All the characters in the following story are owned by Spelling Television Inc. [A subsidiary of Spelling Entertainment Group Inc.]. Vampire: The Masquerade is owned by Mark Rein*Hagan/White Wolf Publishing. Our use is in no way a challenge to their copyrights. No profit is being made from this.

The story and events are ours.

Completed December 22, 1999

 

 

 

BLOOD-LUST

By Jenny Hagiwara and Kelly Schweighauser

 

— PART ONE —

JOHNNY

Cash scowled furiously, feeling the darkness of then night descend into his heart as he stalked the city's back streets in the hours just before dawn. He wasn't Thirsty, but if he hadn't had left the Haven when he did, he felt sure he would have violated it's sacred status as Elysium. The site of Sasha surrounded by all those Brujah thugs had turned his stomach until he was primed to pick a fight. He knew they were her Clan now, but all he could think about, was how she was supposed to have been his Childe. He felt an emptiness inside that had never gone away, ever since that night when those Rabble scum had taken her from him, forcibly Embracing her before his eyes.

Cash turned around at the sound of Sasha's bike roaring up from behind, surprising him. He hadn't expected her to leave The Haven so soon. He had thought she liked the attention she was getting there.

"Hey, Cash! Wait up, will ya?" Sasha called. She braked along side him and then looked around. "Where's your bike?" she asked.

"Left it a few blocks back with Lorraina."

"Oh. Well, the way you left The Haven so fast I thought maybe you were mad or something." She deliberately looked the other way, but Cash could still hear hurt in her voice. He suddenly felt about two inches high.

"Sorry, too many Brujah in there for me tonight." Then Cash instantly chided himself, realizing that might not have been the best thing to say.

"Yeah, well, for me too. Cameron and the others are after me to spend more time with them, and less with you and Uncle Julian." She snorted. "Cameron said I was ashamed of being a Brujah."

Cash raised his eyebrows. Those words, spoken from one Brujah to another, were fighting words – ones that could easily provoke a Frenzy. He looked Sasha over carefully but she seemed all right to him. "So," he asked cautiously. "What happened next?"

Sasha grinned and flipped back her mane of unruly curls. I told him so maybe I should be ashamed of being Brujah — considering how they Embraced me."

Cash gave low whistle. Sasha had guts — he'd give her that any day. He just hoped it wouldn't get her killed. "What did Cameron do?"

She shrugged. "Nothing really. Just muttered something about Eddie being a coward. Then he left off bothering me. Once he stopped, Nicky did too. And pretty soon the whole Clan just sort of drifted off. I looked around for you but couldn't find you anywhere. So I asked Opal and she said she'd seen you taking off."

Cash scuffled his feet. "Yeah, sorry about that Sasha. I, uh, I guess I got sorta jealous seeing you with Cameron." To his surprise Sasha leaned over, grabbed his black leather jacked, pulling him against her in a fierce kiss. Just when Cash had gotten over his initial surprise to really start enjoying things, she broke it off. "Thanks," she whispered.

"For what?" he asked huskily.

"For reminding me just why I like you so much." With that Sasha revved her engine, gave him an inviting wink and then took off, presumably heading back to the mansion.

Now Cash was Thirsty. Fortunately, there looked to be a small group of transient street youth up ahead.

 

The sun had already been up a few good hours when Cash entered Julian's study. Julian was on the phone and motioned for him to come in. Cash sat down, gearing himself to expect a lecture about his tardiness in reporting in. Julian did not disappoint him.

"Where have you been? Do you have any idea what time it is?" Julian snapped as soon as he hung up.

Cash spread arms wide. "Sorry, Julian. I was playing doctor to a wounded kid just before dawn. I didn't realize it'd take so long.

Julian frowned but seemed somewhat mollified by Cash's answer. "Just what exactly happened?"

"I was out hunting. Came across a bunch of young street kids when they were attacked by a gang of toughs. They tried to fight back but it wasn't much of a fight so I thought I'd better help out. I ran off the toughs. When I came back there were only two teenaged kids left — a guy and a girl."

Julian nodded for Cash to continue.

"I smelled Blood and could tell the boy was hurt pretty bad. I thought that was a shame — he was the best fighter in the group. He saw me and he told the girl to run. When I got closer I saw he'd been shot through the shoulder. I pulled him in an alleyway, dug out the bullet, and then spent the next hour or so cleaning and licking out the wound. The bullet had got in there pretty deep, but I think he'll be okay. Afterward I let him think he'd only been grazed instead of shot, and then made sure he wouldn't remember me." Having said all this, Cash was a little worried that Julian might chew him out for getting involved with what had been clearly a matter between humans.

Instead Julian looked thoughtful. "Well, no harm seems to have come of it. This gang you ran off doesn't know about your Kindred identity and you provided the injured youth with a new memory..." Julian paused and gave slight smile. "It's the same sort of thing your Sire would have done. I wouldn't have expected any less from you, Cash."

Before Cash could begin glow in this unexpected compliment, Julian continued. "As head of my security staff, there's a matter you should be aware of. That phone call I just received was concerning Eastling, Inc., one of my corporations. A Ventrue contact at the police has just informed me that a third Eastling employee has been brutally mauled to death. He suspects it may be the work of Garou."

Cash uttered a low whistle. "Garou? So soon again? But I thought we had an understanding with them?"

Julian nodded his head. "Kindred have a non-aggression pact with the Garou that covers the western United States. We own and protect vast tracts of land that are sacred to them — much of it is already National Park Land, but even more is held privately by the Ventrue. As long as the sites are kept pure — free from Wyrm taint — they agree to leave us alone."

Cash looked concerned. "Well, something must be provoking them to break the peace. Any ideas on what?"

"I don't know, but before we jump to any conclusions, I want to be certain that it is Garou who are responsible for these deaths. I'm sending Daedalus to investigate the matter privately. I'm going to see to it that Sonny is assigned to handle the police case, although I rather dislike doing so."

"Why? Sonny's the best. If it's Garou, he'll be sure to spot the signs in no time."

"Yes, but involving Sonny also means involving his human partner."

"Oh." That gave Cash pause. "Uh, Julian — does Frank know anything about Garou?"

Julian responded with a slight shake of his head and a look of misery.

 

Cash sat on the low wall that surrounded the flat roof and pointed down to the train-tracks. "That's him," he said to Julian. "The dark-haired one with the red shirt. His name's Johnny. He's driving me crazy, Julian! I can't stop thinking about him."

Julian nodded as he examined the group of teenagers. "How did you first meet him?"

"When I was Hunting," Cash admitted. "I was going to make him my prey, actually, but remember? He and his friends got jumped by a street gang. Next thing I know, I'm saving his neck. Since they shot him, I got to taste his blood." He shifted uncomfortably and examined his fingers. "Could that be what's wrong, Julian? I've heard it's possible for a Kindred to get hooked on the blood of one particular mortal. I always figured it was just a stupid Grand-sire's tale, to frighten the Fledglings. But do you think that's what's happened to me?"

"It's possible," Julian replied. "But I doubt it." He turned away from his examination of the young mortals below and sat next to the Gangrel. "Tell me what you know about this boy."

"I found out his name is Johnny," Cash began. "He's been on the street since he was twelve, that's about six years now. He begs and steals mostly, or works odd jobs at one of the churches or homeless shelters. He smokes cigarettes and marijuana, drinks alcohol, but avoids hard drugs. That girl with the red hair and torn jeans is Gina, she's—"

"I'm not interested in any of the rest, Cash," Julian interrupted gently. "How long has this obsession been going on?"

"Almost three weeks," Cash sighed. "It hurts not to see him, Julian. I try to stay away, and I can't. I thought if I Drained him, I'd get over this, but that didn't work either."

Congratulations, Cash," Julian smiled, patting the younger Kindred on the shoulder. "You are going to be a Sire."

Amazement and shock flooded Cash's face. He stared at Julian, his mouth hanging open. "Is that what this is?" He managed to ask finally.

"Isn't this how you felt about Sasha?" Julian asked gently. Cash nodded slowly. "You want to Embrace him. You have my permission, of course."

"Oh, Caine!" Cash exclaimed, squeezing his eyes shut. "I'm doing this all wrong! I'm sorry, Julian."

"It's alright," Julian chuckled. "I grant you permission to Embrace the mortal into the Gangrel, if he desires to become Kindred."

"Thank you," Cash smiled, his eyes swiveling back to Johnny below. "I feel better already."

"You'll have to make arrangements to be away," Julian reminded him. "I know how private you Gangrel get when you make a Neonate. I'll give you six weeks, Cash. You are Primogen of your Clan; you can't be away any longer than that."

 

"You've what?" Sasha asked resentfully.

Cash proceeded with his news a bit less certainly. He hadn't counted on a negative response from the woman he loved. "I, uh, I've decided to sire a Childe."

Lorraina issued a broad grin, suddenly pouncing on him and nearly bowling them both over in the process of giving him a large hug. "Well, all right! A Childe! It's about time." Over Cash's shoulder she spied Sasha's stormy face and held onto her brood brother a bit tighter and longer than necessary. She smirked when Sasha's eyes begin to blaze copper.

"Uh, thanks, Lor—" Cash replied, trying both retreat and disentangle himself from her arms. He, too, had seen Sasha's Beast emerge. However, unlike Lorraina, he had seen her Beast in action.

"So, guess you'll be taking some time off from guard duty, huh?" Lorraina continued gamely.

Cash grinned. "Yeah, Julian gave me six weeks. Think that'll be enough to tame a Gangrel fledge?"

Lorraina grinned right back. "You know where to find me if you need any help." She had recently sired her second Childe.

The glow in Sasha's eyes faded as she strove to take everything in. "So," she said hesitantly, "you get to stay home for a while? Maybe there's something to this being-a-Sire-thing after all." A sly grin formed on her face as she slide seductively to her lover's side. "A month and a half is plenty of time for us to—"

Lorraina interrupted with a loud burst of laughter. "Hah! You think he's gonna spend that time with you, Brujah? Think again!"

"Lorraina," Cash stated in a warning tone that, naturally, went unheeded.

"Unlike some clans, Gangrel are choosy. We test out who gets to be our Childer – see if they got what it takes to be real Kindred – to survive. We don't just go Embrace some chick off the dance floor."

"Okay, that's enough, Lorraina!" Cash shoved her none too gently. "You know it's not Sasha's fault she's the way she is. Martin was trash — even Cameron says so." He turned toward Sasha and immediately realized his mistake. The hurt in her eyes scorched his heart. "Sasha, I didn't mean it like that — I mean, just because Martin was — well, it doesn't mean that you're..." His words trailed off as Sasha backed away, red tears just barely brimming. She turned and fled in the direction of her room.

Cash swore silently. For a wonder, Lorraina kept her mouth shut.

 

It was just past evening. Cash kept himself to the shadows, virtually invisible, eyeing the scene before him. He'd discovered Johnny among a group of four on a dirty street, crowded with abandoned buildings. He was glad to see that Gina, whose safety Johnny had been so concerned about in the fight several weeks back, was no where in sight. That'd make approaching him easier.

Cash frowned as he got wind of the general conversation. It seemed some members of the gang had started selling themselves and were trying to convince the others there was fast, easy money to be made that way. Cash had a certain vision for his future Childe and prostitution wasn't it. Cash frowned again as Johnny looked to be swayed. Cash straightened himself and walked over to the small group, making his footsteps deliberately heavy.

At his arrival the four teenagers immediately hushed. "Look," Cash informed them, "prostitution isn't a good idea. You can never tell what kind of freak you'll meet."

He received a snicker for his efforts. "You mean freaks like you?" someone countered.

"Outta here, man," one particularly ragged teenager asserted. "This is our turf."

"Naw, 'salright," Johnny said looking Cash over. He had a quizzical expression on his face, like he wanted to ask Cash something. "This guy looks cool."

"Yeah, well, what's he want? Some kinda award for that?"

"No." Cash stared as a Predator straight into Johnny's eyes. To his credit, while Johnny flinched he didn't look away. Cash held up a fifty-dollar bill between his fingers. "For a few private moments of your time."

Someone uttered a low whistle. "Take it, man, go for it."

Johnny looked hesitant. "I—I dunno."

Cash eyed him squarely . "It's cool. Just come with me and the money's all yours."

Johnny suddenly set his jaw in determination. "'Kay. Let's go." His friends nervously backed off as Cash led Johnny down a couple of blocks to a completely deserted area. A few times Johnny looked ready to bolt, but each time Cash merely raised the fifty in front of him. That was enough to hold Johnny's interest. The poor kid looked hungry enough. He probably hadn't had a good meal in ages. Cash wanted to change that and put some more flesh on the boy before he embraced him. He didn't think Johnny would appreciate spending the rest of his unlife as a scrawny punk. The money he'd give him could buy Johnny much needed hot meals.

Cash prodded Johnny into what looked to be a long, desolate alleyway. Cash smiled to himself, his Kindred senses allowing him to notice the difference between the outward confident swaggering of his Prey in contrast to his nervous, quick heartbeat.

They were about midway in when Cash stopped. "Look," he began sympathetically, " I know it's your first time." At least the first time when I'll let you walk away remembering all this, Cash added mentally. "I promise to be gentle. You'll be just fine."

"Yeah, well, how 'bout seeing somma that money first, you dig?"

Cash wanted to groan at such obvious bravo, but instead held up the fifty. Johnny was much closer to him than before. In a flash he had grabbed the money, turned tail and ran as fast as his legs could carry him. Cash couldn't resist a smile. Boy, was Johnny in for a surprise...

 

Johnny took flight at top speed. He'd been living on the streets too long to be anybody's fool — no way was he going to stick around for whatever that creep wanted. While Johnny was looking back over his shoulder to check his distance, he plowed head long into a slim dark figure at the mouth of the alleyway. A hand shot out to steady him.

"Easy there," Cash said.

Johnny could only stare in shock and dismay. He looked back down the long alley, which aside from the dumpsters and littering debris, was now empty.

"How — what…" stammered Johnny, trying to back out of Cash's firm grip.

Cash smiled. "Don't worry, everything's cool, Johnny."

Alarmed, Johnny began backing up. "Wh—who are you?" he croaked.

"Name's Cash. And I know you're called Johnny." Cash spoke in low tones to reassure Johnny. He then caught the youth's terrified eyes and spoke. "Come here. Let me show you something."

Mesmerized, Johnny followed Cash's lead midway back down the alley. Things proceeded as if in a dream. He became fascinated by Cash's every move. He saw Cash make certain no one was around, then take hold of his wrist. He turned it over so that Johnny's palm faced upward. Johnny vaguely thought about tugging his hand away when Cash suddenly smiled at him.

Johnny caught a brief, glimpse of fangs, then suddenly Cash bit down and an unimaginable wave of euphoria burst through his senses. Johnny emitted a surprise gasp and leaned back against the alley wall. Whatever drug they were doing felt great — too incredible for words. He wanted it to last forever. But regrettably the feeling began to taper and Johnny sagged down in heap on the alley floor. "What'd ya give me?" he finally managed to ask.

"No drugs." Cash grinned. His mouth was clear of blood but his fangs were still very evident.

Johnny jerked his head back so fast it smashed against the brick wall. "Oww!" he cried; he tried to stand and make another mad dash for it. Instead all he managed to do was make himself dizzy, collide thrashing into Cash, and send them both sprawling into a messy heap on ground.

"Oww," he said again, rubbing his head and glaring at Cash suspiciously. "You can't really be…" His voice trailed off as Cash held up Johnny's wrist. A neat cut was healing itself.

Johnny jerked his hand back as though unexpectedly burned. "No! Stay away from me! What d'you want with me anyway?"

"What I want," stated Cash, neatly placing some more folded bills in Johnny's hand, "is for you to keep this our little secret. Got that?"

Johnny stared at the wad of money. There looked to be a hundred dollars. It was more money than he'd ever seen in his entire eighteen years. He nodded dumbly and then looked up. The alleyway was empty.

Sasha was all over Cash the moment he entered through the mansion's front doors. "Where've you been? I was looking for you," she said suspiciously.

"Sasha," he said with a grin, reaching out for her and snagging her into his arms.

Relenting she allowed him to kiss her, then pulled back. "You're warm. You went Hunting without me?"

Cash sighed. "Sorry, baby, I know I said I'd take you the next time I went. I just had some business to take care of."

"You mean, business-like-ditching-your-bike-somewhere. I saw you walking in through the service gate!"

Cash grimaced. "Guess I can't pull anything on you. Yeah, I need some cash fast so I pawned it."

"You pawned your bike! Cash…" Sasha didn't know what to say. Whatever it was her boyfriend needed the money for, it had to be big in order for him to pawn off his prized possession like that. "Why didn't you tell me? You know Uncle Julian gives me an allowance. Let me help out."

"Well, I didn't think you'd agree… considering." Cash slowly tried to disengage himself from Sasha.

Sasha held on firmly. She wanted to savor the warmth of his embrace. His reluctance to be open with her was puzzling.

"It's like this, Sash—, I needed the money for my Childe. Or the guy I want to be my Childe. Johnny. His friends were getting him into prostitution and I can't let that happen."

Sasha pulled away from Cash so fast it left him feeling empty. "I see," she said icily. "So you decided to buy him off instead."

"Aw, c'mon, Sasha, it's not like that. I just don't want him to get himself into any trouble."

"So how're you supposed to get around without your bike? Huh, you and Uncle Julian are always going off on me about responsibility! You're a Primogen — what if you need to, you know, be some where fast?"

"Then Lorraina can lend me her bike."

"Yeah, right. Fat chance of that happening."

Cash sighed heavily. "Look, I don't want to argue with you tonight. Let's just say I needed money and leave it at that."

Sasha glared at him. Her jealousy and ire were obvious. Finally she relented. "Here," she said with displeasure, producing some neatly folded bills from the black pocket of her tight jeans. "Take this. It should be enough to redeem your bike. But don't go spending it on little 'Johnny.' Got that?"

Cash looked relieved. "I got that. Thanks, Sasha. I won't forget this."

But Sasha was already walking the other way.

 

Detective Frank Kohanek leaned back in his desk chair and sipped at his tepid coffee. He peered over a typed sheet he was reading and met Sonny's eyes from across the room. Sonny gave him a sour look and held up a stack of a papers. Frank returned a broad smile and 'thumbs up' sign for encouragement. Although both he and Sonny had been assigned to the Eastling case, Sonny had lost the coin toss between them earlier that evening, so he was stuck writing up the reports from their last case.

Frank read over the information he held with extra care. It seemed another one of Eastling, Inc.'s employees had bought it during the day shift. He thumbed through the black and white photos, wincing at the more gruesome images. There was no question about it. Four dead in just about as many days. It had to be Kindred. Who else would leave claw marks like that or chomp their victims? Besides there was the obvious fact that, if you traced far enough back through the corporate trees, Eastling, Inc. was just another of Julian Luna's various billionaire holdings. The question was, why would Kindred go after one of their own?

Obviously whoever it was, he wasn't afraid of provoking the Prince's wrath. Frank frowned. Maybe that was the missing key. Whoever was murdering these employees — human employees, mind you — of Julian's, might be trying to send Julian a deliberate message: Luna would be next. Frank downed the last of his coffee in one gulp. There was only one kind of Kindred he knew who wanted their Prince dead that badly. Brujah. Although Frank wouldn't exactly lose any sleep over Luna's death, the thought of Cameron running things as the city's new Kindred Prince and mob king wasn't a scene he wanted to deal with either. With a heavy sigh Frank reached for the phone to dial the number for the Luna Mansion.

 

Lorraina grinned from her rooftop perch as she watched the cat-and-mouse games proceeding on the streets below. She'd wanted to see Cash's Childe-to-be, to make sure the guy was up to snuff when it came to being a Gangrel. So far she didn't have any complaints. Cash had surprised Johnny while he was with some redhead chick. After motioning for her to "stay put" Johnny had taken off in a flash after Cash, who had promptly disappeared down another street. In frustration Johnny had begun running the wrong way, causing Cash to have to double back to catch up with his Prey — which he had done in no time flat. Still, Lorraina could see that the human boy was fast for a mortal. She was impressed.

