Rush No More, Part TWO
by GAVAL and Ravil
 


Interlude
 
 

"I'm tired of being me,
and I don't like what I see,
I'm not who I appear to be

So I start off every day,
down on my knees I will pray,
for a change in any way

But as the day goes by,
I live through another lie,
if it's any wonder why

AM i EVER GONNA CHANGE?
WILL i ALWAYS STAY THE SAME?
IF i SAY ONE THING THEN i DO THE OTHER,
SAME OLD SONG,
THAT GOES ON FOREVER

AM i EVER GONNA GHANGE?
i'm THE ONLY ONE TO BLAME
WHEN i THINK I'M RIGHT,
i WIND UP WRONG
IT'S A FUTILE FIGHT,
THAT'S GONE ON TOO LONG

Please tell me if it's true,
am I too old to start anew?
Cause that's what I want to do

But time and time again,
when I think I can,
I fall short in the end

So why do I even try,
Will it matter when I die?
Can anyone hear my cry?

AM i EVER GONNA CHANGE?
TAKE IT DAY BY DAY
my WILL IS WEAK
AND my FLESH TOO STRONG
THIS PEACE i SEEK
TILL THY KINGDOME COMES..."
-Extreme








***********

I. "Change"
 

CWAL Prime, the present

    California winters are nothing out here on the west coast, Ted Benoit  (Ben'-wah) thought as he trotted with a spring in his step down Cypress Street in northwestern Irvine.  The cool breeze did its best to try to chill the passers by and pedestrians around UC Irvine campus, but all it took was a light sweater or a windbreaker to conquer Old Man Winter in this neck of the woods.  Life here was peaceable and almost quiet with the exception of the occasional boom box or car stereo blaring as freshmen drove around the girl's dorms at UC Irvine to try to look impressive.  The Cajun skirted around a corner with a spring in his step and a pace that almost turned into a jog.  He couldn't wait to get where he was going and running had occurred to him more than once on this walk.  He had decided against it because chicks usually don't dig sweat.

    Even bayou winters are worse than this, he remembered while catching an old lady's hat that had blown off in the Ocean breeze.  The Louisiana winters only seemed to last a handful of weeks, but when it did get cold, it was a bone chilling cold; a cold that went right down into the heart of what keeps a man warm against the elements.  It was the humidity.  Humidity always made extreme temperatures less tolerable.  It made heat oppressive and it made cold frigid.  But here, it was always dry and even the upper 40's this January felt temperate and comfortable in Irvine.  Thinking of that Louisiana cold caused Ted's mind to wonder.  It made him think of other things that seemed to pierce the skin and go straight to the heart to unsettle the peaceful and normal things in life that was now accustomed to.

     He thoughts drifted back to last Halloween and how his life changed that night.  He thought of everything that had happened since then and how fast a person's life can do a 180 and make a man rethink his place in the world.  And then he thought of the specter.  The thought came to him so hard he staggered in his walk along the afternoon sidewalk and slowed so much an art major with her sketch board in a carrying case at her side almost ran into him.

     "Hello!  We do our standing around in the Union, frat boy!" the goth girl mumbled as she skirted around the Cajun and went about her business.

     The Specter made you feel colder than Louisiana cold; colder than New York cold in a nor'easter; colder than those Canadian Arctic blasts Dark Nexus and Fron often complained about.  It was a cold of the spirit that the creature had emanated.  Ted only had to experience such a cold once, and he'd never forget it again.  First he had felt it only a little that Halloween night as the Rush had kicked in and combated the frost attacking his soul with the light of purified blood he and all Slayers possessed, but then the thing touched him, and the light failed.  No light could fight that kind of cold.  Coy and Bub found out the hard way that night when the Slayers, investigating an evil presence on hallowed ground both lost their lives on what was supposed to be a evening of revelry and fun; an open season on evil around New Orleans.  Then Cabbott and GAVAL learned it each personally as the thing conquered them, these mighty Slayers-Cajun who couldn't even put up a fight.

     The creature's name was Plague-Sever and it was considered a Specter class of predator that the Ambiguous Slayers' Guild had long forgotten.  This fatal error, one of many in the decay of Slayer traditions over their thousand year history on Earth, would cost the ASG dearly.  Not only had the lives of Coy and Bub been lost that Halloween night, but two of the ASG's finest, GAVAL and Cabbott were stricken of that which made them Slayers.  The very light that coursed through their veins, the mana that gives a Slayer's blood it's special purification, was gone; fed upon by an ancient evil.  Specters like Plague-Sever had roamed the earth long before man, and had been hunted to extinction long ago as man reached the technological and spiritual level it needed to do away with such a phage on society.  These specters fed on the life essence of magical creatures.  It had a taste for mana and anything of supernatural power.  Such energy made the specter what it was, an abomination in the sight of man, but from the scientific standpoint, just an alternate form of life.  The specters were not all evil, that is to say their natural predatory instinct had been often misinterpreted by Medieval man as acts of perverse wickedness.  But just like the soul of man, the soul of the specter could be twisted and unprincipled.  Some killed without mercy and for no reason, feeding upon the life force of others when it wasn't needed and when the hunger had not yet taken them.  It was creatures like this Plague-Sever that were harnessed by the forces of evil to do their bidding so many years ago.  It was creatures like this Plague-Sever that spoiled everything it touched...if not ending lives then changing them forever.

