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Paths Chosen by Carla

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David tilted the bottle and pressed the rim to Laddie’s lips, lifting it higher so that the potion inside would spill into his mouth and trickle down his throat, bringing with it the healing the young vampire so desperately needed.

Star’s gaze focused on where the glass met Laddie’s mouth, waiting for some sign that he could feel the liquid filling his mouth, some sign that it was having an affect on him, though the numerous spells before this one hadn’t animated his unmoving body.

After weeks of no change, even Star herself was close to giving up on the boy she considered her own child. Her constant vigil hadn’t been broken since he’d first been taken to the sick room, and the only difference she had seen was the deepening of the color in his cheeks—a color that meant nothing without movement.

“I don’t even know if that witch is giving me anything more than colored water,” David growled under his breath. Though Star could hear the statement, it was obvious he spoke more to himself than to her, and she refrained form answering. “For all the good they do, at least.”

“I want to tear her apart,” he continued even as he concentrated on getting the last few drops to roll down the glass and into Laddie’s body. “But whenever I get ready to, I remember that it might be the next potion that works, or the one after that, or the one after that. Then I can’t kill her, can’t destroy what might save him.”

He set the empty bottle on bedside table and sat back. His hands dropped to his lap as he waited, watching Laddie’s face with a calm expression on his own. When it became clear that this potion, like so many others, had done nothing that they could see, his one-sided rant began again.

“I think torture might bring more improvement,” he mused. “A little reminder that if she doesn’t make something happen soon, I am going to get too impatient, and she’ll die. Punishment is unavoidable after what she did to us—but until then perhaps pain will motivate her.”

David stood in one fluid movement and left without looking back at Star. She had become such a part of the sick room that it was almost as if she wasn’t there, was almost a piece of the furniture that hadn’t changed in all the weeks Laddie had been lying still in the bed.

“You sure didn’t punish Anna,” Star muttered when she was positive that David couldn’t hear her blasphemy. She left the chair she’d put herself in when David had first entered and returned to her spot on the bed next to Laddie. She ran one hand over his hair, a feather-light touch, and couldn’t restrain the groan.

It hurt her more to touch him and receive no response than even the idea that he might honestly die. This time spent in limbo put more pain in her heart than his actual death could ever have brought, for he looked as if he might merely be sleeping, or resting his eyes as he listened to her talk. Star’s throat tightened until she could barely swallow, because she knew he wouldn’t wake up and grin at her, or open his eyes and offer the advice she so sorely needed.

Star groaned again and dropped her face down into her hands. How she needed his words of wisdom. If he would just wake up, he would fix this, all of it. She hadn’t realized before just how much she had come to rely on the smart little vampire. He would find a way to stop this widening gap in their Pack, if only he would get better and talk to them.

“Oh, Laddie,” she whimpered. The tears began again, tears that she had cried a thousand times since he’d been shot. They slid down her cheeks without the slightest whisper of sound, and dripped down her fingers to splash upon the thick quilt covering his tiny body.

“Star?” Michael’s hesitant voice pulled her from her silent misery and Star lifted her head, offering him a view of cheeks silvery with tearstains and eyes dripping with agony. He crossed to her as quickly as he dared, for the aura of the sick room was much like that of a funeral home—silent and still, a place where movement was abhorred and sounds forbidden.

“Michael,” she scrubbed at her face with the palms of her hands, managing to only smear her cheeks with the salty drops even more. He sank down onto the bed next to her, careful not to put pressure on Laddie’s legs, then drew her forward into a tight hug. The offer of comfort swept over Star like a warm wind and she relaxed into his arms, feeling the muscles tighten as he held her close to his body. She wanted nothing more than to sink into him forever and forget the troubles that plagued them, but forced herself to draw away after only a moment.

“How is he?” Michael asked, his voice a notch above a whisper. He needn’t have asked, for his eyes told him the truth the instant they focused on Laddie’s face. He shook his head and began to rub Star’s back.

“Nothing’s changed,” Star admitted with a sad sigh. Her next words stuck in her throat, thick and scratchy, before she could force them out. “David wants to put pressure on that witch—D’ara. He thinks it will make her do better work. But. . .”

“But?” Michael prompted when she trailed off. Star shook her head then glanced back down at Laddie, letting her eyes take in the flush of red in his cheeks, the paleness of the rest of his face, the dark shadows growing beneath his eyes.

