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z-August Turner

World of Darkness: Attrition - Feeding a Wolf [Complete]

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Monday, August 1, 2011, Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden, 2:00 p.m.

The sun was deliciously warm. August didn't feel warm often; lately, cold had been her enemy, a sign that she was still going crazy. Or perhaps that she was still insane. It was hard to tell if she was actually nuts or still sane and fighting the fall. Wasn't there a rule that if you were worried about being insane you were still sane? Or was that officially wishful thinking?

Her therapist would tell her that thoughts like that weren't helping. August was supposed to be helping with her therapy, not questioning her level of insanity. Think pleasant thoughts, she told herself. Keeping her eyes shut, she let the heat act like a balm on soul as well as her body.

The stone bench under her was also warm; with the firm heat under her and the golden warmth above her, she was completely at ease. Nearby, someone was turning over the earth; August could smell the scent of disrupted, heated soil. The occasional sound of the worker reached her as well, but she was concentrating on the sounds of the guys playing catch with a Frisbee or of the birds singing. They were very active, their voices pitched in high, nervous chirps. They sounded a little scared.

Those are not the kind of thoughts you should be thinking about, she chided herself, but now that she'd noticed the nervous twittering, she couldn't shut it out. As a distraction, she let her mind drift to the final project for her independent study. Though summer classes were technically over, she was still working on her project. Her instructor had let her start late so she had until August 15. She had a couple of weeks, but she needed to start focusing.

August had loved to play with light and film; styles like film noir were so interesting to her technically. The play of light and dark had been the focus of her summer project and now she had to submit a video showing her knowledge. But since her 'break' August had found herself woefully short on inspiration. What had once been easy, even exciting, was now a chore. Part of coming to this park was the hope that something would inspire her. Then the warm sun had lulled her into a nap. Just like a cat, she thought with a lazy smile.

Carelessly, she shifted on the bench, pulling one knee up as her hands came to rest on her stomach. This was way too relaxing; the warm summer air combined with the lack of Saja-related pressure or school pressure was enough to draw her toward sleep.

The Frisbee took care of that. It sailed over the hands of the guy jumping for it and right into August's face. Yelping, she sat up, clapping her hand to the spot over her eye. It was already throbbing but she could tell it was just going to be a bruise and wasn't bleeding.

And the shithead who'd missed was laughing at her. August glared at him, as he giggled into his hand and pulled his sun visor low over his eyes. It was nervous laughter but she didn't care. "Hey, wanna get that for me?"

"Sure," August said, turning to look over the bushes behind the bench. The Frisbee was on top of the bushes and she shoved through trimmed foliage, grimacing as they raked at her bare legs. She grabbed the offending disk, snatching it up off the plants. She was seconds from hurling it back-

What would the Wolf do?

As always, that thought made her stop and consider. And she was angry. She'd been having a good day. It wasn't being hit with the Frisbee. It was that he'd laughed at her instead of apologizing.

There was a gardener nearby, one of the UCLA's fleet of groundskeepers. August darted over to his cart and grabbed the pruning knife off of it. She started to hack at the plastic disc, but it was too tough to cut in half like she'd wanted. She heard the guy yell and start toward her, and August switched tactics. She began to scratch letters into the disc instead, and by the time the boy snatched it from her she'd managed to get three letters in it: A-S-S.

"Bitch!" he snarled when he saw her artwork. His friends weren't too far behind, but August wasn't afraid of any of them. They were all frat kids, over-privileged and rude, and she was still angry.

"Try an apology next time," she told them, setting the pruning knife down in the cart.

The kid opened his mouth, then looked over her shoulder and paled. "Good luck, bitch," he muttered before turning and fleeing. Frowning, August turned to see what had caused that reaction.

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Another day, another dollar Dec chanted to himself for roughly the hundredth time today. At least he was on the hedges 'n' edges today - nice quiet work with shears and cutters, rather than cussing at the riding mower trying to get the outdated piece of oil-stinking junk to work. It was a fine August afternoon, he was feeling well-disposed to the world after a large lunch (that he hadn't had to chase down and kill - being human had some benefits) and the paths and lawns of the campus were - well, not deserted, but quiet.

Apart from the noisy fucks playing frisbee, but hell, they weren't hurting anybody. They were goofing off a little, maybe trying to get attention from the black-haired cutie curled up on the bench. Not that she was giving it to them. The girl looked lost in thought, or maybe just lost in enjoying the sunshine and relative quiet. Dec could relate. Stripped to the waist, he'd dozed through most of his lunch hour after wolfing down his meal, and was currently trimming around the border of one of the flowerbeds. Maybe he'd get done early and hit the pool.

Almost as soon as he'd finished the thought there was a thunk and small cry of pain: the frisbee boys had gotten the black-haired cutie's attention, alright. They were sniggering in that stupid embarrassed way of boys who didn't know better, didn't know to man up and say "Hey, sorry. I was fuckin' careless." Dec mentally rolled his eyes.

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“Hey, wanna get that for me?”

“Sure,” August said, turning to look over the bushes behind the bench. The Frisbee was on top of the bushes and she shoved through trimmed foliage, grimacing as they raked at her bare legs.

Fuck that. If they hit me in the eye with a damned frisbee and laughed I'd be feeding it to them. He shrugged and went back to tending the beds, it was none of his business anyh-

He heard the scrape of the pruning knife from his cart and turned. Stupid fuckwit kids stealing MY equipme- Whoa! He watched somewhere between bemused and amused as the girl hacked and scraped at the frisbee, managing to carve something into it before fratboy snatched it back, trotting out the usual 'bitch' line. Okay, so maybe it was a bitchy thing to do, but hey. Fuckhead had asked for it, and the girl was right - an apology would've gone down better. Then fuckhead opened his mouth, probably to swear some more in his big-boy pants, and saw Dec.

Who was looking right at him whilst moving up behind cutie. To say Dec had an unnerving stare was putting it mildly. Even when he was just looking at people, there was a touch of the wolf about his manner that made others cautious. The set of the shoulders, the tilt of the head. The way you could see him figuring out whether you were friend or foe that made one damn sure they wanted to be the former, or better yet a long way off. But when Dec looked right at someone, meaningfully, narrowed silver eyes glinting... Well, that was when only the very brave or incredibly insane stuck around. Fratboy was neither.

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“Good luck, bitch,” he muttered before turning and fleeing.

That's what I thought, fuckhead. Run along. Dec grinned tightly, then glanced down at the brunette in front of him. Nice legs. Cute ass. Likes to play with other people's sharp objects. When August turned around, Dec was still checking her out. Silver eyes rose from her waist, over her chest and met her gaze, not lingeringly, but definitely unhurried. He removed his gloves, shoving them into a back pocket of his jeans next to his t-shirt, then hooked his thumbs into his pockets and regarded her for a long moment.

"You want to borrow somethin' else? Shears to do your nails, p'raps? Maybe I could get a weed-whacker for you to shave your legs?" Another unhurried sweep of his eyes downwards, then back to her green gaze as he continued, his deep voice even. "They look fine right now, though."

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August felt her eyebrows rise as the kid gave up and ran away. She’d expected to get yelled at after that. She hadn’t been in danger of getting hit; she knew violent men and these kids didn’t have that capacity for it. August could read it in the frustration in their eyes; the way that they felt that yelling was the worst they could do to something. She’d have to push them a lot harder to get them to hit her.

When she turned around, she knew that the man behind her was capable of violence. He fairly bubbled over with it, worse than even her father had done at the end. But her father had never looked at her like this, thankfully. Her father had also never caused a mirroring effect in her, either – also thankfully. Holy shit, he is hot! He was well-shaped and clearly shaped by good hard work. His skin was sun-kissed – not in that unnatural tanning bed way either. But the capper, what set him apart, was the intensity in those silver eyes.

Her hand rose and touched her wolf’s head, hidden under her tank top. In answer, she just let her eyes rove down him and back up. “You don’t look like a supplier of personal hygiene effects but I’ll remember that next time my legs get unmanageable. But you should know: they are always fine.”

Something was nagging at her brain, trying to get her attention. August gave him a crooked grin and sauntered away. She pushed through the bushes and back to her bench, giving a coy look back as she started to sit down. Come and get me… she mentally called to him, then her brain finally caught up to what she’d just seen. Wait…

August’s gaze shifted from coy and appreciative to far more intense. She scrambled back up to Declan, who watched her with an amused gaze. August stared at him before leaning to the side and up at him. Declan was used to stares from women, even green-eyed stares, but not like this. He had the disturbing feeling she wasn’t seeing him anymore, or she was seeing something else.

