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Dead Ice (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 24) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 17:01:03

"I need you down in the group showers. One of the shapeshifters is hurt and the wound looks wrong."

"We have a doctor on call for that. Anita, what aren't you telling me?"

"It's Rafael and he doesn't want the doctor to see. He says he trusts you, me, Jean-Claude, Richard, and the other kings and allies, but no one else."

"I'll be right there," he said, and the earlier slight domestic chiding was gone. He was all business. One of the things I'd always valued about him was how he let all the small stuff fall away and just concentrated on the important things.

I stayed by Rafael. He started holding my hand, squeezing occasionally from the pain, and reminding me just how freakishly strong he was. "If I hurt you, you must say something."

He shuddered again, his upper body arching toward the floor. His head touched my thigh, and I stroked his wet hair. "Stay down, it's okay."

"You mean lay my head in your lap and you will pet me?"

"If that will help, yeah."

He let his forehead rest a little more solidly on my thigh, hesitated for another moment, and then eased onto his side, his head cradled on my thigh, one hand in mine. When he'd settled as much as he could, I touched his hair and stroked it back from his face again. When he didn't protest, I kept running my fingers through his damp hair while he lay in my lap, huddled around his pain, his hand squeezing periodically against mine, as the pain spiked.

"Thank you," he said, softly.

"I trust Micah, Jean-Claude, and even Richard, but I can't allow myself to be this weak with them."

I tried to make light of it. "Oh, I don't know, I think Jean-Claude would let you put your head in his lap."

"Don't do that," he said.

He moved his head enough so he could look up at me. "Discount something that is important."

I didn't know what to say to that, and fought not to squirm. "You're my friend," I said, finally. It seemed the wrong word.

"Do you let all your friends put their heads in your lap when you're nude?"

I hadn't felt naked until he remarked on it. I fought off the automatic embarrassment and said, "It's against the shapeshifter code to remark on nudity if it's not meant sexually."

"That is true, but though we are not in love with each other, nor dating, what we have is more than just friendship, Anita."

I looked away from the demand in his eyes but forced myself to look back when I realized how much I didn't want to meet his eyes. No cowardice in anything, large or small, because if you start flinching in small things, it can spread to larger ones. I needed to be brave for my job, and just for myself.

I studied the face of this strong, brave, honorable man and laid my hand against the side of that face. "Yes, more than friends."

He smiled, and that alone made it worth saying.

I knew Micah was near before he came into the shower rooms, though I wasn't sure if I'd smelled him, sensed him, or heard him; I just knew before he walked in the room that it would be him.

He hurried toward us, still dressed, which seemed odd enough in the showers that I wanted either him to strip down, or us to magically have clothes. He knelt down beside Rafael, hand going to the side of the wound in his back. It was big enough that he didn't have to ask where, or what.

Micah made a small hissing sound under his breath like a cat when it's startled. "Tell me what happened, Rafael."

He did, with me helping to expand the bare-bones story he told. "The wound looks burned or something--I mean it's deep and not healing, but it's not bleeding either. It should be bleeding, right?"

"Did their healer pack the wound?"

"Initially to stop the bleeding, but you know we can't leave it full of bandages."

"Yes, our bodies can heal the dressing inside us," Micah said.

"Why isn't this healing?" I asked.

A shudder ran through Rafael that made him squeeze so hard on my hand it stole my breath away. "That was a bad one," I said.

"I did not mean to hurt you," he said.

"It's just the pain seems to be growing worse, and it should be getting better, right?" I looked up at Micah for reassurance, or an explanation.

"Yes, it should be," he said. He put his hands on either side of the wound and peered down at it like I had earlier. "Maybe the healer left silver in you. I would like to search the wound, but it's going to hurt."

"Do whatever is necessary," Rafael said. He took a firmer grip on my hand and closed his eyes. I kept stroking his hair as if that would make everything better, but sometimes it's not about logic, just comfort. What comforts you is like emotions; they may not make any sense at all, but they're still true.

I watched Micah slide his fingers into the wound, though I could tell what he was doing from Rafael's hand in mine. He was silent in his pain now, fighting not to show how much it hurt even in his body movements. He was being stronger and more stoic in front of Micah. It was as if all his reaction went directly into his hand, so that he whitened his fingers gripping so hard. I gritted my teeth and let him hold on.

"There's something in the wound," Micah said.

