Brooke, get up.

For the fifth time this morning, the fifth time since she'd first awoken, Brooklyn Chandlier tried to resist the call to consciousness, snuggling deeper against the coarse fabric of her pants instead. Her mind was acting up, working as the alarm to her internal clock, and though that wasn't unusual, it was irritating. She'd been experiencing a largely dreamless sleep for the first time in weeks, a black unconsciousness without judgment or reason, no choices or need for analysis. It had been nice after all of these ridiculous dreams and restless nights, to finally feel rested.

You're not fooling me, kid. Get up.

"I'm going, I'm going," Brooke croaked, finally conceding to let Voice win this pointless fight. Lifting up her head, pain shot through her neck as her muscles tried to readjust to movement, and she let her eyes open, peering over the room blearily. There didn't appear to be anyone around, no dead bodies or blood puddles or anything. It was safe. With that reassurance, she rolled forward to push her hands onto the floor and stand, letting her crunched-up body unfurl. Her muscles were sore from sleeping in such a position all night, but it didn't stop her from stumbling forward to the door and leaning wearily into its solidness. She had to go downstairs. She had to talk to Azrael, find out what her orders were for today, if she had any. She had to move, anyway.

So she took the first step, and dragged herself back, opening the door.

Downstairs was a quick journey when she was just waking up like she was, half in a dream and half out of it. She stopped on the bottom step and leaned heavily into the railing, giving the room a dazed glance. The window was still shattered, and a few people seemed to be making a useless attempt at cleaning up the broken glass and taking care of the nasty hole, but many people were still wandering around, working as usual. Brooke's eyes skimmed the crowd, searching for the one who loomed over the rest, flicking past the average workers, a few of whom had decided to keep wearing their coats, since it was rather chilly in here. She saw Mali, she saw Mace, but she didn't see her director. She needed to get in contact with him, right? Find out what her job for the day was?

Sounds like a good plan, Voice yawned.

Yawning to the affirmative, Brooke gave the room one last baleful look. If Azrael had been down here, no doubt Mali would have been reaming him over the window, no matter what he'd said to her the day before. He must have been somewhere else. Turning herself back around, the corpse-girl trudged back upstairs, the effort expended to do that alone making her ready to give up on the search and get another hour or six of sleep. But she wasn't one to turn down a task, so she went off across the landing, over to the filing room where she'd found him the day before.

The room was dark, just as he would have liked it, but as she gave the room a squinted once-over, she already had the feeling that he wasn't here. Still, she couldn't give up on it that easily, so she made a trek of it, wandering down the aisleways in a quiet search. She could hear nothing but her own breathing and the stumbling of her shoes on the floor, and it got a little creepy as she wound her way about, just walking in the dark in search of somebody who didn't want to see her anyway. She found herself looking over the file cabinets as she went, looking up at how high they stretched, nearly to the ceiling and far out of her reach. What could be in all of these cabinets? What kinds of things might she find here? Before her curiosity could build up enough to make her act so rashly as to try breaking into locked drawers, she was through, and left, disheartened by her lack of results.

Onward, to door number two.

Nearly colliding with an employee as she crossed the hall, Brooke went back to the evidence room, and began her clumsy search through there. It seemed unlikely that he'd be hiding in there, deliberately out of sight, but who knew with him? Moving through each rack, she searched them with her eyes, hissing out his name a few times in an attempt to call his attention. But she found no silver eyes staring back, and heard no soft mumble of a reply, so soon enough she was expelled from there, squinting against the light in the hall with unadjusted eyes. Where else could he have gone? Where else would he have gone? The room where she'd found him asleep had its door open, and the desk was occupied by some normal-looking man, so he couldn't be in there.

Maybe the third floor. That looked like his kind of place.

Sure, that made sense. There was plenty of privacy to be had up in that empty place, and he sure seemed to dig privacy. Nodding to herself, and wondering why she hadn't thought of it before, she made her way to the room with the stairway, which was pleasantly unoccupied for the moment. Swinging herself in through the door to the stairway, she closed it behind her, and went up the stairs two at a time, as fast as she could without tripping herself up. He would have waited, right? He had waited every other day, in one place or another, waited for her to wake up before he went out, and she hadn't even slept that late today. She'd woken up earlier than usual if she were anyone to judge, and all of his business seemed to take place in the midday hours, long after she'd had time to wake up and meet him. He had to have waited.

But when she burst in through the doorway with the tacky number "3" nailed to it, expecting to find the man in black up here, reading or thinking or maybe playing Solitaire with himself, she found… nothing. It was just as empty as it had been when she'd visited with him, only he wasn't here now, just her, in this dull and empty room. Making an exasperated noise between a sigh and a grunt in her throat, she slammed the door shut behind her and walked into the center of the room, turning around to look at the room at every end. Nothing. Where was he?

Maybe he left already. Maybe he had some important stuff early on and he was too mad to tell me, or he forgot or something.

Why today of all days? He already blew up his building, what else does he have to do?

Coming to one of the windows, covered up in what looked sort of like brown paper bag material, she stared down at it, her mind starting to drive into motion, waking her to the fullest extent. As it puzzled over the question, she reached out and took hold of the edge of the paper where it was taped to the window, and tore back, ripping a diagonal slash through it. She grabbed and yanked at the rest of the paper on that window until it lay bare, the covering at her feet, and she could look out over the street below, watching the parked cars and the bustling streets, narrowing her eyes against the light that her eyes weren't quite used to yet.

Well, he has the whole… information gathering.

Which consists of him following you around and listening to your little infiltration escapades. You're here, so why isn't he?

Brooke bit down on her lip, chewing it thoughtfully. That was a pretty good question. His job wasn't infiltration; he'd said it himself, that she was the one who looked human enough to pass. He was the one who listened. That was how she'd understood it to work, that he was the stealth listener and the enforcer, and she was just the bait. So where had he gone? This was one of those times when she realized how little she knew about him, because even as she sat and stared out into the chilly morning through the glass, she found that, other than feeding or doing that listening work, she had no idea what he might have gone out to do. Even what he might have considered recreation was beyond her knowledge, except for wandering, which seemed pretty popular with him. Maybe that was it.

Yeah, that's it. He just went out for a walk, is all.

A permanent walk.

Suddenly Mali's words came back to her, distant in a way but somehow still far too loud: Quite a few years ago, he just up and left… Our old friend Kevin said he did that a lot, if he got bored of a place or just hated it, or hated the people in it…

Pulling in a forcedly slow breath, Brooke leaned in, putting a hand against the window to steady herself while she stared hard into what she could see of the sidewalks below. She shook her head quickly, at Voice and at that stupid recollection that had just decided to burst up. He wouldn't run away. He couldn't, not now that they were so close to something big, on the day of the big raid. He couldn't run away and leave his little company to fend for itself against those kinds of invaders. But the thought came to her, the way that he'd looked at her last night, the bite in his words and the way he'd broken that window over her. He hated her, of course, but was that enough, on top of everything else, to make him leave?

No. No way he left.

He did. Of course he did. Why on earth would he stay?

"He did not," she hissed, and shoved herself away from the window, turning back to walk towards the door. He hadn't left, he was just hiding, and she was going to show that stupid Voice that. He was just lurking out of sight like he always did, somewhere where he wouldn't be bothered. He couldn't leave after they'd found out so much; he wasn't coward enough to run from a fight like that. He had promised to protect her, after all, and even if he hadn't delivered on it before, he would make good on it at some point or other. He had a duty to that, after all she'd sacrificed for him.

Still, she found herself going a little faster than she really should have as she went down the stairs, almost falling down the stairs three times as she faltered her way down the steps. Her stomach was slowly twisting back into a knot, half in distress and half in anger, unsure of which to feel. He hadn't left. She knew it, she just hadn't convinced her body of that. Voice was getting the body worked up over a whole lot of nothing. Back through the door at the foot of the stairs she went, nearly knocking over a bewildered female employee on her way, but she paid the girl no mind as she hurried back into the hallway. She slid past bodies and down the stairs, reemerging into the lobby with barely a glance around, her goal dead-set on the front windows.

There is no way.

She couldn't go out for fear of being spotted by hunter spies that may have been set up on this most important of days, but the wide front windows gave a good view of the street anyway. Coming close to the windows, Brooke pressed her hands up against the glass, looking outside. Her eyes traced over everything she saw, every car parked on this side of the street, every car parked on the side opposite, searching desperately for that last remnant. He wouldn't have taken the car unless he'd run; if he were out for a walk, he'd be walking, not driving. Feeling her stomach wrench tighter, she pored over every car, looking for the ugly green paint, the license plate, anything familiar.

Nothing.

THAT MOTHERFUCKER.

She pulled back from the window so fast she nearly stumbled, her hands balling into fists at her side, her mind letting out a shriek of nothing but rage as her stomach dropped out. He'd left, that bastard had run off and saved his own hide, left all the rest of them in this shit situation while he got off easy. Gritting her teeth, she lashed out before she knew exactly what she was doing, bringing up her foot to kick the glass window that had shown her exactly what she didn't want to see. The window held under her attack, so she kicked it again for good measure, producing no change but a sharper pain in her toe. She knew that she was attracting stares, but she couldn't find the will to care, only the urge to either vomit or start screaming.

THAT STUPID SHIT LEFT US FOR DEAD USED US AND LEFT US THAT BASTARD I HOPE HE ROTS IN HELL-

Growling low in her throat, she turned and stormed away, shoving past the people in her way in a beeline back for the stairs. How could he leave? After all she'd done for him, he'd up and pulled this. He'd betrayed her to his fullest extent. And to think that just last night she'd been groveling at his feet, begging for forgiveness. She let out a vicious, humorless laugh as she climbed the stairway, gaining a few more looks as she did, but she kept her eyes dead ahead, too deep in anger to think of it. How could she have ever thought herself to admire some dirtbag like him who ditched out on those who trusted him when the fire got hot?

SHIT-FACED LITTLE CREEPING-

VOICE. Stop screaming, Brooke snapped. I can't concentrate while you're screeching like that.

Surprisingly, Voice did stop screaming, though it continued to rant angrily at a lower level that Brooke could deal with. It felt good to hear Voice say all these things, and it felt even better to savagely agree with all of them. As she busily agreed, she moved towards the last place where she could have found him, and headed into the room through whose window she could reach the fire escape. There was no one in the room at the moment, but it wouldn't have made a difference if there were; she still would have jerked open the window just as roughly, and would have been equally clumsy forcing herself out through the cramped frame. Once she emerged on the landing, however, she was very careful to shut the window, leaving it just barely open. She didn't want to get locked out here in case the windows had automatic locks.

