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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:54:02

The quiet murmur of voices woke me. I tried to move my arm and something pulled. I opened my eyes and found an IV in my left arm. It was taped down to a board, which meant it wasn't the first time I'd tried to move the arm while I was unconscious. The monitor's light seemed brighter than it should have in the darkened room, but it beeped slow and steady by the bed with its metal rails.

'Oh, good, you're awake.' The nurse smiled down at me. Her voice was lower than usual for a nurse, and as if she'd read my thoughts she said, 'Your fiance finally fell asleep on the couch. Poor boy.'

I looked where she was looking on the far side of the room and found there was a small table with two chairs, and a couch. Micah was asleep on it with a small pillow and a blanket that covered most of him. His face looked pale and his curls like a dark halo where they were escaping from his braid. He looked younger, more fragile lying there.

I whispered, 'How's his dad? Sheriff Callahan?' My voice sounded rough, and my throat was dry. Since I was getting fluids through the IV, it meant I'd been out a while.

'As good as can be expected,' she said, but busied herself with taking my pulse and shoved a thermometer under my tongue before she moved enough that I could see there was someone sitting in a chair by my bed. It was just as well I couldn't talk, because I would have yelled, 'Edward!'

His blond hair was still cut neat and short, as it had been the whole time I'd known him. His eyes were a pale blue, cold as winter skies, his expression almost empty right now, because it was just me looking at him, but he was sitting like his alter ego. He had one ankle on the opposite knee, showing off the rich blue of his jeans and the paler wear marks along the seams, and the cowboy boots with their scrollwork, brown on brown. A white cowboy hat sat on his knee; its brim was creased and folded just right by constant wear. It had aged to a nice ivory, in contrast to the white of his button-down shirt. The sleeves were rolled up over strong forearms; his marshal badge was on a lanyard around his neck, which meant he wasn't Edward right now; he was Ted Forrester, fellow U.S. Marshal attached to the Preternatural Branch. Ted was Clark Kent to Edward's Superman, or maybe supervillain. He was pretty much a full-time marshal now, but when I'd met him his Ted Forrester had been a legal vampire executioner just like me, but as Edward he'd been a very pricey assassin. He specialized in shapeshifters and vampires, because humans had become too easy a prey, and he was bored. I was still a little fuzzy on how much the government knew about Edward, as opposed to Ted, but it was on a case with Edward where I first heard the name Van Cleef and met some of the other people who'd trained, or were trained by, him. Edward would never talk about it much.

'Hey, Ted,' I said, and coughed to try to clear my voice.

He smiled, blue eyes shining and just suddenly a brighter blue. The nurse had turned to look at him, and his face had slipped instantly back into Ted's, but also he was smiling at me, because he'd seen it in my eyes that I would have yelled out the wrong name. 'Hey, back,' he said in a low but cheerful voice, his Ted voice. Edward, now you see him, now you don't. He'd become his Ted persona so strongly that he was engaged to a widow with two children. Donna knew some of what Ted did, but not all. I'd been wicked pissed at him for using her and her kids as part of his disguise until I realized that he really loved her and the kids. I didn't understand what he saw in Donna, but then he wasn't entirely happy with the loves of my life either, so we were even.

The nurse took out the thermometer and smiled down at me. 'No fever. The doctor may want to do one more X-ray before he lets you go, but other than that you seem to be doing exceptionally well. The healing abilities that lycanthropes possess never cease to amaze me.'

I could have argued that I wasn't technically one since I didn't change shape, but I let it go. It was beginning to feel a little like the lady protesting too much.

'Why an X-ray?' I asked.

'You had a crack in your pelvis.'

I gave her wide eyes, then frowned. 'I remember walking after I got shot.'

'You did, but it was a small crack and if the video is any indication, you were pumped up on adrenaline and shock. It helps the body not feel things until later.'

'You were all over the local news,' she said.

'National news,' Edward said, softly.

'I'll let Dr Cross know that you're awake.'

'Can you take out the IV?' I asked.

'Dr Cross will want to see you first.'

'Can I have water, or at least ice chips?'

'I'll check. My name's Becky; buzz if you need anything.' She pulled a curtain on metal rings closed and went out the door on the other side of it. We waited until the door hushed shut on the other side and then I said, 'How did you get here?'

'I mean, why? Who called you?'

'I called your phone until someone answered. They got me to Micah.'

'You saw the news footage,' I said.

'And just like that you flew out?'

'You'd do the same for me,' he said.