She heard Cash yell out, "Johnny!"

The human cursed, and swiveled about. He approached Cash slowly. With her enhanced hearing Lorraina heard Cash taunt him that he had two 50 dollar bills for anyone fast enough to catch him. She watched with interest as Johnny tried to make a swipe at the money Cash dangled before him. Instantly Cash was off running, allowing Johnny the chance to pursue hot on his tail. Cash kept up this high paced race for another block, then ducked into a dead-end alleyway. He shape-shifted to bird-of-prey, then landed by his Brood-Sister on the roof-top above, just in time to hear Johnny screaming curses as he realized he'd been duped and left standing alone in an empty alley.

Cash grinned. Apparently he already knew what Lorraina's reaction would be, before he asked the question. "So, what d'ya think, Lor? He "Gangrel" enough for you?"

"We-lll…"

"Aw, c'mon, Lorraina. He's perfect and you know it." Cash smugly crossed his arms over his chest.

Lorraina laughed. "Yeah, yeah, yeah… You found a prime one, Cash."

"Does that mean you'll take over my duties as Clan Primogen and bodyguard to the Prince while I'm with Johnny?"

"You got it." Lorraina put her arm around Cash's shoulder and gave him a slight hug. "Just do one thing for me?"

"Yeah, sure, anything." Cash couldn't stop smiling.

Now that she'd agreed to take over for him, Lorraina figured he'd be in the mood to do what ever she asked. "Go back and find Johnny-boy there and give a fair race this time — no Kindred tricks."

"Huh?"

"I got fifty bucks here that says that kid's fast enough to get that hundred dollars outta you any night…"

 

While watching Cash packing to leave, Sasha had never felt such a wealth of conflicting emotions in her life. She was at once proud that Cash was undertaking the responsibility of looking after the Childe he planned to created, jealous that it wouldn't be her, could never be her, and furious that he could actually leave her like this. Underlying it all was the same sensation of abandonment that she'd felt when her parents and would-be baby sister had died in the car crash over a decade ago, then had re-experienced when her Uncle Julian had abruptly ceased contact with her when she turned twelve. Sure he was back in her life now, but that didn't make up for the times when he wasn't, even if it was because he'd been trying to "save" her from living with Kindred.

And it sure didn't make up for the family she'd lost, complete with the baby sister she'd never even had the chance to see or to hold. Sasha felt a lump in her throat as she fought to hold back the tears that threatened precariously to erupt. "Why can't I come," she stated plaintively.

Cash sighed. "Gimme a break, Sash— we've been through all this before. I can't have you around while I'm helping my Childe through the Change and all. It just isn't done that way."

"Why? 'Cuz I'm Brujah? That it, Cash?"

"Look, I'm not even letting Lorraina know where we'll be holed up. Hey, hand me those jeans over there, will ya?"

"Get 'em yourself, creep! What d'you think I am all of a sudden? Some second-rate girlfriend you can toss aside the moment you feel like it!"

"C'mon, Sasha, you know that's not true." Cash tried to move around Sasha to empty the last dresser drawer. He stared at it in dismay and muttered something about amassing too much stuff. He feinted a move to the right, but Sasha countered by sticking out her booted foot at the last second to trip him. Cash groaned in annoyance. Picking himself up off the floor he blurted out before he could stop himself, "this is what comes from putting down roots at Luna's!"

Sasha continued to block him. She turned sullen and put her hands on her hips defiantly. "You're avoiding the issue," she complained. "I still don't understand why I can't with you."

Cash must have decided it was time he got firm with her. He spoke roughly, perhaps more roughly than he'd intended to. "Cut it out, Sasha — that's just the way it has to be. You'll understand when you decide create your own Childe." He pushed pass her.

Sasha stared at her boyfriend in shock. The only other time he'd rebuffed her like that was when she approached him in the Haven a few weeks after her forced Embrace and he'd dished out some of her own medicine by refusing to be seen with a Brujah. He'd rebuffed her so soundly that she'd inadvertently cut her hand on the glass she'd been holding as she tightened her hand into a fist. Lillie had helped her deal with her painful feelings at the time by providing a listening ear, although she had obviously lacked in the advice department. But there wasn't anyone Sasha felt like talking to this time. She clenched her fists and stalked angrily out the door.

Cash so absorbed with completing his packing and his nervous thoughts about Johnny's upcoming Embrace that he didn't even notice her departure.

 

Cash was allowing Johnny to hunt him in a huge abandoned warehouse. It was another typical Gangrel test, played to see if a Childe-to-be was worthy of the Embrace. The warehouse Cash had chosen was big and dark; its only lighting source from the outside street lamps that filtered through the boarded windows. It was also the prefect place for Johnny's final test.

Cash had found the youth earlier that night sleeping with his girlfriend under a fire escape. He'd woken him up and held out another fifty if he agreed to play a special "game" with Cash. Johnny was at first reluctant to leave in case Gina should wake up alone, so Cash had gently shaken her awake enough to establish a hold on her mind. Gently placing his hand in front of her eyes, he had commanded her to sleep until her boyfriend returned. Johnny had still seemed dubious, but then Cash Dominated his mind so that the teenager followed him to the old warehouse. Once they had arrived there, Johnny had naturally been confused, as Dominance command faded away. He had rubbed at his eyes and started asking where they were and where Gina was.

Cash had held up the same fifty as before, this time letting Johnny take it. "Gina's fine," he said. "Right where we left her. Look, Johnny, you know how to play 'hide and seek'?"

Johnny had nodded, pocking the bill.

"Well, I'm gonna hide. I want you to count to ten. If you can find me in under fifteen minutes, there'll be another fifty in it for you. If it takes you more than an hour don't count on ever seeing me again. Got that?"

"Fifteen minutes? C'mon, man, this place is huge! 'Sides, don't you need more time to hide?"

Cash had grinned. "Just start counting!" With that he had taken off faster than Johnny's eyes could track.

That had been forty-seven minutes ago. Cash watched patiently at his progeny-to-be who seemed to be muttering some hostile words. Apparently Johnny realized he had followed yet another dead-end trail to the top of some stacking shelves. Cash had deliberately planted several false leads earlier that night. Still, Johnny was good. It's true that his skills could stand a lot of honing, but Cash liked what he saw. He hoped Johnny would be smart enough to find him before the hour mark, if not, they'd play this game a few more times until he did, or else Cash was convinced he was a hopeless case and could never be a Gangrel.

Suddenly Johnny leapt off the shelving units and suddenly ran outside of the warehouse. Cash grinned and looked at his watch. Yes, the human would do just fine. Cash got up and sauntered over to the fire escape just as Johnny finished mounting the last of the steps. He was flushed red, both from the exertion of having run up seven flights and, Cash suspected, from the excitement of having discovered his quarry. He waited for Johnny to climb over the edge of the roof ledge.

Johnny glared at him accusingly. "You cheated," he said. "You weren't supposed to go outside the building."

Cash shook his head. "But you still found me all right. How d'you figure it out?"

Johnny shrugged. Then slouched down against the roof ledge. "After all these false leads when I couldn't find you, I figured maybe I was thinkin' wrong."

"How so?" Cash slid down beside him.

"Well, I'm like, a human, and you're like, uh, you're…"

"Kindred," Cash supplied with a wry smile.

"Uh, right. So then I started thinkin' all the stuff I could remember 'bout you. Like drinkin' my blood, an' how rich you are 'cuz you got all this money— "

Cash turned so Johnny wouldn't see him wince. He wondered how long it'd take to pay Sasha back.

" —and how you run so fast it's like your flyin' and that's when it hit me! You're a Vampire, man, course you can fly! Right? 'Cuz how else could you get away from me all those times when you ran me into a blind alley? Right?"

Cash had to smile, Johnny looked so pleased with himself. "That's right, Johnny. Just try to remember: the operative word is Kindred. Vampire's a word for humans. Got that?"

Johnny nodded soberly. "Yeah. Uh, sorry Cash if I insulted you or anything. You know I'd never do that. I think it's cool you're what you are. I haven't told anyone neither — not even Gina. Boy, she'd freak!"

Cash nodded seriously. "I know you haven't told anybody, Johnny. That's part of the test. Like tonight was… and all the other nights too."

"Test? What d'you mean?"

"A test to see if you're strong enough, worthy enough to become one of us. How would you like that Johnny. To become Kindred — like me?

Johnny simply stared at Cash. "You can do that? How's it work?"

"It's called the Embrace. I'd Drain you — drink your blood — like I did before. But instead I would Drain all of it, then replace it with mine."

"How?"

"You'd drink from me."

Johnny whistled. "I dunno. This is big." He paused. "What if I say no?"

Cash grinned. "I know you won't." Before Johnny could say anything more he grabbed the youth's forearm. As Cash pushed back Johnny's jacket sleeve, his fangs dropped naturally into place. Johnny's sputtered words of protest ended in a heavy, drawn-out sigh, as Cash bit deep enough to hit his wrist artery. Cash drank appreciatively, feeling his heart begin to beat again and enjoying heady rush to his brain as his blood began to circulate. His senses felt awakened, quickened, enlivened, on fire… Regretfully, he began licking the small wound he had created until it healed. He was ever mindful not to his Beast full reign during feeding time. He knew the consequences would be dire.

Cash waited until Johnny was able to think coherently again — the glazed look of pleasure in his Prey was a familiar enough site to Cash. Presently, he asked. "Did you like how that felt?"

Johnny just nodded, a silly look on his face.

"If I Embrace you, you'll feel that same pleasure every time you feed."

"C'mon, for real? Every time?"

"Every time."

Johnny took a deep breath, then let it all out in a rush. "'Kay. Let' do it, Cash! Make me Kindred."

"Alright. But not now. Not tonight. It's too close to dawn and that's a dangerous time for Fledgling Kindred. Besides, if you have anything to take care of first, do it today. Then I'll come for you before sunset." Then, as Johnny watched, Cash stood, spread his out his arms, and shape-shifted, flying far into the night sky.

 

— PART TWO —

FLEDGLING

Cash had never been the introspective type when he'd been alive. His Embrace into the Gangrel hadn't changed that part of his personality; if anything it had decreased any desire he may have had to examine his own thoughts and motivations. Even on those rare occasions when he did remember the night of his Embrace he tried not to dwell on the traumatic details. He knew instinctively that the past couldn't be changed and the future couldn't be anticipated. It was the present that was important.

But now that he was ready to take Johnny into the Clan, Cash found himself wracking his mind for everything that had happened, the tiniest detail of his death and re-birth. He didn't want to blow this, to make a mistake and end up with a corpse instead of a Childe. He wanted to make Johnny's transformation from Human to Kindred as gentle as possible.

But how gentle could he possibly be? He hadn't been Stevie Ray's first whelp, and his Embrace had been far from easy. Stevie was tough on all his Get, that was part of being Gangrel, he wanted his Childer to be independent and strong, but Cash couldn't imagine that Stevie would have made the Embrace any harder than it had to be. He remembered Stevie stroking his hair as he took Cash's blood that last time — no, Stevie had been as gentle as he possibly could be when he'd Embraced Cash. That didn't bode well for Johnny.

Cash furrowed his brow and thrust his fists deeper into the pockets of his jeans. His Embrace had been painful, but not intolerably so. Maybe because he had known that there was a purpose to the pain. It had moved through him, and he had moved through it until he emerged on the other side, forever changed. Like a caterpillar changing into a butterfly or a mother giving birth, there had been a sense of purpose.

The worst part of it was dying, of course. The utter loneliness, the sense of being cut off from everyone and everything. Cash had hated the sensation of being trapped, paralyzed and yet achingly aware as his organs shut down one by one; feeling himself dying and being unable to struggle, incapable of stopping it, totally helpless.

But, ultimately, wasn't every death a lonely thing? What comfort could he possibly provide?

 

The sun had barely set when Cash and Johnny entered the older section of the cemetery. Here the lots had all been filled decades ago and hardly anyone disturbed the peace of the dead. Cash led Johnny to the entrance of a small-size mausoleum whose ornate engravings proclaimed it the final habitation of the Ford family.

Johnny stared at it in awe. "Cool," he finally said. "How'd you pick this place to, uh, Embrace me or whatever?"

Cash shrugged. "No particular reason. I like this cemetery and no one will disturb us here." He neglected to add that he'd once taken Sasha here on a midnight picnic here when she'd still been mortal, this was the very spot she picked to lay the blanket. Ever since he'd retained a fondness for it. Sasha… she'd been so confused and hurt about his decision to embrace Johnny. Cash sighed inwardly and prayed she just needed time to get used to the idea.

"That's Gina's last name."

"Huh?" Cash startled out of his silent reverie.

Johnny pointed upward. "Ford. Gina Ford." A self-conscious grin formed on his face. "My girl. You know, the redhead? Been caring for her since I found her two years ago, fresh off a bus from Portland. Runnin' away from some jerk of a step-dad. She's not really made for the streets."

Cash grimaced — he'd had his fair share of lousy stepfathers himself. He also felt the beginnings of an alarm bell go off in the back of his head. "Johnny," he cautioned. "If you want to become Kindred, there's gonna be some changes in your life you'll have to deal with — like, it may not be a good idea to see much of Gina — at least, not a first. Not until— " you can control yourself around her, he was about to finish.

"I know, I know," Johnny cut in. "I've thought 'bout it. I still wanna be like you, Cash. You're strong, you stick up for what's right, and you don't take jack from nobody. Beside, I was kinda hoping..."

More alarm bells went off. "Hoping?" prompted Cash.

"Well, like, maybe you could look out for Gina — jus' make to make sure she's not in a whole lotta trouble or whatever. You know, till I get used to being Kindred and can maybe go see her for myself. She's got enough to last her for a while, thanks to you. But just in case I, uh, I sorta told her that someone would showing up from time to time helping her out with money while I was 'away.' I, uh, hope it's cool but I had to tell her what you looked like and your name so she wouldn't be scared when you came up to her. But that's all I told her." Johnny looked away in uncertain embarrassment. "You know how it is, Cash. She's my girl. I gotta take care of her an' all."

Cash quickly reassured Johnny that it was fine. He was relieved, actually. He had thought for sure Johnny was going to ask him to Embrace Gina too, and there was no way he could afford to take care of two fledglings — and an untested one at that. In fact, the whole idea of becoming a Sire still left him giddy, though he was careful to conceal that from Johnny. No need to unnerve the kid anymore than he already was.

Cash motioned to the stone steps of the mausoleum. "Here, why don't we sit?"

Johnny blushed, the seriousness of the moment weighing upon him. He sat down awkwardly. "Uh, like this?"

"That's fine," Cash reassured. He casually seated himself next to the youth. As Johnny held out a wrist shaking ever so slightly, Cash added gently. "You've got nothing to be worried about."

His soon-to-be Childe nodded stiffly and looked the other way as if over come by a sudden aversion to blood. "Uh, does it, like, hurt… to, uh,… you know, die?" he questioned tentatively.

Cash refrained from taking Johnny's arm and waited until his gaze was finally returned. "Look, Johnny, I'm not gonna lie to you. For the most part it feels good. Real good. Especially if you don't fight it. But sometimes it can get freaky towards the end. I know of one guy said he felt like every cell in his body had exploded in a thousand icicles." He declined to add that that particular fellow had been his own sire, Stevie Ray.

Cash continued, "it's different for everyone. Think you can deal with this?"

Johnny took a deep breath, then stuck out his arm again. It didn't tremble. Cash grinned and grasped the proffered arm firmly, but not tightly. He closed his eyes, let his fangs drop...

Without warning, Johnny emitted a heart-wrenching horse cry and began flailing. He made feeble but obvious attempts to push Cash away, striking out with whatever part of his body was closest. Cash immediately disengaged, hurriedly swallowing his last mouthful of blood as he tried to hold the youth down and reassure him at the same time.

"Wha—What's happening to me?" Johnny croaked, wide-eyed with terror.

"You're dying," Cash replied calmly. "It's the first step in the Embrace." As Johnny continued his weak railing, Cash quickly added, "but it's not too late. I can still get you to a hospital — you don't have to do this if you don't want to." Just please think it over real quick, he added silently, while keeping a hand tightly clamped over the gash on Johnny's wrist.

Johnny gave a final heave and then was still. Cash nearly panicked but then he heard a low voice. "No hospital. I wanna be Kindred, like you."

Cash re-inserted his fangs and tenderly finished Draining Johnny. Gently stroking Johnny's hair, Cash completed the final act of the Embrace by letting his Child drink unrestrainedly from his forearm, until pleasure swiftly turned to pain and Cash knew it was time to end the Embrace. For hours Johnny lay still with Cash holding him, watching over him. Finally the Fledgling opened his eyes, blinking his bewilderment.

Cash smiled. "Welcome back."

Cash found himself enjoying playing the role of Sire, and even found himself indulging Johnny in ways that Stevie never had done for him. He was pleased that Johnny delighted in his new Kindred powers and had taken to Hunting like a natural. Cash currently stood guard, watching Johnny finish Feeding from Prey he had lured himself behind a dumpster in the alley. Cash's worst fear was that Brujah would find his new Childe before Cash had a chance to formally present him before the Conclave. Until that time it was open season on the Fledgling — any Kindred could kill or Diablerize him without fear of repercussion from the Prince. That was why Cash insisted on changing Havens so frequently despite Johnny's repeated grumbling. They moved every couple of days, in fact. Cash suddenly frowned as his sensitive hearing caught wind of what Johnny was saying. In flash he had his Childe caught by the scruff of his neck letting his feet dangle above the ground.

"Wha—What'd I do?" Johnny croaked out in surprise.

Cash growled. "Did I just hear you order that Warm to give you his wallet? Cuz that had BETTER not be what I heard…" he let his voice trail off in a threatening growl.

"But, Cash— uh, I mean, Sire, it's not like he'll remember who did it!"

Cash was disgusted. He let Johnny fall in a disheveled heap onto the dirty alleyway. He turned back to the man his Childe had been Feeding from; judging from his nondescript shabby gray uniform and plain name tag, he was just another poor working Joe – probably on his way home from the working the night shift. His eyes were still blank and he held out a worn vinyl wallet in his right hand, still waiting for his next command.

Meanwhile Johnny had scrambled up alongside Cash. "I still don't get what's so wrong about it," he complained. "You told me yourself: we're Predators, they're Prey. So they wake up missing a few bucks. It's not like they didn't get a good rush out of it."

Johnny looked smug. Too smug. It made Cash realize maybe there had been a reason behind Stevie's strictness. He brought up his fist and smashed it against Johnny's jaw before his Childe even saw it coming. Johnny landed flat on his rear again.

"Oww…" Johnny whined. "Whaja go an' do that for?"

"To teach you a lesson," Cash replied grimly. "Gangrel don't steal from our Donors — ever. You got that?"

"Yeah, sure, okay… Gangrel don't steal from Donors," Johnny muttered.

Cash sighed. Perhaps an object lesson of a different sort was in order. He said casually, extending a hand to help up Johnny, "Guess the world's all just Predator and Prey now, huh?"

"Yeah," said Johnny, eyeing Cash warily.

"So that would that make Gina…?"

Immediately Johnny was on top of Cash, wildly swinging into him with everything he had. It took a good moment before the Gangrel Primogen could subdue him, his progeny had paid attention during Cash's fighting instructions.

"Easy there," Cash cautioned, waiting for Johnny to cease his struggles before loosening his headlock. "No one's gonna hurt your girlfriend. So, the world still look all just Predator and Prey to you now?"

Johnny tried to shake his head, but couldn't until Cash let him go. Once released, he had a sheepish look on his face and couldn't quite look his Sire in the eye.

"Now take his wallet," Cash ordered.

"What? But— "

"Do it." Cash's tone brooked no room for argument.

"Okay. So?"

"So open it and tell me what you see."

"Uh, not much. Driver's license. Some kinda ID from work. A picture— "

"Of what?"

