Nicole Grey (foenix) wrote,
Nicole Grey
foenix

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Black River: Day 29

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Cough.  I just noticed this entire chapter is equal to one fifth of the goal for NaNoWriMo.  That feels excessive.  Yet was fun. ;)

Aaand the chapter is too long.  Hrm.  Ok, here's Chapter Ten, part one.


Chapter Ten - Meanwhile

        The party had not yet started, but already someone was knocking on Rachel's door with a rhythmic yet light that filled the entire house.  She was about to call out to her parents, and remembered they were gone for the weekend.
        She shook her head, feeling her flaxen locks shake and tickle at her cheeks.  "Sometimes I take this stuff too seriously," she muttered in the near silence of her room.
        Affixing a pair of fuzzy rabbit ears atop her blonde hair, Rachel looked at herself in the full-length mirror attached to the door to her bedroom.  She turned from side to side, admiring the strapless maroon bodice hugging her curves, and the black stockings over her legs.  She stuck a big fuzzy ball onto her rear and stepped into a pair of matching maroon heels.
        Rachel heard the knocking becoming more insistent downstairs and grabbed a pair of white fuzzy gloves off her bed.  She raced along the carpeted hall of the second floor of her home.  Her hand gripped the bannister that guarded against anyone falling down into the open maw of the stairway.
        She rounded the corner and backtracked in the direction she had come, but was now heading down the stairs as fast as she could in the shoes she had chosen to wear, cursing her choice with each step.  Her heels clicked across the few feet of hardwood floor in the main foyer from the stairway to the front door.
        Grasping the shimmering bronze knob, and this was no immitation metal; this was real, heavy, weighty, and had the signs of wear and age to prove it.  Rachel pulled the door open, and saw Kelly standing on the other side, as a gust of the cool autumn air breezed in through the door ahead of her.
        Kelly's early arrival, and being the first one there, was no surprise at all to Rachel.  She had always been the first to arrive at all her parties, since Rachel had moved there and started throwing them two years ago.
        Not that she minded.  Rachel loved having Kelly's help with these things, not to mention if her best friend didn't show up first, what would everyone think then?
        "Well, are you gonna let me in?"  Kelly stood on the porch wearing a full leather body suit that covered every inch of her from her neck down.  It was padded on the shoulders, elbows, knees, and along the sides.  She wore matching black boots that ha thick soles, but still had a modest wedge heel on them, nothing like the thin point on Rachel's shoes.  Thin lines of pink piping detail seperated the thicker padded areas from the rest of the suit.  A snug belt was cinched around her waist, and in the front was a round buckle with a pink X on it.  Buttons with matching X's were stuck into the open collar that hugged her neck.  The sun had yet to go down, but the clouds in the sky were abalze with a deep orange against the darkening blue of the approaching night.
        Rachel arched an eyebrow.  "Who are you supposed to be?"
        "I'm Kitty Pryde, from the X-Men movies!" declared Kelly, in a huffy tone.
        "Oooh, right," said Rachel, remembering the films.  She flashed a wicked grin and shut the door in Kelly's face.  "Just phase yourself through the door, then!"
        Rachel listened to the muffled cries of her friend through the heavy oaken door.  "Rachel!  Let me in!  It's cold out..."
        The door handle jiggled, then stopped.  Again it jiggled, rattling in its hole, and at last turned all the way, and the door pushed back open again.  "You forgot to lock it, you dumb bunny."
        Rachel was leaning back against the wodden column connected to the bannister on the last stair.  The mischievous grin was still plastered all over her face like the Chesire Cat while she stood there with her arms crossed.
        Rachel spoke as the door closed behind Kelly.  "Trick or treat?"
        "I'd much rather have candy than be stuck outside on the porch!  Please tell me you've got chocolate.  I'm gonna need the fuel to get through the night.  I am still sore after yesterday's practice and game!"
        "Tell me about it.  I hope Brendan isn't feeling frisky tonight, I don't think my body could handle it."
        Kelly scrunched up her nose, making a disgusted face that was still undeniably cute.  "I so don't want to hear this.  Chocolate, stat!"
        Rachel straightened up and gestured towards the door behind her.  "Got some bowls in the kitchen.  Don't hog it all, we need some for the kiddies coming by later."
        The pair of them moved down the small hall beside the stairs and into the awaiting kitchen.  Pictures of Rachel and her parents dotted the tan walls on one side, and an old corded phone was connected to the wall on the other.  It was lit with bright flourescent lights overhead that cast everything in a harsh, clean white light.  Kelly flinched and blinked every time she had ever walked through that door, like a mole exiting into the sunlight.
        Along the left was a long counter that had various appliances on it, from a microwave to a blender, to a food processor and almost everything in between that Kelly could think of.  She often thought they bred and had little baby appliances that were all grown up when next she came by to visit.  In addition to the appliances, which were shoved against the wall underneath the cupboards when not in use, were bowls filled to overflowing with a variety of candy.
        Kelly hefted up two large bottles of soda she had carried over, and set them down next to the bowls with such a hefty bang that the candy on top of the bowls leapt out like people escaping a sinking ship.  The brunette scooped up the pieces as if she was going to return them, but instead stashed most of them into some pockets in her faux X-Men uniform.  All except one tiny Snickers bar which she unwrapped and devoured.
        "I don't know how you can eat so much of that stuff," said Rachel as she shook her head in bemused disbelief.
        Kelly spoke around a mouthful of chocolate and peanuts.  "Must be magic, I guess."
