"Ow," I said.
He leaned his face on my towel-covered knee, and said, "Sorry, I'm sorry." The energy calmed, still warm, raising sweat along my spine, but it stopped hurting. He spoke with his face still on my knee. "Your feeding on Auggie raised my power level--oh God, it did. The power rush felt so good, so incredibly good, even after I knew what you'd done to get it. It still felt wonderful." His shoulders started to shake, and I realized he was crying.
I touched his hair, letting my fingers comb through those thick waves. "Richard, oh, Richard."
He wrapped his arms around my legs, holding on, putting his face in my lap, letting me touch him. Jean-Claude laid a tentative hand on his back, and when Richard didn't say no, he stroked his back. That useless stroking that you'll do for good friends and loved ones. Those endless, useless circles, where you try to say with your hands that it will be all right. I stroked his hair and brushed the tears from his face. We comforted him as his friends, his very good friends. Whatever else we were to each other, we were at least that.
WE ENDED UP on the floor with Richard cradled in my lap, while I sat against Jean-Claude's bare upper body as if he were a warm, silken chair. Richard's shirt was gone, so the warm muscled smoothness of his chest and shoulders lay across the pooled towel in my lap. My upper body was as bare as his; the towel just couldn't hold on during that much cuddling. Richard lay on his back, eyes peaceful, his hair like a brown and gold halo around his face.
My hands stroked his bare chest, not for sex, but for comfort. All the lycanthropes were like that; touch was good, touch was even necessary to stay sane. It was as if they had the normal human skin hunger except more, orders of magnitude more. His arm was raised along the line of my body, his hand playing with my hair, which had begun to dry in tight, frizzy curls. Jean-Claude's hand played along Richard's raised arm, stroking up and down the muscled length of it.
There were no words, just the comfort of the touching. Jean-Claude's other hand was stroking my shoulder and arm, almost mirroring what he was doing to Richard. I think we'd all been surprised that Richard let Jean-Claude touch so much as a fingertip to him, after the way he'd entered the room. I'd seen plenty of lycanthropes pet each other regardless of sexual orientation--a cuddle was a cuddle to most of them--but Richard had issues with Jean-Claude that he didn't have with the people I'd seen him be so casual with.
Richard's eyes shifted and I knew he was looking past me to the other man. "Your hair is almost as curly as Anita's."
The comment made me turn so I could see his face more clearly, too. Richard was right, Jean-Claude's hair was a mass of black curls. Not the relaxed, almost wavy curls that he always had, but something closer to mine. But his hair drying naturally was about where mine was with hair care products, not the black foam mine had turned into. "Have I never seen your natural hair texture?" I asked, staring at all those curls.
He smiled, and if it had been almost anyone else I'd have said he was embarrassed, but it just didn't quite fly for Jean-Claude. "I suppose not."
Richard moved his hand from my hair to Jean-Claude's. He rubbed the curls between his fingers, then went back to mine, comparing. "Your hair is still softer textured than Anita's, or mine, for that matter." He knelt, and took a handful of both of our hair, as if he were testing how much it weighed. "Normally your hair just looks silkier, but now, you have to touch it to feel how much difference in texture there is between you and Anita."
Jean-Claude had gone very still against my body. I think he stopped breathing, and the heartbeat that had been chugging along like any human's heart slowed. I knew he'd gone still because Richard was touching him voluntarily, and he didn't want to spook him. But I also think that in that moment he didn't know what to do. A man who had been a great lover for over four hundred years did not know what to do because someone was playing with his hair.
He didn't want to be too bold and raise that anger again, or frighten him with a homophobic possibility. If Richard had been a woman, he'd have taken it as foreplay. If Richard hadn't been a shapeshifter, he might still have taken it as an invitation of sorts. But shapeshifters were tactile junkies; touching didn't mean sex to them, any more than it did when a dog started licking the sweat off your skin. You tasted good, and they liked you, nothing sexual. But it is personal. If they didn't like you, they wouldn't touch you.