"Uh, I guess that's him with his wife and two kids — they look the same." Johnny suddenly paused to look up at the male Donor he had so casually taken for granted. "Huh, this dude's got twins."

Cash nodded. "Now tell me how much money is in the wallet."

"Uh… looks like maybe twenty-five… twenty-eight bucks."

"So, you were about to make him fork over twenty-eight dollars — and that's besides the pint of blood he already gave you — twenty-eight dollars that some lady and her kids need a whole lot more than you."

Johnny said nothing, but his face turned beet red thanks to his recent Feeding.

"How much money you got on you, Johnny?"

Johnny's eyes opened wide but then he grinned. "Just a twenty."

"It'll do, Johnny, it'll do."

Cash looked on approvingly as Johnny carefully placed a folded bill in the man's wallet before returning it to the man's pocket. He waited while his Childe instructed the man to remember nothing and head for home. When the alleyway was again empty, Johnny turned toward Cash, a rueful expression on his face. "Sorry, Cash. It won't happen again. Promise."

Cash nodded grimly. "See that it doesn't. Robbing your Donors is plain dirty. A typical Brujah trick."

"A what trick?"

"Brujah." Cash paused thoughtfully. "Have I told you much about the other Clans, Johnny?"

"Other Clans?" Johnny repeated. "Oh, yeah… sure. Uh, lots…"

Cash sighed. He put his arm around Johnny's shoulder. "Let's head back," he said. "There's some important stuff I need to explain. The sooner the better."

 

Gina eyed the rolled black tarp suspiciously. She'd discovered it in the back of an old empty warehouse. She scuffed her foot nervously on the ground — this section of the warehouse was so ancient and decrepit, that a large patch of dry dirt lay in place of cracked concrete. Gina had lost track of how many places she'd checked in the past few weeks, trying to catch up with Johnny and this mysterious 'Cash' that he was with. She'd tried enlisting Johnny's other so-called friends in the search, but they couldn't have cared less. But Gina wouldn't give up on Johnny. He'd never let her down and she wasn't going to let him down either.

This Cash had an unnatural hold over him. Gina felt sure he must be some kind of dealer. Why else would he have had so much money to give her boyfriend? Whatever drug it was, Johnny sure was hooked, too. She could tell by the way he talked, when he told her he'd and Cash were going away to do some kind of job for the next month or so. Gina had thought it was a flimsy excuse but Johnny held firm to it, giving her all their money and saying he'd be sure to see her when they came back. In the meantime this 'Cash' person would check up on her to see if she needed anything. The next evening Johnny had disappeared.

Some days ago, Gina had stumbled across a ragged tee shirt of Johnny's; it was in the basement of a derelict house that looked to be on the verge of collapse. The basement had been pretty smashed up, too, like some huge rumble had taken place. Gina had become even more frantic for her boyfriend's safety. But when no one had returned after her having waited around for the next couple of days, she had decided to search elsewhere. Instinct alone had drawn her to this abandoned site.

Now she stood cautiously eyeing the rolled up tarp before her. She had a sinking feeling that it contained a body. She just hoped it wasn't Johnny. She carefully knelt down alongside one end and timidly began lifting various tarp layers. She froze when she spotted a familiar looking gym shoe. It couldn't be! With both courage and strength she'd never known before, she grappled with the tarp length-wise and managed to unroll it all at one.

Johnny's body came toppling out next to her, stone cold and pale as death. Gina screamed. Sooner than she could make sense of it, a dark misty shape began rising from the ground beside her, forming itself more and more into human likeness. Before she knew it, Gina was staring at the man — who, from Johnny's description, could only be Cash. The man who had murdered her love.

Shrieking her hatred, Gina launched herself at the bewildered Gangrel, intent on hurting him.

 

It was the middle of the afternoon and Cash had been resting peacefully until he heard the screaming. It sounded too close for comfort, practically right on top of him. With sudden panic he realized Brujah had found Johnny and were torturing him to death. Trying to rouse himself from full sleep, Cash forced his sluggish mist-form upward through the earth until he could fully materialize, ready for action.

He found himself staring strait into the belligerent eyes of a mortal teenager. Before he could process anymore, the girl had launched herself fully at Cash. Her assault was lousy, but what it lacked in style, it more than made up for in vigor. Cash was about to retaliate when the sight of his assailant's red hair struck a coherent cord of memory within the depths of his sleep addled mind. Gina. This was Johnny's girlfriend. Cash thought he pushed her away gently, but his body had already geared itself to fight Kindred; his shove was still too rough for the mortal. She went down with a sickening thud with her head cracked on the ground at peculiar angle.

"Gina, no!" Cash cried, swiftly dropping to his knees beside her. Was he ever awake now!

Gina looked up at him dazed and confused, her breathing shallow and jagged.

"Don't move!" Cash ordered, carefully examining the girl. It wasn't looking good to him. Her left collarbone stuck through her skin and the angle of her neck told him it was broken. It was a wonder she was still alive. He doubted she would stay that way much longer. Cash inwardly cursed himself. Although he'd neglected to say as much to Johnny, he'd been aware that the girl had been looking for them — he just never suspected that she'd actually find them.

"What's goin' on here?" muttered Cash's befuddled Childe. Apparently, the noise of Gina's screams and commotion of her fall had finally awakened him — not to mention the exposure to the sun's rays, diffused as they were by the roof -- now that he was no longer safely wrapped in tarp.

Cash tensed for what he knew would come next. He tried to speak calmly. "Johnny, just take it easy, now. Gina's here."

No sooner had Cash spoken when Johnny came crawling over. "Gina! Baby, wake up! Cash, what's wrong with her?"

"Don't move her, Johnny! She's not asleep — she's unconscious. She must have found you in the tarp and thought you were dead. I heard screaming. I thought the Brujah had found you."

Johnny's face was as sober as Cash had ever seen it. "Cash, look at her neck. It's broke, right? You gotta do somethin.' Look, man, she's barely breathing now. Cash, c'mon, please!"

Cash took a deep breath. "Johnny, it's too late for Gina. We'd never get her to a hos—"

"Screw the hospital!" Johnny spat bitterly. "You can save her! It's your fault she's dying! Make her Kindred like you did me. Or show me how! Cash— Sire, Gina is everything to me. Everything! I don't want to go on without her." Johnny's voice was strained and upset. "C'mon, Sire, haven't you ever had anyone like that in your life? Please save her. I'll do anything you want — name it!" Red steaks marked his face as Johnny turned back to Gina. He gingerly held on to one of her hands as if by his holding it, he could will her to live.

Cash couldn't stand to see his Childe so distraught. It brought back terrible memories of the helplessness he'd felt while the Brujah had ravaged Sasha, before his very eyes, and in his own Haven — Embracing her so she could never be completely his. It had been a wrong he could never make right. But this time it didn't have to happen. With a loud growl emanating from his throat, Cash pushed Johnny aside and looked into Gina's unseeing green eyes. Not caring if she could hear him, he gently whispered for her to be strong, that everything was going to be all right, that he would take care of her, that he was going to be her Sire…

 

Sasha couldn't remember having had such a good night – no, make that such a good week — for simply ages. Not since… not since… She frowned. Well, not since Cash had made himself scarce, that was for sure. She thought she had originally been nuts to let Cameron convince her to go out with his Childe, but to her surprise Nicky wasn't so bad — not so bad at all. But then it helped that he was pretty buff — not to mention totally hot for her. She'd practically had him eating out of her hand by their second date.

She had parked her bike by the docks near Nicky's haven (he had told her never exactly where it was). Sasha laughed as she unsuccessfully tried to pull Nicky from off bike. "C'mon, Nicky, it's getting near dawn, I've gotta get back to the mansion. If I blow curfew again this morning, Uncle Julian will ground me for sure. "

"Aww, c'mon, Sasha, that what you said last time. And the time before that and the time before that… When are you gonna stay the day with me?"

"In your dreams!" Sasha laughed, playfully balling her fist to punch him in the shoulder.

But Nicky proved too fast for her. Snagging her one wrist and then grabbing for the other he gently forced her arms to wrap about his waist. Before she could disengage he surprised her with a tender kiss on the lips. "Stay," he insisted.

Sasha let Nicky keep her arms locked around him but looked down uncomfortably. She felt like a horrible traitor all of a sudden. How could she admit that she had felt something just then — that Nicky's kiss had sent tingles down to her very toes?

"Aw, c'mon, Baby. You know how I hate to see you all unhappy like that." Nicky playfully tucked his hand under Sasha's chin and brought it up so he could look into her eyes. They were filled with obvious uncertainty. "It's like Cameron's been saying, you shouldn't let Cash make you feel so bad. Cash doesn't want you near his Childe because you're Brujah and no matter what, Cash hates Brujah. All Gangrel do. You know it."

Tears misted in Sasha's eyes. "I know what Cameron says, Nicky, I know. But he's wrong about Cash – he is. And… and I miss Cash. I'm sorry, Nicky. I know it isn't fair to you. But I can't help it."

A bloody tear streaked down Sasha's cheek. Nicky bent over and carefully licked it away. Sasha shivered. She felt herself melting closer into Nicky big, strong arms, liking the way he nuzzled her hair with his head, the way he held her and stroked her back. She liked being needed, being wanted by somebody — being made to feel special. Nicky was doing just that. Thoughts of Cash began to fade…

"Haven't we shown you a good time, me and Cameron?" Nicky pressed on. "You know you've had fun with us, Sash— And you know in your Blood, I'm better for you than Cash. I'm Brujah, like you. I understand you, Sash— what you want. I can give that to you." He kissed her smooth forehead. "Doll, I been diggin' you since the night Cameron first introduced us."

Sasha smiled wryly. "Yeah, well, I don't know why seeing as I 'bout took your top off for coming on to me." Then she felt another shiver down her spine as Cameron kissed her tenderly on the jugular.

"Think it over, cuz you're what I want. Cash was a fool to leave you."

Those were magic words to Sasha. She began to kiss him urgently, letting him respond in kind, his callused fingers holding her face, caressing it as they kissed.

Suddenly Sasha, breathlessly broke away, a dubious look on her face, "Nicky, I can't — it wouldn't be fair to you. I—I like you and all but I don't lo —"

"Shh," Nicky quickly put a finger to her lips. "I'm real patient. Right now this is all I need." He silenced any further protests with a passionate kiss that she never wanted to end.

 

Cash now had two Childer to support — Childer he'd Embraced so close together they were "twins" in Kindred parlance. This worried him. Gina's Embrace had been purely accidental; it had been the only thing Cash could do to prevent her impending death, an innocent death he would have been the cause of. Besides, there had been Johnny's fragile emotional state to think of at the time. Had his girlfriend died, Johnny surely would have Frenzied — possibly giving into his beast so deep that all traces of his humanity would have been wiped out, forcing Cash to put down his own Childe. Julian had to understand why Cash Embraced Gina. At least that was what Cash kept trying to convince himself. Embracing without consent from the Prince was a huge Kindred "no-no." But Cash was counting on Julian's mercy, owning to Cash's status as Primogen, bodyguard, and, well, as the favored offspring of Julian's former friend, Stevie Ray. He hoped it would make Julian's sentence on him more lenient. He hoped.

Sending the away thug from whom he had just Feed, Cash wiped his mouth. He was still a far cry away from replacing all the blood he'd just lost to Gina. Making matters worse, the day he'd Embraced her, he had still been trying to make up for what he'd given Johnny during his Embrace. Cash felt weak and worried most of the time, but he be damned before he gave in and took more than his fair share from a Donor. Stevie Ray had schooled his Childer well in managing their appetites. Cash only hoped that he was doing as well in teaching his own Get.

It seemed to Cash that he spent most of his time Hunting and searching for new havens to sequester the three of them. That last part was becoming increasingly important since his keen senses had seen signs of Brujah activity in some of his old haunts. They were after his Childer, no doubt. The Brujah numbers were way down, having lost members during all their in fighting that had accompanied Eddie's Final Death, as contender after contender had vied for power. It had been Cameron who had united what was left of the Clan to emerge victorious. Ever since, the Brujah had been overly eager to rebuild their ranks. At the same time any additions to the other Clans, especially Gangrel, put them at that much more disadvantage. But Cash would sooner meet the Final Death himself rather than let them get a chance at killing his precious Fledglings.

Cash looked at the horizon and knew his Hunting was over for the night. Being low on Blood he couldn't afford to caught in the open rays of the sun — even the earliest beams of the rising orange sun were agony. Fortunately he was close by the latest haven he and his Childer called "home." He trusted that he would find them practicing the special fighting skills he'd taught Johnny from the first night of his Embrace. They would need them to survive. As in other things Kindred, Johnny was a natural. It was Gina who Cash was concerned about. She was slower, much slower to learn and hesitant to go on the offensive. Cash knew that's what came from not having tested her out before hand. He couldn't bring even himself to think what Lorraina would say. Although he had never revealed this to Sasha, he knew the reason his Brood-sister despised her so much was because Lorraina simply doesn't believe that Sasha would have passed the Gangrel tests prior to an Embrace, and now nothing would convince Lorraina that Sasha could. Not that it was Sasha's fault that she wouldn't have been tested in true Gangrel fashion. No way would Julian have allowed Cash to play with his descendant's head like that.

Cash sighed. Life was never easy no matter what road you took. But at least Gina's tracking sense was truly amazing — best he'd ever seen, that alone should prove impressive to the Clan. He looked about carefully and when he was certain he was alone, he opened the door of an abandoned factory shed that constituted their current haven. To his surprise, both of his Childer lay lolling about the floor in each other arms, giggling inanely. Cash smelled Gangrel Vitae in the air. With a growl of rage he hoisted Gina off of her mate and pulled back her hair, ignoring her protests in the process. As he suspected, there was a freshly healing, somewhat jagged incision on her neck. Angrily he threw her down and advanced on Johnny, who was scuttling away backwards as fast as he could in his inebriated state. Cash pounced on him too, grabbing him by the collar of his denim jacket — in fact ripping it off completely. A similar wound was reveal on his neck. Considerably rougher this time, he slammed Johnny in the back wall so hard the entire shed reverberated.

"Are you crazy!" he yelled. "Do you two know what you could have done!"

Gina was crawling away from him, terror in her eyes as she sought out her boyfriend. "You're the crazy one," she spat. "You barge in here acting like my step-dad, tossing us around!"

That calmed Cash down in a hurry.  He reminded himself that Gina was just barely getting accustomed to Clan Gangrel's rough and tumble ways.  Taking a few deep breaths to help himself relax he went over to Gina and stooped down to sit beside her.  She looked at him warily but he held out his hand to her and gently took her into his arms.   "I'm sorry, Gina.  I'd never hurt you like your stepfather did.  It's just what you and Johnny did was extremely dangerous and I got scared, that's all."
"Scared, huh?" asked Johnny, slowly inching forward.  "Hate to see what angry is."
Cash motioned to Johnny and patted the ground next to him and Gina, indicating for him to join them.  "I never thought you two would be stupid enough to do what you did tonight.  But I guess I really should be mad at myself, for not explaining about the Blood Bond sooner."
"Blood Bond?" Johnny questioned suspiciously.  "What's that?"
"Something that goes against Gangrel nature.  We believe in being free.  A Blood Bond robs you of your own mind — you become a total, helpless slave to someone else's will."
Gina's eyes went wide and Johnny shifted uncomfortably.
Cash continued.  "Drink the vitae of the same Kindred on three separate nights before the moon turns full, and that Kindred will be your Regnant forever.  You'll be closer to him than a lover, but less than a slave.  You'll be his Thrall, you'll do whatever he wants, because he wants it.  You'd do anything to keep him happy.  I don't want you guys ending up like that."  
Cash neatly avoided the fact that he and Sasha had once considered Blood Bonding to each other.  But he had convinced himself that that had been an emergency.  She had been ready to take her own life at the time and his own heart had nearly died at the thought.  There was nothing he wouldn't have done to stop her.  Cash found himself frowning.  He realized for the first time, just how many weeks had gone by since he'd last seen Sasha.  He had been caught up in teaching Johnny and then the added burden of Gina had come along…  He felt a sudden ache in his heart as he wondered how Sasha had faired by herself all this time.  Would it have hurt so much to have looked in on her once or twice?  
"We didn't know," whispered Gina, misinterpreting the reason for her Sire's frown.  "It just felt so good at the time, drinking from each other like that.  I'm sorry."
"I know you are," Cash stated sternly, rousing himself to the task at hand.  "But there's one other reason you should never Feed from each other:  more than just the Blood Bond, you could accidentally commit Diablerie."
Johnny shuddered.  "Don't think I like that word."
"With good reason," admonished Cash.  "When a Kindred Drains all Blood from another to the point of Final Death – well, that's Diablerie.   There's no coming back from that one.  All the powers and special abilities from the dead Kindred get transferred to the Diabolist in the process.  Bit it's the worst crime a Kindred can commit — an automatic death sentence from the Prince."
This time Gina shuddered and hugged herself closer to Cash.  "We won't do anything like that, Sire.  Ever."

 

— PART THREE —

NIGHTMARE AT MIDNIGHT

Sasha wandered around the Mansion grounds feeling the weight of a terrible guilt. It was different then when she had been with Zane — that had just been a one-time thing and she had wanted to make Cash feel jealous. But this thing she had going with Nicky was real and her feelings for him were getting pretty intense. She needed to see Cash right away, no matter what he had told her. She needed to make sure that she still loved him and that he still loved her. The only problem was she had no idea where to find him. All his usual havens were vacant and now that she was going out with Nicky, none of Cash's Clan would so much as give her the time of night. It was frustrating. Suddenly she spied Lorraina readying Julian's limo for the night. Sasha felt her heart beat with excitement. If anyone knew where Cash had stowed himself, it would her!

Hurrying over she put on her best fake smile to greet her adversary. "Hey, Lorraina. Taking Uncle Julian somewhere?"

The Gangrel didn't even look up but growled in response.

"Don't be that way," Sasha chided. "I just want to talk about Cash."

At that moment Julian Luna appeared at the top of the tall steps that led into the Mansion's entrance foyer. He looked debonair as always, a long dark coat draped over his shoulders. He descended the tall entrance steps, looking at Sasha with curiosity. "I thought you'd be out with the Brujah tonight?" he asked, before planting a kiss on her curly head. He seemed in an exceptionally good mood tonight, which Sasha attributed to his date with Caitlin earlier that evening.

She shook her head in response. "Naw, I, uh, got other stuff I want to do tonight. Is Lorraina taking you to the Haven?" Hope sprang inside of her at the thought. Even if Lorraina wanted to play clam, maybe she could sweet-talk Morgan into revealing Cash's whereabouts. He was one Gangrel would didn't seem to always mind her company. He had a thing for the new band Lillie had hired and could be found at her club most nights.

Lorraina stiffly held open the door for Julian, pointedly ignoring Sasha.

Julian, in turn, ignored the hostilities between the two women and merely nodded at Lorraina. "Thank you, Lorraina," he said. Julian then contemplated Sasha's eager face. "I have a meeting with Detective Kohanek at the diner but afterwards I'm meeting Lillie at the Haven to discuss business. You're welcome to come along provided that you don't interrupt my meeting with Frank."

Sasha fairly simpered, must to Lorraina's apparent disgust. "Thank you, Uncle Julian," she said sweetly, stepping in the car after him. Sasha was so relieved at having a chance to find out Cash's location that she didn't even bother to fuss when Lorraina deliberately tried to close the limo's door on her foot.

 

Around one a.m. Frank was just starting his second helping of chicken noodle soup. He smiled his thanks as Daisy poured him another cup of coffee, tucking a pen beneath her nest of blond curls. Daisy was the Nighthawks late-shift waitress and her good-natured cheer was just as much a staple of the diner as the coffee she served her customers. Frank had come to count on it. As he smiled at her, he got a wink in return that made him want to blush. She had taken three steps away from him when he heard her say, "Hello there, tall, dark, and handsome. Can't stay away from our tomato juice, can ya?"

