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World of Darkness: Attrition - Neighbors [Fin]

Sarah Dead-Wolf

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[Late evening, 25 Jan 2012]

I have got to be out of my mind.

As she looked westward from the edge of her territory, a light and cool wind wafting inland from the coast, Sarah considered once more what she planned to do, how dangerous it was... and yet, how necessary. The land to the west of here belonged to someone else. And try as she may, nobody else came to mind for the advice she badly needed.

Had this been territory back home, Sarah would have shifted to her wolf-form and let out a howl of greeting. But this was the middle of suburban Los Angeles, not a half-dozen blocks from UCLA. People noticed a wolf howling in their backyards.

Nor should she leave a note on a tree or rock and hope it might be noticed. People took care of their yards here, and stray paper tacked up wouldn't last long.

With one last look around, Sarah stepped out of her territory and into that of the werewolf she knew only as Owns-The-Night. Her neighbor.


Half an hour of sniffing and scouting and furtive glances later, the Dead-Wolf stood before the door of an unassuming and tidy little house on a corner directly across the street from campus. The signs were unmistakable; the scent was strongest here, and there were tell-tale marks on the trees that were as loud a message of "Stay Away!" as anything man had ever made.

Unfortunately, staying away would leave her no better off than she'd been these past several months. With no small amount of trepidation, she reached up with a cold, dead hand and knocked on the door of the wolf's den.

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The wolf opened the door.

Of course, to most he looked like a powerfully-built man with a menacing air about him. But Sarah had seen him Change, had seen those silver eyes in the face of a giant wolf that dwarfed the Urshal of her cousins. And even if she hadn't, the Dead Wolf wouldn't have been able to look at him and see anything other than the wolf under the skin. She wondered how humans missed it, even with their amazing ability to refuse to see things that they didn't want to.

The wolf's eyes were on her face right now, a faint gold tinting the silver as his jaw clenched tightly, muscles bunching under the five o'clock shadow. Owns-The-Night was pissed, head low and thrust slightly forward as he spoke in a voice that was nine-tenths growl.

"Frail, you'd better have a fuckin' good reason to be on my street, in my yard, and knockin' on my door." Owns-The-Night rasped between clenched teeth, baring them slightly at the end of his 'greeting'.

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Something other than non-recognition would have been true of a plain old human standing in Sarah's shoes. He or she would have most likely pissed their pants. Not for the first time, the Dead-Wolf was glad for the loss of such basic bodily functions.

But she'd not come unprepared. In a quiet and careful voice, she said, "I didn't give a howl at the bounds, 'cause that attracts way too much attention in the suburbs, so this was the best I could do. An' I do have a good reason for bein' here," she quickly added, a hint of her Connecticut heritage slipping into her voice. "I got a problem - a wolf-type problem, of the living and breathing sort - an' your the best chance I've got for advice on how to deal with it." She paused, looking straight into those alien silver eyes of his, and sighed. "I need your help."

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Her words, frankly and softly spoken, calmed the angry Vargr. Somewhat. The golden tinge faded from his eyes, and he untensed a little, enough for his head to come up from attack posture and the hackles, invisible as they were, to flatten. Given the circumstances, the Dead Wolf scored that as a big fat win.

Declan considered for a moment, eyeing the not-woman with more curiousity than aggression. He didn't move to let her enter his house - and wouldn't, either. That was his den, where only the trusted and closest of his friends could come in. The place smelled of him... and of August, too. She'd already come and gone this night for her thrice-weekly training session, leaving the air sweet with her scent... and he'd be damned if he'd replace that with leech-smell.

"Fine." he said as he grabbed his jacket from behind the door and stepped out into the night. "Let's talk while we walk. It's about time for my wanderin' anyway." Locking the door behind him, he moved off down the path to the sidewalk, motioning for Sarah to follow. "So what's the problem?" he asked as they walked down the sidewalk towards the UCLA grounds.

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Thankful for a hearing rather than a thrashing, Sarah moved to keep pace, just slightly behind and to the right of Owns-The-Night. She didn't mince words.

"'Bout six months back, this bum turned up sprawled out on a bench in my park. But he wasn't just a bum; once you got past the booze, there was strong scent of the wolf on him. Woke him up, an' asked him what the hell he was doin' in my territory."

Sarah's eyes darkened. "He didn't take well to that, an' it turned into a knuckle duster. By the end of it, he was out cold." She glanced up at the werewolf, who was giving her an odd look. "He was drunk as hell; normally, one of the People would mop the floor with me." She sighed in a blend of respect and envy, then started to explain the rest.

For the first time, Declan heard a hesitation in her voice, a hint of something more than he'd come to expect from leeches. "I went through his pockets to figure out who the hell he was." Sarah swallowed hard, looking at the concrete in front of her, then said, "He... his name was Shane O'Neally." Another swallow. "My brother."

At this point, she looked back up at the werewolf. She was almost successful in keeping the waver out of her voice... and almost - but not quite - successful in keeping a hint of red tears from forming in her eyes. "It was the first time I'd seen him since we were eight. Hell, I'd been told he died - another lie from my family. I... I dragged him to where he could sleep it off, an' watched from a distance until he woke up an' left. I just... I just couldn't face him. Not like this." There was no mistaking what she meant by 'this'.

She sighed again. "He's wandered back now an' then. Not into the park, but around the area. Drunk most of the time, an' livin' on the street. He's got a few hidey-holes, but nothin' I'd call a patrolled territory." Again, the Dead-Wolf swallowed.

"He's the last link I have, Owns-The-Night. The last tie to what I was, and the only thing that was ever good in that life. And I don't know what the hell to do."

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Shane. This leech is that drunken asshole's sister? Fuck, I ain't sure who's got the rougher end of that deal. He looked at Sarah's face, the eyes rimmed with red tears, and reconsidered. Her. Definitely. He remained silent for a few minutes as they walked, then spoke up.