    Ted snapped back to reality as the light on the corner of Cypress and Brooke Streets changed and the audio crossings for the visually-impaired began chirping to say it was safe to cross.  Ted glanced at the backpacks students were wearing and wondered if his old leather Slayer backpack would work well for carrying books in his new life.  He wondered if the new job he had taken as a cameraman at the local TV station would pay for his new books now that he had cleaned his bank account out on tuition.  It had taken him a while to adjust to the life Plague-Sever had forced on him after stealing the Slayer out of Ted, but he had to admit he was happy.  He had a future. He had a career.  He had a girl.  Life after the ASG did exist, and it didn't totally suck ass!  Even living with CWAL as a normal person wasn't all that bad.  Rent-free existence sure made life easier for a college student!

     What surprised Ted the most was that until today he hadn't even thought of the Plague-Sever specter in weeks!  Was it really only five months since the attack?  Since he'd lost the Rush?  Since any Slayer had seen or heard of the specter?  Since the failed attempts to track down the creature and do what Slayers to best to it?  Since giving up on getting the Rush back after warned it was impossible anyway?  "Wow," thought the Cajun outloud, "I haven't even heard from Cabbott in a month...."

    The afternoon's golden rays struck the panel of the little two bedroom house on Brooke Street making it look pink.  Ted wondered if they had really named the street "Brooke" because it ran along a concrete drainage gully.  Maybe that gully used to be a brook?  Or maybe someone named Brooke lived around here once upon a time?  The rent at the small house was cheap, and perfect for a college student like Rachel and Amy.  Because it was basically situated near a huge sewage ditch, the rent was cheap, but the house was clean, spacious, and it's not like there was any real sewage in the drainage gully!  Just rain wash....and usually dry at that.  A place for UC Irvine thrashers to break their arms on their blades and boards when they ought to have been cramming for that French final.

********

Elsewhere...

     He stared downwards.  The dizzying distance between the top of the tall building and the narrow street below was almost unfathomable.  Down there, people-no larger than termites at this height-bustled about in swarms, running about their menial daily tasks, each one a speck of consciousness lost in a flood of humanity.  Cars darted along the ribbon tracks of streets, spurting their engine exhaust out into the open for all to breathe in, and occasionally slamming down on the horn, making their displeasure audible even from the towering rooftops above.

     Far above…

     Up there, it was a different world.  The rooftops of the downtown buildings stretched off in all directions, blending together to almost form their own paved road a quarter mile in the air.  The air wasn't clean, but it didn't carry the rank thickness of the lower altitude.  A few fickle birds would soar by as well, foiled from their instinct of nesting in trees by the almost overnight uprising of civilization, and instead building their roosts in enclaves and windowsills at the highest reaches of the concrete jungle.  Perched upon the rooftop of one such building, not unlike the birds, one could gaze down and see the sprawl unfolding beneath, a curious riddle of mankind.  It was a riddle that the man sitting at the top of the roof had wrestled with many times up here.  But not now.  Not today.  Today there was but one thought going through his head, time and time again…

    Maybe I should jump this time.

     It would certainly solve a lot of problems.  Probably cause a lot more, though.  He peered over the ledge again, down many stories to the street below.  Long way to fall, and if you changed your mind part way down then there wasn't much you could do about it.  Also probably manage to hurt or kill someone when you hit ground zero, especially with it being rush hour and everything.  Those who saw it happen that you didn't actually hit would be in therapy for a good while, too.  And in the Guild… there would be true Hell to pay there, that was for sure.  Having an agent commit suicide would be sure to put somebody's ass in the can.

    All of that would be somebody else's problem, though.  For him, there would just be an end to it all. No more orders.  No more pains.  No more questions. Just noble oblivion.

    He slung his legs over the side, letting them dangle precariously between two worlds.  All that it would take now would be a slight push and it would be over.  Tempting…

     "Nabob?"

     Perhaps another day.