“But if there is nothing to be done, we can’t change that,” she whispered. “There might not be a cure. I don’t know what we’ll do if there’s not, but there might not be.”

“There has to be,” Michael argued. He grabbed Star’s shoulders and dragged her back around to face him. “Don’t talk like that! You have to believe, Star, you know that. Miracles happen, we’ve seen them happen time and time again since Anna’s been here. One will happen now too, I’m sure of it.”

“Miracles seem to be wasted on those who don’t deserve them,” Star growled, her lips twisting into a dark expression that bared her brilliant teeth. Michael’s hands dropped back to his sides and a frown knitted his brows together.

“Star,” Michael began, remembering why he had come into the room in the first place. “I’m about to go hunt, and I wanted you to join me. You haven’t left the cave in weeks, a quick hunt will be good for you.”

“I can’t leave him, Michael.” Star turned to look at him once more, her eyes dark with pleading. “You know that. What if something happens when I’m not here?”

“Just a quick hunt though,” Michael argued. “What could happen?”

“Everything!” Star’s voice cracked and she realized how out of control she sounded. Two deep, slow breaths helped calm her before she could speak normally again. “I can’t Michael, I’m sorry. I’ll just drink from the bottle—I’m getting enough blood, I’ll be fine.”

“You and Anna are just the same,” Michael sat back with a grunt, crossing his arms over his chest. His lower lip slid forward just enough for the expression to be called a pout, though Star’s eyes flashed with too much fire to notice the attempt at persuading her.

“I am nothing like that murderous bitch!” Star snapped. “How can you compare us?”

“I only meant that neither of you are feeding,” Michael explained before his mind wrapped around what Star had said. “Wait a minute. You don’t still blame her for this, do you?”

“She shot him, Michael,” Star frowned, turning back to run one hand down Laddie’s face. “Of course I blame her. It’s her fault—she did this.”

“Come on, Star. You know she wasn’t in control of her body,” he argued. “Don’t act like Dwayne.”

“Dwayne’s the only one with sense!” Star’s dark hair snapped about her face in a flurry as she shook her head to emphasize the point. “Everyone else is walking around on eggshells around her when they should be punishing her—she should be dead by now!”

“Star!” Michael jerked himself off of the bed and away from his mate, aghast at the very suggestion. “She was under a spell. We can’t kill her for that. It’s not her fault!”

“If you think that, Michael,” Star glanced at him out of the corner of her eyes, pressing her hands together in her lap to hide the trembling running along her arms. “Then just go.”

“Star. . .”

“Go!”

Michael went. His shoulders slumped forward and his head dropped, but he went, leaving Star with a perfect view of the tension tightening the muscles of his back until they practically hummed. He didn’t stop when he reached the main room of the cave, but hurried up the rock steps and out into the night, and then on into the sky.

Star dropped her face back into her hands, not bothering to hold back the sobs that shook her body. The sound was hollow here in the sick room, as if the walls themselves were appalled by the noise and swallowed it up as fast as she could produce it.

*~*~*~*~*~

The sharp clicking of the keys on Rilly’s work computer was the only sound to fill the movie rental. She forced herself to concentrate on entering the bar codes on the last few returns, for the task had already taken her twice as long as it should have. She just couldn’t keep her mind on the job and the numbers blurred together. More often than not the computer had buzzed at her, the signal that she’d entered something wrong, and she had had to go back and re-enter the entire number, slower on the second—or third or fourth—time, in hopes that she would eventually get through the dwindling pile so she could leave.

While the sun still filled the sky she hadn’t been as rushed, but now that sunset was upon her, Rilly wanted nothing more than to enter the last set of numbers and look up to see Paul waiting at the door for her, as he was wont to do. Just that passing thought of Paul was enough to cause her finger to slip, and the computer blared at her once again.

Rilly dropped the video case back down on the glass counter with a loud sigh, and pressed one hand to her burning eyes. She didn’t notice when Lucy turned to watch her, a small frown twisting the older woman’s face. After a moment Rilly punched in the correct codes and added the number, then placed the movie on the stack of finished ones.

“Do you want me to put these back on the shelves?” she called out to Lucy, not bothering to turn around and see where her boss was. Instead she placed her elbows on top of the counter and rested her chin in her hands, her expectant gaze settling on the door. The bells that hung above it remained silent, and there was no sign of Paul in the darkness outside.