Frank grimaced. Leave it to Luna to show up fifteen minutes early and spoil the remainder of his supper.

"Nothing for me tonight, thank you," Julian politely answered, coming to stand in front of Frank's booth.

When he stayed that way, Frank finally looked up at the Ventrue Prince, annoyance evident in the deep furrows of his scowl. "So, are you waiting for an invitation or what?" he groused.

Julian, unflappable as ever, replied, "Given the crowd in here tonight, I thought it would be better if we talked outside. However, I'd be glad to wait if you haven't finished —" he indicated Frank's barely touched soup.

"I'm done." Frank stood abruptly and threw some bills out of his wallet on the table, waving goodnight to Daisy. He stalked out of the dinner with Julian following placidly in his wake. Frank headed straight in the direction of the Embarcadero, which was nearby Nighthawks. There were a few parked cars in the dinner's lot, including Julian's long black limo, but other than that they were alone. After walking in silence for a few moments, Frank had had enough and came right to the point. He wasn't about to stay in the mob boss' presence any longer than he absolutely had to. "You're being targeted, Julian. This evening marked the sixth death for an Eastling employee — one of your companies."

Julian nodded solemnly. "I realize that, Frank. But I have the situation under control."

"Under control!" Frank stopped to stare at Julian incredulously. "Six deaths is far from under control! Someone wants you and wants you bad, Julian. Ordinarily, I'd say fine. But in this case, it just so happens I think the city might actually be worse off, when the guy who's gunning for you takes over."

"And who might that be?"

"Cameron. It's the only answer that makes sense. Who else would challenge you so openly? Who else would want you dead?"

"Perhaps." Julian fell silent. "Or perhaps not. Frank, I know you've been assigned to the case but I want you to personally stay out of this one as much as possible. More than you realize is going on."

Frank shook his head. "Don't shut me out here. I'm not one of your Kindred underlings you can order around…" His voice trailed off as both he and Julian heard the sound of a young woman calling for Julian. Frank stared as a girl in a skimpy leather dress and high-heeled boots came bounding across the way, her long dark curls bouncing all over the place. Mental gears clicked automatically in place: Sasha Luna, Julian's niece who had been released into her Uncle's custody after having assaulted a police officer just outside city limits. It had made Frank wonder if crime was a generational pastime for the Luna family.

Frank and Julian halted while Sasha caught up to them, pursued by the furious-looking limo driver, who barely looked older than Sasha herself. That would be Lorraina, if memory served Frank right.

"Uncle Julian, I can't stand it anymore!" Sasha stormed. "You can't just leave me alone in there with some Gangrel who —"

"Sasha Luna!" Julian sounded shocked. He held up a finger and Sasha abruptly subsided. "How dare you endanger the Masquerade like this!"

"I'm sorry," said the driver. "I tried to tell her to wait." She glowered at Sasha, who didn't even bother to notice.

"But you're just meeting with Frank," Sasha whined, ignoring the driver. Then she suddenly looked very guilty, ducked her head and peered out through curly locks at Frank. "Um, you are Frank Kohanek, the detective guy, right?" They'd never been formally introduced.

Frank couldn't help smiling. "Right. And you're Sasha Luna, Julian's niece"

"See, it's safe. We know all about him and he knows all about us. So how can I be endangering the Masquerade, Uncle Julian?" she smiled sweetly.

Lorraina suddenly tensed. "Garou!" she barely had time to warn when all hell broke loose.

Before Frank could register what was happening, ear-shattering roars filled the night air as three huge hairy things with gleaming fangs and sharp claws suddenly launched themselves from beyond the shadows. Frank's mind was completely thunderstruck as he watched Julian move to intercept one of the monsters before it made mincemeat out of him. Frank felt stunned, as if living a dream — no, make that a nightmare — and he stumbled backward. Somewhere in the back of his mind, a cop's instinct screamed for him to find his gun.

"Lorraina, get Sasha and Frank to the car!" he heard Julian yell over the deafening, animal roars. Frank turned automatically toward where the limo driver had stood, but saw that Lorraina obviously had problems of her own, as she faced another lupine assailant. Automatically, Frank dropped into a defensive crouch, his gun aimed and ready to fire. But at what? The girl who he had known as Lorraina suddenly melted forms before his very eyes, much as Eddie Fiori had once done — only this time the woman became the wolf instead of the other way around. Frank swore, it was too hard to tell the difference between Lorraina and her creature assailant — there was too much wolf hair flying around. Waitaminute — wolf hair?

Just then Frank heard a terrified scream, coming from Sasha. Without a thought for his own life, he pivoted, duck, rolled, and came up directly between her and the hairy thing that had been tormenting her. "Run, Sasha!" he ordered and looked up to face the monster. And up. The creature was towering, huge, and looked liked like it had just stepped off the Late Night Horror Show — half-man, half-beast. It had reeled back in surprise at Frank's sudden appearance. Taking advantage of this Frank fired three quick rounds of shots, dead center into its chest. The creature howled in agony, reeling backward. Frank thought for sure it must be a goner but with a growl born of frustration and ire, it sprang toward the detective.

Once more police training took over and Frank drove to the right, but not before he felt the side of his chest flare in sudden pain as razor sharp claws slashed right through his leather jacket. Fortunately the leather was tough enough to sustain the worst damage as Frank rolled away from the onslaught. But he didn't even have time to get to his feet before the creature was back at him, ready to deliver the deathblow. Frank wasn't about to give it the chance. With adrenaline enhanced reflexes he brought up his gun and shot two rounds straight between the thing's eyes turning its leap of attack into a heavy fall. This time, Frank wasn't so quick getting out of the way.

"Ugh," he grunted, having the wind knocked out of him as the creature's dead weight impacted directly on top of him. But before he had time to move, someone was lifting the body off of him, flinging it away. "C'mon!" he heard Lorraina's frantic hiss. "Sasha's brought the car around." Frank tried to clamber up, but his ripped muscles screamed in protest. Without another word Lorraina, looking pretty battle-worn herself, hauled Frank over her shoulder and dumped him through the open door of the limousine.

When did this get here, Frank wondered vaguely through the pain as he hoisted himself up onto the seat. He hadn't been aware of the limo pulling up. In the next instance Julian was charging through the open door, yelling for Sasha to go, even as he slammed the door shut. As Sasha gunned the engine, the air was suddenly full of flying bullets. Frank winced at sound of their impact, thinking now was a good time to duck. But the worst of it was when a large object slammed into the limo's rear. Frank swiveled in his seat and stared face to face into the jaws of death, as one of those man-beast things tore a huge shred out of the trunk's top. For a moment the limo stalled, unable to go any further. But Sasha gunned the engine once more and with a terrific lurch, the car sped free. Sasha made for the road at top speed, barely getting them away in time.

 

"Man," Frank said fervently. "Am I glad we are away from there. What were those freaks anyway?" He looked down at himself. He was covered with blood. Not much of it was his own, thankfully. Most of it came from that one... thing... that he'd shot in the head, but the slash along his side was still bleeding pretty good. "Uh, Julian, I might need a doctor or a hospital soon."

No one answered. Instead Sasha pulled the car over to the side of the road. They had driven past the Golden Gate bridge in the first panicked rush to elude their attackers, and were now in the park. Frank looked around and wondered what was going on. Then he looked at Julian, saw the naked hunger in the Prince's eyes and he knew. In the front seat the two women had turned to face him, and the desire on their faces was painful to see. Frank had never truly appreciated the phrase 'out of the frying pan and into the fire' before. But then this was the first time he'd ever been trapped, bleeding, in a small car with three hungry Kindred.

Time stretched out forever and every little detail pressed painfully into his consciousness. Julian's eyes had turned a curious gold-green, and that bothered Frank. Not just because of the weird metallic color, but that both eyes were the same weird metallic color. Julian's driver sniffed the air like a dog smelling its dinner, her nostrils flaring delicately. A tiny drop of drool fell from Sasha's fang onto her chin and she licked it away automatically. Her eyes never left Frank.

He held his hands up defensively, knowing he had no chance. He couldn't out-fight the three of them and couldn't out-run them either. His fingers found the handle to the door, but he was in the back, and it was locked. He had a half-thought to try to reason with them, to plead even, or beg, but there was nothing even remotely human left in Julian's eyes. No sign that he would even understand Frank's words, let alone heed them. He couldn't seem to form a coherent sentence anyway. He opened his mouth and the only thing that came out was "Oh, crap."

They fell on him.

 

Jeffery was walking from the gatehouse to the kitchen when the Mercedes pulled into the drive. He immediately called to the guards to close the gate, shouted to the house for reinforcements. The Prince's car was riddled with a dozen bullet holes, and long gashes had been ripped in the rear quarter panel. There was only one kind one creature that could do that to a car, and if Julian had been attacked by a Garou pack... But the vehicle pulled to a stop at the foot of the stairs and Julian stepped out before anyone could open the door for him. He appeared to be calm and uninjured. If the flurry of guards surprised him, he gave no sign of it.

"Julian," Jeffrey asked. "Are you alright?"

Julian wiped his lips with his thumb and forefinger, then licked them clean. "Is Miss Matthews in tonight?" He asked. His voice was too calm, his eyes too bright, Jeffrey realized. Julian must have been injured and managed to heal himself. And now he was as far gone into the Thirst as Jeffrey could ever remember seeing him.

"Yes," Jeffrey answered carefully. "I believe she is sleeping in Lillie's room."

"We were attacked by a Garou pack," Julian informed him. "Please see that the patrols are doubled and every Kindred in the city is alerted to the threat. I want them to retreat to safe havens, preferably with daytime guards."

"Yes, Julian," Jeffrey responded. "Do you want..."

"Please take Detective Kohanek up to one of the guest rooms," Julian continued. Jeffrey started. He hadn't even noticed the human sprawled across the back seat of the car. The mortal was far too pale and unconscious. So Julian had managed to Feed after all. "Please care for his injuries, and see that he is locked in for the day. Call Dr. Farrell and if he is available send some guards to bring him here."

"Yes, Julian."

Julian nodded and started up the stairs towards the house. "Oh, wake Miss Matthews and send her to me, please."

Sasha slipped out of the front seat of the car. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to share?"

Julian didn't even turn around. "No, sweetheart," he said. "Perhaps Jeffrey would be willing to take care of you."

 

Things were not going well at Cash's latest hideout. His childer sat on the floor glaring at each other.

"Crazy chick. Why should I start calling you 'Regina'? That's not even your real name!"

"Is too!" 'Regina' declared with an uppity sniff. "Regina Marie Ford. Maybe you don't know so much about me after all."

Johnny growled. "I know all I need to know. I know you're changin' on me. And you're getting crazier and crazier — ooff." The last bit was in response to a swift kick, catching him in the ribs.

"I am not changing on you, Johnny O'Rourke! I'm just becoming more — more... More myself. That's all."

"Oh, great," Johnny muttered sarcastically to himself, "jus' what I need. More of her."

"What's that?" Gina readied another kick.

Johnny proved no slow learner. "That's great!" he spoke with an immediate show of enthusiasm. "That's jus' great 'bout how you're more yourself now. Really, Gi — Regina."

Regina scrutinized her boyfriend for signs of falsehood while he squirmed. Fortunately he was let off the hook as Cash barged in the door. Both started to their feet in one simultaneous stir. It was unusual for their stealth-like Sire to make such commotion.

"Grab your gear," he ordered swiftly. "We're moving."

Johnny groaned. "Not again."

"Yes, again!" Cash snapped. "Come on, move it."

Instead of the prompt obedience he expected, Cash was amazed when the two made no movement to follow his command. Gina even reseated herself dully upon the floor. Cash determinedly suppressed a rise of fury knowing it wouldn't do any good to lose control in front of his Childer. Not that he wasn't sorely tempted.

"Gina, get up," he stated coldly.

"Regina."

"Who?"

"It's the new me," the young woman tried to reply with dignity.

Johnny rolled his eyes. "Look, Cash, you gotta understand. It's not like we don't trust you or anything. But I'm with Gi—uh, Regina here. You can't keep movin' us 'round every five minutes. What's up now?" There was no hostility or challenge to his tone, just a simple puzzlement.

Cash took a slow, deliberate breath. He hadn't wanted to tell them so soon — for them to be initiated to the darker sides of Kindred life so immediately. "I know this is hard on you guys, changing havens so often but we gotta do it. I've seen the signs — we're being hunted. They're other Kindred out there — Kindred you don't want to meet. At least not just yet. Kindred who don't give a damn about you. Kindred who'll kill you if they can."

This got his Childers' attention all right. Regina looked troubled while Johnny shook his head in disbelief. He squatted next to his girlfriend and put his arm around her shoulder. The protective stance in which Johnny held Gina stirred up Cash's memory of the time when he sought to shelter Sasha in his arms on the night after her brutal Embrace. He would have done anything in his power to ease her pain, to turn back time, to hurt for her. A stab of remorse entered in his heart as Sasha's visage appeared before him as he'd last seen her — angry and hurt that he was leaving her to Sire a Childe. Cash mentally shook himself. This was no time to go soft in the head!

He grabbed a much-used duffel bag and began stuffing it with the trio's scanty belongings as he spoke. "I was out by Tigger's haven — he's Gangrel like us. The area was completely decimated, like somebody took their revenge with a pick axe. It was the same at Rosebud's too, and Sammy's — where's your jacket, Gina? Never mind, I see it — so then I hightailed it back to our last haven and, man, was it trashed. Looks like we got out at the right time. I'm just thankful you two weren't out practicing your hunting skills tonight." He zipped up the duffel sack and looked around. "Okay, that everything?"

"No!" said Johnny. He was on the floor next to Gina, gently trying to rub the tension from her neck and shoulders. He seemed surprised to find himself feeling a certain resentment toward Cash, who was too caught up in packing to see the effect his agitation had on Gina.

Cash stopped short. He eyed Johnny, a new respect forming for his Childe. He knew he'd made the right decision in Embracing the rough-talking, stouthearted street youth. Still, it was good to have these things confirmed.

"Sorry, Johnny. Look, I know this has gotta be pretty confusing for you and, ah, Regina. It's like this: remember how I told you how Kindred were divided into clans?"

Gina nodded warily. "Yeah, like gangs, right?"

"No, more than gangs. It's in the blood. The blood defines you — it becomes part of who you are." He paused for a breath. "I told you about Brujah clan. What I didn't tell you was that they're our sworn enemies. It's been like that for centuries. The hatred our two clans feel for each other runs deep. It's in your blood now, too. A feeling so strong it's like you want to vomit your worst meal."

"Or Gina's cooking," mumbled Johnny, having sampled her cuisine during mortal life. He scooted out of the way before she could kick him.

"That's Regina to you!" she muttered, settling for a withering glare. Turning her attention back to Cash she questioned, "I dunno. This is too weird. I don't think I want to hate people like that."

"Not people, Gina. Brujah. Trust me, there's a big difference."

Gina still looked doubtful. "Are you sure they're all scum? Do I have to hate all of them?"

Cash felt a sharp twinge of guilt as Sasha's comely visage sprang to mind. "Well," he hedged, "let's just say that most Brujah have nasty tempers and will frenzy at the drop of a hat."

Johnny sighed. "And you makin' Childer means two more Gangrel for 'em to hate. That it, Cash? That why they're lookin' for us an' tryin' to take out the others?"

"Something like that. Now to get you two to another haven." But where? He wondered. Then it hit him. It was the last place the Brujah would think to look… considering what had taken happened there. Unfortunately, it was also the last place he wanted to go. It didn't exactly hold any fond memories for him.

 

For a moment after waking Frank figured he must be lying in a tent. Then it dawned upon him that he was in a canopied bed. He glanced around a bedroom that screamed luxury like a five-star hotel. That's when it clicked. He must be at Luna's mansion. He shook his head slowly, if this was the 'guest' bedroom, he wondered what the master suite was like.

With a self-conscious start, he realized he was in nothing more than his underwear and sat up quickly to locate his clothes. Feeling a slight tug at his arm, his attention focused on a long thin tub filled with red fluid that ran from his inner elbow to an I.V. bag nearly depleted of its red contents, hanging upon a stand. Three other I.V. bags just like it lay empty on the antique wooden nightstand next to him. Memory back in patches. Wolf-men… fighting… pain… trapped in the car… Luna's visible hunger… those eyes, three pairs of neon spotlights all aimed at him. Frank winced in remembrance. Tackled nearly simultaneously by three desperate vampires, the battle had been all too brief. Frank had finally succumbed, still thrashing, to a euphoria so intense he had lost all consciousness.

With an expression of disgust, Frank was about pull out the needle when he heard a knock at the door. It opened and a cordial figure in a white lab coat came forward.

"Dr. Farrell." Frank couldn't help but give a wry grin. "I should've known you'd be here. Your handiwork, I suppose?" He raised his tethered arm.

The doctor inclined his head. "Detective Kohanek," he greeted as he removed the I.V. "Always a pleasure to be of service. How are you feeling?"

Frank took stock. "Not bad, considering. Some aches. A little thirsty. A lot thirsty."

"Yes, that's to be expected, naturally. I've re-supplied your body with the blood you lost…" Frank noted the doctor neatly neglected to say how a goodly-sized portion of it had been 'lost.' "…and as you can see, the injury to your side has been completely healed. However, I'm afraid the gash was rather deep so the scars may take up to a week before they'll disappear. Aside from some bruising, you're fortunate to be in good shape."

"Terrific."

Dr. Farrell's sober features sudden quirked into a rare expression of amusement. "I must say I'm most impressed with your constitution, young man. If it helps your pride any, I understand Julian and the others never had to work so hard for a meal before."

Frank felt his cheeks warming in embarrassment but the doctor continued smoothly, "And speaking of meals, I believe you'll find one awaits you in the dinning room downstairs. Jeffrey will show you the way." By this time the doctor had already finished packing up his supplies while and was walking toward the door.

"Wait! Hey, Jeffrey who?"

"That would be me," said an impeccable looking valet. He entered with neatly folded pile of new clothing in his arms. "I'm afraid your other garments were damaged in the attack. I trust you will find something to your liking among these."

Frank eyed both Jeffrey and the clothes warily as they were placed on an ornately embroidered chair — another antique, no doubt.

"When you're ready I'll be glad to accompany you to the dinning room," finished Jeffry as he turned and closed the bedroom door for privacy.

Frank picked through the provided garments. While they were all designer labels — naturally — he found them practical enough for his lifestyle, sturdy, not too showy, and sized to a perfect fit. Schesh, what did Luna do — measure his body while he was out cold? Frank shuddered at he thought. He slipped into the new dark brown leather jacket that was almost an exact copy of his former one that had been shredded in the attack. Except he suspected this one had cost several hundred dollars more — at least Luna had been careful to make sure it didn't look it. No way a cop's salary could have afforded it.

Julian Luna had even thoughtfully provided him with a brand-new gun holster, gun already in place. Frank checked it over carefully, it was his all right. What's more, it had been newly loaded. Frank was relieved to know he wouldn't have to account for the missing bullets at the precinct. But he was also surprised by the degree of trust Julian showed in him by returning his gun. Especially considering the last time Luna had encountered it was when Frank had unloaded two shots straight into the vampire's chest on the night of Alexandra's death. Inspecting the pockets of his leather jacket, Frank discovered his wallet and badge in an inner pocket, and began to relax. He headed out.

Jeffrey raised his eyebrow as Frank exited the room.

"What?" said Frank, suddenly feeling like a total fashion idiot.

"I beg your pardon," Jeffrey said smoothly as he led the detective toward the dinning room. "It's just that you picked out the exact outfit that Miss Langtry said you would."

"Lillie? Lillie's here?" Frank perked up, his thoughts lightening.

"She is indeed," came a sultry voice as a very feminine body slide beside him, taking him by the arm. "Thank you, Jeffrey, I can finish showing Frank the way."

Jeffrey nodded and disappeared. Frank felt himself grinning like a schoolboy. "Lillie! What are you doing here— " That was all he managed before he found his mouth suddenly and deliciously covered by Lillie's. She kissed him hard and passionately, then suddenly broke off to whisper fiercely, "Don't you ever do that again!"

