "now I'm bored."

Chris turned, the gun loosening in his grip, and for an instant saw Vin standing there, calm as before, those red eyes boring into him. He saw the other's hand coming down in a sideways arc, fingers extended and rigid, turning digits into a saw-toothed blade.

Vin was good at killing that way, Chris remembered as time slowed down and he couldn't move. The claws sliced through him starting with his collar bone, which cracked loudly, skin and muscle tearing with a gooey riiiiiiiip!  They moved down into his body, the force behind them so powerful as to tear horizontally through his rib cage, divide his heart, and exit out his lower side, rending his upper body from his lower, the two held together only by his spine as it barely escaped the instrument of death. Shreds of his coat and shirt cascaded out into the air. Strangely enough, he felt nothing. Red flushed his vision, the red of his own blood gushing, rinsing Vin's arm and hand, before Chris closed his eyes and sank into blackness.

"The free man walks away," Vin's voice called after him.


Ezra pulled into the hotel lot and parked beside Vin's Harley, on the remote end of the long building where the Seven had rented the adjoined rooms. He shut off the engine and sat in the silence for a moment, looking down toward the corner of the building where Nathan's black Suburban was parked under a streetlight that was blown out. His night vision made out the shape blended in with the dark. Obviously none of the others were back. From what he understood, the night had been a complete bust in tracking down their quarry, so they were now primarily busy at the morgue. He had been on his way there, as Chris had ordered, when none other than Vin called and turned those orders around.

Now, with a groan, Ezra drooped forward and propped his forehead on the steering wheel. He'd worked on his own for the night, sneaking around the third murder scene, smelling dead blood, and then on to The End club where Vin had lost track of Amenahkte. It had all been dreadful, wading in and out of that sea of humans, his sense of smell drowned in sweat, liquor, and occasionally. . . vomit. The whole time, his thoughts had been in a state of flux, wavering from the job to Vin.

Vin. Job. Vin. Job. Vin-job-Vin-job-VinjobVinjobVinjob. . .

Awwwww, fuck it.

It was all so damned distracting. The evening hadn't started with the best of communication between them, and the sense that something was wrong lingered. The tracker later called claiming that he was relaying a new message from Chris, and it was simple enough: the situation is covered, return to the hotel.

So the others didn't need him, Ezra figured. It stung a little, but was no big deal. Far be it from him to complain about being given the rest of the night off, even if he would be in the suite with only Nathan for a while. He could definitely use the time to get his head on straight, but the moment he drove up and saw Vin's bike, he knew that probably wouldn't happen.

His lover was already here.

Strange, but he'd been under the impression that Vin would be staying at the morgue to aid in the disposal of the victims' bodies. Maybe Chris had sent Vin back, too. After all, it wasn't terribly hard work staking an unrisen corpse and beheading it. The real trick was getting rid of the remains, and Ezra was happy not to be taking part in that. Curious that Chris hadn't gotten Vin to stick around; the tracker was by far the most astute at such "garbage disposal".

With a sigh, Ezra lifted his head, eyes rolling back toward the Harley and its studded, fringed saddlebags. His brows rose as he remembered something else; something he had been intending to address all night. He got out of the car and strolled to the hotel door, pausing outside when he realized it was ajar.

From within came the murmur of the television, some late night scream fest B film, and the soft glow from a bedside light. Ezra nudged the door open and stepped inside, finding the room as it had been left: bed covers disheveled, a few news papers here and there, a duffel bag tossed into the corner, and to his right.

Ezra started as his eyes came to rest on Vin sitting at the room's one table, under the dirty light of the hanging lamp. The tracker was shirtless, his long, disheveled hair in tangles around his shoulders, his chaps removed, but his jeans still on. "Uh, Vin. I almost didn't see you there." He shrugged out of his coat, then unfastened his holster and arranged gun and garment into the chair near the door. Reaching up, he unbuttoned his silk shirt at the collar and loosened his tie with a satiny rustle.

Vin looked up from Nathan's laptop computer, eyes steady for a long moment before he blinked as if it had taken him that time to recognize Ezra. "Hey, Ez. Was just doing some monitoring for Nathan."

"Where is he?" Ezra looked about, noting the door into the room he'd shared with Vin the night before was open but the interior dark. A strange smell accosted him, coppery like blood, but not quite so piquant. It was almost. . . chalky. He couldn't tell where it was coming from.

