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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:54:05

Once we cleaned up, I told Jean-Claude about the rotting vampires, the flesh-eating zombies, and the mystery master vampire that was making and possessing the vampires. Somewhere in the telling of it, I realized something.

'The only reason we didn't try to cure Ares the way that Asher and Damian cured Nathaniel in Tennessee was that we didn't have a vampire with us, but you're here now. You could heal Micah's dad!'

We were dressed and Jean-Claude was fussing with my hair, using those long, graceful fingers of his to get the curls to lie just right. I stepped away from him enough to see his face. His expression was not comforting.

'Why can't you?' I asked.

'If it were fresh, I could have tried, but it is days old, ma petite. The doctors have cut away the initial wound and the corruption has spread to other places that have no wound to show.'

'How do you know all that?'

'Nicky reported to me on the plane as I traveled to your side. He is a very thorough and dispassionate observer without you awake and aware to feed him your emotions.'

'So you knew everything I just told you about the vampires,' I said.

He moved close enough to pick up another of my curls and begin to wind it around his finger. 'I did, but you gave details that Nicky could not. He has no real psychic ability, or magic, except for being a werelion. It makes his reporting very physical. You add the metaphysical and I need to know that as well. I can ask you questions that he could not answer.'

'The Lover of Death is supposed to be dead, killed by other hands, but the Mother of All Darkness was supposed to be dead once before, and she was not. Was this he? Is this the Lover of Death come back from the dead, so to speak?'

I started to just say no, but then I stopped and made myself really think about the question.

Jean-Claude focused on entwining my hair around his fingers, serious as a small child. I let him do it, because my hair would look great, but it was also something that relaxed him. He usually only fussed with my hair as much as he fussed with his own when he was nervous or we were going to be out at some public event.

'I've felt the Lover of Death's energy when he was combined with Mommie Darkest. This didn't feel the same. The vampire didn't do that nifty trick that the council did, kind of appearing in vision above our heads, or in our heads. This one had to use the vampire he'd made as his puppet to talk to us.'

'But you felt his energy, ma petite; was it the same?'

'I didn't feel the presence of this one and think, Oh, it's the Lover of Death, if that's what you mean.'

'Yes, that is what I mean. So it is not him.'

'No.' I thought about it as I said it. Something was nagging at me, as if I'd forgotten something important.

'What is it, ma petite? You look troubled.'

'Was the Lover of Death able to take over the vampires he made like this?'

'Could he control zombies?'

'So how the hell did we end up with a master vampire that can jump bodies like the Traveller, make rotting vamps like the Lover of Death, control zombies like a necromancer, and control shapeshifters through a bite from his puppet vampires?'

'The Traveller can move to almost any body that is his animal to call or a vampire; this master can use only his own creations, which was a gift that the Dark Mother possessed, and when she was in her prime I am told she could control all types of undead, not just vampires.'

'How about the rotting bite and controlling shapeshifters through it?'

'She made the Lover of Death, but like Belle Morte's ability with sex it was something that sprang to life in the Lover of Death's line of vampires. Most powerful master vampires can control their animal to call through a bite.'

'Not a bite through another vampire they've created and possessed, though,' I said.

'I am not sure. I will ask the Traveller if he has that ability.'

'But either way, Jean-Claude, where the hell did this vampire come from? We don't have that many rotting vamps in America.'

'That is true, and one this powerful I should be able to sense, but I cannot.'

I turned and made him stop fussing with my hair. 'Jesus, that's right, you're the king. You can sense vampires that have blood-oathed to you, at least a little.'

'You sense vampires, too, ma petite.'

'I can if they're not master level and not trying to hide.'

'I believe that even some master vampires could not hide from your necromancy now. We have all gained power from my rising to the head of this country's vampires.'

'They gave up the power to you so you'd protect them from the bogey vampires.'

'They feared the Mother of us all, and what the Lover of Death forced his descendant to do in Atlanta.'

'He didn't possess the Master of Atlanta, but he drove him crazy and made him and his vampires slaughter people. It's similar enough to what this master is doing,' I said.