     Nabob, Slayer in the Chimneysweep intelligence branch of the ASG, turned around slowly, his dirty blond hair catching a hint of the sun above.  Handsome in a rather provincial kind of a way, he was well groomed and clean, a general deviation from the grubby Slayers of the Redneck caste, and from a fair number of sooty Chimneysweeps as well.  A little over six feet tall-although one wouldn't be able to tell with him sitting down-and wearing plain khaki trousers and a simple sports jacket, one would never have singled him out as a ferocious destroyer of all things evil.  That was, of course, why he was part of an organization calling itself the Ambiguous Slayers Guild.  They weren't supposed to be able to be picked out of a crowd.

     It wasn't any great shock who was there standing behind him.  This wasn't the first time that he had come up here, nor was it the first time that he had been discovered.

     Coming up from the stairwell which led to the interior of the building upon which Nabob sat was a woman about his age, maybe a year or two younger.  Hard to tell with all of the black that she wore, actually.  Jet-black hair that had obviously come out of a bottle clashed with her naturally pale skin.  A little gothic makeup was dabbled onto her face, more just for fun than anything else, it seemed, and her clothing was of course entirely black; a low-cut tank top covered by a see-through cobweb shroud.  Despite the attire, though, her face was clearly more suited to the kind smile it now wore than anything else.

     Seemingly without a care in the world she strolled over to where Nabob sat and peered over the ledge with polite interest.  "You know," she said, deeply thoughtful, "I'll bet that if you dropped a stake from this height, it could go through ten vampires no problem."

     Nabob looked over at her, partially in annoyance for interrupting his solitude.  "Rae, do I really need to start locking the stairwell door when I come up here?"

     "Hey, you pick it every time you get drawn up to the top like this," Rae, a fellow Slayer Chimneysweep and one of his closest associates, said as she took up a seat beside him. "No reason that I wouldn't be able to as well."

     "I still don't know why you keep following me here," he sighed, running a hand across the coarse hairs of the back of his neck, then peering back down again. "Like you said, ten vampires.  It's a long way down."

     Rae glared at him from behind her mask of black makeup. "Maybe that's precisely why I follow you up here.  To make sure that you're still going to be around to be peddling stakes to undead hearts for a good while yet."

     Nabob turned his gaze away from her. "Come on, Rae, you know me better than that…"

     "You're right," she said quietly. "I do know you.  That's why I'm here."

     A long silence ensued, and slowly he looked back over at her large, waiting brown eyes.  She was definitely pretty, although most of the time she tried to hide it, even from herself.  Her preference in attire allowed her to blend in easily with just about any gothic community, and also made her the most obvious choice for undercover work in such places, where evil had the unfortunate habit of propagating messily.  Nabob had worked with her off and on for a few years though, on various assignments, and knew more about her than most others.  He knew that she wore black for reasons other than her line of duty to the ASG; she had been deeply involved in the gothic way of life and the darker side of mainstream society before she had received the blood calling to become a Slayer.  Almost complete opposites, those points of view, and yet she had made the leap.  The clothes, makeup, and appearance were reminders of how far she had come already in her life, and the unimaginable gap that she had traversed during that journey.

     There were many times when Nabob envied her.

     It was Rae, of course, who finally broke the silence. "I wish that you'd open up more, ‘Bob, I really do.  You're one of the best agents that the ASG has, but there's something about you that still scares me a little..."

     "Rae, don't…"

     She shook her head fiercely. "No, I'm going to.  This has to be said.  Nabob, we've been through life and death together.  That vampire hunt in Vienna nearly got both of us killed, but we managed to survive, with each other's help.  What…what scares me is that even through all of that, there are still some places in your heart that I can't see into.  And I can't because they're filled with darkness, and no light escapes from them.  In a Slayer I don't know if there's anything that could be more frightening."

     Nabob forced a chuckle, warding off the feelings of anxiety which always accompanied the truth. "Nice try, girl, but only I know my heart."

     Rae remained stone serious, something rather unbecoming of her cheerful countenance. "No.  You're so wrong.  You share a piece of yourself with everybody that you meet, and I've seen that piece of you, Nabob.  I know the darkness…I've been there, and come back from it into the Light.  And I can see it inside of you too."  She glanced around a little, lightening her tone. "That's why I'm up here…to make sure that you don't go and do something stupid to yourself."

     "Well, your concern is noted and appreciated, but unnecessary," he lied calmly. "I'm only up here for the view."

     "Right," she said, unconvinced. "The view."

     Another quiet moment came and went as the two Slayers sat atop the towering concrete frame's ledge, gazing off into space, their minds and thoughts surprisingly close.  It came to an abrupt end, however, by an incessant beeping emanating from inside Nabob's wallet.  Sighing in further irritation, he drew it out from his pocket, opened it, ruffled around inside amidst the credit cards, debit cards, library cards, fake ID's, driver's license, and Subway sub cards, and eventually removed a slip of plastic-looking material no larger than any of his other numerous cards.  Upon closer inspection, however, it was clearly revealed to be metallic, with a number of electronic buttons on it for good measure.  It was the top-secret Slayer communication device, one of which was issued to every Slayer on the planet, which could be easily camouflaged from prying eyes inside a crammed wallet.  That was what most of his fake ID's were for, actually-a good ambiguous Chimneysweep didn't need to use them for anything but wallet-stuffing.