"Hm? Oh, he took a walk. Needed to stretch his legs." Vin stood. "Actually, I could use some of that." He raised his arms, back bowing gracefully in, and extended his body, going up slightly on the balls of his feet. The spectacle of his lean abs flexing, the glance of light over his ribs and oblique muscles, was incredibly distracting. The fact he was already out of most of his clothes told Ezra he must have been here for some time.

Ezra considered that this might be the only time he'd get to address the thing bothering him. If he could stop staring. "Vin, I wanted to ask you something."

"Yeah?" He dropped his arms to his sides and turned toward Ezra, stepping forward with a meander in his stride.

"Why did you tell us you ran out of gas coming back last night?"

Vin shrugged. "I dunno. Seemed like a good story at the time." In three sudden and fast steps he was right in front of Ezra, smiling warmly as he leaned in to peck at his lover's unresponsive lips.

Ezra kept his mouth clamped shut against the warm touch, turned his eyes away. He stayed his ground, realizing quickly that it might be a mistake when Vin cinched up closer to him, and he could feel the tracker's naked arms draping around him. Sneaky fingers pulled his shirt free and slid up under the material, snaked down inside his beltline, finding his hips. Strange, he thought, that Vin was this touchy-feely out here in the main room. Though their relationship was known in the group, simple decorum had them refrain from such intimate displays. He took a deep breath, noting the subtle scent of soap. It wafted up from Vin's arms, indicating he'd partially bathed recently.

"So, why the fabrication?" A dry, pointedness slipped into Ezra's tone. Gradually his gaze followed the cords in Vin's arm, up to the shoulder, and he focused just on the areas below Vin's eyes. He was too wary to look into his lover's eyes.

"Ah, Ezra, it was nothing." Vin leaned in and kissed up under Ezra's chin, nipped and nibbled along the jaw line to the ear lobe.

Each peck sent a new amalgamation of tingles and stings burrowing into Ezra's flesh. With a burst of effort, he shrugged away, squirming loose from Vin's hold on his hips. "Stop getting fresh. First you made up a story about running out of gas, then you. . ." He remembered he had tried to tackle the issue already to no avail. "Do you even understand what you did to me last night?"

Vin only closed the distance again, applying more kisses. He reached up with the back of a knuckle and gently lifted Ezra's chin to try to encourage eye contact. When it didn't work, he appeared to feign surrender. "Okay, so what's up, Ezra?"

Ezra felt the press of hard warmth from the front of Vin's jeans. Damn him. "Apparently, you are." He made to squirm away again, only to be caught up completely and pulled back, hands clamped solidly around his shoulders. "Let me go—“  His retort vanished, smothered under an invasive mouth as Vin forced a deep kiss on him, prying his lips open. A hot tongue probed past his teeth, stroked the roof of his mouth. With a moan, Ezra tried to push away, but he couldn't fight that mouth. It made him want to forgive and forget everything, to touch Vin, to think that what happened last night wasn't so bad after all. He shivered as Vin's body ground against his, their groins aligned, Vin's cock already hard, Ezra's beginning to pulse with need.

All of his thoughts began to swirl away, his mind caught up only in the sensations applied to his body, as Ezra found himself directed toward the bed.

The bed in the wrong room, he remembered then. Nathan would have an all out hissy fit if he came back and found them fucking on his bed.

"V-Vin?" Pushing gently out, he managed to pry his lips free. "Vin, not here."

"Why not?" Vin's eyes were closed in bliss as he attempted to recapture Ezra's mouth and ended up tasting empty air.

"Not here in. . ."

As he pulled free by twisting his head to the side, Ezra looked past Vin's shoulder and froze. The door into the bathroom was on the opposite wall, cracked by a rough six inches, and dark inside, but Ezra's vision saw beyond that, making out what appeared to be a hand—a dark skinned hand—lying within view, outlined perfectly by the white tile floor beneath.

Vin's eyes snapped open and he frowned. "Ezra?"

With a shove, Ezra moved past Vin and headed for the bathroom door, a strange sense of dread churning in his gut. Just six steps there. Six steps that felt like a hundred as the door seemed to grow more distant, the carpet longer and slushy under his feet. Then he was aligned with the opening and looking in and down. The scent he'd noticed upon first entering the hotel hit him in greater proportion: the reek of blood ashes, potent and tangy, yet earthy-chalky.

