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

Gonzales drove Beatrice home with promises from the police left in the hallway that they'd call at the first sign of any change. She kissed Micah and me good-bye and left without apologizing for having fallen apart. I'd have felt compelled to apologize, but that was me. Socrates took Domino back to the hotel, where he could release his inner tiger in peace and without getting shot by the police. Socrates also wanted to be farther away from me and my newfound inner hyena. He actually said, 'You have a tendency to find your animal to call pretty quickly, and that's not what we are to each other.'

'That's not what I am to any of the hyenas,' I said.

'Then I'd stay clear of us for a while,' he said.

I persuaded Micah to come to the cafeteria with us. Nicky came with us, of course, but so did Micah's remaining bodyguard, Bram. He was still six feet of tall, dark, handsome, overly stern muscle, though he was built lean and not bulked the way Nicky was. Bram and Ares had been like light and dark copies of each other in so many ways. It was the first time I'd seen Bram since I'd had to shoot his favorite coworker and good friend. I wasn't sure what to say to him or if I was supposed to say anything. When in doubt on personal stuff I did my usual: nothing. If Bram brought it up I'd deal, but if he didn't I'd let it go until I could decide if and how to handle it.

Nicky went in front of us, Bram trailed behind, and Micah and I walked in the middle holding hands. He knew to hold my left hand so my gun hand was free. It was routine for me most of the time, but especially so when on the job and armed to the teeth for vampire hunting. It was nice that Micah remembered even under such emotional duress without my having to remind him. I loved him a lot for many reasons, but one of the biggest was his calm acceptance of this part of my life. Of course, knowing his dad had been a police officer the entire time Micah was growing up helped explain why he was okay with it.

We chose a table that put us in a corner so we had two walls at our backs and a line of sight through damn near every part of the cafeteria. Bram and Nicky moved to a table beside ours, automatically, like bodyguards do when they're trying to give you some privacy and still keep you safe.

It was a little weird for Nicky to go back into bodyguard mode and act as if he and Bram were the same to Micah and me. Nicky lived with us, traveling back and forth from the Circus of the Damned to the house in Jefferson County. He was the person most likely to be by my side when I wasn't with Micah, Nathaniel, or Jean-Claude. It seemed like it should make a difference, but I did want alone time with Micah. We needed to have a serious talk, maybe several serious talks, but first he needed food and water, or maybe coffee.

We turned our chairs so that we could both have our backs to the wall and sit with our legs lightly touching. He kept hold of my hand and laid his forehead on my shoulder. Again, it would have been a bit more romantic without the body armor, but I was on the job and had an active warrant, plus last time I'd been in the hospital I'd needed the vest.

I stroked the braid of his hair. It was in a tight French braid, which I knew Nathaniel had done before he left for the hotel. Neither Micah nor I could French-braid worth a damn, let alone our own hair. It wasn't as fun to pet his hair in the braid, but I knew that it would stay out of his face and just be overall easier to deal with than almost any other hairdo.

He raised his face and I was suddenly looking into those amazing eyes of his from inches away. They were green and gold, but that didn't do them justice. There was a ring of green around the pupils and yellow outside that. The amount of each color varied as the pupil expanded or contracted, and in dim light the green could look almost gray, but right at that moment the green was the paleness of new spring leaves, and the yellow the gold of elm leaves in the fall, as if he held both the newness of the year and the end of it in his eyes. The color was more startling because his skin had those darker undertones; when he had his dark summer tan the eyes were even more amazing. He'd tanned as dark as Richard Zeeman, our Ulfric, Wolf King, but his family did have Native American in their background. I'd asked Micah if his family had Native American, or Hispanic blood, like me, in their background and he'd simply said no. It was interesting that it had never occurred to him to explain his own mixed heritage. Either he never thought about it like that, or he'd assumed it wouldn't matter to any of us.

'I don't know how to do this, Anita,' he said, at last.

'Regain my dad after all these years and lose him at the same time.'

That was Micah, straight at it, no hesitation, no prevarication, just hit right between the eyes, and then I realized it wasn't him at all. He'd been keeping something really big from me for most of the three years we'd been together.

'What's wrong? I just watched some thought go across your face,' he said.

'Everything that's happened since we landed here, and you're asking what's wrong,' I said, and did my best to smile.

