Narcissus in Chains (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #10)

Chapter 17

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Chapter 28

TWO HOURS LATER I'd had a shower and Gregory had had a bath, though I'd showered by myself, and Gregory had had company. He still didn't have complete use of his arms and legs. I didn't think that Cherry, Zane, and Nathaniel needed to get naked and in the tub with him, but, hey, I wasn't offering to help, so who was I to complain? Besides, it never became sexual; it was as if the touch of their flesh on his was necessary, part of the healing process. Maybe it was.

I was sitting at my new kitchen table. My old two-seater table just hadn't been roomy enough for all the wereleopards to have bagels and cream cheese at the same time. The new table was pale pine, varnished to a golden glow. There still wasn't enough room at the table for everyone to sit and drink coffee, but it was closer. I'd have needed a banquet table to have that much room, and the kitchen wasn't long enough for it. There was more than one reason that feudal lords had had great big castles–you needed the room just to feed and care for all your people.

The only person sitting in the dimly lit kitchen was Dr. Lillian. Elizabeth had been transported to the secret hospital that the shapeshifters kept in St. Louis. All my other leopards were tending to Gregory. Micah and his cats wandered around the periphery of it all. Caleb had tried to include himself in the bath and had been refused. The rest of Micah's pard seemed unsettled, nervous, not knowing what to do with themselves. I had my priority for the evening–taking care of Gregory. Everything else could wait. One disaster at a time, or you lose your way, and your mind.

Dr. Lillian was a small woman with gray hair cut straight just above her shoulders. Her hair was longer than the first time I met her, but everything else was the same. I'd never seen her wear makeup, and her face still looked pleasant and attractive in a fifty-plus sort of way–though I'd discovered she was actually well over sixty. She certainly didn't look it.

"The drugs are still in his system," Dr. Lillian said.

"Drugs, plural?" I asked.

She nodded. "Our metabolism is so fast that it takes quite a cocktail of chemicals to keep us sedated for any length of time."

"Gregory wasn't sedated. He seemed very much aware of everything that was happening," I said.

"But his heart, his breathing, his involuntary reflexes were all subdued. If you can't access the full effects of an adrenaline rush, you can't change shape."

"Why not?"

Lillian shrugged, taking a small sip of her coffee. "We don't know, but there is something in the extremes of the fight or flight response that opens the way for our beast. If you can deprive a shapeshifter of that response, then you can keep them from shifting."

"Indefinitely?" I asked.

"No, the full moon will bring it on, no matter what drugs you pump into someone."

"How long until Gregory's back to normal?"

Her eyes flicked downward, then up, and I didn't like that she'd needed that second to school her eyes, as if something bad were coming.

"The drugs will probably wear off in about eight hours, maybe more, maybe less. It depends on so many things."

"So he stays here until the drugs wear off, then he shapeshifts and he's fine, right?" I put a lilt at the end, making it a question, because I knew the atmosphere was too serious for it to be that easy.

"I'm afraid not," she said.

"What's wrong, doc, why so solemn?"

She gave a small smile. "In eight hours the damage to Gregory's ears may be permanent."

I blinked at her. "You mean he'll stay deaf?"

"Yes."

"That's not acceptable," I said.

Her smile widened. "You say that as if by sheer will you can change things, Anita. It makes you seem very young."

"Are you telling me that there's nothing we can do to heal him?"

"No, I'm not saying that."

"Please, doc, just tell me."

"If you were truly Nimir-Ra, then you might be able to call his beast out of his flesh and force the change, even with the drugs in his system."

"If someone can tell me how to do it, I'm willing to give it a shot."

"So you believe that you will be Nimir-Ra in truth come full moon?" Lillian asked.

I shrugged and sipped my coffee. "Not a hundred percent sure, no, but the evidence is sort of mounting up."

"How do you feel about that?"

"Being Nimir-Ra for real?" I asked.

She nodded.

"I'm trying really hard not to think too much about it."

"Ignoring it won't make it go away, Anita."

"I know that, but worrying about it won't change things either."

"Very practical of you, if you can pull it off."

"What, not worrying?"

She nodded again.

I shrugged. "I'll worry about each disaster as it happens."

"Can you really compartmentalize to that degree?"

"How do we fix Gregory?"

