"Yes," he said, "I do. Because I know that I cripple us as a power by simply not being here when you need me. If I'd been here, Auggie wouldn't have rolled you. I have no one but myself to blame that you and Jean-Claude f**ked Auggie." His voice held the edge of warmth, and the first bite of his power flickered through the room.
I took a few steps, leaving Jean-Claude's hand behind. "Why are you responsible for everything?" I asked. "I deal with more undead than you do; I should have been able to protect myself. And maybe I should have seen it coming, but I'm not beating myself up about it. It happened, and now we deal with it."
"Is it really that easy for you, Anita? It happened, now we deal with it, we move on?"
I thought about it, then nodded. "Yes, it is, because it has to be. My life wouldn't work if I wallowed in every disaster, every moral quandary. I can't afford the luxury of self-doubt, not to that degree."
"Luxury," Richard said. "This isn't luxury, Anita, it's morality. It's your conscience. That's not a luxury item, that's what separates us from the animals."
Here we go again, I thought. Out loud I said, "I have a conscience, Richard, and my own set of morals. Do I ever worry that I'm a bad guy? Yeah, sometimes I do. Do I wonder if I've traded away pieces of my soul, just to survive? Yeah." I shrugged. "It's the price of doing business in the real world, Richard."
"This isn't the real world, Anita. This isn't the normal workaday world."
"No, but it's our world." I was facing him now, almost close enough to touch. He was controlling himself, because his power was only a warm pressure in the air.
He waved his hands around the room. "This is not where I want to be, Anita. I don't want to live where my choices are sharing you with other men, or having people die. I don't want those choices."
I sighed, and let him see that I was tired, and sad, and sorry. "There was a time when I would have agreed with you, but I like parts of my life a lot, Richard. I hate the ardeur, but I don't hate everything it's brought into my life. I'd have liked to try that whole picket-fence thing, but I think even without the ardeur and the vampire marks, that it wouldn't have been my gig."
"I think it would have been," he said.
"Richard, I don't think you see me. I don't think you see who I am."
"How can you say that to me? If I don't shield I share your dreams, and your nightmares."
"But you're still trying to shove me in a box that I don't think fit me even when we met. Just like you're trying to shove yourself into a box that doesn't fit you, either."
He was shaking his head. "That's not true. That's not true."
"Which part?" I asked.
"I think we could have made it, our version of the white picket fence, without him," and he pointed at Jean-Claude.
Jean-Claude was giving his most peaceful, empty face, as if he were afraid to do or say anything.
"Don't try to blame all our problems on Jean-Claude."
"Why not, it's true. If he had left us alone, not marked us."
"You'd be dead," I said.
He frowned at me. "What?"
"Without the extra power of the marks with Jean-Claude you'd never have had the power to kill Marcus and keep the pack."
"That's not true."
I just stared at him. "Yeah, Richard, I was there, it is true. You'd be dead, and I'd still be living alone sleeping with my stuffed toys and guns. You'd be dead and I'd be dead inside, dying of loneliness, not just because you would be gone, but because my life was empty before. I was like a lot of people who do police work. I was my job. I had nothing else. My life was full of death, and horror, and trying to stay ahead of the next horror. But I was losing the battle, Richard, losing myself, long before Jean-Claude marked me."
"I asked you to give up the police work. I told you it was eating you up."
I shook my head. "You're not listening to me, Richard, or you're not hearing me."
"Maybe I don't want to hear you. Or maybe I'm right, and you're not listening."
We stood barely two feet apart, but it might as well have been a thousand miles. Some distances are made out of things bigger and harder to travel across than mere miles. We stood and stared at each other across a chasm of misunderstanding, and pain, and love.
I tried one last time. "Say you're right. Say if Jean-Claude had left us alone you could have your perfect picture. I still wouldn't have given up the police work."
"You just said, it was destroying you."
I nodded. "Just because something's hard doesn't mean you give up on it." Somehow I thought I was talking about more than just police work.
"You said I was right."
"I said, say you're right. Let's just pretend that without Jean-Claude here, we would have found a way. But we are bound to him, Richard. We are a triumvirate of power. What we would change if life were totally different doesn't really matter."
"How can you say that?"
"What matters, Richard, is that we deal with the reality of our now, this minute. There are things we can't undo, and we all have to work together to make the best of what's true in our lives."
His face was cold with his anger. I hated his face like this, because it was both frightening and more beautiful, as if the anger cleaned away something that distracted the eye from realizing just how amazingly handsome he was. "And what is true in our lives?" His power began to flow through the room, hot water, hotter than you'd want in the bath. The guards around the room shifted uneasily.
"I am Jean-Claude's human servant. You are his animal to call. We are a triumvirate of power. We can't change that. Jean-Claude and I both carry the ardeur. We both need to feed the hunger, and that's not going to change."
"I thought you were hoping to be able to feed from a distance at the clubs, the way Jean-Claude did under Nikolaos."
"It crippled his power, which is what the ex-Master of the City wanted to do. I'm not going to cripple us magically because I'm squeamish. No more hiding, Richard. The ardeur is here to stay, and I need to feed it."
He shook his head. "No."
He let down his shields. I don't know if it was on purpose, or his emotions got the better of him. Whatever the cause I suddenly heard his thoughts like clear bells in my head: he thought that once I got the ardeur under control I'd dump Micah and Nathaniel and live with him. Be with him. He still hoped, seriously, that some day we'd be a nice little monogamous pair.
It took only seconds for me to get all of it, but his shields coming down had brought mine down, too, and he felt my shock. My disbelief that he still thought, seriously, that that would ever happen.
I felt the next thought forming, and tried to stop it, tried to keep it half-formed, or to shut him out, but the emotions were too raw, and I wasn't fast enough. The thought was, Even if I am pregnant, it would never work.
Richard's face showed the shock now. He gaped at me, and whispered, "Pregnant."
I said the only thing that came to mind. "Fuck."
I SLAMMED EVERY shield I had in place, shut, tight, metal, closed. I thought metal, smooth and thick and impenetrable. I stared at the floor, afraid to meet anyone's eyes. Afraid of what I'd see in their faces, or what I wouldn't.
"Anita," Richard said, and his hand reached for me.
I stepped out of reach. I was shaking my head. I didn't know what I wanted out of this moment, didn't know what reaction would please me, and which one would piss me off. I'd hoped to keep it secret until I knew for sure. I did not want to open this can of emotional worms until it was a done deal.
It was Samuel who broke the silence. "Congratulations to both of you. A baby, joyous news indeed."
I turned slowly to look at him, because of anyone in the room I cared least what he thought about the news. Him, I could look at. Him, I could be angry with.
Sampson was already touching his father's shoulder. "Father, I think we should leave now."
Samuel was looking from his son, to me, to Jean-Claude, to most of the people around the room. He looked utterly confused. "But this is wonderful news, and you're all acting as if someone has died."
"Father," Sampson said, soft and warningly. He was looking at my face, and whatever he saw there made him grab his father's elbow and try to get him on his feet.