"I seen him." he told the Dead Wolf. "Met him, spoke to him. He's a wreck, barely in touch with his wolf anymore." He paused for a few more steps, pondering how much to say. "He Changed on his wedding night, killed his wife, and now she's hauntin' him." he said evenly. "I mean that literal, like. I got a friend who can see ghosts, and she saw her hoverin' over Shane with a chain connectin' them. Fuck if I know what that means fer sure, but it seems mighty obvious. My friend tried to talk to Shane, get him to let go his end of the chain, some spiritual crap that I don't fully get, but Shane likes to hate himself fer what he did. Can't let go." The Vargr shrugged, a trace of empathy entering his hard features. "Can't say as I blame him altogether. Some things are pretty hard to let go."

They had crossed the road while he spoke and were wandering the paths through the UCLA grounds when he stopped and faced Sarah.

"The man's torturing himself, and his wolf is beaten down by booze and loathin'. My friend wants to help him, but she don't know how. Mebbe a medium who has more voodoo can help, but I dunno." His silver gaze, whilst not soft, was gentler than before. "Sorry 'bout that, but it is what it is."

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By the time Declan had turned to face Sarah, small traces of crimson had trickled down from the inside corners of her eyes, and she was somehow even more pale than she'd been a minute before.

"His wife..." she said to nobody in particular. "Sweet Luna, he's been through hell." She opened her mouth as if to say something else, but no words would come. To an observer, she seemed at loss for words.

In reality, she'd been interrupted.

*Lost himself,* a voice whispered in her ear in a tangle of noise that would have been utter gibberish to almost anyone else. *Lost to dead-gone. Lost to sorrow. Find.*

With irritation, Sarah swatted halfheartedly at the noise beside her ear, knowing full well that she could not more hit the spirit - whatever spirit it was - than she could hit the moon with a spitball. Glancing back up at Owns-The-Night, she met his quizzical look with apologetic eyes and explained, "Noisy spirit, telling me what I already knew. Real fuckin' helpful bunch, they ain't."

Her eyes dropped back to the path. "I'm not sure what's worse. My brother being chained to death, or me being... well, dead."

She took a deep and utterly useless breath, letting it whisper out from dusty lungs. Sighing had been habit with her long before breathing lost it's benefit, and she'd never lost the habit.

Only then did something akin to hope grace her face once more. "This... this friend of yours, the one who can see ghosts. Do you think there's any chance she'd be willing to tell me what I would have to do to pull Shane outta this?" Before Declan could object, she added, "I'm what I am, and I know there's no going back for me, but there's still hope for my brother - to find his wolf again, to actually live."

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Dec appeared to think that over, half-turning away and pacing a few steps, before turning back to Sarah.

"She wants to help Shane, that much I can say. But as fer you..." Silver eyes narrowed. "She's already met you, and didn't enjoy it none. You better have some damn good apologies up yer sleeve."

"What?!" Sarah blurted, her mind already working to fill in the blanks. Oh shit, I didn't...

"Remember last summer? A party up that way?" Owns-The-Night gestured. "You jumped some li'l Pointdexter and ran. Well, he described you, and my friend recognised the description as someone who'd tried to jump her two weeks earlier." The edge of a growl was back in the Vargr's voice. "Pale, redhead, denims." Sarah wondered how she was going to explain, when Dec simply shook his head.

"Look, I might not like it, but you are what you are. You din't know her, and she was food." He pointed a sturdy finger at Sarah. "So now you know she ain't anymore. And the area around that house is off-limits for suckheads. Got it?" Sarah nodded wordlessly, and the Vargr lowered his hand.

"Now I can talk to her, ask her to meet with you, with me present. She knows what I am, and damn straight yer gonna have to give her some answers before she'll even begin trusting you. Up to you what you want to tell her. But me, I'll be telling her that Shane's sister is in town, and that she's the redhead that caused such a fuss, and that she ain't normal." He looked her in the eye. "So you still want to meet her?"

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There wasn't really much choice, not if Sarah actually wanted to help her brother. "That's fair, more than fair really." She hesitated, then added, "She's... not really human, right? I mean, she's in the know, an'..."

Just how much did Owns-The-Night know about his Uratha cousins?

"...an' I took an Oath. An oath to Luna, like the, um, Moon-Callers do. One of the part of it is Nu Bath Githul: the herd must not know. So this is the part where I'm gonna ask you real nice to tell me that she ain't exactly human."

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"She sees ghosts and does fitness trainin' with a fuckin' werewolf." Owns-The-Night growled. "She hangs around with other mediums, mind-readers, and weird people. She's human, but she ain't normal. She's not-normal enough that she still has issues dealing with it." It was clear that the Vargr had little knowledge of whatever Moon-Callers considered sacred or holy.

"She's kept my secret fer six months or so. She knows what Shane is. I dunno about yer oath, but if it's about practicality then I can respect it, and reassure you that she ain't a risk. If it's some sorta moon-worshippin' cockamamie religious thing, then mebbe you should go find a kosher medium, or a moon-caller who can talk to ghosts. She's the only one I know, though."

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"Cockamamie religious thing?" Sarah repeated, just the hint of a growl tinging her voice. "It's not a religion, not exactly. It's a healthy respect for an extremely powerful spirit that was the mother of the first werewolves."

She stopped herself, running over her own words again in her head. "OK, it's kind of a religious thing." The Dead-Wolf sighed again, then considered her confidant's description of the ghost-whisperer.

"I'm... going to work on the theory that your friend's sight puts her into the non-herd category." It was a stretch, she knew... but then, there were plenty of Uratha who considered Sarah herself to be a borderline violation of the Oath.

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"I would if I were you." The words were partly advice, partly warning, Sarah knew. "Shane knows her and trusts her as much as a crazy wolf trusts anyone. She looks a bit like his dead wife, too, which she's even less happy about than I am. But she wants to help if she can." Owns-The-Night took a deep breath and looked up at the sky. It was late, and August would or should be asleep. He pondered for a moment, then nodded decisively.

"I'll talk to her in the mornin'." he told Sarah curtly. "It'll be easier to talk about in daylight. She won't be happy, and that's a damn fact." His silver eyes glowed softly in the darkness as he looked at the vampire. "But whether I can talk her into it or not, I'll meet you here tomorrow night. If I'm alone, then you know she's not willin', and we can work on a plan B. There's a female Moon-Caller in the area somewhere, but I ain't bothered trackin' her down yet. Mebbe she can help."