'Perhaps this master was hiding not from the human law, but from the Council.'

'What do you mean?' I asked.

'This new master is powerful, but he is not more powerful than the Mother of All Darkness, and if he is a rotting vampire, then he descends from Amor de Morte, which means until they were both destroyed he must have feared them possessing or destroying him.'

'You mean he waited for us to kill everyone he feared and now he's outing himself to us?'

'I am not sure it is that simple, because he sounds quite mad. There is no real logic in madness, ma petite, though the mad always believe they are quite logical.'

'Crazy is never logical outside the head of the crazy person,' I said.

'So now that we've destroyed all his competition, this new master is challenging us, or is he too crazy to care about us like that?'

'I think the latter.'

'Shit,' I said, 'does he have a body for us to find and destroy?'

'The Traveller still does, and he is the oldest of us left with the ability to jump from body to body, but if someone destroyed his original form he would die in truth.'

'But Mommie Darkest didn't die when her body was burned up.'

'Non, but the body that had been trapped in Paris wasn't her original body, or so I am told.'

I thought about it and shook my head. 'You're right, it wasn't. She'd traded bodies before, which was one of the reasons she thought she could take mine or make me get pregnant so she could take the child over.' I shuddered, as if I could still feel how evil she'd felt inside me. She had been the darkness made real. The night itself giving breath and life so it could slip in your window and do everything you feared would happen in the dark.

He went back to fussing with my hair. I wasn't the only one who had been afraid of the DARK, if you spelled it with all capital letters.

'Killing the spirit-walking vamps is so damned hard,' I said.

'Oui, you must first trap them in a body long enough to destroy them.'

'It only worked last time because she wanted to possess my body. It made her stay put long enough for my necromancy and your power to help me kill her.'

'Then you must find what this new master vampire wants badly enough to stay, as you say, put, so you and Edward can slay him.'

'Can you help us find him? I mean, you're king with metaphysical ties to most of the vampires. Can you use those ties to hunt for him?'

'In all honesty, ma petite, I do not know. The powers attributed to the old Council head, the Mother herself, were more her magic than any power given to her as the leader of the Vampire Council. I am not the first vampire or the creator of our society. I am a leader, but not that kind of leader.'

'The female vamp was created by him. Maybe if we use her as a link we could trace it back to him like a psychic cell phone. You have her phone turned on, and then you trace where she's getting her messages from.'

'It is a good thought and one worth trying, ma petite.'

'But you don't think it will work,' I said.

'I do not know, and that is the truth.'

I took in a deep breath, let it out slow, and changed topics while I tried to think of how to find the new big bad vampire. 'So there's nothing anyone can do for Micah's dad?'

'Nothing that vampires can do for him, I am afraid, but we did save one of your law enforcement officers, Travers.'

I started to turn and look at him, but he kept my face turned so he could keep doing my hair. 'You sucked the ... corruption out of Travers?' I asked.

'You brought Wicked and Truth with you?' I said.

'They are my main guards.'

'It was more of a risk for Truth to do it. He's not as powerful as you are,' I said.

'I am the king. That makes me powerful enough to have cured the officer, but it also means that I would have been tempted to drain power from local vampires if it went badly. I would not have allowed myself to rot to death for a stranger if I had the energy available to me to live. If I drain the life from wee vampires the first time I visit another master's territory without asking his permission first, my reputation will be set like the old European council's. I will be a monster and I do not want that.'

'Is it that dangerous to feed on this corruption, even for you?' I asked.

'You witnessed Damian rotting from helping Asher drain corruption from Nathaniel. If you had not been there as his master to offer him clean and powerful blood, Damian would have died beyond all hope of healing, or recovery.'

'But Asher had no problem doing it, and he wasn't as powerful then as he is now, and certainly not as powerful as you are.'

'Honestly, ma petite, I would not risk all that I am and all that I have for a stranger.'

I tried to turn again, and this time he moved so I could. 'You wouldn't risk it for Micah's dad?'