"I take that as a yes," she said.

I smiled. "Yes."

"As I said, if you were a Nimir-Ra in full power, you might be able to call his beast, even through the drugs."

"But since I haven't shifted yet, I can't?"

"I doubt it. It's a rather specialized skill, even among full shapeshifters."

"Can Rafael do it?"

She smiled, the smile that most of the wererats got when you asked about their king. It was a smile that held warmth and pride. They liked and respected him. Let's hear it for good leadership.

"No."

That surprised me, and it must have shown on my face.

"I told you, it is a rare talent. Your Ulfric can do it."

I looked at her. "You mean Richard?"

"Do you have another Ulfric?" she asked, smiling.

I almost smiled back. "No, but we need someone who can call leopards, right?"

She nodded.

"How about Micah?"

"I've already asked him. Neither he nor Merle can call another's beast. Micah did offer to try and heal Gregory by calling flesh, but the injuries are beyond him."

"When did Micah try and heal Gregory?"

"While you were cleaning up," she said.

"I took a quick shower."

"It didn't take long for him to be certain that Gregory's injuries were above his abilities."

"You wouldn't be belaboring the point if there wasn't some hope."

"I can use other drugs to try and overcome the effects."

"But …" I said.

"But the mix of the drugs could explode his heart or rupture enough blood vessels in other major organs to kill him."

I stared at her for a heartbeat or two. "How bad are the odds?"

"Bad enough that I need his Nimir-Ra's permission before trying."

"Has Gregory given his permission?"

"He's terrified. He wants to be able to hear again. Of course he wants me to try, but I'm not sure he's thinking clearly."

"So you're coming to me like you'd go to a parent for a child," I said.

"I need someone who is thinking clearly to make a decision on Gregory behalf."

"He has a brother." I frowned, because I realized I hadn't seen Stephen at the lupanar. "Where is Stephen?"

"I've been told that the Ulfric ordered Gregory's brother not to attend tonight. Something about it being unfair for him to watch his own brother executed. Vivian has gone to get him."

"My, that was big of Richard."

"You sound bitter."

"Do I?" And that sounded bitter even to me. I sighed. "I'm just frustrated, Lillian. Richard is going to get people I care about slaughtered, not to mention himself."

"Which risks both you and the Master of the City."

I frowned at her. "I guess everyone does know that part."

"I think so," she said.

"Yeah, he's risking us all for his high moral ideals."

"Ideals are worth sacrifice, Anita."

"Maybe, but I'm not a hundred percent sure I've ever held an ideal close enough to trade the people I love for it. Ideals can die, but they don't breathe, they don't bleed, they don't cry."

"So you would trade all your ideals for the people you care about?" she asked.

"I'm not sure I have any ideals anymore."

"You're still Christian, aren't you?"

"My religion isn't an ideal. Ideals are abstract things that you can't touch or see. My religion isn't abstract, it's very 'stract,' very real."

"You can't see God," she said. "You can't hold Him in your hand."

"How many angels can dance on the head of a pin, huh?"

She smiled. "Something like that."

"I've held a cross while it flared so bright it blinded me until all the world was just white fire. I've seen a copy of the Talmud go up in flames in a vampire's hands, and even after the book had burned to ash, the vampire kept burning until it died. I've stood in the presence of a demon and recited holy script, and the demon could not touch me." I shook my head. "Religion isn't an abstract thing, Dr. Lillian, it is a living, breathing, growing, organic thing."

"Organic sounds more Wiccan than Christian," she said.

I shrugged. "I've been studying with a psychic and some of her Wiccan friends for about a year, hard not to soak some of it up."

"Doesn't studying Wicca put you in an awkward position?"

"You mean because I'm a monotheist?"

She nodded.

"I have God-given abilities and not enough training to control those abilities. Most denominations of the church frown on psychics, let alone someone who raises the dead. I need training, so I've found people to train me. The fact that they're not Christian I see as a failing of the church, not a failing of theirs."

"There are Christian witches," she said.

"I've met some of them. They all seem to be zealots, as if they have to be more Christian than anyone else to prove that they're good enough to be Christian at all. I don't like zealots."

"Neither do I," she said.

We looked at each other in the darkened kitchen. She raised her coffee mug. I'd given her the one with a tiny knight and a large dragon that said, "No guts, no glory."