“Okay,” she said, straightening. “This is going to sound weird…” She held up her hands. “That is not a come-on, I swear. I’m a film student and I need a final project. I want to film you.”

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"Say what, now?"

Declan blinked. Of all the danged reactions he'd expected, that hadn't been one of them. He'd expected the arousal, the slight increase in her breathing and pulse of pheromones in her scent. He'd also expected either a sniff-turn-and-stalk-away-and-hope-he's-still-watching or the flirty-come-hither game she'd started to play... before changing her mind. 'Not a come-on.' Riiiight. Suuure it isn't. And yet... it wasn't exactly normal. Women had come up to him before, made bold by some animal part of themselves, and made requests of him, but this was a new one.

"Film me?" August saw those silver eyes shift left, then right as their owner glanced around, head lowering slightly in suspicion. What does she know? What has she seen? Dec racked his brains, trying to think if he'd caught this girl's scent nearby on one of his nocturnal 'rambles' in his wolfen shape. He was careful, incredibly so. His eyes were the same damn colour in both skins, and that was both a sign of favour (according to his cousin Lise) and tell too-damn dangerous to leave witnesses of. "Film me doing what?"

"It's not like that." August reddened slightly and waved her hands, almost reaching out to grasp his shoulder reassuringly at the look of feral wariness in the groundskeeper's gaze. "I'm serious here. I've been hammering my head against a wall thinking of a suitable subject. And now here you are." She smiled at him winningly. She hoped.

"Here I am." he echoed, looking uncertain now rather than merely wary. The uncertainty didn't show for long, however, the silver eyes flicking up to meet hers directly once more. Let's see if this is a trap or not. Or if she just wants to play camera games. The girl was easy enough to look at. "So... What the hell am I supposed to do on camera? Name's Dec, by the by. Dec Perault." He offered one not-too-grimy but definitely work-roughened hand.

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The green-eyed girl grinned and took his hand, smiling as if he’d already accepted. “August Turner,” she told him as she shook his hand. “Nice to meet you.” Caught up in the excitement of the moment, she wasn’t really aware of him anymore; he’d become a subject and Declan was dealing with a new category of woman: one who wasn’t a relation or being bowled over by his other-worldly feral nature.

“All I want you to do is keep on doing your job and ignore the camera,” August babbled on, her eyes shining with excitement. She felt so alive right now, so full of energy and creativity. Oneca would have called it a full-on film-nerd rampage. “I need to get the camera and a waiver-”

“Waiver?” he interrupted.

“It’s standard whenever we film someone,” August said quickly. She really hated this legal hoop; it always made people nervous. “It states that you give me permission to use the images I capture for education purposes and that I can’t make a personal profit off of it. I’d really appreciate it if you’d also grant me permission to use the film in my portfolio. So, I’m going to hop over to East Melnitz Hall and grab the gear-”

“I don’t think that me working is that interesting,” Declan said, his brows coming together in confusion.

“It’s not for entertainment – though that’s not to say it won’t be. Entertaining, you know,” August added rapidly. “It’s to show off my technical skill in my lighting class. I’ll be filming you in color and black and white, using different filters and lenses to create different lighting effects. I mean, if you’re concerned, I can provide you with a copy of it afterwards, so you can see what I did.” She pointed toward East Melnitz, just visible behind the trees to the north and asked, “So… should I go get the gear and the waiver? It'll be like thirty minutes, top, and I won't interfere with your work. Please?” It would take a hard man to say no to the hope and excitement bubbling in her expression and voice.

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"Well..." Okay, this was hard. Dec didn't usually get puppy-dog eyes this cute pleading up at him. He had anyone's natural wariness of being filmed or recorded, added to which was the wild thing's suspicious nature that doubled neatly as a danger-sense. But on the other hand: Sea-green eyes and a pert ass. Fuck. How bad can it really BE?

"I guess it's cool." he allowed, then smiled lopsidedly. "As long as I get to take ya out for a drink later." August, who'd contained her yip of joy, but not the little bounce, and was already stepping in the direction of the East Melnitz building stopped dead for a second, arms windmilling by her sides as she caught her balance, both literally and figuratively.

"Umm. Sure." she replied, peering at him and hooking a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "That'd be... that's to say, I'd be fine with that." Professional equilibrium somewhat restored and ignoring the faint flush she felt with his eyes on her, she turned and dashed off.

Declan sighed and hopped easily over the low hedge, plunking himself onto the bench and relaxing in the sunlight as he fished his shades from a pocket and slipped them on. "On film now." he muttered with a wry, self-deprecating grin. "Watch out, Russell Crowe."

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August double-timed it to the building. It was during hours, so the doors were open, which was good because she’d left her bag back at the bench. “Hopefully Dec isn’t a thief,” she muttered, still too caught up in her art to really fret about it. She pushed the door open and hurried to the camera room, hoping there was one there.

She was in luck; once she’d opened the door with the code, there was a camera in the closet. August grinned with relief as she signed it out and grabbed it. She also snatched up a tripod, a couple of discs and a handful of lenses. Next she hurried to the TSA’s office to get a waiver.

“Hey, Marley,” she said to the girl at one of the tables. Marley was nice and bottle-blonde; pretty like most girls in the right part of LA were pretty. She was another member in the master’s program, though not a TSA. It might have been called the TSA’s office, but it was for all graduate students in the program. The staff kept supplies there for the students, including paperwork they needed.

“Hey, Auggie. What’s up?” Marley’s interest was professional; all of the cinematography students were intensely interested in what each other were filming.

“Final assignment for my summer class,” August said, grinning as she opened the filing cabinet. “It’s a lighting class and one of the gardeners has agreed to let me film him.”

“One of the campus groundsmen?” Marley asked, grinning. The other girl’s smile because coy as she said, “One of the cute ones?”

“Yeah, he’s cute,” August said, drawing out a copy of the waiver. She was headed for the door when she realized that she’d need a pen, too. Turning, the dark-haired girl changed course for the supply cabinet. “Really intense silver eyes. Name is… Dec Perry?”

“Perault?!” Marley’s tone cut August’s rummage for a working pen short. “Declan Perault?!”

“Yeah, that’s his name.” August frowned at her. “He one of your exes or something?” Marley never had good breakups; they were always epic and dramatic. Fun to listen to; not fun to be involved in, even at a distance.

“No! That’s Crazy Perault.” Marley shook her head, her brown eyebrows pulled together. “He’s been in a mental ward and was arrested for attacking a student.”

August’s throat dried out. “What kind of attack?” she asked, even as she tried to tell herself that he wouldn’t be working on campus if that was true.

“Some frat kid,” Marley said, “but he’s dangerous.”

She really didn’t want to go back there now. Her eyes were troubled as she clenched the pen she’d located in her hand. She should just go down, tell him there were no cameras, get her bag and leave. But she hadn’t felt that spark of creation until she’d seen the way his eyes caught the light. What if this was her chance to find her muse again? What if she walked away and never got another chance to pull herself out of her depression? Besides, it’s not like she could throw stones about being in a mental ward. Would Marley call her Crazy Turner is she knew about August’s stint there earlier this summer? “I’ll be careful,” August said softly, swallowing her paranoid fear. “I need this assignment.”

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The girl smelled different when she returned.

Dec had taken his time with his break, but had eventually gotten bored and resumed trimming the borders with a care, a pride even that seemed odd to people that thought they knew him. Had they known he moonlighted (literally) as a vigilante werewolf who ate pushers and rapists, those people might have been even more puzzled with how conscientious Declan was about tending the gardens, lawns, sports fields and buildings that made up the UCLA campus. One thing his boss couldn't deny when talking to his boss about 'Crazy' Perault was that the man was one of the hardest working and best damn groundsmen the university had. He never took sick days. He never seemed to get tired. And he cared, passionately, that the greenery flourished under his ministrations. Farquad just assumed that was because he was some crazy sonovabitch with issues that made normal OCD look relaxed and easy-going. His boss, on the other hand, who'd interviewed Declan fresh out of the V.A and, a prior serviceman himself, had taken to the taciturn young man, believed that the permanence of this job and the growing of living things was a positive experience for a guy who'd never had a real home or family. They were both kind of right, in their individual ways, whilst at the same time falling short of the real mark. But that's usually the way when people try to overanalyse other people.