He sat pressed against my body, and I knew by his very stillness how much it meant to him that Richard was touching him. The stillness also told me he had no idea what to do about it. What does it say when a vampire who has been a great lover and seducer for centuries chooses, as his metaphysical sweeties, maybe the only two people in his territory who are going to puzzle him?
There was a knock at the door. Those of us with a heartbeat jumped. Richard's hands fell away from both of us as he turned to face the door, still on his knees.
Movement came back to Jean-Claude's body the way a human would take a breath. "Yes," he said, and his voice held just a touch of impatience.
Claudia's voice came, "It's the Master of Cape Cod and his oldest son."
Jean-Claude and I exchanged glances. Richard just frowned. "Why is he back?" Richard asked.
"We can but ask," Jean-Claude said, his voice back to almost its normal silky emptiness. The voice he used when he was hiding things, but trying not to seem like it. Samuel would know what a totally empty voice meant. Hiding, or fear, weakness. So Jean-Claude compromised with his voice, hiding from Richard and maybe from me, and not seeming to hide from Samuel. We were so not going to make it through this weekend without another disaster. The combination of metaphysics and politics was just too hard.
"We'll be right out," I yelled at the door. We all got up off the floor. Richard reached for his shirt and slipped it over his head. Jean-Claude and I had robes hanging on the back of the door. Jean-Claude's was one I'd seen and enjoyed before: heavy black brocade with black fur at the collar and lapel so that it framed a triangle of his pale chest. There was more fur at the wide cuffs, and I'd felt that fur rub down my body before. Just seeing him in the robe made me shiver.
He gave me a smile that said he'd noticed. Richard either didn't understand or ignored it.
My robe was black silk, no embroidery, no fur, just plain unrelieved black.
We had to walk in front of the mirror to get to the door, and Richard stopped us with a hand on either of our shoulders. He turned us toward our reflections, so that he stood between us. We were all black cloth and white skin, sharp contrasts. Then there he stood, in his bright red shirt, blue jeans, his hair all brown and gold. His tan, darker in contrast with how pale we were. "Which of these things does not belong?" he asked in a low voice. There was that shadow in his eyes again.
I slid my arm around his waist, hugged him, but even to me it looked like something carved of bone and darkness clinging to all that life.
"Jean-Claude, Anita, you coming?" Claudia asked, voice a little hesitant, which you didn't hear much from her.
"We're coming," I called.
"If I could set you free, mon ami, I would."
Richard hugged me so tight it almost hurt, then he relaxed against me, and looked at Jean-Claude. "If you had that kind of magic wand I'd let you use it, but you don't." He turned, keeping one arm around my shoulders, and reaching the other until he touched Jean-Claude's shoulder. He did that guy grip on the shoulder that some macho guys do instead of hugging another guy. "Some nights I hate you, Jean-Claude, but if I'd been with Anita tonight, touching her, Augustine wouldn't have been able to roll her. If I'd been where I should have been, none of the crap that I hated tonight would have happened. I know that. I felt it, while it was happening. I was miles away, and I felt the fight, but I didn't reach out and help. It was vampire politics, and that's not my problem." He shook his head hard enough to send his hair flying around his face. "No more lying to myself. I am your animal to call, and I hate it, and sometimes I hate you, and sometimes I hate Anita, and most of the time I hate myself. No more lies, and no more crippling us."
Jean-Claude's face was as careful as I'd ever seen it. "And what do these so-wise statements mean, mon ami?"
"It means when you meet with Samuel I'll be at your side, where I should have been earlier tonight." He hugged me tight with one arm, and squeezed Jean-Claude's shoulder again. "I wasn't even willing to offer up energy to help Anita. She had Micah and Nathaniel with her; I thought she didn't need another animal to call. But she did, you did. If you and Anita hadn't pulled a metaphysical miracle out of thin air, the Master of Chicago would have defeated you. Maybe he couldn't take your territory, but if one master defeats you, then it's like blood in the water; the sharks come and feed. If we'd proved weak, then not tonight, but some night soon, someone would come and kill us all."