Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Anita Blake belong to their respective creators, Joss Whedon and Laurell Hamilton.
The playground was small and shabby, with a single slide that was slightly bent in the middle, a ramshackle merry-go-round, a see-saw that squealed with rust as it teetered, and a swingset with wooden slats for seats. There was something neglected about it, something overgrown and nostalgic, as if she was looking at a memory gone to rust rather than a place for children to play. There was trash scattered in the overgrowth, cans and cigarette butts and plastics. The ground underfoot was a slope of bluegrass that hadn't been mowed for too long and the borders of the playground were tall, long-branched cedars that formed a screen between the playground and the street that went past the park. There were no people around.
The night was hot and humid, the air almost stagnant, but the chains of the swing were cool when Anne took them in her hands.
Anne scuffed the toes of her chucks in the dirt, rocking herself back and forth by the heels, counting stars and trying to see the Big Dipper. Then she lowered her feet and pushed, and the swing carried her with it.
Leaves untangled from her hair and fell from her shoulders, and the blood that wet her shirt and skin was clammy. A green glow flickered near her head, and then another by her ankle. Fireflies glimmered in the darkness, pinpricks of light.
A few moments later, she picked up the phone book. The plastic bag it had come in was caught on the lower end of the see-saw.
Smeared fingerprints stuck the pages together, and she carefully peeled each sheet as she scanned the lines of names, numbers, and addresses.
She did this for twenty pages, and then she closed the phone book.
“This is stupid,” Anne muttered to herself.
A long, quiet minute passed. Crickets and cicadas sang from the trees.
Anne opened the phone book again.
Three pages later, without looking, Anne said, “Go away.”
“Mistress,” said Damian's voice. He moved forward, around the merry-go-round. The fireflies went briefly dark around him. “Mistress, the rats are searching for you.”
There was bile in the back of Anne's mouth. She swallowed, and then stared down at the bloodstained page full of surnames starting with Rs. “Leave me alone.”
Damian stood there, looking at her. He didn't have his sword with him, but he was still not wearing a shirt.
He asked, in a voice low and almost hesitant, “Mistress, what has happened?”
Anne opened her mouth to tell him to get the hell away and suddenly realized that her eyes were wet with tears.
Damian's eyes widened. He took another long step toward her before Anne's glare stopped him again.
For several minutes, Damian stood by the merry-go-round and watched her as she looked down at the open phone book.
A strange, distant voice came out of Anne's mouth when she finally opened it again. “I hurt Rafael.”
Behind them, a car made a left turn onto the street that passed the playground and drove down the block at about five miles an hour. At the end, it turned into a residential area and the noise of the engine became distant.
“And Richard.” Anne rubbed one eye into a shoulder. “I hurt him worse.”
Damian didn't move. His green eyes were on her, accipitrine.
“I didn't mean to.” Anne frowned. “I didn't
. Raina did something, and...then I hurt them.”
Somewhere in the rows of houses, a car's engine cut off.
Anne's voice shook. “I really didn't mean to.”
The night seemed to breathe. Damian was a giant in the dark, a strange figure dimly lit by fireflies, every line of him exuding menace. He was looking up.
Something chittered in the darkness.
“Bobby Lee,” said Damian, his face still upturned. “And Claudia.” He looked at Anne again. “The Rat King searches for you. He sends his rats. I can feel his desperation through you.”
Anne wasn't paying attention. She was looking down at the phone book.
There were people moving through the trees, two separate heartbeats coming close. They weren't making any particular effort to be quiet. She turned one page, then another, and then a pair of cowboy boots appeared in front of her, a pair of military-issue boots just behind.
“Little girl,” drawled a voice, “you got the Rom worrying himself sick back there.”
Anne stared down into the phone book. These pages had smudges of red all along the sides. Why did she keep coming back to these pages? Where had she even gotten this phone book in the first place?
“The Ulfric's fine,” continued the drawl. Bobby Lee sounded entirely relaxed and unconcerned, even bored. “He's been cut up worse. Shang-Da near shit a brick, though.” There, a trace of glee.
Damian wasn't moving. The woman behind Bobby Lee—Claudia?—said nothing. She smelled of oiled metal and sweat, and was even taller than Bobby Lee.
“You looking for someone specific, little girl?”
Anne was looking at a list of surnames starting with G. She didn't know why.
She knew she was looking for someone. She knew
it. But when she tried to think of the name, when she tried to finish that sentence even to herself...
Bobby Lee knelt down, and put his hand, fingers splayed, on the open pages of the phone book.
When Anne raised her head, his eyes held hers.
“Who the hell was it,” said Bobby Lee, as claws skittered and teeth gnashed in his voice, “and what the fuck
did he do to you?”
They were all looking at her. Bobby Lee, Damian, and even the woman, Claudia, all waiting for her answer.
But so was she
. How did a person say something like that out loud without ending up in a mental hospital?
A dank basement, full of broken plumbing and a floor awash with blood. The body, mutilated and torn to pieces, silver dust everywhere, the stubs of candles. The body over there, and her
, and the thing that had been in the darkness with her until— Rafael,
thought Anne, and she couldn't help but think about how different everything would have been if only she'd met Rafael first. The wereleopards were next to useless, the vampires either wanted her dead or seemed themselves somewhat unhinged, and the werewolves had their own problems. Rafael was the only one who seemed to be in any kind of control, and he was obviously willing to help her, wouldn't have let her get them all into such a mess. If she'd just met Rafael first... —aren't we good together—
Anne stopped shaking her head even as she realized she'd been shaking it in the first place. Bobby Lee had withdrawn his hand, but that expression on his face—
Damian only watched.
“I don't want to talk about it,” said Anne, and closed the phone book.
She stood up, Bobby Lee following her, and then she hesitated, holding the phone book in both hands, clutching it to her chest. The yellow cover was slick.
The three of them waited, two wererats and one vampire, to see what she would do.
Anne said, in a small voice, in a tone that mingled confusion and shame, “I don't know what to do now.”
on Bobby Lee's and Claudia's faces—scrutinizing, wary, and somehow pitying
And Damian's face, cold and expressionless but for his eyes.
“The Rom took the Ulfric back to the safehouse to see Doc,” said Bobby Lee. His voice was softer than before. “You should go there and finish talking it out. The Master of the City's going to want an answer tomorrow, come hell or high water. The Rom's going to have to give him one.”
Anne's skin went cold. She gripped the edges of the phone book a little tighter.
When she spoke, she sounded distressed even to herself. “I didn't mean to hurt him.”
“We know, honey,” said Bobby Lee, still softly, still quietly, “we know.”
“It wasn't your fault,” said Claudia, just as softly, speaking for the first time. "I was there. It wasn't you."
“Mistress,” said Damian, nearly whispering. “They speak truth.”
Blood and honey eyes. That woman in her body, and Rafael and Richard being torn to pieces as they tried to help her.
Anne's hands were trembling.
“Let's get you back to the Rom,” said Bobby Lee, “before he loses his shit and tells Jean-Claude where he can shove it.”
Claudia turned to lead the way back to the car, kicking broken glass out of her way, and Anne meekly followed. Bobby Lee walked next to her, his hand at her elbow, and Anne couldn't bring herself to mind. When she glanced back to see where Damian was, there was no one there.