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SHANE

"What do you think makes you the angriest?" my newly-appointed shrink Dr. Theo Goldman asked. He was puttering around at his desk, straightening papers, adjusting the angle of his pen, not apparently paying much attention to the answer.

I wasn't fooled. The fact was, Theo Goldman was listening carefully to everything ... words, pauses, the way I took a breath. Vampire senses were a bitch that way. Goldman was probably listening to my heart rate, too.

And why did I come here, again? Well, I hadn't really been given much of a choice.

I shifted uncomfortably on the couch, then stopped and held very still, as if that was going to somehow help me out. Goldman looked up briefly and smiled at me. He wasn't a bad guy, for a vamp; kind of rumpled, a little antique looking, and he never seemed like he was tempted to rip my throat out for a snack. Claire trusted him, and if my girl said that, she'd probably put a lot of thought into it.

"The angriest," I repeated, stalling for time. My throat felt dry and tight, and I thought about asking for some water, but it seemed like that might be weird. "You want that list alphabetically?"

"I mean in all your life, the angriest," Goldman said. "The first thing that comes to your mind."

"There's a lot to choose from."

"I'm sure something stands out."

"Not really, I - "

"Go!"

The sudden, sharp tone of voice hit me like a needle, and I blurted out, "Claire!" I immediately felt sick. I hadn't meant to go there, not at all, but it just ... came out.

In the silence that followed, Theo Goldman sat back in his chair and looked at me with calm, unreadable eyes. "Go on," he finally said. "What about Claire?"

What the hell had I just said? It wasn't true, not at all. I didn't mean it. I stared hard at my shoes, which were battered old work boots, the better to kick some vampire in the teeth with. In Morganville, Texas, you either went with the running shoes, or the teeth-kicking shoes. I wasn't much of a runner.

"Nothing," I said. "It just came out, that's all. Claire's the best thing that ever happened to me. I'm not angry at her. I don't even know why I said that." That was good, that was calm and straightforward, and I checked my watch. God, had it only been fifteen minutes in here, in this nice paneled office, sitting on this comfy Softer Side of Sears couch? "Look, this is great and everything, but I really should be - "

"Why then did Claire come to your mind, with all of the terrible things I know you have experienced?" he asked. "You have another thirty minutes, by the way, we have plenty of time. Relax, Mr. Collins. I promise you, I'm here to help."

"Help. Yeah, vampires are known for all their awesome counseling skills."

"Does the fact that I am a vampire bother you?"

"Of course it bothers me! I grew up in Morganville, it's kind of a big deal to sit down and play nice with one of you."

Goldman's smile was sad, and ghostly. "You do realize that just as all men are not the same, all vampires are not the same? The worst murderers I have ever met in my long life were breathing men who killed not for sustenance, but for sport. Or worse, for beliefs."

"Don't suppose we can just agree I'm screwed up and call it a day?"

He looked at me with such level, kind intensity that I felt uncomfortable, and then he said, "There are a surprising number of people who care about what happens to you. The fact that you are here, instead of behind bars, would seem to tell you that, I'd think. Yes?"

I shrugged. I knew it looked like I was the typical surly teen, but I didn't much care what a vamp thought of me anyway. So I kept insisting to myself, anyway. I'd gotten myself in it deep this time ... deeper than it looked. Before, they'd let me slide because I was a messed-up kid, and then because I'd managed to end up on the right side (by their definition, anyway) of the problem, even against my own dad.

But this time I didn't have any defense. I'd voluntarily gotten involved in the illegal fight club at the gym; I'd let myself get drugged up and stuck in cages to duke it out with vampires. For money. On the internet.

It was that last part that was the biggest violation of all ... breaching the wall of secrecy about Morganville. Sure, nobody on the internet would take it seriously; it was all tricks, special effects, and besides, to the average visitor who wanted to come poke around it was the boring, roll-up-the-sidewalks-at-dusk town in America.

That didn't change the fact that I'd risked the anonymity - the safety - of the vampires. I was lucky I hadn't been quietly walled up somewhere, or buried in a nice, deep grave somewhere in the dark. The only reason I hadn't been killed outright was that my girlfriend had some pull with the vamps, and she'd fought for me. Hard.

She was the reason I was sitting here, instead of taking up a slab in the local mortuary. So why had I said her name when he'd asked me about being angry?

