Page 7

Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:53:52

It was dark when we landed in Colorado, so all I can say is Denver looks like every other city from the air, all lights like electric stars scattered across the ground. We got off the plane to two black SUVs that came with matching vampires and a white SUV that had a very human woman leaning against it. She was built small and delicate like Micah, with curly red hair trailing around her shoulders. I couldn't see the color of her eyes from where I was standing, but I knew the shape of them, because I'd spent too much time looking into Micah's eyes and face. There was a lot of similar bone structure, though the red hair and freckles were a surprise. I'd pictured his family as darker like him. She smiled, pushing away from the truck, in her blue jeans, blue polo shirt, and cowboy boots, which looked too beat-up and used to be a fashion statement.

Micah went to her with a huge smile on his face. He said, 'Juliet.'

They hugged like they meant it, though with that below-the-waist distance that you learn with relatives. Thanks to the nearly four-hour flight, we knew that Juliet was Uncle Steve's daughter, and that Cousin Richie had been Steve's son, but both of them had died in the attack that had turned Micah into a wereleopard. Micah and Richie had both been only eighteen, Richie back from basic and about to ship out to an active-duty post and Micah back from college. They'd come home to have one last deer hunt with their dads, but while they'd been hunting the doe they bagged, something else had been hunting them. Micah's dad had been called away for a suspicious death or he'd have been on the hunt with them.

Nathaniel took my hand. I could feel the tension thrumming down his arm. I turned and looked at him. His face looked neutral but it was a nervous neutral. I fought the urge to lower the mental shields that kept us from getting a direct feed into each other's emotions. We did not need to be drowning in Micah's emotions right now, and once the shields came down, sometimes it was hard to filter strong emotions from anyone I was connected to. It was going to be hard enough to support Micah through the family reunion without actually feeling the emotions with him. So I moved closer to Nathaniel and whispered, 'You don't have to be nervous.'

'Tell me nothing will change between the three of us,' he whispered back.

'Nothing will change between us,' I said, and squeezed his hand. I would have done more comforting, but one of the vampires from the black SUVs walked toward us. Would I have said glided, once? Maybe, but he didn't glide, he walked. For graceful movement I had Jean-Claude, Damian, Wicked and Truth, or Requiem, or hell, lots of vampires in St Louis who made the one moving toward us seem rough in comparison. He was dressed in a black suit and white shirt; even the tie was black. It was Jean-Claude's signature black and white, but somehow it didn't work as well for this guy. Maybe it was the cut of the suit being less tailored or the fact that it was a standard suit that anyone could have worn. Jean-Claude always made sure his clothes were his very personal style. This vampire, with his short black hair and run-of-the-mill clothes, looked like someone had looked down a cast list and said, one generic vampire needed. It was boring compared to what I was used to, but I put a smile on my face. I knew how to smile at clients even when I didn't want to, and this vampire was from the local Master of the City. I could play nice.

I glanced at Nathaniel and found him smiling brilliantly at the vampire. He had his charming game face on. Whatever he was feeling, he put it off his face and down where it didn't show.

'Ms Blake, I presume,' said the vampire, in a voice as bland and unimpressive as his clothes.

I fought the urge to say, Well, I'm not Dr Livingston, but managed to keep the smart-aleck remark to myself. 'Yes, and Mr Graison.'

The vampire looked surprised. 'I'm sorry, our usual protocols don't demand that I acknowledge a pomme de sang or an animal to call.'

Pomme de sang was a term for the person a vampire took blood with regularly, but it was more than that, almost a mistress, though often the relationship was only about sharing blood and not about sex. Nathaniel had started out as that for me, but that had been a few years ago. He was my leopard to call, but ... 'He's our third; that means he's more than just food, or a pet.'

'I'm not familiar with the term third, Ms Blake.'

'The third part of our couple,' I said.

'But we are given to understand that there are a great deal more than just three parts to your romantic life, Ms Blake.'

I wasn't sure what to say to that, except, 'Just because I'm not monogamous doesn't mean those closest to me aren't important to me. Think of Nathaniel and Micah as my spouses.'

He gave a little bow from the neck. 'My apologies, I did not realize you took your lovers so seriously, except for your master, of course.'

'It would be a mistake to assume my priorities by normal vampire protocol,' I said.

'I've angered you,' he said.

'It's okay, Anita,' Nathaniel said.

I shook my head. 'No, it's not.'

'So, you're saying this is personal business for you,' the vampire said.

