I nodded. "Prove it," I said, "heal Asher."
Jean-Claude didn't ask to whom I was speaking. He'd heard through me, or he guessed, or he didn't bother to question, because we were running out of time.
"You will talk him to death," Valentina said.
Everyone but me looked at the child vampire. I was still fighting to keep a target on Musette's white-clad chest.
"If you do not give him the kiss of life soon, he will be beyond even your powers, Belle Morte," Valentina said.
Belle fought to keep her face calm, but the anger leaked through the room. Or maybe I was just more sensitive to it. "Have you changed sides, petite morte?"
"Non,but I do not wish to lose Musette by accident. If you choose Asher's death, that is one thing. To simply miss the chance to save him, another."
I wanted badly to turn and look at Valentina, but I kept my gaze on Musette, on Belle. Besides, Valentina's face would have been like all the old ones when they were hiding themselves, or risking themselves, blank, empty, a lovely mask.
Something passed between them. Something I could not read. Belle took a deep, impatient breath, smoothed her skirts, and began to walk forward. It wasn't quite the graceful glide that Musette's body normally had. I wondered if vampires had trouble gliding when they were nervous, because Belle was nervous. I could feel it.
I lowered the gun, as she moved, because if she was going to save Asher, Musette lived. That was the deal. Besides, my shoulder and hand were beginning to ache. If I'd known I was going to have to keep the stance so long, I'd have gone for a two-handed stance.
Belle Morte seemed to collect herself as she moved across the room, so that by the time she reached Asher she was gliding, and Musette's white dress was completely lost to Belle's dark gold, at least to my eyes.
She knelt by Asher's body. I couldn't think of it as anything else but a body. I was already distancing myself from him. I realized with something like shock that I didn't believe she'd save him. He felt so dead, so very dead.
Jean-Claude's hands squeezed my shoulders, and I realized that he was shielding from me, hard. He didn't want to share his feelings right now, and I didn't blame him. They were too personal for sharing, too frightening.
Richard was gone, too. I actually had to glance at him to make sure he was still in the room, that's how tight he was shielding. I wasn't sure when he went away behind his shields, which seemed strange. I should have noticed. He caught my look, and he couldn't keep the compassion, or the pain, off his face. I don't think it was pain for Asher.
Jean-Claude's hands tensed and the movement brought my attention back to Belle. Her hair fell out around her like a black cloak, so that the gold dress showed only in hints through all that blackness.
I felt Jean-Claude gather himself, like it was a physical effort to gather his will, then he sighed, and he shook himself like a bird settling its feathers. He stepped out from behind me and offered me his arm, very formally. I hesitated for a heartbeat, then slid my arm through his. He was still shielding from me, still hiding his emotions, but I didn't need to be anything but his friend to know what he was thinking. It hurt his heart to see Asher reduced to this. It hurt me, and I didn't have centuries of history with the man.
He walked us forward, toward the kneeling vampire and what was left of the person that we both loved. I would never know if my love for Asher was because of Jean-Claude's feelings for him. It probably was, but I couldn't separate my feelings from Jean-Claude's. That should have panicked me, but it didn't. I was tired of being scared all the time. I was ready to try and be as brave with my heart as I usually was with the rest of me. Besides, I'd been careful with Richard, and in the end we'd broken each other's hearts. I glanced at him as I walked forward on Jean-Claude's arm. My heart still tugged at the sight of him. Earlier today I'd been ready for a reconciliation. I was always ready for a reconciliation with Richard, any time he gave an inch. The trouble was, he kept taking back that inch.
He caught me looking at him, and there was something in his eyes, a pain, a loss, as deep as the ocean, as wide as the sea. I loved him. I really loved him. Maybe I always would. I had this horrible urge to run to him, to let him sweep me up in his arms, to chase that hurt from his eyes. But he probably wouldn't sweep me up in his arms. He'd probably just look at me, uncomprehending. And that would make me hate him. I didn't want to hate Richard.