“No, I’ll have Sam do it when he comes in looking for a ride home,” Lucy told her, then made her way around the counter until she could look at Rilly’s face. “Sweetie, is there something wrong?”

“What—what do you mean?” Rilly stammered. Her fluttering hands smacked against the pile of videos and sent them crashing against the glass and down onto the floor.

“I know you are spending time with the vampires,” Lucy’s voice dropped at the end and her gaze darted about the store, making sure that there were still no customers to overhear the dangerous word. “And they haven’t been around lately. Michael hasn’t come in to see me in quite a few weeks, and I was worried that something was wrong.”

“It’s nothing,” Rilly murmured, pushing through the wooden door that allowed access to the area behind the counter. She knelt in front of the cash register, her back to the entrance, and began to scoop up the spilled videos.

The bell on the door jangled as it was pushed open. Rilly whirled around, expecting to see Paul’s tall, lanky body. Her breath whooshed out in a disappointed sigh when her gaze fell upon a young woman instead. The customer moved across the room to the shelves in the far corner and Rilly returned to her clean up.

“Are you sure?” Lucy knelt down next to her worker, resting her hands lightly on her knees. “It’s just not like them, to stay away for so long. I know things were strained between us because of what Max did, but I was hoping that we had put all that behind us.”

Rilly glanced up at Lucy, then ducked her head without saying anything. Her dark hair tumbled in front of her eyes and Lucy sighed as she grabbed the last few video cases and stood.

“If you ever do need to talk, Rilly, I just want you to know that I’ll listen. It’s been lonely around the house now that Michael’s gone.” She smiled, the expression more wistful than happy, and Rilly felt a pang pierce her chest.

“It’s Anna,” she admitted, keeping her voice low so the lone customer couldn’t hear her. “She had some problems awhile back. . .” Rilly’s voice broke off with a strangled groan and it was many moments before she could speak again. Lucy waited patiently, resting her hands on the top of the counter, her attention focused on Rilly.

“She was sick, mentally, because of a witch’s spell. During her illness, she shot Laddie—well, she was aiming at Dwayne, but Laddie got in the way.”

“She wanted to shoot Dwayne?” Lucy’s brown dipped into another frown. “That doesn’t make sense. Even I know that they adore each other. It’s obvious just by looking at them.”

“Not anymore,” Rilly sighed, then held up a hand to stem off the last of Lucy’s questions. “Why she was shooting him is a long story that I’ll leave for later. What it boils down to is that she shot Laddie and now he’s really hurt—and no one is sure if he’ll survive. And everything is falling apart.”

“What do you mean?” Lucy leaned forward, a curious light filling her eyes. “You mean because Laddie isn’t getting better?”

“Sort of,” Rilly shoved her hair out of her face with both hands. “It’s partly worry for him that is hurting everyone, and partly anger at Anna. Half the Pack wants her dead, it seems, and the other half is willing to forgive her. The strange thing is, Dwayne’s the one who wants her dead the most.”

“Dwayne?” Lucy shook her head, tapping the nails of one hand against the glass to emphasize her words. “I can’t believe that.”

“He won’t say much about it,” Rilly told her. “But he did say that she broke some law of the Pack. He says the punishment for that is death, and since David has forgiven her and won’t kill her, Dwayne’s very angry. Very very angry,” she added ruefully.

Before Lucy could comment again, Marko pushed the doors open, causing the bells to jangle once more. Rilly turned to face the door almost on instinct, though the bright smile that lifted her lips faded when she realized that it wasn’t Paul—again.

“I came to get you tonight,” Marko explained when he saw her shoulders droop, “because Paul is trying to get Anna to come eat. She still won’t leave, and Paul didn’t want to give up on her in the middle of a discussion, so I came instead.”

“Oh.” Rilly nodded, trying to muster a welcoming smile for Marko’s sake, but couldn’t manage to. “Ok.”

“Hello, Lucy,” Marko smiled at her as he approached. “How are you this lovely evening?”

“Oh, I’m fine,” she flushed, the color barely visible on her suntanned skin, but there none the less. “And yourself?”

“Could be better,” the smile faded from his mouth for an instant before he jerked his lips back up. “Could be better.”

“I can believe that,” Lucy gathered into her arms the videos she and Rilly had restacked and headed for the shelves. “I hope things get better for you all.”

“Thank you,” Marko called after her, frowning as he turned towards Rilly. She finished gathering her things together and pushed the wooden door open once more.

