Page 18

Dead Ice (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 24) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 17:00:52

"It's not us I'm worried about," he said.

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I frowned at him. "I don't understand."

"You and I are solid; you, I, and Nathaniel are solid. I trust that. I'm going to ask you something that's much harder."

"What?" And that one word held a world of suspicion.

He gave a small smile, holding my hand a little tighter. "First, cut yourself some slack. You've just had a shock and you're barreling forward like it didn't happen, but it did, and we both know that ignoring it doesn't unmake it, so please, take care of yourself tonight." He put his free hand against my cheek and kissed me softly.

I drew back from the kiss with a smile. "I'll do my best, and Nicky will be there to help."

"He will. You are my highest priority, you know that," he said.

"Yes, but once you say it that way I know you're thinking of someone else, too."

"Don't blow up at Cynric when you see him next. He doesn't know what's going on inside your head, and he loves you."

I closed my eyes and counted a very slow ten. "Why did you have to say that? I was regrouping, and now I feel raw again."

"Because I love you and I know you; if you lose it and lash out at him you'll feel good for a few minutes while the rage finds a target, and then you'll feel worse. You'll beat yourself up, because you're taking your anger out on the other victim."

"Why aren't Crispin and Domino victims, too?" I asked.

"Because they don't see themselves as victims, and you don't see them that way either."

"That makes no sense; either you're a victim or you're not."

"Not true," Micah said. "You can experience trauma without getting stuck as the victim forever. You can choose to work the shit and rebuild yourself, or you can sit in the ruins and mourn forever. You and I both chose to rebuild."

I remembered then that he'd had his own share of trauma, first surviving a wereleopard attack that made him one, and then years of being abused by Chimera, the man who took over Micah's leopard pard. Chimera had been a sadistic bastard who had worked his personal issues out by torturing and killing those under his power. He'd been the one who had forced Micah into animal form so long that his eyes had stuck in leopard form and never went back to human. He could have been trapped in animal form forever, and never been able to regain human shape again, but he'd been powerful enough to survive intact, except for his eyes. Sometimes there isn't enough therapy in the world to fix a person, and that's when you have to find another cure. In Chimera's case dead was the cure, and I'd helped him find it. I never felt bad about that, but then he'd been trying to kill me at the time, and self-defense assuages guilt like a son of a bitch.

Jean-Claude stepped closer to us. "We all build upon our ruins."

I looked up into that almost unreal face, because no one was that beautiful, and remembered that he had endured hundreds of years of abuse at the hands of more powerful vampires before he'd been able to break free and be his own master. I'd met his last master, Nikolaos. She'd looked like a twelve-year-old girl but had been the first vampire I ever met who was over a thousand years old. She'd also been a sadist, and completely careless about the harm she did to those around her. She'd murdered a friend of mine, Phillip. He'd been everyone's victim, and was just starting to try to change that when Nikolaos had made him the ultimate victim and taken the last thing anyone can take from you: your life. I didn't feel guilty about killing her, but I still felt guilty about getting Phillip killed. Maybe she would have done it anyway, but he helped me solve some murders and she didn't like him tattling to me. I'd known he was weak, and scared, and everyone's victim, and I'd used him just like everyone else. Maybe it was for a good cause to save other lives, but in the end I doubted it mattered to Phillip. I'd told him I'd be back. I'd told him I'd keep him safe. They'd torn his throat out.

Jean-Claude touched my face. "What has put such a solemn look in your eyes, ma petite?"

"Do you remember Phillip?"

Something moved through his eyes, and then he blinked and gave me bland, empty, pleasant face. "Of course I do; he worked at Guilty Pleasures, and I could not protect him."

"You feel guilty about his death, too?"

"Oh, yes, ma petite, I feel guilty, because I was one of the vampires who took blood from him. I ran the club where he worked. I got him off street drugs, because I won't allow such things in my club, or on my stage, but he became addicted to being bitten, addicted to giving up his blood to us all. I thought I had saved him from an early death as a drug addict, but I only took him from one addiction to another, and it killed him."

"I didn't know that you got Phillip off drugs."

"We needed a handsome victim for one of our vampire dancers to feed onstage. He was brought to me as that. He cleaned up well, but it was because he had replaced one addiction with another, not because I cured him."

"Nikolaos killed him, because he was helping me solve the vampire murders."

Jean-Claude nodded. "That was her excuse. Phillip should have been mine to protect, but I was not powerful enough to help him. I was not powerful enough to help myself, until you came into my life and helped me break free of those who tormented us all."

I went to him, and Micah let me go so I could wrap my arms around the other man in my life. "I didn't realize you'd been that close to Phillip," I said.

"I wasn't close in the way that most humans mean, but he was my responsibility and I could not keep him from the monsters."

I nodded. "Me, either."

"But you killed the monsters that hurt him, and I could not even do that."

"Revenge is cold comfort when the person you're avenging is already dead," I said.

