JEAN-CLAUDE WASN'T AT the Circus of the Damned. The voice on the other end of the phone at the Circus didn't recognize me and wouldn't believe I was Anita Blake, Jean-Claude's sometimes sweetie. So I'd been reduced to calling his other businesses. I'd tried Guilty Pleasures, his strip club, but he wasn't there. I tried Danse Macabre, his newest enterprise, but I was beginning to wonder if Jean-Claude had simply told everyone that he wasn't in if I called.
The thought bothered me a lot. I'd worried that after so long Richard might finally tell me to go to hell, that he'd had enough of my indecision. It had never occurred to me that Jean-Claude might not wait. If I was so unsure how I felt about him, why was my stomach squeezed tight with a growing sense of loss? The feeling had nothing to do with the wereleopards and their problems. It had everything to do with me and the fact that I suddenly felt lost. But it turned out he was at Danse Macabre, and he took my call. I had a moment for my stomach to unclench and my breath to ease out, then he was on the phone, and I was struggling to keep my metaphysical shields in place.
I hated metaphysics. Preternatural biology is still biology, metaphysics is magic, and I'm still not comfortable with it. For six months when I wasn't working, I was meditating, studying with a very wise psychic named Marianne, learning ritual magic, so I could control my God-given abilities. And so I could block the marks that bound me to Richard and Jean-Claude. An aura is like your personal protection, your personal energy. When it's healthy it keeps you safe like skin, but you get a hole in it, and infection can get inside. My aura had two holes in it, one for each of the men. I suspected that their auras had holes in them, too. Which put us all at risk. I'd blocked up my holes. Then only a few weeks ago, I'd come up against a nasty creature, a would-be god, a new category, even for me. It had been powerful enough to strip all my careful work away, leaving me raw and open again. Only the intervention of a local witch had saved me from being eaten from the aura down. I didn't have six more months of celibacy, meditation, and patience in me. The holes were there, and the only way to fill them was with Jean-Claude and Richard. That's what Marianne said, and I trusted her in a way that I trusted few others.
Jean-Claude's voice hit me over the phone like a velvet slap. My breath caught in my throat, and I could do nothing but feel the flow of his voice, the presence of him, like something alive, flowing over my skin. His voice has always been one of Jean-Claude's best things, but this was ridiculous. This was over the phone. How could I possibly see him in person and maintain my shields, let alone my composure?
"I know you are there, ma petite. Did you call merely to hear the sound of my voice?"
That was closer to the truth than was comfortable. "No, no." I still couldn't gather my thoughts. I was like an athlete who had let her training go. I just couldn't lift the same amount of weight, and there was weight to wading through Jean-Claude's power.
When I still didn't say anything, he spoke again. "Ma petite, to what do I owe this honor? Why have you deigned to call me?" His voice was bland, but there was a hint of something in it. Reproach perhaps.
I guess I had it coming. I rallied the troops and tried to sound like an intelligent human being, not always one of my best things. "It's been six months ..."
"I am aware of that, ma petite."
He was being condescending. I hated that. It made me a little angry. The anger helped clear my head a little. "If you'll stop interrupting, I'll tell you why I called."
"My heart is all aflutter with anticipation."
I wanted to hang up. He was being an asshole, and part of me thought I might deserve the treatment, which made me even angrier. I'm always angriest when I think I'm in the wrong. I'd been a coward for months, and I was still a coward. I was afraid to be close to him, afraid of what I'd do. Damn it, Anita, get ahold of yourself. "Sarcasm is my department," I said.
"And what is my department?"
"I'm about to ask you for a favor," I said.
"Really?" He said it as if he might not grant it.
"Please, Jean-Claude, I'm asking for help. I don't do that often."
"That is certainly true. What would you have of me, ma petite? You know that you have but to ask, and it will be yours. No matter how angry I may be with you."
I let that comment go, because I didn't know what to do about it. "Do you know a club called Narcissus in Chains?"
He was quiet for a second or two. "Oui."
"Can you give me directions and meet me there?"
"Do you know what sort of a club this place is?"
"Are you sure?"
"It's a bondage club, I know."
"Unless the last six months has changed you greatly, ma petite, that is not one of your preferences."
"Not mine, no."
"Your wereleopards are misbehaving again?"
"Something like that." I told him what had happened.