He gave the door a gentle push, a hollow crrrreeeeeeeaaaak emitting from the hinges. Inside, the sink faucet leaked with a steady ploop-ploop-ploop in the basin.

"Oh. . ." He couldn't get the "God" part of it to come out. His breath tripped on the sight of Nathan Jackson's body sprawled on the floor, belly down, headless. There were three long claw gashes across the former healer's back, his shirt torn through so that long strips of the back panel streamed along the floor as if to represent entrails.

Ezra's hand clamped over his mouth and he grunted out his shock, eyes stinging. There was a wide, crusty black circle on the floor, where the stump of neck had bled out, and the unnatural gore dried. A quick glance around the place discovered the head, where it had rolled into a corner and lay on its side, clouded eyes open and staring at nothing. Nathan's skin. . . his rich, chocolate skin. . . was gray with death.

His throat too tight to get out anymore of the little noises that wanted to rise, Ezra backed out of the doorway, dizzy, his free hand grasping for the frame. He spun around, unable to escape the vision and smell fast enough, and leaned against the wall. Slowly he registered movement in the main room, and refocused to track Vin's figure as it walked calmly to the table.

Vin stared down at the laptop's glowing screen for a long moment, his attention lost to the email program, before he reached out and closed the lid, putting the machine to sleep. "I didn't mean for you to see that so soon." His voice came raspy and thin.

"You—“ Ezra swallowed, strained to listen past the ringing that suddenly erupted in his ears. "You. . . did this?"

Vin didn't move. Didn't say anything.

Ezra's gaze drifted toward his coat and gun resting in the chair across the room. He gritted his teeth, tried to contain the urge to continue breathing heavily. The events of the previous evening came back ten-fold; not that Vin had mesmerized him, confused him, cast him blind and toyed with him. No, that fell to the back of his mind. Strange though that behavior had been, it was the hint that should have told him everything else.

"V-Vin?" He swallowed to get his throat to loosen up, but the knot remained in place. "You killed those people last night, didn't you? You. . . fed on them?" That was why Vin was so warm when he came in from the hunt. And why, presumably, he was also so strong. Finding the tiniest remnant of fierceness in the face of his own shock, Ezra growled, "Answer me, damnit,"

"You have no idea how liberating it was," Vin said, looking over his shoulder.

An unbearable sinking feeling struck Ezra in the gut. He groaned a retort, mind racing to understand why this was happening. He'd dreamed, last night, that Vin had asked him for help. Was this why? Had the darkness claimed Vin and replaced him with this stranger? It could happen to any of them, but. . .

But Vin had just killed Nathan.

Ezra broke free from the concrete of his own legs and bolted for the door, reaching low to grab his gun. He made it to the chair, gripped the handle, started to skin the weapon free and spin toward Vin. From out of nowhere a hand grabbed his wrist and squeezed, claws digging into the soft tissue and tendons near the vein with undeniable strength. He couldn't help but let his grip go, and the gun fell free. The room spun, as he was grabbed by the shoulders and pinned against the door, Vin's body pressed against him. He struggled, instincts and mind catching up with him, and he realized he'd not even seen Vin move.

So fast. . . how could Vin move so fast?

Hot breath ghosted over Ezra's face as Vin got hold of both wrists and slammed them against the door, his hold as unyielding as iron shackles. "I did it for us, Ezra," he hissed and repeated with his teeth clenched, "I did it for US."

"You killed Nathan!" Ezra tried to bow his body out, forcing Vin's away, to no avail. "You killed those humans!" He tossed his head from side to side, avoiding the powerful gaze that his lover attempted to force upon him. "How could you. . . how. . ." To continue to struggle hurt. Vin just pressed his body in harder, the pressure no less than that of a python crushing its prey. ". . . could you. . ." Ezra's distress caught up with him. "N-Nathan," he stammered. "Why, Vin?"

"Did you hear me? I did it for us, Ezra." With that, Vin pressed his lips over his captive's, kissing long and hard. His mouth moved with unquestionable command, his tongue hot in its dance across Ezra's.

God, it felt so good. Ezra's cock jumped and he hated himself. His throat tickled, but the inability to cough, to expel the irritation, caused him to spasm. He mumbled into Vin's mouth, tried to twist his head sideways, eyes squeezed shut; hot tears threatened to well up and ooze out the corners. Then abruptly the kiss lifted, his lips left feeling bruised and sore, and he was jerked away from the door. Ezra gasped as Vin swept him around and shoved him onto the bed. He bounced up and down on the mattress, tried to squirm onto his side and claw away from Vin, but the tracker came down heavy on top of him, stilling him amid the mess of sheets and pillows.

