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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:54:15

Micah's mom was in the hallway being comforted by Gonzales. She was crying, and for a second I feared the worst. My stomach tightened with dread, but I squared my shoulders and kept walking forward; no retreat, no surrender.

Domino spoke low beside me. 'Who is that?'

I answered, sort of under my breath, 'Micah's mom.'

I glanced up at him but couldn't read his expression with his eyes hidden behind sunglasses. He didn't exactly look happy, though; I hadn't thought about the whole mixed-race thing being an issue for anyone. If anyone was going to have an issue it would be the clan weretigers, but Domino with his own mixed heritage hadn't been my pick for being bothered by it.

Bea's face brightened when she saw me, even through the tears, and I knew just by the relief that it wasn't her 'husband' dead, but something she thought I could help with. I had had people want me to raise their deceased loved ones before, but I thought Beatrice was saner than that.

She hugged me way tighter than I liked and didn't hesitate with having to work around all the weapons. She'd been a cop's wife for a long time; it probably wasn't the first time that she'd had to work around guns for a hug.

I did the only thing I could; I hugged her back, which made her hug me tighter. Talk about being punished for competency, but I ended up more holding her than hugging her. I realized that her legs were weak. I braced and held her up. The moment she felt my strength her legs collapsed. She had me by at least fifty pounds, probably closer to seventy, but lucky for both of us I didn't have a problem supporting her. It was just sort of unexpected.

Nicky asked, 'You need help?'

She hadn't exactly fainted, because she was still holding on, it was more like she was sinking in some emotional water I couldn't see and she'd decided to hold on to me. To her I said, 'Beatrice, Bea, can you hear me?'

Gonzales was there, sort of hovering. 'Bea, you okay?'

She started to sag more, and I said, 'Nicky, help me get her to a chair.' I could support her weight, but a body isn't balanced like a barbell. Bodies are much harder to lift, especially if you don't want to accidentally hurt the person, or they're wearing a dress, like Bea, and you don't want to flash the room, which I didn't.

A chair just suddenly appeared behind her with a uniformed officer holding it. Nicky and Gonzales both tried to help me ease her into it, so that it was too much help and we all got in each other's way. She looked pale, her eyes not focusing.

I touched her face. She was clammy to the touch. 'Bea, can you hear me?'

She blinked at me, gave a small nod, and said, 'Yes.' Her voice was hoarse.

'When did you eat last?'

She couldn't remember.

'How much water have you had?'

She hadn't had any today. Someone went to fetch her water, and another officer went for a candy machine. I knelt on one knee on the floor in front of her and let her hold my hand. I'd have said I was holding hers, but she seemed to need the touch.

We got some water into her, Gonzales holding the cup between sips. A candy bar put some color back into her cheeks. 'I'm sorry,' she said, in a small, hoarse voice.

'You have to take care of yourself better than this, Bea,' I said.

'I just want to spend as much time with them as I can.'

Rush I understood. 'Micah will be back.'

'But the two of them together, I won't get to see that much longer,' and she began to cry.

I patted her hand, and glared up at Gonzales. He gave me a what-did-I-do? look. When Bea seemed well enough to sit safely without falling over, I left the officer with the water by her side and walked Gonzales a little way from her. Nicky and Domino trailed after us.

'How long have you been here with her?' I asked.

'Only a couple of hours,' he said. 'I didn't know she hadn't eaten or drunk something.'

'Has Micah had anything?'

'I don't know, he's in with Rush.'

I turned to the cops in the hallway. 'Guys, really appreciate you being here like this.'

They all made noncommittal gestures of support.

'But can you guys keep checking and making sure the family keeps hydrated and a little food in them?'

They looked at one another. It turned out that most of them had only just cycled back through to hospital duty, so they hadn't known. 'Sorry, Marshal, we'll look after Mrs Callahan better from now on.'

