Chapter Three

Chapter Three

Carlos stood outside the compound door, his arm draped over Damali's shoulder, willing his breathing to normalize. He wasn't sure if it was his proximity to her, or the fact that he had to explain some real bad news to her people.

Regardless, he hated going into her compound, which looked like a maximum-security prison. The concrete walls, iron-sealed windows, floodlights, and lack of trees until you hit the property border a mile away, gave him the feeling that he was walking into the federal pen. Maybe he was. He just hoped that he'd get out alive this time.

Besides, this whole situation was bullshit. He'd had to splatter the front of his Beverly Hills lair with a courier's guts, all because Damali was trailing ripe Neteru scent and the dumb bastard had reached for her. Damn straight he had to rip out the brother's heart, but he also had to clean up the mess before any neighbors noticed and wondered why there was black blood dripping down the white marble columns and the huge oak-paneled door, and why the stained-glass windows were streaked with innards.

Carlos let his breath out hard in disgust. He loved this woman dearly, but she always created drama! Council was right. It was time to get some guards at his doors, some security measures in place. He had descended and couldn't roll solo anymore. If he were in his right mind, he'd just make Damali his queen and battle the expected consequences. He glanced at her. No. He wasn't in his right mind to give her back to the Guardians.

When Carlos heard the locks engage, a thousand ways to begin the dreaded conversation tumbled through his brain. There was no easy way to say any of it. Worst part was, he had no idea how Damali would react when she found out he was taking her there for good - not just until he came back up from Hell.

"Que pasa?" Rider shouted, pounding Carlos's fist with a wide smile as they entered the outer safety chamber.

"Everything is everything," Carlos said, returning the pound, but keeping a watchful eye on the team's sharpshooter as they all moved deeper into the interior hallway. He immediately scanned the tall, muscular white guy with dirty-blond spike hair, and returned his smile - once he was sure that Rider wasn't packing. Even if the guy was in his forties, Rider was an all-pro vamp assassin.

"Hey y'all!" Damali hollered. "Can a person come home and get some love?"

"You know that ain't no problem from me, D," Jose said, embracing her quickly, then stepping back.

"We got nothing but love for you, li'l sis," Rider said laughing. "C'mon in... er, uh, him, too?"

"Yes," Damali said, slapping Rider on the back. "If he wasn't cool, why'd y'all leave me with him for a month?"

"Point taken," Rider said, stepping aside. "You're in."

Carlos moved forward with Damali next to him. The young bucks were no problem. Jose looked like his younger brother and had a soft heart, would hesitate if something ridiculous jumped off. However, he paused when he saw the quick flash of resentment on Jose's face. Something primitive and possessive rose in him and he fought it back down. Had to be Damali's Neteru still working his system. Jose wasn't a contender. He was family. He shook off the sensation. Kid was just probably still spooked.

His gaze scanned the others, sensing for signs of resistance. Dan was a nervous, wiry blond with no real combat under his belt. But J.L. had some Jet Li moves on him... Carlos gave the Asian kid a nod, then issued his most disarming smile to the others.

"Long time no see, hombre," Jose finally said, laughing tensely, using his head to motion for them to enter beyond the first isolation chamber.

Good. The noses, Rider and Jose, were out front, and hadn't picked up anything unusual. Everybody had on T-shirts, jeans, sweats, no place to conceal a weapon, or get to one quickly. Big Mike, their audio sensor, had lowered his shoulder cannon and was all smiles. However, he wasn't sure he liked having a huge, six foot eight, two-hundred-and-seventy-five-pound, old school linebacker walking behind him. Big Mike was usually cool, but even Carlos knew to always keep an eye on the team's giant.

He also noticed that the tactical sensors were hanging back. Shabazz, Dan, and J.L. just nodded, and Marlene had her arms folded over her chest. Not good, especially the positions of the two older ones, Shabazz and Marlene. However, if J.L. was out front, then maybe he'd temporarily abandoned the monitors before he could pick up two cold bodies incoming.

But Carlos wisely noted that Shabazz was strapped - openly had a Glock on his hip and one in a shoulder holster, sending a quiet message to be cool, no doubt. Carlos scanned the streetwise Guardian from the 'hood. Instinctively he knew the old dude could feel trouble. It was as though Shabazz's shoulder-length locks telegraphed the vibrational changes, almost like a current, and Marlene was a freakin' seer. She had on a long, flowing, African-print robe - a great place to hide anything with a silver tip. The two of them together, late forties, early fifties, would surely be able to tell that something wasn't right with their girl. He just wanted the chance to explain.

