Seung Gil watched the newcomer carefully. Jean-Jacques LeRoy had arrived in town earlier that day, announcing to everyone that if the town had any vampire problems he could take care of them. At first, Seung Gil had blown it off – he wasn’t a vampire problem for the town, just a vampire who happened to exist there, working the night shift at a convenience store. The owner knew what he was and had hired Seung Gil specifically because of that. Extra security, he said. He paid Seung Gil in blood, a pint a day that he obtained by methods Seung Gil had never questioned.
Besides, LeRoy was so loud and obvious that Seung Gil just assumed he was one of the many vampire hunters who, if they ever met a real vampire, would soil their pants and run. The ones who were good enough at what they did generally had the sense to go about their business quietly. If there were a vampire problem in town, they’d be out to get this guy tonight.
When LeRoy walked into the convenience store, Seung Gil revised his estimation of him. The look in his eyes said he’d seen real battle and come out victorious. Still, Seung Gil wasn’t a problem, so he had nothing to fear. “Hello, welcome to the Sip-n-Gas. How can I help you?”
LeRoy gave him a huge smile, showing his teeth. “You can tell me anything you know about vampires in this town. Also, do you sell coffee?”
“Over there. Self-serve.” LeRoy headed over to the coffee bar and grabbed the largest cup. “What makes you think we have a vampire problem in this town?”
“I’ve been investigating this blood donation operation in the city. Homeless people are being paid a hundred dollars for a pint of their blood, but the blood doesn’t end up in any hospital or donation center. I did some tracking and found out that the blood is coming here.” LeRoy brought his coffee up to the register. “So, know anything helpful I can use to find this blood sucker?”
Seung Gil once again revised his estimation of LeRoy as a vampire hunter. He’d likely just found Seung Gil’s blood source. “You know, many vampires find that term offensive. These homeless people are being paid for their blood, you said. Are they being forced or coerced, or do they volunteer?”
“Well, they’re getting paid… blood donations aren’t supposed to be paid. Too much incentive for people to donate too often for quick money.”
Seung Gil raised an eyebrow. “Has anyone died or gotten ill from donating too frequently?”
LeRoy stared at him. “No, they haven’t, but still. It’s illegal.”
Lots of things were illegal, but no one cared. “Who is it harming? You just said the homeless people are being paid and not suffering side effects, the person or people responsible for the blood donation are free to spend their money however they see fit, and the vampire who receives the blood doesn’t have to feed directly from innocent people who are not volunteering their blood for a vampire’s dinner. These homeless people likely wouldn’t be going to a standard blood donation center, so they’re not even taking blood away from emergency supplies.”
“So no. We do not have a vampire problem in this town. If you really want to shut down this blood drive, I suppose I can’t stop you, but consider what would happen to the vampire whose blood supply was suddenly cut off. Somewhere would end up having a vampire problem.” It would likely be somewhere with a lot of livestock. Seung Gil hated drinking directly from people. With a cow, if he couldn’t stop himself before taking too much, he could always take to a butcher to be processed as meat. People, not so much. And that was before the problem of finding volunteers without exposing himself to a hunter.
“Is that a threat?” LeRoy’s hand went to his hip. There was a gun there. Regular bullets wouldn’t hurt Seung Gil much, but they would expose him, and that was if LeRoy wasn’t packing silver or certain types of blessed bullets. By Seung Gil’s new estimation of him, chances were good they were at least damaging to him.
“No, merely an observation. Vampires must feed, just like humans.” He held out a hand. “One fifty, please.”
“For the coffee. This is how a shop works. We provide goods, which you take in exchange for money. You have your goods, so it’s time for you to give me my money.”
“Oh, right.” LeRoy handed him the money. “If I told you that I was looking for the vampire with no intention of hurting him, I just want to talk to him, would your memory improve?”
“My memory has no need of being improved. You said that you would take care of any vampire problems in this town, and I’ve never known that to mean anything but you’re here to kill vampires.”
LeRoy snorted. “Yeah, well, you show up in town saying ‘I’m looking for a vampire to talk to and ask some questions,’ people look at you funny and don’t talk. You, obviously, are different. So? All I want is to talk.”
“Very well. Talk. What questions do you have for the vampire?”
“My good friend Otabek was turned, and forced to feed before I could get to him with the cure. He’s a good person, and I’d like to help him find a way to live without harming other people, so I want to know everything I can about how this blood operation is run.”
“So… you’re not a hunter.” That made no sense. Everything about JJ screamed hunter.
“Oh, I am. I’m just one with the sense not to kill someone who’s trying not to hurt others.”
Seung Gil stared at LeRoy for a long time. “Can you bring your friend here?”
“I’d rather not. I don’t want to strain the blood supply. Just set up an operation like this somewhere else.”