'I might have, but he is beyond such cures. No vampire can cleanse his blood now. It is too widespread in his body.' He moved to the other side and started to patiently fuss with my hair.

I wanted to tell him to stop, but then I had another thought. 'Edward mentioned that the media were calling it a zombie apocalypse, and I made international news footage.'

'Oui,' he said, winding a curl around his finger and not really looking at me.

'Are we going to have to go through reporters to make the hotel? Is that why you're fussing with my hair?' I asked.

'The police are keeping them well back on behalf of Micah's family.' He placed the curl among all the rest and began to work on that one problem area in the back of my hair that almost every person with long curly hair seemed to have.

'I thought we might have to talk to the press.'

'There is some talk of a conference tomorrow, but not tonight.'

'Then why are you fussing this much with my hair?'

'So you are nervous?'

'Oui,' he said, softly.

I frowned, couldn't help it. 'Are you having second thoughts about the proposal?'

He looked at me then, face showing astonishment. 'Mon Dieu, no, no!' He hugged me, then moved back with his hands on my shoulders so we could see each other's faces. 'Ma petite, you have made me a very happy man by saying yes. Never doubt that I am ecstatic with our engagement and look forward to making a more formal presentation of it.'

I frowned harder. 'Formal? Why formal?'

'Because I am the vampire king of America, and kings do not become engaged quietly.'

'What does that even mean?'

'It means that once you, Micah, and whoever else we deem involved have worked out the organization of who is marrying whom, then we will announce what we all wish to announce, whatever that is.'

'Okay, that sounds very reasonable, so why are you nervous?'

'It seems silly,' he said. He drew back from me, running his hands down the lace on either side of the pearl buttons of his shirt. The lace was actually inlaid on either side of the button line trailing up to the collar, which was unbuttoned and lying loose over the black velvet jacket, which hit him just past the waist. The last time I'd seen the shirt, the collar had been high and buttoned all the way up his neck so that the soft, embroidered white-on-white lace framed the edge of his chin. He only wore the collar loose when he was at the end of his day and in private.

'Are you okay?' I asked.

He made a sharp, exasperated sound. 'I am over six hundred years old; you would think I would be past such silliness.'

'What silliness?' I asked.

'We need to gather our young men and retire to the hotel, but I am told that our chat has his family with him.'

Chat was French for cat, which meant Micah. Nathaniel was minet, kitten, or pussycat in French. 'So we go up and we see how his father is doing. It's hard, but ...'

He shook his head. 'It is not the sad fate of his father that leaves me so anxious.'

'Then what is it?' I asked.

'The introduction to Micah's family is troublesome.'

'Did he not introduce you?' I asked.

'I came straight to your side, so he has not had time to introduce me.'

'Then I am totally confused,' I said.

He sighed. 'I am being the girl, am I not?'

'If you mean confusing, yes.'

'I want to greet Micah, to comfort him, but I am not certain what he wishes me to do in front of his family. I am a vampire and male. I was told that they are very religious.'

I smiled. 'Some of them are, but his parents will be okay about the guy-guy part.' I explained the domestic arrangements of Micah's parents.

By the time I finished, Jean-Claude was laughing. 'Micah has agonized about being with Nathaniel and what his family would think, and all this time they have had their own menage-a-trois. It is too perfect.'

I nodded, smiling. 'They were cool about all the wereanimal stuff, so I think they'll be okay with vampires.'

'So they have welcomed both you and Nathaniel into their familial bosoms?'

I nodded. 'It went really well.'

'But a menage-a-trois is more acceptable than our larger arrangement.'

I had a clue, at last, where he was going with his case of nerves. 'Are you worried about how Micah will introduce you to his family?'

He gave that graceful Gallic shrug that meant everything and nothing.

I went to him and wrapped my arms around his waist, and he put his arms around my shoulders. I gazed up at him and smiled. 'I think the fact that you're worried about Micah and his family is one of the sweetest things I've ever heard you say.'

