"Get him out of my sight. Let him heal, but I don't need to see him do it."
More guards came through the drapes, as if they'd been waiting for some signal that they could enter without spooking me into shooting Kane. They got their hands under his arms and helped him to his feet. He couldn't stand, so in the end they formed a cradle with their arms and two of them carried him out of sight--toward medical, I guess. I honestly didn't care, as long as it was away from me.
I turned toward Asher, looked into that beautiful face, remembered the feel of his kiss, his body, his strength. "I don't know what is broken inside you, but if you don't work the issue it's going to get you, or Kane, or both of you, killed."
"No, not if you don't make me, but someone will. Narcissus would have if he'd seen you before Jean-Claude talked him down. You're away from Belle's court for the first time in a century, and it's like you think none of us will hurt you." I stepped up close enough that the oversized blue shirt brushed against me. It was too close, if I really thought he'd hurt me. I stared up at him, tried to see some comprehension in that gorgeous face, but he was hiding his emotions too hard, and it was like staring at a work of art. You could admire its beauty, but you couldn't talk to it.
He started to put his arm around me; I thought he was going to kiss me, but I put my hand on his chest and stepped back out of arm's reach. "The last time you kissed me during one of these little disagreements you damn near ate my lips off my face."
"I am sorrier than I know how to express for that, Anita."
"You're sorry now, but in the heat of the moment you don't think. Because we're not cruel like Belle Morte you think we're weak, but never mistake kindness for weakness, Asher. It's not the same thing."
"I understand," he said.
"Do you? Do you really? Because I don't think you do. I don't know how to teach you this lesson without really hurting you. Is that what it takes to get you to behave like a thinking person? Do you only respond to cruelty?"
"No, no, that will not be necessary," he said, voice as empty as he could make it.
"Look around you, Asher; we aren't vampires that are bored with centuries of life so that we play at cruel games like children pulling the wings off flies. How Belle did her power plays was professional, but how she ran her court was indulgent amateur shit. I have enough memories to know that she wasted so many people, so much potential that could have helped her, and helped people around her. Jean-Claude regrets that waste and works to make his court different, better. Is there any regret in you, Asher?"
"Yes, of course, I regret some of what I've done over the centuries, we all do, even Belle."
"She regrets losing your and Jean-Claude's adoration, I've felt that when she tried to invade my head, but the only other thing she seems to regret is when things don't go her way. Still, she's far more practical than you are."
"She is also more cruel."
"Yeah, she is, but she never lets indulging her cruelty get in the way of business, and you let everything get in your way. If you had made Narcissus your animal to call you could have really brought something to the table, powerwise, but instead you threw it away on a whim to please your lover, and never gave a thought to what might happen afterward. It's like you're stuck at about fifteen and think nothing bad will happen to you."
"I have had bad things happen, Anita."
"I know, which makes your behavior all the more confusing to me."
"Ma petite . . ." Jean-Claude came to us, but I put a hand up to stop him from coming closer.
"No, I'm pissed at you, too."
"Why?" He looked genuinely surprised.
"Where were your bodyguards? Everyone else had guards with them, but not you. You are the motherfucking king of America, and you know that he's dangerous when he's like this. You should have had personal protection with you."
"He was not allowed guards . . ."
"Stop talking," I said.
He gave me narrow eyes.
"Be angry with me, that's fine, but you have to start treating Asher like he is, not like you want him to be. He is childlike, in that throwing-temper-tantrums way. He breaks things and regrets it afterward, but the damage is done. I don't want you to be part of that damage one day, Jean-Claude."
"I would like to say that I would never hurt Jean-Claude, but Anita is too right. I do not think when I am in certain . . . moods. I don't know why I do such things."
"Then talk to that therapist we found for you, and figure it out, before you force me to kill you. Nicky's right, Asher, it would kill something in me to do it, and Jean-Claude would never forgive me, but mark me on this, Asher."
I went to him and touched his face, made sure he was looking down at me with all that golden hair and those eyes, that kissable mouth. I stared up into all that beauty and I said the truth. "Mark me on this, Asher, if you ever do anything that damages Jean-Claude's power structure, or Micah's work with the Coalition, without consulting them first, then you will be punished, and if you won't take good treatment, I'll find someone to give you bad treatment. If the only way you learn is by having the lesson carved into your skin, or painted in blood, or echoed in screams of pain . . . we can do that."