"Oh, so now I'm like chopped liver," Damali said, laughing when no one else immediately moved forward to greet her, then she embraced her team members one by one. "Dag, you all act like I'm a stranger."

Carlos hung back in the entryway, watching as the tactical Guardians bristled slightly from her hug.

"Thought you weren't coming home, you were gone so long, kiddo," Marlene said with a sly smile, but her eyes were carefully scanning Damali the whole time. "Doesn't leave much time for us to get ready to do the Australian gig and all that goes with it."

"Yeah... well... what can I say?" Damali replied, her smile widening as she glanced at Carlos. "Let's go inside and catch up. Y'all got anything good in here to eat?"

Carlos didn't say a word as he monitored the uneasy glances that passed between the Guardians. But they followed her down the long cement corridor to the back of the facility; half of the team in front of him, the other half behind him, making him feel boxed in and claustrophobic. As they walked, he glanced up at the holy-water sprinkler system, hoping that there'd be no accidental discharge. He shook his head. No, it wouldn't be an accident at all.

Damali headed straight for the kitchen, and he was glad she hadn't gone straight for the weapons room. If he had to make a hasty exit, at least there weren't UV lights in there that could fry him - only harmless fluorescents. But the fact that she wouldn't give off a reflection in any of the stainless-steel appliance surfaces was going to be hard to explain.

"So, how were the islands?" Rider asked cheerfully, taking a backward seat in one of the wooden kitchen chairs.

"Beautiful..." Damali crooned in a distracted tone as she hunted for what the compound cupboards didn't have. "The water there is the prettiest blue, even if I did only see it at night."

Dead silence surrounded them.

Carlos glanced at the large picnic-style butcher-block oak table. Wood. Matching wood chairs. If the big brother got hyped, there were eight chairs that could easily be broken down to make fast stakes. Shit.

Big Mike leaned on the door frame, catching something unspoken in Shabazz's rigid carriage. Marlene hung back, and leaned against the sink, watching Damali begin to root inside the fridge. Jose, Dan, and J.L. took their time finding seats at the table, their glances nervously darting from Carlos to Damali and back to the team. J.L. fidgeted with a set of sharp knives that protruded from a wooden carving-set holder. Jose's eyes were practically welded to Damali, following her every move around the room. Dan's line of vision darted between Jose's and J.L.'s, then kept monitoring Marlene's unreadable expression.

Carlos found the closest spot by a window and vent near the far end of the oak cabinets, then leaned against them. Even the thick bulletproof windows were sealed by steel grates. Yellow designer mini blinds were ludicrous; it was still a prison.

"You only saw the islands at night?" Marlene asked coolly.

This could get ugly. Carlos studied the group's reaction and hoped Damali had enough sense not to just blurt out the truth.

"Well," Damali said, not paying Marlene's tone the attention it deserved, "we mostly stayed in during the day and slept."

"She did the day thing by herself for a while, but something happened down in St. Lucia," Carlos said quietly. "We need some advice, Mar."

All eyes were on Carlos as Damali slammed the refrigerator door and put one hand on her hip. He held up his palm, and begged her with his eyes not to start.

"While you're here, D, I order you to not harm anyone in this compound, or any other human. I don't care how hungry you get - that's nonnegotiable. Got it? Call me if it gets bad."

"Who are you ordering? Have you lost your mind? And why would you try to out me like that in front of my people? Damn, Carlos. Very uncool."

"Oh, shit," Rider muttered, standing slowly and backing away from the table.

Rider's slow withdrawal made the other younger Guardians near him stand and ease back. Only Jose stood his ground. Marlene covered her heart with her hand and remained frozen, centered between Damali and Carlos. Her gaze immediately went toward the stainless-steel stove, then tore back to Damali, and back to where there was no image of Damali to be found. Marlene's eyes then narrowed on Carlos.

Big Mike moved from his leaning position on the door frame with slow caution. Shabazz fingered the holstered weapon at his hip. Jose casually retrieved a crossbow from beneath the kitchen table and held it at his side.

"Talk to me," Shabazz said in a quiet voice. "Fast."

"It wasn't supposed to go down like this," Carlos said in a near whisper, shaking his head.