        "Sure, just rub it in."
        The girls leaned against the counter, and Rachel dug through the bowls trying to find the smallest piece of candy she could.  The counter led into a double sink just past Rachel, one of which was half full with drying dishes.  From there it bent back into the room forming a kind of backwards and upside-down L shape.  That section of counter was taller than the rest, and was just the right height for the average person to rest their arms on.  On the opposite side of it was a number of tall chairs set up so people could sit at the taller counter.  Underneath was more cupboards filled with pots and pans and anything else one might find in a kitchen.  One of the doors had been hung crooked, and never quite closed, always hanging open just a bare centimetre or two.
        Sitting atop the breakfast bar was a number of six packs of soda, more bottles like the ones Kelly had brought, and some cans of punch.  Next to them was a dark blue heavy peacot that Rachel sometimes wore this time of year, but had not made it into the closet when she got home.
        Against the wall opposite from the girls was a new flat-top stove with a black ceramic surface.  Circles of white lines were the only indication of where the heating elements had been secreted underneath.  Next to that was another door that led to a small breakfast nook that was just large enough for the table and benches built into the walls, and some shelves along the wall to the right of the door, stacked with spices and ingredients of all kinds.
        Rachel took her fuzzy gloves and tossed them across the gulf of kitchen and watched them land atop the stove and slide across until they hit the console with all the knobs at the back.  Kelly removed her black leather gloves and did the same so she could have an easier time of getting rid of the candy wrappers she was peeling through.
        The kitchen was decorated with festive little touches all over.  Since the stove wasn't in use, Rachel had placed a giant serving plate with a fake skull on top of it, and surrounded it with fake plastic spiders.  The typical orange and black streamers were twisted into spirals and hung all over the ceilling, and dangling from curtain rods covering the windows.  Several ceramic candle holders in theme with the day were scatterd around the room and into the next, as beyond the stools the kitchen transitioned into a large living room with giant windows that would have let giant streams of light into the room if the sun wasn't on its way out.
        A couch in the middle of the room was covered with a giant black blanket covered with a trio of skeletons making it look like they had taken up seats on the couch.
        One of the windows bowed out from the wall, and the sill was used as a seat under normal cirumstances, but tonight Rachel had placed a few more carved pumpkins in the spot, looking in at the soon to be beginning festivities.  A few more bowls of candy sat atop the coffee table in front of the couch in black bowls with bats and spiders and skeletons drawn on their surface.  In a third bowl, a fake plastic hand reached up out of the sea of colourful wrappers, trying to claim them for its own.
        In the back wall was a large glass door opening up to a small deck, that went down a few stairs into the backyard.  A few steps across concrete would lead a person to a large swimming pool dominating the back yard.  It had been drained a few weeks prior to the party, and it was too cold that night to use it anyways.  Rachel much preferred when they could take a swim during the party, and move half the people outside, but Vermont just got too cold in October.
        A large LCD flat panel tv hung on the wall opposite the couch, and was displaying some ghoulish imagery of some horror movie or other.  Rache didn't know what was playing, and had turned the sound all the way down so she wouldn't be distracted by it while getting the house ready.  A small but wide bookshelf of three levels sat underneath the television, filled with various movies, and other knicknacks, all vying for space.  On the very top of the shelf was a pair of glass orbs, each surrounded by fighting dragons.  Inside the orbs were smaller, black balls on pillars, from each of which were eminating bolts of purple electricity, enticing anyone who came near to run their fingers along the glass surface and draw the bolts to them.
        "I take it Brendan's coming tonight," asked Kelly inbetween bites of candy, already sure of the answer.
        "Of course," replied Rachel.  "Invited Darien too.  Should be interesting to see what he comes up with for a costume."
        "And Alyson?"
        "Yeah, I kinda had to if I invited the brother, right?  She'll probably show up in some lame costume, or one that's more scary than sexy.  Some girls just don't get the point of Halloween, you know?"
        "Candy!" cheered Kelly with glee.
        "No, well ok, yes.  Candy.  But the chance to dress up and not be judged for looking as hot as you want to."
        "You're none to subtly commenting on my Kitty costume, aren't you?" Kelly said, while looking down at herself.
        Rachel laughed, "Not at all.  Skintight leather is always a good option.  You look totally hot."
        Kelly brightened at the compliment.
        "So, how's my aura looking, Kell?"
        The brunette was taken aback by the question, as it was the last thing she ever would have been expected to be asked.  Still, she looked at her friend, and focused her eyes on the area around her, and watched as the colours swirling around Rachel like tendrils of smoke coming off a doused pile of coals until they coalesced.
        "Looking kinda red to me, Rachel."
        "Is that good?" implored the blonde.
        Kelly shrugged, making the leather catsuit crinkle and squeak from the movement.  "I'm still trying to figure out what it all means.  But I get the sense that it suits you.  I don't think the colours themselves matter so much, as the feeling I get from the person while I'm looking.  Though I'm still new at this, what do I know?"
        "Red doesn't sound good, though.  Oh well, at least it's not black.  That's the only one that sounds reall bad.  Speaking of which, how is Darien looking these days?"
        "Totally fine."
        "Tell me about it."
        The two girls laughed at themselves, until Kelly had another piece of candy.
        "So," she asked as she swallowed it down, "when do you expect the rest of the party to arrive?"
        As if on cue, or if Kelly had become prescient without anyone knowing, there was such a loud knock upon the door that both girls almost jumped out of their shoes.