But now August smelled different. Less excited/aroused, more fearful as she came back to meet Declan, equipment bag over one shoulder and a clipboard in her hand. Dec gave her a small smile over his shades and saw green eyes flick down and her take a breath. Hmmph.

"Here's the waiver I told you about." August said with a brave smile - too brave. Brittle, almost. The girl put on a good act, though. If he hadn't been Vargr, with senses that didn't rely on show-and-tell, he might've missed it. He took the clipboard from her expressionlessly and looked it over. It wasn't a long, complicated document. Pretty much as she'd told it, actually, and set out in plain English. Good - Dec hated long, involved, wordy T's and C's. They pissed him off, like someone was trying to hide something in a cloud of words and ideas that actually meant little compared to the meat and bone of the issue. He signed it along the bottom and passed the clipboard back, trying to contain his annoyance. It was pretty fucking obvious what had happened.

"So which one did they tell ya?" he asked bluntly, startling August for a moment. Big green eyes looked at him for a startled moment, and he sighed and took his shades off, his handsome features forbiddingly somber. "Y'know what I'm talkin' about. You ran into someone, told 'em who you were filming, and they gave you the rundown on 'Crazy Perault'. So which story was it?"

"Um. The frat boy? You attacked him?" August said, calming herself a little. The man still simmered with an air of barely harnessed violence, but it was harnessed. He didn't radiate crazy, as such. Just... something else.

"Frat boy?" Dec looked puzzled for a second, then laughed, making August jump a little. It was a short, harsh bark of a laugh, sardonic and amused. "They talkin' about the dumb kid who I made piss himself in the gym?"

"I don't know about that." August managed a small smile. "They just said you attacked a frat boy."

"Shit." That one word was full of idle contempt for gossip-mongers and rumor mills. "If I'd really attacked some kid, I wouldn't be working right now, frail. All that happened was a pissing contest over some dumbass wanting to spar with me and me not bein' interested. He pushed, I pushed back, he wet his britches, end of story. Didn't lay a hand on his expensive head." Silver eyes fixed on her face. "That's the truth. Only thing needing stitches was the heavy bag."

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August stared up at the scary man. And he was scary, there was no doubt about that. August had seen violent men before but never one that contained it so well. Her father had only simmered with violence at certain times, but when he had burned with his own deadly energy, she’d been terrified of him. Declan had that same edge of malice, but it didn’t radiate off of him.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly. Silver eyes narrowed slightly. “For listening to gossip. For giving it credence. I just find it easier to approach with concern than trust.”

“Probably safer,” Declan allowed.

“Now, back to business,” August said, clapping her hands together. “Here’s what I’d like you to do. Just go back to work, do your thing and let me worry about the filming. Don’t look at the camera. I’ll go at it until I get what I need and then I’ll wrap it up. Oh, I would like to have an intro bit, so if you want to introduce yourself, you can. Otherwise, I’ll do it all. But that’ll be at the end. So… which direction will you be facing when you work?”

“Uh… whatever I need?” Dec looked unsure for a moment.

“Right,” August said with a smile. “I… Can you keep more or less turned toward the camera? If it really interferes with your work, don’t do it, but if you can, please try.” Her smile became reassuring. “Just relax, be yourself and you’ll have earned drinks in no time. Ready?”

At his nod, she quickly moved to the equipment and set up the tripod. It was the work of a few minutes to attach the camera, swap out the correct lens, adjust the settings and get it rolling. Peering through the eyepiece, she brought Dec into focus, watching for a moment. “Doing great, Dec,” she assured him quickly. After a moment, she paused the feed and changed lenses, smiling a little at the result.

Leaving the big camera going, she fetched her camcorder from her bag and circled around to another angle. Mindful of where the field of view was on the big camera, she used the mini tripod on her camcorder to get a low-angle view in black and white. The shadows from the sun fell long and black across the plants; sweat glimmered on Dec as he moved easily, doing his work. But it was the occasional flash of his eyes, catching the light like tumbling silver coins, that really made her smile. This was going to be exactly what she needed.

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Relax. Be yourself. Riiiiight.

For the first few minutes - hell, for the first fifteen - Dec had trouble ignoring the camera. He managed not to look directly at it, or at the circling August, which he felt was Oscar-standard material right there. But he realised exactly how self-conscious he felt with that glassy eye staring at him, and by the tension in the powerful shoulders, August could tell it too.

"Just relax." she said in a soft, neutral voice, coincidentally falling into the same voice she'd used to talk to others when filming the wolves. There was nothing sharp or jarring about her tone, nothing that caught the ear or alarmed the beast. And it worked. Dec concentrated more on his work, remembering only the position of the camera so he could try to be facing it where possible.

He fell into his normal tireless rhythm, moving about the garden from bed to bed and shrub to shrub, clipping and trimming back the verges of the lawn and the stray growth of the hedges. At one point he had to reach into a dense bush to pull out a dented beer can, grumbling something profane under his breath as he tossed it an unerring fifteen feet into the trashbag attached to his cart. Quite apart from the primally aesthetic appeal of the muscles of his torso flexing, or the way his jeans hugged his ass when he bent over, there was a sense of overwhelming realness about him, even through the lens of a camera. His expression was almost serene as he went about his business, contemplating each task in turn with no sense of frustration beyond the occasional, half-resigned four letter word when he found cigarette butts or soda cans in the flowerbeds. August moved closer to him with the camera, and the sight of her legs out of the corner of Dec's eye nearly made him turn and look - purely on reflex, you understand - when a glint of a different sort caught his other eye.

"Hold up." he said sternly, standing and taking off his working gloves. As August watched, he pulled on a pair of thin latex-rubber gloves and bent down, coming back up with a discarded hypodermic. "Fuckin' know-nothin' junkie sonsabitches." he growled under his breath, the sound reverberating a little in his chest as he handled the item carefully. His face taut with repressed anger, he crossed back to his cart and deposited it in a small red plastic bin. "That one's for the incinerator." he told August as he stripped off the gloves and shoved them into the bin too.

"You get many of those?" August asked, keeping her handheld camera on him.

"Not so many these days." Dec answered with something like pride in his voice, though his expression was still somber. "Still more than I'd like, though. Hate fuckin' druggies. Weed ain't much of a thing, but anything you need a needle for is fucked up." He gave August a toothy grin and turned back towards the flowerbed. "Back to work."

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The green eyes shone with amusement as she watched him go back to the beds. He was interesting, more than she thought he would be when she’d first asked to film him. She kept it running for a bit longer; one never knew when one was going to see the bit of footage that would make a piece perfect. She could tell already that this footage was definitely going to be what she needed; now she just needed to edit it together and finish any film processing. She could film an intro, cut it all together and have it turned in by the end of the week. It’d be a few more hours than she normally put in, but it would be worth it.

That was when she noticed the man hanging from the trees. He wasn’t hanging from his arms or feet, but from a rope around his neck. August froze; her hands started to shake. Her teeth clenched as she stopped the camera. “I think I have what I need,” she said hoarsely. Her voice was taut with tension and anger as she closed the camcorder. She was angry that her insanity was interposing itself on her life again. She was hurt that her mind was betraying her like this. But mostly, she was tired of it. She was so fucking exhausted after dealing with this for three months that she couldn’t imagine the rest of her life under this shadow. No wonder people with mental illness off themselves.

The second she realized what she’d thought, she was horrified. The fact that she could empathize with someone committing suicide scared the hell out of her. She wasn’t the kind of person who just gave up – but fighting this for the rest of her life just seemed too much.

“August?” She looked up to see Dec standing near her, watching her closely. From his expression, this wasn’t the first time he’d spoken to her.

“I’m sorry,” she said, pressing a hand to her head. “I was lost in thought.” Her eyes darted over to the hanging form – he was still there. August snapped her eyes back to Dec. “Thank you, again. I owe you that drink. You work until five? I have an appointment with my doctor tonight at six – would you like a short happy-hour drink before my appointment or a longer one later in the evening?” She managed to sound normal by the time she smiled and ordered, “Pick your poison.”

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Now what the hell was that about?

Dec wasn't really a touchy-feely sort of person before his Change. He'd been a soldier, and a typical, if good one, which meant building up a certain level of armor between him and the suffering and emotional roller-coasters of life. Before that, he'd bounced from foster home to state home to juvie hall to another state home, and so the nascent werewolf had experienced callousness enough to build callouses of his own before he was even out of puberty. If it hadnt been for the Army, young Declan Perault would have been on a fast track for a life of petty crime and thuggery, believing in nothing and no-one except his own strength and wits. The result, on his First Change, would have been a true rogue wolf, a much nastier monster than he currently was, hard as that might be to believe.