Who in the hell gave him the right? She thought furiously as she looked around the landing, the new aches and pains from where she'd slammed herself against the window frame throbbing in time with her angry headache. If I'd known that I could just run off whenever the hell I wanted to I would've done it a long time ago. That stupid ass thinks he's above everything just because he's invincible, I'll show him what pain is when I bury my foot in his-

The calm voice cut her off, pleading, Brooke, be reasonable…

"Shut up," she snapped, and turned towards the stairway, moving over the snow-laden grating to begin up the rickety steps. As she stomped up them, they squealed a bit, complaining against the angry force that she threw into such a simple task. As she went, she continued to rant, though the voice had silenced at her first word. "I'll be reasonable when he starts being reasonable. How reasonable is running off into the wild fucking blue yonder at a time like this?"

Reasonable, indeed. Voice hissed in agreement. He betrayed you.

"Damn right he betrayed me. He betrayed his precious Agency, his precious little city, his precious fucking secretary-" As she came to this point on the next landing she turned and threw another kick into the bars of the guard railing, the flat of her shoe slamming into the vertical poles. A jarring pain drove through her ankle, and she cursed loudly before turning to start limping up the next set of stairs, her rage stoked by the self-induced pain. "He should have told me! I could have left before this raid crap went down, and then I would've been fine! I wouldn't have cared if he'd left so long as he hadn't left me stuck in the middle of this shit!"

You know that's a lie, Br-

DIDN'T SHE TELL YOU TO SHUT UP? Voice howled at the calm voice, and it quieted again.

Brooke continued as if she hadn't been interrupted at all, coming up to the escape on the last floor, just below the roof. There was a ladder there, a little metal one that would take her up to the roof. She climbed the ladder and swung herself over onto the roof, her feet crunching wetly into the accumulation of snow, then took a look around at the rather bland and boring area that she was in. At least it was new. At least it wasn't tainted with memories of him. It was passable. Huffing a little against the cold, she looked down at the expanse of the roof under her feet. There was a little bit of soggy snow accumulation, in which she didn't feel a particular need to sit. Instead she cleared herself a space on the low ridge around the edge of the roof, brushing the lighter snow away with her hand, and sat down with her back towards the alleyway in which the fire escape sat.

We should just get out of here. If he's gone, he's forfeited his right to be repaid, so you're free.

"At least he could have had the decency to say goodbye." Brooke went on as if she hadn't heard, looking out to her right, where the street and its people busily bustled by below her. She didn't think that there was much chance of even a spy looking for her up here. "I mean, would it have been so hard to maybe come up and say, 'Hey, I'm going to go run off for the next five thousand years, it's been nice knowing you'?"

Did you really expect that from him? Voice growled. He nearly broke your face in six and now you're upset over not getting a goodbye? Maybe trying to kill you WAS his goodbye.

"I'll bet. I guess actually doing my job for him last night was just over the line, right? So long as I'm just being the damned worm on the hook I'm all fine and dandy, but as soon as I start taking matters into my own hands…" Making an elaborate gesture with her hands, she huffed out an indignant breath and then crossed her arms over her chest firmly. She watched her breath wind out in white smoke ahead of her, somewhat like if she'd been smoking, just like him. Well, he'd have all the time in the world to smoke now, now that she was off his tail, wouldn't he? Her scowl deepening, the corpse-girl looked down at her knees, glowering down at the innocent fabric of her pant legs.

Voice fumed on in the background, going over points repeatedly without even seeming to notice that she'd already covered them, mostly just elaborating on how horrible a person that vampire was and all of the terrible things that deserved to happen to him. Brooke wanted to join in, but she was too upset to even think out a legible sentence, so her own mind-voice simply growled in agreement. She shifted, desperate to get comfortable, and after a second or so got up, starting to brush the thin layer of snow off of the rock ledge along the rooftop. Once there was a suitable area clear, she carefully lie down along the ledge on her back, face to the sky. Folding her hands over her stomach, she stared up into the gray clouds above her. It looked like it was going to storm sometime soon.

Poor little runaway vampire, Voice sneered. Looks like solid rain. I hope he thought to bring an umbrella.

"He did one better. He took the car," Brooke replied dully, and twisted her hands together over her stomach. Heaving a short sigh, she listened to the breeze whistle through the alleyway, and the din of people and car on the streets below. It all seemed far away somehow, like she wasn't quite here, not quite alive and present. She lifted up a hand to run it back through her loose hair, feeling a pit opening in her stomach, starting to dissolve the anger and rage into some downgraded level of sickness. Now that she was over that initial rage, she just felt a dull emptiness in her belly, a somewhat injured and indignant little something, resentful of being left behind. "He could've at least left the damn car. He may be invincible, but I'm not. I could use that kind of armor to get out of this dirt heap."

Typically selfish of him. That Mali girl said it, too. He doesn't think of anybody but himself.

"Yeah, well fuck him too." Feeling a sharp pain strike low in her bowels, she sat up, steadying herself with a hand to the surface beneath her. She turned her body about, dangling her feet over the edge of the building, looking down the three flights to the dirty alleyway below her. "He wants to run off to be safe with his women and his car and his little future without the burden of taking care of what he started, that's his business, not mine. All I want to do is have a good breakfast and then get out of this stupid shit-hole of his. I think if I stay here much longer that skank might start rubbing off on me."

What happened to last night? The calm voice sounded again, but it sounded a little unnerved now, somewhat panicked. What happened to what we found out?

"Who cares what we found out?" She dismissed it simply and slid off of the ledge, starting to walk across the snowy roof, her feet crunching wetly in the dreary, slushy snow. "I wish I could've found out who that Kevin guy was before he'd left, though. And it would've been nice to get an answer over what it was about Ein that pissed him off so much." She paused to snort a laugh to herself, and answered herself without waiting for an internal reply. "Like he would've answered me at all even if he had stayed. Mystery suits him, I guess. It's not for girls to go prying in on his private life, right? Right. Of course."

Brooke, you can't just forget everything because of this, not after the progress you've made. The calm voice sounded almost pleading. Don't be hasty-

"Look, why don't you shut the hell up? I don't even know your name. If you plan to stay, you need a name. I can't just regard you as the ethereal little voice of reason for the rest of my life." She was letting her temper get away with her, but she didn't bother to try keeping it in check. Instead she came to the ledge at the other end of the building, and stood with her hands in her pockets, looking over the edge towards the alley on this side. It was identical to the other, though with the significant lack of a fire escape.

I don't have a name, the voice replied with a sniff. You haven't seen fit to reward me with even that acknowledgment of my existence yet.

"Yeah, well, I must've had a good reason for it." Turning back around, she started to walk towards the other end of the building. She had to leave, she had to get out of here if he wasn't coming back, but she couldn't bring herself to start. Where was she supposed to go, anyway? She had no castle to go back to, and no corpses to run to; the corpses were hunting her, as a matter of fact. She had no money, so a hotel was out of the question. What conceivable solution was there? With a low growl, she looked out over the side of the building near her feet and snapped, "I'll just walk to the ends of the earth, I guess. So that matter's settled."

We've got to take action, Voice hissed. Just start down the road, walk to the corner and turn, just keep walking and walking until we leave this foul little suck-hole behind us forever. It will be easy. No one will ask where you're going.

But she didn't. She didn't start down the stairs, didn't go down the street, didn't even move past where she was at that moment. Instead she stopped, turning out to look at the street below her from where she stood, feeling the cold wetness against her ankles from where the slush had soaked up her pant legs. Watching the people go by, she suddenly noticed how quiet it was up here, not even hearing someone else breathing nearby, not hearing somebody's clothes rustling or any other indicator of life nearby. All that she could hear was Voice's strangely tinny mumbling, and her own breathing, somewhat faster than usual because of how she'd been overexciting herself.

She swallowed, and that pit in her stomach drained away her risen anger, leaving her with nothing but a dismal sense of isolation. She hadn't realized until now just how alone she was now that he'd gone, left only with Voice as she had dreaded. He'd been the one to keep her company over the past few days, not Mali or Gabriel or Ein, but him. He'd been the one who she'd been able to question without having to watch herself too carefully, and he'd been the one tolerating her. What would she do now?

"I could've gone with him," she heard herself say, but she could barely figure out why she was saying it; it was too far-fetched to be any of her usual word, which usually tended towards at least mild logic. It had to be some dormant piece that spoke, something she didn't know, something willing to succumb to the sentimentalism that she'd been fighting away, a part of her that she'd thought squashed. Then a chill shivered into her spine, and she put her head down, raising up her good hand to grab into a chunk of hair at the back of her head.

STOP IT. STOP THAT RIGHT NOW BROOKE.

"I didn't mean it." Brooke squeezed her eyes shut and threw the part that had used her mouth to voice its intent back into the pit, banishing it for as long as she could keep the useless bit restrained. Once it was gone, Voice was quick to silence, and Brooke raised her head to peer out over the morning sky. Still dank, still dreary. Her hand released her hair, both hands falling back to her sides, and she blew out a sigh of steam. It really was a pointless thought to think, seeing as he was gone and he didn't want her with him anyway. But if he had asked, would she have gone?

Pointless, since he never would have asked you anyway, Voice growled.

Here she was, thinking about him like he was dead rather than simply gone, like he'd passed away and been taken in the night while she'd been sleeping. It was easier to consider him gone, rather than to consider that he was somewhere out there, just waiting to be found again. At least that way she didn't feel the urge to give chase and go after him then. That would have been a foolish urge to give in to. Watching the clouds, she spoke again, trying her best to sound offhand. "You know, I kind of thought I was getting somewhere. I thought he would have felt some kind of loyalty."

You thought you knew him.

It was that nameless voice that wouldn't be silent, but Brooke didn't admonish it, and Voice was quiet as well, apparently not seeing that statement as a threat. Brooke nodded in reply, looking back to the street below, and then turned to walk back towards the fire escape, moving her hands into her pockets. "I didn't know anything at all. Now I know. I didn't know him and I didn't know how he was. I knew what he showed me, and that's all."

You can't presume to predict him, is all. There is no pattern to be predicted.

"Couldn't, you mean. He's gone now, so we ought to start using the past tense, don't you think?" She swung herself over the low wall and climbed the ladder down to the top landing. Once her feet were on solid ground, she reached down into her pocket, pulling out the black lighter. His lighter. His unintentional gift to her. Now, instead of giving her the comfort that it had previously in her times of fear and unrest, it just made her feel even more queasy and sick. As much as she had always thought of him just taking off since Mali had given her that information, she had never truly believed that he would do it. She had never really considered what it would be like to be alone in unfamiliar territory with no money, no contacts, and no map.

Now that she was, what was she supposed to do?

Great situation he'd left her in.

But what about him?