I didn't correct him that it was Mrs Morgan, but part of me wondered if the kids had hyphenated names. Probably not, or the secret would have been out years ago, but all the same they were a unit, a couple that happened to be three instead of two. I had a moment to wonder how Jean-Claude, Micah, Nathaniel, and I would handle a commitment ceremony. For that matter, would Jean-Claude want to involve Asher? Did I want Nicky involved? It all seemed too complicated now, which meant that something about the last few minutes had hit an issue for me. I didn't know exactly what issue had been hit, but it was something, because I was feeling less friendly about the whole idea of commitment anything.

I let the negative emotions sort of wash over me but didn't let them stick. I just let them go. I'd figure out what was bugging me later; right now I wanted to see Micah and make sure he was okay. All right, as okay as he could be under the circumstances. My head was already starting to ache from whatever emotional land mine the last few minutes had hit, but I'd learned that I didn't have to know exactly what was bothering me. I just had to acknowledge the problem, keep moving, and not act on the irrational impulses. Edward had saved me earlier when I would have taken out my issues on Nicky and Dev; now I had to save myself.

I took a few deep breaths, and it was a mistake, because I could smell the sweet-and-sour smell of something rotting, and I knew it was Micah's dad. The smell was almost too close to the smell of the corpses earlier. It was like some awful preview. And just like that, I wasn't okay.

'Bathroom, nearest,' I said.

Gonzales pointed down the hallway. 'Go right.'

I'd have liked to be cool, but I started running, not like running-for-my-life fast, but I really wanted to get to the bathroom before I threw up. Nicky and Domino jogged behind me, and I felt stupid having them trail me. In that moment I just wanted to be alone.

I found the bathroom, slammed into the door to push it open, and ran for a stall. I started throwing up before I got to my knees and had just enough awareness left to keep my hair back with one hand.

I felt someone behind me. 'It's me,' Nicky said. Though for once if the bad guys had wanted to get me, doing it while I was being violently ill was a good moment to choose. Nicky held my hair for me so I could use both hands to prop myself up. Meat does not throw up well. If I'd known it was going to be important, I'd have had the soup, or maybe just coffee, yeah, just coffee would have been great.

I knelt there, my forearms propped on the toilet, head hanging down, while Nicky held my hair in one hand and put the other on my forehead. His hand felt cool, and I knew it wasn't. He ran hotter than human-normal like most lycanthropes. The fact that his hand felt that cool meant that maybe I was sicker than I thought.

'Here are some paper towels; it might help,' Domino said.

I thought he meant Clean up, and was about to protest that I hadn't made a mess, but then Nicky's hand left my forehead and put something cold against the back of my neck. It was a shock to the system, but it felt good. Cool was better.

'Sorry,' I managed to say.

'For what?' Domino asked, but Nicky didn't ask. He knew, partly because he was my Bride, but partly because he understood how much I hated weakness of any kind.

I started fumbling at the toilet paper roll.

Nicky leaned over to help.

'I got it,' I said, and realized I'd snapped at him. 'I'm sorry.' I got some of the paper to finally come off the damn roll and wiped at my mouth.

'Do you want me to leave?'

'No.' I said it automatically and then a tiny part of me wondered if it was true. Hadn't I thought I'd like to be alone just seconds before I came in here?

Nicky let go of my hair and started to move out of the stall.

I reached back and grabbed his pants leg. 'Please,' I said, 'just give me a minute. I didn't mean to snap. I don't want you to go. Thank you for taking care of me.'

'You're saying all the right things, but I can feel what you're actually feeling, remember? You're irritated, angry even.'

'But not at you,' I said, with my hand still wrapped in the loose edge of his jeans. He had to get loose fit a lot, because the muscles of his thighs didn't fit in some of the tight jeans.

'Just because you're not angry at me doesn't mean you won't aim it at me.' There was a tone in his voice that I couldn't quite figure out, but it wasn't a good one.

'Please,' I said again, 'don't let your issues and mine do something bad. I just need to figure out what the hell is going on in my head.'

'Okay,' but he sounded cautious, as if he didn't trust ... me. He was this big, physical guy, tougher and better than most of the guards, physically stronger than I would ever be, but in that moment I realized something I hadn't before. If I had been abusive to him, as my Bride he couldn't have done anything about it. Brides were pretty much helpless to say no to their masters. He even had to keep me happy, because if I was unhappy it made him unhappy. I wondered how close to the dynamics with his mother our relationship was, and then wished I hadn't thought of it. It was all too Freudian and weird. Why was I overthinking this? What the hell was wrong with me? And then I realized, this was what I used to do. I used to overthink relationships and poke them with a stick until they broke, and then I'd be able to say, See, see, I knew it. Fuck, what about this case, the last few minutes, had set me back to such old shitty habits?