"Do what— " But once more Frank felt himself melting into another powerful and passionate embrace. He felt his heart pound resoundingly.

"Scare me so!" Lillie hissed. She gave him one more brief, hard kiss and then she scowled, causing those cute, dainty creases between her eyes that Frank had grown fond of.

He kissed forehead tenderly. "All right," he agreed. "Never again. Now, how exactly did I scare you?"

Lillie gave a quick laugh, and slapped him lightly on the arm. "Oh, you! You know what I mean. Getting in fights with — with the wrong sort of people," she finished evasively. She wrapped her arm around his waist protectively and guided him down an ornate marbled stairway. "Thank goodness I'm not mortal — it'd be enough to stop my heart!"

Frank grinned. "Hey, lady, easy with those punches you throw. I've got these bruises you wouldn't believe…" His voice trailed off as they descended into a foyer with a large circular depression in the middle of the floor with a pointed rosette inlay. All this, too, was marbled. Frank shook his head, no doubt about it — Luna was loaded.

"What?" Lillie asked, steering them toward a craved wooden doorway off the right.

"Nothing." Frank mumbled, wondering how many backs Julian Luna must have stepped on to afford a place like this.

"Dinner is ready, Darling. You must be starved."

"Yeah, my turn to eat instead being the food," he muttered darkly as the trio entered the dinning room. He missed the jealous look his comment elicited from Lillie as she glared across the room at Julian.

Frank was surprised to see the long polished table had been set for three. It looked large enough to hold twelve. The places had all been set at of the table's opposite end, where the room was over-looked by a large mirror.

A familiar figure in black turned away from the window. "Frank, Dr. Farell informed me of your recovery. I'm glad you're well. Please, won't you join us for a late supper?"

Frank looked at the place settings again. One at the table's head, two on either side. He could pretty much figure who was going to sit at the head, so he shrugged inwardly and escorted Lillie to the chair nearest her, politely holding it out for her. After all, Luna wasn't going to be the only gentleman around here, he decided. Lillie fairly cooed under Frank's old-fashioned attention but if this bothered Julian, he wasn't letting it show.

No sooner had Frank seated himself than Jeffrey appeared through a swinging door adjoining the rear of the dinning hall carrying a steaming platter. Frank's mouth began to water as he caught sent of rich, hearty steak. Jeffrey placed the expertly the gourmet meal before Frank and gave a slight smile as Frank immediately set to cutting the huge slab of meat and forking it into his mouth. Jeffrey next produced wine which Lillie and Julian graciously accepted, but furnished Frank with mineral water, apparently under instruction from Dr. Farrell. Not that Frank cared. He found he'd never been so hungry in all his life.

"What gives?" Frank gestured at some point during the meal toward the mostly empty plates before the Kindred.

Lillie smiled winningly. "I insisted," she explained. "I recalled you felt a little awkward eating in front of me on our first date. This way you won't be alone, although you'll pardon us if we don't eat as much as you do." He had no idea this was also Lillie's way of trying to inflict a discomforting punishment on Julian for Feeding from her beloved — the unfortunate side effect being that she had to suffer through the meal as well.

Frank shuffled his feet uncomfortably. He had the distinct feeling Lillie had thrown in the word 'date' for Julian's sake. Just how much had she told Julian about that date, anyway? That had been earlier on in their relationship and he was still trying to find out more about Kindred society. Now, for the first time since he'd put on a badge, he was starting to believe there was such a thing as 'knowing too much.'

Conversation was sparse as Frank worked his way through the main course. It mainly consisted of his complimenting Jeffrey on how good everything tasted every five minutes, and Jeffrey thanking him, obviously pleased that the cuisine was so appreciated. Apparently he had found cooking a much under appreciated talent in his current place of employment. Frank just found it amazing that a vampire could cook, let along provide such tasty fanfare on short-notice. It was finally over dessert — a spicy sweet apple pie straight from heaven — that talk became serious.

"All right, Julian, you gonna tell me just what it was that attacked us in the park? Cuz I've been waiting to hear this one."

Julian and Lillie exchanged glances.

"What?" Frank fairly exploded. He'd been kept in the dark long enough!

Julian cleared his throat. "Frank, do try to keep an open mind."

"Please, Frank," Lillie encouraged.

"Why do I get the feeling that I'm not gonna like this?" groaned Frank. He dropped the fork with a clang onto the dessert plate, apple pie having turned to saw dust in his mouth.

Julian gave a wry look. "Probably because you're won't. Tonight we were accosted by people who call themselves 'Garou.' However, you would probably call them… werewolves."

"Werewolves? Excuse me but did you just say 'werewolves?'" Frank shook his head as though to clear his hearing.

"I'm sorry you had to find out about them this way but— "

"You actually said 'werewolves!'"

"Yes, Frank." Julian sighed. "They've existed alongside human society, just as Kindred have."

"C'mon, let's get real here. You're trying to tell me a bunch of hairy misfits have been running loose in world and no one's noticed it before?"

"Garou don't always look like, ah, hairy misfits," Lillie put in. "They can appear either as humans, or as wolves — like you've seen us do, or also as… something in between."

Frank sighed heavily. "I think it was the 'in-between' that attacked us. Great. Next you'll be telling me the tooth fairy's real too."

"No, but the Garou are," insisted Julian. He paused for a moment as if unsure how to voice his next thoughts. "Sasha has informed me how you intervened to save her life and bought her the needed time to bring the limo around. I cannot thank you enough for saving my niece's life."

Frank scowled. "Don't bother, Luna. I would have done the same for any innocent —" and then he scowled some more. Since when had he started thinking of Kindred as being "innocent?"

"None the less, I am in your debt," Julian continued smoothly.

Upon sensing her lover about to protest, Lillie smirked. "You'd better stop, Julian. I do believe you're making Frank feel like a dirty cop." That earned her dark looks from both of them. Lillie merely rolled her eyes as if to say "men!"

"Getting back to the discussion at hand," Julian recommenced resolutely. "Frank, you've already sampled first hand of just how dangerous the Garou can be. They will be hunting you now that they know you're involved with Kindred..."

"Terrific," Frank muttered.

"…which brings me to my next point. I want you to move into the mansion for your own protection."

Frank's response was as immediate as it was forceful. "No way! This cop can take care of himself just fine."

"Frank, I don't think you realize just how grave this situation is —"

"There is no way I'm moving in with a crime boss!" Frank glowered at Julian. So heatedly stubborn was his stare, that for a moment Julian thought he was trying to challenge him for Dominance, before remembering that not only did Frank not have the faintest notion what he was doing, he wouldn't even begin to understand the nuances of Kindred politics if they were spelled out for him. As it was, Julian realized Frank had no concept just how dangerous a threat the Garou posed to his safety. If he had, he wouldn't be refusing Julian's generous invitation. Julian rubbed at his temples. "Frank, this matter is not open for debate."

"Exactly. I'm not moving in here. End of story."

"Why doesn't he move in with me at the Haven?" This last bit that came from Lillie.

Both Frank and Julian looked at her in surprise.

"Well, it's the logical compromise," she stated evenly. "That way he'll be around one of us at all times. At work he'll be with the Kindred on the force. Afterwards… he'll have me." Her had voice become more than a tad suggestive.

Julian gave Lillie a brief, annoyed look before he turned back to Frank. "I think she's right, Frank. It's the safest thing for you. Lillie can fill you in on just what we're up against and how we're going to handle the Garou. This way I'll know you're safe and won't have to worry about you."

"Thanks," Franks said with loaded sarcasm, "but like I said, I take care of myself."

"Please, Frank, for me?" asked Lillie plaintively. Her pale blue eyes brimmed with concern, drawing him in.

Frank sighed. He knew when he was out-gunned. "All right. But only for you, Lillie."

She smiled engagingly and reached across the table for his hand. "Thank you, Darling. Just think of all the fun we'll have."

At that Julian stood up rather abruptly. "If you'll excuse me, I have some business that needs looking after. Lillie, be sure to have your clan assembled at the Haven before dawn for the general meeting. Frank, I'll have Jeffrey accompany you to your place so you can pack what you need — no arguments. Better get used to Kindred presence for the time being."

"Yeah, I know, I know. 'You're all around me,'" Frank quipped sarcastically.

"My, how quickly they learn," Lillie replied slyly, giving Frank a seductive wink and then sounding a throaty chuckle as he blushed.

Julian exited the room swiftly, apparently having no desire to see anything cute between them. Yet the Prince knew that Frank was good for Lillie and was sincerely grateful for that. The Ventrue mind of his had also neatly filed that bit of information away. No doubt it would come in handy for some future time.

 

Sasha sat on her bed with her arms wrapped tightly around her legs. She felt alone and miserable. Once they had gotten back to the Mansion she had made a nuisance of herself following Jeffrey around, making sure that Frank had been taken care of in one of the guest rooms. She knew the cop had saved her life and had made sure that Uncle Julian had known that as well. Even now she grimaced with guilt, thinking back to how she and the others had repaid him by clobbering him afterward to feed from him. She didn't care if it was part of Kindred nature — in Sasha's opinion that didn't always make it right. Sometime during the process of getting Frank situated and calling for Dr. Farrell, Jeffrey had generously allowed her to drink from his own Vitae, for which Sasha was grateful.

Once Frank had been recuperating in the guest bedroom, she'd listened while her uncle dispatched orders to his security crew in the Conclave room upstairs, which they would disseminate to other Kindred. Everyone was to travel in large groups, even when Hunting, and to stay armed at all times. In the meantime, he issued the standard moratorium on Kindred killings. There was to be no death duel or slaying of Kindred until the current situation with the Garou had been neutralized — this included recently made Childer who had yet to be formally presented. Sasha had learned with mild interest that this law was in keeping with what Julian's Sire had decreed a century ago. In times a crisis, the Kindred needed as much of their own kind alive as possible to combat whatever danger opposed them.

Apparently Sasha's group had not been the only Kindred attacked. That made her wish that Miriam was in town – Miriam could take down Garou like nobody's business -- but Sasha had heard that she'd left a few weeks ago to visit some Gangrel kin in L.A. Tigger had shown up during the security meeting with shredding clothing and some nasty scars on his face, frantic about his encounter with the Garou. He had been lucky to have escaped with his life. Practically on his heels were Rosebud and Sammy, sharing similar horror stories. That reminded Sasha how thankful she felt toward Frank Kohanek. She had listened in on Uncle Julian and Lillie's dinner conversation and was relieved to know that Frank would be protected.

Daedalus had also appeared briefly to warn Julian that several vicious Garou packs were on the prowl that night for any and all Kindred. Not even the sewers were safe. Only an hour ago, brazen little Anna Mae had been sorely injured, fighting off two Garou while en route to visiting Therese, the Nosferatu computer whiz who inhabited deep in the heart underground the city's. When Anselm had arrived to help, the Garou had vanished through their mysterious spirit realm. Sasha had felt sorry for the Nosferatu when she had heard that. But not too sorry. She still thought they were creepy and strange. And she had never got over the fact that they had eaten her Sire, Martin. Not that she harbored any sweet thoughts for him, but cannibalism just plain grossed her out. Daedalus had hurried back to his cellar lair where his Clan was holding their own meeting, after he had received instructions of Julian.

Sasha had felt like positively cheering when she had heard her uncle order Lorraina to retrieve Cash and his Childe back to the Haven. Circumstances required his Get to be presented before the Conclave, ready or not; Julian needed Cash back in his role of Primogen. But her joy had turned to dismay upon hearing the Gangrel woman's response. Apparently Lorraina had no clue where Cash had hid himself either! So what if Lorraina had promised the whole clan would be on the prowl for him — Cash was missing and danger was at hand. Sasha couldn't stand the thought of one of those ugly Garou tearing into her unsuspecting lover. It didn't matter anymore that he had abandoned her for some stupid Fledgling. She had to warn him!

She raced down stairs, flew out the main double doors with their white wolf etchings, and ran headlong into Nicky.

"Whoa, speedy chick, wha'cha up to now?"

Sasha looked at him askance. "I'll explain once we're out there searching. Did Cameron let you borrow a car or do I have to bum one off Uncle Julian?"

"How d'you think I got here?" Nick said proudly, motioning to a red sports car parked in the circular drive.

"Great! Let's go!" Sasha pulled at Nicky's arm, nearly sending him sprawling down the steps as she rushed down. "And no talking, Nicky — I've got to think!"

 

— PART FOUR —

A NIGHT FOR SURPRISE

Regina restlessly paced the barren loft Cash had left them in. It was large, dim, and dirty with plenty of windows on the north wall. Beyond that there wasn't much else you could say for it. The first thing she had done after Cash had installed them was insist that Johnny help her make the very messy double bed. When she unexpectedly discovered a lacy black bra jumbled among the covers, Cash abruptly announced he was going hunting. Unsure what to do with the lingerie item (which was way too large for her) Regina had neatly folded it and placed it under a pillow, pointedly ignoring her boyfriend's snicker. After they'd picked up an over turned chair and up-righted a felled lamp, there really wasn't much else to do in the way of cleaning. What Regina wouldn't give for a can of Lysol.

Not for the first time Regina seriously wondered if she was really suited for this life of the undead. At least when she and Johnny had been out on the streets, he'd always made sure to keep them as clean and as well-taken care of as possible. He knew how to work all the homeless shelters and churches so they rarely spent the night sleeping outside. He made sure they was able to shower at least once or twice a week at one of the shelters, or if they had over-stayed their limit, he would sneak her into some rec center locker room somewhere. He even made sure she had some decent clothes by helping out the owner of small used-clothing shop in a low-income area. They'd help sort through new batches of donations a couple times a month in exchange for first pick of a few things and a good meal.

Now everything had changed. It's not that Regina was crazy about their former life or anything — there'd been plenty of scary times too. Pimps to watch out for. Drug pushers to avoid. Thugs and bullies always wanting to steal what few dollars they had. Sure they'd both gotten hurt before, once Johnny had gotten hurt real bad — but, heck, no one had ever wanted to outright kill them.

Now she had to learn things like how to hunt people for their blood, how to pretend not to be a vampire, and how to fight. Cash was always wanting her to learn how to fight. At first Regina had liked learning to defend herself. But deep down under it all, Regina didn't much care for it. Too much fighting had been the reason she'd left her home in the first place. Well, at least she could please Cash to no end with her tracking skills. She'd always had a certain knack for finding things or people.

Gina scowled at their surroundings for the umpteenth time. Abruptly tripping over a nail sticking up from the floor she muttered, "Boy, you gotta love the guy's interior decorator."

"Aw, come on, Regina. He said he hasn't been here in months. 'Sides, Cash doesn't seem like a guy who needs too much, " Cash answered from where he lay draped on the neatly made bed.

"Yeah, well he'd better not, considering that all we got here is a bed, a lamp, and a chair! At least the last place had a bathroom and running water — so what if I had to remind him to bring us some soap and towels?"

"Uh," Johnny searched for something positive to say. He had been trying his hardest ever since her Embrace to look on the bright side of things for her sake. He'd never told anyone this, much less himself, but the day he met her blank-eyed and wandering near the bus station was the day when he first felt himself come alive. Like he had a real purpose or something. He'd been determined to make sure she survived. He didn't know why, but he felt better just having her around in his life — having someone to take care of. He liked being needed; it made him feel stronger and useful. And he liked Gina, too. A lot. "Uh, well, at least the 'lectricity still works, right?"

"Gee," she sneered, flopping back on the bed next to him, "if I'd only brought my hairdryer."

Johnny had to laugh. "Yeah, an' too bad we left behind that nice big screen t.v."

Regina turned her head, a smile breaking out. "Or your electric guitar."

"And amps."

They both burst out laughing, gloom dispelling.

Suddenly Regina frowned. "Shh," do you hear that?"

"Huh?"

"Never mind." She got up and went to the door. Was Cash returning already? No, the footsteps weren't right, especially because they sounded like high-heeled boots.

Regina jumped back when someone began pounding on the door. "Cash? Are you in there? Cash?" called a distinctively female voice. "Please, Cash, open up! I have to tell you something."

Regina felt strangely unsettled. She looked at Johnny, who was now sitting up wide-eyed on the bed. What should they do? Meanwhile the young woman on the other side was still clammering loudly for Cash.

Realizing that it probably wasn't a good idea for their visitor to be calling for their Sire so loudly when they were all supposed to be in hiding, Regina swallowed and answered, "Uh, sorry, no one by that name is here."

Silence. Regina felt a gnawing feeling in the pit of her stomach. Was she hungry? No, it wasn't that. But something didn't seem quite right. She looked back at Johnny but all she saw was similar confusion as he stood up to approach.

"Who's in there?" asked a decidedly suspicious voice. "Cash, is that a girl with you? Who is she?"

Regina's conscience tweaked. Could this be the owner of that lacey bra? Maybe she was jealous thinking Cash was cheating on her with another woman. "Um, really, if you're looking for Cash, he isn't here. I swear."

Apparently their visitor had had enough. She began pounding and kicking on the door louder than ever. "Cash! You get you sorry butt over here and open up this minute!"

Okay, Regina definitely felt something was wrong now. Every instinct in her body told her that danger was present. She shook her head roughly. What was she thinking? This was probably just that Lorraina girl that Cash spoke so highly of. She should have realized that they were in a relationship. Who else would be banging on the door for him and so upset at hearing a female voice answer?

Just as Johnny reached her, Regina had undone the locks and was opening the front door. As a result, all hell broke lose. A lithe fury in black leather stormed in, eyes blazing, fists clenched. Before Regina could stop herself, she flung herself at the figure, claws and fangs fully extended and a growl that shocked her emanating from deep in her throat. Johnny was right behind her

Sasha barely had time to react. Given the current state of alarm in the Kindred community, her first rational thought was not that it was Gangrel, but Garou that had ambushed her. Fortunately for her, for all their gusto, her attackers lacked any true training or finesse — not that Sasha was such a great fighter herself, but she was angry. She lashed out at the first person she happened to come into contact with — in this case, Regina – sending her in an unceremonious sprawl to the floor. Feeling stunned, Regina stayed down and watched as Johnny struggled fast and furiously with this curly-haired wildcat who'd just burst in on their lives. Unfortunately the curly-maned wildcat proved to be the better of the two and Johnny soon lay on the floor alongside Regina with just one obvious difference — he was unconscious. Regina gave a cry of dismay and began to back-peddle frenetically but in a single pounce the wild cat had her pinned to the floor. She was screaming something insanely into her hears that Regina was having a hard time making it out, owing to the fact that her shoulders and head were repeatedly slammed onto the floor. Ow, ow, ow, was all she had time to think.

"IsaidwhoareyouandwhatGarousentyoutokillCash?"

But all Regina could make out was her sire's name, which she repeated dumbly.

"YesthatsrightCASH! Talk you stupid excuse for a Garou!" Sasha suddenly stopped pounding the waif of girl into the floor. She sat up abruptly. "Wait a minute," she said suspiciously. "You're not one of those Garou things — you're a Gangrel!"

"That's right, Sasha, she's… uh, she's one of my Childer," came a familiar, if sheepish, voice from behind.

Regina's attacker was off her in flash, whirling around to face Cash. "Cash!" she cried joyfully. She hugged him so tight it would have stopped his breath had he been mortal.

As upset as Regina knew her Sire must have been to find both his Childer taken down by his girl, she noticed he couldn't help grinning from this Sasha person's tangible affection. "Whoa, whoa — easy there, Sasha, or Johnny won't be the only one mending his broken ribs."

The mention of Regina's boyfriend at once struck a sour cord. Sasha disengaged herself from Cash even quicker than she had pounced on him.

So this my Sire's girlfriend, thought Regina. She dimly wondered why she loathed Sasha so intensely. It wasn't because she'd fought them. Regina knew she'd only been defending herself since, after all, she had been attacked first. No, it was something much… deeper. Regina didn't like it. She crawled her way over to Johnny to check on him and was sure to give the couple a wide-berth. She sensed an argument in the making.