"That will not be necessary," he said quietly, and very slowly, very carefully, as if waiting for me to protest, he put his hand over mine where I touched his face.
"I hope not, because if pain doesn't work, the only thing left is death. Do you understand that?" I spoke slowly, as carefully as his hand had touched mine.
"Good, good. Kane's afraid of me now and that will help, but you aren't afraid of me. I can't make you afraid of me without damaging our relationship more than you already have today."
"I am sorry, Anita, truly. May I kiss you?"
"No, I don't want your touch to make me forget this moment, and I don't want you to think a little sex and bondage will fix it all, because it won't. We may get back to that, but that doesn't make all this okay, it just means I'll have decided it's not a deal killer."
"Are you . . . would you refuse me?"
"Right now the thought of letting you tie Nathaniel and me down, and being at your mercies, and trusting that you'd honor our safewords, just doesn't seem like a good bet."
"And for that, I am even more sorry. I value you both, I love you both."
"Then act like it, Asher, because right now I'm not feeling very valued, or loved." I took my hand away from his face, his touch, and stepped back.
Nathaniel came to me looking handsome in a black suit tailored to his body like a European glove, lavender shirt and a black tie with tiny purple fleur-de-lis. It made his skin look darker, his auburn hair tucked back in a long braid redder, his eyes almost purple, though maybe that was him being angry. He took my hand in his and said, "I hope you can earn back our trust, because I'll miss your body if you don't." Not I'll miss you, but I'll miss your body. I thought that was interesting phrasing; apparently so did Asher.
"My body, but not me; then I have been a bad dominant to you, for you should love me as I love you, my flower-eyed boy." He touched Nathaniel's face, but all he got was a very cold look from that handsome face.
"You've been so into Kane that the rest of us haven't really counted for much," Nathaniel said.
Asher let his untouched hand fall back to his side. "I did not realize that I had neglected all of you."
I said, "You and I pretty much just have bondage sex with Nathaniel, and sometimes without him, but I'm just your bottom, not your submissive. Submissive needs more caretaking."
"I will do better by all of you, I swear it." He looked at Jean-Claude and Richard standing off to one side.
"Does Dev count in all that?" Nathaniel asked.
Asher looked past us to the guards still waiting at the edges. Dev had stayed with them, not moving forward even as far as Nicky had. I wondered if he'd stayed back because he'd been ordered to, or because he didn't trust hims
elf not to hurt Kane, or Asher. It would have been the perfect excuse.
Asher looked at Dev, and it was . . . dismissive was the only word I had for it. It must have cut Dev to the heart. "I am committed to Kane now. I will be keeping the relationships that give me things he cannot, but what Dev and I have is too . . . standard. I could not come up with a need he met that Kane, Jean-Claude, you, and Nathaniel did not."
My chest ached just hearing him dismiss Dev's love like that. I realized I was feeling some of the bleedover of emotion from my golden tiger. He was hurting too badly to be able to shield himself off completely, and in that moment I didn't want him to. What good is being able to sense someone else's emotions if you can't help them cope with them sometimes?
"God, Asher, aren't anyone's feelings real to you but your own?" Sin said it from the far side of the room, where other guards had forced him back from the potential danger. He practiced fighting, but he wasn't a guard, and when the emergency happened they'd treated him like what he was, a guardee.
Sin went to Dev and hugged him. He was almost as tall as the six-foot-three guard, but there was still something very young in his wanting to hug and make it all better. Dev startled and tried to stay in stoic bodyguard mode, and then he hugged Sin back, blond head bowing to mingle with the dark blue. They broke apart and it was Sin who had tears trailing down his face, as if he were crying tears Dev couldn't, or wouldn't, shed.
Micah went to him next and offered his hand, and then did that one-armed guy hug, which was a little awkward since Dev was about a foot taller, but I heard Micah say, "You deserve someone who treats you better than this, Dev."
Nicky hugged him next, and then ended with his hand on the back of Dev's neck, underneath his longish blond hair. Nicky kept his hand on the man's neck, so they touched foreheads, faces apart enough that I could see Nicky's lips move as he said something--I couldn't hear what he said, but whatever it was it made Dev smile.
Domino hugged him, too, and just said, "Dude, I'm sorry."
Dev said, "Thanks, brother."