"Thanks." Sarah wasn't alive, so technically couldn't sigh with relief... but that didn't stop her. Owns-The-Night had been more helpful than she'd have expected.

"Not doin' it fer you." he said, not unkindly. "I don't like the idea of any wolf bein' in such a sad sack of shit state. even if he ain't Vargr." He turned, clearly meaning to go. "I'll see ya tomorrow night." he told her over his shoulder as he moved silently off into the gloom. "You can find yer way home."

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For a long moment, Sarah watched as Declan walked back the way they'd come. Not doin' it fer you, he'd said, and the meaning was clear. You aren't worth my time, dead thing.

She hadn't really expected anything better. All her years of dealing with werewolves had made clear that Presidio's Pride had been an aberration, that as far as most were concerned she'd be better off as the non-moving variety of dead. But she'd not been able to resist the slightest hint of hope, a tiny glowing flame in the bleak eternal night.

The flame wavered. It guttered, the surrounding gloom threatening to engulf her at long last. But, as she began her own journey home, it somehow remained alight.

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[26th January, 10:30 am]

This is gonna suck, Dec thought to himself as he regarded August's home. He'd given her a call, saying he had something to discuss and suggesting that he drop in before lunchtime. The girl had agreed, a little wary curiousity present in her voice alongside the friendliness, and so Declan blazed through his morning duties before heading over. Normally, he'd be looking forward to spending time round at August's place. Apart from August herself, there was usually Oneca and Ari present too, so his occasional visits felt very much like relaxing in a flower-strewn meadow. Yes, he liked female attention - there was no way Dec was going to feel bad about that.

This time, though...

He sighed and knocked on the door, August opening it almost immediately and ushering him inside with a smile. He followed her into the kitchen, accepted a glass of juice, then spent a moment leaning against the counter whilst thinking about what to say. Oneca was home, he could tell, but watching something through in the lounge by the sounds of it. Dec made sure to keep his voice down as he spoke.

"Okay, this is gonna be odd." he began, watching August's face. "Kinda a confession and a request in one."

"Uh oh." August said dryly, her large green eyes expressive as they regarded him.

"Yeah... First up, I've found someone connected to that Shane guy. His sister." Dec told her.

"His sister? But that's good, isn't it?" August asked, eyes narrowing.

"Yeah... and then again, no. See, she's kinda different."

"Is she a..." August stopped, then mouthed 'werewolf' "...too?" she finished.

"Nope. She's a vampire." Dec admitted quietly, rubbing the back of his neck.

"A vampire." she stated as though rolling the idea around. At least she didn't reflexively try to claim that vampires weren't real, Dec mused.

"It gets better, frail. You've already met her. And she's been here, too. She's the redhead that jumped that Pointdexter at the party last summer. I bumped into her some time later and didn't make the connection right away. My guess is..." he took a breath. "That when she jumped you, like that Romeo guy, she was looking to feed."

"What?!" Declan raised his hands and motioned for August to keep it down, wincing at the sharp volume in her voice.

"She won't do it again. And... she wouldn't have killed ya... probably." He winced again, plainly not happy. "Look, I don't like fuckin' leeches, and it really sticks in my craw to speak up for one. She seems different to most I've met, though. And she really worries about her brother. She found him on a park bench and didn't know what to do, and came to me outta desperation." He grinned humorlessly. "She'd have to be desperate to risk intruding on my turf. But I told her I knew a person who sees ghosts that might agree to talk to her. I said might." he repeated plaintively.

"Only reason I give two shits is because I hate to see a wolf lettin' himself get fucked up like that. But it's up to you, August. If you agree to see her, I'll be there every step of the way, and she won't lay a hand on ya. If ya say no, and I wouldn't blame you, I go back and tell the suckhead to try elsewhere. Fuck knows I can't do shit about ghosts."

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“Dec… I can’t do shit about them either,” August said, her tone mirroring his plaintive one from a second ago. “I can see them. I can talk to them. But I can’t… exorcise them either. He needs an old priest and a young priest, honestly.”

“I don’t think it works that way, August,” Dec said wryly.

“Right, so I don’t know what to do. The ghost has to want to leave, but she’s not happy with him and wants him dead so she’ll be released.” August put her face in her hands. “I really don’t know what to do, Dec. I want to help them both – and his sister, too, I guess, but I have no idea how. She wants him dead and is driving him there through alcohol.” Though she was whiny and her voice muffled, Dec could clearly hear the frustration in her voice, the helplessness.

He stepped forward and put his arms around her. August sank into the comfort he was offering, ignoring any feeling in her that wasn’t based on being comforted. “You’ll figure somethin’ out,” he told her softly.

“Yeah, but to do that, I have to meet the vampire,” August replied without lifting her head. Sighing, she slipped her arms around his waist and enjoyed being held. His heart thundered in her ear and she let its even rhythms soothe her for a moment. “So are we setting up a date in the next couple of days?”

“I’m to meet her tonight, and told her you’d be there if you were interested,” he told her. August tensed at the thought that this evening she’d be putting herself in reach of the woman who’d scared her so badly. Dec’ll be there. He won’t let her hurt you. Or eat you.

“Alright,” she sighed again, turning her head so she could meet his eyes without lifting her head. “What time?”

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[26th January, 11:00 pm]

"Of course it had to be late at night." August grumbled, but quietly, as her eyes darted to all points of the compass trying to spot the approaching hordes of bloodsuckers. "And of course it had to be in a dark, wooded part of the UCLA grounds. We couldn't meet in a coffee house or anything, noooo." Declan gave her an amused look, and she stuck her tongue out at him, trying to mask nervousness with griping and bravado.

"Relax." he rumbled, lounging on the bench and glancing round with apparent casual ease. "I can handle one vampire."

"That doesn't make me feel better." August hissed. "What if more than one shows up?" Declan shrugged, his teeth glinting in the dim light as he grinned. He's enjoying this, August realised with a sense of outrage.

"Then we're screwed."

"You-" Dec cocked his head off to one side and August's words died in her throat as a slender figure detached from the gloom and approached them both. The redhead had a taut, nervous demeanour about her as she strode across the grass into the light, but she didn't seem like any vampire August had pictured. She had pale skin, but a lot of redheads had pale skin. She wore jeans, boots, and denim jacket, and seemed eerily ordinary at first glance. Dec flowed to his feet, putting himself partly between August and the vampire.