I hadn't answered, even though the silence stretched thin, so Dr. Goldman leaned back in his chair and tapped his pen against his lips a moment, then said, "Why do you feel you need to fight, Shane?"

I laughed out loud. It sounded wild and uncontrollable, even to me. "You're not serious with that question, right?"

"I don't mean fight when your life is in danger, that is a reasonable and logical response to preserve one's safety. According to the records I've reviewed, though, you seem to seek out physical confrontation, rather than wait for it to come to you. It started in school, it seems ... although you were never classified as a bully, you seemed to take special care to seek out those who were picking on others and - how would you say it? - teach them a lesson. You cast yourself as the defender of the weak and abused. Why is that?"

"Somebody's got to do it."

"Your father, Frank Collins - "

"Don't," I interrupted him flatly. "Just stay the hell of the topic, okay? No discussions about my freaking obvious daddy issues, or my mother, or Alyssa dying, any of that crap. I'm over it."

He raised an eyebrow, just enough to tell me what he thought about that. "Then shall we discuss Claire?"

"No," I said, but my heart wasn't in it. Weirdly.

He must have sensed it, because he said, in that gentle and quiet tone, "Why don't you tell me about her?"

"Why should I? You already know her."

"I want to know how you see her."

"She's beautiful," I said, and I meant it. "She doesn't know it, but she is. And she's so - " Fragile. Vulnerable. " - Stubborn. She just doesn't know when to give up."

"You seem to have that in common."

We had a lot in common, weird as that might seem; she was from a sheltered, protected place, a family who loved her, a dad who would never betray her, but somehow that had given her an unshakable belief that she could survive anything. I had that, too, but it came from the opposite direction; I knew what it felt like to lose everything, everyone, and know that it was just me against the darkness.

But it was more than that. Complicated, what I felt for her.

And I didn't want to look too closely at it. "I try to look after her," I said. That was meant to be a blow-off, but Goldman seemed to find it more interesting than I intended.

"Does she need looking after, do you think?"

"Doesn't everybody?"

"And your job, the job of all boyfriends, is to protect her," he said. It almost sounded like my own voice, in my own head. "Is that what you believe?"

"Yeah," I agreed. No brainer.

"What do you think Claire would say if she heard that?"

I couldn't stop myself from smiling, a little. "She'd smack me," I said. "She doesn't think she needs a bodyguard, she's always telling me that." The smile faded too fast, because a cascade of images burned through my brain, uncontrollable and violent: Claire smiling at me. Claire smiling at Myrnin. Myrnin turning crazy on us, as he always did. And Claire just ... accepting that. Again.

The scars on her neck, pale and small but obvious to me.

"And yet, you're angry at her," Goldman said.

"Bite me," I snapped. The pressure was doing my head in, and I had to get up, move, stalk the room. My fist wanted to punch something; the wild energy in me didn't have any way out except through flesh and bone and pain. "You need to stop pushing me, man, I mean it. I don't want to be paying for repairs around here."

Goldman was unruffled. He sat comfortably and watched me as I paced the room. If he was scared I'd take it out on him, he didn't look it. "Are you angry because I made an observation, or because of what I am?"

"Both," I said. "Hell, I don't know. Look, can we just get this over with? Call it an hour and let me out of here."

"You can leave any time you like, Shane, I'm not stopping you. But your treatment is mandated by the Founder. If you decide not to follow through on your commitments, she is within her rights to rescind your parole and put you behind bars."

"Wouldn't be the first time."

"I know," he said. There was a world of kindness in those two words, and it derailed the anger train from the tracks. I didn't want to punch him, but I didn't want to answer him, either. He was right, I couldn't just walk out of here, not without consequences ... jail didn't scare me so much, but there was something that did: losing Claire. Going to jail meant not seeing her, and right now, she was the only light in the world shining in the dark where I lived.

Even if sometimes I hated what I saw reflected in that light.

I had my hand on the doorknob of the office. The place wasn't locked; I could just turn my wrist, and step over the threshold, and live with all that meant.

I turned my wrist and pulled the door open. The outer office beyond the door was a little cooler, and I closed my eyes as the soft breeze passed over my face.

One step. That's all it would take. One step.

I slowly closed the door and leaned my back against it. "I'm not a coward," I said.