     "Nabob here," he said simply into the receiver on the communications card.

     "Nabob, is Rae the'a with you?" came the raspy English-accented voice of one of his superiors in the Chimneysweep chain of command.

     "Uh, yes sir."  Odd that they would know that…

     "Well, bring ‘er and get back to base as quick as possible."

     "Can I ask what this is about?"

     "There's…uh…it's about Dirk, poor bloke.  Oy cahn't discuss it out in the open loyke this, mates, so jus' come back ‘ere and we'll fill you in on the comin's and goin's, royt?"

     Nabob and Rae exchanged a sudden worried glance.  Dirk was another Slayer, albeit a Slayer-Cajun rather than a Chimneysweep, who was a little dim, but well versed in getting in and out of sticky situations.  Both of them had worked with him in the past.  "Acknowledged, sir.  We're on our way."

     "Step in toyme, mates!"

     The Chimneysweep placed a hand against his head as he tucked the communicator away again. "That's a horribly rendered stereotype if ever I've heard one…"

     Rae ignored him, instead grabbing his arm and-with more than a little relief, it seemed-pulled him away from the ledge and up to his feet. "Come on, duty calls.  You can enjoy the view again some other time."

     "Somehow I doubt you'll let me," he muttered just loud enough for her to hear as he was almost forcibly pulled towards the roof's stairwell.  Before the black-clad female Slayer dragged him out of sight, however, he threw one last look back at the ledge and the sweet oblivion that it seemed to offer to him.  Well…not today.  Today duty called.

     Perhaps another day.
 

********

II.  "The First Time...."

     From the hurricane fence at the sidewalk that kept Amy's dog, Speck, away from passing cars with speeding college kids, an old cracked sidewalk with dead, brown, sprayed grass struggling to grow through it led up to the house and its small front porch with an out of repair swing and a couple of chairs.  Good place for beers after party's end, Ted thought.  ...or for a class 4 vertical slip-twist stake vault onto a moderately sized full-torso walking corpse.  Once the ASG got under your skin, you never fully got rid of it.

     Ted so enjoyed walking up that cracked sidewalk because it always led to happiness.  What was behind that door is what gave him real hope for the future and real contentment with his situation.  The first time he had walked up this sidewalk must have been last spring after the Great Holy War ended.  Recovery from that ordeal was slow and he had lost touch with the one person who helped him get through the war on the emotional end.  His good friend at the time, Rachel Hollis lived behind this door, and that first visit to this house, shortly after Rachel moved in during spring 2000, ready for her second year of college; THAT was the first time Ted had gotten the courage to get back in touch with Rachel, and to press his luck in asking her out for a change!  As he knocked on the door, Ted checked his hair with his hands.  He had stopped wearing that fedora hat, as it reminded him of the past, and had gotten quite accustomed and fond of combing his wavy brown hair into a sort of Caesar flip with a touch of gel and a little heavy duty hair spray to hold it in place.  As he waited for someone to come to the door, Speck barking warnings to any would-be unwelcome visitors, Ted couldn't help but think of that first trip to this door...

***

April, 2000

    On that night some 10 months ago, a gentle rain had made its way in from the coast, situating itself above Irvine and embellishing the city with an ambience of refreshing precipitation.  Even on the outskirts of the immense Los Angeles urban sprawl, the soft pattering of water droplets upon the ground and the subtly sharp taste of moisture in the air served to give the impression that the world had been born anew, shedding itself of all base wickedness.  Taking in the sights and sensations of the rain, it was almost impossible to believe that a single evil creature could possibly exist under those same peaceful clouds.

     Water splashed against his black steel-toed boots as GAVAL strode through a puddle in the uneven sidewalk, quickly yet warily as he made his way down one of Irvine's main roads.  While the occasional car would still whisk past the Slayer, forgetting him as soon as he disappeared from the rear-view mirror, the darkness of the late night ensured that the streets remained essentially deserted.  That was good…he didn't particularly want to be seen right now.