"August, meet Sarah. Again." the Vargr said with a wry smile.

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There were times - generally during a gibbous moon - that Sarah was something approaching socially apt. The thin sliver of silver which hung high over the trees sadly dictated this to not be one of those times. A sheepish, hesitant try at a smile that failed to be winning, charming or anything but timid showed just the slightest hint of pointed canines, which certainly didn't help the effect.

Words weren't exactly helpful either. "Um, hi. Again. Sorta."

She glanced at Owns-The-Night, who frankly looked to be having entirely too much fun with her awkwardness. "And I'm sorry about that. With the thing. Last year." The grave just kept getting deeper, and she knew it.

"For what it's worth," she tried, "I wouldn't have, um, killed you. I don't kill people if it can be avoided. It would, um, violate my Oath." Awkward though her words were, the capitalization was almost audible. And in her own way, she meant it. While Sarah did feed from humans, she considered killing them in the process to be far, far too close to violating the spirit of Nu Hu Uzu Eren: do not eat the flesh of man or wolf. Blood, she'd decided long ago, wasn't flesh... but killing in the process of taking it was close enough to be an issue.

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August stared at Sarah, trying desperately to see the monster within the woman. She wasn’t having much luck, and it only freaked her out more. “Uh, let’s not mention that, ok? You don’t look enough like a vampire to make me comfortable talking about you being one. So let’s focus on Shane and not on… you.” She grimaced and said, “Sorry if that’s rude, but I don’t know human-vampire ediquette and um… well, I’m not keen to learn. No offense, but you freak me the hell out.”

Declan had too, but now they were friends. Good friends. Nice friends. Stop. Dwelling. “So!” August said, clapping her hands together and rubbing them like a chef about to prepare a long, complex meal. “I’m going to be up front about this: I have no idea how to help Shane, but I’m willing to try. He doesn’t deserve to be dragged into the grave by his wife. His punishment for his crime should bring about some good and to do that, we’ll need to get him better. That said, I’m not an exorcist. I can see and talk to them and little else. I’m not sure how much help I will be to you.” She shifted her weight nervously and asked, “What do you think he needs to get better?”

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"That," Sarah replied, "is the sixty-four dollar question. The answer is, I'm not sure. He needs to get away from the bottle, and to do that I think he needs to get away from the ghost. And to do that...."

Sarah hit a pause, trying to think where to go from there. "...and to do that," she repeated, haltingly, "he needs something else to hold onto."

The idea work its way through her mind as she spoke the words. "Shane doesn't feel like he has anything left. All he has is the guilt of his wife's death. And so long as that's all he has, her... her ghost can keep his full attention, and can drag him down. So... so he needs something else important in his life, something he cares about."

Now Sarah looked more frightened than anything. "He cared about me. He was the only one who cared about me. We last saw each other when we were eight; he started to go through... through what they thought might be his Change, and they took him away." Her eyes were thousands of miles and twenty years away, as she watched again as Shane was dragged out of the house, reaching for Sarah while she reached for him, restrained by her hated monster of a mother.

"But... but I'm not..." The fear in Sarah's posture was joined by a tremble of the shoulders that extended down to arms not so much crossed as holding onto herself, and red wetness started to form at the corners of her eyes. "...I'm not... I'm this... and he..." She looked to both Declan and August, desperately seeking answers from near strangers in her distress. "How can he not hate what I am?" and crimson tears began to flow. "How can I not just make it worse?"

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August rolled her eyes. “Cut that out right now,” she ordered the vampire in hard tones. Normally, she’d be a bit more kind, but the vampire’s sorrow seemed a bit over the top. Plus August needed her to stop bleeding tears before August puked all over everyone. That was just fucking creepy and August had enough of that in her life already.

“You can not make it worse by not making it worse,” August snapped, then realized she’d just stated it in the dumbest way possible. Waving her hands, she said, “Take two. Look, we make things worse than we are by how we react to them. I see ghosts and instead of accepting it, I put myself through hell medicating and beating myself up. I even landed in the loony bin for a couple of weeks over it. I made it so much worse by kicking myself over it.

“So here’s the deal. No matter how much you may feel bad about being… dead or whatever the correct term is, you can’t let Shane see that. When he gets pissy about it, remind him that this is the way things are and generally make him feel like you don’t think it’s something terrible,” August said. “Does it suck? Probably, if the fact you’re getting all blubbery about it is any indication. But he needs you to be strong, not on the edge of breaking down. And you might make it worse. I have no idea. But you’ll give him something else to focus on and to have. But if you’re all weepy about it in front of him, it isn’t gonna help. Can you do that?”

Ohmygodohmygod, I just snapped at a vampire. Thank god Dec’s here, otherwise I’d be her next sippie cup. August tried not to let those thoughts show on her face as she waited for Sarah’s reply.

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Sarah looked like she'd just been slapped - hard. The vampire's jaw worked in an effort at reply, but no words came out. But the bloody tears slowed, the trembling lessened, and gradually she seemed to pull herself back together as August's words sank in.

Finally the voice started working again, too. "He doesn't know yet. I... I found him in my territory, and didn't know who he was. He was stone-drunk, and I tried kicking him out, and we fought. I only found out when I checked his wallet." Another sigh seemed to calm the Dead-Wolf down a bit more, though blood clung to her cheeks as she stared at the ground. "I've avoided him since, 'cause I didn't want him to know what I'd turned into. But I see him wandering around now and then, and can tell he's only getting worse. Staying away isn't helping him."

Chewing her lip, Sarah looked back up at August. "My family takes a really dim view on vampires. Grandmother teaches that it's like a possession or something, that it's not really the person who was there before, which is a crock of shit but they don't know any better. So I don't know how well he's gonna adjust to this. But I can't just stand around and do nothing while my brother drinks himself to death."

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"Good attitude." Dec spoke up from where he was leaning against the bench. It was hard to detect, but there was a note of approval in the Vargr's words. "I'm no expert on hauntin', but I am an expert at kicking people in the ass. And that's what your brother needs right now." He grinned, a white-toothed smile with only trace elements of humor present. "Even if he was born a crazy bugfuck Moon-Caller, and you got bit by a vampire, yer still both wolves." He fastened a silver gaze on Sarah.