"Like what, brother? What did you do to li'l sis, man? Speak now, or forever hold your peace." Big Mike had raised the shoulder cannon again, positioning it in Carlos's direction.

Shabazz drew like lightning, the Glock muzzle pointed at the center of Carlos's forehead.

"Put it down, Mike," Marlene ordered. "You wanna hit a gas line and blow up the whole frigging kitchen? Stand down for a second, 'Bazz. Please, gentlemen."

"Something went wrong," Carlos said in a slow, controlled voice, "and I think she's turning."

Carlos had less than a second to duck before Shabazz and Rider emptied half a clip each into the kitchen wall behind him. He was immediately forced to fake right to avoid the crossbow stake released by Jose, who was reloading. Before J.L. could reach for the stashed lights, Carlos sent them crashing to the ground.

"Yo!" Carlos yelled, avoiding the onslaught in the close confines while trying not to hurt anybody. "Chill, I'm on your side, remember!"

"Fuck you!" Shabazz shouted. "Kill this mother dead, now!"

Carlos had taken a crouching position on the ceiling. He could smell the compound being flooded by the holy-water sprinkler systems; the heat of UV lights trapping him from a hallway exit was leaving him limited options; he might have to take a body to get out of there. "It didn't go down like you think and I thought you all said she couldn't turn after twenty-one! Why would I bring her back, if I'd meant to turn her? Think about it!"

"She isn't supposed to turn after twenty-one!" Marlene shrieked. "What type of dark energy did you hit her with? I'll climb up there on the ceiling and stake your ass myself for this!"

"Naw, Mar," Mike said, aiming the shoulder cannon in Carlos's direction. "I got him."

Immediately Carlos vaporized and reappeared on top of the gas range. "If you hit me here, we all go up, Mike. We need to talk."

"This is waaaay out of hand, people." Damali shook her head and suddenly laughed. "Carlos is tripping about nothing worth getting all hype about. You all are bugging." She walked away and flopped down in a kitchen chair, leaned her head back, and blew out a long breath of annoyance. "This shit don't make no sense."

The members of the Guardian team cast nervous glances in each other's direction, their gazes settling on Marlene. Carlos glimpsed the bullet-ridden kitchen wall, destroyed cabinets, and shards of glass and dishes. Damali was right, this didn't make any kinda sense´┐Żbut he could understand it.

"Stand down," Marlene finally said, breaking the standoff and breathing hard. "If we kill him, we won't know what we're up against or how she..." Marlene's voice trailed off. "I can't even say it." Her eyes narrowed on Carlos as her tone became lethal. "What did you do to her?"

"Yeah!" Shabazz yelled. "Talk to us, man."

"Fuck talking," Jose said, tears standing in his eyes. "Kill this bastard, finish it, right here, right now!"

"Hold up," Rider said, and pulled his gun barrel back, pointing it to the ceiling away from Carlos. "The only thing that is making sense is that he brought her here."

Mike nodded with Dan and Marlene.

"Speak," Shabazz ordered, his jaw pulsing with rage.

"She bit me," Carlos said, his voice low, shame almost burning the words from his mouth.

For a moment, no one spoke. Jose looked away and folded his arms over his chest. Finally, Rider was the first to break the silence with a full, tension-relieving belly laugh.

"Damn, man, is that all? You almost got yourself smoked in here because we thought she'd really turned." Rider glanced around and watched his teammates begin to slowly relax. "Oh, God help us all. Young bucks. Well..."

But Rider's voice trailed off as Damali brought both hands to . the sides of her head and winced.

"Yeah," Carlos said with more authority in his tone. "Like I said. She bit me. Dropped two inches of fang in my jugular and came away with a coupla quarts. You feeling me?" He glanced at each member of the team, vindicated yet sad that their semi-amused expressions had gone ashen.

"You weren't complaining when - "

"D, that's our business. I ain't going there, not here in front of everyone," Carlos warned. "I just want to ask Marlene why. How could something like this happen?" Even the now-drawn weapons couldn't keep him from materializing in the middle of the kitchen floor and pacing. However, he kept his motions slow and steady as he stopped in front of Marlene, his eyes searching her wise ones for answers. "Mar, you gotta believe me. I didn't mean for this to happen to her."

"Y'all young bloods never do," Marlene said flatly, swallowing hard and fighting back tears. "Everybody drop your weapons. Shit. This is a family crisis. I'll rip his fucking heart out myself with my bare hands if he fangs-up in my presence. Right now we need answers."