“Are you ready?” he asked as she came to stand next to him. Rilly nodded without looking at him, for she had just noticed that the girl who had entered earlier was hovering near—and now that Rilly thought about it, she had been ever since she’d entered the store. Rilly turned to face her and caught a glimpse of brown eyes and light brown hair before the girl ducked back behind a row of shelves.

“Hey, are you ready?” Marko repeated his question and touched Rilly’s arm, causing her to jump. He smiled at her, though questions filled his brown eyes. She flushed and ducked her head, casting a quick glance back at the girl, but she wasn’t visible through the thick tangle of movies.

“Yeah, I’m ready,” Rilly allowed Marko to lead her out of the door, breathing a sigh of relief when the bells marked their exit. Once they were outside she felt free to talk again, though the press of mortals around them was extreme. “How is Laddie? Have there been any changes?”

“Nope,” Marko fell back to walk next to her as he explained what D’ara had claimed this last batch of potion had been and what it should have done, but didn’t. Rilly nodded, making mental notes as he spoke.

At long last Rilly had decided to embrace her heritage, though not in a way her family would have ever approved of. She’d started reading D’ara’s books and was picking up on the magic faster than she thought she would—because she needed to, for Laddie’s sake, and because this was what she had been born to do.

She didn’t notice when Marko’s voice trailed off, didn’t even notice when their pace began to slow until it was close to a crawl. She only paid attention to what he was doing when Marko whirled around, his glittering white teeth bared in a warning snarl. She turned as quickly as she could, but no danger met her wide eyes.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, tugging on Marko’s arm without getting in his way if any sudden movements were needed. He remained tense beneath her hand for a long time, and she could feel her heartbeat echoing in her ears as she strained to hear whatever sound might have set him off.

When the tension drained from his body in one quick swoop she removed her hand from his arm and waited for him to explain what the danger had been. Marko continued to watch the darkness for another few of her slow breaths, then turned back to their path and began to walk again.

“I don’t know what was wrong,” he admitted. “I don’t know if there was any real danger. We were being followed, though.”

“By who?” Rilly glanced sideways at him out of the corner of her eye, hoping he didn’t notice the way her hands shoved into the pockets of her jeans. The deep openings hid her tight fists, or at least that was her plan, for she didn’t want him to know just how worried she was.

“Some girl,” Marko frowned, glancing over his shoulder once more as if he could still feel her eyes upon them. “She had dark eyes, was a little shorter than me, and had light hair—though it might have been brown with lighter highlights. All I noticed was the glint of the light off of her hair.”

“Sounds familiar,” Rilly mumbled. She frowned, the expression tightening the planes of her face as she tried to place the description of the female. When it hit her, her eyebrows jerked up her forehead in surprise. “That sounds like the girl in the store.” In a torrent of words Rilly explained about her conversation with Lucy, and the fact that the girl had lurked nearby, though neither of them had noticed it at the time.

“Wonderful,” Marko groaned, wiping one hand down his face as if to fend off an approaching headache. “Just what we need. Something else to disturb the balance of the Pack.”

“Do you think she wants to hurt us?” Rilly asked, glancing back into the darkness, for they’d left the Boardwalk’s bright lights and screaming patrons.

“She didn’t try to,” he admitted. “She was just following us. I don’t know, Rilly.” He shrugged, then caught Rilly’s arms, drawing her close to her body, though not as close as Paul would have held her—or so she liked to believe. “Let’s go. I don’t like being away from the others for so long when everyone’s upset—and now this newcomer is poking around.” He sighed as he took to the air and Rilly clutched at his shoulders. Her eyes squeezed shut, as they would remain for the rest of the trip, because she still wasn’t used to flying, and didn’t think she ever would be.

“I’ll talk to David,” Marko decided at last, dipping his head close to her ear so she could hear him over the rush of wind buffeting their bodies. “And if you see her around again, try to find out more about her, and tell me or David right away.”

“I will,” Rilly yelled out above the wind, then fell silent, focusing all her mental strength on not getting sick. Though it should have been exhilarating to fly above the world, all she could think about on each flight was the fact that the ground was far away from her body—and that if she should fall, it would be devastating.