"You've gotta sort your own damn head out, too, girl." he growled. "Stop feelin' like you've gotta apologise to the fuckin' world for being what you are. I sure as hell don't. Yer grandma is full of it: vamps are a pain in the ass, some are creepy and drunk on their power, and some of 'em don't know when to get the fuck off my lawn, and you don't smell right, but I've talked with a few that were pretty much like regular Joes an' Janes. You ain't possessed." He snorted, amused at the thought.

"August is right: Shane needs something to look at outside his miserable-ass self. If he sees you coping with bein' turned into a Dead Wolf, mebbe he can deal with bein' a live one." Owns-The-Night rubbed the back of his neck, thinking. "Yer brother needs you. He needs to get off the bottle. He needs to get in touch with his wolf." Dec hesitated, looking sideways at August for a moment, then back at Sarah. "I... might be able to help with some of that. Havin' another wolf around can't hurt, and I can guarantee that after having me chewing his tail, he'll be hating me more than himself... or you."

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"You're right. Dammit. On all counts. Shane's gonna need me, regardless the circumstances. And Owns-The-Night to be another wolf of the alive sort. And August to watch the ghost and see if we weaken her connection to him. It's gotta be a group effort, an' I gotta stop worrying about the what I am and focus on the who."

Sarah dabbed at the drying blood with a finger, then looked around for someplace to wipe it off, then opted to simply lick it off. Only when she was nearly done did she realize that August was staring horrified and Owns-The-Night was watching as well. She froze for a moment, then slowly slid her hand down from her mouth to wipe it on the side of her jeans. "Um, sorry. I should, uh, get cleaned up. Owns, do you think you can get me into one of the campus maintenance shops so I can use a sink?"

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"Yeah. Come on." Declan turned to lead the way, aware of Sarah behind him as a faint prickling between his shoulder blades. Not a nervous prickle, or the hackle-raising sense he got sometimes when there was something amiss, but the fact he had turned his back to a vampire was not entirely a comfortable one for the Vargr. Despite the truce he seemed to have with this one, it still felt wrong to let her walk around on his turf.

"'Owns-The-Night'?" August murmured to him as she stepped smartly to walk alongside the burly groundskeeper. The lovely girl, despite her own nervousness, had a slight grin on her lips as she looked at him. "That your secret werewolf name?" Declan's silver eyes flicked her way.

"Yup." he said, shrugging. "Kind of an earned title and a name in one. It's less of a mouthful in Wolf, though." he added with a grin of his own.

It wasn't far to the nearest maintainence room, and Dec unlocked the door and ushered them all inside. Tools hung on the walls, and a handbasin under an elderly mirror was clearly visible through the clutter. A number of clean rags were next to it on a shelf.

"I need to come in here myself to clean up, some nights." Dec told Sarah. "Go ahead and dump the rags in the yellow trashcan when yer done." He leaned against a workbench then, plainly willing to wait.

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It didn't take long. Sarah had obviously been through her share of quick clean-ups before in conditions worse than these, and wasn't particular to such niceties as water temperature or type of soap. A quick scrub down of her bloody face with a coarse hand cleanser and an equally quick drying with what rags were available - properly placed afterwards in the yellow can, as the looming werewolf had instructed - and she was as clean as usual and none the worse for wear.

But an eyebrow crept up and the hint of a smile quirked the corners of her mouth as she returned to her new-found associates. "So if ya' don't mind me askin', what can I call you that's less of a mouthfull, Owns-The-Night? Aside from bein' longish, you did tell me how you got it, an' that's a steady reminder I prob'ly don't need."

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Owns-The-Night stared at Sarah, stared hard. While he wasn't growling, or straightening up away from the bench he leaned against, there was a hard edge to the gleam in the werewolf's eye that was just plain daunting.

"That's one point of view." he began, his deep voice level. "Mine is that we ain't so buddy-buddy that you couldn't do with that reminder for awhile yet. Just to be sure." Now he pushed off from the workbench and straightened up to usher the other two out and lock up behind them. As they moved off back towards his home, Owns-The-Night stayed quiet as he walked between August and Sarah, his attitude one of protectiveness towards one and a firm escorting of the other. As they reached his street, he turned towards Sarah and nodded in the direction of her own territory.

"See if you can track your brother down." he suggested, not unkindly. "I'll help when I can. When you find him, then we can work on the hard part together."

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"Sounds like a sound plan," the Dead-Wolf agreed. Without another word, she crossed the street, then promptly headed for the shadows, disappearing from sight. A moment later, a sleek grey form emerged from those same shadows. The wolf - much smaller than Owns-The-Night's massive form - gave both August and Declan a brief look, then loped off in dead silence toward Holmby Park.

Could have gone a lot worse, she mused to herself while she ran. Neither of 'em tried to make me more dead, and neither of 'em said no. She looked around, then took in the night air past through a very sensitive nose, looking for a particular trace upon the wind. Just hold tight, Shane. I'm coming.

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August was quiet as Sarah disappeared from sight, then blinked as she saw the wolf come out of the vampire’s hiding place and run off. “Was that… her?”

“Yep,” Declan said, his voice a little tight.

“She can become a wolf?” August asked, just to confirm. “That is discomforting.”

“Tell me about it,” Declan grunted.

“It’s still sad,” August added. “Getting separated and then getting made dead… and he’s drinking himself to death.” Her green eyes hardened. “Why do the ghosts have to drag down the living?”

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"I dunno." Dec shrugged, relaxing a little now that the vampire was out of range. "Maybe it's not all of them. In the case of our boy's wife, I can understand her bein' majorly pissed. I guess they all have reasons for being the way they are. Doesn't mean I don't wish I could slap 'em around sometimes, though." He grinned a little and turned to her.

"Thanks for doin' that, by the by." he said, sincerely. "Talkin' sense into that vampire. I was fixin' to shake her so hard her fangs'd fall out - but your way was better. If not so fun." He offered August his arm. "Walk you home?"