But the Army had forced an awareness of community on him, a sense of team spirit and paying attention to those around him who shared his environment. And of course, being a wolf under the skin changed things further, making him an animal attuned to his surroundings and the creatures inhabiting it. Like it or not (he usually did), he felt undercurrents of people's emotions, instinct putting together the clues of scent and sound without bothering to consult the brain. It was why he responded to the way things were said, rather than the words themselves. It was the reason he instinctively liked and disliked people before he had known them for longer than ten minutes. 'Animals can tell' is a common human saying, and many of them judge a person on whether their dog, cat, or horse takes to that individual.

August had gone from relaxed and contented to tense and angry, then to surprised chagrin when he'd called the girl back from whatever thoughts were occupying her. She'd been staring at a tree like it offended her or something.

"Must've been some thoughts you were lost in." he said with a curious tilt of his head. Then he smiled, the lopsided crook of his lips not baring any teeth, but the teasing glint in his silver eyes was charmingly wolfish. "Let's meet up afterwards. I don't want your doc to get the impression you need a stiff one before going to see 'em. Got a favorite place? Most students here like to go to the Amphora, which is fine by me." Not trying to cut the girl from the herd. Let her set the place, somewhere reassuring and familiar. "Unless it'll damage your rep around campus, being seen with me." He added with a faint grin as he leaned closer in a gesture of stage-conspiracy. "I'm crazy, y'know."

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August leaned in a bit closer, imitating his stage-conspiracy. “Sanity is way overrated,” she murmured, her smile wry. Something in her eyes wasn’t entirely joking. Straightening, she went to the big camera and shut it down, Dec following her. “Yeah, the Amphora sounds good, if we both know where it is. I hate trying to find a new place in LA – it’s too damned big.” Her grumbling was actually more good-natured than actually angry. “How about… eight? That’ll give me time to get from my doctors to the bar.”

Declan nodded agreeably, his silver eyes gleaming. “See ya at eight then.” As she hurriedly packed up the camera, he went back to his work. As she slung the camera’s case onto her shoulder and picked up the tripod, August risked another glance at the tree. The hanging form was looking at her with hollow eyes, his hand outstretched in a silent plea. Shuddering, August fled.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

“August, how are you?” Dr. Hillinger’s smile was warm and welcoming as always but the student’s stomach still flipped over. She was nervous about this meeting, just like she was nervous anytime she came to the psychiatrist’s office. August was here to get help, to get healing, but she was never comfortable with the process.

“I’m doing alright,” she said as she set her bag on the floor and took a seat in the ridiculously comfortable couch. It wasn’t the kind of couch you sat on; you sat in it. The deep cushioning pulled you in and cradled you like a lover.

Dr. Hillinger smirked when August stopped there. August knew she should volunteer the information rather than making the psychiatrist dig for it. Dr. Hillinger didn’t seem to mind drawing details out but she always looked bemused when August forced her to take the active role.

The older woman leaned to the side, reaching for the CD player. Her long fingers hit a button and the soft sounds of the ocean rolled out of the speakers. As she straightened, Dr. Hillinger brushed her blonde hair back from her face. August knew from older pictures of the woman on the internet that she had her hair dyed, probably to cover up the gray. After a couple of quick adjustments to her brightly colored scarf, the psychiatrist was ready to start. “What’s new with you?”

“I finished filming my final project,” August volunteered.

“Oh? That means you’re done?”

“No, I just found a subject – one of the UCLA groundspeople – and filmed him,” the green-eyed girl explained. “I still need to do some post-production work to the film, but the filming is done.”

“That’s good. I assume that you approached someone and asked them?” Dr. Hillinger looked pleased at this idea; she felt August should be more outgoing.

“Yes, kinda,” August said. That lead to her explaining the Frisbee-strike and run-in with Dec. She edited her artwork on the disc; Dr. Hillinger wouldn’t understand that little bit of fun. She could feel her smile stretching across her face. “And when I saw the way the shadows fell around him, and his eyes, I knew I wanted him. I felt that rush of creativity again, for the first time since the trip to the mountains.”

“That is so good to hear!” Dr. Hillinger said, her voice excited. “I’m pleased to hear that you’re feeling your muse again. How have you been eating?”

August winced a little. As Dr. Hillinger frowned in concern, the raven-haired student admitted, “I haven’t been doing as well as I’d like. I did follow your suggestion and started indulging my cravings, but I don’t get them like I used to. I’m just not hungry most of the time.” She didn’t add that a couple of times, she’d seen things inside a restaurant, right as she was trying to eat. She knew she should say something, but she was terrified that Dr. Hillinger would force her to take medication again. August hated the drugs. They made her lazy and slow, not to mention that it was hard to think when she was on them. “I don’t get hungry much, so it’s easy to forget to eat.”

“But you’re trying, that’s good,” the doctor assured her. “Perhaps you should start setting an alarm, to remind you to eat. If it’s just a case of forgetting, then that should help.”

“That’s a good idea,” August admitted, though she thought it would quickly annoy the hell out of her. “I’ll try it.”

“Good, let me know how that goes,” Dr. Hillinger said with a smile as she took a note. “How have you been sleeping?”

August was expecting this and she managed to not wince, this time. “About the same. I still have the nightmares… the ones about Father and Tyla.”

“They stay the same?” the psychiatrist probed.

August swallowed. “Yes,” she said tightly, grasping her hands together. She didn’t detail them; it wasn’t going to help her to go over them again.

“You still dream that there was a wolf there?”

“Yes, I do.” It was a physical effort to not reach up and grasp the wolf’s head pendant around her neck.

Dr. Hillinger nodded and made some notes; August saw the hint of a frown on her face. “Have you been to see your mother?”

August froze; her silence answered for her. “I, ah, meant to,” she waffled, wincing as her uncertain tone made her sound like a terrible daughter.

“I still think that a visit to her, regular visits, would help you,” Dr. Hillinger said. Her expression wasn’t unkind, but it was firm. “August, you’ve hung on to the delusions from that night for long enough. You really need to take some steps to exorcise the ghosts you’ve been carrying with you. Visiting your mother would be a good start. As would the hypnosis I suggested last time.”

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“Hypnosis? I dunno. It sounds so fishy,” August sighed, looking away. Her eyes fell on the worst pice of art in the room, a painting of a dog and a clown. The clown was leaning to one side under the big top, an umbrella in one hand and a painted bowling pin in the other. Balanced on his outstretched knee was the Jack Russell type dog, balancing on its own hind legs and wearing a pink tutu. The clown’s baggy outfitted was white with multicolored spots, and he had a big, red nose. It was bright and meant to be cute but August hated it. The clown and the dog seemed to watch you, and the more you looked at it, the less friendly they seemed to be. It was fucking creepy and August didn’t know how Dr. Hillinger could stare at it all day. She pulled her eyes way, hating the way the white of the clown’s suit seemed to burn itself on her retina and leave afterimages. “Isn’t that like a Hollywood gimmick or something?”

“Hypnosis is a valuable tool in psychology,” Dr. Hillinger said. “But like all tools, like everything we’ve ever done in this room together, it is only as effective as you allow it to be. Like I said on our first day, you are the one who will be healing you. I’m a facilitator to that healing, your guide to recovery. But you’re going to be doing the work. I’m suggesting another tool to help you.”

August was quiet, thinking. She wanted her life back, the one she’d had before she’d started seeing things again. When she was a child, it was just imagination. Now, she knew she was crazy. As a kid, therapy and her own willpower had proved enough to stop the visions. She’d let the process work for her once. Time to do that again. It was just harder this time because she was an adult, and the additional stress of hanging on to her life was just complicating things. If she had the resources to just drop off the face of the earth for a while, maybe go up to Alaska and be alone for a while, she’d be able to heal. But taking time off now would just delay her career unreasonably. August knew that she was trying to have her cake and eat it too. But this was her life, damnit. “Alright,” she said softly. “I’ll try it.”

“Now?”

August drew a deep breath and nodded. “Yes, we can try it now.”

