"You rolled yourself," I said.
He closed his eyes and turned away. He spoke with his face averted from me. "The blade cuts both ways," he whispered.
"But if we've got better armor, then more of your power hits you than us, doesn't it?"
He nodded, still turned away.
I had a flash of satisfaction. Served him right. But on the heels of that petty pleasure came regret. Regret like bitter ashes. "Jesus," I whispered.
He turned. He'd lost the battle with the tears. They ran in pale pinkish tracks down his face.
"Of all the powers from Belle's line that I've had used on me, Auggie, yours is the most awful."
"How can you say that?" he asked. "The ardeur can enslave. Requiem can rape with a thought."
"Yeah, Requiem's power would be the ultimate date-rape drug, but he doesn't use it that way."
"He did once," Auggie said.
I processed that information, tested if it was a lie, but I didn't think it was. I shrugged. "Whatever he was as a young vampire, he's not that now. But the ardeur is just lust, and so is Requiem's power. It doesn't steal the emotions; yours does."
"And you think that is a worse crime?"
I nodded. "Yeah, I do."
"You hate me." He whispered it.
I nodded. "Yes."
He turned away, and took a step. I caught his arm. He froze under that one small touch, as if I'd turned him to stone. I knew that reaction. That was the reaction when the merest brush of someone's hand meant more to you than almost anything in the world, and it meant nothing to them. It was how I'd felt off and on with Richard. As if my entire life were in the hand that touched him, and he didn't care. It was one of the reasons that I'd fought free of him. It was too hard to love that much, and hate that much at the same time.
I used that touch to turn Auggie back to me. He let me do it, though he could have fought and won. I was stronger than a normal human now, but Auggie's bicep was thicker than my thigh. In a fair fight, I'd lose, but Auggie's own power had made certain he'd never have a fair fight with me.
I looked into his eyes, watching him try to be angry, instead of hurt. "What a terrible power you have, Augustine," I said, softly, "to offer true love and mean it. People must have been willing to trade anything, everything, for such a gift."
He nodded. "Without the ardeur to trap me back, I could have made you love me without risking this much of myself. I know everything about my power, Anita. I can make a person love me, really love me, and not love them back."
I dropped his arm. "Have you done that?"
"You're right, Anita, I have a terrible power. At first it was just the ability to make people like me, then love, but what I didn't realize, at first, was that it was a two-edged blade. I could only cut my prey as deep as I was willing to be cut."
"That changed," I said.
He nodded. The tear tracks were drying on his face. He made no move to wipe them away. "I learned control. I learned to trap others without trapping myself, as Jean-Claude learned with the ardeur. I don't know if Requiem ever learned how to cause lust in only one side of his equation."
"I did not." Requiem came in, moving slowly, carefully. He was wearing his usual black cloak, so the injuries were hidden, but he moved like things still hurt. Someone had used cover-up on the worst of the facial bruises. It was a good job. You had to look to see the discoloration; even then, if I hadn't known it was bruises, I might not have seen.
Auggie glanced at him, then back at me. "But most of us do, eventually."
"So if our power hadn't tripped you up, you'd have been willing to make me love you, really love you, and not love me back?"
"I didn't think that clearly, but I would not willingly have loved you, no."
"You really are a bastard," I said.
He nodded. "Chicago has no mob but the old-school Italian. I've kept out the Russians, the Ukrainians, the Chinese, the Koreans, the Japanese. No one, absolutely no one, takes power from me. While almost every other mob stronghold has been whittled away, I've held my territory against everyone. To do that, Anita, you have to be a bastard. A cold-blooded, murderous bastard."
"You hide it well," I said. "The laugh is great."
"I work at appearing human; it makes the other bosses be less afraid."
"The head of Vegas is an old-time mobster, too."
Auggie shook his head. "He stopped being a force in the mob when he became a vampire. It takes a while to recover from it, and by the time Maximillian was powerful enough to take back some of it, times had changed, and he didn't change with them. He's powerful, and runs Vegas, but he's not a boss anymore."
We stood there staring at each other.
Jean-Claude came up behind me. He touched my shoulder, and when I didn't pull away, he hugged me from behind. The look on Auggie's face, seeing us together, was painful, and strangely satisfying. If he'd had his way, it would be me with that stricken look, and him cool and calm. Evil bastard, but even thinking it, I couldn't own it. Damn it.
"The night wastes away. Soon we will have to change for the ballet," Jean-Claude said.
Auggie nodded. "Yeah, yeah."
"We need to decide if ma petite is too dangerous to go out among the other Masters of the City."
Auggie nodded again. "I'll help you figure it out, if I can. I owe you for the breach in hospitality. I owe Anita for what I tried to do to her." He looked away from both of us, staring at nothing. "It's been a long time since I've felt the full weight of my own power. I'd forgotten how much it f**kin' hurts."
"Excuse me." Noel was standing beside us.
We both turned and looked at him. I don't know what he saw on our faces, but he backed up fast until he was out of reach of both of us. "May I approach?"
"No," Auggie said.
"Yes," I said.
We looked at each other.
Noel dropped to all fours. He didn't bow, just dropped to all fours where he was standing. "I don't know what to do; I can't please you both."
"What is your problem, Auggie?" I said.
"He asked a question, I answered it," Auggie said.
"Fine, you answered it for yourself, not for me." I stepped away from Auggie, closer to Noel. Auggie grabbed my upper arm.
I tensed, but didn't try to pull away. I knew I'd lose if it was just brute strength. I looked at him, then at the hand on my arm. I looked back at him. "You did not just do that."
"And you did not just step away from me to go to anyone this submissive."
"Do you ever want to experience the ardeur again, Auggie?"
He looked puzzled for a moment, but I knew in a way that that was an act. He might have been truly puzzled, but he worked at human facial expressions. "You know I do."
"Move the hand, or you won't ever touch me again."
We stared at each other for a moment, then he let me go. "I heard you were dangerous, powerful, and quick to kill. What none of my spies caught, is that your force of will is the most dangerous thing about you. God, your eyes, the determination in your eyes." He shook his head. "You mean it. You would truly cut me off because of this."
"Why, because I grabbed your arm?"
"Because you're acting like you own me. Nobody owns me."
Micah got off the love seat and started toward us. It drew Auggie's gaze to him. "Your lion injured Travis and abused Noel. I think you owe them some consideration."
"Spoken like a leopard," Auggie said, "so practical, so willing to negotiate." He made those all sound like bad things.
"You really are very much your animal to call, aren't you?" Micah said.
"For those of us who are confused, could you explain a little more?" I said.
Micah said, "Lions are the most aggressive society among all the cats. To be a lion is to be always ready to defend your place in the pride. Unless you are very dominant or very strong, or make people fear you enough to be left alone. Noel and Travis are lesser, and Auggie treats them as if he were a dominant lion. A few dominant lions in most prides mate with all the females."
"Joseph's pride isn't run like that," I said, "it's closer to how the leopards run things."
Micah nodded. "Joseph's pride is the exception, Anita. Remember, I spent years trapped with a mixed group. It can take forever to do business with lions because everything is a pissing contest. Joseph thinks more like a leopard?ery reasonable, especially for a lion."