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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:53:56

By the time we got upstairs, some decisions had been reached. Neither of the women went to jail. Aunt Bertie and Uncle Jamie had been escorted out of the hospital. Aunt Jody and Aunt Bobbie were staying at the hospital with the bevy of policemen who would haunt the place until Rush Callahan either got to go home or didn't. The doctors were starting to wean Rush from the drugs that were keeping him unconscious, but as Dr Rogers had said, they were going to do it slowly because of the other patient going into shock and dying from too rapid a wake-up. We had about two hours, maybe more, so ... We were invited to go to Micah's mom and stepfather's house. It was close to the hospital and to the university where they both worked.

Micah started to protest, saying, 'I'm not going to leave.'

Nathaniel had moved close to him and spoke low. 'We all need food.'

'I'm not hungry,' Micah said.

'Your beast is, because mine is, and Anita carries more than one hunger inside her.'

We both looked at our third. I don't know about Micah, but I felt stupid for not remembering that we weren't just human. Going without enough food had consequences for wereanimals beyond just low blood sugar. We, and everyone with us, had iron self-control of our 'hungers,' but iron wasn't impenetrable.

'You are under a lot of stress,' Nathaniel said. 'It makes it harder to control everything.'

'I hate to leave him now that I'm back,' Micah said.

I took his hand and said, 'The doctors will call when he starts to come around, and Nathaniel is right. We don't want your family to meet your beast unexpectedly. Do we?'

'My control is better than that,' he said, and sounded defensive, which was rare for him.

Nathaniel hugged him one-armed so I could keep his hand. 'You have the most amazing control of anyone I've ever met, my Nimir-Raj, but no one is perfect, not even you. Don't let guilt make you stupid, not now. You have your family again; let's not scare them by a surprise shapeshift.'

His mother came up then and said, 'Beth is so excited to see you.'

I wasn't sure if it was Nathaniel's common sense or seeing his little sister again, but whichever, we won, and off we all went.

Cousin Juliet drove us, because part of our luggage was still in the back of her SUV. She was going to help us unload and then go home to her own kids and husband. She said, 'I'll give you all some time alone.'

Nicky was in the front seat beside her this time. He turned around and looked back at Micah in the center of the backseat, sandwiched between Nathaniel and me. 'We can stay in the kitchen or living room, if you want to talk privately.'

'Thanks, Nicky,' Micah said. 'I don't know what I want. I can't get past the fact that Mom sold the house five years ago. I've never seen the house we're going to.' He sounded sad when he said it.

I squeezed his hand. 'It would be weird if my dad sold the place I grew up in.'

Nathaniel leaned his head against Micah's hair. 'I don't remember much about the house I lived in until I was seven, and after that I never had a home until now.'

Juliet asked, 'What happened when you were seven?'

Nathaniel raised his head from Micah and said, 'My mother died of cancer, and my stepfather beat my brother to death.' He told the information as if there were no emotional content to it, dry, just facts. I told about my mother's death when I was eight the same way - most of the time.

'I'm so sorry, Nathaniel; I wouldn't have asked if I'd known.' She glanced back at him, her face showing what most well-socialized people look like when a simple question gets a tragic answer.

'It's okay,' he said. 'There was no way for you to know.'

'Turning in front of us,' I said, pulse speeding.

'What?' Juliet said, turning back in time to swerve around the front end of the car that was pulling out. She got the car back under control and said, 'Sorry.'

'No more looking back at us,' I said. 'Just drive, okay?'

'It's just ...' I watched her hands clutch the steering wheel. 'It's just so sad.'

'There's a lot of sad in the car,' I said.

'What do you mean?' she asked, using the rearview mirror to glance behind at us this time.

I sighed. I had started it, damn it. 'I lost my mother when I was eight.'

I waited for Nicky to give his contribution, but he stayed quiet and looked studiously ahead into the darkened road. His background was as tragic as Nathaniel's, but it was his to share. I wouldn't make him tell.

'I can't imagine losing my mom when I was so little.'

Micah put his arm around my shoulders and pulled Nathaniel's hand onto his thigh, in that casual couple way. It made both of us snuggle into him.

Juliet was turning into a neighborhood of older, modest houses. Most of them were ranch-style with larger-than-normal yards for a suburban neighborhood, but others had smaller yards, because they were tucked up against walls of rock. It reminded me that there were mountains up there somewhere in the dark.

'It seems so weird to be in a neighborhood I've never seen and be on the way to Mom's house,' Micah said.

'I guess that would be weird,' Juliet said as she turned into a cul-de-sac of larger houses.

'My own fault for not staying in touch,' Micah said.

Nathaniel and I hugged and snuggled him from both sides. 'You did what you had to do,' I said.

'You were protecting them from the crazy,' Nicky said.

'Thanks,' Micah said with a smile.

Juliet might have asked what crazy Nicky was referring to as she parked in a driveway, but the door to the house opened, and Micah's mom was framed in the light like an ad for some heartwarming movie. I felt him tense beside me, but not in a bad way. Nathaniel reached for the door on his side.

Nicky said, 'Wait, and let the others get into position.'

'No one is waiting to jump you at Aunt Bea's house,' Juliet said.

'Probably not,' Nicky said, 'but it doesn't hurt to be cautious.'

'Bodyguards are supposed to be paranoid. We sort of pay them for exactly that,' I said.

'I wouldn't have believed you needed them until I saw what Bertie and Jamie did; that was so awful of them.'

Nicky unbuckled his seat belt. 'No one get out until someone has your door.'

'Me, too?' Juliet asked.

'No, you aren't our job,' he said.

'I'm glad,' she said, and reached for her door.

He touched her shoulder. 'Not yet.'

'You said I could get out.'

'I said you didn't have to wait for a guard to have your door, but I don't want you opening your door yet.'

'You'll illuminate the inside of the car and make a target of everyone in here.'

Juliet's shoulders slumped, and you could almost feel her rethinking the world from a much scarier and more dangerous perspective. She turned in the darkened car and looked at Micah. 'Is this how you have to live all the time?'

'It's a precaution,' he said.

'Is this why you didn't want to come home? You thought you'd endanger everyone?'

'Partly, but now I have enough people to make the bad guys hesitate. They'll see Nicky and the others and know that I'm not unprotected. They'll know that if they harm my family, it won't be without repercussions.' Micah's voice was very calm as he said it, so reasonable. I liked that about him, that he was as ruthlessly practical as I was.

'Do you mean ...' Juliet said, but Dev was at my door, Ares was at Nathaniel's, and I could almost feel Bram near the back of the truck. I'd noticed that sometimes with Micah physically close to me I could sense the other wereleopards in our group. They opened our doors; we got out and started walking toward the opened door. Micah's mother had already walked down the steps and was partway to us. I wasn't surprised that Bea Morgan was an impatient woman, not after seeing the fight at the hospital. People with tempers are rarely patient. I should know.

We entered the new-to-us house in a circle of bodyguards, with Micah's mother reaching out to lead him inside. We let him go forward to meet her. Ares stayed at his side. Nathaniel and I held hands, with Dev and Nicky on either side of us. Bram brought up the rear, looking back into the darkness. It probably wasn't the welcome home Micah had planned, but if we could pull off some kind of miracle for his dad, it wasn't half bad.