I threw the toilet paper in the toilet and flushed away my lunch, and then I let go of Nicky's pants leg and held my hand up to him. I didn't need the help to stand, but it was a way of apologizing and letting him know how much I'd appreciated the help in these last few minutes, how much I appreciated him.

He looked down at me, his face arrogant, unreadable; the one blue eye staring down at me was harsh and unfriendly. I wasn't the only one who'd had old issues hit in the last few minutes.

There was a moment when I thought he wasn't going to relent, and that in a few thoughtless moments we'd ruined something between us. 'Just tell me to take your hand, help you up, and I have to do it.'

'I don't want you to do it because you have to, I want you to do it because you want to.'

A look came over his face; it was almost pained. 'Why do you keep giving me choices, Anita? You don't have to.'

'Maybe that's why,' I said. 'Because I don't have to.'

'That makes no sense,' he said, but he reached down and took my hand. He lifted me to my feet and backed out of the stall at the same time, so that we ended up out in the main part of the bathroom. He just kept staring down at me, as if he couldn't figure out what, or who, I was.

'I feel like I missed something,' Domino said. 'Did you guys just have a fight?'

'Are you all right?' Nicky asked.

'I've never seen you get sick like that,' Domino said.

I shrugged. Nicky and I were still holding hands as if we were both afraid to let go. 'I used to throw up at crime scenes pretty regularly.'

'You keep saying that, but we've never seen you do it before,' Nicky said.

'This wasn't a crime scene,' Domino said. 'What made you sick?'

'I smelled the decomp coming from his father's room and it was too close to last night.'

'The smell didn't bother you last night,' Nicky said.

'Trust me, it did,' I said.

Nicky gave a small smile and squeezed my hand. 'It bothered all of us, but not that much.'

'I have no idea why I got sick just now,' I said.

He drew me in so that our bodies touched. He was back to staring at my face, but it was a different look now, not arrogant or harsh, more like he was thinking about something really hard.

He just shook his head. 'Maybe you need more sleep.'

'Always on a case,' I said.

Domino offered me a breath mint.

'You're carrying breath mints in with your ammo?' I said.

'We're lycanthropes, Anita; sometimes we eat stuff that a human isn't going to want to smell on our breath.'

I took the mint and spoke around it as I rolled it in my mouth. 'But you only eat stuff like that in animal form; once you change back to human it's a different mouth.'

I frowned while I thought about it. 'Yeah, I think so.'

'Just think of it as a precaution,' Domino said.

I squeezed Nicky's hand, then let go so I could go to the sinks and wash my hands. I looked at him in the mirror as I asked, 'Do you have breath mints with you?'

'No, clan tigers are prissy bastards; lions aren't.'

'I suppose lions eat raw meat and then just suck the juices off each other, no mint needed,' Domino said.

Domino rolled his eyes, as if the tougher-than-anyone-else talk was old hat from Nicky. 'I know, I know, only the werehyenas are a tougher society to survive in than the werelions. Weretigers are complete pansies compared to you guys.'

'Not in St Louis they're not,' Nicky said.

'What do you mean?' I asked, as I dried my hands.

'I don't know exactly how Narcissus got to be head of the werehyenas in our city, but he's seriously fucked with their societal norms.'

'How so?' I asked, and started for the door.

'Hyenas aren't tougher to fight than lions, but they are tougher on each other. They'll brutalize each other to a degree that we won't.'

'They brutalize each other,' I said, thinking of some of the 'play' rooms I'd seen at the club Narcissus in Chains. Lycanthropes could heal almost anything that wasn't done with silver, or fire, which meant that if you liked BDSM there were options that humans would never survive.