'What I can't believe is that you didn't call me sooner.'

'You have a zombie apocalypse and you don't invite me.' He put his hand on the hat and shrugged at the same time; it was a Ted gesture and we were alone. I guess if you use cover long enough you begin to blur the lines. It was still a little unnerving to see Edward make Ted gestures instead of the other way around.

'I didn't know it was a zombie apocalypse until we were in it, and for the love of God do not say the phrase zombie apocalypse where the media can get hold of it.'

'Shit,' I said, softly but with feeling.

He nodded. 'But the big news was you killing the dangerous wereanimal and saving a mother and her children.'

I looked away then, suddenly interested in my hands on the sheet. I could see the kids with their faces pressed against the car windows, the woman covering her face with her hands as the copter blades blew her hair across her face. I could see the huge hyena ...

'I'm sorry about Ares. He was a good man in a fight.'

I nodded, taking the high praise for Ares from Edward. 'He was.'

'I'm sorrier that you had to be the one to do it.'

I sighed. 'Yeah, me, too.'

'One thing that the pilot and copilot don't seem clear on is what caused him to go apeshit. Ares had control of his beast, or he wouldn't have been one of your guards. What went wrong?'

'All he could say was that someone was taking him over, making him change.'

'He was bitten by the vampire that was possessed by the other vampire?'

'The bite shouldn't have been enough to control a shapeshifter like that.'

'So this is new to you, too?'

'If one of the other regular cops had come back and told me this story I'd have said they misunderstood, that maybe the infected bite drove him crazy with pain.'

'But you wouldn't have believed that one bite from basically a surrogate would be enough to give a master vampire power over someone like Ares.'

'For the level of control "he"' - I made quote marks with one hand - 'had over Ares I'd have said that eye contact would be minimum, or eye contact and a bite.'

'Did you sense this other vampire?'

'In the woods, when he possessed the other female vampire, I fully expected there to be a second physical vampire nearby. That's how strong the energy was.'

'It was strong enough that it infected Ares not just with this corruption, but with the other vampire's power.'

'Not possible,' Edward said.

'But it happened,' he said.

We looked at each other for a minute.

'Hard to hunt and kill something that jumps bodies that easily.'

'Didn't we just finish doing this?' I asked.

'You mean Mommie Darkest.'

'Yeah, she was spirit and jumped from vampire to vampire.'

'She wanted your body for keeps.'

'If she hadn't wanted to take me over, I'm not sure I could have kept her in one body long enough to kill her,' I said.

'But she didn't do the whole rotting-vampire thing,' he said.

'No, she didn't,' I said, 'though theoretically she was the first vampire, so every flavor of vampire descended from her.'

'I never believed that Marmee Noir was the very first vampire.'

'Me either, but if not the first she was damn old. The only thing I've felt that came close was the Father of the Day.'

'You killed him in Vegas.'

He shook his head. 'I wasn't there for the killing blow, so he's yours.'

'You make it sound like we're keeping score.'

I thought about it. 'No, I guess I'm not. I mean numbers, yeah, but then now that we're marshals we have paperwork that makes us keep track.'

'But you don't keep track of which of us is killing the biggest and the baddest?' Edward asked.

I shrugged, shook my head. 'No.'

'Well damn, that makes being ahead of you not nearly as fun.'

'You're not ahead of me,' I said.

He grinned, and it was an odd mixture of Ted and Edward. 'See, you do keep track.'

I grinned and had the grace to be embarrassed. 'I don't keep official score, but I keep track of what you're doing.'

'You keep score; you just don't want to admit it.'

I shrugged again. 'I didn't think of it as keeping score, but I know I have a higher official kill count than you do.'

'Add the unsanctioned kills and I am so ahead.'

'You're older,' I said.

He laughed and it was his real one, one that he'd only started using after he found Donna and the kids. It was like she gave him permission to resurrect some of the pieces he'd had to give up to be Edward.

'Can't a man get some sleep around here?' Micah was sitting up, rubbing at his eyes.

'I'm sorry,' I said. 'Go back to sleep. We'll be quieter.'

'No, you're awake. I want to see you awake.' His upper body was bare, showing the muscles that his clothes hid. Micah would never bulk up, it just wasn't in his genetics, but if you knew what you were looking at you saw the lean muscle as he padded barefoot toward the bed wearing his dress slacks for pajama bottoms. I wanted to trace my hands over his bare skin. The desire to touch him was usually there, but it was strangely more focused than normal.

'How long have I been out?'