“Then I need you to close your eyes and relax,” Dr. Hillinger said. “Let the sound of my voice guide you through this process.” August did as she was instructed, retiring to the darkness behind her eyelids. “Picture a door before you. This door goes to another time and place. I need you to know this. I need you to believe this. That door will go wherever we want it to go, and today, we want to go back to that day in the mountains.”

Dr. Hillinger’s voice carried on, and August let it lull her into a strange sense of comfort. It was oddly peaceful, though August knew it was just an illusion. She didn’t fight it, letting the doctor walk her through the door and down the stairs.

And into the snow. In her pink coat and red boots, with the flakes falling from the sky. That almost fractured her tranquility.

“August, calm your breathing. Tell me what you see.” Dr. Hillinger’s voice came from nowhere, like the voice of God.

“I’m… ten again. It’s snowing. I’m afraid.” August’s voice cracked with that fear.

“Distance yourself.” The psychiatrist’s voice remained calm. “August, distance yourself from Tilly. You’re not her. You’re just here to observe. To see the story. So tell me what you see.”

August drew her perception back until she seemed to be hovering over the scene. “I see Tilly. She looks afraid. She’s trying to run through the snow. It’s deep.”

“What is Tilly running from, August?”

“Get back here you little bitch! You can’t run! TILLY!”

“Her father. He’s yelling for her, following her.” August heard her voice tremble again. “He wants to hurt her. He wants to kill her like he did Tyla.”

“Keep your distance from Tilly. We’re just watching her from an emotional distance.” August nodded and felt herself pull back more, until the child was just an actress in a movie. “Tell me what you see happening to Tilly, August.”

“She’s running from her father, but she seems to be confused. The woods are dark and the snow is deep. It’s quiet, so quiet.” The snow muffled everything, turned even shouts into whispers – except the angry bellows of her father.

“There was someone there, who helped her. August, I want you to go to that point, where the man showed up to help her.”

“It wasn’t a man,” August said, seeing the scene again. “It was a woman.” The woman in the snow – how could she forget her? The thought was enough to shake her distance from the scene, to start to draw her out of the session.

“No, relax, August. Tell me what you see.”

“It’s an old woman. Not like she’s old, but that she’s dressed in old-fashioned clothing. Like stuff from the Old West times. She’s telling Tilly to run, to go that way. That there’s a safe place to hide there.”

“Alright, August, I want you to peel away the layers of the woman.” Dr. Hillinger’s voice was firm, her command not to be ignored.

“I don’t understand.”

“You don’t feel safe around men sometimes, because of the abuse of your father. I know that you fabricated that woman because it’s easier to accept a woman helping you in this situation. Look past the illusion you mind created and see the man who helped you. There is a man there. See him.”

“No,” August whispered. “She’s a woman. In old clothing. And she’s beckoning Tilly to follow her.”

“See the man, August, he’s there. See him.”

“He came later,” August said and her perception shifted to a new place. “He came at the end. When people found Tilly, he was leading them.” She saw him again, studying him. It was odd to see him so clearly now; at the time, she’d been so grief-stricken that she hadn’t paid any attention to him. Now, she saw the gruff features, the thick, dark hair and beard and the intense dark eyes clearly.

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“August. Focus. The man who helped you hide.” Dr. Hillinger’s voice demanded obedience. “See him. Describe him.”

“The man who helped me… he’s dark-haired, with a full beard and long hair,” August said. It wasn’t exactly what Dr. Hillinger had asked, but she didn’t want to be argued with anymore. “Dark eyes, like fresh-turned earth.”

“Good. This is real progress.” August was starting to feel tired, but Dr. Hillinger pushed on. “Now, when your father died. I don’t want you to watch him land, but I do want you to see him start to fall. Then look away, alright?”

“I’m there,” August said softly. The trees spread around the girl below her, who was running through the snow. Tilly looked back fearfully and August caught a glimpse of green eyes – her own green eyes. For a second, August was Tilly again, heart pounding in her chest, trying to find a place to hide and yet knowing he’d find her anyway. He always found her.

“Tilly’s there; you’re not. Distance yourself,” Dr. Hillinger commanded, jarring August into creating distance again. The doctor’s voice was strangely hard. “Watch Tilly, right as her father fell into the ravine.”

“There’s no ravine,” August replied, her voice starting to show her tension. “It’s a wolf.” She watched Tilly sprawl into the snow, terror on her face as she turned to see her father. He was a twisted monster, and August felt her heart literally stop in terror. In that moment, August’s detachment from Tilly snapped completely and August was in the snow. Her father loomed over her, his bloated, purple face stretched into a rictus of pain. His tattered clothing hung or stretched over his twisted form and August screamed as hot drool splattered on her from his gaping mouth.

“August?” Dr. Hillinger’s voice was a distant concern now.

“Daddy, please I’m sorry for whatever I did!” August whined, her face twisting with grief. “No! Daddy!”

The wolf slammed into the monster, its great gray body bearing the monster down. August scooted backwards as a welter of blood flew high-

“-Now!” With a jerk, August’s eyes flew open. Her heart was racing; sweat poured down her body. She stared at Dr. Hillinger, unsure who she was for a moment. Then she remembered their session, the hypnosis and the trip into the past.

“I am never doing that again,” August said tersely, rising to her feet. She rubbed at her eyes as she snatched up her bag and fled the office.

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Three hours later she was curled up on her bed in her room. A cup of hot cocoa was in her hands, but August didn’t feel like drinking it. Mostly, she wanted the warmth in her hands, the soothing smell of the heated sugar, milk and chocolate. But she couldn’t eat or drink, not even this sweetness. The black-haired girl wanted to wrap herself around her mug; she felt ice-cold, all the way down to her soul. The memories dredged up by her hypnosis were clinging to her.

August was reliving it again, despite her best effort to hold it at bay. Dr. Hillinger wasn’t there to mute the emotional impact of the night. August shivered as she remembered her father, the way he’d looked on that day. The giant wolf that stirred both terrible fear and complete relief in her. The way he’d torn her father apart, destroyed her father to get the monster inside him and then killed it, too. She’d thought he’d kill her, too, but he walked a few steps and stopped, looking back. His golden eyes glinted as he stared at her, waiting for her to understand. For her to follow. Her father’s blood discolored his fur, but she wasn’t afraid of the Wolf anymore. He wasn’t going to hurt her. She’d risen on unsteady feet and walked after the Wolf. The great beast had led her to Mommy, and then to still Tyla, to her sister in the snow. August had forgotten to thank him and he’d faded into the woods as she collapsed next to her sister, weeping and begging for forgiveness – for being the one who was alive. “Don’t go without me!” she had cried, but the man with the grave-soil eyes had found her before she could follow Tyla. He and the other men with him had dragged her back to the living and left her sister forlorn and alone in the darkness.

The shakes got so bad that she sloshed hot chocolate on her comforter. “Fuck!” August snapped, hissing in pain as she put the cup on her nightstand. Grumbling, she balled up the blanket and dragged it downstairs to the washer. She treated the stain, stuffed the blanket into the machine and then went to the linen closet in the guest room. There were a few spare blankets in there; not her faux-goose-down bit of heaven but something to cover her cold body.

Back in her room, August made her bed and got back in it. She wasn’t sure that hot chocolate and a soft blanket was really helping her. This was all a cover for her problem. Huddling here in bed wasn’t making things easier. None of this helped or answered her primary question: what was she going to do now?

She didn’t want to go back to therapy, but she knew it was the only thing that was going to help her. August pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around the blanket-covered limbs. She put her chin on her knees and tried to think. But she was so shaken she couldn’t even form a coherent thought. She needed help; she didn’t want the help she had.

All she really knew was that she was collapsing, falling apart piece by piece. She couldn’t keep doing this; she was going to break.

Her phone’s alarm buzzed loudly. August jumped and grabbed it, muting the ring. Dec… the Amphoria. “Fuck!” She’d forgotten. This was the last thing she wanted to do tonight. But she didn’t have Dec’s number and August didn’t want to stand him up. It wasn’t his fault she’d had a shitty session.

“One drink, make some small talk and go home,” she promised herself, rising from bed. August grabbed her keys and put on her running shoes. Her cell phone and a debit card were next, just in case she needed them. Her father’s pocket knife was a difficult call, but she finally shoved it into the front pocket on her jean shorts. It was night out there; she didn’t want to be helpless out in the dark. She slipped her red hoodie over her torso; she wanted to feel warm, even sweaty. Thusly armed, she headed out into the night.

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Dec had finished at five, enduring with decent grace (for him) the ribbing he'd got from a couple of other groundsmen who'd seen him being filmed by the cute student.