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"What a gentlewolf you are," she said with a delighted grin as she took his arm. Though she was loathe to admit it, the gesture charmed her. It also reminded her of Nigel, sadly. That sobered her up a little as they walked, and her mind slipped to thoughts of Shane and Lilly. He’d loved her – and she’d loved him, too. The hate the ghost had evidenced was way too strong for there to have been no love there once. And then there was Sarah, who loved her brother, clearly, enough to be afraid and overcome that fear.

"What's on your mind?" Declan asked, intruding on her thoughts.

"Love," August said without thinking. The werewolf made a soft noise that might have been a cough or perhaps a choke. Her green eyes flashed to him, trying to see if he was laughing at her or reacting to her words, but whatever expression that had been on his face was gone. “I mean,” she said, as a blush covered her face, “that Shane and Lilly must have really been in love, and that Sarah must really love her brother, even as a dead thing. I mean, Lilly hates him so much now, that you just know that her love must have been as deep. And… I admit it, I was thinking of the only boyfriend I really loved. He was the one who treated me right, until he dumped me cold. I haven’t really been with a guy seriously since, though I also thought I was crazy, so I haven’t been looking, either.” Not that I haven’t been thinking, she kept to herself.

Valentine’s Day was almost here, after all.

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"Well, now you know yer not crazy." Declan said with seeming innocence. When August glanced sideways at him, the werewolf might as well have been playing poker for all she could read off that mug. The werewolf had a faint smile playing around his lips as he walked arm-in-arm with her, but was also scanning the darkened campus grounds as they walked along the paths. August (not for the first time) marvelled at how safe she felt walking along next to... well, a Man-Shaped-Object. Not just next-to, but arm-in-arm-with, too.

"So what about you?" she asked, a faint note of challenge in her voice. Declan's brow furrowed slightly as he considered for the next few steps.

"I loved a girl once." he shrugged, a trifle uncomfortably. "Met her while I was at Ranger school. We parted ways after I got sectioned out."

"That's it? "There was this girl and that's that"? Oh no you don't: I want to know about Declan in love. Tell me about her." August prodded his arm just above where she was holding it with her other hand, trying not to dwell on the hard muscle under her fingers. Declan sighed, looking up at the sky for a moment, then nodded.

"Her name's Genevieve, but she went by Jenny. She kinda hated her name, though I thought it was nice, y'know?" he began as they wandered through the night. "She was a straight-up Georgia Peach, working as part of the civilian administration staff. I was nineteen and about as cocky a Ranger candidate as you could get." He grinned, eyes flashing in the half-light. "I was drunk when I hit on her at a bar, mainly because I didn't have the balls to approach her while sober. She told me she didn't give out her number to drunk men, so a couple days later I asked for it while sober and cleaned-up." He smiled again, a touch of sadness in his eyes. "We were together for the next 4 years."

"So what happened?"

"I drove her off." Declan said with a frown. "I had just Changed not two weeks before, and didn't know shit about what I was or how it worked. Based on horror movies, I figured that the next full moon would mean me eating her, so when she came to see me in the hospital..." He shrugged slightly. "I was a total shit to her. Cussed her out, told her I didn't want to see her anymore, told her she couldn't understand why, and generally acted like a complete crazy-case: total Mr Hyde. I even pretended like I wanted to attack her." He winced at the memory of that, seeing the hurt, heartbreak and fear in Jenny's eyes.

"Wow." August said softly, squeezing his arm sympathetically.

"Yeah. And naturally, about a week after that my cousin comes to visit and tells me the facts of fuzzy life. Gee, would've been nice to know that stuff earlier." he sighed again, then shook his head. "No use wonderin' 'What if?' about that. I don't think it would've worked out anyway. She was a tough cookie under the charm, but I don't think she'd have been able to deal with the truth, regardless. Not many could."

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“No, not many do.” Even me. “It must be hard to be any supernatural creature and try to have anything resembling normal,” August said softly. “And it must be hard from the other side. To have the man you loved, trusted…” This wasn’t helpful and she shut up quickly. “Sorry. It’s… I know how it felt. Nigel and I were great, then he just wouldn’t talk to me for a week. And when he finally did-”

August staggered to a stop, her face going slack. “Oh, god…”

“August what?” Declan faced her and grabbed both her arms, half-expecting her to fall. She was pale and tears were in her eyes.

“That’s what he did to me,” she gasped. August grabbed both of his arms in her hands and said, “Declan, Nigel did the same thing to me. We were fine, then he just… told he didn’t love me anymore, that he couldn’t, that I wouldn’t understand. Jesus, almost word for fucking word! I thought he just hated me or had cheated on me and couldn’t handle the guilt… but he did the exact same thing you did! He was out of touch for a week and then when he came back, he said it was over! Jesus!”

Her green eyes rose to his as she quietly asked, “What should I do? What would you want Jenny to do?”

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"Well... Wait!" Declan peered at her curiously. "This Nigel dude... Is he Nigel Astor?"

"Oh god! You know him!" August couldn't believe it. Except, of course, she could believe it. She knew Nigel taught on the campus, and if he was any kind of boogeyman, Dec would know, wouldn't he? Her hands tightened on his arms. "You know what he is, don't you?"

"Shhh." Declan said soothingly, glancing around. "Uh... yeah, I kinda do. I nearly killed him last year-"


"Wait!" The MSO held up his hands. "I said 'nearly', okay?! 'Nearly' only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, that's what my old sergeant used to say."

"Sorry." August mumbled, lowering her head. "It's just... I understand now." Another flash of insight came to her. "He's a vampire, isn't he?" she asked, lifting her head to look Declan in the eye. "You hunt vampires, you've said that a few times. You keep them away from your territory. It makes so much sense now!" Green eyes widened. "That's why he met me at night. That's why he doesn't teach regular classes anymore!"

"Yeah." Declan said uncomfortably, taking her hand and leading her off once more. "Yeah, he's a vamp. But we have an arrangement, me and him. He uses his pull with the powers that be here to keep them outta my way when I need it, and in exchange he's the only vampire allowed to hunt here. He's one of the non-killin' sorts, too." The Vargr added. "Takes only what he needs, tries to avoid opera capes and power-plays, that kinda shit. We see each other once in a blue moon, and that suits me fine."