     Glancing out from under his felt fedora hat and over to his left, the Slayer perked up a little as he noticed a small brick building squeezed between two larger ones across the street.  Well-worn and considerably older than the concrete structures surrounding it, the tiny place still bore the jaded sign proclaiming it to be a coin-operated laundromat facility.  Smiling a tight Cajun smile, GAVAL crossed the street, briefly deterred from his goal by the memories housed within that building.  Back in ‘99 when CWALers had still bothered to wash their clothes the place had been used rather extensively, and, like just about anything else that came into contact with CWAL, had suffered from a number of peculiar happenings during that time.  It was inside that laundry mat that Sofielisk from CWAL and the Zerg Canadians' infested Aura had appeared 2 years ago from another dimension.  It was the very same place that GAVAL himself had also had his experience of the Slayer rite of passage, in which he was sucked into a distant dimension, forced into battle with a metallic shape-shifting demon, and ending up having an encounter with CABAL, the Slayer Prime. (Author's Note:  See "Interview with a Vampire...Slayer" by GAVAL)

     It was also the place where he had first met Rachel Hollis.

   So many memories…  As he approached the building, though, the smile faded from his face.  The laundry mat was empty.  All of the coin-operated machines were gone without a trace, as were the intolerably-cute posters of small kittens which had once been hung upon the walls.  Gingerly, the Slayer put a hand up against the glass, gazing around inside and taking in the unexpected emptiness.  The floor was caked in a thick layer of dust, and the white-washed walls were beginning to crumble with age as well.

     "Damn…" he muttered almost inwardly, squinting in the dim light shed by the street lamp further down the deserted avenue.  "Now how evil izzat?"  Then, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a piece of paper taped to the inside of the glass.

ATTENTION VALUED CUSTOMERS…
WE'VE MOVED!

And we're not going to tell you where to, either!
That way those psychopaths from the Starbucks won't be able to find us.
We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

- The Management

    The Slayer snorted with contempt.  He had never made frequent use of that establishment, so its passing meant little to him in a strictly utilitarian fashion…the fact that he hadn't even known it had picked up and left contributed to that.  But…well…the place had held some degree of nostalgic value, especially with events of late having stacked up in the fashion that they did.  The Great Holy War had proved that the world was quickly becoming a far more complicated place.  Ancient notions of chivalry and the straightforward war between good and evil had corroded and blurred to the point where it was almost impossible to tell where the once-polar factions stood anymore.

     The world was descending into some sort of abyss.  He didn't know exactly what, but he could feel it in his bones, and had been ever since the catastrophic Great Holy War.  Evil was beginning to flourish at a rate unseen since the Middle Ages, and now even the proud Slayers were falling prey to its twisted wiles.  They had managed to win out last time…barely; and if GAVAL knew anything at all, he knew that evil would not stay down for long, and that soon it would return, bringing with it replenished forces and new champions.  When it did, then what?

     It was thoughts like those that left the honored Slayer's mind in a frenzy of despair, reeling through the darkness, reaching out for something to grab onto to prevent itself from slipping into the dark pit of insanity.  There were so few things to hold on to in this world anymore, and if one lost all of his connections to a happier time then it did not stand as an impossibility that one might forget what they were fighting for.

     The Slayer shook his head in disgust as he slid his hard back into his pocket.  I still remember when Sephroth was trying to destroy our past, he thought bitterly.  Looks like he needn't have bothered…we can do it ourselves.  With a final look back at another deadened aspect of CWAL's history, GAVAL tore himself away from the empty window and continued down the street, his world sinking into darkness a little bit more. (Author's Note:  See "Bloodlines" by Ravil.)

     All the same, though, the Slayer of all things evil knew that one must always be mindful of the present, not absorbed in the past.  Turning his thoughts back to where he was and where he was going, he let out a nervous sigh and glanced down at the rolled-up paper package that he clutched in his hand.  It had been damp when he had last looked down at it; now the early-morning rain had ensured that it was soaked.  Muttering a few choice words of colorful displeasure, GAVAL pulled his fedora a little further down over his face to keep the rain off of himself.

     Then, rounding the corner of the street, he abruptly found that he was there.

     The house was small, there was no denying it.  All the same, it bore a faint sense of rustic warmth within its wood exterior, and purveyed a feeling of openness and hospitality to it.  Unlike the rest of the houses on the street, the lights were still lit in the mid-town bungalow, even at this extreme hour.  GAVAL knew that this was the place, and would have known even if he had been idly passing by without knowing any directions.  It just had…her feel to it.

    Scaling the weathered cement steps and standing before the heavy oak door, however, GAVAL felt hesitation rush through him.  What am I doing here?  This isn't something that a Slayer should be preoccupied with…I should be out there stalking evil, not standing here trying to pretend that I'm normal!  That last word gave him pause.  Normal.  A normal guy…is that what I'm here trying to be?  Or is it something else?  Every feeling, every thought that he had ever had about this since the end of the Holy War seemed to go spinning through his head on a detour.  On the other side of that doorway, there was not only a beautiful woman, but also the fleeting promise of normality.  If he could escape from the evils of the street for even a moment, it would be worth it.