"I think that is beyond dispute," he replied. "But physical courage is one thing. Emotional courage to look inside yourself, that is another, and many don't possess that kind of will. Do you?"

"Not me. My friends all have it. I don't," I said. I was thinking about Michael, hanging on quietly, alone, ghostly in a house that had been his family's home. Grimly trying to survive as half a vampire, hiding the truth from us, never letting me see his fear or his fury. Eve, always full of acid and fun, with all the fragile terror beneath; she never let Morganville win, even though every day she woke up knowing it could be her last. Claire, sure and steady and calm, somehow coming into our little fraternity of screwups and making us whole, each in our own way. Without her, I'd never have had the courage to defy my dad and side with Michael, even though I wanted to do it.

Claire was all courage, to the core. Just not the kind of courage that hit things.

"I think you are stronger than you know," Goldman said, and leaned forward now, watching me intently as I sat back down on the couch. "And much smarter than anyone gives you credit. I will make you this deal. We can sit for the rest of the hour in silence, if you wish, and I will say that you are progressing with your therapy. Or you can speak. It's your choice. I won't ask you again."

It was a long ten minutes before I finally said, pushing the words out against an overwhelming weight, "It was how she looked at him."

"At who?"

"At her boss. Crazy-ass Myrnin. I saw her looking at him, and he was looking at her, and it was - " I shook my head. "Nothing, it was nothing." No, that wasn't true, I was lying out loud. Worse, I was trying to lie to myself. "She likes him. Maybe even loves him, in a crazy uncle kind of way."

"You think she doesn't love you?"

"That's not the point. She can't love him."

"Because he is a vampire?"

"Yes!"

"You said before that she loves him like an uncle. Do you believe it is more than that?"

"Not from her," I said. "From him ... yeah, maybe."

"How did it make you feel, knowing that?"

What a shrink question. "Lost," I said. That surprised me, but it was true. "I felt lost. And angry."

"At Claire."

I didn't answer that one, because it was too scary. I could not be angry at Claire, I just couldn't. It wasn't her fault, any of this; she was a loving person, and that was part of why I loved her, too.

So why did it hurt so much to think that she might smile at Myrnin, love him even a little bit?

Because he's a vampire. No, because you want her to be all yours.

"Have you considered," Goldman said, "that the reason the vampire Gloriana found it so easy to release that anger inside you to make you fight is that you so rarely confront it?"

"What the hell does that mean, is it shrink code for yell and break stuff and act like a douchebag? Because I've already done all that." More often than I liked to admit, even to myself. "I'm all about confrontation."

"Yes," he said, and smiled. It made him look kindly and twinkly and likable, which sucked, because vampires weren't supposed to look that way. "You most certainly have that behavior down. But what about talking honestly with Claire? Have you done that?"

Had I? I talked to her, sure - every day. And sometimes we talked about how we felt, but it was surface stuff, even if it was true. "No," I said. The pressure inside me lightened up, weirdly enough. I no longer wanted to punch something to get rid of it. "I mean, she knows I don't like the guy ..."

"Have you told her, explicitly, how you see her relationship with Myrnin, and how it makes you feel?"

That was an easy one. "No." Hell no.

He was still smiling, all grandfatherly and very slightly amused. "Because strong upimg men don't do such things, yes?"

No shit, Sherlock.

"What if I told you that being honest with her, deeply honest, would make her love you even more?"

That was utter crap. If Claire knew me, really knew me, knew all the toxic muck that was sludged up inside me ... she'd get the hell away from me, no question about it. I shook my head, not even meaning to do it.

Goldman sighed. "Very well, then," he said. "Baby steps. At least you've admitted it to me. We have at least another two months left together. I consider this a very fine start." He glanced down at his watch. "And I believe that it's time for my next appointment. Very good work, Mr. Collins."

I shot out of the couch like it had an ejection seat, and had my hand on the doorknob when he said, "One more thing, if you don't mind: I'd like to assign you some homework."

"Yeah, 'cause that never gets old," I said, but I was already resigned to doing a searching moral inventory, or whatever psychobabble crap he was about to pull out of his dusty immortal bag of tricks.

He surprised me. "I'd like you to try, for the next twenty-four hours, to solve any problem that arises without allowing your anger free rein. If you're presented with an opportunity to fight, I'd like you to back down. If someone tries to verbally engage you, defuse the situation. If you're insulted, walk away. Just for twenty-four hours. Then you can engage in fisticuffs to your heart's content."