Micah was beside the bed now. 'Twenty-four hours.' He put his hand in mine, gently, since it still had the IV in it. I offered him my right hand across my body. 'Compromising your gun hand, you usually don't do that.'

'Edward's here. I think he can handle the door.'

Micah smiled. 'Yes.' He leaned in and kissed me. He meant it to be chaste, gentle, polite for Edward's sake. I slid my hand out of his, trailed it up the warmth of his bare arm, until my hand could cup the back of his neck. His hair tickled along my skin where I held him. I drew him down into the kiss, made it more. He melted into the kiss for a moment, and then he drew back. I didn't want to let him go. He had to move my hand from his neck. He looked down at me, his green-gold eyes studying my face.

'You need food,' he said.

'I don't want hospital Jell-O,' I said.

'I'll just bet you don't.'

'She's looking at you like she's going to eat you,' Edward said.

'Sometimes when she hasn't fed enough she looks like that.'

'I can give you some privacy,' he said.

'Let's see if the doctor will release her. I'd really rather not explain having sex in the hospital room, and besides I need to check on my dad and Nathaniel.'

'What's wrong with Nathaniel?' I asked.

'Elevation sickness, shock, too-rapid change from animal to human form.'

In my head I thought, and I drained him healing myself. Edward was one of the few people with a badge who knew the truth about me and my metaphysical connections, but still ...

'Did Anita drain energy off Nathaniel to heal herself?' Edward asked.

Micah and I looked at him. I'm not sure it was an entirely friendly look. 'I've been around when Anita had to feed the ardeur in an emergency. Since she was hurt and couldn't feed like that, she had to get the energy from somewhere.'

'Most of the time,' Edward said.

Micah looked at me. I nodded. He turned to Edward. 'It's not as simple as just energy drain, but yes. The combination of everything else that had already happened and then Anita being seriously injured made him pass out.'

'How's Damian?' I asked.

'He's fine, though he fed more than normal last night.'

'Is everyone else fine, too?' I asked, trying to ask without asking if Damian had hurt anyone 'feeding' too much. Damian was a vampire; overfeeding could be really bad for the feedee.

'You couldn't just say yes?'

'I have spent the last twenty-four hours going between three hospital rooms that held the loves of my life and my father; I'm entitled to be a little off my polite game.'

He smiled. 'It's all right, I'm just glad you're awake.'

'I'll get dressed and check on Nathaniel.'

'I don't have shirt or shoes on yet, Anita. I'm not gone.' He went back to the couch area and started rummaging around in a small overnight bag that I couldn't remember packing. He got an armful of clothes and his toiletry case and went for the bathroom, which was, indeed, the door between the bed and the curtained window. He paused in the lighted door. 'If the doctor offers you some of that hospital Jell-O, say yes. You will need to feed the ardeur, but real food will help you control it. Not everyone who you pull down into that kind of kiss is going to have my self-control.'

I fought not to squirm. 'I wasn't asking for sex.'

'I wasn't.' It sounded defensive even to me, which made me want to sulk about it, which let me know that I was lying to myself. I could feel the craving growing inside me. I'd healed beyond my wildest dreams, but it was going to come with a price, eventually. Of course, Nathaniel was down the hallway hooked up to IVs, too. That was a price that had already been paid.

'I'm getting dressed. If she gets too handsy with anyone else, knock on the door,' Micah said.

'I'm not going to just paw at strangers,' I said, sullenly.

He smiled. 'We have more guards here than when you passed out; most of them are willing food for you, and almost none of them have my self-control.'

I started to cross my arms, but the IV made it too hard. I fought not to pout at him. 'I'll be good.'

'You're always good, Anita; just don't do anything you'd be embarrassed to have Edward see.'

'There are police out in the hallway waiting to help spell me at Anita's bedside. Could we all start calling me Ted, just for practice?'

Micah nodded. 'Anita, don't do anything you wouldn't want Ted to see.'

'You've made your point,' I said.

'How about there are other police in the hallway helping watch over your room just like they are dad's. Don't do anything you wouldn't want them to walk in on, or how about my mom, my sister, my brother. They've been checking on you, too.'

I sank back into the pillow, all the fight and sullen suddenly gone. 'You've made your point.'

'Good. I love you,' he said.

He closed the door behind him and the room suddenly seemed even darker than it had been. There was a knock on the door, but it opened without waiting for me to say Come in. I wasn't surprised that it was my doctor. I was a little surprised that he was a vampire and my doctor.