'I don't mean the bondage stuff. I mean they fight just to fight, and fights that break out at the spur of the moment can totally change their clan structure. Every other animal group has rituals for dominance fights. A fight that gets out of hand doesn't necessarily change anything, because if it's not formal, then the rest of the group can join in and take sides, or in some animal groups an informal fight doesn't count even if it results in a death.'

Nicky opened the bathroom door and checked the hallway automatically before I followed him.

Domino answered. 'I don't know about every animal group, but if someone killed Queen Bibiana in Vegas outside of ritual combat, the challenger would die with her. Her guard, her son, or her husband would see to that.'

I thought about Bibiana, who was as delicate as I was, but all white and ladylike. She was horribly powerful metaphysically, but I hadn't thought about her having to defend herself in ritual combat. 'I can't quite picture her taking on all challengers in one-on-one combat,' I said.

'The White Tiger Clan allows the queen to pick a champion if she is a good enough leader that we don't want to lose her.'

Nicky went a half-step in front of me, and Domino a little behind. We didn't usually do the formal bodyguard stuff when I was carrying my badge. I might have said something, but I actually wanted to ask Domino another question.

'What if the queen wasn't a good leader and the clan didn't support her?'

'Then a vote can be called and if enough of the clan votes no, she has to fight her own battle.'

Nicky glanced back and said, 'Sounds like a way to assassinate a leader without actually doing the job yourself.'

'It's a way to spread the guilt around,' Domino agreed, as if there were nothing wrong with it.

'If you want the leader dead, you have to do it in a one-on-one fight. There are no substitute champions in our culture,' Nicky said.

'Of course, there aren't,' Domino said, 'because werelions are just that awesome.'

Nicky glanced back again, and it wasn't a friendly look. 'This is one of the main problems with the Coalition, Anita. We are different animals, different cultures, with very different rules. It's hard to bring us together when we can't even decide how to elect a leader.'

'Micah adapts to whatever animal group he's visiting,' Domino said.

'I've never gone out of town with Micah before,' Nicky said.

'I don't think he's gone up against any lions yet.'

The phrasing sounded odd to me. We walked around the corner and could see the police outside the room again, but I stopped walking. 'What do you mean, gone up against?'

Domino's face suddenly got as blank as he could make it. He was perfect bodyguard empty, with an edge of angry intimidation around the edges. His energy prickled down my skin, and the fact that he'd lost control of his beast that much meant my question had stressed him.

I turned completely around to face him. Nicky took up his best bodyguard position at my back, but standing so he could see both up and down the hallway; again it was more guarding than I liked them doing around the police work, but I let it go, because I had a bad feeling about why Domino was suddenly nervous.

'I asked you a question, Domino,' I said, voice sort of soft. It wasn't a good softness, though; it was a tone that said I was getting angry.

He looked behind me at the other man.

'Don't look at Nicky; look at me, and answer my question.'

'I'm not your Bride, Anita. I'm just one of your many tigers to call. I'm not even bound that tight to you, because you already had a white tiger when you found me, so you just bound my black half. I don't have to obey you.' He was going all distant and angry on me, which was something he'd done when I first met him, but he'd stopped doing it with me.

'What's to stop me from asking Nicky, then? He has to tell me.'

'He's never traveled with Micah.'

'He can't answer the question, can he?' I asked, staring at his sunglasses, as if I could see his eyes through them, but I'd found that even if I couldn't actually see someone's eyes, staring as if you can through dark glasses unnerves some people.

'No, he can't,' Domino said, and he was arrogant and angry, and his power pushed like heat against my skin.

'There's a reason that Micah never takes Nicky, or Dev, or anyone who couldn't keep a secret from me, isn't there?'

'Don't do this now, Anita, not with Micah's dad and family,' Domino said.

'Don't do what? Find out that you've all been keeping something from me, including Micah?'

Domino's hands started to flex over and over. It wasn't exactly making fists; it was more like a cat will knead with its claws. It's a sign of high anxiety among all the big-cat lycanthropes. Domino knew I understood what it was, and the fact that he was doing it anyway meant either that he was that desperate to calm himself down or that he couldn't help it, which meant he was fighting for control. That scared me, because Domino had excellent control of his beast; if he was that stressed, then the answer to my question was even worse than I'd thought.

