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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:53:59

We ran in the dark, unfamiliar trees, with me fighting to stay with him. He was faster in this form, as if the extra legs gave him more horsepower, or more all-terrain power. My human body struggled to bend and weave through the pines. Their needles were everywhere on the thin earth, the rocks, so that the world smelled like Christmas trees and the sharp, clean smell of leopard. Just as tattoos stayed on the skin under the fur, so the shampoo and soap he'd used earlier was still there intermingled with the scent of leopard. I could smell the leather of the leash handle as my hand warmed it. The pine needles had killed almost everything on the thin, rocky earth, so that as long as I ducked under the branches I could run full out, trusting that if I turned when he turned, followed his body like a guide through the trees, I'd be fine. I kept my free hand up to guard my face from the branches that he didn't have to worry about but my human form was tall enough to catch.

I felt Nicky to our left, but it wasn't the human part of me that felt him; my lioness knew he was there. It was the first hint I had that he was tied to me as my Bride, and as a lion; as a Bride he sensed me more than I sensed him, but the lion part of me was more aware of him. I glimpsed Nicky like a pale shadow under the trees. I tried to sense Ares, but I had nothing for him, no metaphysical tie and no connection to his hyena. I had to use my human eyes to look to our right and find him racing through the trees to keep up with us. I knew that Nicky could feel me, but Ares was as blind metaphysically to me as I was to him. We had to look for each other; maybe he could smell my scent more than I could his, but even without a stronger connection he was there, at our side, racing on long legs through the trees.

I heard yelling behind us, and I realized it was Al and all the other police. I hadn't thought about them until that moment. The world had narrowed down to the leopard at my side, the uneven ground, the swipe of pine branches against my upraised arm, Nicky like a satellite at our side and the noise and movement that was Ares.

I slowed, and Nathaniel pulled at the end of the leash. I had a sense of just how strong he might be and knew that if he didn't want me to walk him on the leash he would pull me off my feet and 'walk' me.

I said, 'Nathaniel, slow,' a firm command, the way I'd been taught years ago to talk to a big dog when you could tell by body language it was about to do something you'd regret. The very big cat slowed and looked back over its shoulder at me. There was some appeal on its - his - face. I couldn't read it, and I wanted to. I lowered my shields just a bit more and suddenly the night was alive with scent and sound and touch that hadn't been there before.

The smells were everywhere, like a thick, invisible blanket that moved and filled me with so ... there was something small and furry to our right. It was eatable and smelled like a mouse, but not. The pines were so strong that he'd filtered out the scent the way that a human would react to the constant hum of machinery; eventually you tune it out, but there were so many other things to smell: I would have said I could smell leaves, but there were sharp green smells, old brown smells, and it wasn't the leopard adding the color in my head, that was me, because my human mind had no words for the variety and difference in each scent. I added color, because I couldn't understand without adding some visual cue to all the smells. In human form I didn't have the part of the brain big enough to decipher things purely as smell. I was a primate and we're visual, so I tried to translate all that rich, wonderful information into colors - that smell was sharp, hot, red; that one soft, peaceful, blue; spicy was brown and red; spruce was blue and green; pine was like an ocean of green that we kept having to swim free of to sense anything else. I knew the term nose-deaf for hunting dogs, but I'd never realized just how limited my world was to my beasts. How frustrated they must have been to be trapped inside this human body with its limited ability to scent the wind.

I'd always thought my beasts resented this less dangerous body - no claws, no fangs, no way to climb and run the way they wanted to, but I stood there in the forest with Nathaniel's leopard trying to share everything he was sensing and my human brain could not translate it. I got glimpses of it, bits, pieces, and it was amazing, but I knew that it was like trying to explain color to the blind. How do you explain red without resorting to heat? Fire, but that's orange and yellow, even blue, and white-hot heat is a term for a reason. How do you explain red to someone who has never seen it? How did the beast explain scent to my nearly blind human nose?

It wasn't until the leopard rubbed its big head against my hand that I realized I was crying. I was crying because I couldn't understand and for the first time I understood, maybe, just how much I was missing.

Nicky wrapped one arm around me, leaving room for the leopard to rub and lean against my legs. I didn't so much pet him as let him roll the thick velvet of his fur underneath my hand. I wondered how much his leopard understood of why I was crying, but like any domestic cat he knew I was sad and that was enough. Nicky could feel my emotions and was compelled to try to make me feel better. It was part of the compulsion of being a Bride, though as I leaned into the muscled warmth of his chest underneath the leather jacket, I thought maybe we should start calling him my Groom. We'd come up with the term Bride because of Dracula and his Brides. He was the most famous vampire that had held the ability, but it didn't mean that the language couldn't change. I realized I was using the words and their meanings to help me pull away from that world of scent and alien sensations that Nathaniel's leopard had given me. I thought about slang, and how language evolves, because it was something that no animal would have given a shit about. It helped me stuff myself back into me, this body, this mind, these limited senses. I thought things as alien to the leopard and the lion inside me as the world of scent was to me, and it helped me ground and center into myself again.