Nobody moved as Marlene brushed past them and left the room. The fact that Marlene had cursed, like that, and had pushed a master vampire out of her way without a trace of fear was not lost on a soul in the room, especially not Carlos.

"I knew she would take it hard... but..." Damali said in a far-off tone, her eyes following the path Marlene had taken. "But shit happens."

"You okay, D?" Jose said, his voice strident with worry. He went to her side and placed a hand on her shoulder. She touched it and nodded yes, but Jose never drew away from her.

"Look, man, I'm sorry," Carlos muttered, trying to offer Shabazz a truce, even if an allegiance was impossible. But his glance kept traveling back to where Jose stood - way too close to his woman.

"Save it, motherfucker. If Marlene can come up with a cure, then I might forgive you. If not, I will smoke you, if it's the last thing I do."

The expression on Shabazz's face went beyond rage. His gaze was straight ahead, looking past Carlos down the hall in the direction Marlene had gone, totally stoic. Carlos simply nodded. He knew that place where Shabazz was, well past rage and so totally done that there were no words. He'd lived there most of his human existence.

"Once a dealer, always a dealer, right, Rivera? Damn, man, I expected better from you. D is like your family, but you got her all turned out with that 'first hit's on me' vampire bullshit." Big Mike sucked his teeth. "I might never forgive your trifling ass."

Carlos nodded and studied the terra-cotta tile floor. He could dig it. What was there to say? They would never understand.

It felt like it took twenty years for Marlene to come back into the room, and if looks could have killed, they'd all be goners, especially him. She shot each one of them the most lethal glare he'd ever seen, then slammed a huge black leather-bound book in the center of the kitchen table.

"The Temt Tchaas has nothing in here to deal with a situation like this!" Marlene rubbed her palms over her face. "Does Father Patrick know about this yet? Does he?"

"No," Carlos muttered. "I'm going to tell him later tonight."

Damali hung her head. "Ouch. I forgot about the priests."

"Well you two need to take it from the top and explain exactly what happened - so maybe, just maybe, I can jook-up some sort of antidote... I just don't know. How far gone is she?"

The fifty-million-dollar question, and he didn't have an answer. "I don't know," Carlos said honestly, tension winding its way down his spinal column. Suddenly he looked at Jose hard. "If you know like I know, you need to back up off her, man." The two men's eyes locked in a silent standoff, until finally Jose left Damali's side.

"Oh, that's just beautiful," Rider said, slapping his forehead. "The man lays down a turn bite, and as a master, doesn't even know when - "

"That's the point!" Carlos shouted. "I never did! I mean, I never meant to turn her; there was no will behind the action. No intent, man, for real."

"So, you all just talk about me like I'm not here, why don't you?" Damali was on her feet.

"Okay, okay, okay," Marlene said quickly. "Everybody take a deep breath. Let's summon calm so we can get some answers. If I have to conjure, then I need a brainstorm, and information, and plenty of prayers." She cast a hard glare at Damali. "And, yes, you will have to suffer through each one of those prayers, sister. Have a seat. It might be a long night."

Quiet filled the kitchen as Marlene took a deep breath, closed her eyes, then let it out slowly to center herself. She said nothing for what seemed like a long time, and then finally opened her eyes, her gaze going right for Carlos.

"Talk to me," Marlene said in a quiet voice. There was no judgment in her tone this time, just a weariness that he could appreciate. "How many times have you bitten her?"

The question caused him to glance at Damali, who shrugged and looked down at the floor. Total humiliation stripped him in front of her team. He should know things like this - but they just didn't understand what being with her was like. "I don't know," he finally admitted. "A lot."

"Jesus H. Christ!" Rider said, disgusted, kicking over a kitchen chair and walking to stand by Shabazz.

When Damali covered her head with her hands and gasped, everyone merely stared.

"It's like that," Carlos said, going to Damali, his palm stroking her soft locks as he stooped beside her. "I don't know why I can take it... hear the sacred names... but, now, she can't. It's fucking me up. I'm the one who's been banished by the Light. Mar, you've gotta make her better. My baby can't go out like this."

He wasn't sure whether it was the simple truth that seemed to galvanize the team, the fact that he didn't care that they saw just how worried he was for her, or if it was the fact that they were finally understanding just how serious this was. But the tension in the room eased, weapons got lowered in earnest, and a few younger Guardians moved toward the huge oak table to sit down again.