Biting down on her lip, she began to walk back down the stairs. That was a good question. Of course he could take care of himself, but with a raid like this, who knew what they might have out? What if they had people who knew how to get vampires and kill them for good? They had been able to take the weaker ones easy enough, so what was to say they didn't know how to take Azrael? Maybe they'd use fire hoses to subdue him or something like that. It was always a possibility. She chewed away at her fragile skin, nipping the inside of her lip between her teeth painfully, but it couldn't compare with the way her stomach was seizing up again, cramping quite painfully. He was out there, by himself, facing who knew how many hunters alone.

Well, he was fine before you came around, why should things change now? Voice muttered.

"It's not the same now," she replied simply, though she didn't know why. Yes, he was capable, he'd escaped hunters before, but this time was different. It was his own damn fault if he got hurt, though, wasn't it? Yes, it was. She tried to keep that in mind, to quell the uneasiness in her stomach, but it didn't work very well. She couldn't help wanting to run out and go looking, in case she could help get him out of some potentially life-threatening situation. He'd done it for her, why not do it for him?

Brooke, you're missing the whole point of his leaving. He does not want you with him. He is sick of this place, he is sick of this job, and he is sick of you.

Shaking her head, she gripped the lighter tightly into her fist and reemerged onto the landing from which she'd begun. She climbed back in through the window, trying to be careful, and then shut it behind her. The building was still cold, as far as she could tell; the people didn't seem to be through boarding up the window yet. There was no one in the room when she turned back around, and no one within earshot. So, letting out a short sigh, she muttered, "What a mental case."

You got that right.

Well, she could be defined as a mental case too, though in her own personal view she wasn't quite so bad as him. She didn't go running off in the middle of work just because she started disliking a place. She finished things when she started them, or at least she tried to. Shrugging, she left the room, passing a few people on her way out and down towards the stairs. There was no use elaborating on it anymore, not now that he was gone. There didn't seem to be a use to much of anything here now. Voice was right; it would do her best just to leave now, before the hunters got their eyes set on this place, and figure the rest out from there. So she set that into motion, clunking down step after step, descending back to the lobby.

But just as she reached the bottom step, fully ready to go taking off and start the rest of her life anew, something stopped her. It was that horned boy, Mace, busting in through the front doors with an urgent look on his face. Brooke stopped on that step, leaning to the side against the railway, and as she did she could just make out his announcement to the room. "Jesus Christ, the apartment complex down the street was totally raided. Hunters everywhere."

Hunters?

Shit, they started early. I thought for sure they'd wait for night.

Perking up, she moved off of the stairs, coming closer. Mace was the center of attention now, and all heads in the room had turned to stare at him. People were interested, and she could hear them start to murmur, the room buzzing with low exclamations of horror and shock. Mace continued, "Yeah and the tavern a block away? I heard from the guys at the scene they were hit too."

The corpse-girl took a step closer, playing with the lighter in her palm mindlessly as her ears became immersed in the dull roar of the frightened crowd. She could hear everybody speaking at once, some more frightened than others, most everyone looking rather shocked. Her mind could only find a few things to decipher, some questions that repeated over and over again.

"How did they know?"

"Are we next?"

"What are we going to do?"

"Should we fight?"

"Can we fight?" Brooke found herself asking as she raised herself up on the balls of her feet, peering out through the front window. She hadn't aimed the question at anyone in particular, for she'd meant to ask it on the inside. Still, that didn't stop people from hearing it, and it couldn't stop them from replying.

"It's the only thing we can do!" one called.

"I don't know about you guys but I'm not going down without a fight!" another cut in.

The volume and intensity of the crowd suddenly heightened, and, having apparently been quite sufficient to rile everyone up, Brooke shut her mouth. This was going to get pretty ugly, soon, if someone didn't stop it. Just then, like the guiding light of sensibility, Mali's voice called out over the crowd, overbearing the others. "Okay, everyone just settle down! Don't forget that if they come after us, they've got to deal with the government too."

That's news to me.

Does she honestly think that matters?

Maybe.

Turning her head back around, Brooke looked to the cat-girl who was not so far away from her. She shoved her hands back into her pockets then, and, half in mocking and half in genuine curiosity, she asked, "Think that'll stop them?"

Mali seemed to hear, and she turned her head to look at the younger girl, narrowing her eyes at what must have seemed like sarcasm and instigation. She must have missed the part where curiosity came into play. With her eyes still on Brooke, she informed the rest of the room's occupants, "Just... Calm down, pick up a gun from the closet, and go back to your business."

Geez, no need to bite our head off.

"Just curious," Brooke excused herself blankly, but she kept her voice low, so as not to incur further wrath of the cat-woman. Giving an innocent shrug, she fell from her commentary and back to being the observer, watching the people quiet down from their rowdiness and start to go back to work. There was tension, though, a tension that hung in the air and couldn't be lifted. Brooke was rather sick of all of it; she didn't really care if the hunters came. It wasn't her problem anymore, after all. She stood simply in her place, and began to contemplate which way down the street she ought to head in, but had barely begun when Mali pushed past her roughly, muttering something to herself about where Azrael was.

Her insides crunching tighter, Brooke turned her head to leer after the woman. So she had finally noticed, too. Flatly, blandly, the corpse-girl spoke after the woman's rapidly retreating back, not bothering to raise her voice. If she heard her, she heard her; if she didn't, all the better. "Gone, I expect."

Mali didn't. She just kept going, moving over to a closet under the staircase, and opened it up to go digging around inside. Brooke was interested for a moment or two, until the woman finally departed back to her desk with something bland, no weaponry, nothing very special at all. Everyone else was scared, but working, and none of them seemed too up for a conversation. So, with little better to do, Brooke began towards the stairs. Her back was starting to hurt where she'd hit it on the window frame earlier, and her feet were sore from kicking. A nice sit would do her good. Maybe she could even have a nice conversation with herself to kill some time before she felt good enough to get leaving.

You can rest later. Leave now, before things get any worse.

Things can't get any worse.

The shrieking wail of sirens caught her ear, and she turned her head just in time to see an ambulance speed by, lights on and alarm blowing. Two police cruisers, similarly showing off their emergency gear, followed it closely down the street. Whether it carried freaks or hunters, Brooke wasn't sure, though she would have put her money on the latter; if they'd been able to negotiate themselves a cop car, they could probably put the emergency personnel similarly to their beck and call. Things were falling apart, she thought, as she turned to sit on the bottom step of the staircase; all of the work that she and Azrael had done had been for nothing, because now it was over. They hadn't even delayed things.

With a tired sigh, Brooke muttered aloud, "What a mess."

Everywhere around her people were trying to work in the midst of all this disaster. The phones were ringing constantly, and people were still diligently answering them, unaware of her eyes following. Was this her fault? She had known about the raid in advance, and she'd kept it to herself. If she'd said something, then people would have known. They would have been more prepared, rather than having to resort to using the dingy, rusted guns upstairs and the uselessly mismatched artillery. They might have been able to fight back.

"Well, I can't say I didn't try. He didn't want to hear it." She excused herself easily, but she couldn't help feeling guilty.

It doesn't matter what they do or don't do. It's not your problem anymore, so don't bother feeling sorry over it. The energy you're expending on regret could be easily used to start devising a way out.

No one in the room stopped to notice her talking to herself; it wasn't surprising, with how panicky and upset the atmosphere was. She wasn't sure that she would have minded so much even if they had. What were they going to do? Tell on her? She'd be leaving as soon as she felt well enough to walk, so it didn't matter if some soon-to-be-dead employee suspected that she wasn't quite right in the head. Nobody here knew her name, anyhow. Only Mali and Mace.

And Azrael.

"The shire building's been compromised as well." The voice had come from off to her right, someone at a phone who she could just see through the crowd.

"Fast little team, though," she remarked to herself. Those hunters had been far more organized than she'd thought. She'd sorely underestimated them. She'd thought that maybe they'd have a few squadrons out, hitting one or two buildings at dusk, in a fairly disorganized sort of way. Instead it seemed that they'd taken it to a military level, striking fast and methodical as any military unit. And they hadn't had much time to organize, either, from what she understood of it.

I need to go soon. The hunters will be here any second. They'll be busting in through the door, and I've got no excuse to be here. I have to leave.

Well what's keeping you?

"Can't very well stick around waiting forever," she agreed, but she didn't move. Sitting here didn't seem to be reinvigorating her at all. On the contrary, the longer she sat here, the more tired she seemed to become. Lowering her face down to look at the floor, she rested her head in her hands, peering through her fingers at the floor. People were bustling around quickly now, speeding up, running past her up and down the stairs. They must have been going for their guns, as instructed. Brooke had her gun already, and she didn't intend to give it back, so she was set. She needed to go, she really had to get up and start moving. If she didn't go soon, those sirens would halt outside, and she'd be taken with everybody else. She couldn't let that happen. She had places to go, things to escape, people to run away from, people to run to. But even as she thought that, she just sat there, immobile, just trying her best to breathe steadily.

If I stay, I die. If I leave, I die too.

Your chances are better out there.

I know, but what if-

Someone collided with her shoulder suddenly as they ran by, and she uttered a curse, glancing upwards after their body as the person retreated up the stairs. People were coming down the stairs as well, she saw, only now they were armed with all sorts of guns; shotguns, automatics, semiautomatics, the works. Even with such unwieldy weaponry in tow, however, they were trying their best to work. Another round of sirens blared outside, and she turned her head to look out through the front windows, searching blankly for an ambulance, a police car, someone here to take her away.

Just get it over with.

But her eyes settled on something far different. A little black car had pulled up to the curb, one that hadn't been there before, and it was a nice car, at that. It looked like it was just off the showroom floor. The hunters wouldn't be driving a car so nice as that to pick up a load of freaks. She figured that it didn't matter either way, and was just about to turn her eyes away, when she spotted the figure exiting the vehicle, straightening up beside the car, highlighted clearly in the late morning sun.

Tall, pale, with long black hair and a trademark slouch.

Azrael?

She had to blink. She didn't trust her eyes enough not to. But his image remained static and real, dark and solid against the snowy street behind him, and her stomach wrenched in tightly in response. Was this real? Was he really back? Had he not run away? It seemed like too much to ask, that this not be a hallucination, some cruel joke of Voice's gone too far, but the more she watched, the more real it became. Outside through the window frame she saw him close the door, lowering his head to move across the sidewalk and towards the Agency's front door.

I can't believe it. He… He came back?

Then her stomach came out of its knot, freeing so fast that she felt lightheaded, and she shot up to her feet. She had to steady herself against the railing so that she didn't fall over, her ascent was so fast, but the dark man didn't seem to notice. Brooke was seized by the crazy urge to run over and invade his space severely, but when she took a second look, she just barely held herself back. He didn't look particularly up to being bodily assaulted at the moment. If anything, he looked kind of tired from where she was standing. His arms were crossed over his chest as if to protect him from the cold, and he didn't seem to comprehend the chaos going on all around him, just lost in his own exhausted world. Even as he began to come to, glancing around at what was going on, he didn't seem to notice her, didn't even give her so much as a glance to acknowledge her existence.