     Hesitancy still clinging to him like a disease, GAVAL lifted his fist and gently rapped on the heavy door, once, twice, three times.  From inside could be heard a slight rummaging and then footsteps approaching across the creaky floorboards.

    The door swung open, and once again the Slayer found himself face-to-face with Rachel Hollis.

     "GAV!" she exclaimed in surprise, her sweet, 20-year old voice stabbing through his depressed countenance like a stake through a Vampire's liver.  She certainly hadn't changed much from when he had last seen her months ago after the indecisive conclusion of the War.  She had cut her hair short so that it hung around her shoulders now, and her face was creased with the tense anxiety that so universally accompanied co-ed students.  Even past the tired expression that she wore, however, the Slayer could see an encouraging spark of happy recognition. "I was hoping that you'd drop in sometime!  Come on in out of that rain…you're soaked!"

     As GAVAL hesitantly stepped into the doorway out of the cold drizzle that encompassed the evil world behind him all at once a warm rush of hospitable air embraced him.  The scent of something fresh-was that pie?-followed immediately after.  Closing the door behind him, GAVAL stood for a few moments, still rather damp, feeling the warmth and staring into Rachel's surprisingly entrancing brown eyes.  Then he blinked and remembered the package that he clutched in his hand.  "Uhhh…I brought these for you."

     Accepting, she unwrapped the moistened paper gingerly and then gave a little gasp of surprise. "Carnations?  Awww, thanks, GAV…"

     "Ah'm sorry if they're wet," he stammered, trying desperately to fight off his Cajun accent despite his fatigue. "I'm also sorry that there aren't more of them.  I left them in the fridge at CWAL Headquarters to keep ‘em cool, but dat didn't work out so well, since Crystal decided to try and turn some of them into lollipops, and…" his voice trailed off with a curious flash of Rachel's large brown eyes and a small, knowing smile. "Anyway, I hope you like ‘em…"

     "Of course I like them!" she smiled, heading back into the house. "I'll go put them in some water.  Take off your jacket and make yourself at home.  There isn't a lot of room, but you can probably find a place to sit down in the living room."

     As she disappeared into the kitchen to find a vase, GAVAL took the opportunity to take in the inner portions of the young lady's sanctum.  The place was easily as small as it had looked on the outside, perhaps even more so.  Yet it carried itself with a quaint charm that was rare in this day of rapid telecommuting and mile-high skyscrapers.  Stepping into the living room, which was immediately adjacent to the entrance, he gave the oak furniture a once-over before taking a seat on the couch by the front window.  Piles of paper-schoolwork, mostly-could be seen everywhere, but the room had a pleasantly clean feel to it nonetheless. "Nice place you got yourself here, Rachel.  I thought that you would have been holed up in the residence."

     She re-emerged from the kitchen, clutching a glass container which now served as the home for the three damp carnation flowers. "Actually, it isn't really mine.  It belongs to a family friend who decided to take a…uh…sabbatical down to Australia for a year or so."

     "Sabbatical?"

     "Well…to be honest I think he just wanted to get away from Irvine until things cool down a little more.  It's been pretty tense these last couple of years."  Although she didn't come out and say ‘…because of you CWALers', GAVAL could hear the unspoken comment left hanging in the air.  Regardless, she set the flowers down on the table and looked up at her Slayer friend. "So if I agreed to take a roommate, he let me have the place as long as I wanted.  You…uh, want anything?  Coffee?  Milk? Amy hasn't moved in the pots yet, but I can probably make up some tea if you'd like…"

     "No thank you, ah'm fine," the Cajun replied, nodding appreciatively. "I've had more than enough caffeine for one night already; no way I coulda come this late otherwise.  Besides, I came over to see you, not to eat and drink you out of house and home before you're all moved in!"

     Relaxing a little more, she took a seat next to him on the couch. "Well, I'm glad.  I don't really have a lot of house and home to spare these days."  With a short sigh, Rachel ran a hand through her hair. "We haven't seen each other in a while, have we?"

     The Slayer shook his head. "Surely not.  Not since the end of de War, anyway…"

     "Yeah, the War…" a deeper sigh this time; apparently GAVAL wasn't the only one still trying to escape from the shadow of the Great Holy War's horrors. "Anyway, I feel kind of bad about that.  We said we'd keep in touch, but I've had to start taking night classes to compensate for all of the work I fell behind in before November. It's a lot of work, and it's doing bad things to my biological clock, as well." *The Great Holy War Finale took place the November before this flashback.

     "Hey, if dis is de only time I can see you, then I'll take it.  I probably should have come to see you sooner, but I had some…business up north in Canada that I had to take care of." ( "Bloodlines")

     Rachel raised a curious eyebrow. "You didn't get yourself into any more trouble, did you?"