"I'm gonna do what I can, Carlos," Marlene said, a promise held in her voice. "She's our baby, too, and we know how you feel."

"Mar, honest to goodness," Carlos said, his tone fervent while double-checking himself not to say any words that would hurt Damali. "At first, things were cool. Just like you said. If things got... intense, and I bit her, it was all good. I had enough discipline not to flat-line her." His gaze swept the group, hoping for understanding, while feeling so stupid for even being in such a predicament. A council-level master, no less. This was beyond embarrassing.

When Rider rolled his eyes, Carlos pressed on, ignoring him. "I knew to siphon less than a pint. I wasn't trying to kill her."

Carlos could feel the tension in the kitchen gathering like a slow storm, but knew an explosive reaction was soon coming. He could hear the energy whining like a turbine. As the thought formed, Jose blew.

"Are you out of your fucking mind? There was no reason to bite her, man! I'll fucking kill you!" Jose spun toward the older armed Guardians at the door for a second and quickly raised his crossbow, holding Carlos in his sight. " 'Bazz, let me put this bastard down once and for all!" He held out his hand toward Damali to come to his side of the room, but she just looked at him.

Only when Shabazz didn't move did Carlos stand and stalk away from Damali's side, far away from the group. From his peripheral vision, he saw Rider touch the young Guardian's arm, and saw how Jose angrily jerked away from his older, wiser comrade, following but not liking the silent message to stand down. He'd misjudged; the young bucks were a problem. A hair-trigger variable. He should have known better. The young ones weren't as effective, but were always shaky, nervous, and too stupid to know they'd die trying. However, if the old boys were holding steady, then he had a chance to explain. But he kept his primary line of vision directly on Marlene - the only reasonable one among them.

"Most of the time, she'd hang out on the beach, dozing during the day, or doing whatever, while I slept. Then at night, we'd go out on the town, chill, listen to some music, check out a festival, get her something to eat, go back to the lair. Everything was peace," Carlos finally said in a controlled tone.

Jose's eyes glittered raw fury, just like Shabazz and Big Mike's did, but...

"Just groovy," Rider muttered, with a scowl. "Okay. So, since everything was copacetic, when did you notice girlfriend had fangs and couldn't do a day at the beach even with sunblock?"

"Last night," Carlos said under his breath. "Everything changed last night."

"Why?" Shabazz asked, his tone so tightly controlled that it made Damali look up.

"I'm not exactly sure," Carlos admitted, glancing at the same spot on the floor Damali had focused on. Marlene's appraisal was also too intense to continue direct eye contact with her at the moment.

"All right," Marlene said, her voice like a schoolteacher dispensing facts. "For twenty-eight days and nights, everything was fine. I take it you bit her multiple times every one of those nights - no need to answer. Fact one." Her gaze went to Damali. "And, during said time, there was no fight, no resistance, correct?"

Damali glanced out the kitchen window. "No."

Jose walked so far away from the group that he was nearly beyond the kitchen entry. Carlos glanced at him, expecting to see worry, but the glare Jose gave him was almost a direct challenge. He could feel himself begin to bulk, but willed away the sensation. The young blood was definitely working his nerves.

"Herein lies the beginning of our problem," Marlene said on a long sigh. Disgusted, she put the reading glasses that dangled from a silver-beaded cord about her neck on the bridge of her nose, and opened the Temt Tchaas hard in the middle of the table. "This is partly my fault."

"How's that?" Shabazz holstered his gun, folded his arms, and stared at Marlene, unconvinced.

"The Neteru physiology is designed to create vampire antibodies under battle conditions. When fully amped, in a bloodlust, in the heat of battle with adrenaline pumping, everything in her whole system works as a unit to seal the wound, kill the attacking virus. But with a serious endorphin rush happening with every bite... no anger, no fear, total open trust and willingly offering her throat..."

"No," Shabazz said, his words seething past his lips. "They would have had a seduction provision in there, knowing that a Neteru could get within intimate proximity to a master vamp while on the hunt and possibly get hypnotized, whatever. It's not your fault; that much I do know." He glared at Carlos. "The bastard wanted her like this all along - you and I both know that, Mar. Subconscious intent was there from the door."

"Shit." Carlos just closed his eyes. "I should have seen this coming."

"Poor choice of words, dude. We're still armed."

He refused to dignify Rider's comment, but it was a direct blow to his ego. The way the muscle in Jose's jaw pulsed grated him. Carlos turned away toward the sink, now unable to look at any of them.