"You guys are fuckin' hilarious." he'd said, flipping them off as he got dressed in the locker room.

"C'mon, Dec. She's cute and likes filming groundsmen. Bet she's some rich girl slumming for some rough." Ted grinned at him. Dec shook his head and threw his wet towel smack into the other man's face.

"Ain't the vibe I got from her."

"Whatever you say, man. You're the big movie star now." Chuckles and laughter accompanied that shot, dying abruptly as silver eyes strafed the room. There was a moment of uncomfortable silence, then Dec slowly grinned.

"Yeah, and when I stand up there with my Oscar it won't be you fucks I'll be bawling my thanks to." He flipped them another bird as he sauntered out. Farquad's door was open, he noticed, and the fat shits office smelled of air freshener and furniture polish. He smiled as he walked past, feeling those little piggy eyes on him and not giving a flying fuck. He grabbed his kit bag and headed to the gym.

An hour's bag-work and some weights later and he ran home, running full-tilt rather than jogging. He was in damn good shape, could probably compete athletically and kick the shit out of any human competitor, but caution was the best way to avoid notice, and avoiding notice was a good thing for someone the government would love to take apart on a slab.

Once home, he ate. Steak and potatoes, washed down with milk. Another shower, and he pulled on a clean t-shirt and pair of jeans along with a pair of boots that weren't too scuffed, but comfortably worn-in. Then he pocketed his wallet and headed to the Amphora. He didn't mind walking, in fact he preferred it. He did have a crappy old pickup, but to be honest would rather walk or take a taxi to most places. The pickup was noisy, and though it wouldn't really be noticed in the roar of L.A. traffic, Dec felt somehow that it was different when it was him making that noise. Besides, it was like a steel box on wheels. Maybe he should trade it for a motorcycle...

He got to the Amphora and waited outside, leaning up against the side of the building with his hands in his pockets. He wasn't really afraid of attack - his instincts and senses were sharp enough that anyone trying to get the drop on him would have to be very lucky, or good. And besides, under the 220lbs of man he was 500lbs of massive wolf. Anyone trying to mug Declan would be surprised for the rest of their life. All ten seconds of it. He contented himself patiently with watching the nightlife go by as he waited.

He saw the flash of red and fought the urge to chuckle as he saw August walking along towards him, wearing a goddamn red hoodie (wasn't that fuckin' hilarious). He waved to her, she waved back as he pushed away from the wall to meet her.

"You didn't have to wait outside." August said. Dec shrugged that away, then peered at her. She seemed... bothered. Upset. More than that, he couldn't tell, other than she was hot as hell under that hoodie, and not in the 'rawr' way.

"Always wait for your wingman. Woman. Person." he grinned, managing to get a small smile from her as they entered the bar/club. The music wasn't obnoxiously loud tonight, and the two of them ordered drinks, Declan insisting on paying the first round, and found a quiet table.

"You okay?" Dec asked bluntly. Small talk wasn't really his preferred method of communication, and it was obvious that August was upset. Not that he was looking to be a shoulder for her to cry on... but he liked her in a basic, easygoing way. She didn't rub him the wrong way like some did, and it was hard to think with Little Dec when the woman was out of sorts.

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August knew she shouldn’t have done this; she should have just stood him up and explained later. Her mind was still locked on the recently dredged up memories. It was like a movie in her mind. She was so not up for this small-talk and drinks crap.

Only Dec didn’t seem to be up for that either. His one direct question made that clear. August swallowed, and the struggle about whether to tell the truth or dissemble was clear in her face for a moment. “No, not really,” she said softly. There was another brief struggle, also clear in her expressive eyes before she made up her mind. “Short story: I had a little breakdown at the start of summer and I’ve been in therapy for it since. Tonight’s session was… bad.”

Dec’s silver gaze didn’t waver but it seemed to soften a little. Of anyone August knew, he would be the most likely to understand what she was talking about – or so she thought. Dec’s stint in the mental ward had been a ruse, but as far as August knew, he had been through the same fight she had endured. “I’ll be fine tomorrow,” she told the man honestly, even managing a little smile, “and I’ll be okay eventually, too. I had similar spells when I was a kid and I got past them.”

“Today, with the tree – that was a spell?” Dec asked and August winced.

“Yeah, I’d hoped I’d been a bit more subtle than that.” With a sigh, August stripped off her hoodie and draped it over the back of her chair. It was hot in the club, but the comparatively cool air rolled over her shoulders. At least she didn’t feel cold anymore. “Sorry you had to see that. I try not to let the crazy spill over into my life, but…” She shrugged sadly as she stirred her drink. She took a drink, blinking as the alcohol hit her stomach. When did I eat last?

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"But sometimes it seems the crazy is your life. When's the last time you ate?" Dec asked quietly, changing the subject suddenly and unwittingly echoing August's train of thought. He flashed a small grin at the startled look August shot him, and stood up. "Thought so." He made a beeline for the bar and waved down the bartender.

"Nuts." he told the man.

"Say what?"

"Nuts. Bowl of them. What food you got?"

"This late? Burgers, fries and salads." the barman said as he slid a large bowl of salted cashews in front of the frankly scary motherfucker. "Oh, and we do those chicken wrap things. Sorry, most of our menu is off after 5pm."

"One of the salad, two of everythin' else." Dec told him brusquely and waved over at the table as he slapped a few notes down. "Right there."

"Sure." the guy nodded, then sighed with relief as Declan strode back over and slid the bowl of nuts onto the table in front of August. She blinked at him.

"Food's comin', but those oughta keep the wolf from the door." he said with shrug. August opened her mouth to protest, but shut it again as he raised one eyebrow. "Smart girl." he told her with a grin. "Anyone who gets hit that hard by one mouthful of their drink needs to eat."

"Yes sir." August fired back a little snippily. Declan grinned at her, the toothy expression more jovial than menacing right now, but it was easy to imagine that being reversed.

"Sir is an officer or a civilian, soldier. Sergeants work for a livin'. Now eat your nuts."

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August’s consumption of said nuts was done slowly and without much desire for food. She just hadn’t gotten hungry today. The nuts, after an unintentional fast, should have tasted great, but they didn’t stir her to eat eagerly. It was more mechanical than that.

The table fell into silence; August wasn’t sure what to say and Dec didn’t seem to be a library of small talk. The only sounds were August’s quiet chewing under the music. The bartender brought out the salad, setting it on the table with a thump. Declan pushed the bowl toward her. “Not a salad person?” August asked, even as she took a forkful of greenry.

“No.” There was another long beat of silence; August was starting to get uncomfortable. He’d wanted her to come out; now he didn’t seem to know what he wanted to talk about. “So whadda do when not filming groundsman and starving yourself?”

The question made August feel instantly defense. “I just… the stress kills my appetite,” she said and her voice sounded sulky even to herself. “It’s not like I want to not eat.” At the look she got from him she sighed and said, “Sorry, my therapist rides me about that. I mostly study or party with my roommates. I don’t give myself time for much else. The occasional date, so I don’t feel like a complete recluse.”

She was trying to come up with a question for him, a bit of tit for tat, when he asked another. “So why’d you pick me to film?”

There was a note of curiosity in his gruff voice; August got the sudden feeling that people didn’t surprise him much anymore. “It was the way the light was hitting you,” she said, feeling better now that they were talking about something technical. “Your eyes caught the light, even in shadow. There’s this presence about you that came through on the camera. A lot of people are hollow and dead, so fake and just going through the motions. You aren’t.”

He reached toward her bowl and tapped the table, quietly reminding her to take another bite. August sighed, feeling defensive again. “I know you’re trying to help,” she said softly, “but the last time I let a guy take care of me he disappeared for a week and then dumped me. Please don’t try to treat me like I need someone to watch over me.” It was clear she did, but she was holding onto her pride like a drowning man to a raft. “I know I’m a bit fucked up right now, but I don’t need someone looking to be a father figure to mess me up worse.”

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"Hah!" Another one of those rare, barking laughs that fell somewhere between sardonic and good-humored. He grinned at her again. "Darlin', one thing I'm not is anyone's father-figure." He picked up his beer and stared at her over the top of it. "I'm not usually good at bein' nice either, mind you. But I'm givin' it a go because you have the feel of someone that's basically decent." He sipped his beer and smiled. "There's not many can say that in this town."