~*~*~*~*~*

The mismatched colors of the Boardwalk swirled, flickering colored patches across the painted bodies of the youth crushing themselves into the open areas between rides and stores. Though winter in California was warmer than most places, the night air had only just become pleasant enough to bare bodies, and the local teenagers took advantage of the warmth of spring, nestled between the chill of winter and the heat from the mobs of summer tourists.

Desire wafted heavy through the air, offering a tantalizing bouquet of aromas to those who could smell beyond mortal capacity. Vampires found the spring rush for Boardwalk pleasure to be an open smorgasbord after the small winter fast.

Most vampires, that is. Dwayne traipsed the length of the Boardwalk slowly, keeping to the shadows that spilled out under the curving lengths of rail that made up the Big Dipper or that curled from the ground up, stealing onto the concrete of the Boardwalk from the darkness of the ocean.

A hundred meals had presented themselves to him in so many ways over the deepening of night. Their bodies had pressed close to him, either out of a mistaken movement or out of the hypnotic power behind his darkness.

Each time he had turned away, his lips twisting though he held back the snarl that lifted them. His teeth glinted white in the darkness, but remained human, his fangs safely tucked away until it was time to feed.

The Carousel, haven to him for longer than he could remember, offered him the sacrifice of the night. It had long been the preferred hunting grounds for him, because something in the music, in the turn of lights, and in the rise and fall of the painted horses seemed to call out to him, soothing his frazzled thoughts. This time it provided the perfect meal he’d been hunting for. His eyes locked onto her body the moment his heavy boots hit the metal floor of the ride, entering far ahead of the mortals who waited in line behind him.

She faced away from him, perched on the back of one of the gilded ponies, her long golden hair falling forward over her shoulders, though enough fell down her back to still reach mid-waist. She arched forward to press her chest into the teenager riding in front of her and the movement was almost perfect, tight and controlled, simmering with danger and invitations to play.

He made his way around the Carousel, moving against the motion, though that upset many of the humans riding it. All it took was one short glare from his dark eyes and something in their depths stopped the complaints.

The ride was beginning its final turn when he faced the girl he was now hunting. She tossed her head and again the movement was almost right, the tight curls falling just so over her face. His gaze met hers as she slid from the horse and his mind winced when he saw the bright green eyes. Still he jerked his head up in the silent greeting that females her age took for granted and she started for him, ignoring the startled questions from her partner.

“Hi,” she murmured when she was close enough that he could hear her. She kept walking, stepping around him and towards the exit of the ride, glancing back once as if she expected him to follow her. She was not mistaken. “I’m Julie.”

“Hi.”

“You don’t talk much, do you?” Julie grinned at him and hopped off of the Carousel, threading her way through the crowd until she emerged onto the sidewalk in front of the street. Cars were at a standstill as they waited to be let into the parking lot, bumper-to-bumper metal, engines humming, music throbbing and vibrating Dwayne’s head.

“Not usually,” he touched her shoulder and motioned towards the other end of the Boardwalk, where the lesser-used entrance to Neptune’s Kingdom offered more breathing room. “Do you?”

“All the time,” she chirped, laughing up at him as she bounced down the sidewalk, past the crowds of high-school students trying to forget the latest test or paper and emerge themselves in the beach bum culture their parents frowned upon. “People often tell me I need to shut up.”

“Do you?” Dwayne caught her elbow when she started to turn into the Boardwalk again and guided her farther down the sidewalk until thick wooden stairs let them escape down onto the beach.

“Not usually,” Julie twitched her arm and he found his hand falling back to his side, until she caught it in hers, twisting their fingers together even as she shoved her hair out of her face with her free hand. “I just have things to say and I don’t believe in holding them back. I bet you bottle everything up instead of talking through problems, don’t you?”

Dwayne opened his mouth to deny the accusation, then stopped himself. What did it matter if she was allowed a nugget or two of truth? What would she do with the information once he was done with her?

“You’re right,” he admitted, not stopping their slow walk until the waves threatened to spill over his feet. “I don’t like to talk about how I feel.”

“A man of action then,” she all but purred, twisting around him until her back was to the ocean. Her hand slid from his and then both of hers brushed against his hips before lifting higher, trailing her nails along his chest, dipping beneath the leather jacket to hit bare skin. “You’re the one who is right; actions are much, much better than words.”

The light from a dying bonfire nearby caught her eyes, highlighting the greenness of them and Dwayne groaned, ducking his head so that his hair spilled forward into his face. Julie lifted her body, her lips parted to accept the kiss she expected.