He plunged his fingers almost out of sight into Rafael's back. The grip on my hand made me have to say, "Ease up, Rafael."

"It's okay, I'm glad to be here, but you're so strong, just don't want to break a bone."

Micah said, "Fuck!" He almost never cursed.

We both looked at him as he jerked his fingers out of the wound and showed us the tips of his fingers. There was whitish-gray liquid on them, and the skin was blistering. He stood and turned on the shower next to us, running it over his hand.

"What is it?" Rafael asked.

"I'm not sure," Micah said, "but it's in the wound. Whatever it is reacts almost like liquid silver; you're never going to heal with that in there. None of us could."

"I should know what that is," I said.

"What do you mean, should know?" Micah asked.

"I've seen it before; I didn't know it did this to lycanthropes, but . . ." I took a deep breath and tried to dredge up the memory. "Vampires, it was supposed to kill them if you injected it into the bloodstream."

"What was supposed to kill them?" Micah asked.

"Silver nitrate," I said.

"I thought that looked more silver."

I shook my head. "People think that, but the silver liquid that beads up is mercury; they use that in movies, but in real life silver nitrate isn't as silver as that, and it doesn't bead up like mercury either."

"Did it work on vampires?" he asked.

"It worked, but it wasn't quick enough for the older ones, and a vampire can do a lot of damage to you in its death throes."

"How did it get in my wound?"

"Maybe it was in the blade when he broke it open inside you," I said.

"The healer would have seen it," Micah said.

"Unless she put the silver nitrate in the wound when she was supposed to be putting dressing on it."

Micah knelt beside Rafael again. "Did it burn when she dressed the wound?"

"Yes, she said it was a coagulant and antiseptic. The bleeding did stop."

"Because she burned the wound closed," Micah said. He turned to me. "Help me turn him so the water will flush out the wound."

We got him on his knees. I knelt in front of him, letting him put his hands on my shoulders, and steadied him as Micah turned on the water. It hurt at first, but as the water flushed out the poison he began to relax. The water ran for a long time before Micah was satisfied.

"How does it feel now?" he asked.

"Better, much better," Rafael said.

"Are the burned edges in the wound healing?" I asked.

Micah knelt down and examined the other man's back. "No, it's reacting like a burn on us. The healing just stops."

an't keep an open wound in my back forever," Rafael said.

"You don't have to, but making it so you can heal it is going to hurt a lot," I said.

He looked at me from inches away because we were both still kneeling on the wet floor. "How will you cure me?"

"If you get a limb amputated and burned at the same time, what do you do as a shapeshifter?" I asked.

His dark eyes studied mine, and then I saw him understand. "How much and how deep is it burned?"

"A lot of the wound and as deep as it goes into your back," I said.

"You're talking about cutting off the burned area so his body can heal the new wounds, aren't you?" Micah said.

"That's going to hurt more than just a lot," he said.

"Yep, but now we can get the doctor on call to do it."

"No," Rafael said in that so-certain voice.

"This isn't weakness on your part; no lycanthrope could heal this, Rafael. If you'd been weaker it could have killed you, but you were just too strong for the bastards."

"Is the pain making me miss your point?"

"Maybe, but this was a deliberate plot to kill you; the challenger was only one of the conspirators. The healer was at least his partner in crime, if not part of a larger plot."

"Anita is right, Rafael; only someone as strong as you could have survived this attack. If your body hadn't healed fast enough to keep the silver nitrate from entering your bloodstream, you might never have made it here alive."

"The healer must die for this," he said, at last.

"Yes," Micah said, "but first we need to find out if she and your challenger were the only ones involved in the plot. If it's a larger problem we need to know that."

"Yes, yes, of course, I think the wound is clouding my thinking."

"Pain will do that," I said.

"Let's get your guards in here to help take you to the medical area. I'll alert the doctor on duty."

"I need to give orders to Benito about the healer, before the doctor begins cutting on me."

"Agreed," Micah and I said together.

"Will you both help me give the orders needed? I want to make certain she is alive long enough for questioning."

"We'll help you give clearheaded orders," I said.

"Thank you, both of you." He hugged me and held his other hand out to Micah, who took it. Sometimes I wasn't sure if the sex I had with Rafael was really what made us more than friends; maybe it was the shared mantle of responsibility instead? Something about having people trying to kill you, and knowing that the three of us were on the short list of those we could trust implicitly, was a pretty good bonding experience. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, and all that jazz.