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Kristen leaned on her boyfriend with a naughty look in her eye, the happy expression of a teenager knowing she was doing something wicked with her One True Love shining on her face as they headed into the alleyway. Greenbank was a lousy neighborhood; she knew that well enough. But she trusted Robert completely, and knew full well that he'd take good care of her. Tonight was the night that her vampire lover would bring her across the threshold into an eternal twilight of blood-soaked sensual joy. That would show her parents, who'd never known true joy and happiness, who'd tried to drag her down into mundanity and boredom by sending her to college instead of letting her embrace her destiny as a true daughter of the night. "Oh, my Gawd, I can't believe we're going to your sanctum! Did you hang up the black roses like I said? And the upside-down Jesus?"

Robert was something of a gourmad, preferring to savor the emotions of his prey as he drained the life out of them. He'd been working on this girl for a while, having infiltrated her high school by the expedient of brainwashing a clerk at the Education Department to let him work his will among the students. He wondered how Kristen's emotions would taste as he drank her blood until it was empty; joy turning to fear, then despair? Or would the joy and love she felt for him now remain like a burning fire until the last of its embers slipped away with her life? Either way, he was more than eager to find out. "Everything's ready, baby. This is going to be the biggest night of your life." He was very pleased with his conquest, focused on her lovely neck and beautiful body. Perhaps too focused.

As the couple came to a stop at the mouth of a blind alley, Avenger came swooping down from the sky like a bat out of hell. A massive punch smashed a surprised Robert in the face, hurling him back into the dark confines of the alley and off his feet. As Kristen started screaming, Avenger braced himself, ready to take the charge as a snarling, fanged Robert came hurling out of the alleyway at him! Despite his efforts to control the situation, the sheer power of the crazed vampire's attack took him off-guard, throwing him back into the wall behind him with a terrific crash.

Avenger is on his feet again in an instant, facing his opponent in a wrestler's crouch. "You'll have to do better than that," he spits, voice burning with rage. Would Robert recognize Jack, who he'd only met once or twice, through the mask and the persona of Avenger? It was better to bring this to an end fast. "You make me sick, leech!"

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"Why?" spat Robert in reply, fangs out and eyes glowing red. "Because I give women more than you can, you miserable fleshbag? You're nothing but a pathetic little man in a funny costume!" Despite the young vampire punk's words, he was unprepared for Avenger's speed and power when the other man kicked him soundly in the head. Avenger followed up by grabbing Robert by the collar, slamming him up against the wall hard enough to crack the brick.

"Because you teach little girls that there's nothing to be afraid of in the dark! That the bad boyfriend their parents hate will give them everything they want, if only they give him everything HE wants!" Avenger's fury is burning, honest, and true. "All you want to do is suck them dry and leave them to die, just like all the other women you've taken!"

Kristen, who had been about to loudly expostulate that she was no little girl, was interrupted by Robert's sudden laughter. "So you ARE jealous!" he tried, bleeding as he was through a split lip and battered face. "I let them float high on the wings of a butterfly made of blood and lust, and if they fall eventually, there are always others! There's a whole world of pleasure out there if you're willing to look for it. Don't get a lot of women dressing like that, do you?"

"Listen. To. Me." Avenger's grip on the vampire's throat would have suffocated a normal man. "I know your real lair is in Liberty Park; I know you live there with four other leeches. If you don't get out of my city now, I will follow you back there and kill you, your sire, and your entire line, do you hear me? I am the Avenger of Evil, and I will NOT tolerate little monsters like you in my city. Do you hear me? Of course, Jack knew that because he'd been there. The party had been fine until they'd brought out the refreshments.

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Robert was shaken by the costumed adventurer's knowledge of him, but he tried to laugh through his fear. "You don't scare me, you little popinjay!" He bared his fangs again. "I'm an immortal stalker of the night and-"

The subsequent fight was a brutal, back-alley affair, complicated by the presence of Robert's confused mortal lover. When it was over, a disabled, half-conscious Robert was groaning on the ground; his fangs broken and face bruised, while Avenger stood over him, his knuckles split and bleeding through his heavy motorcycle gloves. This is why I can't have nice things! Jack could never have talked another vampire out of hunting and killing humans, and getting vampire society involved would only have been an issue if Robert here had been attracting attention.