"Yeah, but how do you know I'm decent?" August said with a sly smile, taking another bite of salad absently as she leaned forwards. "I could be a real bitch."

"Could be. Ain't." Dec said bluntly, then leaned forward, mirroring her posture as he smiled. "I know things about people."

"What kind of things?" August smiled, unable to help it: Dec was being kind of charming, in a rough-hewn dangerous way.

"Just things." Dec said with an airy shrug as he leaned back again and took a nonchalant drink. August fought the urge to bounce a cherry-tomato off his head, instead laughing a little.

"Riiight." She smiled, then started to frown as two burgers, two baskets of fries, and two tortilla wraps were placed on the table. "Is this all yours?" she asked him narrowly.

"Some of it." he answered, unfazed by her warning look. "Listen, it was nice to meet you today, okay? It brightened up my day to meet a nice person, who yes, also happens to be a really cute girl, who gushed about what a great film subject I'd make and didn't run a mile when she heard about the crazy." He picked up one burger and bit into it with strong white teeth, chewing and swallowing almost too fast to register. He motioned with the burger as he continued. "So you say you don't need someone to watch over you, and that's cool. I won't be tuckin' you into bed with your Pooky or whatever. What this is, is a thankyou for bein' a bright spot in my day. Not a fuckin' proposal. And if we part here as friendly types, bumpin' into each other later down the road then yeah, I will be bullying you to make sure you eat, because I don't have so many friends I want to see one in hospital. And you probably DO have other friends, who if they realised you weren't eatin' right would likely do the same shit." he summed up brusquely, then winked.

"So let's have booze and burgers, and talk. And if you do decide you want me to tuck you in with your Pooky, I'll think about it."

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August swallowed hard as he finished his tirade. She hadn’t really expected him to drop the f-word so fast. But she found she liked him too – he was hard and brash, but seemed to care, deep inside. Apparently, he really had been touched by her asking to film him. “Alright, that’s cool,” she said, shrugging slightly. A glimmer of a smile crossed her expression as she added, “And yeah, my roommates would probably tie me to a chair and make me eat if they knew I was forgetting to do it.”

“Tell me ‘bout ‘em,” Dec said, latching onto a topic she seemed at ease with.

“There’s three of them,” August said softly. “I don’t know Aradia really well. She’s a cousin to the other two, who are sisters. She’s from a circus but seems really nice if a bit eccentric. The circus disbanded or something and she’s coming to college now rather than stay with her mom. Saja is the youngest sister, and she’s pre-med. She wants to be a pediatrician. Oneca’s the reason I’m there; she’s really nice and awesome. She doesn’t always push for the rent, and has told me to forget it a few times. She throws great parties – in fact, we’re having an end of summer bash. You should come.” She gave him a smile that was a little shy. “All my friends are invited.”

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"A party? Me?" Dec looked surprised. Of course, he'd heard about the party and had been thinking of attending... but to actually get a personal invitation? He blinked, astonished. The expression was so incongruous compared to his usual daunting certainty that August couldn't help it - she giggled.

"Yes, you." she said as she recovered. "Or don't you 'do' parties?" she asked with a teasing smile. Dec looked at her for a moment, then broke out in his lopsided smile and chuckled.

"I'd heard about a big end of summer party - is that the one?" he asked. As August nodded, he nodded too and sipped his drink. "Yeah, I was planning to turn up and mooch some beer, eat some food and maybe take advantage of someone." he said with a wicked flash of his teeth. "Course, now I've been invited, I'm just gonna have to behave myself." he said with a mock-sigh, then winked. "Seriously, thanks for the invite. Your friends sound pretty cool. I'll be on my best when ya introduce me." he deadpanned.

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August snorted; the sound was a little indelicate to come from a pretty girl, but she didn’t seem to notice or care. “If you behave yourself, Oneca and Aradia will be completely disappointed. They have no plans to behave and would consider that they failed as hosts if any of their guests behaved, too.” As she ate a fry with detached interest, she wondered if any of the students or anyone had bothered to get to know Dec. He was super-sweet, if you gave him the chance to be.

Green eyes considered the man for a moment before she asked, “Alright, I’ll ask. Why do you have the rep you do around campus? You haven’t been anything other than pleasant to me – aside from that little attempt at flirting when we first met.”

“Attempt?” Dec asked dryly. “I think it was quite successful.”

“Isn’t it only successful if the girl is seduced?” August was grinning; she was also eating, she noted, if only because it gave her something to do with her fingers while she talked.

“You’re here, ain’t ya?” he replied, his silver eyes amused.

August laughed. “Alright fine. But I still want an answer.”

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He was quiet for a long moment, his smile fading somewhat as he scrutinised August from under lowered brows. His silvery eyes were hard to read, and daunting too. August wondered at the colour briefly - some people would say Declan had pale-grey eyes, and the silvery sheen was a trick of the light. But as she forced herself to meet that gaze in the comfortable half-light of the Amphora, the film student felt with increasing certainty that the shimmer wasn't entirely reflected light. Some of that glow came from inside, some embers banked in the soul of the man sitting across from her. He wasn't altogether happy with the question, that much was obvious as the pause dragged on for an ominous few heartbeats more.

"Because I served my country and came back different." Dec said with a nonchalant shrug, trying to relax and taking a bite of his burger. "Becauf..." He swallowed. "Because I don't see the point in taking crap from anyone at all. Because people who like to dish out crap pull back a stump when they try that shit on me."

"Yeah, but there's plenty of 'take no crap' people around." August said. "That's no reason to say a guy's crazy." Dec was quiet for another moment, then sighed and shook his head.

"There's so many fuckin' stories, I don't know where to start. The big one, the one that really spooked people, was early last year. I was fresh outta the VA and they'd started me here. Guy in charge of Estates and Services is an ex-Marine, and seeing as the V.A is close by, he likes to help out vets. Word got around, probably from the fat piece of marinaded shit I call a supervisor, that I'd gone loco in Afghanistan, and people started making shit up about the whys and wherefores. They'd snicker and laugh when they thought I couldn't hear them, and near as damn bad was the ones who pitied me, like I was a poor dumb shit who didn't know any better." Dec's voice stayed remarkably calm during the tale, though his eyes gleamed. "And then there was the pusher incident. No fucker was laughing after that, at least." he finished with some savage satisfaction.

"What happened?" August asked softly, watching him carefully.

"Dumbfuck coke dealer was hustling late one night last April on the campus to some frat boys. I happened across them while I was out runnin' and knew right off what they were up to: eyeballed all of them real good. The frats freak out, scared I'd go straight to the authorities, which was right. Pusher-boy decides that he'll persuade me to keep quiet and gets in my face, then he flashes a fuckin' gun." Dec snorted. "He did that goddamn queer shirt-lift they do on the movies - 'Lookit what I got here, I'm a big boy!' - only I wasn't impressed."

"Go on." August said, green eyes wide. "What did you do?"

"I snatched his gun out of his pants, tossed it in the bushes, and kicked nine kinds of crap out of him." Declan admitted with a feral lift of his lip that was almost a smile... almost. "The frat boys were watching... well, two of them were. The others ran. Once I'd properly subdued the shithead, he wasn't in a fit state for solid meals or pissing without help. I dragged him by his hair to the security office and let them handle it from there." He took another bite of his burger, chewing twice before swallowing. "After that, all sorts of other rumors got around. The cops arrested me briefly, but didn't charge me. My supervisor wanted to fire me, but the big boss wouldn't have it." He studied August with a tilt of his head.

"There's other stories, but that's the one that I guess started things."

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“Wow,” August breathed. She seemed amazed by his story, her eyes wide. “I’ve never heard of anyone actually stopping one of the dealers.” She actually seemed more accepting of the presence of dealers on campus than the thought that someone stood up to them. “That makes you like… Batman or something.” August grinned at his look, adding, “Handsome, single, surrounded by mystery and you fight crime. Why shouldn’t I start to wonder what your super-hero identity is?”

Okay, so she was a tad bit intoxicated. Her drinking had started on a very empty stomach and while the food had helped, it wasn’t enough to stop her from being rather silly. “So I’m guessing it’s something to do with gardening, right? There has been a drop in dealers and crime on campus, but no rumors of a masked crusader, so I think you’re also invisible or hard to see. The Great Gardener, clipping crime at the roots. The Yard Snake – unseen until his fangs of justice bite you! The-”

Dec had gathered up a handful of her fries and shoved them in her open mouth to stop her. “You need more food,” he told her, even as he was laughing at her names. She was uncomfortably close to the truth and he diverted her from it. “So how long left on your degree?”