It didn't matter. If he had decided to ignore her for the rest of the day, it wouldn't have bothered her at all. His presence was enough.

Well, maybe enough for her peace of mind, but it wasn't enough for her curiosity's welfare. So, with the intent of quelling that part's demands as well, she stepped forward, driving herself forward to that unmistakable vampire. He didn't look particularly upset by the chaos; in fact, the news of the raid, which he must have overheard if he'd been conscious in the room for more than a second, didn't seem to faze him at all. As she approached, he turned his head to look at her. He must have noticed her earlier, whereas she'd thought he'd missed her. Was he disappointed to find that she hadn't left?

She came to a halt four or five feet away from him, close enough for him to hear her without her needing to yell, but not close enough to invade his personal space. She hadn't intended to get angry with him, but the worrying and raging that had occupied her morning flared up again suddenly as she spoke, tinting her curious tone into a more accusatory one. "Where were you?"

A note would've been nice, jackass, Voice snarled.

Azrael was silent in response, though he lowered his head down a bit, almost in a protective sort of way, like a turtle retracting into its shell. Now that she was closer, Brooke could see that his hair looked strange, more stringy and rough than usual. It looked like he'd gotten it wet and let it dry somewhat, leaving it somewhat damp and less smooth than usual. But that couldn't have been it; he didn't just go running around in the wet when it burned him like acid. Unwillingly, concern sprang up in her belly, shoving the anger and indignation aside.

"D'you get caught in the rain or something?" she asked, and was a little relieved to find that her voice wasn't so critical anymore. Taking a quick glance up and down the rest of him, she found that he wasn't dripping wet, thankfully. Beyond that she couldn't tell without touching, however, and touching was most definitely off limits. He would have had the sense to change if he'd gotten wet anyway, she was sure.

Still, there was no verbal reply. He only pulled his shoulders up, like she had threatened to hit him and he was helpless to defend himself. It wasn't unusual that he was so quiet, but when she was so desperate for information, it was more than a little frustrating.

What's the problem? Did he go mute or something? You asked a question!

Well, if it's not my business, I'm never getting it out of him anyway.

You're giving up? Jesus Christ, you're such a pushover with him.

I'm not a pushover, I just know when the fight is pointless.

This battle was a pointless one, and the fight would have to be saved for another day. Instead of pushing, she left him alone for the moment, turning her head to look out at his new ride. She didn't know the type by view, but it was a pretty little thing, and it looked nearly new. He must have stolen it. Was he concerned that the old one might be recognized? She wasn't sure how it would be, but he did know a lot more about stealth and infiltration than she did. Either way, it was certainly an upgrade. Pushing her hands back into her pockets and grabbing up her forgotten lighter, she looked back to the neglected man. "Nice car, by the way."

Even in response to this compliment, he said nothing, just staring back at her blankly. He did stop looking quite so defensive, though, dropping his arms back to his sides and straightening his back out a bit until he rose high above her once again. A minute passed, two, a few more, and she was just about ready to give up on him when suddenly he spoke. "We need to see Willy."

Huh?

"What?" Brooke stammered, startled, but it wasn't because the name was unfamiliar, not in the slightest. She knew exactly who Willy was; there was no mistaking it. He was her dealer, the one who'd sold explosives to her and billed the corpses for years now, one of the few humans, and certainly one of the only males, to deal with the corpse-girls on a consistent basis. But why did Azrael want to see him, of all people?

Voice agreed. What does he want with that useless runt?

Azrael didn't seem interested in clarifying anything, and he simply walked past her, going off towards the stairs. Brooke, however, was nowhere near done with this matter, and quickly took up on his heels. Things seemed to be back to normal, or as near to normal as they could get, but she was too startled by his request to give it much thought. Why did he want to go see Willy? Willy's house might be crawling with corpses by now, all on the lookout for her. He might be dead, rendering the trek useless. In the face of all of this reasoning, she had to ask, "Why?"

The response didn't come right away; first she was led up the stairs and onto the landing, and further from there to the evidence room's door. He opened the door and stepped in, but he didn't close the door in her face; instead he left it open for her, and once she had caught up, he replied, "He's got explosives."

"What would you want with explosives?" As she asked, however, she suddenly remembered that building down the street, the one that had so suspiciously exploded, the one that she had apparently pinned him correctly as the culprit for. Did he plan on doing that to other hunter buildings? That must have been it. He couldn't have wanted explosive for anything else. She followed into the room, trying to keep a serious mind about it, but she couldn't help getting excited. Maybe he was planning to use her at her best work after all.

I hope so. I don't just want to be the connection. If this is a job, I want to be hands-on with this one.

You seemed plenty hands-on with the last one, Voice muttered.

Azrael walked on further into the room, evidently searching for something, until he found what he was looking for. Pulling it from its hidden place, he unfurled it, and she recognized his coat, the trademark one with the silvery buttons and the high collar. As he put it on, he looked at her, his expression telling her to figure out the mystery on her own, though she already had.

Blinking once, she diverted her eyes off to the side, biting down on her lip to think. So he was going to destroy hunter buildings. First, they had to go through Willy, and that was the part that concerned her. She would have liked to call first – from the few times that she had barged in on Willy unannounced, she knew that it was rarely a good idea – but she had to deal with time constraints. "When're we going?"

With seemingly little care, her director buttoned up only the first three buttons, sufficient enough to cover up his neck. He left the rest hanging open, and then turned to walk past her again, back towards the door. "Now."

So much for calling ahead.

Brooke thought briefly of her own abandoned trench coat, sad and alone with the rest of her clothes and hair in its box, but quickly disregarded the idea of collecting it again. It was falling apart with all the wear and tear that it had undergone over the last few days, and it probably did smell a bit. Besides, there'd be plenty of time to get it when she came back… If the building was still standing. Following doggedly along again, she asked, "Isn't this kind of a bad time?"

Damn right it's a bad time, the hunters are about three seconds from banging down the door? What's he doing, leaving his people?

Mali said they're trained for this. It's probably no big deal.

There came no response. Azrael must have been of similar mind; the Agency could take care of itself. It was a government facility, after all. They would be just fine. Forced to accept this assumption as truth, Brooke shrugged helplessly and followed as he descended the stairway once again, making headway to the door. It was a lot easier to navigate the crowd in his wake than it was to try to infiltrate it on her own, so she enjoyed an easy trek down the stairs and out through the front door. Though Azrael went straight to the car, she halted to give the street a look up and down before she went to it; the hunters could have been anywhere, even running up the street, and if she were spotted, it wouldn't end well.

Nevertheless, there were no hunters to be seen here. It was safe enough. She crossed the sidewalk to the car, jerking open the slick door to find Azrael already in the driver's seat, getting the car keys in order. Quickly, she took the passenger's seat, and as she closed the door after herself, the engine growled to life. They took off, bellowing down the street, past a cop car and a fire truck, neither of which paid them any mind. She tried to watch out the window, to see any sort of raiding, anything interesting, but Azrael seemed content to push the car to ridiculous speeds. He handled it well, and it was a good car for the purpose, but it didn't do much for sightseeing.

What are we going to do about this?

Visiting Willy? I guess we just go and… uh…Well, I'll think about that when the time comes. First we have to worry about whether or not we get there at all.

"Do you know how to get there?" she asked, watching the city melt away as they sped onto a highway. Out of the corner of her eye she saw him shake his head. That caused a bit of a problem for the both of them; she'd never driven this way to Willy's place before. She had never been allowed to visit his home under the castle's rules, being as he was a male, but she had walked there a few times when she'd had jobs nearby. If she tried hard enough, she probably could have remembered the city name. After all, it wasn't that far from the castle. So, judging by how long the drive back from the castle had taken, she made a wild assumption. "It shouldn't be too far. Maybe an hour, three tops if you hit traffic."

He was quiet, but she was glad for that; she really didn't want him asking her for directions while she was busy trying to work them out for herself. She couldn't recall the city name just now, but she was sure that she'd recognize it when she saw it, at the very least. So far they seemed to be going the right way. Satisfied to sit and wait for signs to show up for at least the moment, she tried to get more information on the adventure waiting ahead of them.

"So what exactly are we using these explosives on?"

Azrael turned his eyes from the road ahead to give her a look, one that seemed admonishing, warning her not to ask questions that she'd already asked and already knew their answers, before he slowly looked back toward the road. She had just phrased it wrong, though; what she meant to ask was something different, she had just screwed up in the delivery.

So, after a moment of silence, she rectified it. "I know what, but I mean specifics. Number of buildings, size, construction. Willy's going to want those."

He was silent, and it wasn't a contemplative silence, either. He didn't intend to tell her anything at all. She would've thought that, considering the circumstances, he would have wanted her to talk to Willy about the specifics, since she was the one who knew him. Besides that, Willy had a personality about as abrasive as sandpaper, one that would surely grate against Azrael's nerves, if she knew anything about it. It seemed that he was willing to sacrifice his comfort in favor of keeping her in the dark.

But that didn't make any sense. She was going to be finding out about the specifics sooner or later, so why bother to keep them a secret? Did he even have any specific information? Was he just running into this blind, no plans, no idea of what they were attacking, no nothing? He couldn't be that reckless.

He's been that reckless before.

But this is serious stuff here!

"If you've got them, that is." She peered up to him, folding her hands in her lap and trying to contain her curiosity and growing apprehension. "Do you?"

Quiet was all that he gave her. In all likelihood he had decided to stop listening after she had appeared to repeat her question. Feeling somewhat disgruntled by that, Brooke sat back in her seat and looked out through the windshield. Like talking to a stone, having a conversation with him. He couldn't be bothered to answer when he didn't feel like it, and when he didn't happen to feel like it, it most often concerned the most important of subjects. How irritating. Instead of fooling around trying to catch his attention any longer, she watched him speed along, swerving into the left lane to avoid another car. It seemed that he was going faster than he really should have been going, according to the law, but she didn't care enough to speak up.

Besides, her mind was stuck on other things, most especially this sudden switch in plans of his. She had been under the impression that they were to deconstruct the hunters from the inside out. They'd only been going at it for a few days, however, and from there he seemed to have decided that it wasn't going fast enough for his tastes. She couldn't tell why, though; had the raid pushed him over the edge? That would make a logical explanation, but it didn't seem like him to act so rashly in the face of something that seemed to threaten him so little.

Even so, you barely know him, so you can't make such a judgment on what he will and won't do.

It was a minute or so before she brought it up, however, giving him time to recover from her previous questions before she subjected him to another. "So why're we doing this instead of continuing with the infiltration?"

He was silent for a few moments, long enough for her to start thinking about giving up with the questions entirely, before he spoke. "Counter warfare."

Ah, I see now.