I turned and stared at him. "I have actually gone a whole day without punching somebody, you know. Sometimes even two days."

"Yes, but you channel your anger in other ways, smaller ones you may not even realize. Perhaps by thinking hard about it, you may realize how much you allow it to drive your actions and shape the world around you." He nodded, then. "That's all. Just try it, for one full day. I'll be interested to hear how it feels."

I shrugged and opened the door. "Sure, doc. No problem."

I didn't even make it out of the building before my first challenge came up. It was a big one.

Physically, Monica Morrell was a pretty girl - not as beautiful as she thought she was, but on a scale of ten she was at least a seven, and that was when she wasn't really trying. Today, she was definitively working for an eight point five, and was probably getting it. She had one a short pink dress and looked ... glossy, I guess. Girls would probably be able to tell you all the technical details of that, but the bottom line was, she turned heads.

And my first impulse, my very first, was to punch her right in the pink lip gloss.

That was so familiar to me that it honestly kind of surprised me when I considered it, in light of Goldman's homework assignment. She hadn't even seen me yet, hadn't smirked or made a snarky, cold comment; she hadn't reminded me of my dead family, or dissed my girlfriend, or done any of a thousand things she was bound to pull out to trip my triggers. It was just a reflex, me wanting to hurt her, and I was pretty sure that most people didn't have that kind of wiring.

I took a deep breath, and as she looked up and saw me getting off the elevator, I held the door for her. I didn't smile - it probably would have looked like I wanted to bite her - but I nodded politely and said, "Morning," just like she was a real person and not a skanky murderous bitch who didn't deserve to breathe.

She faltered, just a little strange flinch as if she couldn't quite figure out what my game was. If I hadn't been looking for it, I never would have seen the odd expression that flashed across her face, and even then, it took me a few more seconds to realize what it meant.

She was afraid.

The flash of fear vanished, and she tossed her shiny hair back and walked past me into the elevator. "Collins," she said. "So, did you rig it to explode?" She said it like she was unimpressed, and stabbed a perfectly manicured finger out at one of the floor buttons. "Or are you just going to throw paint on me before the doors shut?"

I considered saying a lot of things - maybe about how she deserved to die in fire - and then I let go of the door, stepped back, and said, "Have a nice day, Monica."

She was still staring at me with the best, most utterly confused expression, when I turned and walked away, hands in my pockets.

Frustrating? Yeah, a little. But oddly fun. At least I can keep her guessing, I thought. And it felt like a little victory, just because I hadn't done the first thing that popped into my head.

Walking toward home, I nodded to people I knew, which was pretty much everybody. I didn't hit anybody. I didn't even say anything snide. It was kind of a miracle.

I decided to test my luck a little, and stopped in at Common Grounds.

If I'd been relatively unpopular around Morganville before, I'd taken things to a whole new level. Down a level. I walked into the coffee shop like I had a thousand times before, and this time, conversation pretty much stopped dead. The college students ignored me, as they always did; I was a townie, unimportant to their own little insulated world; it was the Morganville natives who were reacting like Typhoid Mary had just sailed in the door. Some got real interested in their lattes and mochas; others whispered, heads together, darting looks at me.

Word was out that I was on probation with the Founder. Somewhere, some enterprising young buck was taking bets on whether or not I'd survive the week, and the odds were not going to be in my favor.

My housemate Eve was behind the counter, and she leaned over it and waved at me. She'd put some temporary blue streaks in her coal-black hair, which gave her some interesting style, particularly when paired with the livid blue eye shadow and matching, very shiny shirt. Over her outfit, which was probably more cracked out than usual, she wore the tie-dyed Common Grounds apron. "Hey, sunshine," she said. "What's your poison?"

Knowing Eve, she meant that literally. "Coffee," I said. "Just plain, none of that foo foo stuff."

She widened her eyes, and leaned over to stage-whisper, "Honestly, men do sometimes have cream in their coffee. I've seen it on the news. Try a latte sometime, it's not going to reduce your testosterone level or anything."

"B - " I was about to automatically say bite me, which would have been right and proper and comfortable between the two of us; it wasn't an angry response, it was just the usual thing I said when Eve snarked on me. I loved her, but this was how we talked. Probably wasn't covered by Goldman's rules, but I thought that maybe, just maybe, I'd try to change it up. "Okay," I said.