'It is not sweet, ma petite, it is ridiculous. The only man he loves is Nathaniel, and I know this.'

'You don't love him the way you love Asher,' I said.

'That is true, but Asher is no longer with us.'

'Actually, I promised Dev I'd talk to you about Asher.'

'What of Asher and our handsome Devil?'

'Many of us miss him, ma petite,' he said, and there was the slightest tone to his voice that let me know just how much of that 'us' was him.

'Have you spoken to him lately?' I asked.

I studied that handsome, unreadable face. He was hiding whatever he was feeling and thinking from me, which meant it was something he either didn't want to share or thought I'd be upset about. I had a smart thought, or a potentially smart thought.

'Did Asher tell you about the new man in his life?'

Jean-Claude tensed and then went very still, that kind of stillness that people don't have. Snakes can be that still, held frozen and stretched out like a tree branch while waiting for the danger to pass, or the prey to come that inch closer.

'I'll take the silence for a yes,' I said.

'He mentioned his new beau,' Jean-Claude said in a voice as empty and neutral as he could manage. Once upon a time I would have thought he didn't give a damn, but now I knew that sometimes his most neutral tone meant he cared very damn much.

'Dev was supposed to call Asher while I was cleaning up,' I said.

'Was he?' And again the voice was too neutral.

'Yes, he was.' I tightened my arms around his waist. 'Dev wanted to double-check how many of the mean things Asher said were true and how many were said just to hurt our Devil.'

Jean-Claude looked at me then, his face still carefully neutral. 'Asher does have a gift for cruel words.'

I nodded. 'Dev misses him enough that he's willing to give up everyone but Asher.'

Jean-Claude allowed his expression to thaw a little. 'What made Mephistopheles change his mind?'

'He's never missed anyone as much as he misses Asher. I don't think he understood that any one person might be worth giving up all the others for.'

'Has our Devil never been in love before?'

'Apparently not,' I said.

'No, because only love can make of parting such a hell,' Jean-Claude said.

His body relaxed around me then, so that he hugged me, rather than simply had his arms around me. That unsettling, almost reptile stillness was just gone, and his body had movement, flow, not just a sense of pulse and life, but as if he could stop his energy, his aura, from moving, too. Maybe that was it? Maybe it was a psychic thing, that vampire stillness, so that they could dampen down not just their physical movement, but all their 'movement.'

I said, 'It's okay if you miss Asher.'

He pulled me in against his body so that my head rested on his chest, cradled against the velvet of his jacket. I snuggled in against him and knew from the softness of the jacket it wasn't real velvet, but some modern synthetic. The modern stuff was always softer.

'Is it, ma petite? I miss him and yet I do not believe he has learned the lesson we wished to teach him. He waxed quite eloquent on the phone about his new man and how he is denied nothing from this new werehyena.'

I tried to move back so I could see his face, but he held me in place. I didn't fight it, because sometimes he did that when he wasn't certain he could control his facial expression. The older vampires saw an unguarded expression as something that could be potentially dangerous to them. Centuries of having been punished for the wrong look at the wrong time had taught most of them to hide what they truly felt. Jean-Claude had told me once that it was actually an effort to show emotion. I think that ceased to be true as he got metaphysically closer to all his warm-blooded servants like me. We'd given him some of our warmth, but it had cost him some of his hard-won control.

'I didn't realize it was a werehyena,' I said, with my cheek cradled against his chest.

'Yes, but he is not the leader of the local hyenas, just the prettiest boy to fall under Asher's spell.' He sounded tired.

'Did Asher seducing this werehyena piss off the leader of their pack?'

'Their leader is a woman, and because I sent Asher to her city, he seems to have taken it as a hint that I wanted him to be more heterosexual.'

'Which means he did just the opposite and went for just the guys,' I said.

'Oh, much better than that; he seduced her and then ignored her for this new man.'

I rose up, and this time he let me. 'Holy shit, was he trying to get himself killed?'

Jean-Claude stepped back, shaking his head. 'If he had not been my envoy, the leader, Dulcia, would have made an example of Asher. She called me about a month ago to tell me of his misdeeds.'