"Get off me, goddamnit!"

Vin gritted his teeth, reasserting his hold on Ezra's wrists. "Listen to me, Ezra," he snarled, spittle spraying from his lips as he bared his fangs. "I came back for you. The others are out of our way now. Do you understand? It's you and me."

Ezra kept his gaze down, eyes burning to tear up, their jade green altered to a luminescent emerald hue.

"My God," Vin whispered, and transferred both wrists into a single grip, freeing one hand. He brought his thumb tip down to caress Ezra's cheek. "You're beautiful."

"So, the others?" Ezra rasped, peering past the cascade of Vin's hair around his face. "You killed them, then?" The rock in his gut grew heavier. "What happened to you?" He couldn't contain the single tear that leaked from the corner of his eye and eased down along his temple.

Vin dropped a kiss on the smooth cheek beneath him, then licked the tear away, and the one that followed it. "Shhhh. It's all for the better, Ezra. Trust me." He pulled his thumb away, and passed it before Ezra's eyes as the claw extended, the tip catching a fleck of light. He drew it up to the side of his neck and pressed in, carving a gash that first oozed, then dripped. "If you would only drink, you'd understand."

Morbid fascination stole over Ezra as he watched the blood move, a large bead of a head slinking, followed by a long, narrow tail. It ran over Vin's collarbone, slow and steady and glimmering darkly, before it began to dry and flake into ash. For a moment, Vin's words flooded Ezra's mind, coaxing him to crane his head up, smelling the blood at the source of its flow, which was healing quickly. All he had to do was open his mouth, suck at it, hold the wound open with his tongue. Then a miserable groan escaped him as reason hit home.

This was not his Vin.

This was a stranger, the demonic force who lurked in all of them, but in Vin the thing had found a way to emerge and take over. Ezra recalled this Vin's insistence last night that he drink from him. Now this. Drink and understand. There could only be one reason for that logic, and it stemmed from the same method Buck and Chris had used for the last century against Ella: one master feeding another. It created a blood bond, even when one had not sired the other. The feeding master gained some level of control, as if his will passed through the blood. But who had fed Vin to make him—

"Vin," Ezra repeated, dropping his head back, "what happened?" Vin had, since last night, lied about some things, but Ezra was sure he hadn't lied about encountering Amenahkte. The lies had started when he came back to the hotel, but he had seemed so normal in front of the others. He'd stood there, eyes neutral, smile soft and casual, and lied. And, of course, the rough sex that had soon followed now told Ezra the rest. "That's Amenahkte's blood in your veins."

Vin snickered, the sound sharp, almost melodic, white teeth flashing. It died into a snort of derision. "Amenahkte's singing in hell."

"Huh?" Ezra blinked. "You mean you killed him?"

"And inherited everything." Vin leaned down, the gleaming dark liquid moving dangerously closer to Ezra's lips.

Ezra thrust his head to the side just in time as a drop spattered on his cheek to the side of his lips. "But how?"

"He gave me something in return for the favor." He wiped the drop away and nuzzled Ezra's cheek, caressed his lips across the skin with the sensation of rose petals. "I just want to share it, Ezra. With you."

"But. . . But Chris and the others?"

"They're no longer a factor in the equation." The wound sealed shut as he spoke, his thumb returning to caress in a tiny circle in the hollow of Ezra's cheekbone. His voice dropped into a calming lilt. "Look at how long we've wandered with them, Ezra, aimlessly fighting our own kind. We've tried to protect humans, but hell, why bother? What more harm can a vampire do to them than they already do to themselves?"

"I can't. . ." Ezra withheld the sniffle bubbling up in his head.

Vin's grip on Ezra's wrists tightened and he gave a vicious little shake, teeth gritted. "You've got to ask yourself why we do what we do. There's no reward in it, not for us." In an instant he calmed again, eyes narrowing wistfully. "But I've found reward, Ezra. You can't believe how great it feels, this thing, and all I want to do is give it to you, show you how we can live. I tried to share it last night, but you wouldn't drink."