'You know it is,' I said.

'But yet you are wearing your weapons,' he said.

'I rarely go anywhere unarmed.' I let go of Nathaniel's hand so I could stand facing the vampire more head-on. He'd let me know my concealed carry wasn't concealed from his vampire eyes. Or maybe he'd been guessing and I'd confirmed it for him. Shit, I so didn't want to play my-balls-are-bigger-than-yours while trying to support the men in my life. Had I started this game of mine's-bigger-than-yours? Maybe; I hadn't meant to.

'What's your name?' I asked.

'Great, okay, Alfie.'

'How did you know my master calls me Alfie?'

I'd actually just used the nickname to irritate him and throw him off his game. The fact that I'd accidentally used his real nickname just made it better. I smiled knowingly. 'Look, I appreciate you coming to the airport to meet us. I appreciate Fredrico behaving like a civilized master vampire, but I'm honestly here to support my boyfriend and meet his family. I don't want, or feel the need, to play who's the biggest and the scariest, okay?'

Alfie looked at me, eyes narrowed. 'I have not ...'

'Look, just stop, okay? I'll stop, if you will. You had to make a point of letting me know you'd spotted my weapons. I made a point of knowing your nickname, but I'm not going to have time or energy to play games like this, so let's just behave like normal people. Thanks for coming to pick us up. I didn't realize Micah's cousin was going to be coming, too.'

'Normal people?' The vampire laughed, a short, abrupt, very human laugh. I put his age at under fifty years. If I'd wanted to let my necromancy out of the box, I could have told his age within a year or two, five at the outside, but if I trotted any of my metaphysical abilities out like that, he could take it as an insult. 'Normal people do not have bodyguards. Normal people would not be given royal treatment by my master. You cannot be normal, Anita Blake; you are the Executioner, and now you are the American queen to our new king, Jean-Claude. You are a necromancer and I don't know what else; the list of your powers and titles is too long, and thanks to your request that we not be formal I do not have to list them all, but normal you will never be, Ms Blake.'

It was hard to argue with him, though I wanted to, but at that moment Micah came to us. He'd left Juliet at her truck. 'Is there a problem?' he asked, his voice low so it didn't carry back to his cousin.

'No problem,' I said.

Alfie bowed to Micah and said, 'Mr Callahan, I am sorry to meet you under such trying circumstances. My name is Alfie and my master has put me at your disposal in the evenings.'

I thought it was interesting that Micah and I both got a bow, but Nathaniel hadn't rated one, or any acknowledgment until I made a point of it. No matter how hard they tried, there were going to be vampire politics involved.

'Thank you, Alfie,' Micah said. He turned to me and I knew the look. He was asking me if there was something wrong.

I felt, more than heard, some of our people coming up behind us. The look on Alfie's face as he looked up and past the three of us confirmed that the biggest, baddest-looking people with us were now right behind us. The fact that the vampire couldn't keep his worry off his face made me shave another ten years off his undead age: thirty years dead, tops.

I glanced back to see our remaining bodyguards coming up behind us. Bram and Ares looked like dark and light halves to a whole, both six feet, both built tall and lanky; muscle from the mandatory guard workout showed, but neither one of them bulked up fast. They were built for speed and strength. Both still had that military stamp on them, one that lingers if you were in long enough and haven't been out long enough. Ares' desert tan had mostly faded, though he tanned darker than most blonds I'd met. Bram couldn't really tan any darker, though I'd learned that even very dark African American skin could burn; it just took a lot. Bram had been quietly disdainful when he found out that my black curls and dark brown eyes hadn't come with my mother's Mexican skin tone, but my father's blond German so that I just didn't tan worth a damn. Bram's hair was still cut military short. He complained that the tight curl bugged him when it grew out. Ares had let his dark blond hair grow out a little, enough that a woman could run her hands through it, as he'd said, but it was mostly longer on top and still left his neck in no danger of being touched by hair. They partnered each other a lot on guard duty.

Ares grinned at us. 'How are we supposed to guard your bodies if you keep talking to the bad guys without us?'

'One, they aren't bad guys, they're our hosts. Two, not a danger,' I said.

Nicky said, 'I told you.' He walked toward us, the spread of his shoulders making him look shorter than the other two guards, though he wasn't really. His haircut was actually the thing you noticed after the muscles. His hair was short except for half his bangs, which hung in a long yellow triangle down the right-hand side of his face, covering the eye and halfway down the cheek. He used the hair to hide that the eye on that side was missing. He'd lost it when he was a teenager, years before he became a werelion, or he'd have still had the eye. The one eye that was left was a clear blue.