'Hyena society is matriarchal, which is why Narcissus won't let women in his clan. He's afraid a woman will automatically take over just like with real wild hyenas.'

'I know all that, ma petite.'

'But maybe Asher doesn't,' I said. 'He doesn't do the research that you, me, Micah, Nathaniel, hell, Nicky, everyone does. Narcissus doesn't run his group like most of hyena society, and if they're the only hyenas Asher has spent any time with, maybe he didn't know how dangerous they could be.'

Jean-Claude seemed to think about that for a moment, and then nodded. 'Very wise, ma petite; you may be right. Asher was always a weapon to be aimed at someone, or something, by our mistress, Belle Morte. I began as a mere weapon in her arsenal, but I learned to ask more questions and find more answers. Asher was content to follow her plans and then mine.'

'Yeah, he's not a planner,' I said.

'I fear not,' Jean-Claude said.

'He's powerful enough to be master of his own territory, Jean-Claude, but he doesn't have the temperament for it.'

'He's never going to,' I said.

We looked at each other, just a look, but it was enough. 'Either I have to allow Dulcia to kill him for the insult, or I must order him home to us.'

I shook my head. 'We can't let her kill him.'

'How long ago did he fuck up this badly?'

'So he was well behaved for almost five months, and then suddenly he starts trying to commit suicide by werehyena?'

'We originally exiled him for a month, then stretched it to three, because you said he was making a diplomatic success of it.'

'He was, and none of us believed he had learned to value home and his loved ones, so I decided to keep him there for a bit longer.'

'I remember, you were thinking of bringing him home for at least a visit at the six-month mark. You, all of us, hoped that six months away would make him value what he had here with us, and maybe even make him want to try therapy for his jealousy issues and the violent temper that goes with it.'

'All that is very true, ma petite.'

'But he didn't know that he only had another month to behave himself and we'd call him home,' I said.

'So when five months of good behavior didn't get him what he wanted, he decided to act out like some kind of stupid teenager.'

'There is a part of him that will always be a foolish child. I do not know why, but he has always been so.'

'If he can't get attention for being good, he'll get attention for being bad,' I said.

'Very, very true, ma petite.'

'So, Asher hasn't learned a damned thing, and now if we bring him home the bad behavior does get rewarded. Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated, Jean-Claude.'

'What would you have me do, ma petite? You say you will not allow Dulcia to kill him for the insult. After he has harmed all the good diplomatic work that Micah did with Dulcia's group, I do not believe that our leopard king will allow Asher to simply be moved to another city.'

'Moving the problem around doesn't fix it, Jean-Claude.'

'No, no, it does not.' He leaned against the wall and rubbed his fingers on his temples, as if he were getting a headache. I don't think I'd ever seen him make that gesture or known him to have a headache.

'No,' he said, 'no, I am not. If I did not love Asher, then we could simply let his own actions seal his fate, because in his present mood he will keep pushing until someone pushes back.'

'How do we push back?' I asked.

'I do not know. I wish I did not love him.'

He looked at me then. 'You do not love him as you love me, or Micah, or Nathaniel. I'm not even certain you care for him as you care for Nicky, or Cynric. What is he to you, ma petite?'

'I do love Asher, but I know that some of my deeper feelings for him are a reflection of you and how much you love him, so I honestly can't always tell where my emotions stop and yours start when it comes to him.'

'I am sorry for that. I would not have you tormented by mon chardonneret. One of us so bewitched and bothered is enough.'

'He's not my goldfinch; that's your pet name for him. He tried to get me to call him master in the bedroom like Nathaniel does, but you're the only person on this planet that I'll call master, and even then only if you need me to do it for vampire politics.'

'Did he truly believe you would call him master, simply because he dominated you in the bedroom and dungeon?'

'Maybe, or maybe it was just Asher testing his limits, seeing how far he could push me.'

Jean-Claude nodded. 'That is very him, unfortunately. He must always see how far he can push a relationship. It is a sign of insecurity and of his perverse nature.'