"I knew you were up to something. . ." Ezra searched for the right word, ". . .nefarious." Slowly, he dared to look into Vin's eyes, hoping that he could maintain his own will. As he expected, that cool jewel blue absorbed him with all the comfort of lowering into a warm bath. It told him everything would be all right, but he found the knowledge of his friends' deaths held him firm enough against it.

He wondered if the effects of Amenahkte's blood were temporary. If Vin had indeed killed the ancient master, then he was acting on his own; the blood had drawn out the beast, freed it from moral shackles and given it reign. On that, Ezra wondered if he could taste that blood and resist its power, temper his own beast. Could he take some and merely play along, wait it out until Vin came to his senses?

But then, he recalled, Vin Tanner had been one of the most willful men he'd known. Vin had killed his own sire just minutes after awakening to the ranks of the undead. If Vin couldn't resist Amenahkte's blood in him, then what hope did Ezra have?

It was a dead end, Ezra thought. His mind raced for other means to bring Vin back. Would his own blood do it? Could he talk Vin out of this? But even if Vin were to recover, he'd never forgive himself for what he'd done. Somehow he had manipulated the evening so that he could pick off the rest of the Seven. It had been a clever set up, and God, it hurt to think about it, but Ezra couldn't stop trying to find some way.

A very clever set up, Ezra repeated to himself. He smiled vacantly. It seemed Vin was taking after his own old habits. But dry humor aside, within he felt sunken and numb.

"It's ironic, isn't it?" Vin drawled into the captive's ear. "Evil spelled backwards is live. Ever noticed that?"

Ezra tried not to shudder.

"And we've hardly been living, Ezra."

"Well, technically speaking, we are dead."

Vin stifled a chuckle. "Ahhh. Uh-huh, there, you see?"

With a sigh, Ezra nodded. The real irony was that the Seven should be undone by one of their own. Then he made his decision. "I see."

Vin's eyes brightened with delight.

"I see now, Vin." Ezra's gaze broke free to angle toward the area of Vin's throat where the cut had been. There was little more than a dried trail of blood-ash now. He murmured a request to be let up from the bed.

Vin accommodated him by releasing his wrists. His hands strayed to pull away the rumpled strip of Ezra's tie and explore under his shirt as he coaxed his lover to sit up.

Ezra felt dizzy. He let his fangs bud and parted his lips, showing Vin that he was ready. He gazed at the handsome face, taking in every angle from the square jaw to the prominent cheekbones, the soft coffee of the brows, and a lock of hair dangling at the temple. An eager breath passed Vin's lips and Ezra rode it with his own. He swallowed down a dense lump, hurting. . . damn it all, he hurt so much. With a quick glance down, he licked his lips and looked past Vin's hand resting on his knee.

His gun was lying on the floor not far from the bed. When this was all over, he'd take a walk into the sunrise.

"Take it," Vin urged, leaning slightly forward and tilting his head. "Hurry."

Ezra reached up and swept Vin's hair aside. He eyed the vein pulsing beneath the skin, almost glowing, hypnotic in its rhythm, ripe and waiting. "I would follow you anywhere, Vin," he whispered. Then he tensed, every muscle and fiber in his being cocking back, ready to fire on command. "But not this path."

In the next second he saw the change in Vin's eyes.

. . . disappointment. . .

Ezra seized that tiny frozen moment to launch himself from the bed and dive for the gun.

. . .rage. . .

Before Ezra's hand could even remotely reach the weapon, Vin snarled and kicked out with one leg, swifter than Ezra could have imagined, and nailed him square in the upper belly. Ezra shouted as a rib cracked under the blow and he flew sideways, crashing into the table, turning it over, sending the laptop crashing against the A/C unit under the window. Gritting his teeth, he stumbled around himself sorting out his sprawled legs from his arms. The rib snapped back into place and healed as he looked up to find Vin storming toward him.

Ezra got his feet under him and leapt up, lashing out with one hand, claws extended, to ward off the attack. He felt flesh cling to the sharp tips and tear, heard—through the static in his brain—Vin roar out an objection. For a flash, he thought he had the opening to go for the gun again, and then it was gone. Something stabbed into him at the lower front of his rib cage, jarring the breath from his body so he couldn't even scream at the burning pain that snaked up into his chest, between his lungs, to the organ suspended in the center.


Silence sliced the air, leaving only the distant windy sound of a car out on the highway.

Ezra looked up through a haze of tears and found himself impaled on Vin's forearm, the wrist and hand buried inside him, going up under his ribcage, the talons inside there curling around his heart, preparing to rip it out.