That got me a blank stare. "I'm sorry?"

"Okay," I repeated. "I'll try a latte, if you think they're good."

"You'll - " Eve cocked her head slowly to one side, her blunt-cut hair brushing her shoulder. "Wait, did you just say you want me to make you a drink that isn't something you get at a truck stop?"

"Is that a problem?"

"No. No, not at all," she said, but she was frowning a little. "You feeling okay?"

"Yeah, good," I said. "Just trying something different today."

"Huh." Eve studied me for a few long seconds, and then smiled. "It's kind of working for you, boy." She winked at me and got busy doing complicated things with espresso and steamed milk, and I turned to look at the crowd sitting around the tables. A few local business types, cheating a few minutes away from the office; the college kids with their backpacks, headphones and stacks of textbooks; a few pale, anemic people sitting in the darker part of the room, away from the windows.

One of them rose and walked toward me. Oliver, owner of the place, who redefined the term "hippie freak" ... he had tied his long graying hair back in a ponytail, and was wearing a Common Grounds apron that made him look all nice and cuddly. He wasn't, and I was one of those who knew just how very dangerous he really was.

He also wasn't my biggest fan. Ever, I mean, but especially now.

"Collins," he greeted me, not sounding too thrilled to be taking my money for caffeine. "I thought you were due for therapy." He didn't bother to lower his voice, and I saw Eve, who'd overheard, wince and keep her attention strictly on the drink she was mixing.

"Already been," I said. I couldn't sound cheerful, but I didn't sound angry, either. Kind of an achievement. "You can check with the doc if you want."

"Oh, I will," he said. "This needless charity toward you is not my idea, and if you fail to meet the conditions of your parole ..."

"I'll be in jail," I said.

Oliver smiled, and it was a scary thing. "Perhaps," he said. "But I wouldn't count on it. You've had too many chances. Amelie's patience may be unlimited, but I promise you, mine is not."

"Back - " ... off, man, I'm not impressed with the size of your ... Yeah, that wasn't playing by Theo's rules so much. I bit my tongue, tasted blood, and really wanted to toss off a few incendiary rounds in his direction. Instead, I took a breath, counted to five, and said, "I know I don't deserve the break. I'll do my best to earn it."

His eyebrows rose sharply, but his eyes remained cold. "It was given over my objections. Again. You needn't waste your sudden change of heart on me."

Well, I'd tried.

Eve cleared her throat, loudly, and pushed my drink at me. "Here," she said. "Hey, is Claire meeting you?"

"No, she's got classes. Thanks for this." I passed over a five, and she made change. Oliver watched the transaction without commentary, thankfully; I'd just about used up my entire reserve of polite vampire-appropriate conversation that didn't involve the words drop deader.

I carried the drink over to an open table and sat down. I had a good view of the street, so I people-watched and surfed my phone. The latte, surprisingly, wasn't bad. I saw Eve watching me, and gave her a thumbs up. She did a silent cheer. Score so far: Shane three, temper zero, I thought, and was feeling kind of smug about it when a shadow fell across me. I looked up to see three Texas Prairie University jocks - which wasn't saying much, in the great athletic world - looming over me. They were big dudes, but not that much bigger than I was. I automatically did the pre-calculations ... three to one, the one in the middle was the ringleader, and he had a mean look. Sidekick one was vacant-looking, but he had a multiply-broken nose and was no stranger to mixing it up. Sidekick two was unmarked, which either meant he wasn't much of a fighter, or he was ridiculously good.

Eh, I'd had lots worse matchups. At least none of them had fangs.

"You're at our table," the center one said. He was wearing a Morganville High cutoff muscle tee, with the school mascot - a viper, go figure - and I finally placed him. He was a native son, and he'd been just starting to get a rep as a decent defensive lineman before I'd left town. He'd been a bully back then, too. "Move it, loser."

"Oh, hey, Billy, how's it going?" I asked, without actually moving an inch. "Haven't seen you around."

He wasn't prepped for chit-chat, and I got a blank look from him, then a scowl. "Did you hear me, Collins? Move it. Not going to tell you again."