        The two of them were eager for the festivities to really get started, and they both raced to the door.  Kelly skirted around Rachel just past the kitchen door, and skidded to a stop in front of the door.  She stuck her tongue out at her friend, and opened the door.
        Before she could see who it was on the other side of the door, she heard a strange poink! sound and then the sensation of something bouncing off her forehead.
        "Kyaaa!" she shouted out in surprise, her arms flailing in the air in front of her to stop any more incoming projectiles.  Once she decided it was safe to do so, she lowered her arms from her face, but kept them at the ready at chest level, just in case.  She parted one eye, looking like a very cautious pirate.
        Standing in the doorway wearing his trademark trenchcoat and sunglasses was Darien.  He also wore a white dress shirt and an almost pencil thin black tie, and black slacks.  He also wore heavy black combat boots laced tight to his calves.  His grim face was made all the moreso by his clothes, and if not for the bright red plastic gun in his hand with even brighter orange ring tipping the barrel, he would have been downright threatening.
        Kelly rubbed at the spot on her forehead where she'd been hit, and looked to the floor.  Resting on the wooden slats in the V made by her feet was a ping pong ball, whose white plastic form stood out all the more against her black boots.  She leaned over and scooped the ball up in her bare hand, and threw it back at Darien.
        "Take back your ball!" she yelled, only half as angry as she seemed.  "And may I add, ow!"
        Darien caught the ball, moving only his free hand to do so.  The rest of his body stood as still and stiff as a rod.  He only moved the rest of him when he tilted his weapon away from his shoulder and dropped the pale orb into the hopper where several of its brothers waited to be unleashed on other unsuspecting foreheads.
        Rachel was glad that Kelly had outraced her to the door.  She hung back and remained silent until the ball was back where it belonged, then ducked her head around the door, her floppy ears bobbing in the air.  "Cool costume, Darien!  Where's your sister?"
        "She's killing some time to show up fashionably late.  You know how girls are."
        "You realise that might be the wrong thing to say when you're the only guy in a roomful of girls?"
        He shrugged.  "I'll take my chances.  I'm the one with the weapons."
        Kelly, still rubbing at the spot where the ball had bounced off her noggin, poked Darien in the side with her other hand.  "What did you shoot me for?"
        The assassin was unmoved by his target's pout.  "Contract kill," was all he said.
        "If you're using ping pong balls, you must be pretty cheap," Kelly retorted.
        "I work for peanuts."  Darien spied a bowl of candy, and the contents contained therein.  "Oooh, or peanut butter cups."
        He wove past the girls and made his way for the candy.  With no one holding open the door, it began to swing shut, but before the hefty slab of wood slammed shut, a hand poked through the slimming crack and stopped it.
        Brendan stood revealed upon the other side as he pushed the door back open.  He was dressed in a simple blue bathrobe, and the wrapped hilt of a katana sword poked over his shoulder, the strap winding across his chest at an angle.  His mid length hair was pulled back and some of it was just able to be tied into a poor imitation of a topknot towards the back of his head, a sandy brown tuft popping up at an awkward angle.
        Rachel spied her boyfriend, and pounced on him before he could even announce himself and wrapped him up in a flurry of arms.
        He returned the hug and slid his hands down her sides and inspected his girlfriend.  "Looking good, bunnygirl."  Brendan gave a smile to Kelly and a nod.  "Hey, Kell.  Anyone else arrived yet?"
        Rachel directed her head back to the kitchen where Darien was rifling through the bowls.  "Just the candy killer in there.  I'm sure everyone else will start piling in any second now.  She reached up and grabbed the hilt of Brendan's sword, giving it a shake, making it rattle in its scabbard.  "What is it with all the weapons this year?" she wondered.
        Brendan was at a loss for any sort of answer he could give.  With everything happening the last few weeks, he just felt much safer walking the streets of Kraftsbury with a weapon nearby.  Incorporating one into his Halloween costume this year seemed like a no brainer.  He spied Darien's plastic gun, and wondered if he had something more substantial hidden away in the folds of his coat somewhere, or if he'd just trust to his fists.  Or his sister.
        "Hey," he remembered.  "Where's Alyson?"
        Darien joined the group, a large candy bar sticking out of his coat pocket.  "Not here yet, but I don't think she'll be too much longer."
        "Did you save any for the rest of the guests?" inqiuired Rachel as she pulled the candy bar from its poor hiding spot.
        "Plenty!"
        She let go of the candy and let it slip back into the dark recesses of Darien's coat.  "Kelly, would you give me a hand with some drinks?"
        Kelly snapped to attention and followed Rachel into the kitchen.  Once the girls were in the other room, clattering away, Darien pointed the gun and fired a ping pong round ar Brendan.  He was watching something in the other room, but still his hand shot up and caught the ball, like he was staring right at it.
        "Not bad, Grasshopper," said Darien, pleased.
        "Probably best to not do stuff like that in public, no?"
        "That would be why I was clever enough to wait until we were alone."
        The ball passed between the two young men, and it was returned to the gun.
        Rachel's bunny ears popped into view in the kitchen door as she called out, "Could one of you strong, strapping men come give us a hand in here?"
        Without missing a beat, Darien and Brendan both began applauding, giving the response almost every teenager is programmed to give when asked for a hand.
        Rachel was not amused.  "I have knives in this kitchen, and I'm not afraid to use them!"