"I. . . didn't want to do this," Vin husked. There were three bleeding claw marks on his cheek, all healing rapidly.

Ezra gurgled to draw in another breath, the pain in his chest so hot and wrenching that he shook against Vin. With a jerk he spat up blood as he looked into his lover's eyes one last time, and deep inside felt his heart pulse helplessly in Vin's hand.

"Take. . . it," he whispered. "It was always yours."


Vin caught a breath, gritted his teeth, and with all his fury pulled his bloody hand from Ezra's body. Tissue ripped inside as the heart came with it, beating one last time in his grip. Other organs and muscles suctioned meatily around his wrist before the whole mass came free. Another small spray of blood issued from Ezra's lips as the shudders wracking his frame ceased, and he stared. Eyes like brilliant green chips of quartz leveled with Vin's, pupils dilating until Vin saw his reflection in those dead black depths.

"Damn you!" Vin snarled as he let the body fall way. It hit the floor with a hollow ­thunk, facing up. The eyes remained fixed on Vin, accusing in their silence. Vin paced, holding onto the heart, which rapidly grew cold in his hand, the torn edges of its arteries already drying into dust, turning the whole of it black and lifeless as a lump of coal. A low growl boiled out of his throat as the full weight of Ezra's last statement lingered in his mind. Damn him, the gambler always had to have the last laugh.

"Well, I must say, that was well done," a deep voice purred from behind him.

Vin's lips curled back in a warning scowl as he looked right and found Amenahkte standing beside him, regal in his black long coat, hair neatly groomed and curling around his shoulders. Vin started to speak, lost all sense of his own voice, and closed his mouth. The anger lingering within held him still, hand clutching tighter on the crisping heart. He maneuvered calmly sideways, wary and confused.

I killed you.

"Why, yes, you did." Amenahkte smiled, his crimson eyes gleaming with what appeared to be pride. "Then I gave you a gift, and you hit the ground running with it."

Vin circled the Egyptian, the events of the evening replaying in his mind, all focused on the jubilation he'd felt with every killing, before he turned back to the body on the floor. Every nerve and fiber pulsed with raw energy, hovering ever closer to lashing out at the master who had been both his enemy, and, for all intents and purposes, his new sire.

"It's just you and me now." Amenahkte took a step closer, and Vin backed up, keeping striking distance.

But I don't want you and me.

The edge of Vin's foot brushed against Ezra's outstretched limp hand, feeling cold flesh. He groaned miserably as he couldn't take his eyes off the lifeless body and the bloody well opened below the chest.

Ezra. . .

His vision grazed over parted lips splattered with blood. God, how could he have done this? This wasn't supposed to happen. . . Not this. . . None of it. . .

"It's time we were going," Amenahkte said gently.

Shoulder's hunched, Vin paced, breath rising into violent gusts. He hadn't wanted this. Maybe he'd meant to let his anger teach Ezra a lesson. Maybe he'd just meant to hurt, but not this. Maybe he shouldn't have pulled so hard. . .

"Vin, come now."

Vin felt the tug of Amenahkte's will, but he only looked down at the thing in his hand. Could he put it back? Could he nestle it back inside Ezra's chest and undo everything?

God, I don't want to be alone. ..

"God won't help you, boy, and you will not be alone." The Egyptian's dark figure hovered into Vin's peripheral vision, but Vin turned viciously away from it. "I'll always be with you."

No. . .

But to put the heart back wouldn't undo it all. Vin shuddered, Amenahkte's voice dropped into a strained and distant echo, and then the world fell out from under everything.

His strength failed, replaced by a whirlpool that washed away all of the malevolence he'd found within. The darkness drained away with the sensation of purification by fire, leaving the most agonizing emptiness behind. Collapsing to his knees, he recalled the things he'd done.

The horrible things he'd done.

He'd fed on innocent humans then used their deaths to lay traps for his friends, made sure they were all separated when he used surprise as his ultimate weapon. None of them could have known what he was coming to do. All their faces passed before him: J.D.'s shock and pain when Vin ripped into the base of his neck and clutched his spine; Buck's blank face as blood gushed from the bullet hole in his forehead; the glaze in Josiah's eyes as claws ripped across his throat and tore out the entire front of his neck; Chris's anguish over the loss of a friendship; Nathan, blind, too ready to see the good in Vin. His next target had been the Clarion Group, which was why he was snooping on Nathan's computer when Ezra had arrived.