August gave him a wry look but allowed herself to be diverted. She chewed and swallowed before telling him, “This is my last year of my masters. I could go for a doctorate, but I’d rather finish up and get out there and get filming. This is what I want to do with my life, so I’m ready to be done with school. Ready to get out there and get my name attached to the next Harry Potter or One Day. Something that will touch hearts and minds of people… and make me sound like an utter nerd when people get my mouth going.” The last was finished with a blush. “Sorry, I don’t mean to go on like that. I just… can’t stop once I’ve started.”

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"It's kinda cool, knowing someone who's creative like that. I've not really talked to anyone who's all nerdy about their field before." he replied laconically, smiling a little as he took in her blush. "You know what you wanna do, and you're passionate about it. That's good, right there. That's a goal. No need to apologise for that. Besides, if you can get a Masters out of a movie of me prunin' hedges, then you'd kick the shit outta something with a real script." He grinned at her then, knocking back what was left of his beer before ordering another. "Just don't make a movie about The Yard Snake, cos I will hunt you down and put sugar in yer gas tank." he (mostly) mock-threatened, wagging a finger her way.

"Great Gardener would be better." August deadpanned. "The Yard Snake is too phallocentric." She managed not to say something about how it'd be nice to get some 'sugar in her tank' - she wasn't drunk enough to say that, just to think it. "What about you?" she asked as she forced her mind out of the gutter and onto the sidewalk of conversation. "Do you have anything you've always wanted to do?"

"Not really." Declan said with a mildly embarassed shrug. "When I was a kid, all I thought about was running around in the woods and hunting. When I was a little older, all I wanted to do was get out of school and the foster system. I joined the Army as soon as they'd take me, and then all I wanted to be was a First Sergeant. Got that, then life got fucked up." He sighed slightly and gave her a wry smile. "After that, I've just been trying to adjust to how I've changed. How my world has changed. Mebbe I'll take my GI bill and study something. Go be a park ranger or some shit like that. I dunno." he finished with another shrug. "I just don't know what I want, long term. I've not thought about it."

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"Never too late," August advised, which was always easy for someone who'd known their life path since they were six to say. "I'd could totally see you doing that. My dad was a scout for studios; he'd go find locations to shoot in and do the preliminary ground work - get permits, work out deals with landowners - whatever it took to get that place available for the studios." She took a drink, aware that her stomach was starting to tell her she had enough. She couldn't put food away like she used to - as in, four months ago - but that wasn't a bad thing. "You remind me of him, kinda," she added.

"Yeah?" Dec asked.

"You guys move the same way, like the outdoors. I could see you doing the same job as he did," she said. "It did involve some urban stuff, but he did a lot of work outdoors, finding the right area for a battlescene or period romance." There was a fond smile on her face as she spoke, though it wasn't for her father. It was for the magic of Hollywood; the art of taking the everyday and making it something special. That's what she'd always wanted for herself; to shed the veneer of ordinary by making something special that millions would enjoy. That was her true goal in life.

"Just listen to your heart," August said. "You'll find out what you want to do. Maybe you could be a model. You definitely have the presence for it."

Declan shot her a startled look. "A model? Seriously?"

"Yeah, you have that pensive, broody look going on, you're hot enough," August said. "Hell, in the modeling business, a dark past is just a good way to get your name out there. Mental issues? Phff, get in line. Seriously. I think you could do it. I mean, Lucien Hunt models underwear. Depending on how you look under your clothing, you could do the same. I know him, he might help you out, maybe. I know just by looking at you that you could sell jeans to men desperate to look hot enough to get laid."

Whoa! Total beer-tongue! Shut up! It wasn't that it wasn't true - it was that... August didn't really know why. That wasn't exactly true. Dec was alluring and everything but Lucien was so hot.

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Declan blinked, staring at her with a patient air, like he was waiting for the punchline. Then he seemed to get that there wasn't a punchline - August was serious - and his expression changed. He frowned, a wary look entering his odd-coloured eyes that August, in her inebriated state, took a few moments to decipher. It was obvious that he didn't much care for the idea, but was trying to find a way to express it without... what? Giving offence? What was that pensive look about?

"I dunno." he said slowly, glancing at his fresh beer and taking a sip. "I don't think it's me, bein' in the limelight. And besides, even guys have to wear makeup and get airbrushed and oiled and shit. I'd go fuckin' nuts with people fussing over me."

"It was just an idea." August said reassuringly. "Nobody's dragging you in front of a camera." She allowed herself to dwell on it for a moment longer, though, and agreed somewhat with Declan. It wouldn't look right, him loafing around in CK briefs and a contrived broody expression on his face. It didn't feel right, either. It was like... Like putting a housecat's bell collar on a tiger. Or something like that. Though he looked good stripped to the waist as he went about his work, he wouldn't look as good on a billboard as Lucien did.

"I hope not." Dec smiled wryly. "So you know the Underwear King?"

"Yes." August said, feeling a little hot in the face at the thought of him. "He's actually really cool and normal-seeming. For someone as rich and... stuff. He's a regular round at Oneca's place - they're like best friends or something." She took in Dec's skeptical expression and leaped on the offense. "Hey, it's true. He's cool people. You don't like it when people prejudge you as crazy, so don't do the same to Lucien. He's nothing like as bad as people say!"

"Whoa!" Dec leaned back a little, chuckling. "Okay, okay! I believe you!" August subsided, trying not to feel foolish. What did she care what Dec thought of Lucien? Lucien wouldn't care. But it did seem important, somehow. She sipped the last of her beer and looked at the remaining food on the table, which wasn't much. She knew she hadn't eaten the majority of it, though she was certainly well fed for a change. But Declan had just packed it away. Looks like it all goes to his shoulders. And pecs. And... down girl.

"C'mon." Dec said, throwing a twenty on the table as he rose. "I'll get you to a cab or somethin'."

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August sighed as she rose, grabbing the table with one hand to steady herself and her hoodie with the other. “Can’t afford a cab, Dec,” she told him. “Student aid’s not come in yet.”

“I’m paying for it,” he told her, taking her arm in a grip that was firm but not bruising. “Yer goin’ home and gettin’ some rest.”

“I will, but Dec, I don’t want your money,” August told him. He sighed and looked down at her, seeing the tattered pride in her eyes as it reared its ugly head.

“I’m not buying you a ride,” he told her. “I’m buying me peace of mind. And saving me from having to walk you home.”

August stared up at him then threw her arms around his torso. “Okay,” she mumbled into his broad chest. “I’ll take the cab.” She straightened up just enough to poke him with a finger. “I’m paying you back.”

“Alright,” Dec said, though he probably would have agreed to anything to get her into the car. It only took a moment to find a cabbie interested in taking a fare from the bar, though he looked like he wanted to reconsider when he got close to Dec. The relief on his face when Dec shut the door for August was almost funny. He handed over money and said, “Take her home.”

As the cabbie nodded fervently, August rolled down her window. “Thanks, Dec,” she said, smiling up at him. Her expression was soft with both affection and alcohol. “You’re a good person. Don’t let anyone say otherwise, ‘k?”

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"Okay." he replied, his eyes bright as they caught the scraps of light around him and flashed silver back out at the world. His lips curved in a wry grin, he patted the top of the cab. "I'll try to remember that." August smiled radiantly at him and the Vargr shook his head. "Get some sleep, frail. I'll see ya around."

"Definitely!" August said. "And don't forget the party! It'll be awes-" The cab drove off, and Dec watched as the girl in the back gave him a wave, nodding in reply before turning and walking back towards the campus. He took a deep breath, filling his senses with the night air and driving out the scent of the girl in the red hoodie and how she'd felt hugging him. He looked up at the hazy night sky and laughed suddenly, a rough bark of humor.

"A good person." he quoted, pleased and amused at the same time. Guess I'm gettin' better at faking it. he mused bitterly. Mind, the girl was undernourished and drunk. August... girl you have NO idea what sort of person I am. But thanks anyway, frail.

He started to jog, eating up the distance as he took in the familiar landmarks of his territory, feeling the fur tickling the inside of his skin. Time to get home, Change and go for a midnight run about his territory. He doubted he'd find trouble on a Monday night, but the Great Gardener had to be vigilant, after all. Owns-The-Night grinned as he ran home, surefooted and fleet, the exertion barely winding him as he delighted in being alive.

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