So she'd been right about the raid being the trigger. She nodded, thinking that over for a minute or so. Maybe he'd thought that since the hunters had taken action, they didn't have enough time to go mincing around with infiltration until it finally produced a result. Maybe their action had surprised him into it. After all, she hadn't gotten a chance to tell him about it last night. Or maybe he was troubled about something else. "Do you think they'll go after the Agency?"

When she looked back over, she saw him shake his head lightly in answer. He didn't? The hunters didn't seem to care about restraint now any more than ever, so why did he think that they would hold off? He certainly wasn't there to stop them, and the hunters appeared to have not only size but the element of surprise on their side.

She was doubtful of it, and asked with a faint squint, "Why not?"

"The government will catch wind of it." He didn't seem interested in continuing the subject, using that tone of his that implicated finality to the subject. If he didn't want to talk about it, it was probably best to let it drop.

"Oh," she muttered, and did just that. She'd heard before that the Agency was connected to the government, but she hadn't recalled that. Still, she wasn't sure that that kind of thing would keep the hunters at bay for long. They were a determined bunch, and the temptation of a building filled with freaks just seemed to good for them to resist. If they hadn't attacked by now, they probably would soon.

Forget it. It's not your problem now that he's got you on this new job. You should start thinking about how the hell you're going to get Willy to go with this one.

Looking down to her hands, she started toying with the bandaging on her broken hand. If the corpses had already called Willy over her absence, there was only a small chance that he would give her and Azrael any help at all. Willy valued his life and his security over her job ambitions, and wouldn't go against the orders of the corpses if they threatened him well enough. However, there was a good chance that the corpses, in their haste to come after her and execute her themselves, wouldn't have thought to contact Willy at all. After all, they didn't know that she'd ever gone to visit him; Katsi was the only one who knew that. It was likely that Willy didn't even know that she was missing.

Now that she was thinking about it, she was almost looking forward to meeting up with Willy. While he was by no means her favorite person, he was something of a friend, and they'd shared a few laughs. This visit would provide some sort of familiarity to her in the midst of all of this new and chaotic activity. Maybe Willy would even decide to behave himself this time, since she was bringing along a guest. Her dealer wasn't so unpredictable a person as Azrael, but he could be moody and fickle at times, depending on how he was treated. At heart, though, she could usually get her way with him if she tried hard enough.

Only because of that big soft spot he's got for you, Voice muttered.

Not just me. Willy's got a soft spot for anything with tits.

Brooke looked back up towards the roadway, looking for any familiar signs, trying hard to remember the city where he lived. Willy had been her dealer for a year or two now, but he hadn't always been. His father – Bill senior, as Willy said – had served as her dealer before him. The reasons that Willy had eventually taken over as her dealer, with she as one of his very few clients, were many. First and foremost was that Bill senior's greatest wish for Willy was that he take over the family business, Porter Demolitions, when the time was right. Willy had little interest from what she had seen, but apparently working with a female client was supposed to serve both as a testing ground for his skill and a spark for his concern for business. The other major reason was that Bill senior simply couldn't afford to handle illegal business like hers personally anymore without facing some major risks to his livelihood. So, in the spirit of milking good business until the teat was sucked dry, he had sacrificed his son instead.

She suddenly became aware at that point in her contemplation that she had been ignoring Azrael, not to mention the road signs, for quite a while in favor of rehashing all this business about Willy. Now that she was actually reading the signs, though, things did look a bit more familiar. Whelan City, North Solington, each rang a bell somewhere in her head. They must have been coming up on it. In an effort to hopefully give Azrael a little peace of mind that they were, in fact, driving in the right direction, she said, "It shouldn't be too much longer."

How long's it been? Twenty minutes? Twenty-five? You sure were off with that estimate.

I guess I estimated wrong.

It was an excusable error, she thought, as she listened to the silence of Azrael's reply. After all, she'd never driven from Azrael's house to Willy's before. She'd only been there by either taking a bus or walking, if she was in the area and she wanted to take a break before she finished the job. She hadn't done it much, but once in a while it was nice just to sit in someone's house and shoot the breeze, eat out of their fridge and not have to worry about anything. She watched the signs pass by as they sped down the mostly empty highway, each seeming more familiar than the last, and finally, she saw it.

The green sign was to the right of the roadway up ahead, the letters firmly printed in neat white paint: Mayford. That was his place. She quickly pointed over to the sign and the exit under it. "There."

Luckily, Azrael noticed in time. He smoothly directed the car to the rightmost lane, pulling in front of another car. Once he was aimed into the exit she lowered her hands back into her lap, watching as he pulled off onto the slimmer exit, feeling her stomach jerk a little as they slowed down to accommodate to the sudden traffic. Now things looked familiar, really familiar – the first time that she had visited, she had taken the road that this exit would empty onto, though she had been walking along a different road to reach it at the time. She'd been working in a city to the east, and it had been a few days' walk.

"It should be just five or ten minutes from here," she assured her uncaring driver, folding her hands neatly together in her lap. The car followed the "U" shape of the roadway, sticking in behind the traffic. For a minute Brooke was content to sit back and watch, but after a minute or so, when they made no real definitive moves, she realized that Azrael didn't know where to go. After a quick dig through her memory for the exact directions, she said, "Just go straight until you hit buildings. It's only a minute or so."

Okay I know this. Next we turn onto Maclain or Mastitis or something.

Mastitis? Isn't that a disease?

"Once we're there there'll be a right turn a few buildings in." She ignored Voice's criticism, and sat up straighter, trying to get a better view of the city. The buildings on either side of them came up fast, relatively small buildings, most the same size as those found in Dayno. Willy did not live in a big city, but in a more suburban area, a nice place for moderately successful businesspeople to live and reproduce. The city was further beyond this street where they were now, but as that was not where they were intending to go, Brooke ignored it. Instead she searched the street alongside the buildings, watching as they passed one side street, and then another. Finally she saw the green sign marking Miller Street beside an apartment complex and pointed. "Turn there and go straight."

Azrael followed her directions, and a moment later they were on a street that was littered with a few small businesses, but was mostly dominated by houses. The houses were just as quaint and neatly attractive as she remembered them, most of them with two stories because of the condensed space onto which they were crammed, a few with little white fences and little green hedges. They were going quick enough that within the minute they had reached the turn, and she pointed to the left side of the street this time, to Nixon Street. "He lives on that street."

And here we go.

The car slowed in response, and after waiting for a car to pass by them, Azrael turned to move on down that street. This time they had proceeded nearly halfway down the street before she pointed out the familiar house on the left side of the road. She pointed once more. "There it is."

It had two stories and was painted a rather handsome dark brown color, with white trim accenting its peaked roof and window frames. There was still the wide concrete porch with the solid awning, and the concrete stairs and walkway leading from there to the sidewalk. Willy's old gray junker of a car was still sagging around in the driveway as usual, but there was another car there, a pretty little sports car with a glossy blue paint job, parked along the curb in front of the house. Azrael pulled up behind this vehicle before shutting the car off and pulling the keys, but as Brooke stared at the flashy blue car, she had one thought in mind.

That's a girl's car.

Oh Jesus.

They just had to show up when Willy had a girl over. How great. The last time that Brooke had shown up when Willy had had company, she'd been treated to a view of much more than she'd bargained for when her dealer had opened the door. Now that she had a guest his girlfriend would probably come to answer the door naked as the day she was born. With this in mind, Brooke pushed herself out of the car, growling, "Damn it, Willy..."

You couldn't make this easy on me, you stupid horny bastard.

Azrael got out on his side as well as she slammed the car door shut, and she heard his close as well when she rounded the car. She took a quick look up and down the street, checking for any suspicious vehicles or painted police cars, but there was nothing. The corpses didn't seem to be here. They probably would have swarmed by now if they were, on seeing her. Satisfied, she continued up the walkway to the porch. Azrael was letting her lead this time, but she didn't really mind; she knew this place, she knew where she was going, and she knew what to do when she got there. Up the steps she went, and across the wide expanse of concrete, until she stood before the solid front door.

Let's just hope for the best.

What I'm gonna hope for is that he had the decency to take it slow today.

She paused for a minute, just listening, trying to catch any sound that would hint to her what was going on inside. It was a futile mission – Willy's house was nearly soundproof – but it was worth a shot. All that she heard, however, was silence, so finally she lifted up a fist to knock on the door. No reply came at first, but she had expected that; Willy barely ever answered the door on the first knock. In the meantime, as she waited, Azrael came up to lean against the wall to the right of the door. Where he was, it would be hard for anyone standing at the door to see him.

Where is he?

After a minute or so she knocked again, feeling impatience rising up in her. She couldn't wait around forever for Willy to finish with his girlfriend before he decided to open the door. Barely waiting a minute for him to respond this time, she knocked hard on the door again, but was cut off halfway through by an agitated, but familiar, male voice calling, "Jesus, I'll be there in a minute!"

There he is, the man of the hour.

Thank god. Let's just hope he puts some pants on.

Stricken with embarrassment at the thought of Willy coming to the door naked with Azrael right there, she sent her director a glance. Well, he had to know how Willy could be sometimes; he'd seen her memories of him. That thought assured her a little, and she turned her face back to the door, just in time to see it open. And from around the door, poking out and into her field of vision, came the head and apparently unclothed upper body of her dealer.

"Look, can it wait for just a-" He began, but when he saw who it was, Willy stopped. His dark blue eyes came into focus on her face and widened just slightly, peering at her curiously through the untidy, shaggy mess of dirty blonde hair that he had. His face was pleasantly rounded and had a boyish, guiltless quality to it, one that would have made him seem too innocent to be attached to any illegal dealings, had his age not done that for him. After all, Willy was only seventeen. When he finally got the breath to speak up, his voice had brightened considerably, happy to see her. "Brooke! What're you doing here, sweetheart?"

And here we go.

Willy had always been far too friendly with her, despite how much she turned down his advances. He was cute, sure, but he was also a perpetual flirt, and didn't bother to discriminate much with the quality of partners or the number that he might have at one time. Brooke was no different from any other girl to him, and while she tried to maintain a proper distance, Willy enjoyed overstepping those bounds as much as he could manage to. Instead of taking the bait, she raised a brow at him, glancing over what little of him she could see. "Did I interrupt something?"

Gee, you think?

"You're never interrupting, love. You-" He began smoothly, but was cut off suddenly by a voice, female and husky, from back in the room.

"Who is it?"

Before Brooke even had a chance to think it over, Willy turned back, his head going out of sight for a moment as he yelled back, "It's a friend, just give me a minute!"

"Auditioning?" Brooke prompted him as his head turned back around. That would explain the girl. In addition to being her dealer, Willy also enjoyed a weekend job as the creator of – and sometimes the actor in – skin flicks. She'd been unpleasantly surprised to discover such a thing firsthand on one of her visits, she recalled, as she pushed her hands down into her pockets.