Lillian said, "Down with zealots."

I raised my own mug in the air. It was the baby penguin mug, still a favorite. "Down with zealots."

We drank. She set her mug on the coaster and said, "Do I have your permission to try the drugs on Gregory?"

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then nodded. "If he agrees, do it."

She pushed back from the table and stood. "I'll get everything ready."

I nodded, but stayed sitting. I was praying when I felt someone come into the room. Without opening my eyes, I knew it was Micah.

He waited until I raised my head, opened my eyes. "I didn't mean to interrupt," he said.

"I'm finished," I said.

He nodded and gave that smile of his that was part amusement, part sorrow, and part something else. "You were praying?" He made it a question.

"Yes."

Some trick of the light made his eyes gleam in the dark, like there was a spark of hidden fire down deep in their green gold depths. The illusion lost his eyes and most of his face to shadow and darkness. Only that shimmering gleam remained, as if the color dancing in his eyes was more real than the rest of him.

Without seeing his face, I knew he was upset. I could feel it like a tension down my spine. "What's wrong?" I asked.

"I can't remember the last time I prayed."

I shrugged. "A lot of people don't pray."

"Why does it surprise me that you do?" he asked.

I shrugged again.

He took a step forward, and the light fell upon his face and that odd, mixed smile of his.

"I have to go."

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"What makes you think anything's wrong?"

"Tension level between you and your cats. What's up, Micah?"

He pressed his thumb and forefinger against his eyes, rubbing, as if he were tired. He blinked those jewel-like eyes at me. "A pard emergency. We've got one member that couldn't come tonight, and she's got herself in trouble."

"What kind of trouble?"

"Violet is our version of your Nathaniel, the least dominant of us." He left it at that, as if it explained everything. It did, and it didn't.

"And?" I said.

"And I have to go help her."

"I don't like secrets, Micah."

He sighed, running his fingers through his hair. He ripped the ponytail holder out, threw it on the floor, ran his hands through the shoulder-length curls, over and over, as if he'd been wanting to do it all night. The movement was harsh, frantic with tension.

He looked down at me, dark brown hair in disarray around his face, eyes gleaming. In an instant he went from being this nice, attractive man to something feral and alien. It wasn't just the hair or the kitty-cat eyes. His beast bubbled against my skin like boiling water. I'd felt his power, but not like this, almost hot enough to scald. Then I realized that I could see that heat, see it. It flowed over him, invisible, but almost not, like something half-seen out of the corner of your eye. I could almost see the shape of something monstrous looming around him, like heat rising off of summer pavement, a rippling thing. I'd been around shapeshifters for years and never seen anything like it.

Merle appeared in the doorway. "Nimir-Raj, is anything wrong?"

Micah turned, and I got a swimming afterimage, as if something large and almost invisible moved around and just above his body. His voice came out low and growling. "Wrong, what could possibly be wrong?"

Gina pushed past Merle. "We've got to go, Micah."

Micah put his hands up, and the afterimage moved with him. I couldn't actually see claws and fur, just hints of it, swimming around him. He covered his eyes with his hands, and I saw those ghostly claws go through, into, past his face. Watching it made me dizzy, and I looked down at the tabletop to steady myself and reality.

I'd heard Marianne say she could see auras of power around people and lycanthropes, but I'd never been able to see one before.

I felt his power folding away, the heat, the skin-ruffling sensation pulling away, like the ocean going back from the shore. I raised my face to see, and that seen-not-seen shape was gone, swallowed back into his body.

He stared down at me. "You look like you've seen a ghost."

"You're closer than you think," I said.

"She's afraid of your power," Gina said, and there was scorn in her voice.

I looked up at her. "I saw his aura, saw it like a white phantom around his body."

"You say that like you've never seen it before," Micah said.

"I haven't, not a visual."

Gina took his arm, gently but firmly, and tried pulling him towards the door. He just looked at her, and I felt his presence, his personality, for lack of a better word, like something almost touchable. She dropped to the floor, gripping his hand, rubbing her cheek against it. "I meant no offense, Micah."

The look on his face was cold. His power, his force began to trickle through the room again.