It had all felt so good. So, incredibly. . . good.

Now, there was only filth.

His throat constricted, suppressing a tiny, wounded-animal whine of a noise. Bitterness sluiced over his tongue and he thought he would gag.

"Ezra," he groaned, his voice shaking. "I'm sssss. . . sorry." The tears erupted out of his eyes too fast for him to contain them. The heart in his hand tumbled away, and he reached down, cupped his hands around Ezra's head and lifted, cradling it, gazing on the face of the man who had, in essence, been everything to him: his friend, his teacher, his lover, his child. He considered the rest of the group: friends, eternal companions, brothers in arms. So unbelievable, he thought, that he'd managed to destroy his entire world in one night. His fingers clenched under Ezra's head, soft curls of hair threading in between. He couldn't bring himself to close the eyes.


Amenahkte's hazy voice filtered back to him.

"Go away, you motherless fuck."


Wait. Vin frowned, eyes darting back over Ezra's face, sight lingering on the smooth rise of a cheekbone, then on to the soft fringe of light brown eye lashes.

"Vin? What the hell just happened here?" The soft, southern drawl felt like honey poured into his ears, calming and sweet.

"I'm sorry," he whispered.

"Vin!" A sharper, huskier voice broke through the clog in his head, and Vin blinked, suddenly finding himself blind, staring into flat-black nothing. Chris? He blinked again, and stared at shimmering ripples of blue slowly forming a complete image. New sensation crept into his body, slowly defining that he was squatting low, shoulders hunched, head bowed and clamped in his hands. Somewhere nearby, a muted bass beat issued. Before him lay a body, and to the side of it, he made out sparkling wet pavement and the brilliant reflection of a blue neon sign. It's message struck him as strangely familiar.


The body was not Ezra's. Rather, it was wrapped in a disheveled black long coat, the face half hidden by tousled waves of ebon hair. He made out a red-hued iris and parted lips revealing fangs coated in splashes of murky blood.

Amenahkte. . .

Vin licked his lips, tasted the same blood on them, and then shuddered.

"Hey, pard, you okay?"

A face hovered near by, blue-eyed and full of caring, the soft brow drawn up in worry.

"B-Buck?" he stammered. Eyes wandering past the other man, he found five other figures standing around him: Ezra, Chris, Nathan, Josiah, and J.D., all frowning to have found him in such a state. A weak smile quivered on his face as he saw Ezra moving toward him. He murmured the gambler's name with breathy abandon.

Vin rose suddenly to his feet, eyes wide with both joy and bewilderment. Alive! They were all alive! Then the fast motion upward sent him plunging back in dizziness. He fell against the brick wall behind him and clung there, head tilted so that the gritty surface scraped through his hair to his scalp.

"Whoa!" Buck's voice shouted, followed by Ezra's echoing, "Vin!"

Two sets of hands touched him, grabbed his shoulders and supported him. He let them come as he stared into his own mind for a moment, groping for clarity of the here-and-now and how he'd finally reached it. The taste of blood lingered in his mouth, tangy-sweet and tempting. A wash of images hit him: Amenahkte engaging him with a bloody kiss; swallowing the sanguine flow gulp after gulp; and then sinking. . .

Sinking into himself, he'd tossed and turned against the vile memories of Selvik taking him, the rage that followed, and all the little things. . . the peevish shit. . . all of it had welled through him tenfold, a storm of malice melding with the creature that he was. The desire to act came next, overruling reason with an undeniable sense for wicked pleasure, the wish to feed without care of consequence, and survival at any cost.

He had suppressed it until he felt he'd tear himself apart, struggling here, in this stinking alley, amid broken glass, and that goddamned club beat pounding the rear wall. His only defense was to let the action take place on the movie screen of his mind. He watched it all in living color, through the eyes of the ones he would hurt if he truly unleashed such power, until the drug of Amenahkte's blood could run its course. His ultimate awakening had lain in Ezra's dying words. In reality he'd never heard such words, but he had felt them through his blood link with the gambler. His gambler. Amenahkte couldn't compete with that.

"I. . . beat him," he grated out as his vision began to swim back into place. Ezra's face hovered in close, the eyes very much alive and green and vibrant. Vin couldn't help himself. He reached up, clambered through the dizziness, and grabbed at tension-hardened shoulders, sleeved in soft leather, and pulled Ezra into a tight embrace.