"Then, you mix in the normal fluctuations that happen to a normal female's body chemistry on a monthly basis," Marlene added, her voice pained as she spoke, "and we have a recipe for disaster. A variable. You're the only one she would have allowed to be with her like this, and there's nothing in the Temt Tchaas about a Neteru falling head over heals for a master vampire - ever. This wasn't a vamp seduction or treachery that would have had resistance still lingering in her subconscious; she wanted to be with you, that's the issue. There was no resistance to fire her system up to fight the turn."

Damali stood and went to Carlos's side. "It wasn't his fault, y'all. It wasn't anybody's fault. I didn't know; he didn't know; you guys didn't know."

Her voice had become so tender that he almost reached for her.

"There was nothing to resist," she said, still defending him. "He was supposed to be a Guardian, and he is a good man. Carlos didn't want to turn me... it just sorta happened."

He had to get away from Damali's sweet words, so he concentrated instead on Marlene's eyes, the pain and anger he saw there. He had to stay focused, so the group's mother-seer could save Damali.

He just wished that he hadn't blocked the older woman's second sight from entering his lairs. Maybe she could have prevented this.

"We're not here to cast blame, honey." Marlene's voice was gentle. "But we have to find a solution, or by the end of the night..."

"The hunger is gonna hit her," Carlos said, giving his back to the group again.

When Damali touched his shoulder, he turned slowly and lifted her chin with one finger. "Baby... I'm so sorry. They're gonna have to lock you up, and seal you in a room without sunlight until - "

"Oh, hell no!" Damali snatched away from him, and started for the door, but stopped as Big Mike, Shabazz, and Rider blocked her exit.

"I might be the only one who can feed you, until Marlene figures out a way. Call me, if it gets real bad, and I promise, I'll come to you. From my veins is the only way, at the moment." Carlos looked at her team. "And you all are gonna have to be cool and let me in so she can feed. If she gets out I don't want her hunting alone - she might take a body. That can't happen. Or another male might approach her and feed her. That definitely can't happen."

"No, it can't," Marlene said, ignoring Damali's stricken expression.

"But there's one other problem," Carlos muttered.

"What the hell else could be worse than this?" Jose walked into the kitchen again to stand by Shabazz, Rider, and Big Mike.

"I think she's ripening early," Carlos said in a distant tone, his gaze going toward the window. "So you've gotta find a cure fast, because I won't be able to come in here and just feed her. Understand?"

"You have got to be bullshitting me." Rider let his back slam against the wall and he closed his eyes.

"Wish I were, man." Carlos went to Damali and touched her hair. "That's when the shit got really out of hand... last night. One hit of her fragrance, and I was near gone. If she hadn't siphoned me first, I would have flat-lined her. You have no idea how close it came to that."

Shabazz had taken two paces in Carlos's direction, but Big Mike grabbed the back of his shirt.

What could he say? It was the cold-blooded truth. Carlos spoke slowly; he needed them to understand. "A mind lock went down, she took a walk on the dark side with me. She bit me, took two quarts, and the virus is all through her... not just from my bites, but now from a total blood exchange - a double plunge. She woke up hungry, and watched me drop an international courier to feed her without batting an eyelash."

Fuck it. This wasn't the time for shame or games. Carlos looked at the group hard. "You remember what our international messengers look like, don't you?"

"Huge mothers," Big Mike replied, nodding. "She made you take one of those, then, forewarned is forearmed."

Both men nodded.

"But she didn't die," Marlene said in an urgent rush. "That may be our only hope."

"You sure she didn't?" Jose asked, his voice cracking from his obviously dry throat. "I mean, I'm not trying to be negative, or anything... but how do we know?" His eyes darted between Damali and Carlos, then back toward Marlene.

"Jose's got a point," Dan chimed in. "No offense."

"No offense taken. Definitely a valid point." Carlos could almost feel Marlene's gasp pass through his skeleton. "We shouldn't take anything for granted. There were periods when I wasn't conscious."

"C'mon, man," J.L. protested. "Wouldn't you know if she died on your watch, even if it happened during your daytime sleep?"

A slight smile tugged at Carlos's mouth. "That's not necessarily when I was out." They just didn't understand.


"Don't say it, Rider," Marlene warned, holding up her hand. "If she died in your arms, and came back... say within minutes... oh, I don't know."