"Oh." August spent the next few steps musing over that. Politics and diplomacy between creatures of the night, now that'd be one hell of a subject to take in college. "So... What about my question?"


"What should I do?"

Declan frowned, staring off and considering her question. "I dunno, frail. On the one hand, I'd want Jenny to stay away from me like I asked... unless she felt she could really deal with it. Then... maybe... we could give it a go. Bein' friends at first, that kinda thing. Maybe that's the key." he said with a shrug. "I guess I'd want Jenny, if she found out, to come and say 'Hey, I know your secret, and I don't hate you for it, and trust me I ain't meltin' down the family silver.'" He smiled at August then. "Sorta like you did. So maybe thats what you need to do with Nigel." He paused, then looked at her. "But be real sure, August. Because once you go to him and say that shit, you're taking your life in your hands. When I thought my secret was out, I nearly left town. Vamps don't travel as much as wolves - he might decide that he has to keep you quiet to protect himself. I ain't sayin' he will, just that we... that is, night-folk, we have to protect our secrets. You have my life in your hands, you know. And I trust you with it. It's worth considerin' that not everyone will."

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August was quiet almost until they were to her house. She was clearly thinking, so Declan let her have her thoughts to herself. Then she said, “I need to talk to Sarah about this.”

Silver eyes shone in the streetlight as Declan cocked his head to peer at her. He was silent as he waited for her to process her thoughts and put them into words. But they were at her driveway, and he wasn’t sure if she wanted him to come inside. She said, “Come on” as she tugged on his hand and led him around the side of the house. They walked through the yard and past the pool, drained and covered for the two months of time that passed for ‘winter’ in LA. The pool house was just beyond.

Dec had seen it before; he’d even been in the kitchen once during a cookout. August turned over a rock and pulled a small tin out of a hole. “Yes, this is where we have the key to this place, if you ever need a place to crash,” she told him with smile. “Just come up to the house instead if there’s a white towel on the front porch, alright?”

“Gotcha,” the werewolf said with a purr that made August start thinking about dropping a towel on the porch.

Once inside, August closed and locked the door, then took his hand again and guided him over to a seat. When they sat, she said, “I just wanted privacy. If you think Nigel could kill me, I don’t want my roommates to learn about this.” She swallowed, looking a bit queasy. Nigel had been so gentle when he'd been... human, but August knew that she’d be terrified of Declan were he not her friend. And if Nigel was really her Nigel, she wouldn’t be afraid of him either. But… a vampire. A blood-sucking monster, crying fucking bloody tears.

Her expression crumpled a little as the reality started to sink in. “Oh god, Nigel,” she murmured, feeling tears prick her eyes. “I… I think I should talk to Sarah. That makes sense, right? She can tell me about all of her people's rules and such, right? Or would she try to silence me, too?” Despite her attempts to be calm, she felt the first tear slip down her face.

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"She could try..." Dec started, but changed what he'd been going to say. "Honestly, I don't think she would. You already know about me, and about her. She's kinda strange compared to other vamps I meet. Odds are she'd refuse to talk to you at worst, which is her right, I guess. But seein' as how you're part of the 'straighten out Shane' squad, she'd probably talk to you." He shrugged. "At least enough so you don't get in trouble." He somewhat clumsily wiped her tear away with one thumb, not used to tender gestures, which elicited a small smile from August.

"If ya want, I can set up another meetin' tomorrow night. Neutral ground somewhere, or at a pinch my place. Though I don't like vampires in my place..." he grumbled a little at that. "Maybe we can hang out where we were tonight and Sarah can tell you 'bout the fang-gang, okay? I'll be there too, don't worry."

August nodded, mind already working on what questions she'd ask.


Dec had caught up with Sarah in fairly short order that night and delivered the invitation to talk some more, mentioning that August had a friend who was a vampire, and that she had questions. After some consideration, Sarah had agreed to at least come and hear those questions, with no promises of answers. It was good enough for Dec, and so Sarah once more found herself on a bench off the beaten path on the UCLA grounds, looking around and waiting for the werewolf and his friend to arrive.

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Sitting there, in the middle of someone else's territory, Sarah was more than a little on edge. And it wasn't just the owner that had her nervous; if any of the dreaded muth luzuk were around, were watching, this could go very badly indeed.

She nearly jumped when something buzzed close to her ear, babbling in an alien tongue, *You should come to the library. Much to learn, and quiet is the order of the day.* Her best guess was that the voice came from a spirit of learning, and in truth it wasn't the worst of ideas... except that she figured that if a fellow leech was lurking anywhere on campus, the library was as likely a place as any for it to find a snack, somewhere deep in the stacks....

Two figures hove into view on the path, and Sarah was happy to see that they were in fact Owns-the-Night and August. She stood, posture taking on subtle cues of wolfish submission to the werewolf in his territory. "Alright," she said to the living girl once what passed for the pleasantries were done, "I understand you have a leech problem. What exactly are you needing to know?"

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August flinched at the word 'leech'. "He's not a problem," she said stiffly, her jaw thrusting forward stubbornly. "He was my boyfriend, then one day, he disappeared for a week, then agreed to meet me just long enough to dump me. Lots of bullshit about how it wasn't me, it was him... the usual shit a guy gives you when they don't want to tell you why they're dumping you." August gave Declan a look that was equal parts amused and mock-annoyed. "Turns out that's a common trick of the men who go from human to supernatural." As Owns-the-Night muttered something under his breath, August continued. "So I mention this and... uh..." She glanced at Dec. "I can't remember your code name."

"It's a deed name," Declan emphasized, scowling at her. "Codename my ass..."

"Owns-the-Night," Sarah supplied, "since I'm supposed to remember it, good thing I know it, eh?"

"Right, Owns here recognized my ex as a vampire he has a truce with," August replied. "So here's the deal - do I find him and talk to him, let him know its okay? Or do I stay away? What's the best vampire practices here?"

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As Sarah listened to Autumn's explanation, her face fell. She'd heard the story before, in her various interactions with the undead... and for that matter, with her lupine cousins. Boy meets girl, boy becomes ungodly monster, boy gets as far from girl as possible. The paths were much alike to that point. But beyond....

