Gregori Nicolaie Wilbur Dracula was bending down to feed his kitten Shub-Niggurath when the phone rang.
He straightened and picked up the receiver from the wall above the kitchen counter. Shub mewled and wove around his feet, unhappy at the interruption in her feeding schedule.
"Hello?" he said.
"Hello, brother," answered a cool voice.
Greg paused and tried to remember if he had joined any cults recently. Last Saturday night was still hazy, but he didn't have any new tattoos, bound acolytes in his bed, or membership cards.
"I'm sorry," Greg said. "You must have the wrong number."
"I do not think so," said the voice. "This is Drake."
Greg gripped the phone a little more tightly to keep his hands from trembling. "Drake? I'm afraid I don't know anyone by that name."
"I am sure you know me by reputation," came the dryly-amused reply. "You have not been gone so long as to forget the existence of your younger brother." It wasn't a question.
Greg leaned against the kitchen counter on suddenly weak legs. "No," he said.
"I am calling because I have a favor to ask of you," Drake said.
"I haven't talked to you in fifty years," Greg said. He couldn't keep the harshness from his voice.
"Nevertheless," Drake said. "I need your help."
"Why could you possibly need my help?" Greg asked. "All Father thinks I'm good for is lounging indolently in the human's world, taking up space."
"That is why I need your help," Drake said. "It is Father. I need you to come to Monsterland as soon as possible. Father is dying."
Greg had dropped the phone, flung the window open, and turned into a bat before Drake finished the last syllable.
In his haste, Greg knocked over the bag of kitten chow, spilling it across the floor. Shub began munching away happily on the scattered mess. She paused and, with feline calculation, regarded the window her master had leapt through; then she sauntered into the living room to claw the couch in anticipation of Greg's return.
If she was lucky, he'd left a favorite pair of trousers out she could scratch up as well.
It didn't take Greg long to obtain directions to Count Dracula's manor. The inhabitants of Monstertown were remarkably well informed when it came to keeping track of the local vampires. A quick visit to the manor, however, proved unsuccessful because no one appeared to be home.
Greg shut his eyes briefly, bringing his balled up fist to his forehead and pressing it there while he collected his thoughts.
Stupid, stupid, he thought. I should have asked Drake where he was, I should have – he stopped himself.
He could find Drake. Just like in the old country, when he was still young and singing with blood, when he'd run with the wolves and let himself howl into night air sharp with the smell of gypsy campfires and cloying spices. He remembered catching a girl one night, her braids tangling in his teeth. He had always thought it was rude for victims to scream while his mouth was full. Weren't they taught manners?
The hunt had been intense and satisfying in those dark times. It certainly hadn't been plastic bags delivered at precisely eight o'clock in the morning to his front stoop every day.
Nowadays people noticed bodies with their throats torn out. Life wasn't so harsh that a disappearance in a dark forest went unremarked. The humans all had names and identities and numbers attached to them now; if they went missing, people questioned it.
And so Greg had been forced to change with the times. A sterile packet of blood every morning.
He made a face and closed his eyes, inhaling deeply. There – a scent he faintly remembered. It was tangled with another scent, but it was still unmistakably Drake.
He opened his eyes, irises gone black, and observed the faint red trail he could see in the air above the sidewalk. It led west.
Greg found the house within the hour. It was two stories tall and painted a cheerful yellow. There were garden gnomes.
He avoided using the brass door-knocker shaped like a smiling fairy and settled for knocking, wondering what other sorts of horrors awaited him beyond the threshold.
A smiling, attractive young man with dark hair answered the door. He was shorter than Greg by several inches, and he had the mildly defensive air of a man who was painfully aware that he was shorter than most people and would they like to make something of it?
"That was fast," the young man said. "Mom," he called over his shoulder, smiling and hooking his thumbs through his belt loops, "Dracula's other kid is here."
A short, thin woman with Medusa-like dark hair burst through what Greg assumed was the kitchen door, from the smells of cinnamon and baking that suddenly assailed his nose. The woman reminded Greg of a stalk of broccoli, if that stalk of broccoli had gone to Woodstock and decided to never color-coordinate its wardrobe again, ever.
"Oh, goodness, come in, come in!" she said, her hands flying to untie her red apron and smooth down the front of her teal and peach tye-dyed skirt. "We didn't expect you so soon! Drake only just called."