        "Coming, dear!"  Brendan hurried past Darien giving him a slap on the shoulder.  "Don't shoot the guests if you get the door, ok?"
        Brendan saw the girls struggling with a giant metal bucket filled with ice and soda cans.  He was relieved to see it wasn't a setup for bobbing for apples.  They were still in high school, but as juniors, he felt that they were starting to grow beyond such games.  Not that he wouldn't relish the view of a soaked Rachel with an apple in her mouth, but that seemed like equally the worst reason and the best reason for a party game to a teenaged boy.
        "Could you give us a hand with this?  It turned out a little heavier than we thought it would be.  The two of us could manage it if we had to, but I don't want to scratch up the floor, if we don't have to."
        Brendan saw the trouble they were having, and leaned over.  He gripped the handles on the oversized tub, and hefted it into the air, ice and cans shaking and settling as he did so.  A few stray pieces of ice made good their escape and clattered across the kitchen tiles.  Kelly scrambled to grab most of them.
        The football player grunted and shambled his way through the kitchen door, relieved to find that the tub would fit through it, if only just by the slightest hair.  In a way, he was relieved to find carrying the metal bucket such a chore.  Brendan had been wondering just what he was becoming, with his enhanced reflexes and speed, and having to work at such a mundane went a long way to reassure him that on some level he was a human, just like everyone else.
        He panted and struggled with the bucket in the foyer, trying to get his words out.  "Where...where do you want this, Rach?  Heavy."
        His girlfriend followed him and pointed through one of the large open thresholds on either side of the main hall.  Brendan carried the bucket past Darien and went through the entryway to the his right.  Once he had passed into the large, ornate living room filled with several couches, a large grandfather clock, and a fireplace dominating the far wall, he lowered the bucket to the floor with such a loud bang that he was afraid he may have caused a dent that would have been more damaging than the few scratches Rachel had been concerned about.
        Rachel winced at the sound, and gave the floor a quick look as Brendan raised the tub once more.  Satisfied no damage had been done, he lowered it again, with far greater care than before.
        Brendan wiped at his brow with the sleeve of his bathrobe and looked around.  The room was far less decorated than the others, but it still had a few streamers along the walls and fireplace, and some more cermaic decorations scattered along tables and the mantlepiece.  The walls were adorned with reproductions of classic paintings, and many of the furniture and fixtures looked older than any of the people in the house, and in fact they were.  The living room was the pride of Rachel's mother, and many of the things in there were antiques that she had collected on her travels.
        While all the commotion was going on, there was another knock at the door, and Darien was the only one who seemed to notice.  He stuck his gun in one of his pockets, which was unable to contain it well with the candy he had procured.  It threatened to fall out at a moment's notice.
        At first, Darien didn't see anyone there, then he looked downwards and saw a short young girl, dressed in a Red Riding Hood costume, staring up at him with wide, nervous eyes.  A flash of recognition shot through them and she spoke, her fear fading away.  "Oh!  You're Alyson's brother, aren't you?  I'm Crystal, we take chorus together."
        Her tiny hand shot into the air, and Darien's paw engulfed it, and gave it a shake.  For someone so small, she had quite a strong grip.  The towering man backed away from the door, and the diminutive brunette entered the house, a picnic basket hooked off the bend of her arm.
        "Nice costume," Darien said, more to be polite than anything.
        Crystal smiled, "Thanks.  I always loved the fairy tale."
        Darien gave the weapon in his pocket a pat as he spoke, "And don't worry, we won't let any big bad wolves sneak in and get you."
        The hostess came over and smiled at Crystal.  "Glad you could make it!  Got anything good in the basket?"
        The soprano gave the most mischievous grin this side of Mischieftown, and pulled a bottle of amber liquid out of it.  "Snuck some of dad's booze out of the cabinet.  He won't miss it."
        Rachel scooped the bottle up in her hand and brought it to the kitchen, and Crystal followed close behind.  Darien made a face at the bottle, and could hear a more clinking as they pulled others out of the basket.
        Brendan came up beside Darien and crossed his arms, his own stern gaze following Darien's.  "Not a fan of the underage drinking either, huh?"
        His friend and mentor just shook his head and gave a heavy sigh.
        "Don't worry too much.  Rachel knows how hard it is to throw a party without someone bringing in drinks, so does her best to keep it to a minimum.  Better that she keeps the drinks under control and knows about them, rather than letting the bottles and beer run rampant.  No one gets a drink without turning over their car keys first, and Rachel offers to drive anyone home who needs it."
        "She doesn't drink herself?"
        It was Brendan's turn to shake his head.  "Nope.  Amusingly enough, she likes to keep a clear head."
        Brendan saw a smile crack Darien's usually dour public demeanor.  "Yeah, that's a good one.  She won't mind if I make sure it doesn't get out of hand, then?"
        "Mind?  She'll probably welcome it, D."
        The duo stood as silent sentries besides the stairs, as more and more people arrived.  Brendan recognised them all, as one tends to do in a school as small as Kraftsbury High.  Darien knew maybe half of them.  He had been attending the school for a month, and he was ashamed to admit he had not met everyone yet.  Conrad would not have been pleased.
        Darien had been too preoccupied with the death of Marcus, and Brendan's training to get in depth with all of his fellow students.  If not for the other factors, Darien may well have had a large filing cabinet filled to bursting with information on the other students and staff of the high school.  Dossiers on who might be a threat, who was benign, who might be assets, and who might have information on Alyson's killer.