"Nimir-Raj," Merle said, "if you are going, then you must go. If you are not going…" His voice was careful, almost gentle, a pitying tone of voice, and I didn't understand why.

Micah growled at Merle, I think. Then his voice came out normal, human. "I know my duty as Nimir-Raj, Merle."

"I would never presume to tell you the duties of a Nimir-Raj, Micah," he said.

Micah suddenly looked tired again, all that energy draining away. He helped Gina to her feet, though it looked awkward since she was more than a head taller. "Let's go."

They all turned towards the door. "I hope your leopard is alright," I said.

Micah glanced back. "Would Nathaniel be, if he'd called for help?"

I shook my head. "No."

He nodded and turned back for the door. "Mine either." He hesitated and said without turning around, "I'll take Noah and Gina with me, but if it's alright I'll leave Merle and Caleb here?"

"Won't you need them with you?"

He looked back, smiling. "I just need to pick up Violet. I don't need muscle for that, and you might want some extra muscle."

"You mean in case Jacob's people get pesky?"

His smile widened. "Pesky, yeah, in case they get pesky."

Then they were gone into the other room, and I was left alone at the table. Lillian came back in, her eyes narrowed.

"What?" I asked.

She just shook her head. "None of my business."

"That's right," I said.

"But if it were …"

"But it's not," I said.

She smiled. "But if it were, I'd say two things."

"You're going to say them anyway, aren't you?"

"Yes," she said.

I waved her to go ahead.

"First, it's nice to see you letting yourself follow your heart with someone new. Second, you don't know this man very well. Be careful who you give your heart to, Anita."

"I haven't given anyone my heart, yet."

"Not yet," she said.

I frowned at her. "You do realize that you've told me to follow my heart and not to follow my heart."

She nodded.

"Those are contradictory bits of advice," I said.

"I'm aware of that."

"Then which piece of advice do you want me to follow?"

"Both, of course."

I shook my head. "Let's go save Gregory and worry about my ever-sordid love life later."

"I can't promise that we'll save Gregory, Anita."

I held up a hand. "I remember the odds, doc." I followed her out and into the darkened living room and tried to believe, really believe, in miracles.

Chapter 29

WE DECIDED TO do it on the deck out back. My deck backed to a couple of acres of mature woodland. No neighbors. No one to see us. The deck was also twice the size of the kitchen, which was the only part of the house without carpeting. Once a shapeshifter changed on carpet it was either steam clean it yourself, or hire it done. I was not the one who suggested that Gregory would ruin the carpet; it was actually Nathaniel. He was, after all, the person most likely to be vacuuming between housekeeper visits. I wasn't even sure I knew where the vacuum was.

Gregory was curled in the center of the deck, his head in his brother's lap, his arms wrapped around the other man's naked waist. Only the curling yellow hair, paled by moonlight, covered Stephen's upper body. He'd stripped to the waist in preparation for the change. He was going to go out into the woods with his brother. This presupposed that Gregory would survive the change. We had a fifty-fifty chance, not bad odds, if all you were about to lose was money, but when it was someone's life, fifty-fifty just didn't sound that good.

Stephen looked up at me. His cornflower blue eyes were silvered with moonlight. He looked pale and ethereal. His face was raw with emotion; his eyes held an intelligence and a demand that Stephen didn't often show. He was submissive, fragile in every walk of his life, but in that moment he laid a demand on me with his eyes, his face, the pain that showed in the set of his shoulders, the fierce way he touched his brother, who was still huddled in his lap, just a fall of long pale curls and paler skin. Gregory was naked in the hot summer night, and until that moment I hadn't noticed. The nudity didn't make me think of sex, it made me think how terribly vulnerable he was.

Stephen looked up at me and asked with every line of his body, the desperation in his eyes, what he was too submissive to say out loud. I didn't need to be telepathic to know what he wanted. Save him, save my brother, he screamed at me from his eyes. To say it out loud would have been redundant.

Vivian, who was as fragile as Stephen, as submissive, said it out loud anyway. "Please, try and call his beast, at least try before they use the drugs."

I looked at her, and there must have been something in my face that frightened her, because she dropped to her knees and crawled towards me. It wasn't that graceful stalk that the leopards could do. It was like a human crawling, awkward, slow, head down, eyes rolled up. She was displaying the leopard version of submissive behavior, and I hated it. Hated her feeling the need, like I as some ogre that needed placating, but I let her do it. Richard had shown me what happened in a were-group when the dominant refused to be dominant.