'Jesus,' I said, 'Micah's fighting for dominance to bring the groups into the Coalition?'

Domino shook his head, his hands kneading the air, fingers tensed and arched as he fought the growing heat that seemed to shimmer around him. I turned my head to the side and could see the 'heat' rising off him. It was a bad sign.

'Anita, after what happened with Ares, if he loses it in front of the cops, they will shoot him,' Nicky said.

I tried to calm myself down, because I couldn't even think past the thought of how many times Micah went out of town to talk to different groups. No one could win that many fights in a month and have no injuries to show for it, and Micah wasn't big enough, or physical enough ... He was a leader, but not that kind.

'Ease down, Domino,' I said. 'I don't want to lose you because of something stupid.'

He bit his lower lip and shook his head, as if I'd asked him another question.

'I'll let it go, because honestly your reaction just now is answer enough.'

He took a few deep, even breaths and I felt him shove the heat of his beast back in its metaphorical box. I was finally able to shield enough that I'd only felt it as heat and not as a tiger. My own cats hadn't even tried to surface. I was getting better at this. We all were. I just didn't know how much better Micah had gotten at parts of it, like lying to me.

Domino finally spoke in a low, careful voice as if he were fighting to control even that. 'I swear to you that Micah doesn't fight every time he leaves town. Diplomacy and ... softer methods work most of the time.'

'What does softer methods mean?' I asked.

Domino's power spiked like a fever burning against my skin.

'Let it go for now, Anita,' Nicky said. He moved so he was blocking the police's view of Domino.

I counted slowly to ten, though without being able to do the deep breathing that should have gone with it, it wasn't nearly as calming. 'I won't ask you any more questions right now, Domino, I promise.'

I couldn't see around Nicky's body, but I could feel that another wereanimal was coming closer. Their energy breathed along my skin like a breath of hot air. This power stirred my beasts and I 'saw' in my mind's eye my hyena stand up and shake itself like the big dog she resembled. She started trotting down a long, sunlit hallway that was usually shadowed, but the hyena trotted in the light, and tall yellowed grass appeared for her to do a curious sideways lope of a run. She moved so awkwardly compared to the cats, or the wolf, but she was still coming, and if I didn't get control of her the hyena would try to burst out of my body and become real, but I was angry. Anger made everything harder to control. I was angry and afraid, because Micah was my size and no matter how tough you are, when fighters are equally trained, size matters. The thought of Micah going up against someone Nicky's or Dev's size made my skin run cold. The fear seemed to puzzle the hyena because she whimpered and sat down looking at me with those odd brown eyes, such a human color if the pupils hadn't been slitted like a cat's.

'Control yourself,' Nicky said, softly.

I closed my eyes and tried. I fought for calm, fought to find my still center, but Micah was my still center, and he'd been risking his life for years and I hadn't known. I felt stupid. Had I really thought that diplomacy alone had made all those animal groups across the country join our Coalition? Yeah, I had. I'd had faith in Micah's ability to persuade, to lead, to manipulate and bargain. I even knew that he had done all those things. I knew that he had slept with some of the female shapeshifters to seal the deal, or to gain allies who would help persuade the group leaders to our way. That was probably what Domino meant by softer means; Micah had told me about the sex, because he hadn't wanted me to find out from anyone else. But the few times he'd come home injured, or with injured guards, he'd told me it just got out of hand, but in the end they had persuaded them. Had Micah ever come home without the group agreeing to join us, eventually? No, he hadn't.

I was calm again, but it was the calm of water. It's only still until the next breeze touches it. I opened my eyes.

Nicky looked down at me. 'You okay for this?'

He stepped to one side and I was looking at Socrates. His skin was the color of coffee with one cream in it, his tightly curled hair cut tight on the sides and long on top, a lot like Domino's hair, but Socrates' hair was thick enough that it stayed in the nearly square top-layer shape almost like a hedge trimmed into a desired shape. His eyes were brown, but not the brown of the animal sitting inside my head now. Socrates' eyes were perfectly human.

