I had to do better than this, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I had to do better than this.
Richard hugged me from behind, bending all that six-feet-plus of warmth and muscle around me. "Please, Anita, don't do this." His breath was so warm, almost hot, against my hair.
I looked up at him, from inches away. His eyes were perfectly brown, warm, and full of so much emotion. "You'd be free."
He shook his head, his eyes shiny. "I don't want to be free that badly."
"Don't you?" I asked.
"No, this price is too high. Don't leave me, not like this." He held me close, his hair long enough now that it tickled along my face. I buried my face in the warm, sweet scent of his neck, but I knew it was a lie.
I cuddled against him, as tight and close as I could. I buried myself against the warmth and strength of him, and it still felt wonderful. It still felt so right, but I knew it wasn't. We were both too stubborn for it to work.
I was crying again, and wasn't sure why. Crying my regrets out against the warmth of Richard's neck. The coulda-beens, shoulda-beens, woulda-beens. I wrapped myself around him, legs, arms, all of it, and clung to him, clung to him and cried.
A hand stroked the back of my hair, and a voice said, "Ma petite, ma petite, drop these shields, let us inside again."
I turned my head to look at him while I clung to Richard. I stared up into that face, those midnight-blue eyes. His hand stroked along the edge of my face, and it wasn't enough. Whatever I'd done to myself, I'd walled myself up tight. Since I hadn't tried to cut myself off on purpose, I didn't know how to undo what I'd done. How do you undo an accident?
I tried to explain. "I'm head-blind. I can't feel anything metaphysically. I didn't mean to cut us up." I knew now I'd survive what I'd tried to do, but would everyone else? I reached out to Damian. Even dead in his coffin for the day, I should have been able to sense him. Nothing. Fear washed over me, and all the warmth I'd started to regain flowed away on that tide of fear.
I grabbed the edge of Jean-Claude's robe. "I can't feel Damian! I can't feel him, at all!"
"We must breach your shields, ma petite. We must reawaken your powers."
I nodded. "Yes."
"I am your master, Anita, my very marks can keep me out of your shields. We are running out of time for Damian. I would ask that you allow Asher and Requiem to help me breach your shields."
"I don't understand."
"I do not have time to explain, but it does not truly matter which of us breaks down these new stronger walls, only that they break. Once broken, then your own power will be set free, and it will find Damian."
I wanted to argue, but that emptiness where Damian should have been scared me. I nodded. "Do it."
"You must take off your cross first."
I didn't ask how he knew I was wearing one. Richard let me slide down his body enough so I could use my hands to unhook the chain. Jean-Claude had stepped away, not far, but far enough that he would not accidentally touch it. I spilled the chain into Richard's waiting hand.
I met his eyes, while his hand closed around my cross. "Put it in the bedside drawer," I said.
He nodded. "So it won't glow."
I nodded. I admitted to myself in that one moment why I'd stopped wearing a cross most of the time. Oh, I kept one in my vampire-hunting bag, but I didn't wear one much. To bed, but, oh, hell. I kept waiting for the cross to glow when I did something. I kept waiting for the cross to glow because of some vampiric ability that I'd inherited from Jean-Claude. I kept waiting for it to glow against me. What was left of my nerves couldn't have handled it, today.
Richard moved across the bed enough to lean over and open the bedside table drawer. He set the cross in carefully, and closed the drawer. He crawled back across the bed, until he was kneeling in front of me again. "I spend so much effort keeping you out of my mind, my heart, and now it's like this void inside me. I keep trying to break up with you, stupid me. It's like trying to break up with your own hand. You can live without it, but you're not whole."
"Can you sense Damian?" Jean-Claude asked.
"I can sense vampires with a cross on, Jean-Claude; that's never made any difference to my necromancy."
"Humor me," he said.
I humored him. I shook my head. "Empty, like he's not there." I'd managed to chase the fear back, but it fluttered through my stomach, tingled the tips of my fingers. "Is it too late? Please, God, don't let it be too late." Inside my head, I added, Don't let me have killed him.