She leaned against my legs, pushing her body against me, head down. Normally, leopards would roll around my legs like huge cats, but tonight Vivian just pressed against my legs more like a frightened dog than a luxuriating cat. I leaned over to touch her hair and heard her murmuring under her breath, so soft, "Please, please, please." You would have had to be colder than even I was to ignore that soft pleading.

"It's okay, Vivian, I'll try."

Rubbing her cheek along my jeans as she raised her head, her eyes rolled up to me, again like a frightened dog. Vivian had always been timid around me, but I'd never seen this level of fear before. I didn't think it was Gregory's torture that had made the difference. I think it was the fact that I'd shot Elizabeth full of holes. Yeah, that probably did it. And I couldn't undermine the lesson by reassuring Vivian now that I wouldn't shoot her. Merle and Caleb were listening, and if we were really going to combine our pards, being feared was not a bad way for me to start.

I looked across the deck and found Merle watching me. He was still fully dressed, jeans, boots, jean jacket over bare chest, the scar showing like a flash of moonlit lightning across his stomach. We stared at each other, and the force in his gaze, the physical potential that shimmered around him, made the hair on the back of my neck crawl. I'd spent years around dangerous men, and dangerous monsters; Merle was both. If I could make him truly afraid of me, that would be a good thing.

Caleb on the other hand had started stripping off his clothes when everyone else did, and only my protest, backed by Merle, had kept his pants on. He walked barefoot, moonlight catching in the rings in his nipple and the edge of his belly button. He had to look directly at me for the ring in his eyebrow to spark. He was circling Cherry, who had never dressed after helping Gregory in his bath. She stood tall and comfortably nude, ignoring him.

The fact that he was paying attention to her nudity was a breach of protocol among the shapeshifters. You only noticed nudity if you'd been invited to have sex. Short of that, you pretended everyone was as neuter as a Barbie doll.

Zane stepped between Cherry and the circling Caleb, giving a low growl. Caleb laughed and backed off. I did not need another pain in the ass in my pard, and that's what Caleb was.

Dr. Lillian was standing behind us holding a huge needle all ready to go. The two wererat bodyguards, Claudia and Igor, were behind her. They'd surprised me by putting on guns in the car on the way over. Guns weren't allowed in the lupanar, but they were bodyguards, and guns were a good thing for bodyguards. Claudia had a 10 millimeter Beretta tucked behind her back. The fact that she could carry a 10 mil anything said how much larger her hands were than mine. Igor had a shoulder rig with a Glock 9 mil. They were both good guns, and the two wererats handled them like they knew what they were doing. Rafael had insisted that they stay just in case Jacob, or his allies, got some wild idea about a preemptive strike.

Claudia and Igor stood in typical bodyguard pose, hands clasped in front of them, one hand holding the opposite wrist. It's usually a guy thing to stand like that, or a jock thing, but bodyguards do it too. It's like they hold their own hands for reassurance.

Their faces were neutral. They were here to protect me, not Gregory. Didn't matter to them, or didn't seem to.

Nathaniel leaned against the railing, wearing a pair of shorts, his hair hanging like a dark curtain around his body, still wet from the bath. It took forever for his hair to dry naturally. His face was serene. It reflected an almost zen-like pleasantness, as if he trusted me to make everything alright. Of all their faces, his was the most unnerving. I was used to people being afraid of me, eventually, but soft adoration–that I was not used to.

I looked back down at Vivian, still pressed against my legs. There was fear in her eyes, but there was also hope.

I touched her face and managed a smile. "I'll do what I can."

She smiled, and it was radiant. She was always beautiful, but when she smiled like that there was a little girl peeking out, someone more joyous and more free than the Vivian I knew. I valued that little girl smile from her, because I saw it so rarely.

I walked the few feet to the two men. Stephen was still kneeling, his brother huddled against him. He watched me with cautious eyes. He was rubbing his hand on Gregory's bare back over and over in small circles, the way you stroke a sick child when they want some touch to let them know they're going to be alright. Looking into Stephen's eyes, I knew he didn't believe that. He didn't believe Gregory would be alright, and it terrified him.