"You're a monster!" breathed a horrified Kristen. "You're a monster!"

"Listen...no, listen to me." Jack peered at the girl, making eye contact as he exerted himself, reaching out with a vampiric knack he'd never been very good at. It always required some extra effort, and left him with a headache afterwards. "Vampires aren't real. Listen, vampires aren't real." She repeated that, and he spoke again. "You want a normal life. You don't need a man, any kind of man, to be happy. Listen to me; you deserve to grow up into a woman and have the life you want. Not the life someone else wants you to have."

Long minutes later, a battered, bruised Avenger was alone in the alley with the semi-conscious Robert. He had no idea if what he'd done had really shaped the girl's mind the right way, but maybe, just maybe, she'd be able to avoid falling into the eternal twilight that her lover would have pressed her into without her ever knowing a real, normal human life. Everyone deserves a normal life. "Can't just leave you here for the sun; you're the wrong kind of vampire for that." Avenger kicked him again. It didn't help, but he felt a little better.

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After some serious consideration, Jack decided the best way to handle this guy without killing him was to get him as far outside of town as possible. A smooth entry through a shattered window provided him with a musty, half-abandoned warehouse. Leaving the half-conscious Robert on the cold, dirty concrete floor, Avenger hunted through the warehouse before finding what he was after. It was a long, difficult task that gave him plenty of time to think about his life. Had he been a successful hero? Had saving this girl been worth the risk to his secret identity?

He was focused on the job; so focused that he failed to pay attention to one vital factor.

"I don't know who you are, pal, but you ain't welcome in my warehouse!" He turned around to see a security guard aiming a pistol at him, the man frightened but in control of his fear. "I've got the silent alarm in my other hand, too, so don't try anything funny!"

"It's all right," grated Avenger, turning around with his heart in his throat. How stupid could he have been? "I'm just trying to get that guy out of here," he added with a nod to the battered, bloody Robert. "He's a monster, and the jails can't hold him. I'm sending him out of town to Bedlam."

"If he's a crook, why ain't you callin' the cops?"

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"You think jail can hold a vampire?" asked Avenger reasonably. "All he needs is a little blood transfusion and he'll be up and around before you know it." Jack really, really hoped that this little conversation would never be associated with his real name and get back to his vampiric colleagues.

"Vampire, huh? BS. Ain't no such thing as a vampire." But the man's gun was beginning to waver in his hand, his manner getting a little more hesitant. He took a few steps toward Robert, looking over the breathless-yet-live body, the broken fangs and pale skin that belonged to nothing living. "Jeeeez...shouldn't you stake him?"

"Maybe so," admitted Avenger. "But I ain't no killer. And neither are you, Larry." By now he'd had time to read the man's nametag. "Everybody deserves to live. Everybody."

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"So what are you gonna do?" asked Larry. The security guard had lowered the gun, though he kept the alarm clutched firmly in hand. The sight of a vampire, an honest-to-God vampire, had left him more trusting of the dark, menacing-but-apparently human vigilante before him.

"You don't want him here? I'll take him out. Shouldn't have him on your turf anyway. Deal?"

"'Sdeal, man." Larry nodded. "You just get him out of here." He ran his fingers over his jaw as Avenger gathered up Robert, who'd been barely awake through this whole process, rough skin scraping against his unshaven jawline. "You didn't tell me your name!" he called up as Avenger bounded onto a pile of boxes, heading up towards the open roof.

"They call me...Avenger!" said Jack with a laugh, feeling his first real joy as he leapt up and onto the roof. He'd talked a man out of killing a monster, a blood-soaked fiend. Maybe there was hope for humanity's respect for itself after all.