He smiled back. 'Okay, you have a point, so you're telling me I'm imagining you thought of something just now.'

I sighed. I realized that I'd decided not to confront him about the dominance fights out of town until we got through this visit and back home. I didn't want to hit him while he was down, and the pain in his eyes when he came out of his father's room, that was down. But I'd waited too long; I could lie, but seldom to Micah. The fact that he'd managed to keep such a big secret from me for so long made me wonder if there were other secrets. I hadn't liked thinking it, and I really hated the thought of this conversation now when he was so low.

'I love you,' I said.

'I love you, too, but that sounded like a preamble to something bad,' he said.

'You know me too well,' I said.

'We're engaged; shouldn't we know each other well?'

I smiled. 'Fair enough, and I admit I was all ready to have a serious talk about something totally unrelated to your family, or the case here, but then I saw you, and ...'

'And I completely fell apart,' he finished for me.

'I didn't say that; I think you're doing pretty damn well under the circumstances.'

He smiled. 'What did you want to talk about?'

'It has the potential for being a really big fight, Micah. Let's not do this now.'

'Something that big and you can honestly wait to discuss it?' he asked.

I nodded. 'I'm a little surprised myself, but yeah, I can wait.'

He put his head to one side and looked at me. 'Will I think it's a good idea to wait?'

'Yeah, I think you will,' I said.

He narrowed his eyes at me. 'Would you understand if I said you're being way too reasonable, and it's actually making me nervous?'

I laughed. 'Yeah, actually I would.'

He smiled, and this time it was brighter, more his usual smile. 'Tell me, Anita, because now I'm convinced that it's something about what my dad told us about Van Cleef and the pseudomilitary stuff.'

'It may not be pseudo, but it's not about that.'

'You know you have to tell me now, because I'll be thinking of the worst things.'

It was my turn to put my head against his shoulder. 'I'm trying to be reasonable, Micah; let me do it. Let me be the grown-up for once.'

He touched my hair, lifted my face so we were looking at each other. 'Now you're scaring me.'

'Damn it, we are both relentless in our own way,' I said.

'Yes, we are; it's one of the things I loved about you from the beginning.'

I held his hands, looked him in the eyes. I was afraid of this talk, because if he could keep this from me, then he was capable of keeping other things, big things, things that could blow us up as a couple. I realized I was afraid to have the talk, and afraid not to, which made no sense at all.

'And I loved that you loved that about me, because I'd had so many men who had hated it.'

'Then whatever it is, we can get through it, Anita. We both value too much about each other to let anything spoil everything.'

Sitting there holding his hands, looking at him, I believed him, but ... I'd always believed him and now I felt like he'd lied to me, but ... Oh, fuck it.

'Okay, here goes. Are you really fighting the leaders of the other animal groups to force them to join our Coalition?'

'Sometimes.' He said it as if it were nothing, ordinary, like Of course.

I tried to take my hands back, but he held on. 'Why are you angry?'

'Why am I angry? For the love of God, Micah, you've been going out of town and having battles to the death and you didn't think I needed to know that?'

'Lower your voice,' he said.

I wanted to yell louder, but he was right; I'd just said he was committing murder according to human law. I lowered my voice and leaned in closer, but my voice was still angry, just softer, like angry whispering.

'How could you keep that from me?'

His face closed down, his own temper showing. He didn't get mad often, but when he did it could be as bad as mine. This was going to go so badly.

'I didn't keep anything from you. I just didn't tell you.'

'That's the same thing, it's just words to cover it up,' I said.

He let go of my hands and said, 'Do you tell me every time you risk your life as a U.S. Marshal?'

'No, but that's different.'

I wanted to say, It just is, but that wasn't an answer. I opened my mouth to explain the difference and stopped. I frowned at him. 'I see it as different, very different.'

'Why is it any different? They're both our jobs, and both our jobs can be dangerous.'

'But I didn't know your job was dangerous,' I said.

He studied my face. 'What did you think we were doing to get all the other groups on board with the Coalition?'

'I thought you were persuading them. I thought you were using diplomacy, logic that it just made sense to join.'

'I do most of the time, but you've been around enough shapeshifters, Anita. You know that some animal groups aren't about logic or being reasonable.'

'If I'd thought about it, I guess I would have assumed that some of the bodyguards did the one-on-one combat for you the way that most of the Clan tiger queens have a champion.'