'You told them what?' I asked.

'That you could handle yourself against anything that was on this side of the hangar,' Bram said, in his clear, strong voice. He didn't talk nearly as much as Ares, but when he did it was usually to the point. Ares would joke and tease, Bram almost never.

'Should I be insulted?' Alfie asked.

Alfie looked from one to the other of us, smiling slightly. 'I don't know what I expected from you, Ms Blake, Mr Callahan, but this easy camaraderie is unexpected.'

'Pleasant, I hope,' Micah said.

'Yes,' the vampire said, 'most illuminating.'

'Illuminating, why illuminating?' I asked.

'To shed light upon something; I thought it was a very appropriate word.'

I would have asked more, but Micah's cousin chose that moment to come up and say, 'Who's riding with me?'

'Juliet, this is Anita and Nathaniel.'

I offered a hand to forgo any thought of hugging. I didn't like hugging people I didn't know, and some families just hugged willy-nilly. Her hand was as small as mine, but more callused to match the working cowboy boots. She took Nathaniel's hand, too, and he wasted a smile on her. She smiled back, but it didn't reach her eyes. They were blue, and the frown between them made them look less the shape of Micah's.

'Aunt Bea said you were Mike's fiancee; is that true, or are you just living together? I ask, because if it's just Aunt Bea's way of dealing with her issues about living in sin, I can help head off some of the wedding talk.'

It made me half-smile and half-laugh. It was blunt and I liked it. 'No wedding plans; can't we just introduce me as his girlfriend?'

'Nope, believe me. I lived with my husband before marriage, and fiancee is the family's nice, hopeful double-talk for living in sin.'

I looked at Micah, and he knew my expressions, too, because he answered the unvoiced question. 'Some of my relatives are religious in a ...' He seemed to fumble for words, and finally settled on, 'It's going to be awkward.'

Juliet laughed and shook her head. 'Awkward. Oh, cousin, how I've missed you. You always were the peacekeeper and the master of understatement. You should be able to come home and see your dad and not worry about this other crap, but you know it never works that way. I'm sorry.'

Micah nodded. 'Me, too.'

I was beginning to get a bad feeling that maybe Micah hadn't gotten back in touch with his family after Chimera's death for more than one reason. He and Nathaniel had moved in at the same time; we had always been a threesome, never just a twosome.

'We can call Anita your fiancee and the family will let it pass, but you can't introduce them together like you just did to me, you know you can't.'

'I could,' Micah said, and there was something in those two quiet words that held way more emotion than it should have.

'Micah should be able to just see his dad and not worry about anything else,' Nathaniel said. 'I can just be a friend.'

'No,' Micah said, and he took Nathaniel's hand in his and shook his head. 'No, you can't just be a friend.'

'Oh, Jesus,' Juliet said, 'you're going to force the issue. You haven't changed; you were always so quiet, the perfect son, until you weren't. You'd get something you believed in and you would never back down, no matter what.' She sighed and shook her head. She looked at Nathaniel. 'It's nothing personal. You have to be a wonderful person for Micah to feel this strongly, but I do not want to be in the shitstorm that is going to happen when he introduces you to our family as his ... what?' She looked at Micah. 'What do you say?'

'Significant other,' Micah said, and his voice was very firm.

Nathaniel said, 'I love that you say that, but honestly, Micah, this has to be about you and your dad. It's just words; I don't want to make this harder on you.'

I saw Micah squeeze his hand and shake his head again. 'It's not just words, Nathaniel, or if it is, words are important, they have meaning and truth to them.' He turned to Juliet still holding Nathaniel's hand. 'I'll let the fiancee stand with Anita, because if we could figure out how to marry as a group, we would, but since we can't do that legally, fiancee and significant other will do.'

Nathaniel looked at him. 'Do you mean that? That if we could marry as a group, you would?'

Micah looked at him. 'Yes.'

Nathaniel threw his arms around Micah, and they hugged. They hugged like they meant it, and I didn't have to see Nathaniel's face to know he was crying. I realized I was, too. Damn. I went to them and wrapped my arms around them both, my two men. And just like that the lines were drawn; Micah wouldn't back down or make Nathaniel mean any less to him, not even to smooth things over with his family. If he could do it, so could we.