Ezra yelped as he was jerked forward, but fell into the hold with a sigh that ghosted over Vin's ear. "Vin," he said after a moment, "do you mind too dearly explaining what happened here?"

A snort of a snicker was the answer, and Vin stifled more of them as he tried to find a way to explain and couldn't. "I beat him," was all he could get out. Looking over Ezra's shoulder, he saw Chris move to squat over Amenahkte's body and examine it.

Nathan and Josiah followed, the three discussing the corpse and the task of decapitation and disposal.

Buck backed away from the embracing couple and looked at the Chevelle and its crushed roof. "Day-Am, Tanner," he said and whistled. "You sure know how to take 'em down." He obviously hadn't noticed the destroyed fire escape and pile of rubble.

Vin grinned and finally released Ezra. "So you got my message?" he asked.

"Certainly did," Ezra replied. "You missed me by about five minutes." His jaw tightened, and he spoke next through his teeth. "Vin, you could have gotten yourself killed." His gaze examined Vin's face, then fell on the blood on his lips. Next he found the hole in Vin's shirt, where the rod from the fire escape had pierced him.

"I dealt with him," Vin answered, sobering quickly and squirming away from the light little jab Ezra made to his side. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he took a breath, steadied himself, and stepped away from the wall. Visions of killing lingered, still close enough to give him doubt that the worst was over.

"I think I know this face," Nathan announced from where he hovered over the body, carefully tilting the head from side to side.

"It's Amenahkte." Vin cleared his throat and found six sets of eyes boring into him.

"Holy shit!" J.D. burst out. "The Egyptian?"


Chris cocked his head, brow furrowed. "You took out an ancient?"

Vacantly, Vin nodded. He could see that Larabee was about to get as wound up as Ezra about it. "I didn't go after him," he explained. "I only tried to track him, but I turned that corner down there, and he was waiting."

"But what were you doing when we found you?" Ezra asked, stepping back into Vin's field of vision.

"Uh, it's a long story." He was so tired and not ready to tell them how, in his mind, he'd killed each and every one of them in the goriest way.

"How can it be a long story?" J.D. butted in. "We've only been looking for you an hour."

Vin chuckled. "Kid, didn't you ever hear it said the world turns on a dime?"

"Well, whatever happened here, the outcome was good," Josiah reminded them and gestured at the body. A few nods answered that.

"What time is it, anyway?" Vin asked.

Ezra checked his watch. "It is precisely midnight."

Nodding, Vin stepped toward the body and stared down at it. The chest appeared swollen, as if the graphite rounds lodged in the heart had caused it to expand, and more blood had burbled up out of the mouth and dried into black dust. He stared long and hard, just to be sure it was all over. Just to be sure the red eyes wouldn't blink, or that the fiend wouldn't try to rise up again. Vin recalled the Egyptian's final guest appearance in his psyche, making one last attempt to gain control, but it had failed, faded away into nothing.

Amenahkte, it seemed, was well trapped in the death stasis.

Yeah, Vin determined for himself. It's over.

A sudden flash of light snapped him to, and he glared at J.D., who had just pulled out a small 35 mm camera and taken the first of several shots. The photos would go to the Clarion Group for their kill records.

"Vin, you all right?" Nathan asked.

"Never better." He nodded toward the mouth of the alleyway as he asked the others, "You all mind taking care of the rest? I need a moment."

"We got it," Chris said and waved Vin on.

"Great. I'll debrief back at the hotel. Ezra?" Vin gave the gambler's elbow a tug. "Come with?"

"Sure, but. . ." Ezra glanced back at the others, "might my services be needed here?"

"Go with him, Ez," Buck chided.

Vin grinned, watched the gambler clear his throat, adjust his tie, and then proceed.

"Where are we going?"

"My Hog is up the street. Gotta go get it." Vin strolled ahead, suddenly filled with a sense of elation. The vision, horrible though it had been, had given him something special after all. His friends were alive, and he was not alone. Pausing he waited for Ezra to catch up with him at the edge of the alleyway, before he turned on his lover and caught him up in a kiss. Ezra's mouth yielded, soft yet strong, and warm from the feeding. Oh, so warm.

Vin held still, savouring the moment, before he pulled away and marvelled as jade eyes blinked open at him, glowing softly from within the pupils, the spark of desire struck.

"Besides," he added, "I have a view to share with you."