"It's really good to see you, Baby," her sire began rather lamely. Regina groaned. The noise apparently did not escape her sire's girlfriend and she felt the full-force of a twelve-ton stare boring straight through her back. "So who's that ?" Sasha spit distastefully.

"Um, this is, uh… She's Gina, Johnny's girl."

In the ensuing silence Regina wisely decided against correcting Cash concerning her name change. Instead she cradled Johnny's head on her lap and became very interested in smoothing his hair…

"Uh, Gina this is Sasha Luna."

Luna, thought Regina. Where have I heard that name before?

"Um, Sasha meet Gina Ford."

Wonderful, thought Regina. Just keep dragging me into the middle of all this, why don't you?

Sasha sneered, then suddenly her eyes narrowed. "She's Gangrel," she accused, her nostrils flaring.

"Now, Sasha, it's not how it looks — I didn't mean for this to happen."

"Twins!" Sasha shirked, enraged. "You went and made twins!"

"You weren't there. You don't know what happened." The defensive tone in his voice wasn't helping him any, Regina decided.

"Yeah, well, I know a stupid Outlander when I see one and I'm lookin' right now!"

"Her neck was broken! She surprised me during the day and I pushed her down by accident. She would have died! Is that what you would have wanted?"

"I don't care about your stupid Childer! You go and do what you want anyway! Cameron was right. You are no good! And you don't care about me or my feelings!"

"Oh, now there's a real reliable source."

"Yeah, well at least he didn't desert me like you did!"

Cash appeared taken back by this accusation. "Sasha, I didn't desert you. You know better! I never would."

"All I know is I risked my butt to come here tonight and warn you and your stupid Childe there's Garou makin' trouble and what happens? I get attacked by twin goon-dogs that you made!"

Cash grew suddenly concerned. "There's Garou in the city? Sash— you shouldn't have come here. You could have gotten hurt!" He sounded like he never could have lived with himself if she got hurt because of him. He reached out to her but she stepped back defiantly.

"Just make sure you and your 'Embracees' are at The Haven within the hour. Uncle Julian's orders. You have to Present them tonight ready or not," she stated coldly. She began walking toward the door.

"Wait! I can't let you go out there alone."

"You've got twins to protect, remember?" Sasha didn't look back.

"I'm not gonna let you leave alone!" Cash replied firmly and moved to stop her.

"Who said I'm alone?" Sasha retorted from the hallway. "I'm with Nicky now."

Cash looked suddenly smitten. Regina heard him mutter, "Nicky? What does she mean, 'Nicky?' Couldn't Julian have sent her with a Ventrue guard?" He began kicking at the floor.

Then a groggy voice sounded. "Hey, who was that witch anyways?" Johnny had finally come around as Regina was helping him over to the bed.

Cash sighed again. "That 'witch' happens to be my lover. She's what you call Brujah."

"Naw," Johnny grinned, rubbing his head. "She's what you call royally pissed at you. Hate to be in your shoes."

"Totally," chimed in Regina.

Although, the Gangrel Ancilla would never have thought it, for the first time Cash began questioning his judgement in becoming a Sire. It was never supposed to mean losing Sasha…

 

Cash took his Childer over to the Haven within the hour as Sasha had specified. Both Johnny and Regina appeared overawed by the sheer number of Kindred they saw gathered outside the premises — all of them Brujah. Until then, the only Kindred they'd chanced to meet was that crazy Sasha, who their Sire kept earnestly insisting was really-a-nice-person-once-you-got-to-know-her. Privately, they maintained their doubts. They both tensed noticeably upon nearing the Brujah, but that was all. To be on the safe side, unbeknownst to the Neonates, the trio was shadowed protectively by Rosebud and Mickey, two of Cash's brood-siblings; they who brought up the rear.

Cash sucked in a deep breath as he walked up slightly in front of his two Childer. There were about seven or eight Brujah waiting outside the entrance with Sasha in their midst. Cash had deliberately taken his charges around to the back alley entrance hoping to avoid just such a confrontation. At least he felt confident that they wouldn't dare hurt Regina or Johnny. With a Garou pack on the loose, Cash had learned from Rose that the Prince had placed a moratorium on death-duels, or any other form of Kindred killing.

Cash tried not to wince as Sasha deliberately blocked access to the cement stairs leading to the backstage area of the Haven. Her red leather dress was obviously made to tease. She abruptly reached over the railing of the steps and grabbed Nicky by the ears, hauling him in for a major kiss. Cash bristled but then saw Sasha eyeing him from behind Nicky's head hoping for a reaction. Cash leaned back against the brick wall, trying to appear casual, and motioned for his childer to do the same. He looked as though he had all the time in the world.

Then Cameron showed up.

The Brujah Primogen rounded the alley corner with about eight others and immediately began sizing Cash and his childer up. Cash began shifting uneasily. Things were going pretty badly for him and he was uncertain what to do about it. There were too many Brujah to take on and he didn't like the Predator's gleam in Cameron's eye.

All at once Cash sensed Gangrel — a lot of Gangrel. But where? He felt his gaze pull upward. There stood Lorraina in front of the rest of his Clan at edge of the roof on the opposite building.

Cash couldn't help but grin broadly — it seemed like ages since he had seen the whole gang. He wondered why they looked so surprised to see him and then realized they were staring at Regina. Of course. They hadn't yet heard about his twins. At his signal, they jumped down several stories, landing in near unison, curiously eyeing his Childer.

The Brujah began to shuffle uncomfortably, looking to Cameron for their lead. But unexpectedly, the next move came from Sasha. Since she wasn't getting the desired affect she had wanted from Cash by smooching with Nicky, she now smoothly vaulted over the railing and sidled up to Cameron. Cash frowned and started to walk over, but Lorraina tugged him back. "She's just trying to push you," she warned.

Encouraged by what she heard, Sasha made doe eyes at Cameron and began sliding her hands around his neck while the other Brujah openly gaped their astonishment. "My Primogen," Sasha cooed seductively, then she turned to smile at Cash making sure he could see her fangs were bared. Not sure where she was going with this, Cash shifted his weight uncomfortably. "Sash— " he called out.

Then she turned back to Cameron and bit him, Cameron raising his eyebrows in surprise. That did it for Cash. The thought that she might be Blood Bound to a sleaze-ball like Cameron sent him into a Frenzy the likes of which he'd never experienced before. When all was said and done it took nearly the combined strength of both Clans to break up their wrestling Primogen and then Julian's angry voice to restore order.

 

The Haven was packed that night. Perhaps as many as two hundred bodies lacking heartbeats were milling about on the dance floor, or sitting at the bar. Except tonight there was no music and no laughter. The atmosphere was grim and somber; everyone had heard rumors about the Garou attack. Much of the San Francisco's Kindred population was assembled at The Haven, having word of the general meeting the Prince had called. But, if truth be told, many would have gravitated there naturally for the security of being near their own kind. Lillie had deliberately closed her nightclub to the general public for this event. The threat the Garou posed was tangibly real. Everyone sensed it. Everyone wondered what would be next.

They certainly hadn't expected it to be a fight break out between their own kind. The Prince, looking angrier than ever, strode several paces before Cash, who entered from the backstage area, trailed by most of his Clan. The Gangrel Primogen was still voicing curses at Cameron, who actually seemed to be enjoying the attention, now that he had smoothed back his hair and removed his torn jacket and tie. The Brujah kept him in a tight circle, causing for momentary difficulty as the two adversarial Clans had to enter through the same arched opening. But things eventually sorted themselves and, as fate would have it, Cash ended up face-to-face with Cameron.

"So are you Sasha's Regnant?" he demanded bitterly, his fists tightly clenched.

"And what if I am?" retorted Cameron, obviously enjoying to opportunity to toy with his Gangrel foe.

"Not in here, you two!" called Lillie as she tried to elbow her way across the crowded room. She had clearly sensed the fight about to brew anew in her precious Elysium.

"Correct — that's enough with this futile infighting! It accomplishes nothing. And there are greater threats to the Kindred at this moment." Julian sounded extremely cross. In one quick, fluid motion he had leapt to the top of the center stage like a black panther, gaining everyone's attention — almost everyone's attention.

Cash and Cameron with still engaged in a hot, bitter debate by the bar. "No one can be Regnant to Sasha!" Cash spat harshly under his breath. "She belongs with me! Not some two-bit Brujah-Primogen-wanna-be!"

"Cash," Lillie tried to call out a warning, but it was too late.

"I do not!" screamed Sasha defiantly. "I do not belong to you, Cash! I belong to no one but myself!" She crossed her arms. "Stay away from me, Cash! You, your stupid Childer, an' your whole stinkin' Clan!"

"You heard the lady," said Cameron, smoothly stepping between Cash and the angry object of his affection. "She doesn't want you around anymore, so why don't you just buzz off, Outlander."

Cash snarled and would have launched himself into Cameron except at that very moment Lillie firmly latched onto his shoulders, having finally waded through to area of contention. She hissed at him, "Control yourself, Gangrel. You have Childer to present!"

That seemed to calm Cash down in a hurry as his eyes darted around for Johnny and Regina. He caught site of them beside Tigger. He breathed a sigh of relief and shrugged off Lillie's hold. Meanwhile Sasha had sought for refuge in Nicky's arms.

Atop the stage, Julian was glaring furiously. "I believe I said that's enough with this petty in-fighting!" His voice sounded terribly ominous. He appeared more menacing than any Kindred. The room immediately came to a still.

After a final glare, Julian calmly switched gears with practiced ease and assumed a classically neutral Ventrue pose. His tone proved all business and he seemed very much the C.E.O. of a major corporation, which of course, he was — many times over. "First order of the night… I see all that the Primogen are present and accounted for. While I recognize this isn't the standard Conclave meeting, owning to unavoidable circumstances, it will do. Cash, you will come before me to present your Progeny before your Prince and the other Primogen."

Cash ushered Johnny and Regina forth before the stage, ignoring the loud stir that they caused. He gulped as the Prince stared at them with clear ire. "I see what my niece has informed me is true. You've created another Childe without my permission."

Regina looked ready to wilt but Johnny stood straight and put his arm around her in encouragement. "Uh, Sir, uh, Prince-sir, it's my fault," he spoke up bravely. "See, Gina here's my girl and…" his voice faded to nothing under the full impact of Julian's ire.

"Shut up, Johnny," Cash hissed, kicking him sideways. "You haven't been formally presented yet. You don't exist."

Stricken, Johnny appeared corpse-like in his stillness. Regina cowered under his arm.

Julian sighed heavily. "Sasha has also informed me the circumstance's behind the girl's accidental Embrace as well."

Cash kept his fingers crossed. He tried to give Sasha a look of thanks across the room but she wouldn't meet his eyes.

"I suppose your Childer are well-versed in the Traditions?"

It was a rhetorical question so Cash merely nodded.

"You many present them both."

Clearly relieved, Cash made the necessary introductions and quietly prompted his Childer to recite the Six Traditions, which they did flawlessly. From their various positions about the large room, the Primogen voiced their acceptance of the two Gangrel. Afterward Cash endured a severe public dressing down for having created a second progeny without permission. Just when he thought the worst of it was over, Julian began anew; this time Cameron shared the criticism for fighting on Elysium grounds. Both of their Clans suffered a significant loss in their Hunting grounds. Cash kept quiet but he heard Cameron utter a mute groan. He could hardly blame the Brujah leader — his Clan's prestige was at a new all-time low.

Satisfied that Kindred justice had been served, Julian revealed the news that everyone had assembled to hear: Garou were in the city. They were purposefully attacking Kindred. They were to be hunted down and expelled — the safety of every Kindred in San Francisco depended upon it.

 

Prince Julian Luna very much regretted what his next task had to be. When he and Sasha were safely back at the Mansion again, he took her aside into his office. Sasha already had figured out she was in big trouble and refused to meet his eyes. He gestured for her to sit next to him on the long black leather sofa.

Taking a stern stance, he began to chasten her. "Sasha Evelyn Luna," he addressed her fully. "Do you have any idea how reckless your behavior was tonight? Have you no regard for Kindred law? Or for how important it is for us all that the peace of the Elysium remains inviolate? It was inexcusable of you to provoke a fight between Primogen." Julian shook his head. "It shames me that you have no respect for how hard I have worked as Prince to forge a peace between the Clans. I expected much better from a descendant who bears my name. Perhaps you are not the 'Luna' that I had hoped you were."

Sasha's chin began to quiver and she balled her hands into tight fists. But Julian steely continued, "Due to the violent nature of your Embrace, I have made many allowances for your poor behavior. But you cannot continue like this. It's bad enough that there are Garou at large, without you deliberately antagonizing the Gangrel Primogen." He paused a moment. "Like it or not, you're going to have to accept the fact that Cash has Childer now — Childer who will always be a part of him. And be warned, Sasha: if I've learned that you've harmed either Johnny or Regina, as Prince I will not protect you from Kindred law. I cannot."

"But it's not fair!" Sasha blurted out, practically in tears. "It's not fair! They've taken Cash away from me!" Another tear streaked down her round cheek. "I hate Cash, Uncle Julian, I hate him! It hurts inside — just like back when he was ignoring me after I was first Embraced 'cuz I was Brujah."

Julian noted that his niece neglected to say that she had been the one to call off the relationship first.

"It's not fair! I want him to hurt as much as he's hurt me — it's just not fair!" With that last pronouncement tears began to fall unabashedly as Sasha sobbed hoarsely and bitterly, still asserting her hatred for her former lover.

Julian sighed. It had been so long since he'd been a parent. What to do? He gently gathered Sasha into his arms and she held on to him tightly.

"Don't leave me, Uncle Julian," she cried. "Please don't leave me. Everybody always leaves me! First my parents, then Gramps, and now Cash." She began to wail. "Please don't leave me, Uncle Julian!"

"Never," he said, kissing the top of her head with feeling.

Julian stood, carrying Sasha as easily as he would have a doll, and began heading toward her bedroom at the far end of the Mansion. Realizing where he was going, Sasha clutched at him desperately. "No, you promised, Uncle Julian, you promised you wouldn't leave me!" She began crying anew, obviously in no state for rational speech.

He paused a moment listening to his descendant's sobs, then headed toward his own room where he gently laid Sasha on his bed. She curled up around a large satin pillow, sniffing as Julian stroked her hair. It was a long while before she had calmed down enough to sleep for the day.

When she finally lay in deep slumber, Julian let out a long sigh. He moved wearily over to sit down at his desk. Leaning over it he sank his head into his hands. A vision of Sasha as a child dressed in her ribbons and lace, filled his mind. She was just four years old and whirled around to show off her new pink dress that she was going to wear to her best friend's birthday party. Julian gave an inward sigh this time. At that moment he felt a sudden ache to be with Caitlin, and to forget his present cares in the warm, pleasing arms of his human love.

 

Cash wandered around the Mansion grounds as the sun dawned on the horizon, feeling the weight of a terrible guilt. He had made sure his Childer were safely sequestered in his gate house apartment — he doubted Regina would ever leave the bathroom shower — and was now prowling the estate grounds on his own. He felt like a heel. He had realized too late that he should have stayed with Sasha — that in a very real way he was her Sire.

He had been the one to help her through the change, to hold her when she was cold until she couldn't feel her heart beat any more. It had been his Vitae that had satisfied her first thirst. He had been the one to comfort her when she'd seriously planned to kill herself for having inadvertently Drained a mortal to death. It had been with his help that Julian had been able to put into effect the plan to entice her Feed from mortal Donors once more.

How could he have ever given her up?

He'd been so stupid — so blind. All he'd been able to think about was Johnny and how great it'd be to finally Sire a Childe. As if it could have made up in some way for having lost Sasha to the Brujah. As proud as he was of both Johnny and Regina, he knew now nothing could make up for that loss.

Cash paused, then resolutely entered the Mansion through a back way. He realized that things might never be the same between him and Sasha now that she'd been with the Brujah for almost two months. That thought made him uneasy. No matter what — even if she screamed at him all day long or threw all kinds of furniture at him, he had to apologize to her. To let her know how much she really meant to him…

Cash paused outside Sasha's bedroom door. It was partway open and he peeked in. He frowned upon seeing an empty bed — it was unmade, naturally. Some things never changed.

"If you are looking for Miss Sasha, I believe she is spending the day in the Prince's room," a voice announced calmly behind him. "If you'd like, I'd be glad to relay a message to her upon waking this evening."

Cash spun around. So engrossed in his mission had he been, and so intent on thoughts of Sasha, that he hadn't even noticed when the Ventrue valet had come upon him in the hallway. Cash grimaced. Fine Gangrel he was.

"Uh, Jeffrey. Uh, no. I just wanted to make sure she had gotten in okay." Cash brusquely walked past the Kindred, his thoughts in sudden turmoil. Just what exactly was Sasha doing in Julian's bedroom anyway? And how long had this been going on? The tight fist of jealousy closed unexpectedly around his heart.

 

— PART FIVE —

OUT OF THE FRYING PAN

Frank woke up with a start. He couldn't figure out what had gotten his attention. He stretched and a lazy satisfied yawn came over him. He slowly began relaxing back to sleep — he'd been dreaming he was a kid again with his sister and parents on their yearly camping trip to the Red Woods. Those were good times. He swore he could still even smell smoke from the campfire. His eyes suddenly shot wide open.

This wasn't funny — he really could smell smoke… and it wasn't campfire smoke either! Frank jumped out of bed and began gathering his clothes as fast as possible, yelling at Lillie to wake up. He'd barely zipped up pants when he saw smoke curling under the bedroom door. He ran to the door and placed his hands it. The door was warm, but not yet hot. Why hadn't the smoke detectors gone off? Didn't this fancy place have a sprinkler system? Cursing, he finished dressing in lightening speed and began shaking Lillie with savage ferocity.

"Lillie! C'mon, honey, wake up! LILLIE!" Frank yelled in frustration. Realizing it was futile, he left off. Shaking and yelling weren't going to do it. Not for this corpse. An idea flashed through his head. He ran into the bathroom and gave a silent prayer of thanks that the water pipes still worked, as he stopped up her large bathtub and ran the water full tilt. He hurried back into the bedroom, yelling out to Lillie one more time. Nothing. Apologizing to her for what he was about to do, he picked her up, and ran with her into the bathroom. With a heave he threw her into the tub hoping the cold running water would startle her awake. Nothing.

Feeling truly frantic now, Frank grabbed a scarf of her from where it lay carelessly on her sink counter and doused it. He knew there were other kindred in the building that needed to be roused. Maybe one of them could help. He left Lillie in the tub, water still running full blast, hoping that she would eventually wake.

Going back into the bedroom he slipped on his new leather jacket for added protection, pulling it over his head. Tying the scarf around his nose and mouth he cautiously opened the door to her office. He walked over to the spy-hole and peered down on the club below. It was like an inferno. Frank flinched as a blast of heat hit him. Fire tore along the walls and much of the floor consuming everything in its path. He muttered a low "uh-oh" when he saw the closest exit to that led to the alleyway outside was heavily blocked by flaming debris. That only left the main entranceway and in his feverish imagination it suddenly seemed a football field away from where he stood. He doubted whether he could take Lillie's prone body through the length of it. For all he knew about Kindred physiology, one stray spark would incinerate her whole body.

Dropping to his hands and knees Frank crawled forward and kicked the bedroom door shut behind him. Smoke bit at his eyes, causing them to water incessantly. Carefully picking his way through the burning mess he made his way through the office doorway to the hall outside. Sparks singed his leather jacket, but fortunately it made a good shield. By this time, Frank's lungs began to burn. He limited himself to swallow breathes, but broke out in coughing fits that forced him to inhale large doses of the hot smoky air. He thought his lungs would burst.

Crawling rapidly he made it too another apartment and felt the door. This one wasn't radiating heat. He reached up to turn the knob. Common sense hit him a moment before closing on it and instead he grabbed a handkerchief from his jeans pockets. He wrapped it around his hand and touched the metal knob. The heat it had picked up from the surrounding air was intense but if he had burned himself, adrenaline pushed the pain away.