"No?" I looked up at him and sipped my latte. "Common Grounds, dude. You really going to start some shit here, with him staring right at us?" I nodded toward Oliver, who had his arms crossed and was watching us with so much intensity I was surprised some of us weren't catching fire. I sipped my latte, and waited. This non-violence thing was kind of fun, because I got to see Billy squirm without breaking a sweat.

Only problem was, Billy wasn't all that smart, and he punched me in the face. Just like that, a sucker punch to the jaw.

I dropped my latte and came up out of my chair in a single surge of muscle, my fist clenching even before the news of the pain hit my brain like a sledgehammer. Counterattack was instinctive, and it was necessary, because nobody, nobody got to hit me like that and not have a comeback.

I was pulling back for a real serious hit when I heard Theo Goldman's voice say, clear as a bell, twenty-four hours.

Hell.

I gulped back my anger, opened my fist, and blocked Billy's next punch. "You owe me a latte," I said, which was something I hadn't exactly expected to say, ever. The table was a mess, spilled coffee and milk dribbling off the edges of it. My heart was pounding, and I wanted to punch all of these guys until they were too stupid to move. This time, holding back didn't feel good; it felt like losing. It felt like cowardice. And I hated it.

But I sacked up and walked away. The table was theirs. Now they had to clean up their own mess.

Outside, the air felt sharp and raw on my skin, and I leaned against the bricks and breathed deeply, several time, until the red mist that still clouded my vision started to clear up. My fight or flight reaction had just one setting, I was starting to realize; that wasn't smart. It was fun, but it wasn't smart.

Eve came running out, still in her apron. She saw me standing there and skidded to a stop. "Hey!" she blurted. "Are you okay?"

"Fine," I said. "He's too wimpy to break anything except his own hand. Doesn't throw from the shoulder."

"No, I mean - Jesus, Shane, you just ... " Eve stared at me for a second, and I thought she was going to say something that would make me feel a hell of a lot worse, but then she threw her arms around me and hugged me hard. "You just did something totally classy. Good for you."

Huh.

She was gone before I could explain that it wasn't really my choice.

Classy? Girls are weird. There's nothing classy about getting sucker punched and walking away.

But I guess today was about fighting myself, and God help me, I was kind of winning.

I had a date late afternoon to walk Claire home from campus; she didn't really need the escort, but I enjoyed pretending she did, and spending time with her was always a plus. I had a lot to make up for, with Claire; I'd lied to her, and when things got dark on me with the fight club, I'd gone dark on her, too. She hadn't deserved that, or any of the terrible things I'd said, or thought. It was going to take some real effort to get back to where we were, but I was determined to make it happen.

And normally, I wouldn't have let anything interfere with that, but as I was passing the empty house on Fox Street, the second from the corner, with the broken-out windows and ancient, peeling paint job, I heard something that sounded like muffled, frantic crying. It's a cat, I told myself. The place was a lifeless wreck, and the yard was so overgrown that just getting to the barred-over front door would have meant a full-blown safari, with the added benefit of thorny weeds, possible snakes and poisonous spiders, and who-knew-what-else. I'd feel really damn stupid if I ended up snakebit to save a cat who wasn't even in trouble in the first place.

But it didn't really sound like a cat.

In Morganville, the principal survival rule was always keep walking, but I've never been one for that strategy; it's soul-sucking, seeing people hurt and doing nothing to help. Goldman was right, I did have a savior complex, but dammit, in Morganville, people sometimes did need saving.

Like, most probably, now.

I sighed and started pushing through the tangle of waist-high weeks toward the house. The front door was a non-starter; I could see that the padlock was still intact from here. Whoever had found a way in had done it with at least a small bit of stealth.

The windows were still full of jagged glass, so even if someone else had gone in that way, I wasn't about to try it - and I didn't need to, because the back door was standing wide open, a not-very-inviting rectangle of blackness.

I could hear scuffling now, and the crying was louder. Definitely being muffled. It was coming from upstairs, and from the thumps, it sounded like there was a fight underway.

The stairs creaked and popped, alerting anybody who was paying the slightest attention that I was on the way, and I wasn't surprised when a girl of about fourteen appeared at the top of the steps, gasping and sobbing, and plunged past me toward the exit. She looked relatively okay; if panicked.

The boys - two of them - at the top of the steps weren't much older than she was. Sixteen, seventeen, maybe. Local kids, but nobody I had on my radar.