I knelt beside them and was almost the same height as Stephen. I met that pale gaze, that demand, and said, "I'm going to try and heal him."

It was Caleb who said, "If Micah couldn't heal him, why do you think you can?"

I didn't even bother glancing back at him. "It doesn't hurt to try."

"You haven't seen your first full moon," Merle said. "You can't call flesh and heal him, not yet, maybe not ever. Calling flesh to heal is a rare talent."

I did look at Merle. "I'm not going to call flesh, I'm not even sure how that works."

"Then how will you heal him?" Merle asked.

"With the munin."

"How will a werewolf ghost help you heal a wereleopard?"

I shook my head. "I've healed the leopards before using the munin."

"You've healed Nathaniel," Cherry said, "twice, but no one else."

"If it works for one of you, it should work for all of you," I said.

Cherry was frowning.

"What's wrong?"

"You heal with Raina, everything was sex with her, and you want Nathaniel in that way. You've never been attracted to Gregory."

I shrugged. She was pretty much voicing the same doubts that I had, but hearing them out loud made them sound worse. I felt more doubtful that I could do it and more slutty because I needed sexual attraction to heal. But I was getting over the slutty feeling. If I could save both Gregory's hearing and his life, a little embarrassment wasn't too high a price to pay.

I looked down at Gregory, still huddled in a tight fetal ball around Stephen's lap and waist. He held on as if his brother were the last solid thing in the universe, as if, if he let go he'd swirl away and be lost.

I touched his hair, lightly, and he moved his face so that he could see me through a tangle of pale curls. I swept the curls away from his face. It was a gesture you used for a child. I'd hated Gregory once because of some things he'd done when Raina and Gabriel were still alive. But the moment they were dead and he knew he had a choice, he'd stopped doing most of them. Had he made me Nimir-Ra on purpose? Staring into his wide blue eyes I didn't believe that. It wasn't naivete, it was a surety that Gregory just wasn't that dominant. To decide, even in a split second, to change the status quo that profoundly was just beyond him. He'd debate, or ask advice, or ask permission, but he wouldn't make a unilateral decision without some feedback. I knew this about Gregory. Richard didn't.

I touched his face, cupping it, raising it so he'd meet my eyes without having to do that eye roll that unnerved me. Just too subservient for my taste. I stared into that beautiful face, let my gaze glide over the fall of curls, the line of his back, the curl of his hip, but I felt nothing. I could appreciate his beauty, but I tried very hard to think of my leopards as neuter. You can be someone's friend and have sex with them. The trick is you have to want their emotional and physical well-being more than you want to fuck them. If you cross that line and want sex more than their happiness, then you aren't their friend. Their lover maybe, but not their friend.

But it was more than that. Cherry was right, Gregory had never moved me in that way. I sighed and moved my hand back from him. "What's wrong?" Stephen asked.

"He's pretty to look at, but …"

Stephen almost smiled. "But you need more than just a pretty face to lust after."

I shrugged. "Sometimes my life would be simpler if I didn't, but yeah."

"I remember I had to talk you through the first time you healed Nathaniel," he said, voice soft.

I nodded. "I remember too."

Gregory sat up, watching us both, trying to read our lips, I think. There was something frantic about the way he tried to decipher what we were saying. God, please let me help him. He was so scared.

"I think of him more like a child, no offense."

"You think more like a parent than a seducer; that's a good thing," Stephen said. "Don't apologize for it."

Cherry joined us, kneeling on her heels, long body curved in graceful lines. "You called Raina in the lupanar without any lust, right?"

I nodded. "I can call Raina's munin, sometimes even if I don't want to, but she always demands a price before she leaves."

"You didn't seduce anyone at the lupanar tonight," she said.

"No, but I damn near started a fight by hitting Richard, and that was part Raina's doing. She enjoyed my loss of control, and … and she was worried about the pack tonight. She doesn't like what Richard's done. I think she toned down her demands because of that."

"And she doesn't care about us like she does the wolves."

"No, she doesn't."

"What are you afraid of?" Stephen asked. "That you'll molest Gregory."

I shook my head. "No, I'm afraid Raina will."

"You healed Nathaniel in the woods and didn't do anything awful to him," Cherry said.