The hyena sniffed the air and made a laughing, cackling sound that raised the hair on my arms. I had a moment to wonder if I'd made the sound out loud with my human mouth and throat, but I didn't think so.

Socrates rubbed his arms underneath his suit jacket. It gave me a glimpse of the gun at his waist. He was an ex-cop who'd been cut up when he helped bust an inner-city gang that had werehyenas for their enforcers. He'd been a hero, they'd cleaned out the gang, but he'd lost his badge and the job he loved.

'When did you gain my beast?' he whispered.

'When a bullet went through Ares and into me,' I said.

'It should take until the next full moon for you to manifest your hyena. That's two more weeks, but I feel it, smell it on you.'

'I'm precocious,' I said.

'You're something, all right,' he said, rubbing his arms again.

'You go out of town with Micah sometimes, don't you?'

'Why ask it like that, Anita? You know I have.'

I looked at him, just looked at him.

He looked past me to Domino. The look was angry, and eloquent, and seemed to be saying, How could you be this stupid? with a slight eyebrow raise and a tiny tilt to his head.

Domino's power flared again. 'I said nothing.'

Socrates' look didn't believe him, and neither did the rest of Socrates.

'Did you really think I'd never figure it out?' I asked.

He looked at me then and said, 'I don't know what you think you've figured out, so I can't speak to it.'

'Don't you lie to me, Socrates, not anymore.'

Gonzales started walking this way. My watching him made Socrates glance back, too. We had the attention of all the cops. I was letting my emotions get in the way of business, oh, hell, in the way of common sense. Cops are a curious lot, especially about anyone they may have to trust their lives to, so us arguing among ourselves wasn't going to reassure any of them.

'Is there a problem, Anita?' he asked.

If I said no, he'd know it was a lie, but ... 'No,' I said, and the no was very firm, very certain. I'd actually made a waitress cry once by saying no. Gonzales didn't cry - he was made of sterner stuff than that - but he understood that it was an absolutely unmovable negative. Sometimes I spoke too forcefully and made waitresses cry by accident, but sometimes it was exactly the amount of force needed to stop people from asking me anything.

Gonzales looked at me, then looked from one to the other of the men. 'Okay, how are you feeling? You looked a little green.'

'Let's just say I'm wishing I'd stuck to something more liquid for lunch.'

He gave a little chuckle, but his eyes stayed wary and he did another glance around at all the men. His gaze came back to me and he showed me those suspicious cop eyes that said clearly I was full of shit and he didn't believe me. Didn't believe what, you might ask? He was a ten-year-plus veteran police officer; he didn't believe a damn thing that anyone told him.

A man called out from down the hallway. 'I thought you were tough, Blake. I hear you just tossed your lunch for no reason whatsoever.' It was Travers come to give moral support to Sheriff Callahan, and to continue to be a pain in my ass.

'What's your problem, Travers?' I asked, and it was a little loud just like his comment had been, because we were at the ends of the hallway from each other.

'You, you and your ... men are my problem.' He was walking toward us.

I moved around Gonzales and started moving to meet Travers.

'Anita,' Socrates said, 'don't ...'

I turned, pointed a finger at him, and just said, 'Don't even.'

Nicky caught up with me. 'What are you going to do?'

I realized that Travers was looking for a fight and so was I. I stopped walking and said, 'Fuck.'

But Travers didn't have any voice of reason with him; he was just this big, angry guy waiting for someone to take the first swing so he could swing back. His body language screamed, Give me an excuse.

'What are you smiling at?' Travers asked.

I realized he was asking Nicky, who turned and looked at him. Travers wasn't a rookie, he should have understood what that look meant, but he bristled, hands going into fists. Nicky planted one foot so he'd be able to pivot into his swing. I took a step ahead of him.

'It's not okay, Nicky,' Travers said, doing a bad and unflattering imitation of me.

'Travers, we are not going to let you use us to pick your fight.'

'They'll fight back, Blake, they can't help it. You kick a dog, it'll bite you.'

'They aren't dogs, Travers, nothing that domesticated.'

'No, not domesticated, pussy-whipped.'

'What is with everyone here and that phrase?' I asked.