At least it gives him an outlet for his promiscuity, Voice muttered.

"Yeah. One of the many trials of being a director. Very rigorous auditioning process," he informed her sagely, though in his eyes he looked quite entertained. It was obvious that he hadn't noticed Azrael; whatever it was that he had in mind, at least this phase of operation had worked. Willy then he broke into a devious grin, peering at her slyly through his mussed-up hair. "I could show you if you like."

Oh, here we go again, Voice sighed. It didn't react so violently to Willy's blatant come-on as it had to the gutter leech's, but that was more from familiarity than from any sort of liking Brooke might have had towards her dealer. Willy made constant, senseless attempts at flirtation every time they saw each other. Voice had been pretty much worn down past the point of resistance.

"Thanks, but I'll pass. I think I've got a pretty good idea already." Brooke gave him a flat look, trying to get him to ease off, at least in front of Azrael. She couldn't just launch straight into business yet, or else he'd get suspicious and might turn her down on principle. She had to ease him into it somewhat through their usual small talk. Hopefully she could keep his usual sexual innuendo-laden talk subdued, at the least.

"That's a shame." Willy managed to look downtrodden for a moment, even giving a wistful but exaggerated sigh to top it off, but he quickly threw it off once his eyes had strayed low enough to catch her change in attire. His interest perked, he looked her over, his eyes lingering far too long on every bit and piece, making her feel rather itchy and squeamish under her skin. "Especially when you're looking like that. I knew you had a figure somewhere under all those clothes."

Jesus, you want everybody on the block to hear?

Azrael's going to hear!

Shifting her body a little at the unwanted attention, Brooke pulled her hands from her pockets and yanked her coat shut, not bothering to be discreet about it. There was no point to being discreet with Willy; he simply ignored it. For now, growing agitated and rather embarrassed, she snapped at him, "Would you be quiet? Think with your other head for once."

"You know, you'd be perfect for this flick I've got in line. Small and feisty. I could make you famous, baby." As usual, her resistance only seemed to fuel Willy's desire. He leaned in closer, close enough that she thought he might run the risk of catching Azrael in his vision soon enough, but he didn't spot her director, too focused on her to notice. Brooke was about to reply with something nasty when suddenly the young dealer started and jumped back a bit, staring at something unseen far above her head. His eyes then moved down to Brooke, and he snapped out, his charm gone and his voice irritated, "You didn't tell me you brought your boyfriend."

Huh?

"Boyfriend?" Brooke was puzzled. She hadn't brought a boyfriend. What was he talking about? Then, just as things clicked, she felt a presence close behind her, and swung her head around to see. Azrael had moved to stand right behind her, and behind her muted height he looked taller than ever, a towering figure of black and white. He was staring Willy in the face with a rather deathly look, one that made Brooke twitch slightly, but she didn't quite jump as Willy had. Instead she simply slid out from in front of the dark man, looking back to her dealer as calmly as possible. "No, Willy, this is my... Uh... My business associate."

Oh, real smooth, Chandlier. Real smooth.

Willy sent Azrael a glance, somewhat indignant but more nervous from the way that Brooke saw it. Willy must have found Azrael somewhat of a threat; not only was the taller man giving Willy a look that could have killed a horse given the chance, he was also a good half a foot taller than Willy, who stood at around six feet at last count. A large and apparently murderous person could have put anyone off, so, like anyone else, Willy was less than his usual charming self. Looking back to Brooke, he said, "What? A guy? Doesn't your cult have rules about that?"

Brooke just ignored that question. It wasn't worth answering. So far as Willy knew, she was a human, albeit a human involved in a rather nasty, all-female cult. She looked enough like a human to pass as such, and while his father knew about her kind, nobody had ever seemed to find the need to inform Willy of all the facts. Instead of elaborating and explaining the whole ordeal to him, she went another way. "Willy, this is Azrael Engel. Azrael, this is Will Porter."

She had hoped that an introduction would calm the both of them down and hopefully get them into a more cordial sort of mood, but it didn't quite have the desired effect. Instead of going back to his normal charming self, Willy moved aside, seeming quite disgruntled by the whole turn of events. Still, he dragged the door open far enough to make room for them, and said, "The pleasure's all mine. Come on inside, we're letting all the heat out."

Finally. I thought he'd slam the door in my face.

On you? Never. That'd be turning away tail, and that is something that William Porter the third never does.

Quite right. Relieved, Brooke set into motion, stepping into the heated room after her dealer. When she glanced back to see if Azrael would comply to follow, she saw that he was, but slowly, in an almost stalking sort of way. He seemed to be taking stock of the area as he entered, the good-sized living room that they had come into, all hardwood floors with a few small rugs, a stairway straight ahead and a few doors on either side of that. It was familiar enough to Brooke from her visits, and she was pleased to find that they hadn't even changed the position of the furniture; the television was still on a stand off to the left, with a comfortable couch facing it and a beat-up old recliner sitting to the right of that. The couch was currently occupied by the girl who was undoubtedly the owner of the car out front, a girl with dark brown hair, short and tightly curled and a little mussed at the moment, hair the same color as the eyes that stared rather irritably in the direction of the two uninvited guests. She wore a blue skirt and a white button-down shirt, a few of whose buttons had been missed or shoved into the wrong holes completely; it seemed that she'd redressed in haste. Still, in spite of her attempt to cover herself adequately, it was evident that she had a rather impressive figure, and her face was attractive.

One of Willy's girls, Voice muttered. His actresses.

If you can call them that.

Willy gestured towards the girl on the couch dismissively, addressing her as somewhat of an afterthought. "Brooke, Gretchen. Gretchen, Brooke and company."

There was a contemplative sound from Voice, followed by a low growl, but it all translated the same to Brooke: the girl had to go. If she stayed, she'd be privy to some very sensitive information, and that was the last thing Brooke wanted. Azrael probably wouldn't appreciate it too much, either. After a moment in which she scrutinized the pissy-looking girl, Brooke turned back to Willy. "Look, we need to talk business. Can't you get rid of her?"

Instead of answering right away, Willy made a leisurely stroll across the floor, over to where his khaki pants lay in a heap on the floor behind the recliner. One of the things about him that irritated Brooke was that tendency of his to not give anything much weight unless he decided that it was worth of such attention, and he was displaying that quality to its fullest right now. He picked up his pants and pulled them on in his usual relaxed way, and only when he was zipping and buttoning the fly did he look to her for his response. "Business? You mean you didn't just drop by to say hello? Very inconsiderate of you, love."

"Yeah, whatever." Brooke waved the subject away with her hand, trying to get past the usual small talk and down the business. She couldn't argue for the twenty minutes that it would take for him to finally get rid of his little eye candy mistress; she had to get in and out of this as soon as she could. The girl was probably too dumb to understand the matter anyway. "I need explosives."

"Do you, now? You're a month early. Your bosses haven't called me." As he moved to the side to grab his leather belt off of the arm of the couch, Willy sent another dubious glance in Azrael's direction. The man in black was currently moving along the wall, apparently examining the photos and things hanging, having seemed to have lost interest in the two of them. "And you're certainly in some suspicious company. Are you running again?"

Ugh. Now we have this to dodge around.

"That's not important. I need the stuff now, Willy. I don't have the time to go pussyfooting around this." She moved around the subject as airily as she could, trying to draw him off of that subject. It had been a mistake, the time that he was thinking of, when she'd shown up on his doorstep begging for shelter and aid. She'd been trying to run away, to get away from the corpses, but Katsi had caught her here before she had gotten anywhere at all. She'd been young and stupid at the time, only seventeen, but Katsi had shown mercy and neglected to tell any superiors about the incident.

Sniffing delicately, Willy stepped over to where his shirt lay a few feet behind the couch, and picked it up, pushing his hand inside to yank the right side out. "What do I get out of it, if your girls aren't paying me?"

She was about to reply, with what she wasn't sure, when she saw cut off by a familiar voice. "You get to live."

Oh shit he's going to fuck this whole thing up-

"A little dramatic, don't you think, honey?" Willy directed the comment towards Brooke – the day that he called a man "honey" would be the day that snow fell in July – but either way, it wasn't the best course of action. As the dealer yanked his shirt on over his head, there was a shattering tinkle of glass breaking to the side, and both she and he looked over to find Azrael at the source of the action. A framed photo of Willy had been cast to the floor, and Azrael stood nearby it, facing towards the two of them with his arms crossed over his chest. Upon jerking his shirt down into position, Willy raised a brow at the man in black, and revised himself, some discomfort evident in his voice and face, though he tried to cover it by being polite. "I'm not saying I won't."

This really can't end well this is going to get bloody what am I going to do?

After a nervous look towards her director, Brooke turned back to Willy, interjecting quickly, "I wouldn't ask if it weren't important."

That plea, hitting at his soft spot for her so close after Azrael's intimidation, was enough. Willy caved in, but as he turned his attention back to her entirely and began to make his way back to her, it was evident that he was trying to get back into his former smooth, in-control attitude again. He couldn't charm Azrael, and he knew that, but he was still quite sure that he could break through to her. "Some negotiation could be done, later on, between you and I. But in the meantime, what is it that you need, princess?"

Oh Jesus. Negotiation.

Negotiation with Willy was pretty much code for Brooke giving up something that she didn't want to in return for whatever she needed. Before it had been information, but this time, what she was asking for had a great monetary value. No doubt Willy would want something quite a bit more valuable. Brooke decided not to think about it right now, just raised a brow at Willy and replied coolly, "I'm the doer, not the thinker. You'll have to ask my associate for that."

Willy came to stand next to her, but she stayed put, not about to move away and possibly break the deal. He usually would have touched her when he was this close, on the small of her back, but he seemed to get that it wasn't proper given the situation, and kept his hands to himself. Instead, he linked them behind his back, and looked to Azrael keenly. "How about it?"

Luckily, this wasn't one of those times when Azrael decided that he just didn't feel like responding. He actually seemed to have had something in mind, and replied promptly, though he kept his usual neutral but commanding tone. "Go to the window."

Uh oh what is he going to do? Oh man he can't kill Willy we don't have the stuff and his dad'll kick my ass-

Willy quirked an eyebrow at the request but complied, moving over to one of the windows overlooking the porch. He crossed his arms over his chest and looked back to Azrael, waiting for his next instruction. Brooke was practically jumping out of her skin, she was so nervous by now. Was Azrael planning to shoot him right in front of the window? Would he kill him, or just injure him brutally? But her fears were quickly dispelled when Azrael continued, voice harsh and demanding. "Do you see the black car on the curb."

Willy ducked down a little, bending over to get a glimpse out past the curtains at the indicated car. Then he straightened up again and looked over towards Azrael, looking only a bit puzzled, as if he could see where this was going but wasn't quite sure if he was right yet. "Yeah?"