"I will kill you," Jose said slowly, moving forward in preparation for a foolhardy lunge, but was stopped by Shabazz's arm.

"Gives a whole new meaning to petite mort," Rider chided, shaking his head.

"How about a grand mal seizure," Damali whispered, sidling up to Carlos. "Let's get out of here, baby. We told them enough... and I'm hungry. I can tell you're starved, too."

Again the room went stone-cold still.

"No," Carlos said firmly. "Baby, listen. I've gotta go to Hell, handle a few things - "

"Do you hear yourselves!" Rider was walking in a circle, arms outstretched. "Where's my fucking clip?"

"Got one you can borrow," Shabazz said, tossing Rider the spare ammo clip from his shoulder gear, and pulling Sleeping Beauty from his hip again.

Jose eyed the crossbow that Rider had discreetly taken from his side, noting that it was too far away for a quick grab. Opting for the available, he unsheathed a bowie knife, stripping it from Rider's belt. In a lightning move,J.L. had snatched the largest knife from the carving set, and had tossed Dan one that was only a bit smaller.

"I take it this has hallowed-earth-packed rhinos locked and loaded?" Rider asked Shabazz with a sneer in Carlos's direction.

"You know me, brother," Shabazz said in a tight voice.

"Would you people relax?" Damali said, thoroughly annoyed. "We're just going out and will be back in a few."

"No, D. They're right. That's how this all got started in the first place. Me and you were gonna go and just talk at Father Pat's... and it got crazy. Then, you were gonna take the shortcut home from Brazil, and wound up staying waaay too long in my Rio lair. Then, St. Lucia was supposed to be a one-night pit stop, but lasted longer. So, I'm out. Remember what I said - no humans, ever."

"Oh, so you're just gonna leave - just like that?" Both hands were on Damali's shapely hips, and the outrage that glittered in her eyes was like a magnet.

Carlos paused, then shook off the temptation. "I have to." He had to get away from her before he changed his mind.

"Yeah, he does," Marlene agreed, telling Carlos with one look that it was time to go. "He's getting stronger, though... each time we see him - I don't know if that's bad or good."

"Bad sign," Rider said fast. "We were real happy to have you on our side down in Hell, and in the Amazon, but turning our li'l sister was not a part of the dealio."

"You got that right," Jose said, his voice low and dangerous.

"Mar," Carlos warned, ignoring the other guardians. "She was made by a master with council-level lineage. Hear me? From all indications she rolls like a female master, not a second-generation."

"Marlene, what's he talking about?" Jose stood back to allow Carlos an opening to pass.

"All I'm hearing is the part about council-level lineage," Shabazz said slowly.

"Council-levels make masters. Masters make seconds. If he was the one who made her, he just made a topside female master, people. When Nuit bought it, then Damali dusted Vlak, Carlos must have descended - that's the power shift. Brother just moved a level up in the vamp food chain." Marlene shut her eyes. "Oh, Lord..."

Damali weaved and held her temples. "Mar, please... gimme a break!"

"Yeah, Mar. Dead on." Carlos looked at the team and lowered his gaze. "It went down something like that. Open territory. I was next in line. Mar, see if the book says something about a councilman's bite. I'm way more than a master these days, sis."

"Oh, and you couldn't have dropped that little bit of info on us before we let you take her to your lair in Rio! Are you nuts?" Rider was holding his gun so tightly that it shook.

"Get real," Carlos said. "I'm a damned vampire, not a saint."

"As far as us watching her, what does this mean?" Jose asked, his eyes searching Marlene's face.

Carlos brushed past the Guardians at the door, who gave him wide berth, then stopped in the hallway and turned to look at them all hard. But for a split second his concentration fractured. Something strong and distant was calling him. It was a garbled, muffled, indecipherable call that had become muted within the prayer-guarded walls of the compound. He had to get out of there. Now. He could feel it, knew he had to address the 9-1-1 pulse within his territory.

Shaking the distraction, Carlos glimpsed at Jose, knowing that Guardian would be the weak link in the chain. If Damali needed to feed, Jose was dinner. "What I'm telling you all is, her mind lock is beyond the strength you can imagine - I almost couldn't fight it."

"No, you couldn't, could you?" Damali casually leaned against the refrigerator and smiled. "But you are not leaving me here, with them."