     "Naw…" GAVAL lied, "…just payin' a visit to some old friends of de Guild.  Stop in quick, shoot in and out.  Dat kind of thing.  ‘Nuff about me, though.  How you been?"

     "Busy," she admitted. "This is the first time in a while that I've been able to lead something resembling a normal life, and it's kind of hard re-adjusting.  The work is killer, and the fact that I'm up all night and part of the day doing it doesn't help."  She gave him a reassuring smile and pat on the knee. "I'll manage, though.  I always do."

     "So whatchu enrolled in now?"

     The conversation that night carried on with the ambience of casual intimacy for the next half-hour.  GAVAL's mind was only half on the words being exchanged, however, as his thoughts also wandered to Rachel herself.  Slowly, the feeling that had encompassed him during the War began to return, that feeling of almost total bliss while in her company.  Damn she's beautiful, was the rumination which shot through him most often.  And, as if through some Divine blessing, for those scant few minutes in her company the Slayer seemed to almost completely forget the troubles which had plagued him.  The evils which dwelt in the outside world melted away, and it was just him and Rachel Hollis, together in that moment.

     Then, as all good things do, it ended, this time with the shrill electronic beeping of a pager.

     "Oh, you gotta be kidding…" he muttered, cursing himself with even stronger language inwardly for not having the foresight to turn the damned thing off.  Reaching into his back pocket, GAVAL removed the source of the beeping, a small card-like device attached to his keys which served as the favored high-tech communications device of the Ambiguous Slayers Guild.  "Sorry," he apologized to Rachel. "Dey usually don't call me on this thing unless it's a real emergency."

     "That's okay…" she replied softly as he punched a few buttons on the device and listened to it sputter to life with the message as he read:

     "…AVAL?  GAVAL?  You there, boy?  Guess not…but when you get this message, you'd better get your Cajun ass down to the Mercy Hospital as soon as possible.  Somethin' real bad has happened, and…well…just get down here right away, boy."

     The message blinked to a close, and with an anxiety-filled sigh GAVAL tucked the comm-link back into his pocket.  There was always something.  "Well…looks like I'm going to have to cut dis visit short, Rachel," he said slowly, turning to face her once again. "Ah'm real sorry, but dey made it sound important, so it probably is."  Or at least it had better be.

     "I understand," she replied quickly as the two of them rose from the couch and headed for the door. "I probably shouldn't have kept you from your duties for this long anyway."

    GAVAL gave a tense chuckle but couldn't bring himself to reply.  Slipping his well-beaten shoes back on and retrieving his leather coat from the closet, he glanced over at Rachel for a split second, and noticed her staring up at him in a most peculiar fashion.  What…what would a normal person do now?  Sometime he thought posessing the Rush actually made it difficult for a person to remember how to be human.  They stood there for an awkward moment before she leaned upwards and planted a soft kiss on his stubble-covered cheek.

     "You'd better go," she said, then quickly added, "to find out what's going on."  As the Slayer nodded solemnly and reached over to open the door, she grabbed his arm and stared into his eyes again. "Whatever it is, GAV…be careful.  I almost lost you once…I don't want that to happen again."

     That certainly put a smile on his face. "I will be.  And I'll call, soon as I'm done cleanin' up whatever mess dis happens to be.  And this time..." He didn't need to finish the sentance.  She nodded and blushed a bit acknowledging his intentions and that was enough for him.

    "I'm free tomorrow night," she said shyly as he reached for the door.

    Then, opening it, the Slayer took in one last breath of the sweet air of his love's home, nodded her way, and crossed out back into the real world.  He breathed a sigh of relief as rejection has missed him this time.  He didn't realize she was on the other side of the door doing the same thing.  Then he trotted quickly towards his duties, where something dark lurked around every corner, and in one of those corners, he knew, there would eventually be something dark lurking in wait…for him.

*************

III. "Rachel Hollis"

The Present...

    The door opened and this time the greeting was far less awkward.  She nearly tackled him in a hug and yanked him inside the door, playfully messing his hair after she closed it behind them.  "Spend all that time on your quaffature for me, country boy?"  She teased as he tried in vain to fix his front spikes.

    "Hey!  I got women to impress here!  Stay out of the `do, woman!  Ah'm represent-in!"

    "Representing who, Benoit, the White Rain Rejects Society?" she snapped as she towed him by hand to the living room.

    "I'm a "Consort for Men Mega-Hold" consumer, thank you very much!"

    Is it possible that she's as happy as she makes me? He wondered as she turned her back to him and dragged him to the couch, smiling and making fun of his ripped jeans. God, look at this girl...she CAN'T be for me!  She just can't!  Rachel was wearing black jogging pants with a white stripe down the sides and a blue tube top.  She was the picture of contemporary loveliness.  Even in casual attire, she positively glowed in attraction.  He loved her.