"Fill the trunk." The dark man cast the keys across the room, and Willy caught them. From the way that he said his words, it was obvious that Willy was to do it, and to do it himself.

"For that much I'm going to need to go to the warehouse," Willy sighed. He looked deflated in a way from how upbeat he'd been before. He had no choice but to satisfy the customer, but in this case, that choice was just as bad as any other. Still, he wasn't one to contradict an order, especially if the person giving it was as intimidating as Azrael was. "Twenty minutes, half an hour."

Azrael was silent, as usual. He was done with Willy now, and had apparently lost interest in making an understandable reply. Brooke was used to it, but her dealer was not, and she could see in the slight twitch of his face that it irked him for this man to come barging in, break things in his house, and then make demands. However, Willy was a decent businessman if nothing else, and he knew the rules. He wouldn't cross the line and argue.

"All right then," Willy said, and turned to walk to the door. He grabbed his olive-colored hooded sweatshirt off of the coat rack and then looked back, meeting the eye of Gretchen, the lovely porn star actress. As he opened the door, he spoke to her, his voice awkward but apologetic. "And, uh... Sorry about this."

Then, he left without another word. Brooke had few doubts that he would do as told, go and get the explosives and then come straight back. Willy wasn't one to go running out on a job, especially one of Brooke's. He could be a coward sometimes, but he was true to his word. Besides, he had a lot of things here that he valued, things that were currently at the mercy of a corpse and a vampire. He wouldn't be stupid enough to leave all that to chance.

He'll be back. He might take a while, but he'll be back.

He'd better be.

"That went well," Brooke noted aloud, and swung her head back around, lifting up a hand to rake her hair back with her fingers. Her eyes, however, caught on something that was less than well, less than substandard, even. Azrael was staring at that girl, that slut on the couch, and she was looking straight back at him, meeting him eye for eye in a disgustingly inviting way. Maybe he thought she was attractive. Hell, maybe he thought he could go in for sloppy seconds since she hadn't gotten enough of Willy to satisfy her urges yet.

What the hell? She's a big ugly cow with legs that don't even close anymore. What's so great about that?

Typical horny male behavior. A pair of tits turns them into upright donkeys.

Brooke felt things rising up again where she would rather they hadn't, so instead of sticking around to see the result, she wisely extracted herself from the situation. She walked off to the stairs, excusing herself with a quick mutter of, "Need to change this shirt..."

Jackass. Well go ahead and do it, just make sure you go somewhere private first. I don't want to puke up last night's dinner.

He'd probably get about a hundred diseases for his trouble anyway.

Quickly she climbed the stairs, up to the room she'd seen once before, Willy's poor neglected bedroom. It was first on the right at the top of the steps, and she entered it briskly, passing through the open door and into the messy space. Willy was notoriously disorganized, and it showed; clothes were all over the place, on the floor, on the chair, on the bed. It was amazing that he could even sleep in the bed, judging by the sheer amount of dirty clothing piled on top of it. Brooke didn't bother too much with the details, just tromped over towards his dresser with a set purpose in mind, stepping on books that were scattered on the floor. He always had a few clean shirts in the dresser, mostly the ones that he didn't wear much or didn't remember that he had. He wouldn't mind if she borrowed one.

Should I close the door?

Don't bother. The vampire's too busy with the Gaping Crotch down there.

Shrugging, she knelt down to drag open one of the dresser drawers, and began to dig through the meager accumulation of clothing inside. There was a pair of jeans, a few shirts with moth-eaten holes, a shirt that quite obviously belonged to a female, and a poorly covered female, at that. Finally she found a shirt that would work well enough, a t-shirt in a faded navy blue with a small hole near the hem in the back. As she stood up and unfolded it, she noted that the front was blank, but there was a large yellow triangle on the back, the meaning of which escaped her. Well, the coat would cover that well enough, so she made a compromise and pushed the drawer shut with her foot.

With another glance to the door, she pulled off her coat and tossed it onto the bed, then dropped the blue shirt down at her feet. Pulling at the bottom of her turtleneck, she dragged it up and over her head, then tossed it onto the bed with her coat. She quickly grabbed the t-shirt off of her shoes and yanked it over her head, finding that when it fell about her, it fit about the same as her black tank top. It must have gotten small on Willy, and that was why it was in that forgotten drawer. Brooke went back to the bed and grabbed her coat, yanking it back on, and then took up her turtleneck again. Even if she didn't end up needing it again, it was the Agency's, and she might as well return it.

Good. Now I can breathe easy again.

She did feel quite a bit better, not as constricted by that stupid turtleneck. It was hard to work when she was that uncomfortable, but now she no longer had to worry about that, and, as an added bonus, Willy no longer had anything to comment on. Turning back around, she left the room, and quickly descended back down the stairs. Gretchen and Azrael were still in the room, and though they were both clothed and both far apart, Brooke couldn't help wondering what they'd been doing in her absence. Had they been talking, and if so, what about? She doubted that Gretchen could have gotten a conversation out of Azrael, but you never knew.

I bet they were talking about you. She asked if you were his girlfriend and they had a good laugh over it.

But there was no chance to ask, because once she got to the bottom of the stairs, Azrael turned to move away, over towards the doors at the opposite side of the room. He must not have had much interest in the girl after all… Or else he was just feigning it pretty well. Either way, Brooke turned her attention back to Gretchen, and addressed the question that suddenly came to mind. "You look familiar. Have we met before?"

"You walked in on a shoot I was in a while ago, if that's what you mean," the girl replied in a suitably disinterested tone. She didn't even bother to look back at Brooke, but kept her eyes on Azrael, watching as he went to a door and cracked it gently, peering inside as if bored. Even if Azrael wasn't interested, Gretchen sure was.

Leave it alone, girl. There's no use in it.

And back off while you're at it, you two-timing whore.

Brooke just shifted her weight, and narrowed her eyes a bit at the side of Gretchen's head. Maybe telepathy worked. Maybe she could order the girl's brain to make her heart shut down and kill her now. While Voice made an attempt at that, Brooke replied rather distractedly, "Oh yeah, with that other girl and Willy and... Uh... Yeah."

That was right. One of the few times she'd visited, Willy had been busy in the middle of a shoot. Unfortunately, he'd decided that it was too urgent a shoot to be interrupted by her visit, so he'd simply invited her inside while he'd… finished up. It had been one of Brooke's less fond memories, but she did remember Gretchen from the shoot after all. The porn queen turned her eyes back to Brooke as Azrael shifted out of sight, her eyebrows knitting together in annoyance that was equally thick in her voice. "Yeah."

Game over.

Since she wasn't particularly interested in reliving the sordid details of that night with Gretchen the slut, Brooke just shrugged and turned away, walking over towards the kitchen. Her stomach was starting to growl, and she had a pretty good hunch that Azrael wouldn't be taking her out for breakfast any time soon. With all the explosives that Willy was getting, she was also pretty sure that those were going to be quite a few breakfast-less mornings. Willy wouldn't mind her taking a few things, anyway. Making her way into the kitchen, she glanced around, surveying the situation. There was a bowl with some fruit in it on the counter, and nearby to that there was an open cereal box, evidently left by the perpetually messy Willy.

No fruit. That stuff'll go bad. Find something that'll last.

Cereal lasted. Brooke moved over to the drawers, opening one or two before she found the proper one and pulled out a plastic baggie. Taking the open box of cereal into her hand – she didn't have a preference when she was this hungry – she poured an ample amount into the baggie before sealing it shut and shoving that into her coat pocket. A bit more searching found her a bag of fresh bagels, from which she took three; one she began to eat, while the other two went into her pocket. She topped it off by shoving three slices of bread into another baggie, and pushing that into her pocket with the cereal, evening out her load. That would be plenty for a few days, maybe a week if she rationed right.

Good work. Let's check the street, Willy ought to be home any time now.

This bagel is delicious.

Taking another ravenous bite from the bagel, Brooke turned and walked back out into the living room, to find quite the interesting situation. It seemed that Gretchen had tried to do something that hadn't agreed with Azrael's plan, because at the moment she was disheveled and enraged on the couch, glaring at the calm man who stood six or seven feet away, between her and the door. Brooke, always the spectator, quickly asked, "Did I miss something?"

But before either of them could respond, Gretchen dove forward, forgetting her shoes and her purse in favor of making a break for the door. Azrael would have none of it, though, and fluidly shoved her by her chest back onto the couch, simultaneously ripping his gun from its place at the back of his pants and pointing it straight into her face. The girl seemed ready to run again, ready until she saw the gun, anyway. Then she shut down entirely, pulling back against the corner of the couch to pull her legs against her chest, staring with wide, overbright eyes at the man who threatened her life.

So much for seducing him, huh?

"Not much, I guess." Brooke took another bite from her bagel, feeling quite a bit more upbeat than before, and glanced over at the window next to the door. Sure enough, she saw a rolling black shape that could only be Willy, a little bit early if she was any judge. She noted aloud, "I think our Willy's back."

Azrael stepped forward, coming into point blank range on poor Gretchen, and spoke to her without taking his eyes off of the currently crying porn star. "Go. If he skimped us, slit his throat."

And take a perfectly good dealer out of commission? I think not.

Well, it never hurts to go along with it.

"Can do," Brooke cheerfully replied, though she had no intention of doing any such slitting. She moved off to the door, sliding out through it with little care as to what happened to Gretchen, and after shutting it behind her, hurried down the steps to the car. Willy had already gotten out, and was fixing her with a rather disgruntled look, leaning back against the side of the little black vehicle.

As she approached, he spoke up, sounding somewhere between tired and incredibly upset. "You owe me big time for this, Brooke."

"What, I'm not sweetheart anymore? I'm crushed." Brooke came close enough to snatch the keys that dangled from his fingers, and then moved over to the rear of the car, shoving the keys into the trunk's hole. After unlocking it, she lifted up the hood, peering inside. It was a pleasant sight indeed, and one that made her smile slightly. Willy had been attentive to his command, and had shoved the trunk full of wooden crates, as many as he could possibly fit inside. All of them had "Handle with Care" and "High Explosives" stamped across their wooden sides in bright red ink, and while Brooke wanted to open one, just to take a look at what was contained inside, she resisted that urge, and closed the trunk instead. Looking back to Willy, she asked him, "Did you give me something to open those with?"

"There's a crowbar in there." Willy looked to the house, as if she were too horrible to even deserve his visual attention. Still, he spoke to her, and as he did she saw his eyes slide back to catch her in their sights. "Does that shithead smoke?"

"Yeah."