Carlos ignored her, and kept talking to the group. "The master vamp powers of seduction are deep, trust me. But don't make me have to come in here and take a body for her - it's in my nature, what can I say? Don't ever forget she's my woman." Although his statement was issued to the entire group, and his eyes scanned each member of it, his gaze lingered longest on Jose.

"Shit..." Rider walked away deeper into the kitchen to get out of Carlos's possible swing range when Marlene bristled.

"No male in this joint is immune," Carlos muttered, still holding Jose's line of vision. "She will do anything to get out of here, and she went into the turn with Neteru strength... whatever she got from me, I don't know."

"You know what I got from you," Damali murmured, the barest hint of fang glistened in the fluorescent kitchen light.

Carlos swallowed hard, but motioned with his head toward her. "I want you all to see this, so we're all clear before I leave. It's in your best interests not to have any illusions."

He walked back into the kitchen, stood before Damali, embraced her, and exposed his jugular to her. Her body fit against him, slid against all the right places so smoothly that he fought not to groan - respect for the family. Her hunger was palpable, just like her desire to be alone with him. She raised herself on her toes, pressing her abdomen against his, belly-to-belly, nearly climbing up him to reach just the right spot. C'mon, baby, get it over with, before I drag you out of here. He could feel his lids go to half mast as he struggled to keep his own incisors from lowering. Her family would be traumatized enough, they didn't need to also witness him feeding from her. But she was mentally coaxing him into a double-plunge. "Uh-uh, not in front of family," he murmured. They had no idea what resisting this urge was like.

"Right. What was I thinking?" she whispered, and then nuzzled his throat. "Later."

"Just do it," he said tensely, then shut his eyes, blocking out the stricken expressions of her family.

When the strike came he closed his lids tighter and mentally blocked out the gasp that rattled the group. He'd vowed to never do this in public, but this was necessary, and it took everything within him to break from Damali's hold without biting her in return. Girlfriend was all pro, had pulled blood from his veins with the intensity of a master, sending pleasure throughout his system to block the pain, a smooth siphon that made sweat form on his brow and caused an involuntary shudder throughout his body. It felt like an eternity as he waited for her to lift her head. He opened his eyes, only to be met by hers and a sexy smile. Her tongue ran over her crimson bottom lip, leaving it moist.

"Want some?"

He ignored the generous invitation. This was not the time or place. Winded from her feed before he'd hunted and fed, he kissed her hard and staggered away from her, fighting the urge to take her to his lair to finish what she had started. He dabbed the corner of his mouth with the back of his fist, his mouth practically watering. Humiliation made his face burn, but he looked at her team, nonetheless. "Now, do you see what I'm talking about?"

Quiet tears streamed down Marlene's face. Dan turned and vomited on the kitchen floor. Rider and J.L. were taking in slow sips of air. Jose's face crumbled and he turned toward the wall. Shabazz and Big Mike stood motionless, their eyes moist, their glares unmoving.

"Fix this shit, Marlene," Shabazz finally grumbled. "Tonight. I don't want to ever see this bastard in our compound again."

"She'll be all right for the next twenty-four hours," Carlos said without emotion. He understood. It was horrifying. And there was no one to blame but him.

His fingers traced Damali's cheek as he watched her begin to normalize - but her family would never be the same. "I'll be back." he told Damali, "and Marlene is going to make this all right. Stay in, and don't fight them when they try to help you - promise me?" She nodded and pressed her fingers to his throat wound, then licked them. That was Big Mike's last straw. When the big brother broke down and cried openly without shame, Carlos was out. He couldn't watch pain like this. They were family.

The ground was pulsing. Clouds of bats filled the night sky, screeching his name. Council had sent out an all-points bulletin for him. He could tell by the look on Father Pat's face that Marlene had already filled in the Covenant. News traveled fast, especially bad news. They all stood on the cabin steps, not speaking, but he knew a new round of prayers now barred him entry to what had been his safe house. Father Lopez, the youngest of the priests, looked away as silent tears slid down his brown cheeks. The Moor, Asula, was practically gray. Monk Lin turned away and swallowed hard.

"But I love her," was all Carlos could say. "No matter what."

"I know," Father Pat said quietly, his tone gentle. "But now we have a situation. It's greater than you can imagine, and the timing..."

"Do whatever you can to get her straight."

The old priest nodded. "We'll do whatever we can. We'll take a blood supply to her. In two days, you won't be able to."

"Thank you." That was all there was left to say before Carlos turned toward the night wind and was gone.

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