'Like you said, unfortunately.'

We stood there in silence for a minute, and then I said, 'We know all this bad stuff about Asher. He's just confirmed that he's learned nothing in exile, and he'll still be a shit when he comes home.'

'Yes,' Jean-Claude said.

'So why are we even talking about letting him come back to St Louis?'

'Because if we do not get him out of Dulcia's territory she will eventually kill him, because he will keep pushing at her until she breaks or we call him home.'

'Does Asher understand that if she breaks, she'll kill him and worry about the power fallout later?'

'Dulcia fears us, ma petite. She fears making an enemy of the first vampire king of America.'

'Does she fear us enough to keep eating Asher's insults?'

'I do not know her well enough to answer that question, but I do know Asher. He is relentless once he decides to be cruel, and he has a true talent for finding that which will alienate, humiliate, or terrify someone.'

'I have a few memories from you, just glimpses of Asher raping people as entertainment for Belle's court.'

'I was forced to help in some of those entertainments, ma petite, or risk taking the place of the prisoner. I chose to be the predator to escape being the victim.'

'Asher didn't have to be threatened to do it, though, did he?' I asked.

'He delighted in cruelty once. He is better than that now, but the part of him that enjoys giving pain and fear is still inside him. He has found tame avenues for his interests in the bedroom and the bondage and submission games. He understands now that he must play safe, sane, and consensual here with us.'

'Do you think part of him misses getting to do some of it for real?' I asked.

'How can you ask that about someone that you love?'

'The only part of love that is blind is that first rush of endorphins and craziness; after that wears off, no one knows you as honestly, warts and all, as the people who love you, truly love you.'

'I have found many people over the centuries who stay blind to the faults of their lovers.'

'True love means you love the real person, not an ideal that you have in your head and superimpose over them. That's illusion and lies to me.'

'But if the lovers are happy in their illusion and lies, what then, ma petite? Does it cease to be true love because lies are necessary for it to continue?'

He looked at me, surprised and not trying to hide it. 'Some mystery is needed for love to survive, ma petite. If we knew everything about each other, surely the burden of our crimes, or doubts, would destroy us.'

'We know Asher is a perverse, cruel, sadistic bastard, but we still love him.'

'I do not think I would like you to list my faults so clearly. I think it would pain me to know you see me so clearly and so harshly.'

I smiled at him. 'You have faults, and so do I, but your good points outnumber your bad by a lot. We can't say the same for Asher.'

'He is beautiful,' Jean-Claude said.

'Very,' I said, 'and an amazing top in the dungeon. Since he was my first, I didn't really understand how hard it is to find someone who enjoys being as edgy as I like for bondage, and there's no one else sane that comes close to Nathaniel's needs in the area.'

'Our kitten can be quite frightening in his needs.'

'And that's it; it frightens you and me, we don't enjoy topping Nathaniel to a point that satisfies him, but Asher does. In fact, I'm not sure I entirely trust the two of them alone without extra rules from me or you.'

'I believe it is that edge of danger that delights them both with each other,' Jean-Claude said.

'So he is beautiful and good in the dungeon, but that is hardly virtue enough to offset his vices.'

'True, but he's also a fabulous lover even without the BDSM,' I said.

Jean-Claude looked away as if he had to control his face for a moment before he turned back to me. 'Yes.' It was one word, but it was enough. There was almost pain in his yes.

'You think it's a bad idea to bring him home,' I said.

'Don't you?' he asked.

We stood there looking at each other. I finally said, 'Yeah, I do.'

'Logic would dictate that we leave Asher to his fate,' Jean-Claude said.

'You mean let Dulcia kill him?'

He gave a small nod. His face was very careful as he looked at me. He showed nothing, but the very lack of emotion spoke volumes.

'You're leaving the decision up to me, aren't you?' I asked.

'I have been in thrall to his beauty and his cruelty for centuries, ma petite. I cannot rule him as he needs.'

'I can't let someone else kill him.'