She paused and regarded him questioningly, adjusting a bright yellow headband that was slowly losing the battle against her curls. "Drake only just called," she repeated.
"I flew," Greg said.
"And boy, are your wings tired," the dark-haired man quipped. Greg and the woman both turned to regard him. He grinned sheepishly. "Uh, Mom, would you mind telling Drake his brother is here? We'll wait in the living room."
"Oh! Of course, honey, I think he's out back with the other guests." She hurried away.
"That's my mom, Maleva," said the boy. "She gets like that whenever we have a barbeque. I'm Frank," he said, shaking Greg's hand quickly. "Nice to meet ya. C'mon, follow me. We'll wait for Drake. Last time I saw him, he was hovering over my dad's shoulder while he cooked and stealing blood sausages off the grill when he thought no one was looking."
Greg followed Frank into the living room, trying to calm the bats in his stomach.
"Take a seat," Frank said, gesturing toward an overstuffed loveseat. "Drake'll be here any second. He's been driving me crazy ever since he called you. I thought he was going to worry himself to undeath again."
Greg took a seat.
"Not really a talkative guy, are you?" Frank pressed on. "Wish you could teach Drake that trick. He tends to babble. I tell him all the time, silence is golden, you know? But he'll just babble all day long if I let him. Babbles like a brook, he does, haha. Babbles, much as I am doing now."
Greg took pity on him. "My social skills are regrettably rusty. It has been some time since I have been invited to a home for a party." This was true: technically, blood orgies didn't count as parties. At least, he was fairly sure they didn't.
"Right, you must be more the broody, Prince-of-Darkness type of vampire."
"Taunting my brother already, I see," Drake said, sweeping into the room.
"Oh, hey," Frank said. "You didn't tell me your brother was hot," he said slyly, looking up at Drake with his lips quirked in a teasing smile.
"You did not tell me you had a death wish," Drake replied, walking over to join them. He bent down and gave Frank a very thorough kiss in greeting.
"Ah, I see we have just given you a minor heart attack, brother," Drake said. "I apologize if it offends your sensibilities. I should perhaps have warned you about my boyfriend beforehand." His stare was challenging.
"I have no interest in whatever unfortunate creature you choose to bestow your affections upon, Drake," Greg said.
Drake relaxed almost imperceptibly. "That is good."
Greg felt more was required of him. "How long have you been partners?"
"Since high school," Drake replied, sharing a look with Frank. Greg sensed a story there, but did not think it his place to ask. "That means it will be seven years this December."
"I see," he simply said.
One corner of Drake's mouth tilted up. "Frank," Drake said, flicking his glance sideways, "In case you were wondering, my brother has just very wholeheartedly congratulated us on our relationship and wishes us a warm, bright future."
"He has?" Frank asked bemusedly.
"It may take you a while to understand the subtleties of Greg's expressions," Drake said wryly. "Several hundred years, in fact."
Frank laughed. "Oh man, I can't believe you invited the poor guy here. You know my mom is gonna smother him right away, don't you?"
"The thought had crossed my mind," Drake said, mussing Frank's hair in a fond way.
Greg cleared his throat to remind them he was still in the room. He also tried to convey his sense of impatience and his annoyance at being talked about as though he weren't there. But it was hard to get all that into a cough.
"So, what do you do for a living?" asked Frank. Drake was seated next to him; he crossed his leg over his knee casually and leaned back in the couch.
"I liberate property from unworthy owners," Greg said. "Then I transfer the property in question to the location and owners it rightfully belongs."
"Greg steals things and fences them," Drake translated. "He is what is more commonly known as a cat burglar."
"Don't you mean a bat burg —" Frank began.
"If you finish that sentence, I will hurt you," Drake said calmly, placing a hand on Frank's knee.
Frank sighed. "All right, all right. You'd think after all these years with me you could take a joke," he said.
"After all these years I have become immune to them," Drake said. "Not even a joke sledge-hammer could put a dent in the terrible pun armor you have provided me."
"So," Frank said, directing his attention back to Greg. "You're disreputable. I can dig that." He grinned and winked. Greg watched Drake's fingers tighten on Frank's thigh; his brother's smile was brittle when he spoke.
"In a few moments the only thing you should be worried about digging is your grave, Franklin," Drake said, baring his teeth in a less than pleased way.
Greg was surprised when Frank only laughed and leaned against Drake's shoulder, wrapping an arm around him. "Man, it is so easy to wind you up, you possessive old bat."