        Instead, he found himself amidst groups of strangers filing by and waving to be polite to the person they knew just as well as he knew them.  They had seen him in the school, and heard rumours of the dark, brooding stranger.  Darien's instincts kicked in, and he sized up each person as they passed him by.  A few he had made aquaintances with via his classes, Rachel, and Brendan, but a vast majority were new to him.
        Part of Darien stirred, a part that lay deep inside and tied up in a closet somewhere.  It was another side of him, a side that died when his sister had done the same.  The childlike innocent within him, the part that snuck out when he smiled, the part that just wanted to be a student and enjoy himself at the party.  Darien could no longer afford to let that part of him out, but as he stood there and sized up his fellow students as little more than assets and liabilities, he wished he could let that part go.
        This was no life for a child to lead.  Many people at the age of 17 no longer thought of themselves as children, and Darien wished that he could.  He wished with all his heart and soul that he had not seen the things he had seen, or done the things he had done.  He had been forced to grow up too fast.  Someday he hoped he could recapture a portion of his youth, but until then he had a job to do, and vengeance to seek.  But Darien knew that someday there was one hell of a midlife crisis coming.
        Darien was so lost in his thoughts that it took Brendan jabbing him in the side with an elbow to stir him from his reverie.  Darien's first reaction was to clobber his attacker, but his mind was quick to process that it was a friend making a friendly gesture.  Nothing was trying to attack his spleen.
        Standing in front of the two guardians was another young man of the same age, by Darien's reckoning.  He was shorter than Darien, as most people were, but equal to Brendan's height.  He wore a pair of thick, dark brown horn-rimmed glasses that did little to hide his chiselled features and classical good looks.  On anyone else, those glasses would have signified a social outcast, yet on the man before them, the look somehow worked, and he seemed more dignified than dork.
        Dark hair, almost raven-black stuck out from underneath a conical, forest green hat.  He wore a matching robe over his clothes.  At least, Darien hoped he had on more clothes underneath, and wasn't naked.  He pushed the thoughts from his mind.
        "Yes, what?" he asked, confused for a moment.
        Brendan gestured towards the wizard in front of them.  Alyson would be able to tell much easier than he could, but Darien did not get the sense of any real wizardry eminating from the newcomer.
        "This is Alex," explained Brendan.
        The name rang a bell in the recessed of Darien's mind, and in others it may have gone unrecognised.  But Darien's sharp focus and attention to details, again second to Alyson's, dredged it up from the mental equivalent of the filing cabinet he wished he had.
        Darien forced a smile and offered a hand as he spoke, "Alex?  You're the person who's helping Rachel with her computer programming class?"
        The man seemed impressed by Darien's recollection, and the reaction seemed genuine.  "Wow, my reputation as a computer wizard preceeds me, I see."
        Now, that kind of wizard, that was something Darien would expect this person to be a wizard of.  Even with his nonconformity to the standard view people had of that type, he seemed to exude the aura of someone who knew his computers more than well.  Darien had a moment of thinking what Kelly saw in Alex's aura.
        "You were mentioned once or twice, yeah.  Usually not very favourably."
        The boy looked crestfallen.  "Oh.  That's too bad."
        "More like the subject matter wasn't favourable, and she was ranting about that more than you.  But you got the worst of it, sad to say."
        "Must've been friendly fire," replied Brendan.
        The three were interupted by a load squeal that made all of them jump, and Darien reach for his weapon.  And not the ping pong ball gun everyone could see, but something rather more substantial and dangerous secreted away in his trenchcoat.  His fingers brushed against the cool leather bound around the hilt of a silver dagger he always kept in a pocket deep within the many folds of his coat, before he saw that it was just Rachel.
        Darien also saw Brendan's hand twitch at the noise, beginning to move towards the sword which he could tell the moment he saw it strapped across Brendan's back was fully functional.  Brendan's reflexes were slower, and his hand arced upwards just the barest hint before he saw his girlfriend.  No one but Darien or Alyson would have ever noticed it, unless they were watching for the reaction.  Both of their hands returned to their resting positions as the bunnygirl hopped closer to them.
        The blonde put an arm around Brendan and Alex, and Darien was certain that if she had a third arm she would have found some way to include him in the embrace.  If by chance he had been a few steps ahead of Brendan, and he was standing where the sandy haired football star was instead, Darien knew he would have been the one in the embrace rather than his student and friend.
        "It's my three favourite guys in all the school, all in one place!" the cheerleader yelped out as she came to a stop.  "I hope you're not comparing notes about me."
        "Would we do such a thing?" asked Brendan.
        She replied without a pause, "In a heartbeat!"
        Alex looked uncomfortable to be in the shared embrace with Brendan, and moved back a step, getting closer to Darien.  With one arm dangling in the air, Rachel shifted and draped it across the front of Brendan, and clasped the wrist of the arm that snaked over the back of his neck.
        "Actually," said the tutor, "I was just introducing myself to Darien, here.  You've told me so much about him during our sessions."
        "Lies, every last word," joked the man in black.
        Rachel stuck out her tongue.  "I've only told him the good things."
        Darien knew there wasn't anything bad she could tell the newcomer.  Anything that he considered bad enough to be kept a secret was just that; a secret.  No one in the school would want to know such things, and some of them weren't even known by Brendan.  Alex may well have wanted to move back into the arm of the bubbly blonde bunny if he knew the man he stood beside had killed creatures.  Granted, one could argue that such creatures needed killing, and it may even have been acceptable to others, but Darien knew that once you killed something, anything with sentience, it became a sticky matter, and once people knew you had killed, it could change a relationship entirely.  Brendan being so accepting, and even becoming a valued part of their fight against the dark was unexpected, and far from the normal reaction.