They looked real surprised to see me.

"Hey," I said, and stopped where I was, halfway up, blocking the way down. "You want to explain what just happened?"

One of them opted for bravado. Not a good look for him. "None of your business, jackhole," he said, and flipped me off. "We're not doing anything."

"You mean, now," I said. "Here's a pro tip, kids, when the girl's crying, she's not that into you." I was angry now, angrier than I'd been at dumbass Billy with his sucker punch. That would have been a meaningless fight. This one, on the other hand, had some meat to it. "You know who I am?"

One of them had some sense, at least, and he nodded. "Collins," he said, and tugged at his friend's arm. "Dude, let it go."

The friend wasn't that smart. "You can't prove nothing," he shot back at me. I shrugged.

"Yeah, I might really care about that if I was some kind of cop, but I'm not. I'm just a guy who gets pissed off a lot. So here's the deal. I'm going to give you one chance to promise me you'll stop being giant douches. Do that, and you can get the hell out of here." My voice went cold for the next part. "You break your promise, you touch any girl in this town again who doesn't sincerely beg you for it, and I'm going to rip off any parts that dangle, you got me?"

"Who died and made you Batman, dickhead?" the bigger one asked.

"For the purposes of this discussion, let's just say my dad," I said. "Because he'd already have left you room temperature on the floor. I'm the kinder, gentler version." Not quite true; my dad hadn't possessed any real moral compass. If these fools had been vamps, he'd have been all over it, but regular human idiots? He'd shrug and walk away.

They didn't need to know that, though.

"Dude, let's just go already!" said Lesser Douchebag, and didn't wait for his friend to make up his alleged mind; he held up both hands in surrender and edged by me down the steps. When he hit the ground floor, he ran.

The remaining guy reached in his pocket and flicked open a fairly serious looking knife. I respect knives. It raised him a notch or two in my threat levels, though he wasn't yet even breaking orange. "Bad idea," I told him, and began climbing the stairs toward him. "Real, real bad idea."

He started backing off, clearly spooked; he'd thought just having a knife meant he won. I hit the top step and lunged, knocking his knife hand out of the way, twisting it, and catching the weapon before it hit the floor.

Then I put a forearm against his chest, shoved him against the wall, and showed him the knife. "Bad idea," I repeated, and drove it into the wall next to his head, close enough for him to feel the passage of it. He went really, really pale, and all the fight bled out of him as if I'd actually stabbed him. "You just got upgraded. You no longer get a full pass, jackass; you get to look forward to seeing me a lot. And I'd better like what I see, you got me? Any girls crying, even if it's at a sad movie, and we're going to finish this in a way that's not going to look real good on you."

I wanted to punch the little bastard, but I didn't.

I just stared at him for a long few seconds, and then pulled the knife free, folded it, and put it in my own pocket. Then I let him go. "Scat," I said. "You've got a ten second head start."

He made use of it.

I sat down on the steps, toying with the knife he'd left behind. I hadn't lost my temper, but I hadn't exactly been non-violent, either. I called that one a draw.

I hadn't heard him, but all of a sudden I realized that someone was at the bottom of the steps, looking up in the gloom. Pale skin, curly wild hair, out of fashion old man's clothes. Small wire-framed glasses pushed down on his nose.

Dr. Theo Goldman.

"You following me?" I asked. I felt surprisingly relaxed about it.

"Yes," he said. "I was curious how much effort you would put forward. I'm pleasantly surprised."

I gestured with the knife. "So, how does this count?"

He smiled, just a little. "I've never really been a fan of the teaching that you should turn the other cheek," he said. "Evil must be fought, or what does it matter if we're good? Goodness can't be weakness, or it ceases to be good." He shrugged. "Let's call it a draw."

I could live with that. "You were right," I said. "It doesn't have to be all fight, all the time. But I'm going to miss it. Kind of a lot."

"Oh," he said cheerfully, "I'm quite sure there will be plenty of chances for you to indulge yourself. It's Morganville, after all. See you tomorrow."

He was already gone when I blinked. I shook my head and started to pocket the knife.

"Leave it," his voice drifted back. "I trust you better when you're not armed."

I grinned this time, and dumped the knife through a crack in the boards. It was swallowed up by the house.

It wasn't twenty-four hours yet, but somehow, I felt like I could probably make it the rest of the way.

Probably

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