Greg allowed the barest smile at the expression on Drake's face. His younger brother appeared to have finally met his match. If it made him feel a little sorry for himself, he didn't let it show.
"Burgling stuff must be fun," Frank mused. "I bet it's a lot easier with that whole one-with-the-darkness thing you vampires have."
Greg nodded. "It does occasionally make things easier. More than once I have been thankful that I can turn into a fine red mist with just a thought. Getaways are quite simple as long as no one turns on a fan."
Frank's eyes widened and he leaned forward. "You can turn into a mist? Drake can't do that!"
"He's a few hundred years younger. He will be able to do it in time."
Frank swiveled to look at Drake. "What other cool things can't you do?" he teased. "Can your dad do the mist-thing?"
"Yes," Drake said. "Among many other things."
Greg sat a little straighter in his seat. "Drake, to the purpose of my visit. You said you needed me to be here for Father."
The smile died on Drake's lips. "Yes, I did," he replied solemnly.
"How long – " Greg stopped and started again. "How long has he been dying?"
Drake's eyebrows rose. "Dying? Whoever told you Father was dying?"
"I – you," Greg said, brows furrowing. "That's why I dropped everything and raced across the skies to come here."
"I said Father was dying? Oh no, I cannot imagine I would say that. You must have heard wrong. I said Father is trying, Greg. You know how difficult he can be."
Greg's jaw dropped, and he wrenched his mouth closed with an audible click of teeth.
"Trying, yes, very," Drake said. Frank nodded sympathetically and patted his partner on the shoulder. "He simply refuses to help us with our latest endeavor." Drake paused. "And that is of course why I called for your help, brother."
Greg stood in one swift motion, his hands clenching and unclenching spasmodically. He watched alarm fill the faces of the other two men as they echoed his movement and rose from the couch opposite him.
Greg's hands balled into fists at his side and very slowly he relaxed his fingers; he felt the stinging pain of half-moon crescents carved into his palm.
"Drake," he said, once he had got himself under control, "I think I will be leaving."
"You cannot go," Drake said, a little desperately. He stepped closer and put a restraining hand on Greg's arm. "Father will be here in a few minutes, and so will –"
"I fail to see how that would entice me to stay," Greg said, looking pointedly at Drake's hand until Drake released his arm.
"But you haven't even listened to why we need your help!" Frank exclaimed.
Greg's eyes narrowed. "Whatever it is you want, it can't be good. Drake tricked me into coming here. I don't want to be party to anything strange or illicit."
"Why would you care if it was illicit? You steal stuff! That's why we need you," Frank said.
"Frank," Drake said warningly.
Despite himself, Greg was intrigued. "You need something stolen?"
"Not exactly," Drake said. "Please, sit down."
Reluctantly, Greg took his seat again and ran a hand over his buzz-cropped hair. He kept it short for his work: the less hair on his head, the less potential there was for any of it to be left behind at the scene of one of his repossessions.
He noticed Frank staring at him as Drake took a seat. "What?" he asked, more sharply than he'd intended.
"Nothing," Frank said quickly. "It's just . . . I just realized you look scarier than Drake. I didn't think that was even possible. Nice scar, by the way."
Greg rubbed a hand along his jaw self-consciously. He'd gotten the scar from a magically cursed blade wielded by a golem who really hadn't wanted him to steal a mystical grimoire bound in human tongues.
The scar annoyed him because it set him apart from other vampires. Vampires were supposed to be darkly seductive with flawless complexions; they were certainly not supposed to be hollow-cheeked men with scars and rough stubble because they kept forgetting to get up early enough to shave.
His severely cut dark hair, the small scar along his jaw, and his gaunt features made him look more like a recently released convict than a creature of lust and legend. He was not nearly as suave looking as his father or his perfectly coiffed younger brother.
"Thank you," he said shortly. Frank shrugged.
"We need your help in dealing with the other end of your business," Drake said, placing his hand on Frank's thigh again. It seemed habit, as though he still could not believe the man next to him would allow it, and he needed the physical touch to reassure himself.
"What do you need fenced?" Greg asked, mood soured.
"A few gems and ancient artifacts," Drake said. "They are quite old and valuable and would cause more than a few raised eyebrows if they were to suddenly appear on the market. We need them sold very discreetly."
"I see," Greg said. "They've been stolen from a high profile family?"