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Ares was standing a little to the side of us, looking out into the dark. 'God, they're loud.'

I raised my head from Nicky's chest and listened. The leopard leaned hard against my leg, and I expected to feel him go still under my head listening, too, but he didn't. He'd 'heard,' or scented the police coming closer minutes ago, while I was wrapped up in my tears, the touch of the two of them, and my human thoughts.

Nicky kissed my forehead. 'You got too much of Nathaniel's leopard in your human mind, didn't you?'

I looked up at him, brushing at the drying tears on my face. 'Yeah, how did you know?'

'I got some of the sensations you were trying to deal with, like bleed-over.' He rested his cheek on the top of my head and pressed me against his chest. The leopard licked my hand and made a small snuffing sound.

'I don't catch sensations from you like that.'

'You can't feel my emotions either, but I feel yours,' he said.

I frowned, thinking about it. 'Being my Bride, my Groom, seems really one-sided, as if I'm not supposed to give a damn about your feelings and needs, just you about mine.'

'Yes,' he said. His body snuggled closer around me and seemed to include the leopard at our feet in the motion, so that Nathaniel rubbed in between our legs, not trying to separate us, but making it a group cuddle. The energy was peaceful, comforting; the only person in the snuggle who thought we shouldn't be so happy about it all was me. It still bothered me that I had possessed Nicky so completely. As if he sensed it, and maybe he did, he said, 'I've never been happier than since you brought me to St Louis, Anita.'

I pulled my face back enough to see his face as I said, 'Doesn't it bother you that it's all vampire powers and mind tricks?'

'No,' he said, and he kissed me, softly, and whispered against my lips, 'I'm happy; why does it matter how it happened?'

I wanted to say, But it does matter, but I didn't. I let him kiss me again, let Nathaniel wind his leopard between our legs like a huge housecat. He started to purr and the sound of it vibrated up our bodies like some happy, contented motor wrapped in fur, muscle, and beauty, because he was beautiful in this form, too. I stood there tasting Nicky's mouth and feeling the pull and push of Nathaniel's body, and it just didn't seem that different from the three of us being in bed together when we were all human. Maybe I'd gotten too big a dose of leopard in my head.

'The police are almost here,' Ares said.

We pulled back so that by the time Al and the others arrived we weren't cuddling, just standing waiting for them. Nope, no snuggling going on here, no kissing, and then I realized I'd been wearing red lipstick. I had time to glance at Nicky and see the lipstick tracing the inside of his lips. He was wearing the go-faster stripe. We'd kissed neatly enough that I wouldn't even be smeared, but there was no time to hide the evidence. If he wiped at it now it would just smear worse. Maybe they wouldn't notice in the dark? Of course, they came with the sweep of flashlights, ruining our night vision and theirs. Did some of the lights go back to Nicky's face more than once, or was I just being paranoid?

'I've never seen anything move like you all did,' Al said, as he walked up to us.

'Sorry you had to wait so long for the rest of us mere humans to catch up,' Travers said, 'but I guess it just gave you time to make out a little bit instead of looking for the missing men.'

We couldn't explain, so the only option was a bold front. 'We could just stand here and twiddle our thumbs while you guys catch up, if that would make you happier?'

'Little Henry is a friend of mine, and the thought that you were up here kissing while he could be hurt, or worse, instead of looking for him ... yeah, that bothers me and it's damned unprofessional.'

Nicky stood up a little taller, and Nathaniel made a harsh sound low in his throat, not exactly a growl, but not a happy noise either. Ares moved a little between us and the police, hands to his side, feet placed to move, but it wasn't that kind of fight.

I took in a lot of air and let it out slow. 'You're right, it was unprofessional. It won't happen again.'

Travers didn't seem to know what to do with the apology. 'I heard you had a temper and never backed down from anything, Blake.'

I shrugged. 'I do have a temper, but when I'm wrong, I'm wrong.'

'While we're on the wrong thing,' Horton said, 'could you all stay with the group a little bit more? It's hard to coordinate our resources if they're scattered all over the woods.'

All the flashlights, even pointed at the ground, gave enough light for me to see Horton frown. 'Officer Travers is right; you have a reputation for being harder to get along with than this.'

'When I was younger I was grumpier,' I said.

It made him smile, and then he tried not to. He looked perplexed as he said, 'You can't be more than twenty-five now; how much younger could you have been?'

'I'm thirty,' I said.

'I saw your age on paper, but you still look younger than me.'

'It's because you're tall and I'm short; tall looks older and short looks younger, just does.'

He smiled again. 'True enough.'

'Can we actually start looking for my friend again?' Travers asked.

I looked down at the big leopard sitting at my side. He gazed up at me with the pale leopard eyes. I said, 'Find them; find the scent.'

The leopard gazed up at me. I thought, visualized what I wanted him to find. I pictured the jacket and the rag he'd smelled, just in case words weren't that important to him right now.

He got to his feet, turning in a graceful half-circle to head the way we'd been running. He didn't even put his face to the ground, or scent the wind, nothing, as if he knew where we were going.