        "Well, I'm gonna let you guys continue getting aquainted.  I've got a party to run, and hope y'all are having a good time!"  Rachel kissed Brendan on the cheek, and her fluffy tail disappeared into the crowd that had built up in the living room.
        The noise of the growing throng of people was beginning to wear on Darien, but he'd been to a few live concerts in his younger days before the darker days, and the party was far from that level.  While he had been lost in thought, the number of people had increased by a large number.  Every room he could see from the living room behind him, to the dining room opposite where people had claimed the table to play poker, to the kitchen to his left was packed with people.  The fact that the three of them had any breathing room was an amazing feat indeed.
        "So," Darien said, "you tutor Rachel.  That must be an adventure."
        Alex barked out such a short, but loud burst of laughter that it drowned out almost everything else.  The party went silent for a moment afterwards to see what the big deal was, but the clamoring masses soon returned to their own worlds once nothing more came of it.
        "Yeah, that's one way to put it.  She's not the best student in the class.  Believe ir ot not, I have seen worse, though.  It takes her awhile to grasp the concepts and code, but I think she does get it, deep down.  She's not failing yet, at least.  Last I checked, she was actually passing with a wide margin."
        "Huh," said a bemused Brendan.  "Whoda thunk?  Rach has a head for computers."
        Alex gave Brendan's shoulder a pat.  "Don't worry, your girlfriend is far from being a nerd.  She's passing, and safely so, but she's still far from an A student, and only gets the occasional B.  Her reputation as the head cheerleader is not at risk."
        Brendan breathed a faux sigh of relief at the news.  "Oh, thank god.  I don't know what I'd do if my girlfriend was, oh god no, smart!"
        "She's only getting by as well as she is, because I'm such a great tutor."
        Darien titled his head at the hubris.  "My, aren't we sure of ourself."
        "What can I say?  When you're good, you're good.  I can see some trademark bits of code, little workarounds I've personally shown her, turn up in her homework.  She may be lost half the time, but at least she listens."
        Brendan interjected, "Guys, can we please stop analysing just how much of a ditz my girlriend is?  I do kinda love her, flaws and all, and didn't come here to listen to her being picked apart."
        Alex held up his hands, admitting defeat and backing down.  "You're right, of course.  Rachel's a great girl, and I meant no disrepect."
        "Fair enough," said Brendan, accepting the apology.  "I am dying of thirst.  You guys want anything?"
        Both of the others nodded, and all three moved into the kitchen.  Brendan grabbed a can of Coke for himself, and tossed Alex a can of Mountain Dew that he pointed at in the second, much smaller bucket of ice Rachel had set up atop the stove.
        Darien stared at the soda, and none of it seemed all that interesting to him.  Instead, much as he may have been against it, he poured himself a shot of vodka from one of the bottles that had accumulated on the counter.
        Brendan was taken aback by his friend's decision, and voiced his opinions on the matter.  "What happened to all that talk earlier about drinking?"
        "I know, but it's been a long day.  Hell, it's been a long year.  I could really use a little something stronger than fizzing water.  Besides, if anyone's deserving of loosening up a little, I don't think anyone around here could think of anyone more than myself."
        "Are you sure, D?"  Brendan's concern was plain, and it did give Darien pause, as he looked at the small glass clutched between his thumb and forefinger.
        Darien gave his response by putting the glass up to his lips and tilting it and his head back in a single motion.  The substance was gulped away in an instant, leaving naught but a burning sensation left behind on his tongue.  His entire body shivered and quaked at the taste, as he held the glass tight in his hand, almost making it disappear from sight.
        Darien stammered out the only coherent words that bubbled to the surface of his mind, "Aye caramba."
        "Never had vodka before?" asked Alex.
        "Noooo."
        "You should've started with a beer."
        "Yeeeeah."
        "Are you going to be ok?" Brendan asked, still concerned.
        "I can see through time."
        "Maybe we should get Kelly, she might be able to help you with that."
        The most genuine smile broke out on Darien's face, and he began to laugh, a deep, hearty laugh that seemed ill at odds with how he was seen by most.  It was like he had become a different person.  Although not in a bad way.  Brendan was starting to think Darien loosening up a little might not be a bad idea after all.
        Darien leaned back against the counter and winced hard at the train that was rushing through his head.  He pressed the heel of his palm against his forehead to try and make it stop.  Alex watched with fascination at the display, while Brendan maintained his concern.
        Once his head felt a little clearer, Darien decided he was not yet finished, and poured himself another shot.  He downed that one almost as fast, but not quite.  The effects hit him with far less effect with the second shot.  Darien did nothing more than shake his head like a dog after a bath or being caught out in the rain.
        "Woo, that doesn't taste too bad once you get used to it."  Brendan listened as Darien spoke, but he stopped hearing him after he said woo.  That was too much for Brendan to take in at once.  The young man whose factory settings seemed to be stuck on dour and brooding began smiling.  "Now, we've got a party here, what say we have some fun?"
        Brendan just stood there, more than a little dumbfounded.  Is this what Darien was like before...well, before?  As if the woo wasn't enough, Darien was smiling, and just acting all kinds of wrong to Brendan's eyes.  But was it a bad thing?  This side of Darien had been bottled up so tight, buried so deep, maybe it was better for him to have some release, and try to find some balance between the warring sides of his personality.  Brendan couldn't say he approved of Darien's means of letting himself go, but the results might not be all bad.