“Not permanently. Just long enough to get used to his new condition while you get things started for him. What makes you so sure that his sire won’t force him to continue feeding on humans anyway? It takes a lot for a vampire to break out of their sire’s thrall.”
LeRoy smirked over his coffee. “Well, there’s the fact that I killed the bastard. That should do it.”
Oh. Yes. It should. “Bring him here. Then you’ll want to talk to Viktor Nikiforov. He’s not a vampire, just a human with many resources and a belief in vampire rights.” Something occurred to Seung Gil then, and he added, “He also has a nephew living with him who shares his beliefs. It’s possible the nephew would be willing to go with Otabek when he leaves here to run the operation. It’s a bad idea for vampires to handle blood donations, so he’ll need a human who knows how to do it.”
When LeRoy returned with his friend, Seung Gil was mildly surprised. At first, Viktor was hesitant to take Otabek on, even with Seung Gil’s recommendation. He came around, eventually, with the help of his nephew thinking Otabek was cool and wanting to hang out with him.
JJ visited Seung Gil frequently with updates. “Otabek’s settling in very well. Viktor’s got him on animal blood for now, do you know why that might be?”
“Otabek’s had human blood. Animal blood gives us almost everything we need, but there’s an itch for harming others that the more you scratch, the harder it becomes to ignore. Hurting animals doesn’t trigger it, at all, and after a long enough diet of only animal blood, the itch disappears. At that point, it’s safe to start drinking human blood again. It tastes better and we need less of it.”
“So you are this town’s resident vampire. I thought you might be.”
Seung Gil shrugged microscopically. “I wasn’t going to out myself to a hunter until I was convinced that his story about wanting to help his friend was true. You can’t fault me for that.”
“No, I can’t.” JJ took his coffee and left.
A couple days later, JJ was back. “Do you have any idea why Yuri hates me so much? Beks loves him, so I’d like to be friends with him too, but he turns into the snarliest, angriest cat you could imagine any time I try to talk to him.”
“Well, for one thing, Yuri is pretty much always an angry cat. It’s really only around Otabek or his grandfather that I’ve ever seen Yuri not angry.” It wasn’t going to be good enough for JJ, but it was the only thing Seung Gil was sure of. “I’m just guessing, but I think he’s jealous of you.”
“Jealous?” JJ stared at him over the coffee cup. “What’s there to be jealous of?”
“Remember I’m just guessing. You’re a hunter who cared enough about a vampire, even after he’d hurt someone, to track down a potential solution that would help him live a non-monstrous life. It’s not that hard to imagine that you’re competition for Otabek.”
“Wait, you think…” JJ’s entire body lit up with his huge smile. “You think Yuri likes Beks like that? That’s great! He’s gonna have to be stubborn and get through Beks blaming himself for hurting that person and thinking he doesn’t deserve nice things, but if he can do that, he’s golden.”
“I hope he does. It can be hard to break through that.” Seung Gil tried not to show the flinch as he remembered his own early days. Breaking free of Min So had been nearly impossible. He’d carried the guilt and the shame of it for so long before meeting Viktor.
JJ reached out, putting a hand on Seung Gil’s arm. “Are you okay? Do we need to change the subject?”
“No, I’m fine, I’ve dealt with the things I did before I broke free, and most of the time, I believe in myself. Everyone has bad days.” He met JJ’s eyes, challenging him. “Now that I’ve confessed to having hurt people in the past, are you going to hunt me?”
“Not unless you tell me it happened after you broke free of your sire. From what Beks has told me, no matter how much you want to fight, there’s no way for a fledgling vampire to resist their sire’s commands. If your sire’s alive, I might hunt them, but would that break your heart?”
The answer slipped out before he had a chance to think it through and keep it to himself. “Only if you fail.” JJ raised an eyebrow at him. “I don’t like the thought of her killing you instead.”
“Why not? One less hunter is one less threat to you and Beks.”
Maybe he could still talk his way out of this. Make it about hunting. “One less hunter like you is one less chance for me and Otabek to live our lives peacefully and safely. With you out there, there’s a chance of you influencing other hunters to leave us alone. If you die, the more bloodthirsty of your kind can use that as proof that your way is weakness and Otabek and I should die.”
“Is that it, then?” JJ dropped his money on the counter and turned to go. “See you around.”
Maybe it was Seung Gil’s imagination, but he thought JJ looked disappointed. He’d never thought a hunter would want to be friends with a vampire, but then again, he’d never thought a hunter would bring a vampire to Viktor to be helped. He’d misjudged JJ before. “Wait. JJ. I survive by not taking risks, by keeping my head down and my thoughts to myself. It’s not easy to speak up about things that could get me hurt.”
JJ turned around, several emotions flickering through his eyes. “I’d never hurt you, Seung Gil.”
“I don’t mean hunting. I mean my heart.”
“So do I.” JJ came back to the counter. “Seung Gil, I’m not going to hurt you. Give me a chance to prove it?”