'I'm not a weretiger, Anita. You brought all of them on board when you were able to call all of them to us.'

'Magic and sex won us the weretigers,' I said.

'What won us the rest?' I asked softly.

'You know that I sleep with some of the female dominants.'

I nodded. 'You share me with enough people, I can't bitch.'

He smiled. 'You mean you don't have room to bitch, but you still could,' he said.

I shrugged. 'It would be stupid and unfair if I complained.'

He smiled wider and touched my face, gently. 'A lot of women, and men, are really unfair to their other half, Anita. You have a reputation for being unreasonable and violent, but you're one of the most practical women I've ever been with.'

'And you're the most practical man I've ever been with,' I said.

'Most people wouldn't think that was very romantic,' he said.

I smiled. 'A little ruthless practicality is very important in our lives.'

'Yes,' he said, 'it is.'

'When you can pick a champion, do you?' I asked.

Then I realized that he was taking people who were my friends, or more, and I thought about them being in danger. Fuck.

'What now?' he asked.

This time I just answered the question. 'I just realized that means that anyone who travels out of town with you is maybe in as much danger as you are. I should have known that.'

'You mean I should have told you, or you should have known?'

'Both, maybe, I don't know, but, Micah, you're my size; most animal groups are led by the biggest, baddest motherfucker they've got. How have you been winning so many fights? I've seen you in practice and you're good, but you're like me; we just don't have the reach. Most taller people have longer arms and legs; they can just hit us before we can hit them, unless we're lucky, or they aren't good at fighting, but to fight your way to the top of a pack, or a pride, you have to be good.'

'Usually, I do something utterly ruthless and very abrupt before they're expecting it. Leopards are fast, faster than most lions, or tigers; I just have to make the first blow count.'

'You mean kill them with the first blow,' I said softly.

'Yes,' he said, and studied my face. 'Does that bother you?'

I thought about the fact that he had been killing people fairly casually for years and I hadn't known. I didn't like that part, but I knew without a doubt that if he hadn't killed them, they would have killed him. I wanted him alive and in my life more than I wanted some humane ideal of the world.

'No, I don't think it does. If anything bothers me it's the fact that we're heading into their territories and forcing ourselves on them.'

'It started with invitations from groups that wanted to hear about the Coalition. They wanted to join, and then we had a few groups that attacked the ones that had joined us, because one of the things they agree to do is not to make war. We're trying to make a no-war rule that sticks like the Vampire Council did with the vampires, but lycanthropes don't have centuries of obeying a central government. Some of them want to keep their independence or simply think that werelions are better than werewolves, so they don't want to be in a mixed animal group, which is the whole idea of the Coalition.'

'Lions are the most aggressive. I'm assuming that you were able to persuade a lot of the hyena groups through sex since they're matriarchal.'

He grinned. 'Most of them, but honestly some of the animal groups prefer their own animal, so sometimes the guards help. I don't always like sex as rough as the hyenas do, or the lions for that matter. Some of the guards are happy to help out.'

'I'll bet they are,' I said.

He smiled. 'And if the leader has a reputation for being a very good and very ruthless fighter, then sometimes I kill lesser dominants in the group for insulting me; by most group rules, being disrespectful to a visiting leader can either start a war or I'm within my rights to do it. Watching me use the claws like switchblades unnerves other shapeshifters, and knowing I'm willing to kill over something small makes them afraid of what I'll do in an official fight.'

'I know that a lot of alphas can partially change their hands to claws, but yours are more like switchblades, neat and clean, and you might miss it if you blink. You are the best I've ever seen at it.'

'Thank you, I do my best.'

'But you scare the leaders into negotiating instead of fighting,' I said.

'It doesn't scare them, Anita, or not like you mean. Our culture is different from straight human culture; we value aggression and ruthlessness to a degree that most humans don't. It's not just that I'm willing to kill to get them to do what I want, it's that if they join with us they now know that I'll do whatever it takes to protect them.'

'You said you do use champions when you can; who usually?' I asked.

'Bram and ... Ares did it when they could.'

'You won't have Ares to help you fight now,' I said, and my chest felt tight. I wasn't sure if it was mourning Ares, or the thought that I'd also killed someone who was keeping Micah safe in more ways than I'd known. I felt stupid and slow and like they'd all been keeping secrets from me.