        He vowed to keep an eye on things, lest they get out of hand.  At least for the time being.  Darien didn't seem to be going back to the bottle just yet, and maybe a little social lubricant was just what he was needing.  Brendan would have preferred Darien had used coffee instead, but the damage had been done.
        Darien led the other two, Alex hanging on out of curiosity more than anything, and they all went into the living room, which had the largest group of people all crammed into its space.  Some where sitting and chatting on the couches, some were making out, a few were dancing in the limited floorspace to the throbbing pulse of whatever dance music had found its way onto the music system.
        The three of them surveyed the room, or to be more accurate, Darien surveyed the room while the other two watched him.  His eyes narrowed and focused across the room.  Brendan wasn't sure what he had found, but feared the worst when Darien grunted out, "Target aquired."
        Before Brendan or Alex could inquire just what he meant by that, or stop him from doing anything, they heard a distinctive, "Poink!" and could only watch as a ping pong ball flew through the crowd, missing several people by a hair's breadth.  It sailed by with such accuracy that many people didn't even notice it as little more than a wisp of air ruffling their hair.
        Halfway across the room, it began to lose altitude, and Brendan figured it must miss its intended target for sure.  However, it soon hit the forehead of someone obscured from Brendan's view.  He only knew it must have hit somewhere as he heard a sharp, female "Hey!" burst out of the crowd, and a tuft of brown hair where he last saw the ball.
        The patch of hair wove its way back through the crowd, taking a far less direct path than the ping pong ball.  As it drew closer, and Brendan suspected who it was by the size, he saw Crystal break through the crowd, looking more than a little annoyed.
        She came right up to Darien, staring up at him with anger smoldering in her eyes.  She had the ball clutched so tight in her hand, her knuckles had turned almost as white as its smooth surface.  It was a wonder it didn't crumple in her grip.
        The ball soon left her hand and it bounced off of Darien's nose.  He caught it as it fell from there and into the palm of his hand.  Otherwise, it looked like it may have made a return visit to Crystal's head.  Brendan stopped himself before his mind became distracted with the possibility of two people playing headbutt ping pong.
        Brendan instead took note that Darien didn't catch the ball right away.  That could just have been from Crystal being so close, or Darien not wanting to show his hand with others watching, but Brendan had a much stronger suspicion that it was for other reasons.
        "What's the big idea, you big jerk?!" shouted Crystal with vocal anger that did not come anywhere near what burned in her eyes.
        Darien shrugged as he returned the ball to his gun, "Just having a little fun, lighten up."
        "You could have hurt someone!"
        "With a ping pong ball?"
        Crystal paused, about to jab a finger at Darien's chest, and her mouth wide open.  She considered his point during that pause, and then continued to jab.  "Ok, maybe not, but I was still sitting back and relaxing when that thing hit me on the head!  That's not nice!"
        "Crystal, chill.  It was all in good fun."
        "Why don't you go have fun and shoot Rachel in the head, see how well that goes over."
        "I don't work for free," Darien explained with complete earnest.
        Crystal was not abated by this, and pulled a large bar of Hershey's chocolate out of her picnic basket.  This bar was no mere bite sized goodie, or a few pieces of chocolate.  No, this bar was the super duper, king sized block of chocolate that could feed a man for days.
        The bar did not stay in Crystal's hands for long as Darien snatched it out of the air and made it disappear somewhere into his coat.  Unseen to all, it ended up in the same pocket as his silver dagger, where it would be the safest.
        "We have a deal," Darien said in such a way that Crystal would have feared for her soul under other circumstances, or if Darien had horns and a tail.
        With the candy safe and sound, Darien began his hunt.  Brendan and Alex exchanged glances, then looked at Crystal as Darien lurked off into the kitchen.
        Alex summed up all their feelings, "I gotta see this."
        They all followed Darien as he crept, which was bizarre to see someone as tall as imposing as he try to sneak through a crowd of people.  His head floated above almost everyone else's.  He made a gesture and the others made sure to hang back several feet so as not to draw any attention to him.  Or at least any more attention than he drew on his own.
        Darien surveyed the kitchen with that same steely-eyed determination he had used to find Crystal.  His grey eyes continued to search, looking through the tv room where a number of people had settled down to watch some slasher movie.  Marcus was long forgotten by these people, if they had even given him more than a second thought when he was alive.
        Kelly was there talking with some friends as the movie played behind her.  She waved to Darien who just gave a nod in return.  He was in full hunt mode, and had no time for pleasantries.
        There was a Kelly, but still no Rachel.  Darien's eyes shifted to the side, with his head not moving an inch.  They spied a number of people outside where floodlights and some lanterns illuminated the backyard and empty pool.
        Something out there caught Darien's eyes.  Brendan didn't see what, but he caught a visible tensing of Darien's back muscles, even underneath the trenchcoat.  He moved towards the door and went outside.
        "Target aquired," he intoned once more.
        Crystal shivered, "That's really creepy."
        "It's no less creepy the second time around," agreed Alex.
        Brendan would have told them it creeped him out the most, but that would require more explaining than he wanted to do, or had any right to do.  Maybe later.  Much later.  Someday they might be ready to hear about vampires, demons, otherworldly monsters beyond description, and everything in between.