I watched Jean-Claude's eyes spill blue, until his pupils and the white were lost to the glowing, deep blue of his power. I sat on the bed only a few yards from him, while his power rose enough to fill his eyes with fire, and I felt nothing. At least my necromancy should have felt it, if not the vampire marks. I'd been psychically blind, head-blind, from shock or illness before, but never to this degree. It both scared me, and gave me hope. Maybe I couldn't sense Damian because I couldn't have sensed anyone right then.
Richard shivered beside me, then slid to the floor. "You don't feel that, do you?" His eyes were a little wide. The small hairs on his arms were standing at attention.
"No," I said.
He looked at Micah and Nathaniel, who were still on the bed, though they'd moved back to give us room. "I think we all need to clear a space for them to work."
Micah kissed my cheek. Nathaniel brushed his cheek against mine, scent-marking me. They slid off the far side of the bed. Jean-Claude moved up until he was beside the bed. He raised a hand above my face. I felt it, the press of his aura, but faintly, as if my skin were wrapped in cotton, and he could not touch me.
He laid his hand against my face, and that one touch spread in a shivering line across my skin. "Ma petite." The words breathed along my spine, as if he'd spilled a line of water down my skin. I shivered for him again, and it felt great, but... I opened my eyes and looked up at him. "It's like years ago. I always felt your voice, your touch, but..."
"You have shut yourself away, ma petite, in a tower formed partially of my own vampire marks. You have used my own power against me."
"Not on purpose," I said.
Asher glided into view. His eyes were already full of pale blue light. He'd called power, and I'd felt nothing. He came to stand beside Jean-Claude. "More drastic measures, I think."
I looked up at him, in his satin robe, the deep burnished gold of it that was nothing to the shine of his own hair. "What did you have in mind?" I asked.
Jean-Claude stepped back, giving his place to the other man. Asher raised his hand, laying it against my face in an echo of what Jean-Claude had done moments before. They had always been able to echo each other like that, I thought, and on the tail of that thought, memory crashed over me. I'd shared Jean-Claude's memories before, but not like this. It wasn't one memory, or two, but hundreds. Hundreds of images flooding my mind, drowning me in the scent of Asher's skin, the spill of Belle's hair around our bodies like a second body to caress us all. A woman with hair the color of copper spilled across our pillows, and our mouths locked on her neck, her hands struggling at the scarves that bound her to the bed. A blond, whose br**sts we marked together, so that she bore twin love bites. A man in a long, powdered wig, his pants down around his knees, and both of us between his thighs, not for sex, but for blood, and it was what he wanted. Women with their clothing in disarray, red hair in every shade from nearly blond to darkest auburn; blondes from white to gold; brunettes from deep brown to true black; skin like ripe grain, or dark coffee, or wood. Tall, short, thin, fat, starved; bodies flowing under our hands, against our bodies, so that it was as if I experienced a thousand nights of debauchery in heartbeats. But in every memory they moved like shadows of each other. Jean-Claude took the woman, or the man, for sex, or blood, or both, and knew that his golden shadow would be there. That Asher would match his movements, that he would be there to help, to catch the pleasure and make it more. I hadn't realized until that moment that they weren't lovers, but more than that. They had been truly the best and closest person in each other's lives.
I drowned in their memories, drowned in the scent of a thousand lovers, a thousand victims, a thousand pleasures won and lost. I drowned, and like any drowning man, I reached out to save myself.
I reached out metaphysically for someone, anyone. The memories hit Richard like a flood hitting a boulder. I felt the memories crash against him, sweep up and around him. I heard him cry out, and waited for him to push me away, to lock me out, but he didn't. He let me cling to him, let me try to make him my rock in the flood of sensations and memories. I felt his confusion, his fear, his revulsion, and his desire to push it all away, to not have these memories, of all memories. The thought came: there are worse memories.