"Ah, no," Drake said, looking nervous. "Actually, the phoenix family they belong to –"
"You're dealing with phoenixes now?" Greg asked with a growl, flexing his fingers.
"Huh, your eyes go red quicker than Drake," Frank said.
"Fascinating," Greg said, hissing the word.
Drake looked at Frank apprehensively. "Perhaps you should leave, Frank. I will talk to my brother alone."
"Like hell you will." Frank crossed his arms over his chest, his expression mutinous. "Your brother is scary, but two of us could take him."
Greg shifted in the chair, letting his fangs lengthen.
"Maybe," Frank amended. "But the point is, I'm not going. What have you got against phoenixes anyway?" Frank asked, addressing Greg. "They're monsters just like us."
Greg allowed his lip to curl. "They are nothing like us, just as you are nothing like us. You think Drake is a vampire? No, you appear to have collared and defanged him. My father has mellowed with his age. If you had been there at the beginning –" Greg stopped, curled his fingers again, felt them press into his thighs like blunt claws.
"If you had been there at the beginning of the vampire, you would not want to stand in the same room with one," Greg continued with a scowl.
He felt the familiar pain, his dead heart trying to twitch. "It is impossible to make you understand – for all that you're the son of a monster, you do not know what real monsters are."
Frank opened his mouth to interrupt, but Drake put a restraining hand on his arm. His eyes were trained on Greg's face, searching and a little frightened.
"Phoenixes are life and rebirth," Greg said. "And they cannot accept or even understand a vampire. Vampires are death and –"
"Rebirth," said a loud voice.
Three pairs of eyes swung to the doorway where a tall, broad-shouldered man with dark auburn hair stood, his hands in his pockets and a pleasant expression on his face.
"At least, the way I figure it," he said. "I mean, I die once a month on a fiery pyre and wake up sooty but alive the next morning. You died once and woke up the next morning underneath six feet of dirt, right? Rebirth. And," he said, smiling, "A friendly gypsy can always resurrect you in the event of an unexpected staking."
Greg wasn't impressed. He'd heard pretty speeches before. It was usually right before a lover betrayed him and an angry mob arrived. But he tried not to dwell in bitterness.
"Ah, allow me to introduce my associate," Drake said quickly, interrupting the tense silence that had settled over the room. "Lucian Fenix."
"Luce, please," the man said, voice deep and rumbling. He flashed them a brilliant smile, and they stood to greet him as he stepped further inside. The walls of the room brightened with his presence, the temperature climbing noticeable degrees.
Reluctantly, Greg was forced to admit Luce was an impressively large man with impressively large shoulders and impressively handsome, rugged features. Really, the only way to describe him was . . . what was the word?
"It's a real pleasure to be here, thanks again for inviting me," Luce said, slapping Frank's shoulder. "Your mom's the best cook."
Luce turned to Greg.
"I've heard a lot of good things about you," he said, grabbing Greg's pale hand with both of his much larger hands and shaking it forcefully up and down.
"I can't imagine what," Greg said, unable to keep the sneer from his voice. Luce's hands were scorchingly warm, and he withdrew his hand as quickly as etiquette allowed.
Luce regarded him silently for a moment, and Greg resisted the urge to squirm. He came from a grand legacy of ancient evil, after all. He didn't have to cower before a phoenix. Even if phoenixes were incarnations of the powers of light and could theoretically incinerate him.
Luce's brown eyes were lit with flecks of gold and the air around him sizzled faintly. Greg wondered with vague unease if he was about to experience a fiery pyre firsthand.
Abruptly, Luce's eyes cooled. "Only that you're good at what you do," he said.
"Yes," Greg agreed with the same coolness.
"Do let us sit down," Drake said weakly.
Greg eyed Luce suspiciously as the big man settled onto the loveseat next to him but did as Drake bid. He was now intensely curious to discover the reason behind all this.
"Well," Luce said, stretching out his long legs. "If you can do this –"
"There is no question of if," Greg said, spine stiffening. "Only will."
"Of course," Luce said with easy acceptance, his smile not quite reaching his eyes. "It would be a great help if you would do us this favor. I need the capital for my investment. And naturally, there is no question of payment, you can take whatever your standard cut is."
"Twenty percent," Greg said viciously, wanting to eat into the profit for whatever Luce needed.
"I'd like to use the money to open an orphanage," Luce said.
Well, Greg thought waspishly, it would be orphans. "Or I could take ten percent," he said, gritting his teeth.