"No, but I had Richard and the pack there to balance me, to help me control her through the marks. Without extra help in that area, Raina's idea of payment can get a little messy."

"Define messy," Stephen said.

"Sex, violence–" I shrugged–"messy."

"You have the pard here now," Cherry said. "You can use us for balance."

Truth was, without Micah here I wasn't sure I could do that. Just as Richard was my door to the wolves, Micah was my door to the leopards. Or was he? I was treating this like I treated Richard and Jean-Claude, like I was the outsider and they were my ticket in. But what if I really was the leopard queen? If I really was Nimir-Ra, then I should be able to do this without Micah. I realized the moment I doubted that, I was still hoping I wasn't going to be furry next full moon. No matter how much evidence to the contrary, I still didn't believe it. Maybe I didn't want to believe it. But I wanted to heal Gregory, that I did want.

I looked at them all and knew Cherry was right. If I was Nimir-Ra, then I had all I needed to balance me. If I wasn't Nimir-Ra, then it wouldn't work. What did we have to lose? I looked at Stephen and Gregory, their mirror faces, their frightened eyes, and knew exactly what we had to lose if I didn't try.

I took the Uncle Mike's sidekick holster complete with Firestar out of the front of my jeans and looked around. If I was going to be calling on the leopards, I didn't want them having to worry about the gun. I motioned Claudia the wererat over. Since I was still kneeling, she towered over me, only two inches shorter than Dolph. I had to admit it was impressive, even more so because she was a woman.

I handed the holstered gun to her, and she took it. "Make sure no one gets shot with it."

She frowned down at me. "You think someone is going to try and get the gun?"

"Me, maybe."

The frown deepened. "I don't understand."

"Raina's amused by violence. I don't want to be carrying a gun when I call her munin."

Claudia's eyebrows raised. "You mean she'd try to get you to use it on some one?"

I nodded.

"She's tried before?"

I nodded again. "In Tennessee when I was practicing with the munin, yeah."

Claudia shook her head. "You didn't seem that worried at the lupanar."

"I can call her once and be okay, probably. But if I call her too often, too close together, it's like she grows–" I hesitated–"stronger, or maybe I just get tired of fighting."

"She was a bitch when she was alive," Claudia said.

"Being dead hasn't changed her much," I added.

The tall woman shivered. "I'm glad the wererats don't have anything like the munin. The thought of some entity inside me just creeps me out."

"Me too," I said.

She looked down at me, thoughtful now. "I'll keep the gun safe. Is there anything else Igor and I can do to help?"

I tried to think of something, but only one thing came to mind. "If the leopards can't control me, make sure I don't hurt anyone."

"How bad is this going to be?" she asked.

I shrugged. "Normally, I wouldn't be this worried, but last time I called her she didn't get her bit of flesh, or sex. Hitting Richard made her happy, but …" I tried to explain. "I called her three times in a row for practice, without molesting or hurting anyone. My teacher, Marianne, and I both thought it was a sign that I was gaining control of Raina. Then the fourth time I called her, it was worse than it had ever been. You either pay as you go with Raina, or you end up owing her, and owing comes with interest, and the interest is hell to pay."

"Should you give me the knives, too, then?" Claudia asked.

She had a point, no pun intended. I took the wrist sheaths off, folded them up, and handed them to her.

"I thought you could control this shit." Caleb was standing just a little behind and to one side of Claudia. He was looking up at the tall woman as if wondering what she'd do if he tried to climb her. I almost wanted him to try, because I was pretty sure what would happen, and even more sure that I'd enjoy watching it. Caleb needed a good lesson from someone.

"I can."

"Then why all the precautions?"

I could have told him about the time in Tennessee when Raina's munin nearly started a riot among Verne's pack in a sort of game of rape tag, with me as the rapee, but I didn't. Instead, I said, "If you're not going to be helpful, stand over to the side and shut the fuck up."

He opened his mouth as if to protest, but Merle said, "Caleb, do what she says." His voice was quiet, a deep rumble of sound, but that mild tone seemed to work on Caleb like a charm.

"Sure, Merle, anything you say." He went to stand over to one side, near Dr. Lillian and Igor.

I glanced at Merle. "Thanks," I said.

He just bowed his head at me.