“Close your eyes,” he muttered, his hands convulsing on her shoulders. She did so without questioning his motives, instead flicking her tongue along her lips to entice his attention there.

Dwayne jerked her forward, cradling her almost gently against his body. She lifted her head once more and he allowed one hand to caress her cheek, then higher, drawing a handful of her curls forward. He pressed his face into them for a long moment, breathing in as deep as his non-mortal body could, though the fragrance was far from what he wanted. His mind could supply the smell that should be there.

Julie whimpered, deep in her throat, an almost pained sound, for the tension of waiting was proving too much. Her hands grasped at Dwayne’s arms, trying to pull him closer to her body, and if he didn’t do something in the next moment, she was going to take matters into her own hands.

She needn’t have worried, for Dwayne moved then, jerking her head to one side and shoving his fangs into her skin with far more force than was necessary. One hand clamped down over her mouth to muffle the screams tearing from her throat. He jerked backwards, tearing her skin and sending drops of her blood splattering around his face, just as her hair tumbled over his skin. He sank into her again, freeing the warmth of her blood into his mouth, his animalistic cries hidden beneath the flow of liquid.


Julie’s body collapsed in onto him as her life skittered down his throat, each labored heartbeat painful to listen to. Dwayne jerked back, his mouth stained with her blood, her hair filling his vision.

“Anna,” he groaned, doubling over as the blood flooded into his stomach, filling what had been empty for far too long. The corpse slid down his legs to land on the sand with a near silent thud, but he was far too caught up in the images burning behind his eyes.

He forced away the emotions as he had so many others in this time of pain. He could have none of these feelings for her, for she was a traitor and it was only a matter of time until she found death—and if not at David’s hands, then at his own, for she would pay for her betrayals.

Dwayne grabbed the dead body by its hair and flung it into what was left of the bonfire. The embers flared from the rush of wind the movement had brought. He glanced around, searching for something to build up the fire with, but he needn’t have bothered. One tiny flicker at a time the flames built up, each one lapping at the dead body in their midst until it was consumed. Dwayne had to move back, for the heat had grown to an unbearable temperature, threatening to light him on fire even from the distant spot from which he observed it.

The body’s blonde hair seemed to lift as it shifted, skin convulsing from the heat. For one instant he could have sworn it rose up towards the sky, only to collapse in on itself, a bundle of flaming skin reminiscent to what he had once believed hell to be.

The aptness of the situation was not lost on him. Dwayne cast one more look at the funeral pyre before lifting into the air. His tongue crept along his lips, drawing inside the final drops of her blood, his lips twisting with disgust for it wasn’t the taste he desired.

*~*~*~*~*~

Paul muffled his frustrated groan behind one hand, though he knew Anna would still be able to hear it. She ignored the sound, not even bothering to look up from the small, leather bound book. The only noise to fill the room was the faint scratch of the blue pen as she filled page after page with her tiny, neat handwriting. Even as close as he was to her, Paul could make out none of the words, for she knew to tilt the book just so to keep others from reading it.

“Anna, you have to go hunt. You haven’t been eating near enough, and the bottle just isn’t cutting it. It’s second-rate blood at best, blood that is stored away for use. You need fresh blood.”

“I’m fine,” Anna murmured, not lifting her head from her writing. Paul groaned again, not muffling it this time and whirled in a fast circle as he tried to find an outlet for his anger.

“You’re not fine,” he argued. “You’re paler than ever, you don’t even move much any more, and I’m worried about you!”

“Paul,” Anna lifted her head at long last, allowing him to capture her blue eyes. “I’ll be fine. I am fine. I’ve just been tired lately, that’s why I’m pale. Sleep has been—hard.”

“Sleep has nothing to do with it,” he reminded her, sinking down to sit next to her on the couch. “You know better than that. The paleness, being tired—it’s all because you aren’t eating right. All you do is sit in here and write that.” One hand jerked towards the book she still held between her slender fingers and on towards the pile of them that rested on the table at the other end of the couch. “What are you writing, anyway?”

“Never mind,” Anna closed the book in her hands with care, leaving the pen inside to mark her place, then set it with the others before she turned back to Paul. “You shouldn’t worry about me so much. Go worry about Laddie, he needs it more than I.”

“I’m worried about him too,” Paul admitted. “But he has lots of people taking care of him—and you’ve locked yourself away from everyone. Anna, who is going to take care of you?”