Travers was right in front of us now. His hands were still fists; his arms were actually vibrating with anger. He wanted, almost needed, to hit something. 'You always hide behind your girlfriend, Nicky?'

'No,' Nicky said, and his no, like mine, was very firm, very sure of itself, and left no room for anything but the negative. He started to move closer to Travers, but I stepped between them.

I let down some of my shields, not all, not even all the way down, but enough so that when I touched Travers's arm I could draw on his anger. Being able to feed on sex was Jean-Claude's power, but I could also feed on anger and that was my power, my special little talent slice. I'd practiced until I could take the edge off someone's anger, like skimming off the anger, rage-filled cream, leaving bland but healthier milk behind.

I didn't so much feed on his anger, because that could cause confusion and get noticed by the other police. I sort of licked away a little bit of his anger, like taking the cherry off a milkshake.

Travers frowned, and looked lost for a second, and then he jerked back, holding his arm as if it hurt where I'd touched him. 'What did you do to me?'

'Why were you angry at us?' I asked quietly.

He shook his head, rubbing his arm. 'Do me a favor, Blake; next time I'm about to die don't save me, and don't have any of your damn vampires save me either.'

'You'd rather have rotted to death in excruciating pain than had Truth suck the corruption out of you?'

He looked at me, and there was real pain in his eyes. He whispered, 'Yes.' Looking into his eyes from touching distance, I knew he meant it. Something about Truth feeding on him had disturbed him so badly that he had decided dying was preferable.

I don't know what my expression was, but Travers suddenly turned around and walked fast for the elevators. He was still holding his arm.

Gonzales said, 'What did you do to him just now?'

'Just calmed his anger a little, I swear.'

'Do we care what happens to Travers?' Nicky asked.

'Care in what way?' I asked.

'Care if he lives or dies?'

'Truth risked his own life to save Travers, so yeah, alive would be good.'

'Then put him on suicide watch,' Socrates said from behind us.

I turned and looked at him. 'Why?' I asked.

'After I found out that I had lycanthropy and they were giving me a commendation for bravery and taking my badge, I thought about eating my gun. I know that look in someone's eyes.'

I looked at Nicky. 'You know that look, too?' I asked.

'If I hadn't had my brother and sister to keep safe, I'd have done it when I was a kid.'

I knew what 'it' was: suicide. Nicky had just told me he'd thought seriously about suicide when he was a teenager, or hell, maybe younger. I didn't know how old he'd been when the abuse started.

I took his hand in mine and didn't care if the other cops saw. I'd already thrown up for no real reason; they'd take points off for that. If they wanted to take more points off for me holding my lover's hand, let them. In that moment it was more important to reassure Nicky than to be the toughest badge in the room.

Nicky looked down at our clasped hands and smiled. That one smile was worth the teasing I might get for the hand holding.

'Why would your vampire friend saving his life make Travers suicidal?' Gonzales asked.

'I don't know,' Socrates said, 'but something about it spooked him.'

The door to the room opened, and it was Micah. He didn't have dark circles under his eyes; it was more as if the lack of rest had worn away some of the skin underneath his eyes so that he looked hollow-eyed and beyond exhausted. I'd seen him go with less sleep for longer and look a lot better, but sometimes it's not the number of hours, but what those hours hold that wears you down.

I'd been so angry with him just minutes before, but seeing those beautiful green-and-yellow eyes so tired, so discouraged, I just wanted to make it better. I let go of Nicky's hand and went to Micah.

He looked almost surprised, and then as I wrapped my arms around him, held him close, he held me back and buried his face in my hair. His breath shuddered, and then I felt something hot and liquid trailing down my neck. Everything that comes from the body is hot for a second or two, and then it leaves the body, touches the air, and loses its heat. Nothing showed that he was crying; his shoulders did not shake, he was almost utterly still, and with his face buried in my curls no one else could see what I could feel, his tears falling hot along my skin, then growing cooler as they flowed down my neck.

I held him, let his tears paint their salty trail across my skin, and I couldn't be mad at him; the only thing I could do in that moment was hold him. It didn't seem like much, but sometimes when everything else goes to hell, arms to hold you tight is everything.