Luce smiled at him, and this time it reached his eyes. "That's generous of you, since Drake led me to believe you usually took fifteen."
"My stocks are doing well at the moment," Greg said, turning away.
"Are you gonna help us, then?" Frank asked, leaning forward.
Greg let the question hang in the air longer than necessary, then: "Yes."
"Excellent!" Luce said, clapping him on the back. "Thanks for getting on board."
Greg grunted, unwilling to speak and let Luce know just how much that friendly blow had rattled him.
"We're gonna open up an orphanage for monster kids," Frank said, his face flushed and excited. "For magical kids, mythological kids, half-breeds, all of 'em – there are more and more of these kids who need help, and no one wants to take care of them."
"Some of the purists think the half-breed children ought to be exterminated, like they're some sort of disgrace," Luce said. His voice flickered white-hot and dangerous. "Obviously, we don't agree."
Greg found himself nodding along. "It's a good idea. I've seen what happens to some of them in the city. In the normal world they run alone or in rogue packs because there isn't a place for them here." He refrained from mentioning that they usually met sticky ends as well, but the unspoken words still hung heavy in the air.
"Exactly," Drake said. His shoulders sagged in relief. "We were afraid you would not agree."
Greg stiffened. If the temperature had risen when Luce entered the room, now it dropped enough to make everyone but Greg shiver. "And why is that?" he bit out.
Drake faltered. "I – that is – well, you are from the Old World, more so than I ever was. Most of the purists are powerful older monsters or beings, fond of tradition – like Father. He does not think we should help. He thinks they should be left to their own devices. If they survive, then they survive."
"Drake," Greg said very deliberately. Luce looked at him sharply and tensed. "If you ever compare me to Father again within my hearing, I will kill you."
Everyone was quiet for several minutes while the temperature slowly returned to normal. When Drake spoke, his eyes were clouded. "I apologize. Thank you again for your help."
Greg nodded stiffly and stood up. "Very well. You can contact me when you're ready."
"We're ready now," Frank said, eyeing him with a little more fear. Greg was so very tired of that look. "We'd like it if we could meet again tomorrow and discuss things."
Greg sighed mentally. "All right. I'll look into getting a hotel nearby."
"You will of course stay with us," Drake said. His tone strove for bored and reminded Greg achingly of their father but he could see the way Drake's fingers picked at the arm of the couch. Good, the little fanger was nervous.
"I cannot stay at the Manor with –"
"We do not live at the Manor. Frank and I have long needed our privacy. We have a small flat across town, near the location for the new orphanage."
Greg winced. He had no interest in sharing a love nest with Drake and Frank. He would likely kill them in their sleep after enduring less than a day of domestic tranquility.
"Or you could always stay with me," Luce offered. The curve of his lips suggested he was following the pattern of Greg's thoughts.
"I couldn't possibly," Greg said.
"I will not hear of you paying for a hotel, brother. Not when either of us could lodge you at our home."
"Nevertheless," Greg tried, "It would be a terrible imposition and –"
"I don't mind," Luce said. "I'd like the company. It might be nice not to rattle around the place by myself."
Greg felt that there might be some sort of supernatural forces at work, because he had rapidly lost his grip on the situation. Luce was looking at him expectantly and he could think of no other way to politely refuse his brother's request.
"If it's only for a few days," he found himself agreeing. "I can't put you out for longer than that.
From the corner of his eye he saw Frank and Drake share a look. "Oh, I am sure it would not require more than a few days to get everything properly sold and settled," Drake said.
"Yeah, just a few days," Frank echoed. Greg didn't like the secretive smile on his face. "In the meantime, you can stay and enjoy the barbeque. One more body won't make any difference, my Mom made enough food to feed a ghoul army. Except she isn't serving body parts," he added quickly.
Greg stifled a sigh. Did he really have anywhere else to be? "I'd be delighted," he said.
"Right this way!" Frank beamed and grabbed Drake's hand as he bounced to his feet. Drake rose more slowly, with an indulgent smile for Frank.
"You can meet the rest of the gang," Frank said happily. "Flea and Gill, you'll like them, I know because – "
"Frank," Drake said, squeezing Frank's hand.
"Oh, right," Frank said, with a nervous laugh. "Um, I mean, I'm pretty sure you'll like them. Yeah."
Greg's eyes narrowed.
"Sounds good," Luce said, stepping in smoothly. "I'd love to meet your friends."