I turned away from him. I didn't want him to see the longing, the loss, or the first stirrings of hate on my face.
I felt Richard beside me, before he touched me. I had a moment of surprise while I gazed up into his face. His face was as close to unreadable as he could get. He didn't sweep me up into his arms, but he did offer me his arm. I hesitated, as I had with Jean-Claude, then slowly, I slid my arm through his. He pressed his hand over mine, so warm, so solid, pressing me against the solid weight of his muscular forearm.
I lowered my eyes so he wouldn't see how it affected me. We were all shielding like a son of a bitch, trying to stay safe in our own thoughts.
Richard and Jean-Claude exchanged a look over my head. I don't know what the look was supposed to mean. It should have seemed silly to be exchanging any looks when all we had to do was open the marks that made us a triumvirate. Then we could have nearly read each other's minds. But this was the first time in months that Richard was at our side. I think all three of us were being as careful as we knew how to be.
Belle knelt over Asher, her head lowered as if she were kissing him. But she held herself off his body, one hand on the floor, the other against the wall. The kiss looked so intimate, but she went to great pains to not touch him more than she had to. An intimate act ruined.
I should have been able to feel the power she was pushing into him, but I was shielding too tight. I wasn't good enough at shielding to filter out, and in, what I chose. When I shielded this hard, I shielded everything out. I wanted to feel what she was doing. I wanted to sense whether that faint spark inside Asher was growing.
I opened just a touch, like widening the shutter on a camera, only a little opening, only enough to reach out and touch that spark.
I tasted Asher's kiss upon my mouth, as if I had drunk a wine that tasted of him. The spark had become a flame, a cold flame that filled his body, and still Belle poured energy into him. Asher screamed through my mind, and that silent scream staggered me, would have knocked me to my knees if Richard and Jean-Claude hadn't caught me.
"Anita, what's wrong?" Richard asked.
"Ma petite,are you well?"
There was no time to explain. I pulled free of both of them, and they didn't fight me. I grabbed Belle by the shoulder and the hair, and it was almost shocking to feel Musette's careful curls crush under my hand as I jerked her back. I was expecting to feel Belle's waves under my hand, but Belle wasn't here, not really. She'd never been here. She was not illusion, but not exactly real either.
I flung her away from Asher, sending her sliding across the floor on the slick white cloth of Musette's dress. But it was Belle's voice that thundered through the room, "How dare you lay hands on me."
"You're trying to bind him to you again, as of old. He doesn't want to be bound."
"He will fade and die without the power that I can breathe into him." She looked around as if she expected someone to help her to her feet. The only people who would have been willing to help were under guard, and no one else made a move. She finally stood on her own, but with nothing near to grab onto, and an old-fashioned corset on, graceful it was not. Good to know that some fashions even a vampire can't make work.
Belle turned eyes that glittered with brown fire to me. "Asher will die without me. Look at him, see what is left of him, it is not enough to survive."
Her power had poured some flesh in under that dry skin, but not much. It was as if I could see the individual muscles and ligaments under the skin, like a physiology diagram, to show where all the attachment points are. But it was not like a person. The hair was still a dry nest of golden tinsel, and the skin like faded parchment stretched over an obscenely thin frame. But the eyes, the eyes looked human, except for that extraordinary ice blue color. Even when he'd been human, his eyes could never have looked anything but extraordinary.
Asher was there in those eyes. He was trapped in that fragile, half-dead shell. He gazed up at me, and I felt the weight of everything he was in his eyes.
"Blood may save his life," Belle said, "but it will not give him back what he has lost. Only his maker, or the one who has taken his essence, can give it back." She stood there with her shining darkness coming out of the eyes in Musette's face. She didn't add that since she was both Asher's maker and the one who had stolen his essence, only she could return him to his former glory. Belle Morte had a little too much class to point out the obvious. But it hung unsaid in the air.