"Tell him not to smoke around this stuff. He'll blow the both of you sky high and waste thousands worth of quality goods." Though Brooke didn't really find herself in any place to tell Azrael what to do, it was good advice, so she kept it in mind. Willy seemed to think for a minute or so, and then trained his eye on her again, looking more serious than ever. "I don't care what that asshole says, this stuff still has a price, honey."

"I know, I know." Brooke sighed and moved to the passenger's side of the car, opening up her door and tossing the turtleneck shirt onto the seat. She took another bite out of her bagel and then looked over the top of the car at the back of Willy's head. "Look, I'll pay you back myself. What do you want?"

Why even ask?

Predictably, Willy looked over his shoulder to her, a small but curious smirk on his face. "I told you I could make you famous, baby."

For a second she could only stare at him, feeling an expression of disgust rising on her face, and then she moved around to the front of the vehicle. Quickly she approached him, and she saw him shift a bit, trying to defend his more sensitive areas from an expected attack. Instead of attacking, however, she stopped in front of him, and pointed at him with the car key, a somewhat threatening gesture. "I'll make this deal to you, and you take it or leave it. Give me this stuff and clear my standing debts with you, and don't tell anybody I was ever here. You don't tell your dad, your mom, your girlfriend, yourself, and you sure as hell don't tell my people. If you do that, I'll do… I'll do one thing for you."

"Anything?" Willy asked quickly, and she could see his eyes light up in a wolfish way. He was evidently already planning what thing he would have her do; he'd probably been thinking about it for a while, and now he had to narrow down the list to one thing.

"Yeah."

"Do I get to choose what thing it is?"

"Yeah. Now let's get back inside. Gretchen's waiting," Brooke spat.

It's official. We have just signed away the last of our dignity.

Oh shut up.

The two of them proceeded back inside, Brooke forcibly keeping the silence in between them. Once they proceeded through the door, to find Gretchen still alive but Azrael still pointing his gun into her face, Willy seemed surprised where Brooke was not. He quickly turned to Brooke, his entertainment over the deal dissipating as he snapped at her, "Get him off of her!"

As if Brooke could do anything about it. She had no control over Azrael. But it seemed that Azrael would listen, for he only held the gun on Gretchen for a moment longer. Then he whirled with his unbelievable speed and lunged onto Willy, grabbing him by the throat and jamming the gun into his jaw as he slammed the boy into the wall behind him. Willy wisely was silent but wary, his eyes big and round, not trying to fight since he evidently knew how useless it was, whereas Gretchen had not. Brooke froze up a bit herself; sure, shooting Willy in the brain would get rid of her need to pay him back, but he was still a useful dealer. It would take forever to find a new one if Azrael decided that it was his time. Again, her director surprised her, and instead of firing he simply stated in a mocking tone, "Thanks, love."

Then Azrael leaned in, planting a sarcastic kiss on Willy's cheek, and let the boy go entirely. As the dark man made his way for the door, Willy scampered off to stand nearby to the sobbing girl on the couch, and shot Brooke a look. His look stated exactly what she was thinking at the moment: This guy is crazy. Still, it was a bit funny, the way that Willy looked so horrified at being kissed by a crazy man where he hadn't been so worried about a gun, so Brooke shook it off. She walked back to the door, ready to pass through where Azrael had left it open, but before she went, she looked back to Willy.

"I'll see you later, Willy. Remember our deal."

I sure as hell will.

Before he could nod or shake his head, she slammed the door shut behind her, and began across the porch. Azrael was halfway to the car already, and busily shoving his gun back between his pants and his spine, apparently intent on getting out of here. He wouldn't be going anywhere fast without the keys, though, and Brooke glanced down to them sitting in her palm, just as cold as ever.

Ahead of her, Azrael had come to a halt, and when she followed the new direction of his gaze, she found it trained on the car in the driveway: Willy's unholy piece of crap. The dark man looked almost fascinated by it, entranced by the chipping paint, the rusted-out metal, and the replaced doors that didn't quite match. He didn't want to steal it, did he? The car was a junker that barely started. How could he want that when he had a perfectly good car right here? Brooke didn't bother to notify him of Willy's car's deficiency, though. Chances were that if she knew, he knew, and if he still wanted the car, nothing that she said would stop him.

As she moved past him to the car they'd arrived in, he set into motion over towards the junker. Shoving the key into the lock on the driver's door, Brooke twisted it until it clicked, unlocking quietly. Then she turned back to look over to Azrael, to find him kneeling at the rear of Willy's car, touching the license plate lightly. He ran his fingers gently over the embossed numbers, before suddenly prodding his fingers beneath the plate and ripping it clean off.

What the hell?

"What are you doing?" Brooke asked, glancing to Willy's window and then turning back to stare at him incredulously. Lucky thing that she'd just made that deal with Willy, or else he would have been further compounding an amazing pile of debt that she would have needed to repay. Azrael didn't respond, but rose up to his feet, holding the plate in one hand. He moved around to the side of the car and, almost mockingly, stopped to kick the tire as if appraising the car at a dealership along the way. Brooke quickly scampered out of his way as he returned to the car, leaving the keys in the door for him as she rounded to the other side. When Azrael climbed in, he tossed the license plate haphazardly into the back seat, and then leaned over to unlock her door.

Once she had gotten settled into her seat, she took a quick look at the plate laying in the seat, and then over to Willy's house once again. Now that there was a metal door between him and Azrael, her dealer had apparently bucked up the courage to address the situation, because by the time she spotted him he was halfway out the front window, yelling something that she couldn't quite hear through the shielding of the car. Azrael simply started the car and turned a harsh one-eighty, so sharp that the wheels spun for a few seconds before they found purchase, and then they were off, speeding down the street and away from that den of whores.

We did it. We got out.

Now all you have to do is figure out how to get out of that deal.

Oh, right. She'd almost forgotten about that god-forsaken deal. She already had a ballpark idea of what Willy would choose, and now that she thought of it, just the idea was making her faintly ill. He'd been trying to get into her pants ever since they'd first met, to no success, so there was little doubt that his one demand would be spent on something of that nature. The only question was what, exactly, he would choose for her to do. As far as she could see, there was no way to get out of this; she'd made a deal, and though the price was high, she had to uphold her end.

There has to be a way out. We are not subjecting ourselves to be his slave for even a second.

Well… It'll only be one thing. It can't be that bad…

Even in her head, her voice was unconvincing. Of course it would be bad. It was Willy. It would be awful. She was too deep in her own fretting to notice the turn until they were in it, but it seemed that Azrael had followed her directions in reverse, always logical. He could find his way out on his own. With her opportunity to distract herself lost, she fell back into her mind, thinking over everything that she wanted to ignore but had to consider before the time came. Willy would most likely want straight sex; he knew that she was a virgin, and had always seemed quite interested in that fact. There was always a possibility that he would decide to throw something strange and even more degrading her way, if only in revenge for all that Azrael had done to him, his home, and his girlfriend. He could be childish like that sometimes.

Great fix you've gotten us into, Chandlier.

Well I didn't hear you coming up with any genius ideas.

Soon enough they were back on the highway, off to the next location, most likely back to Dayno for their counterattack. Azrael was comfortable enough going at his usual excessively speedy rate, and she tried to get comfortable as well, settling back into the seat and trying to push away the rancid images that were springing to mind. It didn't work, though; even as she took a bite from her formerly delicious bagel, she thought of his face and his strange musky smell, the feel of his hand on the small of her back, and all that she could taste was ash and dirt.

Oh god what have I done?

Then, Azrael spoke. "What deal?"

Oh no.

Her insides flipped over violently, so brutally heavy at the pit of her bowels that she felt the sudden urge to throw up. She didn't want to tell him, she couldn't tell him, but one way or another, he would find out. He always did. For the moment, she tried pathetically to put up a clueless front, murmuring around the tasteless chunk of bagel in her mouth, "Hmm?"

There was silence from him, but he hadn't dropped it, he was just waiting for her to speak. He knew that she knew what he was talking about, and he wasn't going to play along with her stupid act. Brooke swallowed thickly, sending the chewed-up food down to her stomach. She felt a lot like she imagined a death row prisoner would feel at the end of their last meal; hopeless, dreading the inevitable but unable to avoid it. Once the last of the bagel had descended her gullet, she replied, looking down at the chunk of bagel left in her hand. "Just... Payment stuff."

Please. Please just leave it alone, I don't want to say it twice.

"There is no payment." His voice was sharp and to the point, and hearing it just made her feel that much worse. Maybe he didn't feel that there was a payment, but she couldn't escape without paying the price.

"His life wasn't worth as much to him as the equipment was," she told him, trying desperately to dodge away from the subject. He already thought that she was a whore because of Ein; this would no doubt only make him think even worse. That she'd just bargained herself for them felt ridiculous, but it was all that she had to give. She had paid for the both of them, for the explosives, for their safety, for her own steps towards a debtless future.

She couldn't look at him. If she looked, he would see it all on her face, without the reasoning behind it, without anything that she could say to buffer how badly it looked. Instead she just stared down at the bagel, listening in awful silence as he spoke to her, his voice hard and commanding. "What did you do?"

I DID IT FOR THIS I DID IT FOR THIS THING WE'VE BEGUN.

"Compromised." It was agony to tell him even that much. She just wanted to grow so small that she'd disappear into the floor, or chuck herself out of the door just so she wouldn't have to deal with it.

"Brooke."

She wanted desperately to feel good about the decision she'd made, or at least accept it as necessary, but she felt nothing but ashamed, to be bartering her privates and paraded as another one of Willy's god damned sluts.

I DID THIS FOR YOU AND ME.

She shrugged quietly, turning her face to look out through the window as the bagel began to fall to pieces in her hands. She'd been picking at it unconsciously, her nervous hands ripping crumbs out to fall all over her lap, and now there was little but a ragged scrap left in between her fingernails, pathetically small and worn. She tried to sound nonchalant when she spoke, but she failed, only managing to sound a little more carelessly miserable. "Well, you know what he wants."

I didn't do it for myself.

"Brooke if he touches you I will break his neck."

The cold, flat, ultimately serious tone of his voice made her jerk, her eyes whipping back to him as her stomach flooded with ice. He sounded almost like an overprotective brother, or a jealous boyfriend or something crazy like that, but the idea was chased away by the deadly tone he took, the tone no brother had ever taken. Startled by his words and the conviction with which he'd said them, she could only stammer out, "What?"

"You don't work for him. You don't work for the castle. You don't owe anyone anything." He sounded quite convinced of what he said, she wanted badly to believe him, but what he said was false. Even if she didn't owe Willy the things that she had offered, even if she didn't owe the castle her life and her livelihood, she still did owe someone something.

Like being in the shadow of a lone shark.

Shut up shut up SHUT UP.

After a minute of silence, she finally mustered up the words. "I do. I owe you."

But he shook his head solemnly, not a hint of a joke anywhere on his face, and said the last thing that she had ever expected him to say. "We're even."