The door opened suddenly as Frank quickly stumbled in. Thankfully, this apartment still hadn't been touched by the raging blaze, though generous amounts of smoke already wafted in swirls through the air. Frank panting badly; smoke had filled his head, as well as his lungs, making him dizzy as anything. He flung his coat off and stuffed to close off the crack under the door.

Heading for the first door he saw (praying that it wasn't just a closet) he barged in. It wasn't. He straightaway saw Lillie's Childe Summer, the major domo of the Haven. Summer looked as peaceful as her name as she lay on a Divan, a magazine still open on her lap. Her stillness and deathly pallor told Frank all he needed to know: another sleeping Kindred. Nearly beside himself in frustration, Frank hoped she'd be easier to wake than Lillie. But despite his erstwhile screams, she remained as immobile as a statue. This was just not his day.

Cursing unintelligibly now, Frank picked her up in his arms and flung her over his right shoulder in a fireman's hold, staggering under the sudden weight. Dead weight, he thought. He was rushing full speed back into the main room when a hand shot out from under the bed and tripped him. Frank fell flat onto Summer, but not even that awoke her.

"What the— " Frank looked around him dazedly, then saw the hand beckoning at him furiously from under the bed. Having no time for games he reached and pulled the covers up, peering underneath straight into the glowing eyes of a terrified Toreador. "Help me, please!" he pleaded anxiously. "The Haven's on fire!"

Tell me something I don't know, thought Frank. He spoke calmly and reassuringly though, persuading the Kindred to come out from under the bed. Frank rewarded him by thrusting Summer into his hands. "How many more of you are there in here?" he asked hurriedly.

"Two! In the other bedroom!" He was clearly a hair's breath from all-out panic.

"Show me where and help me wake them," Frank ordered firmly. "Then we've got to get Summer into Lillie's bathtub."

"Bathtub?" The Toreador blinked in confusion.

"It's filling with water — c'mon, don't just stand there!" Frank grabbed the man by his arm and ushered him out of the room. He then followed the Toreador as the vampire headed into another bedroom with two twin-sized beds topped by corpse-like bodies. Frank immediately grabbed the nearest one and started shaking her violently, screaming into her ears to get up. Recognizing her delicate Asian features, he realized that it was Opal. To his surprise, her eyes popped open. Startled, he dropped her back on the bed. "We're getting out of here," he informed her as calmly as possible. "There's a fire in The Haven." Opal put a hand to her face and her eyes widened like a frightened rabbit. "Hurry!" instructed Frank, pulling her off the bed.

From across the room, the male Toreador struggled to wake the other sleeping Toreador. He had thrown Summer down, concentrating on slapping and shaking the Kindred.

"Never mind that!" barked Frank. "I'll grab Summer, you take the dead guy — and you," he addressed the newly awakened Opal even as he threw Summer over his shoulder. "You follow us."

Taking a few quick, deep breaths of air, Frank headed out the bedroom, the other Toreador close in his wake. In the front room he recovered his jacket, and placed it again over his head and shoulders. Forgetting about the hot doorknob he stung his hand as he opened the door. At once, a wall of smoke hit him and his eyes immediately began to tear like crazy. The fire was truly raging out of control now. He doubted it would leave much of the club standing.

Staggering some under the weight of his inert load, Frank held his breath and rapidly made his way back to Lillie's apartment. As he burst down the door of her office, he had hope that she'd woken up on her own. Opal was now way ahead of him, already in the bedroom. No Lillie appeared. Frustrated and angry, Frank ran into the bedroom and straight for the bathroom. Lillie was prone where he left her, a corpse in a rapidly filling bathtub. It was a miracle that the faucet could still spew its water.

"What do we do?" Opal wailed.

Frank made an instant, ruthless decision. He instructed Opal to gather off all the bedding from Lillie's enormous bed and whatever other blankets she could find. Frank then carefully placed Summer down into the tub next to Lillie and ordered the other Toreador to do the same with his load. "We have to leave them here," Frank told him. "I don't like it but it's their only chance. If we drag them through that inferno, they won't be able to dodge the flames and they'll probably get blasted. We've to get out of here and get some help. Call Julian... What am I saying? Forget Luna — we need the fire department!"

"But— "

"We'll cover them with wet blankets and hope that's enough to keep them safe. It's the only way."

Opal came in, arms overloaded with expensive blankets and bedspreads. The three of them worked quickly to drench the blankets thoroughly, wrapping them around the sleeping Kindred. Saying a silent good-bye to Lillie in his head, he pushed the other the Toreador in front of him all the way out the apartment's front door. Frank cringed. He'd forgotten his jacket in the bathroom but there was no time to go back for it now.

"I can't go through there!" Opal panicked by his side.

"Sure you can, Honey. Just hang on and stay away from the flames," Frank grabbed her hand and pulled her behind him down the wide winding stairway that led straight into hell.

It was worse than he could ever have imagined. The fire roared like a creature alive and it was everywhere. The intensity of the heat and smoke alone threatened to overwhelm him. Opal was screaming, trying to pull him back but he would have none of that. He reached back and hoisted the small Asian woman onto his back, piggyback style, hoping he'd be able to steer through the blaze with the added weight. He could barely breath as it was. And then he charged through right through the midst of it all with the male Toreador close on his heels and crying loudly all the way.

At the back of his mind Frank was surprised that the Kindred didn't use his preternatural speed to cross the room. He could make it across before Frank barely even started. But as he felt the man stumbling closely behind him, Frank realized he was too scared to cross the burning abyss alone. Trying to avoid the thickest patches of fire, Frank ran doggedly in direction of the main stairway leading out of nightclub. He banished every thought that it might be the wrong way.

Flames seared the detective's side as he ran. What's more, his sight was growing fuzzy and dim as his brain suffered for lack of oxygen. He was barely aware of anything as he gasped desperately at the lethal air. Each breath drew in another lung-full of nauseating fume. Not that he had much lung left. They felt so shallow — he hardly could make them work — and every time he inhaled he felt the pierce of daggers inside. The surrounding fire was so hot, he could the exposed flesh on his face and hands burn.

And then, suddenly, mercifully, there was the wide exit way before him. He fought his way up the stairs, staggering light-headedly for want clean air. He dropped Opal on the stairway, and pushed her feebly toward the outer exit doors. Then he turned back to aid the Kindred behind him. Frank stared in horror, the man was engulfed in flames — just as Alexander had been. And then he was gone, igniting instantly to dust. Falling backward, Frank managed to crawl upward, step after agonizing step. He stumbled against the exit doors and suddenly found himself staring up into the night sky, the faint wail of sirens resounding in his ears. Then all the world went black.

 

Detective Sonny Toussaint's chest tightened as he heard the announcement come over the police radio. A building was on fire and he immediately recognized The Haven's address. He turned on the portable flashing light and threw it on the car's roof and he sped like crazy to get there, veering in and out of traffic like a wild man. He'd been heading in The Haven's general direction already.

Sonny made a quick call on the car phone to the Mansion, informing Jeffrey of the situation. Sonny kept his fingers crossed that The Haven's occupants had made it out. Julian had told him that Frank was staying at Lillie's apartment there and his safety was foremost in Sonny's mind. Sonny had developed a true affinity for his human partner. A bond had long since developed between the two — the bond of comradeship and trust that comes naturally for two partnered detective — partners who surveyed endless crime scenes together, shared the long, long hours of stake-outs, guarded each other's backs down dark alleys, and filed a lion's burden of police reports together.

Sonny only had two regrets about his friendship with the vigilant human. It bothered him that he had to smear Frank Kohanek's good name in the precinct behind the back — encouraging others to think that his partner was nuts for believing in vampires. However, the Masquerade had to be maintained. Sonny also wished that he could let Frank know that he was Kindred, although he harbored an uneasy suspicion that somehow Frank already knew. This was a suspicion Sonny carefully guarded from his Sire. Julian believed that Sonny was supposedly keeping an eye on the human detective without Frank's knowledge of the situation. Sonny wasn't sure how the Prince would react if he found out otherwise, and he felt an instinctive, gut-need to cover for Frank. Sonny also wasn't sure if Julian would understand that either. True, one's Sire, was one's Sire… but Sonny was just as much cop as he was Kindred — and ratting on a partner just plain wasn't his style.

Sonny pulled the car over, screeching to a halt across the street and half a block away from The Haven. He knew the fire engines would be there soon and he wanted to give them plenty of berth to reach the building. Predictably, a crowd of gawking on-lookers had already gathered, but most kept a healthy distance from the madly smoking nightclub. His heart gave a lurch as he spotted the front entrance doors suddenly open and Opal burst outside. But where were Frank and Lillie and the others?

Sonny flung open the car door and rushed toward the Haven. He paid no attention to the sunny rays of the afternoon that beat into his back like a sledgehammer but instead cursed the Masquerade, which forced him to run at human speed before the mortal spectators. Flashing his badge he pressed his way through them and then saw the doors fling open again. Frank stumbled out and then fell. Even as Sonny ran, he could easily make out the horrible burns on his partner, who lay sprawled out flat on his back. And Frank's chest wasn't moving either. Sonny's heart gave another lurch and he fought down his panic. Had he come too late? Was his partner still alive?

Just as he arrived on the scene, a couple of samaritans from the crowd were helping both Opal and Frank away from the building. Opal looked dazed and distracted but she appeared uninjured. "Police!" Sonny immediately identified himself and dropped at Frank's side. He grimaced at the human shish kebab before him, flinching inwardly, as he smelled seared flesh. Frank's eyes were glazed and he didn't stir as Sonny felt for his pulse. For a horrible moment Sonny found nothing, then felt a weak, hesitant beat. At least Frank was alive — but he still wasn't breathing. Sonny yanked down on the silken scarf that covered Frank's lower face, and then tilted his partner's head back, blowing three quick breaths of air into Frank's lungs. He waited. Nothing.

"Is he gonna make it?" a man worried.

Ignoring him, Sonny blew a longer breath. There was still no response. Sonny repeated the procedure with a growing sense of urgency.

"His heart's still beating," a middle-aged woman informed. She was kneeling on the opposite of Frank and was holding his wrist. Sonny continued to breathe for Frank. If humans hadn't been all around him Sonny would gladly have slashed his wrist and fed some of his vitae to rouse Frank. As it was, this was all he could do.

Sonny was suddenly aware that a wailing ambulance that had pulled up behind them. The fire engines followed, fire fighters already jumping from the lime-green trucks and unraveling hoses. From the corner of his eye Sonny could also see police cars arrive on either side, blocking off the street. Uniformed cops were already herding the curious spectators away from the fire scene.

"Situation?" a young voice called from behind him. Sonny turned as a pair of medics rushed over. He recognized the team, they had hauled away the dead body on one of the Eastling employee murder cases that he and Frank had been called out to investigate.

Sonny immediately rose to make room. "He's got a weak pulse — no respiration."

"Right. We'll take it from here, Detective."

Sonny hesitated, looking over at Opal. She appeared to him to have made a complete recovery, but was feigning coughs for the benefit of the Masquerade. Seeing one of the medics start toward her, she immediately waved his attention back to Frank. "I'm fine," she stammered weakly but Sonny recognized the touch of Dominance in her eyes.

Sonny backed off as the emergency medics immediately began working on Frank. Commotion was everywhere. High-pressured water was starting to spray and ladders raised as the fire fighters began their business. He hurried to Opal's side and together they pretended that he helped her to stand. He was about to ask her where Lillie was when he spotted the Fire Chief coming over for a report. "Any more inside?" the Chief yelled over the din of flames and water. He didn't need yell, both Sonny and Opal could hear him quite clearly, but the Chief wouldn't have known that.

Sonny suddenly became aware of the danger to the Masquerade that this situation posed. He realized there was no way he could let those fire fighters search for Kindred in the building if he could help it — even if that meant sacrificing the Toreador Primogen herself. He shuddered to think of a fire fighter or even another ambulance crew showing up and witnessing the "miraculous" revival of a rescued but dead Kindred. Who knows how many humans might witness that? There were simply too many mortals for Sonny and Opal to Dominate them all. No, the Masquerade had to be upheld. Maybe once the Prince arrived with Kindred reinforcement, they could search for Lillie and the others but for now…

Sonny realized the Fire Chief was still waiting for an answer. "Those two were the only ones in there!" he replied as he willed the man to believe him. "Don't risk the lives of your men by looking for anyone." The chief responded with a quick nod and began barking orders over a hand-held radio, turning his attention back to the fire.

Sonny Toussaint was no fool, he knew that eventually the fighters would enter the building, but he hoped by then the Prince would have arrived. He grabbed Opal and pulled her back. "What happened?" he pressed. "Where's Lillie?"

"She's still in there!" wailed Opal, "with Summer and Terry! We couldn't wake them so Frank had us wrap them in bed sheets and put them in Lillie's bathtub. He had it filled with water. Oh, it's so horrible we had to leave them! But we never could've carried them all through the fire and still made it out in time. And since they were sleeping, they wouldn't have moved if a stray flame caught them. Then it would've been all over in an instant." Opal looked shaken. "Frank carried me through blaze — I was too scared to go through it. But Garret didn't make it…"

"Do you know how this all started?"

"No — no. But it's strange, Sonny. None of the smoke alarms were sounding and the sprinklers didn't come on. And I'm certain I smelled gasoline. I think this was deliberate."

Sonny was about to question Opal further when he heard someone call out, "Detective!" It was the first medic, trying to get his attention. "We're taking him to the hospital now. You coming?" The medic held an oxygen mask over Frank's face, pumping the balloon of a hand-held respirator, even as another ambulance worker belted Frank onto the stretcher.

Sonny concern was fully drawn once more to his injured and prone partner. He reached into his jacket, grabbed his cellular phone and pushed it in Opal's hands. He knew she was dependable — that's one of the reasons Lillie had her working at The Haven. "Call the Prince!" he hissed. "He'll want to hear the details from you himself… and tell him I'm on the way to the hospital with Frank. I'll phone Julian from there." A though occurred to him and he slid off his brown zipper jacket. Flinging it in Opal's direction, he rushed toward Frank. "And cover yourself with this! The sun is bloody hot!" he called back.

Sonny helped the medics load Frank into the rear of the ambulance truck and then sat down, trying to make himself as unobtrusive as possible in the small space. He felt a sudden lurch and heard the wail of the sirens start as the ambulance pulled away. As they journeyed to the hospital, Sonny thought back on what Opal had said. She believed the fire had been set deliberately. And he was pretty sure he knew just what kind of creature had been responsible for it. He watched as a dedicated medic worked feverishly over Frank. Sonny felt a knot contract in his stomach and vowed then and there that the Garou would pay for what they had done to his partner.

 

Lillie blinked in sleepy surprise and then moaned. Why was she wakening prematurely? And what was that awful smell? Feeling unpleasant and soggy all over, she gave a slight shudder.

"Lillie? Lillie!" an urgent voice spoke from somewhere just above her. It was Julian. He was cradling her in his arms. Julian? Where was Frank?

Lillie slowly stirred to groggy awareness. She was sure it had to daytime. She could practically feel the sun striking her with the painful knife-pricks of its rays. Whatever it was, that horrible smoky smell seemed worse by the minute.

"Lillie? Can you hear me?" came Julian's insistent voice. She felt herself being shaken.

"Julian?" she moaned. She opened her eyes to look about her — and then wished that she hadn't. She was confused and instantly consternated. Why had he taken her to this terrible burned out shelter? And why wasn't Frank here?

"Oh, thank heaven you're all right!" Julian exclaimed. "Lillie —"

"Where's Frank?" Lillie interrupted, trying to push her way out of Julian's strong grip. She wanted to stand up. She needed to make sense of things. "Where are we?"

"It's The Haven — we're at your apartment in The Haven. There was a fire —"

"Fire! Where's Frank?" Lillie felt a surge of alarm and further awoke. A fire? While she had been sleeping? It was a Kindred's worst fear. It was certainly her worst fear. She began to struggle harder. Julian immediately helped her to stand but held her to him for a moment longer before letting her go. She saw the concern etched deep in his eyes, but her mind was too distracted to take advantage of it. She drew back her long, soaked locks and stared at their surroundings in dismay. They were standing in the smoldered, blackened ruins of her once shiny and elegant bathroom.

Lillie discovered that they weren't alone. Cameron was also there, digging through a massive heap of drenched bedding on the floor. She wondered why he was doing that. But then, who knew why Cameron did anything? The fact that there were a couple of Ventrue and a much greater number of Brujah guards in the next room finally registered. She searched in vain for Frank among them. "Frank?" she called out.

Julian hesitated. He took off his long black coat and wrapped it gently around her. Lillie realized that she was still in the short, silky red gown she had worn last night for Frank's benefit. It now clung to her like a sorry wet rag.

"Frank's safe," Julian told her kindly. "You needn't worry."

Lillie frowned, trying to clear her head. That ghastly stench of smoky decay, which permeated every where, overwhelmed her fine Toreador sensitivity. She was about to ask about Frank again when Cameron cried in sudden triumph.

"Got 'em!"

Lillie looked at him in askance. Then she realized that he had just dug out Summer and Terry, both of whom worked and lived at The Haven. "Summer!" she exclaimed and reached down to stroke the bedraggled head of her soaked Childe. "What's happened?"

"Looks like your Frank saved her life," Cameron informed off-handedly. "Yours too, Lillie. Handy guy to have around — shame he's not Brujah." After having received no response from shaking Summer, Cameron shrugged and hefted her body over one shoulder and then did the same with Terry on his other. "Can we go now?" He looked at Julian, who nodded.

The Prince placed his hand on Lillie's back and ushered her firmly out of the bathroom. Lillie was still trying to fathom what was going on as Julian steered her through the destroyed remains of her bedroom and down the stairs. She noticed he avoided her gaze each time she asked about Frank. At any other time the Toreador Primogen would have stood her ground and demand that the Prince answer her, but as he took them through the heavily charred remains of what was once her beloved club, all the fight was out of her.

It was only once she and Julian were safely ensconced in his limousine, with the comfortable smooth feel of the leather seats under her, that reason returned and Lillie began to assert herself in earnest. Julian wore a pained look as he explained to her that the human detective was recovering in the burn unit at San Francisco General Hospital. He related to her all that had happened regarding the fire. Not too surprisingly, several Gangrel had found trace evidence of Garou presence at The Haven. Consequently, Julian was relocating Lillie to the Mansion.

Lillie's mind reeled trying to take everything in at once. A sickening, panicky feeling had begun the moment she had learned that Frank was hospitalized. This was her fault. She had convinced Frank to stay with her at The Haven instead of at Julian's compound. "No!" she said. "Julian, I've got to go to him! I won't go anywhere unless I've seen him first."

She closed her eyes briefly, not wanting to picture her lover hurt in any way. Frank had opened so much to her that she had thought she'd lost once Caitlin had appeared on the scene. His loyalty to her, his honest and unassuming manner, his comforting presence had become a needed tonic in her life. And her feelings for this human ran deeper than she had imagined. Lillie had never thought of Frank before as being so mortal, so fragile… She couldn't stand to lose him. She leaned forward determinedly. "Lorraina," she ordered, "take us to San Francisco General."

"Belay that, Lorraina!" Julian snapped. Then, more gently he turned toward Lillie and spoke. "Lillie, Frank is in excellent hands and Dr. Farrell is attending him. I've sent nearly every available Ventrue guard to the hospital, and remember Sonny is there as well. Frank is perfectly safe. Dr. Farrell will transport and care for him at the Mansion the moment his condition has stabilized. I promise you that."

"No!" Lillie cried. "Julian, I need to see him." She could feel her heart start to beat as her emotions ran frantic.

"You will as soon as he returns."

"No, now!"

"It's not possible."

"Julian!"

