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Dead Ice (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 24) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 17:01:01

"Our choice isn't that hard today," Micah said. "Right now we just need to figure out if the power rush between Dev, Anita, and me works every time, or if it's a special-occasion rush."

"I've always admired how you try to keep everyone on track," Crispin said.

Micah nodded. "Thank you, but let's test Dev with us, and if that just works, we'll try it with one of you."

"It's a plan," Crispin said.

"Yes," Micah said, "it is."

JEAN-CLAUDE OBSERVED THAT the very first time we met Dev it had been the two of us and then Micah had joined us, so we tried it in that order again. Metaphysics wasn't very science-like sometimes, but now that we knew the phenomenon could be duplicated, we could still use the scientific method to learn more faster.

What I hadn't counted on was how neglected Dev was feeling and how much his skin hunger had grown. Newborns will die from lack of touch; it's one of the causes of failure to thrive. The elderly will also begin to decline faster if they don't have anyone to touch them. Patting someone's hand, or shoulder, a hug, all of it is necessary to be happy and healthy for most people. It doesn't have to have anything to do with sex; in fact, most of the touch that keeps us all going is as innocent as a newborn lamb frolicking on the spring grass, but Dev wasn't a lamb. I tended to think of him as not harmless exactly, but not predatory either, and suddenly staring up into his blue-gold eyes I saw that his energy was very solidly big bad wolf. There was nothing innocent or lamblike about the way his arms wrapped around me, or how his big hands dug fingers into my back, just enough to let me feel the strength in them. I was struck again by how big he was: tall, broad-shouldered, just big, as if he filled out every inch of his six-foot, three-inch frame. If he'd been willing to lift weights like Nicky did, he'd have been massive. I was sort of glad he didn't, as he pulled me close and I saw his eyes unveil themselves. I don't mean they changed to tiger eyes, his eyes were always that, but suddenly I could see the need in him. People say that sex is a want, not a need, but for some of us I'm not sure that's true.

Dev's hunger was naked in his eyes, and I suddenly felt small in his arms. As he leaned over to kiss me, fingers digging deeper into my back, the promise of strength and pain sped my pulse and caught my breath in my throat. How badly had Asher neglected him to fill the mild-mannered and typically gentle Dev with such fierce need?

His lips touched mine and it was as if he drew my golden tiger up through my body, as if that one kiss had reached down through my body and touched the deepest part of me. The gold spilled upward like a shining flame, and the rainbow of my other tigers followed that shining yellow: red tiger the color of flame itself, black like the coals at the heart of the fire, white where some metals will begin to melt into incandescent puddles, and blue where the flame burns hottest of all. All that color, all the power, all that heat spilled up through me and into Dev everywhere our skin touched. The kiss should have looked like a carnival fire eater trying to blow out a plume of colored flame, then being kissed at just the wrong moment, so that the fire poured into the mouth of his lover.

I don't know how much the rest of the men could see, but to our eyes it was like kissing in the middle of a burning color and power. It felt wonderful and frightening, like flame dancing across our skin, but not quite burning . . . not yet.

Then Micah's hand was on mine and the power spilled out through my skin and into him like a river seeking a new way to the sea. His leopard spilled up my arm and brought mine to life so that the calm darkness of it mixed with the tigers and suddenly the heat wasn't frightening. I knew that together we could tame it, control it, and with that thought all my beasts came to life in one woven knot of intermingled power. Lion came to join the tigers and leopards, and then wolf, and lastly hyena. It was the newest beast I carried; less than a year ago Ares had contaminated me with it while he died. He hadn't meant to share the disease that forced him out of the marines. He hadn't meant me to have to use the skills he'd taught me as a sniper to kill him before the madness drove him to harm civilians. Neither of us had meant a lot of things, but I carried a piece of his beast inside me and would until I died. I didn't need anything else to remember my friend but that hot, wild energy spilling up through my body and into the men who touched me.

"Anita smells like all her beasts at once," Crispin said, and just that let me know he was closer to us than he had been.

I tried to turn to see how close. Dev's big hand touched the side of my face so the energy kept flowing across our skin as we both broke from the kiss to look. Micah was only holding our hands, so he just had to turn and look. Crispin was on all fours on top of the conference table. He was sniffing the air, his hands still solidly on the wood, like a much smaller cat when it smells something interesting and wants to investigate without actually touching it first.

"Micah smells like all her beasts and more. Something more, that I don't understand. Domino, what do you smell?"

Domino spoke from behind me, and I turned in the circle of the men's hands, and the invisible rush of that flaming energy, to see him on all fours on the floor, leaning in toward us in an almost identical pose to Crispin.

"Their beasts, all their beasts."

"Does Micah smell like more than leopard to you?"

Domino leaned in closer to Micah's leg. "Yes."

Crispin leaned further, stretching that long torso out, until he could almost have licked Dev. The golden tiger growled softly at him. Crispin backed up a fraction. "Can you smell everything on Dev, too?"

Domino crawled around my legs so he could sniff closer to Dev. It should have looked awkward to see the guard, still carrying all his weapons, crawling on all fours, but he moved as if the tigers inside him knew exactly how to move this human shape so it was graceful even without paws. He sniffed loudly, drawing in the scent, and then reached out as if to caress the energy. Dev growled louder this time.

"Easy, big gold, I'm just trying to taste the energy." Domino raised those red and orange eyes to us. "Dev smells like all the beasts, too."

"That's not the way it's supposed to work," Crispin said.

"How is it supposed to work?" Jean-Claude asked. He was leaning against the wall closest to the three of us. His hands were behind him, so they were pinned between

his body and the wall.

"Anita is a panwere, so she has other beasts, but it shouldn't transfer to anyone else," Crispin said.

"I think it's just the power of them, not the true beasts," Micah said. His voice was half breathy with that edge of growling undertone.

"What if it's not?" Domino asked, still on all fours at our feet.

The three of us didn't truly look at each other, but we shared what the look would have meant in an instant of emotion. The marks were open between us, not all the way, but we were already beginning to think as a unit--three people, one mind, one heart, if we weren't careful.

"Try to change," Domino said.

"One of you try to change shape into something you're not."

We all looked down into those startling fire-colored eyes, and then Micah said, "I like these clothes."

"I don't care about mine," Dev said.

"Then you change," Crispin said.

"While we're all still touching?" he asked.

"Yes," all the wereanimals said at once. Jean-Claude and I weren't sure, but we didn't say no.

"Okay," Dev said, "what should I be?"

"What do you want to be?" I asked.

He smiled; it was fierce, more a flash of teeth than a true smile. He knew exactly what he wanted to be.

I'D SEEN DEV shapeshift before, but only in a very special type of weapons practice. The fastest shape change often was the deciding factor in a fight between wereanimals, so our guards practiced that just like they did on the gun range, or hand to hand. So I'd seen Dev and all the guards shapeshift, but never while I was touching him. Never while Micah and I were sharing our beasts with each other, and the metaphysics between us all was wide open like a river flooding its banks.