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It was the end of a long night, and Jack had changed out of his costume. He wasn't Avenger, the dark and gritty defender of the night now, he was just a normal man. Wait, that wasn't true. He wasn't a man at all. He faced the monster without fear, struck again by how much Melinda reminded him of his own sire. "I saw the cape flying away," he said with a nervous look, gazing up at the sky as if Avenger might be about to sweep down on him at any moment. "And I caught the girl running away. Looks like Robert here got sloppy with his dinner. I fixed her, but I knew you'd want to see him."

He concentrated hard on the lie, even as the queen of Freedom City's vampires gave him a suspicious look. To his immense relief, she smiled and planted a deep kiss on him. "You did a fine job, my boy." They were from different lines, she from the linage that shunned sunlight, but she was certainly the boss of him. "You're Claudia's boy, aren't you?" She circled him as they talked, a low smile on her lovely face.

They were in the basement of a club she owned in the South Side, a lovely little Gothic place where college kids and other things danced the night away. Calling her emergency number had got him several burly servants, covered in the marks of vampire bites that made them her slave, and had transported the battered miscreant vampire and the nice helpful one to the arms of the mistress of the night herself. She asked him questions, probing questions about how old he was, what he'd done before and after the beginning of his eternity, and seemed very interested in the news that he was currently unattached in more ways than one.

"I'll remember you, Jack," she said with a warm smile. "Stay a while and we'll talk about what you can do for the city. But as for this one..." She walked up to Robert and, before Jack could do anything, decapitated the already battered vampire with a single punch. "No one needs this kind of vampire," she said with a wicked smile on her alabaster face, "No one at all."

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"I need someone who can work for me among the daywalkers." Melinda had thoughtfully draped herself across Jack's chest, running her fingers along his face like a cat with a favorite toy. Her lips were very red against her alabaster face, her teeth as white as snow. "There are so few of your kind around these days, and we need you more than ever. _I_ need you more than ever."

Jack stayed as relaxed as possible, knowing that Melinda would take any overt resistance from him as a sign of disloyalty. In the unlikely event he was a match for her in combat; he surely was no match for the slaves and servants she had just outside the door! They were in her sanctum yet, deep beneath the South Side. "And what could a fledgling like me do for someone like you?"

She stopped her stroking and looked at him levelly. "Don't play coy with me, Faretti. You know the services you can provide. Intelligence on the movements of my enemies, rewards given to my friends..." She put her hand on her face and smiled. "And you know the rewards I give to my friends."

Jack cursed inwardly, hearing the couch rustle beneath him. Why hadn't he just put Robert down in that blasted alley? All not killing had gotten him was a one-way ticket to more trouble. And Robert had wound up ashes anyway! "I won't kill," he replied, his voice as honest as he could make it. "Not for anyone. But if you want me to work for you...well, how can I refuse?"

"You're one of those, eh?" She'd recoiled a little at his words, looking at him the way a mortal woman might have looked at an acquaintance who'd just joined a bizarre cult. "Well...no matter." She smiled again, recovering the mood, and leaned close. "Just remember, darling. You may not kill, but I do.. And then she bit him on the ear, and Jack didn't need to think about anything else for a while.

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Some time later, as the night began falling closer and closer to day, Avenger crouched on a Greenbank rooftop as he looked out over the neighborhood below. It was a lousy neighborhood, a filthy place full of the diseases of crime and poverty. It was a good hunting ground; for Jack and Avenger alike. But there are good people here, he reminded himself, People who deserve happy lives. Maybe he was a predator, a monster, friend of monsters. But he could still make the world a better place; he could do more with an eternal unlife than cry over the so-sad loss of his humanity or attend a legion of empty parties. His 'conversation' with Melinda didn't change anything about him, and he didn't change why he'd gone into this business in the first place. Or did it?

I'm not just seeking thrills anymore, Jack admitted to himself. I'm doing this...because I can. Because I have to. Because I have to prove to myself that my life hasn't ended just because I'm a dead man. I need to...avenge.

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