Micah took my hands again. 'Don't do that to yourself, Anita.'

'Don't beat yourself up about Ares. You did what you had to do.'

I nodded. 'If I had to do it over again, the only difference would be I'd shoot him when he first asked me to, before he shifted forms. If I'd done that the other cops would be alive and unhurt.'

He squeezed my hands and pulled me toward him, as he leaned over in his chair. He kissed me, and tried for it to be more than just lips, but I pulled back. He frowned at me.

'What's wrong? I thought we weren't going to fight.'

'I had a breath mint, but I threw up in the bathroom here. I think before we tongue-kiss you might want me to brush my teeth.'

He laughed and pulled me into a hug. 'God, I love you so much.'

It made me laugh, too. 'I love you more,' I said.

He pulled back enough to see my face. 'They sell toothbrushes in the gift shop.'

'Are you saying you want to kiss me more?'

'I want to kiss you as thoroughly as possible before you have to go back to work.'

I grinned. 'Okay, but first you need to eat and get some water in you.'

He frowned. 'How did you know I hadn't eaten?'

'Because your mother hadn't, and I think you're both neglecting the basics?'

The smile faded around the edges. 'I don't know what she and Ty are going to do without Dad. I keep thinking what I'd do if something happened to Nathaniel.'

I hugged him to me, putting my face against the braid that our other boy had done for him, and I realized that I was mad at him for not sharing information, but I had some serious info I hadn't shared yet. 'You know how you said that if you could you'd marry us both?'

I felt him nod, still cuddled into the hug.

'Jean-Claude proposed.'

He drew back, so he could see my face. He looked startled. 'When?'

'What did you say?' he asked.

His face went very still, very careful. 'That's wonderful.'

I frowned at him. 'I know there's a lot to figure out, but if anyone can do it we can.'

He nodded. 'Of course you can.'

I frowned harder. 'Micah, you do understand that he and I talked about a group ceremony, not just Jean-Claude and me.'

'He is our master, Anita; even if there weren't Nathaniel he would never let you marry someone else.'

'I don't know who I'll legally marry, only one's allowed, but he and I talked about a lot of things. Does everyone get a wedding ring? I asked if everybody gets an engagement ring.'

He looked at me with a strange, uncertain smile on his face. 'What did Jean-Claude say?'

'That he didn't know the answers to my very reasonable questions but that I didn't just tell him no was more than he'd hoped for and that we'd figure it out.'

'Really, he said that?'

'He said that if he'd dreamt I'd have said yes, he'd have conspired with the other men in my life and made it the most romantic night of my life, and swept me off my feet.'

His smile was happier then. 'I can hear him saying that.'

'I asked him who would be part of the group, and beyond you and Nathaniel we aren't sure of anyone else, but we're not sure they aren't either.'

I sighed. 'I'm worried what Asher would do if he's not included.'

'I am not marrying Asher,' Micah said.

I laughed. 'I know, me either, but Jean-Claude may feel differently. I don't know yet. I haven't had a lot of time to think about it.'

Then I realized I might need to say something else. 'When I had to leave Nicky down in the basement and I didn't know what would happen to him, I told him I loved him.'

Micah nodded. 'Nathaniel and I wondered how long it would take you to figure that out.'

I frowned at him. 'Did everyone know before me?' I asked.

'Everyone but Nicky, and Cynric maybe.'

That made my shoulders slump a little. 'I'm not sure how Cynric will take the group marriage thing.'

'If he's included, he'll be fine.'

I stared at Micah. 'You are joking, right?'

'Why, because he's young?'

'No, I mean, yes, I mean ... Do you really want to be married to Cynric?'

'The only two people I want to be married to are you and Nathaniel.'

'But you'll marry Jean-Claude; why?'

'Because he's our master and you're his human servant and he introduces me as Our Micah.'

'How do you feel about that, by the way?' I asked.

'I'm not a fan, but he has to do something for the other vampires to make them not feel like you're cuckolding him with the rest of us. Prestige is very important with the vampires and the lycanthropes. He has to come first for you, or it would damage his power structure, our power structure that we've all worked so hard to build.'

'Is that why you don't mind the other vampires assuming that you're Jean-Claude's lover?'