        The others followed, ignoring the cries of everyone inside trying to watch tv demanding the close the door and stop letting all the cold air in.  Kelly caught sight of them exiting the house, and joined her other friends.
        Before passing through the door and going outside, Brendan saw what had caught Darien's eye; Rachel's bunny ears floating above the crowd down by the pool, just like Darien's head had done.
        The hunter observed his prey, remaining on the wooden porch so he could retain the high ground.  He leaned over the railing that hung over the lawn.  No one paid him any mind, Darien was nothing more than another party goer to them.  He leaned against the railing and just watched for five minutes.
        For whatever reason he at last felt satisfied, whatever had happened to make him decide to act, had at last come.  He pulled the gun out and again it made its well-known, "Poink!"  With the view obscured from Brendan and the rest, they were unable to watch the entire scene, but soon they knew it had hit someone when a loud yelp broke through the night air.
        Brendan recognised the sound first.  He'd heard Rachel make it many a time, for many a reason.  From opening Christmas presents, to seeing a spider, and even from having sex.
        Kelly openly giggled behind them all, Brendan stifled a laugh at the noise, and even Crystal let out a little snort when she couldn't contain the laugh.
        "DARIEN!"  Oh, Brendan knew that tone all to well, as well.  For someone as amazingly, smokingly hot as Rachel was, and even wearing those clothes she had chosen, when she was on the warpath, all thoughts of her being a hot girl evaporated.  She was a force to be reckoned with.  Brendan had a sudden desire to be elsewhere.  Like in another state kind of elsewhere.  A firestorm was about to be unleashed, and Darien was ground zero.
        The others thought there was going to be a show, and wanted to stay.  Which was unfortunate for Brendan, since they were standing between him and the door.  The other pathway was to leave the deck, and circle around the house.  That path, however, would take him straight past Rachel.  He was doomed.  At least he was in good company.
        Brendan backed against the wall of his girlfriend's house as she stormed up the stairs to the deck.  The click of heels had given way to her stomping feet on the wooden steps.  She paid Brendan no mind, not even acting like she saw him.  She only had eyes for Darien, and not in the way Darien sometimes thought she might.
        Darien backed against the railing, and bent back over it as Rachel yelled at him.  Brendan didn't even think there was actual words being thrown out at Darien, just sheer bile, spit, and anger.  He had often wondered what would cause World War III, and now he saw that it would be a ping pong ball.
        The precipitator of the attack held his hands up in defense, trying to calm Rachel down.  She was having none of that, and kept at her verbal attack.
        Crystal's state had gone from amusement to wide-eyed terror.  Very few people had seen Rachel in such a state, and even fewer had lived to tell the tale.  Her laughter died in her throat, and she stared at the rabbit's attack upon Darien.
        Brendan decided he could no longer stand by and watch Brendan be berated, and ventured forward towards the pair, knowing full well he might not walk away.
        He reached out towards Rachel, and his hand hovered inches away from her shoulder.  Brendan took a deep breath and steeled himself against losing his arm or his life, or both.  He clenched his hand into a fist, focused his thoughts, and grabbed his girlfriend's shoulder.
        Rachel spun around, breaking his considerable grip, and almost smacking him in the face with a whip of honey coloured hair.  At the speed with which she was instantly facing him, he may well have lost a nose.
        "WHAT?!" she growled through gritted teeth.
        Brendan hadn't thought out just what he would say at that point, not expecting to ever have the chance.
        "Rachel, hon," he began, in the gentlest tone he could muster as all eyes were upon him.  He was so wrapped up in the moment, Brendan failed to notice that the party had gone as quiet as a graveyard, save for someone screaming as they were killed on the television.  Even that was muffled through the wall of the house.
        His girlfriend stared at him, her breathing heavy, and nostrils flaring.  She awaited his words, and had no patience for her anger to be kept waiting, as it desired to be let loose.  Brendan had just made himself the prime target if he didn't talk fast.
        Brendan didn't have the best argument.  "Look, we were just having some harmless fun.  Nothing was meant by it."
        "He SHOT me!"  At least the volume had decreased a hair.
        "I know, you're right," Brendan tried so hard to placate her.  "It was just a ball, it was just being silly.  This is a party..."
        "MY party," the monster interjected.
        "Of course, and we're sorry we offended you.  But that's what parties are for, right?  Having fun?"  Please please please let this work, Brendan prayed to whatever gods might be listening in.
        Rachel's anger indeed seemed to subside.  Her lower lip began to quiver, and she held up the ping pong ball.  She sniffed.  "Brendan, he shot me."
        "I know, Rach.  Crystal hired him to do it, and he fulfilled his contract.  Nothing meant by it.  Right, D?"
        Darien was more than willing, and plenty eager to say or do anything.  "Oh, absolutely right.  I just thought mixing things up would make an interesting evening, and add a bit of faux danger.  I'm sorry."
        "So, you were paid to shoot me?" she said, spinning back around to Darien.  Brendan was relieved to have those eyes off him for the moment.
        Darien nodded, his head bobbing up and down so fast it almost gave Brendan whiplash just to watch it.
        "With what?"
        "Candy?"
        Rachel stroked her chin, and while Brendan was unable to see her face, he just knew the grin she was getting.  "And if I were to give you some candy, would you take out someone for little old me?"
        "Absolutely!"  Darien would have agreed to anything Rachel suggested at that point if it meant that her thoughts alone would no longer make his head explode like a cantelope.
        And thus was born the great ping pong massacre of 2009.
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