"That is true, ma petite, but it is still comfort, no matter how cold, or how late it is served."

I went up on tiptoe and put my arms around his neck. "Fuck revenge, here's to getting there in the nick of time."

He smiled and leaned down to whisper above my lips, "Yes, very yes."

We kissed and it was soft, and long, and full of as many shared tears as smiles, but that didn't lessen it; that made it more.

I DIDN'T LIKE having someone else drive my SUV, ever, but having them drive it because I was too emotionally overwrought about something that had happened several years ago just pissed me off. It felt weak, and I hated that. I wanted to aim all that self-loathing and pissiness at someone, and Nathaniel was sitting right there behind the wheel of MY car, driving me to MY job, because I was having some sort of internal crisis that I couldn't fucking handle. But it was Nathaniel and I loved him too much to take it out on him, which was probably why the other men in my life had picked him to chauffeur me. I hated being managed like this, but it was working, so I sat in the dark in the passenger seat and watched the headlights from the other cars, my arms crossed, and sort of huddling on my anger. I'd moved my gun from the small of the back to my right side, so it didn't dig in while I sat in the car. I was loving my new innerpants holster, though if I kept moving it around too much the leather wouldn't conform to my body the way it was designed to. It would be dark enough at the cemetery that I wouldn't accidentally flash the clients, but even that made me grumpy. Why should I have to hide my gun from clients when they knew I was a marshal? I so wanted to pick a fight with someone, but not with Nathaniel, and that was what Jean-Claude, or more likely Micah, had counted on. Damn it.

I glanced at Nathaniel as he drove, hands precise and careful. He didn't really like driving at night, and I knew that, so I'd be even less likely to pick at him. Nathaniel was also one third of my menage a trois with Micah, and one of the last few that we all agreed should get a ring in whatever ceremony we finally decided on, and on the heels of that thought was that the weretigers were pushing us to include one of them in the commitment ceremony. The anger flared over my skin in a shiver of power, and distant as a dream I "saw" all the colors of tiger that I held inside me--white, red, black, blue, and gold--stare up at me.

Nathaniel shivered as

he got the bleed-off from the burst of power, my beasts peeking out. He tried to rub one hand down his arm, but that moved the wheel too much and the car did a slight swerve. He put both hands back on the wheel, but I couldn't afford to distract him like that. He was my leopard to call, which made us so much more intimate metaphysically than just being in love ever could. I had to be the big, tough dominant personality and swallow the rage. It was an indulgence I couldn't afford right now. Yeah, the men in my life had managed me nicely, putting me with the other love of my life tonight.

I worked at letting go of the anger, and made myself look at him and remember how much I loved him, and how much I wanted to protect him. Me shoving my energy all over him and making us wreck was just stupid, and I tried not to do stupid. Nathaniel was dimmed in the darkness of the car, so that his thick braid looked brown, his skin almost gray-white; only an occasional streetlight flashing over showed the hair's rich auburn, the skin's clear, bright, almost luminous undertone that most people on the redhead spectrum seem to have. He glanced at me once, and a stray bit of light turned the grayed eyes to their true pale purple, like spring lilacs.

"At least you're looking at me, that's a start," he said, and went back to watching the road.

"I'm sorry, but my mood was bad enough that saying nothing was the best I had."

"I know," he said, softly, as he hit the turn signal before changing lanes with the dark line of cars, their headlights like glowing beads on a string, as the last of rush hour trickled away.

"I love that you understood that, and hate it at the same time, which doesn't make any sense at all, does it?"

"It makes sense for you," he said.

"What kind of answer is that?" I said, and it sounded grumpy. There was another whisper of energy, and I took a deep breath in slow, and let it out slow, trying to ease the tension in my shoulders. I forced myself to sit up straighter and not hunch around my anger.

He gave me a sideways glance, frowning, and he was less handsome that way than when he smiled, but not by much. There wasn't much Nathaniel could do to spoil his beauty, and he worked hard at making the most of his assets by hitting the gym regularly, watching what he ate, and keeping his hair at near ankle length. He'd finally had to trim a few dead ends so that the braid curled around him didn't actually touch his ankles anymore. I'd have strangled myself to death by accident if my hair had ever been that long, but he wore the hair like he did most things, gracefully; but then cats are known for that kind of thing and he was a wereleopard like Micah. I wondered if he'd always been this graceful, and because I could, I asked.

"Were you always this graceful, or is it the whole wereleopard thing?"

He looked at me and smiled. "I don't know about graceful, but I got spotted at the YMCA as a toddler and recruited into gymnastics, so I must have been more coordinated, or something."

"I didn't know you took gymnastics."

"I did until my mom got cancer. My aunt took me for a while, but then Mom died and my stepfather didn't think it was manly enough. He kept taking Nicholas to baseball, and he tried to get me into that, but I was never good at anything that involved hitting a ball. I could catch, but I couldn't throw, so I was shoved off into far left field where the coach probably prayed nothing too complicated would come my way." He laughed softly.