“I—I don’t need anyone to,” Anna breathed, turning her face away at the last moment. Her shoulders slumped forward, and her back curved towards the couch, the subtle signs so obvious to Paul.

“You won’t come out to hunt with me?” Paul asked again, hoping this time her answer would change. He still had his doubts, though, and he pressed one hand to his own throat as he waited for her to speak.

“I don’t think so,” Anna replied, her voice muffled by the hair hanging in front of her face. “Not tonight. Maybe tomorrow—maybe.”

“You have to eat,” Paul tried one last attempt at getting through to her. “And something besides what’s in those bottles.” With a sharp laugh he warded off the reply he knew was coming. “So drink this.”

The scent of fresh blood swept over Anna’s senses and she jerked around, bringing her head up to stare at Paul, surprise and hunger warring within the depths of her eyes. He said nothing, only tilted his head to one side, revealing the bloody gouges his sharp nails had left in his neck.

“Paul,” she gritted her teeth, the words coming in guttural bursts from her throat. “Don’t do this. Go, now. Go!” He remained still, the blood trickling down his pale throat and Anna could resist the fresh blood no longer.

She fell upon him with an animalistic snarl, fangs dipping into his body with much more care than her movements would have attested to. He groaned when the warm suction began and her tongue flicked over his skin, drawing another sound from him. Paul’s hands convulsed on his lap as her throat worked, drawing his blood out in short, quick gulps that left his skin on fire and his veins tingling from the movement.

Anna drew away from him before any damage could be done; she’d barely taken enough to sustain her throughout the night, but Paul knew he could push his luck no farther. He turned to face her in time to see the tip of her tongue sweep the blood from her lips.

“Feel better?” he asked, pressing the fingers of one hand to the wound without thinking about it. Anna nodded, forcing her eyes away from the blood-covered area and up to his face.

Silence fell over the room as Paul waited for her to speak. Moment by moment passed without her lips even opening, and Paul realized that again this was a lost cause. He forced a soft sigh through his open mouth, then stood, making his way towards the door. He needed to hunt more now than he had before, after giving his blood to Anna, though he would never tell her that.

“Things are going to be ok,” Paul stopped at the door and half turned to look back at her. “Laddie’s is going to get better and things will be ok. They will.” His words, so optimistic and cheerful, did nothing to convince her that the things they prophesied would come to pass—and did nothing to comfort him.

Paul started out the door, only to stop and glance back at her once more. “Dwayne doesn’t hate you, not really. He’s just—confused—right now, but he doesn’t hate you. That much love can’t change to hate so quickly.”

Anna’s stoic expression crumpled like paper around the edges and she doubled over just enough that the movement was visible, both hands pressed to her stomach before she could gain control of her reactions again. Paul started to cross the room to her, but she shook her head, sending a cloud of blonde curls dancing about her face.

“Just go, Paul, please,” Anna’s smile tempered the harsh words. When he hesitated, she forced the smile to brighten, melting some of the plastic away from the expression. “I just feel like being alone right now, really. I’ll be ok. Thank you for the blood.”

Paul nodded and turned again, moving towards the door, his steps dragging as he waited for her to call him back. She didn’t, and he had stepped out into the hallway before she even spoke again.

“Don’t try to fool yourself, Paul,” Anna called after him just loud enough for him to hear. His steps hesitated as she continued to speak. “Dwayne might not hate me—but there are far worse things than being hated.”

Paul’s shoulders slumped forward as he continued down the hall, trying to drive the echoing tone of her words out of his head. The defeat her sentence had captured, the unrelenting agony her speaking belied—he had to find a way to help her. He just had to.

*~*~*~*~*~

Shauna sank down into the soft armchair in the corner of Laddie's sick room. Unlike humans in a hospital, the vampires preferred comfortable places to rest while they visited their fallen comrade. She shifted around until she was comfortable, legs draped over one of the chair's arms, then turned to look at Star, who still sat on the bed next to Laddie, one hand resting on his arm.

"You were right," Star continued their conversation with a sad laugh. "Michael did take Anna's side. I thought you were crazy when you told me he would—but you were right."

"What happened, sweetie?" Shauna sat forward as best she could without toppling from her precarious position, forcing her face into gentle, concerned lines. Star accepted the offered comfort,never doubting her sincerity.

