Anyone else would have looked hurt, but Micah didn't. He took it, with that quiet face. He said, quietly, "We all have a breaking point, Anita, all of us."
I shook my head, over and over. "We can't afford for me to break today, Micah."
He sighed. "Someday, I'd like for us to have a little time for you to be able to break down, if you wanted to." I realized his eyes were glittering with unshed tears.
"Don't cry," I said.
"Why not, one of us needs to." He turned away, with the first tear shining down his cheek.
I grabbed for his arm, and crawled over the bed, and pulled him in against me. And just like I'd known I would, I lost it. I cried, and screamed, and clung to him, and hated myself for doing it. So weak, so f**king weak.
SOMEWHERE IN THE middle of breaking down, I realized there were other hands holding me besides Micah's. I pushed at the hands, half-fought, and half-clung, as if I couldn't decide whether I wanted not to be touched, or never to be let go. I heard a voice, a hysterical voice, saying, "Don't want to do this... can't do this. I can't do this." I realized it was me, and even realizing it, I couldn't stop the babbling. "Can't do a baby, tests, don't want to do the ardeur anymore, no more, no more men, no more adding to my life." The talking fell into sobbing, and finally even that stopped. In the end, I just lay in the curve of their arms, and was quiet. Too tired to move, too tired to protest. Because somehow in the midst of it all, Richard had ended up holding me. His body cradling me. I didn't feel anything about him holding me. Nothing, I felt nothing, and I was glad. I'd been feeling too much lately, too much.
"Her energy feels different," he said, and his voice sounded farther away than it should have. He was tall, but I was only in his lap, not that far away.
Other hands touched my face, my hands, my arms. My eyes were closed and I kept them that way; I didn't want to see them. Didn't want to see any of them. "She is cold." Jean-Claude's voice, his hand moving away from my cheek.
Cold, yes, I was cold, so cold. Cold down to the core of my being, as if I'd never be warm again. Fur brushed my arm, and it made me open my eyes enough to see Nathaniel kneeling on the bed. His face was still a stranger's face behind the mix of animal and human. Once, just once, that face had been above me while we made love. Just the one time.
Hands touched my face, moved me to look at Jean-Claude and Richard. Their hands, one on either side of my face. Their hands were so warm against my skin. It took me a long second to realize that both of their hands felt warm. Had Jean-Claude gained so much power from feeding on Augustine, so much that he was hot to the touch?
I was having trouble focusing on their faces. I whispered, "Warm, you're both warm."
Richard spoke slowly, carefully, as if he thought I might have trouble understanding him, "Anita, you're colder to the touch than Jean-Claude."
I frowned at him, and tried to focus on his face. I could almost do it, but it was as if my attention kept wandering before I could make my eyes do what I wanted. "Wrong, something's wrong." Still a whisper, but I said it out loud.
"Yes," he said, "something is wrong." He looked at Jean-Claude. "I can't feel her. She's in my arms and I can't feel her energy."
"She is drawing away from us," Jean-Claude said.
"Drawing away, what does that mean?" Richard asked.
"I believe ma petite is trying to break the bonds that bind her to us."
"You mean break the triumvirate?"
"Can she do that?" someone asked.
"Anita can do anything she wants to do," Nathaniel's growling voice said.
"I do not know if it is possible, but I know she is trying," Jean-Claude said.
"It will destroy your power base," Asher's voice, though I couldn't make my eyes search the room for him.
"So be it," Jean-Claude said. I fought to see him clearly, watch him look to Richard. "Why the tragic face, Richard? You could be free of the triumvirate, Richard, free of me."
"You know it's what I want, but what would it cost us? She's cold to the touch."
Jean-Claude's face loomed into view. "Ma petite, drop your shields. Drop them just enough for me to sense you. Let me share energy with you. You are unwell."
I shook my head, and the world swam in streamers of color. I had a moment of nausea, and that was the moment that I realized I was sick. Sick at heart, sick of soul, sick of it all. Somewhere deep inside me, I was trying to undo all my decisions. I was trying to do a take-back, on a game that had played too far for a do-over. The front part of my brain knew it was too late, but it wasn't the front part of my brain that was in charge. How do you argue with the subconscious? How do you argue with a part of your brain you don't even know is there most of the time? The real bitch of the situation was, I wasn't sure I wanted to argue.
I smelled the musk of leopard, and knew Nathaniel was beside me before his voice growled, "Damian."
I opened my eyes, and found myself staring into a black blur of a face. Nathaniel moved back far enough for me to have a chance to focus on him. I repeated what he'd said. "Damian."
"Damian will die," Nathaniel said.
I blinked at him. I'd heard what he said, but it didn't seem to make sense to me. It must have shown on my face because Jean-Claude said, "I do not know if what your despair attempts is truly possible, but if you succeed, Damian will die. His blood flows only with your power, Anita. Without your power, your vampire servant will rise no more from his grave. He will die, and remain dead."
I stared at him, and again, it was as if his words didn't truly reach me.
He gripped my arm, tight, and tighter, until it hurt, but even that was a distant hurt. "Anita, I will not be blamed for this. If you accomplish this miracle, and break free of all of us, then you will kill Damian. I will not have you later say you did not understand. I will not take the blame, not for this." He was angry, but his anger could not touch me, and I was glad. His anger was no longer mine. I could cut him out, cut them all out of me.
Micah's voice, from the other side of me: "Breaking the triumvirate won't change the fact that you're pregnant, Anita. You'll still need to go to the hospital at two o'clock. That doesn't change."
I turned and looked at him, though it seemed to take a long time for me to do it. "The ardeur will go away."
"Are you sure of that?" he asked, quietly.
Jean-Claude's voice: "In truth, I do not know if the gifts and curses you gain through the vampire marks will vanish if the triumvirate breaks. It may leave you as I found you, alone and safe in your own skin, if that is what you truly desire. Or you may retain some abilities, but lose the aid of..." He hesitated, finally finishing with, "all of us, in your struggle with the ardeur."
I turned until I found his face, still out of focus, like I wasn't working quite right. "The ardeur will go away," I whispered.
"I simply do not know what will happen, because what I feel you doing is impossible. Only true death should be able to break you free of my marks. Since what you attempt has never been done, I do not know what the outcome will be." His voice was utterly bland, empty, as if his words meant nothing.
I tried to think about what he'd said. Even my thoughts seemed sluggish. What was wrong with me? I was hysterical, that was what was wrong with me. The moment I thought it that clearly, I started to calm. I didn't feel any better, really, but I could think. That was an improvement. I thought about being free of the ardeur, and that was a good thought. I thought about being free of Jean-Claude's marks, and all the metaphysical mess that came with it.
My life being my own again, that sounded good. I thought about being just me, as Jean-Claude said, just me in my own skin. Just me, alone, again. Alone again. I had a moment of absolutely joyous nostalgia for my life before I'd acquired so many people. To come home to an empty house didn't seem awful, it seemed relaxing.
Micah touched my face, turned me to look at him. I could see him clearly, finally. His kitty-cat eyes were so serious. "Nothing that is happening is worth dying over, Anita, please."
I thought he meant Damian, then realized he didn't. I wasn't cold just because I was trying to break the triumvirate. There was only one way to be free. One of us had to die. Could I break free? Maybe. Would I die trying? Maybe. The thought should have scared me, but it didn't. And that scared me. I know it sounds stupid, but it didn't scare me to think I might die, but it did scare me not to be scared. Stupid, but true.