"I'm sorry, Lillie —"

"The hell you are, Blue Blood!" Lillie spat. "What if it were Caitlin? Sabbat wouldn't keep you from the hospital!" She glared at him, infuriated. How dare he come between her and Frank like this? How dare he not listen to her. She was the Toreador Primogen!

Julian winced. This was obviously was hard on him. "Please, be reasonable, Lillie. The Garou have already tried to kill you once today. I can't allow them that opportunity again." She was about to interrupt when he rushed on. "If nothing else, think of your Clan, Lillie. They need your leadership. You're the Toreador Primogen."

Perfect, on top of everything now the Prince had become a mind reader. "How good of you to have noticed," Lillie replied icily, then looked away.

Julian gave a weary sigh. Seated across from them both, a stray Gangrel squirmed and did his best not to look present. Lillie stared at him. It was Tigger, Lorraina's Childe. Where on earth was Cash?

Registering her questioning expression, Julian supplied, "Tigger is filling in for Cash. I've sent him with the Gangrel to discover the location of the Garou packs that are perpetrating this violence against Kindred. Our next step is to plan a strategy against them."

Lillie gave a slight nod but stubbornly refused to look at the Ventrue. A cold, inner fire of conviction had begun to burn deep inside. She would be avenged for what those Garou monsters had done to her human lover.

 

— PART SIX —

SHOWDOWN

Sasha lounged on her bed, glaring angrily at the decorative yet deceptively strong metal bars her Uncle Julian had had installed over her bedroom window. He had tired of her habit of throwing furniture out the window every time she was upset. The time she had attempted to throw her bed out had been the last straw. The bars had gone up before the month was out. Her uncle had also tired of Sasha using the window as her avenue of escape, whenever she had been ordered to her bedroom. Like now. Great, she thought through gritted teeth. Everyone gets in on the action but me. She threw her pillow at the door, but that just wasn't the same as stuffing her dresser out the window.

Apparently one of Cash's despicable Childer had proved to be an excellent tracker. She'd led the Gangrel to where the Garou had made their temporary lair in the city. On orders of the Prince, Cash had challenged them all to a death duel with the Kindred at Golden Gate Park. The Garou had been so eager to take him up on this offer that the Gangrel had barely escaped with their lives to report back to Julian.

Now, at this very moment, every Kindred worth their salt were engaged in heavy combat at the Park — every Kindred except Sasha, of course. Even Cash's Childer were there, and they were barely even Neonates! Julian had given Jeffrey charge over her and had staunchly refused her to participate in the battle. To her utter chagrin both Cash and Cameron had backed up their Prince. It was disgraceful — not even her own Primogen would listen to her protests. Neither had Nicky, that stupid lug. He just told her it would be safer for her to stay put. She'd given him a good, swift hard kick for that. Unfortunately he had sidestepped it neatly.

Sasha growled. None of them had understood. Sasha just had to face those Garou monsters. After all, she owed it to Frank, who had saved her skin about two seconds after they'd met. And look where that had gotten him in the long run — mauled by Raging Garou, Drained by desperate Kindred, and then stuck in a burning building with Lillie. Guilt flowed through Sasha's veins like Vitae. She wondered how Frank was doing. Dr. Farrell had okayed the detective's release from the hospital yesterday afternoon, but Frank remained under his constant care at the Mansion; the human had been in no condition to protest and he now occupied the same spare bedroom as before.

Sasha suddenly got the bright idea to go see him. Maybe Frank could use some cheering up, heck, he was currently just as much a prisoner in Julian's compound as she was. Besides, maybe it would ameliorate her conscience some to see if he was doing any better. He hadn't looked so good yesterday when Dr. Farrell had brought him back. Sasha got up and began banging loudly at her locked door, yelling for Jeffrey. It felt like forever before she finally got her desired response.

 

Jeffrey had just about had his fill of it. Between the bewailing of Julian's implacable niece and the incessant griping of Frank Kohanek, Jeffrey had barely known a moment's peace. The former would scream and pound at her door to be let out, and latter had started to complain loudly about being corralled. Dr. Farrell had placed the Detective under strict instructions for bed rest and Julian was taking no chances with the human's life. The entire staff from gatehouse guard to chambermaid had been well instructed concerning Frank's care. However, the greater burden fell to Jeffrey, as he was not only Julian's Private Assistant, but also the Compound's Overseer. And he was starting to feel like the Personal Harbinger of Doom for both Frank and Sasha, neither of whom seemed to understand that their repeated appeals would not alter his message.

Admittedly, Jeffrey was considerably shorter in dispensing Julian's orders when he dealt Sasha, than he was with Frank, who now merited certain respect. Jeffrey shook his head, the barest trace of amazement playing across his handsome but deliberately bland features. Remarkable as it seemed, this ordinary mortal had acquired Status among the Kindred, most certainly among the Toreador Clan. After all, here was a human who had both combated Garou and had saved the life of a Primogen. Jeffrey gave a wry smile. He was certain the Detective would have been appalled to learn of his standing in the Kindred community. Frank's disdain for any 'vampire,' except Lillie Langtry, was becoming increasingly evident the longer he remained caged in his room. And since unbeknownst to Frank, his sweetheart was preoccupied by the Garou tonight, Jeffrey bore the brunt of that disdain.

Ah, well… there were compensations. At least Jeffrey was able to exercise his cuisine expertise as long as Frank remained their guest. The culinary arts had been a favored hobby for the Ventrue before his Embrace. Actually, it was an art that Jeffrey still took pleasure in, although he had long since lost any appetite for of his creations. He noticed that Frank was discernibly more civil when Jeffrey would arrive a meal. Jeffrey readily admitted to relishing the compliments that he heard from this human. And he tried to remember them each time that Frank lost his temper over his imposed confinement. That had been happening frequently over the past few hours. San Francisco's Finest was obviously feeling much better this night.

Unlike Sasha, the Detective's bedroom door had not required locking. He'd poked his head out once but after giving his Kindred guards a sour look, had had the sense not bother to again. Instead Frank Kohanek had taken to the intercom, using it to call Jeffrey in his office every quarter hour on the dot, making Jeffrey just as much a prisoner to Frank's complaints as Frank was prisoner to his room. Jeffrey groaned and momentarily buried his head in his hands. It was already after one a.m. and Frank's wrath via the intercom had showed no signs of letting up. Granted, it had been a while since his breathing years — but if memory served, weren't Kine supposed to sleep sometime during the night? But, of course, this particular Kine worked the night shift, and was therefore accustomed to keeping late hours.

The intercom buzzed. It was then that Jeffrey realized he was in for a very long night... "Jeffrey," he identified himself as he stabbed the receive button hard. He had to bite back the desire to add "what do you want now, Frank?"

"Jeffrey," responded a weary voice, "it's Miss Sasha, again. She won't stop banging her door. She's insisting — loudly — that you come see her. Again."

"Very well, John," Jeffrey nearly snapped at his own Childe. He closed his eyes briefly. It wasn't John's fault that Sasha kept acting the part of an ill-tempered, egocentric six-year-old. Jeffrey cleared his throat and continued smoothly, "please inform her that I will be there momentarily." He rubbed his temple with one hand. This was going to be his last trip to Sasha's room. That little Brujah had better pay attention this time!

Once more in harbinger role, Jeffrey strode resolutely to her bedroom door. At least the pounding had stopped. Addressing the heavy oak door he spoke in his customarily courteous manner, but there was no mistaking the firm undertone. "I apologize, Miss Sasha, but as I have explained before, your uncle has explicitly instructed for you to remain inside tonight."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," came Sasha's muffled grousing. Then she wheedled, "But this time I'm not asking to go outside. I just wanna go visit Fra— uh, Mr. Kohanek. Please, Jeffrey? C'mon, I'll bet he's as bored out of his head as I am in this asylum. Uncle Julian's goon-dogs can stay outside the guestroom if you're worried about me leaving or anything. Please, Jeffrey, please?"

Jeffrey paused to consider. Perhaps this wasn't such a bad idea. It would certainly keep the two occupied and out of his hair for a time. Goodness knew how he could do with a rest! Then, there was that mountain of paperwork on his desk… For a fleeting instance, Jeffrey thought he might live to regret this decision; nevertheless, he motioned for John and Peter to unlock the door. The three men startled as Sasha all but flew out. "Thanks, Jeffrey!" She looked so excited and happy to have obtained her freedom, Jeffrey half thought she might embrace him.

Then in a flash she was skipping down the hallway to Frank's room, her guards trailing behind. Evidencing typical Brujah lack of manners, Sasha ignored Frank's astonished guards, opened his bedroom door and barged in, slamming it shut behind her. Jeffrey just sighed and hurried to catch up. He then ordered John and Peter to stay at their new post until Miss Sasha was ready to return to her room — or until Detective Kohanek threw her out, whichever came first. Personally, Jeffrey suspected it would be the latter.

 

Frank emerged from his long shower feeling much better. Wrapping a thick navy blue robe around him, he began exploring every bathroom cabinet and drawer space for a razor and shaving cream. What Frank found were toothbrushes — a veritable surplus, if you asked him. Frustrated, he strode back into the bedroom to call Jeffrey. Frank stopped mid-stride in bewilderment. The room was at least ten degrees cooler than when he had left it, and the curtains were billowing slightly. Frank pushed the drapery aside to reveal a wide-open window. Frank fumed. So, had Dr. Farrell ordered fresh air for him on top of everything else?

Frank didn't even bother with the intercom this time. Instead he flung open the door. The four guards stared at his sudden appearance in surprise. Brother, he thought, so Julian's watchdog Jeffrey had decided he now needed extra babysitting, too.

"All right, so which one of you clowns opened the window?" he bluntly demanded.

They blinked in silent confusion. "Window?" one of them finally replied.

"Yeah, that's right, window." Frank stepped aside and motioned angrily with his hand. "One minute I'm taking a shower, the next minute I walk into a room that's freezing."

He wasn't expecting what happened next. All four guards immediately rushed passed him with similarly horrified expressions. One paused and hastily inquired, "Detective Kohanek, did you happen to see Miss Sasha leave?"

"Sasha? What're you taking about?" Frank was baffled. He looked back at the window. Two of the three guards were climbing outside it. The guard by Frank's side muttered a mild profanity before swinging around to hit the intercom on the wall by the bedroom door.

"Jeffrey," came the immediate reply.

"I'm sorry, Sire, but I think we've lost Sasha. Kohanek never even saw her — he was taking a shower the whole time. Seems she escaped out his bedroom window. Peter and Michael are already in pursuit, but she's had a good thirty minute lead."

There was silence on the other end, during which time Frank tried to make sense of what the guard had just said. When Jeffrey next spoke there was a slight strain to his voice. "Thank you, John. I'll be right there. Please see to the detective's comfort."

Frank realized this was Jeffrey's diplomatic way of telling the Kindred guard to remain with him, and gave his head a sardonic shake. Then, he looked at John a quizzically. "You're saying that Sasha was in here?"

John nodded miserably.

"And that she left out my window?"

"It appears so."

"Why'd she want to do a crazy thing like that?"

"The Prince has ordered her to remain inside tonight. We were supposed to make sure she didn't disobey."

Frank raised his eyebrows. "Well, looks like you guys didn't do a very good job." He joined the remaining guard at the window and peered down onto an empty courtyard below. "Any idea where she's headed?"

John joined them. "Unfortunately, yes. Golden Gate Park."

"The park? What for?"

The other guard sighed. "We're engaged in open war with the Garou there tonight."

"Oh, man," Frank was temporarily stunned. Then a thought occurred to him and he felt his temper rise. "Don't you people ever give any thought to innocent lives? Some pedestrian or homeless guy could easily wander— "

John held up a hand and interrupted. "That's highly unlikely. Even under these extreme circumstances the Masquerade is maintained. The Prince will have distributed a number of noncombatants to Dominate any human who strays too near the scene of battle."

"Dominate? Don't you mean threaten?" Frank was still angry.

"Perhaps a poor choice of words," John replied soothingly. "It's a Kindred term. It refers to our ability to cause mortals to forget when they may have witnessed a breech in the Masquerade… or to suggest that they saw something else instead."

"So that's what you call it," Frank nodded, ire turning to cynicism. "Real nice word. Doesn't happen to work on Garou by any chance?"

"Yes. Well, usually."

There was an unexpected breeze just then; giving a slight shiver, Frank leaned over to shut the window. The other guard saw what he was about to do and quickly intervened, closing the window first. "Let me get that for you, Detective Kohanek," he said attentively, to which John immediately added, "is there anything else we can do for you, Detective?"

Frank rolled his eyes, recalling Dr. Farrell's strict orders for the staff that 'the human' not be allowed to exert himself in the slightest degree. It occurred to Frank that this was going to be one very long night...

 

Cameron was having the time of his life. This night could last forever and it would suit him just fine. All around him the battle between Garou and Kindred raged fast and furious, dirty and dangerous. He had already brought down three of the mangy wolfmen himself and despite their lupine veneer, in his mind each had worn the smooth, arrogant face of Julian Luna. That had made it all the more rewarding.

Cameron sneered at the limp, hairy corpse at his feet. He had sucked dry this miserable Garou fool who had dared attack the Primogen of the Brujah! Gorged on Garou Blood, Cameron felt heady and daring. His heart beat powerfully as a locomotive. He laughed and flung away his Phosphorus Gun — its bullets a special admixture of phosphorus and silver. Who needed it? All the weapon he could ever want was in the Potence and Celerity of his own two hands!

Cameron whirled with a frown, hearing a shrill shriek. This area of Golden Gate Park had been given over to the Brujah tonight. What Brujah Childe was coward enough to cry for help? Let her die, he wanted no such Whelp in his Clan! But with a shock that stopped his heart, Cameron realized the screaming Whelp was Sasha — the Prince's own descendant. A colossal, silver-hued Garou, half-man, half-wolf, had taken her down and was using its fore claws to slice open her back with obvious glee. Her Vitae splattered far and wide like a red fountain.

"Nicky, this way!" Cameron yelled. While sprinting to where Sasha lay bleeding and toppled by her assailant, Cameron managed to grab his Childe by the collar, effectively dragging him from the dual he'd been engaged in with another Garou. So speedy was their flight, all that remained of the mini-battle scene was a befuddled Garou, gaping this way and that.

"Cover Sasha!" Cameron commanded Nicky. He then flung himself headlong, full-force, tackling the manic wolf-thing that straddled Sasha. At least that's what he had intended to do. Instead, Cameron slipped on something small and metallic, and ended up slamming side ways into Sasha's sliver Garou — he had tripped over his own gun!

Cursing and growling, Garou and Kindred rolled over and over on the grass, each trying to get the better of the other. This involved a lot of slashing and clawing that ravaged them both. The pain was intense, Cameron let his Beast rise, and with it his eyes blazed eerie orange amber. Figuring that the situation warranted more fangs than he currently possessed, Cameron melted into wolf-form.

Shrinking in the process, his lupine head was now level with the Garou's chest and the rapid rhythm of the creature's heart was pure melody. With whirlwind ferocity, Cameron the Wolf renewed his attack, ripping and tearing through the Garou's muscular chest — ignoring the burning agony at his sides as the creature clawed frantically at him.

One moment the Garou's death cries still echoed in Cameron's head, and the next, he found himself devouring the Garou's heart with savage satisfaction. Victory had never tasted so sweet… and neither so short-lived as Cameron's sore stomach rudely reminded him why Kindred didn't like to eat. With a grunt of disgust, Cameron heaved his impromptu meal right back into the bloody, messy hole it had come from.

Sobered by indigestion, Cameron shape-shifted back to man, gasping and staggering as he retched forth the last of the heart. Then pausing to heal his wounds, he straightened and looked around. It didn't take long to realize that things were now coming to a close. The ground was littered with an even mix of dead Kindred and Garou; the wounded wolfmen were howling their retreat. In the distance, Julian Luna, the pathetic altruist that he was, signaled for the Kindred to let them go.

"Idiot pansy of a Prince!" Cameron growled with ire. He kicked at the sanguinolent corpse beneath him, and looked up just in time to see Sasha level his own Phosphorus Gun right at him. Her eyes were neon bright and Nicky was no where to be seen.

"Whoa, Sasha," Cameron said, back-peddling slowly, holding up his hands in a placating gesture. "It's not like I meant —" and then she fired.

The shots whizzed by Cameron faster than he could see, flying just past his head. He pivoted and saw the object of her animosity: Cash's Childer — or rather the towering Garou who menaced the duo. Regina crawled on the ground as her boyfriend made piddling swipes at their attacker. Cash yelled at them from afar, running to their aid as fast as he could — but not as fast as Sasha's bullets… As they hit the massive creature squarely in its back, the Garou emitted a deafening roar, arching back the full length of its body. Then it fell to the earth, heaving in final throes, bloody foam gurgling from its toothy muzzle. Johnny slowly helped Regina up; together they stood like tourists, gawking at the dying spectacle.

Cameron turned to congratulate Sasha but stopped short when he saw that her eyes had lost none of their amber cast. If anything, they seemed more luminous than before. Her nostrils flared and her whole body trembled violently as she continued to hold the Phosphorus Gun arm's length before her, aimed straight for the Gangrel Neonates. In the windy night, her curly ringlets of hair streamed out wide behind her like the feathery wings of a dark angel. With her scent near frenzy, Cameron saw a look of such pure hatred in her eyes that he swore he could see straight into hell. He wasn't sure how much of Sasha there was left inside, but he wasn't about to provoke her Beast. Cameron smoothly stepped aside, still keeping his hands raised. Nicky appeared, calling out Sasha's name but she didn't seem to hear.

Oblivious to the impending disaster, Johnny and Regina now stood awaiting Cash's arrival with happy relief. Cameron had no love for the Gangrel, but he didn't want to lose one of his own to the Blood Hunt — and that's exactly what would happen if Sasha enacted her vengeance upon Cash's Childer. Not even familial relationship with the Prince could save her from his wrath if she broke the Sixth Tradition that forbade Kindred from destroy one another.

Cameron stole a quick glance around. Julian was giving orders, directing others to Feed the wounded and collect the dead. Things were proceeding systematically. In a minute someone would point out his descendant's unruly behavior. Cameron swallowed, hard. He knew he had to get Sasha under control.

Cash arrived on the scene, fraught with concern. As he reached out to gather Regina in a comforting hug, one look at Sasha's glowering features told Cameron that was a big mistake. He hastily oriented his visage toward her so as to make the full effect of his Presence felt by the contumacious teenager. "Sasha Luna, you listen to me," he warned carefully. "Give. Nicholas. My. Gun. Now."

The Brujah Primogen didn't need eyes in the back of his head to see the trio of Gangrel startle. Their surprise was evident by the very stillness that suddenly hung in the air.

"Sa— Sasha," Cameron heard Cash stutter in amazement, and then felt, more than heard the Gangrel's approach behind him.

"Not a real bright idea, Outlander," Cameron spoke from the side of his mouth.

"But she saved them," Cash protested in confusion. "I saw her! She saved Johnny and Gina."

Sasha's eyes narrowed as Cash took a step closer. Her trigger finger twitched as she aimed the gun purposefully at her former lover.

"Enough, Sasha," commanded Cameron, sweat breaking out on his forehead. Surely Julian had noticed them by now.

Cash took another step forward — his last.

"No, Sasha!" cried Cameron. But the young Brujah squarely pulled down on the trigger. Cash gasped audibly and fell back, thunderstruck, into the arms of his appalled Childer. There was a moment of silence before they realized she had fired an empty chamber.

"Next time it'll be loaded," she said coldly. Sasha no longer shook but her eyes remained bright with the Beast, until Nicky hesitantly put out a hand to massage the taut cords of her neck. She turned abruptly and buried her face in his massive chest, letting him take the gun from her.

His composure restored, Cameron went over to Sasha and placed his arm on her back. "Let's get you home, Sasha," he said evenly. "It's all over now." The three turned their back on the dazed Gangrel and fallen Primogen. As they walked away, stark light from a remote street lamp caused the Brujah to cast unnaturally long shadows…

…and Cash felt the darkness descend into his heart.

 

 

<the end>