Dr. Lillian said, "I take this to mean that you want me to wait on the injection."

I nodded. "Yeah."

She turned and walked back through the sliding glass doors, into the darkened house. Everyone else stayed where they were, looking at me. Even Caleb, sulking by the railing with his arms crossed, was still watching the show.

I slipped my shirt off and felt rather than saw all my people react, like wind through a wheat field, involuntary. I never undressed in front of people unless I absolutely had to. The black bra I was wearing covered more than most swim suits, but there's something about letting people see you in your underwear that just makes all us good little girls squirm.

"Black lace, I like it," Caleb said.

I started to say something, but Merle beat me to it. "Shut up, Caleb, and don't make me tell you again."

Caleb settled back against the rail, arms hugging himself, face crinkled into a sulk that made him look even younger than he was.

"Go on," Merle said, "he won't interrupt again."

I looked at him. It was bad that he kept interfering. It undermined my authority, but since I wasn't entirely sure I had any authority over Caleb, it was okay, I guess. But it bugged me. I just wasn't sure what to do about it.

"I appreciate the help, but if our pards really do merge, then Caleb is going to have to learn to respect me, not you."

"You don't want my help?" He made it a question.

"Priority tonight is Gregory, but Caleb and I are going to have to come to an understanding."

"Are you going to shoot him too?"

I tried to read Merle's face and failed. A sort of blank hostility was all that showed. "You think I'll have to?"

Merle gave a very small smile. "Maybe."

It made me smile, a little. "Great, just what I need, another discipline problem in my pard."

His smile vanished like a hand had wiped it away. "We're not your cats, Anita, not yet."

I shrugged. "Whatever you say."

"We are not yours," he said.

I watched his face and saw something cross it in the moonlight. Maybe if I'd had better light I could have deciphered it. "Why does the thought of me being in charge bother you so much?"

He shook his head. "It's not you being in charge that bothers me."

"Then what is it?"

He shook his head again. "What bothers me is you trying to be in charge and failing–failing really, really badly."

"I do my best, Merle, that's all I can do."

He nodded. "I believe you, but I've seen a lot of people try their best and still not make it."

I shrugged and let it go. "Be pessimistic on your own time, Merle, we need a little hope here, not negativity."

"I'll just shut up then," he said, which implied that if he couldn't be negative he had nothing to say. Fine by me.

I turned back to Gregory and his wide, frightened eyes. I touched his face gently, trying to ease some of that fear, but he flinched ever so slightly when I touched him. You get enough abuse in your life, and you begin to think that every offered hand is a blow waiting to strike.

"It'll be alright, Gregory," I said. Since he couldn't hear me, I must have been saying it to reassure myself. It didn't seem to do a damn thing for Gregory.

I tried to see Gregory as a lust object, and I failed. I ran my hands over the smooth skin of his back, I grabbed a handful of those yellow curls, looked into those lovely eyes, but all I could feel was pity. All I could feel was protective towards him and how much I wanted to keep him safe. He was totally nude, sitting in front of me, and he was lovely. There was nothing wrong with the way he looked, except that I didn't see Gregory in that way. Trust me to find a way to make virtue a problem.

I turned to Stephen, who was still kneeling beside us. "I'm sorry, he's beautiful, but I want to hold him, keep him safe, not have sex with him, and protective instincts are not going to get Raina to come out."

Cherry said, "You simply called Raina at the lupanar. Why is this different?"

I looked up at her, standing nude and comfortable against the deck railing. Zane was next to her, clothed, and just as comfortable.

"I can call Raina, but I can't guarantee she'll help me heal Gregory. The healing usually comes with lust, not without."

"Call her," Stephen said. "Once she's here maybe the rest will come."

"You mean call her munin, then get her in the mood, not me."

He looked very solemn, but he nodded.

"You know what her idea of sex is, Stephen."

He nodded again. "Trust me," he said.

Strangely, I did. He wasn't dominant, in fact was very often a victim, but Stephen did what he said he'd do, at almost any cost. There was a desperate stubbornness in him, no matter how often you knocked him down.

"I'll call the munin."

"And I'll make sure that Raina sees Gregory the way she needs to see him."

We looked at each other and had one of those moments of near perfect understanding. Stephen would do anything to save his brother, and I would almost anything to help him do that.

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