"If I were you," the vampire explained, "I'd keep as far from him as possible." She looked around again, trying to be as certain as possible that the little trio really was alone, and hoping to Luna that they were. Then she looked to her werewolf neighbor, and asked, "You've trusted her with a fair bit of what changers are about? I mean genuinely trusted her?"

Declan glanced over to August and nodded. "I trust her," he said simply and in a tone that left no room for argument.

Sarah drew a deep breath, then sighed. "Alright," she said in a voice just above a whisper, "then I'll do the same. But you've gotta understand, August, that what's said here says here. You don't take it to anyone else, including - especially - this former boyfriend of yours. This is the kind of info that can get you killed, or worse." She motioned for August to have a seat on the bench.

"Call 'em muth luzuk or leeches or fang-heads or whatever, Owns-The-Night has plenty of reason to hate and hunt vampires. There's nothin' much redeemable in a creature that acts as a parasite on its former friends and family, no matter how you spin it. An' that's the case with most of us; we feed from people, an' all too often destroy lives in the process, either by killin' outright or gettin' someone hooked on the process. The thing is a bad deal for humanity. A very few try to mitigate that, either by feedin' from animals an' stayin' the hell away from everyone or by being incredibly careful to take only what they need an' hold to a serious ethical code. I do some of both, an' if he's still walkin' around on campus Owns has decided that he does too in his own way - we hope.

"But him bein' an exception to the general rule doesn't make it a good idea to try an' talk to him. Even if you don't let on that you know, pushing too hard could make him flip out, lose control an' attack - especially if he's the sort who damn near starves himself to keep from feedin' too much from people. Muth luzuk are cursed with what's called the Beast: it's an absolutely primal thing in us, exists only to hunt, feed and hide, and it's always a war between that thing and what's left of the person we used to be. It can take years to make headway against the Beast, and the damned thing can take back all that ground an' more in a few seconds of lost control."

Sarah sighed again. "I've seen it happen, the most controlled and diligent and humane leech go into an uncontrolled frenzy, rip through a person like tissue paper, an' come out the other end of it a complete freakin' monster. In a few cases, so far gone that there's nothin' left but the Beast, an absolutely wild animal stalkin' the streets until others put it down for good."

She looked Autumn in the eyes. "Goin' back to this guy, pushin' his buttons in any way, is literally walking into the lion's den and pokin' it with a sharp stick. And even if he doesn't lose his shit, he could react by decidin' that you knowin' violates the number-one rule of vampires: don't let humans know we exist. He could wind up killin' you out of duty. Or worse, somethin' in him that still cares about you but got all twisted up by the Beast could try an' 'save' you by makin' you a blood-slave, completely and inescapably addicted to him and his fucked-up blood. Even most of those who keep a balance with it usually wind up playin' fucked-up vampire games, all revolvin' around power an' control an' who holds the best feeding grounds." The disgust in Sarah's voice was palpable.

"Trust me on this. No matter how you felt 'bout him, goin' back to this guy in any way would be the worst mistake you could make. Hell, I stay the fuck away from other leeches for a lot of these same reasons. I've got somethin' to hold onto in my tie to the People an' to Luna, somethin' that gives me more to keep goin' for than where I'm gonna get my next meal, an' all I'd do by hanging around with these fuckers is get so caught in their fucked up shit that I'd risk losin' sight of that and wind up just like 'em. If I don't dare be around 'em, you sure as hell shouldn't."

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August’s face fell more and more and Sarah talked, and her hand snaked out to grip Declan’s tightly. “Wait, wait,” she said desperately, “Nigel isn’t like that, he’d never kill me or do anything like that.”

“Nigel’s dead,” Sarah said. “Guess it’s my turn to be blunt. The man you knew is dead, and what’s left is a fraction o’ who he was. A shadow of him wearing his skin-suit.”

“I still don’t understand. How can you guys have this Beast thing and not be known all over the place?” August asked, hoping for some piece of logic that would make Sarah go, “Aw, shit, yeah, you’re right. I forgot all about that!” “And feeding on animals? I don’t understand what you mean by blood-slave either? What is that? How could I stop a vampire from doing that to me?”

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"Oh boy...." This was not going well, and Sarah knew it. Her people-skills had never been the best, and if anything had gotten worse since she'd stopped being people in the strictest sense. But she knew exactly what vampires were, knew exactly why she hated her "kind", knew what they did to people on a nightly basis. And what I do to them everytime I feed from one. The guilt stung worse than the loss of August's innocence.

"Last thing first. Vampire blood is a drug. A mystical drug that makes heroin seem like rainwater. Once a human tastes it, they're hooked, and part of what it does is force absolute devotion. Unconditional love in liquid form. It's slavery, and it's sick. And it's how leeches control humans that are in-the-know."

She let those words sink in for a moment. "And then there's the feeding itself. It feels like the best sex in the world, both for the leech and the victim. Once the bite is in, there's nothing but ecstasy. So much that it can fog over the memory that some fucking monster just sank fangs into you and drank your blood. Again with the sick and wrong.

"As for the bit about stayin' outta sight when we've got this Beast problem...." Sarah hesitated, trying to think of how best to explain. "The Beast itself wants to stay hidden. And it's really damned good at it, in an animal-cunning kinda way. A muth-luzuk lost to his Beast isn't gonna rage down the middle of Main Street with fangs out; it's gonna skulk the back-alleys and sewers an' grab anything that wanders too far into the shadows. That an' the other leeches will be hard on its trail, lookin' to end the thing once an' for all." Understanding shone in August's eyes even as hope faded.

Sarah wasn't completely a monster (not yet, she reminded herself). She almost reached out, almost put a hand on this girl's shoulder, before reminding herself that she'd just spent the past few minutes explaining that she was something as dangerous and appealing as the Black Plague. Forcibly pulling her hand back, she said, "I... I'm sorry. But you need to know the truth, 'cause you still have a place in your heart for this guy. Hell, he probably still has a place in his for you - he showed you the favor of pushing you away for your own safety - but when a heart doesn't beat anymore, it changes. I'm not happy 'bout any of this, even if my own... condition is Luna's will. But I won't lie to you or myself and pretend I'm still the person I was when I was alive."

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