His eyes widened fractionally. 'I do not like that phrasing, ma petite.'

'Me either, but when he hit Cynric hard enough to knock him out I thought he'd broken his neck, and damage to the spine can act like decapitation for both vampires and wereanimals. If he had killed Cynric even by accident I would have shot him, Jean-Claude. I would have shot him and I wouldn't have shot to wound.'

'That you are strong enough to do it, I have no doubt, but that you could live with it afterward, that I do doubt.'

'I've been thinking about that since Asher left. I know I would have done it. I know that he could still push me far enough that I would do it, but I think it would break something in me that wouldn't heal. Hell, shooting Ares - knowing that I had brought him into harm's way. I practically fed him to the big bad vampire, and then I killed Ares. I loved, but I wasn't in love with Haven, but it killed a part of me to look down the barrel of a gun and shoot him.'

Jean-Claude moved toward me, but I waved him off. 'No, just no,' I said.

'What can I do, ma petite?' he asked.

'You've just told me that you believe Asher will need killing and that you can't do it. You've just told me that it's my job, if it has to be done.'

'You do not have to do it either. We can let him behave badly and simply let him be a weakness for both of us. I cannot fault you for being no stronger in the face of his cruel beauty than I myself.'

I shook my head. 'You bastard, you know I can't do that.'

'Being who you are, no,' he said, softly.

'What are we saying then, Jean-Claude?'

'Our wise leopard king says we should bring him home, because too many of us miss him.'

'He didn't just say that,' I said.

Jean-Claude smiled. 'No, he said that we either let Dulcia kill him, or we get him the hell out of her territory so he can try to salvage the goodwill he had built up with her and her hyena clan.'

'Nathaniel misses him terribly.'

'As does our Devil,' Jean-Claude said.

'Even Richard misses having someone to dominate in the bedroom. It gives him somewhere for his darkness to be aimed. He's been more moody without Asher to play with and abuse.'

'Mon lupe is surprisingly talented as a dominant.'

'He's trying to embrace all of himself, and part of him really enjoys tormenting Asher with both floggers and whips and sexual denial. Asher loves being the first guy on to deflower a heterosexual man, and Richard enjoys flaunting himself with Asher and never letting Asher touch him.'

'They do seem to fill a need in each other, as does Asher for Nathaniel, and you, ma petite.'

'And Narcissus, our own hyena leader, pines for Asher.'

'So he fills needs that no one else fills for a lot of us,' I said.

'It would seem so,' Jean-Claude said.

'I wish we didn't love him.'

'I have wished that off and on for centuries.'

'I bet. Asher is just so ... damaged, and he won't go to therapy and work on his issues.'

'Therapy will be part of the price for his return,' Jean-Claude said.

'We can make him go sit in the therapist's office, Jean-Claude, but we can't actually force him to do the therapy.'

'That is true,' he said.

'The fact that I want him home, too, means that you aren't the only one who has a weakness for him.'

'Love is both a great strength, ma petite, and a great weakness, which depends on the day, the hour, the moment.'

I went to him, and he met me in the middle of the room. We hugged, but I kept watching his face. 'We bring him home because we're not strong enough to tell him to bugger off, is that it?'

He smiled. 'Something like that.'

'Ain't love grand?' I said.

'Yes,' he said, as he bent to kiss me. 'Yes, whatever it may hold of pleasure, or pain, or even grief, I would not trade it for its absence.'

We kissed, because we needed to feel the touch of each other, to reassure ourselves that we weren't being damned fools about Asher, or at least if we were being fools, we were in it together. Sometimes love isn't about being smart. Sometimes it's about being stupid together. I hated those moments, but I'd grown to understand that love, real love, is full of choices that make no sense, that should go horribly wrong, but you make the choice anyway. Why? Because love is about hope; you hope that this time it will be different. Sometimes it is - Jean-Claude and I were proof of that - but sometimes it isn't, and Richard and the three of us were proof of that.

Faint heart never won fair lady; I guess the same goes for winning the fair lad. Here's hoping.