    "You must have missed me.  You're 2 hours early.  I'm sweaty and dirty and gross and it's your fault you have to endure me this way, Theodore!"

    "Ted!  Theodore was some president."

    "Whatever, South Louisiana.  I have a shower to take.  Be good while I cleanse.  Amy's in the kitchen."

    "Mind if I join you?"

    "Only if you mind a swift foot to GAVAL Junior!" she cried from around the corner as the door shut and locked it.  She didn't trust him when it came to the shower.  He had snuck into the bathroom before when she was showering and flushed the toilet, effectively scorching then freezing her with angry shower water.

     Ted sighed and looked around the room, considering the old coat hanger to the doorlock trick so that he could torture her mercilessly again.  The TV was on and the volume low.  It reminded him of how some people leave the TV on just to give the house a different air.  It almost felt like you had company when the TV was on.  There was something about the high pitched squeal it made(just outside the range of most people's hearing) that gave the whole room a different feel.  On the wall, framed, was a picture from over a year ago taken of Rachel and Ted's friend, the reporter Juss Nuse, with his arms around the two of them and Cabbott, his taller self, standing behind the three winking.

    Cabbott, Ted thought.  Miss that guy.  He doesn't call as much as he used to since he moved.

     Cabbott had been living in Irvine in a small apartment before last Halloween.  He and GAVAL were of the first Slayers to be stationed around Irvine less than a year after CWAL put down roots at the local Starbuck's.  These days there were more than 20 Slayers in Irvine; a high number for any beat considering the losses the ASG had taken since the Great Holy War.  All that changed, however, on that fateful night last Halloween.

     After the Specter incident, GAVAL and Cabbott seemed to go seperate ways after they realized they could never get the Rush back.  While GAVAL chose to walk away from his life as a Slayer and go about putting together the normal semblance of life he had always thought he wanted, Cabbott embraced the changes and accepted them as what they were.  Altering his commission from Slayer to Agent of the ASG, Cabbott used his experience at first to serve as a consultant for new Slayers preparing to go out on their first patrols and assignments.  He gave them tips on facing various foes that Slayers slay.  He passed on pointers in the finer methods of remaining inconspicuous so that no one ever connected new Slayers to the occult.  He shared baking tips and Rush management secrets with these young Slayers who accepted Cabbott because he was only a few years their elder.

    Finally, after recognizing Cabbott's overall usefulness as an agent, it was recommended from the highest mysterious ranks of the ASG that Cabbott be put in charge of Slayer recruitment, particularly in the search and activation of teenagers who manifested signs of purified blood.  When Slayers-Chimneysweep intelligence found any sign of Slayer leniage in teenagers around the world, the ASG's policy was to immediately contact those teens and inform them of what changes they were going through.  Then they were offered the choice.

    This often came as a shock to the informed teens who were stressed enough in dealing with puberty without having to cope with glowing eyes, a craving for sweets, and occasionally crushing metal objects in the palms of their hands as their reproductive organs caused them great pain.  If the young Slayers accepted their destiny they were given contact information as to who their local Slayers were and secretive training and guidance was provided.  Eventually a special ceremony would unlock the true potential of their Slayer powers.  This awakening would introduce a period of early test missions into the Slayer lifestyle which eventually led to a right of passage that marked the confirmation of a lifetime of secret service to the Guild.  The probation period could go anywhere from a year to a decade depending on the individual's performance and discipline.

    However, some young Slayers were unable to accept the surreal situation that they were destined to embrace, and denied their heritage when given the choice.  New Slayers were always given the choice...but only once.  If they chose to turn away from service, a much simpler ritual was performed.  Their memory of all things Slayer would be forgotten and their blood would forever remain dormant of the Rush.  Teenage life would go on normally with no more unusual symptoms.

    The sensitive nature of these informative trips which often turned the lives of innocent teens upside down required special people with a gift for empathy.  Cabbott was one of these people.  There was something about his ability to listen and to feel others pain that made him perfect for the job.  Most Slayer recruitment trips had an acceptance rate of about 50%, but with Cabbott, almost 80% of all the teens he spoke with accepted their destiny and began training with him holding their hands the entire way.  In a way, Cabbott's losing the Rush was the best thing that could have happened for an ASG suffering from low membership after a very deadly Great Holy War.  They were gaining recruits faster than they ever had thanks to him.

    Ted ran a finger along the picture frame partially wishing he had been as strong as Cabbott and as willing to accept that fate, but the call of a normal life seemed more appealing at the time.  Even more so, the thought of the woman showering in the bathroom down the hall and a life of happiness with her made even more sense.  Still...where would Ted be today if he had stayed on with the ASG as an agent?

***
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