He nodded. 'I'm secure, and besides, I am in love with Nathaniel. It's not like I'm all freaked out about being with another man.'

I leaned back so that we didn't have our arms around each other. Micah kept my left hand in his, but we sat and looked at each other. We were both being cautious suddenly.

'So, you, Nathaniel, Jean-Claude, and me, and ... who else?'

'I don't know,' he said.

'Are you in love with anyone else?'

'No, are you?' he asked.

'Nicky, and I love Cynric, but I'm not in love with him. I love Asher, but I'm not in love with him, and since he may force me to kill him someday I'd rather not be.'

He squeezed my hand. 'I know we're bringing him home before he ruins everything with the local werehyenas there, but I agree that he may force us to kill him.'

I nodded and felt inexplicably sad. 'Shouldn't getting married be happy and not so complicated?'

He laughed. 'We're talking about at least four of us in a group marriage and maybe more, Anita; that's complicated.'

I rolled my eyes and sighed. 'Okay, okay, I didn't mean that part.'

He laughed again and then said, 'One other thought. If we are doing this, then you need to tell Richard, or Jean-Claude does, before he hears it from somewhere else.'

I hung my head. 'Damn it, he's an ex.'

'An ex who you still have sex with occasionally, and who Asher lets top him in the dungeon, and who Jean-Claude and you, and sometimes Asher, all have sex with.'

'He doesn't have sex with the men.'

'You mean he doesn't have genital contact with them.'

I looked at him. 'Wow, that is what I meant, but that just ... that was blunt of you.'

He smiled. 'I think if we're going to do this for real, we'll need to be blunt.'

'I'd love to argue with you, but I think I'd just sound stupid, so I'll pass.'

'I'll be honest: I'd love to marry you legally and have Nathaniel be a part of the ceremony like husband one and husband two, but Jean-Claude has to be a part of it, and probably the legal part.'

'First, his ego won't let it be anyone else. He's reasonable, ruthlessly practically, but like all the old vampires he's also arrogant. He's the first vampire king of America, and you are his queen.'

'I'm your queen, too.'

'Yes, but the shapeshifters are used to taking second place to the vampires in the power structure. They'll think it's normal that the legal spouse is Jean-Claude. The vampires have made peace with the thought that Jean-Claude looks the other way because he gets to sleep with all of us, too. They're a lot happier now that Envy has become one of Jean-Claude's regular lovers.'

'I can't sleep with everybody every night, and he does really prefer women to men, unless it's Asher.'

'He'd totally do Richard if our Ulfric would be okay with it,' Micah said.

'Not happening,' I said.

'You said once that you thought you'd have to sleep with Jean-Claude to be my leopard king, and you were relieved to find out it wasn't true, but you would have done it.'

'I would have done anything to save my people from Chimera, and Jean-Claude is not a fate worse than death,' he said, and smiled.

'No, no, he's not,' I said, and smiled back.

'I think I can eat something now,' Micah said.

'Good, I'll try some soup.'

'The lycanthropy keeps any of us from catching viruses, so you can't be sick.'

I didn't want to tell him it was the smell of his father's sickness that had reminded me of the smell of rotting corpses, so I said, 'I think something at lunch didn't agree with me.'

He accepted that, and for all I knew it might be true. We got food, and I started to get coffee, but the smell made my stomach roll again. I got water and soup. I also texted Edward to see if how he was feeling, because if there had been something wrong with the food then he'd be hit worse, because he didn't have the lycanthropy helping him stay healthy.

Edward was fine. I ate half my soup and was so done. I'd told Micah that I wanted to question Little Henry. Micah rushed his food so he could go back up with me and back up to his dad. Though we did stop off at the gift shop and get me a little travel toothbrush set. I did a quick oral cleanup in the bathroom and when Micah kissed me good-bye it was as thorough a kiss as you would ever want to do in public view of a hallway full of cops.

They gave us both good-natured ribbing about it. 'Get a room, Blake.' 'Another Callahan ladies' man, it figures.' The cops couldn't seem to decide which of us was the coworker to be teased and which of us was the 'girl.'

He and Bram went back into his father's room. Nicky and I went in search of Henry Crawford's doctor. I wanted to know if they'd found any fang marks on him, or any injuries at all. He'd looked unharmed, but that didn't mean he hadn't been; not every kind of harm leaves marks.