"He came in to check on me and we fought over Anna," Star told her. "He still claims that this isn't her fault because she was under that spell. But spell or no, she hurt Laddie and he has still taken her side!"

"How can Michael act like that?" Shauna shook her head as she settled back into the chair. "After all, he knows how much you love the little guy. Anna hurt him; of course you're going to be mad at her. I can't believe he'd do this to you."

"I know!" Star wailed, then clamped one hand to her mouth and glanced down at Laddie for fear that she'd disturbed him. He didn't move, of course, and she let out a relieved sigh before she realized how horrible that action was. "I don't know why he forgave her."

Silence followed Star's words, but Shauna made no move to fill it. If she'd learned anything over the past months from living with the vampires, it was that they would speak of their own accord, if given enough time—excepting maybe David, who continued to keep his cards close to his body. Sure enough, once she had time to gather her thoughts, Star began to speak again.

"I think maybe it's because Michael is the one who drained her," she admitted. "Anna, I mean. It's really his fault that she ever became a vampire, though it was their blood she drank. If he hadn't tried to kill her, all of this might not have happened. Maybe he feels responsible for her because of that. I've always wondered."

"You don't know she wouldn't have become a vampire anyway," Shauna argued, forcing herself to remain calm and sensible. "Just look at how she was with Dwayne. He wouldn't have let her remain human for long, you know that. This could have still happened."

"I know," Star told her, one hand rubbing over her skirt in a nervous gesture. "But Michael—you know how the guys are. They like to believe what they do is the difference between how things are and how they would be. Like to think that they have a hand in everything. He probably does feel responsible for her."

Shauna parted her lips as if to refute this latest statement, then thought of better of it again. She waited, leaning forward to offer more attention to Star, a move that had worked in the past—and would work again now.

"Who cares if he feels responsible for her!" Star exploded, pushing the understanding from her eyes. "He knows Pack law. She hurt one of us, and that's the first law of Pack, harm not your own. Besides that, he knows what Laddie means to me—how much I care for him. He should be supporting me in this, not that murderer."

"You're right," Shauna agreed easily, sliding out of the chair and crossing to sit next to Star on the bed, careful not to put pressure on any part of Laddie's body. She placed one hand on Star's arm, and the older vampire nodded.

"I know I am. He's in the wrong here by forgiving her, not me."

"You know," Shauna continued, forcing her eyebrows to rise in an attempt to look surprised. "I think it's pretty clear that David has forgiven Anna too. . . ." She let her words trail off to add to the confusion and suspense of her sentence.

Star glanced about with wary eyes as if she was afraid that David might be lurking in a corner just waiting to pounce on her if she said the wrong thing. When she was certain that no one was around to hear, she leaned forward, dropping her voice into a thick whisper.

"David has always been—irrational when it comes to Anna," she admitted. "From the very beginning he almost destroyed the Pack while trying to claim her—and when Dwayne beat him to it, I thought they would kill each other. I think—I think that he's been blinded by how much he wants her."

"But he leads the Pack," Shauna's voice matched Star's and she too leaned forward until her forehead almost brushed against the other vampire's. "Doesn't that mean that he should enforce the law no matter how he feels about the perpetrator?"

"Of course," Star hurried to say, then shrugged, the energy draining out of her. "But it doesn't matter. David always did make his own rules, and ever since Anna showed up—well, nothing as trivial as Pack Law is going to put a damper on his attempts to get her."

Something on Shauna's face must have given away her internal thoughts, for Star sat up with a gasp. Shauna jerked herself upright, forcing her expression into a calm one, but it was too late. She mentally berated herself for allowing anyone to see what she was thinking—until Star spoke and Shauna realized that she'd taken the look the wrong way.

"Oh, Shauna, I'm so sorry," Star hurried to placate her new friend. "I didn't mean—I know how you feel about David. I didn't mean to say that he wants your sister more—oh I'm so sorry."

"It's ok, Star," Shauna smiled at her, the brightness behind the expression not forced in the slightest. Relief flooded her body and she rose to her feet. "In fact, why don't I go get a bottle of blood, and we'll seal this forgiveness over a drink?"

"That sounds—good," Star said, her own smile lifting the corners of her mouth. "I haven't eaten yet, so actually that sounds great."

"Good, I'll be right back." Shauna hurried through the doorway before her expression could give away the truth. A pleased grin jerked her lips up and she coughed to drive it away. Things were working faster than she had dared to hope.
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