"I do not know this Marco."
"I didn't figure you did."
"But you did think that I knew where the club was?"
"I was hoping."
"I will meet you there with some of my people. Or will you allow only me to ride to your rescue?" He sounded amused now, which was better than angry, I guess.
"Bring who you need."
"You trust my judgment?"
"In this, yeah."
"But not in all things," he said softly.
"I don't trust anyone in all things, Jean-Claude."
He sighed. "So young to be so ... jaded."
"I'm cynical, not jaded."
"And the difference is what, ma petite?"
He laughed then, the sound caressing me like the brush of a hand. It made things low in my body clench. "Ah," he said, "that explains all the differences."
"Just give me directions, please." I added the "please" to speed things along.
"They will not harm your wereleopards too greatly, I think. The club is run by shapeshifters, and they will smell too much blood and take matters into their own hands. It is one of the reasons Narcissus in Chains is no-man's-land, a neutral place for the fringe of our groups. Your leopards were right, it is usually a very safe place."
"Well, Gregory wasn't screaming because he felt safe."
"Perhaps not, but I know the owner. Narcissus would be very angry if someone became overzealous in his club."
"I would not expect you to. He does not often leave his club. But I will call him, and he will patrol your cats for you. He will not rescue them, but he will make sure no further damage is done."
"You trust Narcissus to do this?"
Jean-Claude had his faults, but if he trusted someone, he was usually right. "Okay. And thank you."
"You are most welcome." He drew a breath, then said quietly, "Would you have called if you had not needed my help? Would you ever have called?"
I'd been dreading this question from either Jean-Claude or Richard. But I finally had an answer "I'll answer your question as best I can, but call it a hunch, it may be a long conversation. I need to know my people are safe before we start dissecting our relationship."
"Relationship? Is that what we have?" His voice was very dry.
"No, no, ma petite, I will call Narcissus now and save your cats but only if you promise that when I call back we will finish this conversation."
"Your word," he said.
"Very well, ma petite, until we speak again." He hung up.
I hung up the phone and stood there. Was it cowardly to want to call someone else, anyone else, so the phone would be busy and we wouldn't have to have our little talk? Yeah, it was cowardly, but tempting. I hated talking about my personal life, especially to the people most intimately involved in it. I had just about enough time to change out of the skirt outfit when the phone rang. I jumped and answered it with my pulse in my throat. I was really dreading this conversation.
"Hello," I said.
"Narcissus will see to your cats' safety. Now, where were we?" He was silent for a heartbeat. "Oh, yes, would you ever have called if you had not needed my help?"
"The woman I'm studying with ..."
"Marianne," he said.
"Yes, Marianne. Anyway, she says that I can't keep blocking the holes in my aura. That the only way to be safe from preternatural creepy-crawlies is to fill the holes with what they were meant to hold."
Silence on the other end of the phone. Silence for so long that I said, "Jean-Claude, you still there?"
"I am here."
"You don't sound happy about this."
"Do you know what you are saying, Anita?" It was always a bad sign when he used my real name.
"I think so."
"I want this very clear between us, ma petite. I do not want you coming back to me later, crying that you did not understand how tightly this would bind us. If you allow Richard and me to truly fill the marks upon your ... body, we will share our auras. Our energy. Our magic."
"We're already doing that, Jean-Claude."
"In part, ma petite, but those are side effects of the marks. This will be a willing, knowledgeable joining. Once done, I do not think it can be undone without great damage to all of us."
It was my turn to sigh. "How many vampire challenges to your authority have there been while I've been off meditating?"
"A few," he said, voice cautious.
"More than a few I'd bet, because they sensed that your defenses are not complete. You had trouble backing them down without killing them, didn't you?"
"Let us say that I am glad that there were no serious challengers over the last year."
"You'd have lost without Richard and me to back you up, and you couldn't shield yourself without us there to touch. That worked when I was in town with you. Touching, being with each other helped us plug in to each other's power. It offset the problem."
"Oui," he said, softly.
"I didn't know, Jean-Claude. I'm not sure it would have made a difference, but I didn't know. God, Richard must be desperate--he doesn't kill like we do. His bluff is all that keeps the werewolves from tearing each other apart, and with two gaping holes in his most intimate defenses ..." I let my voice trail off, but I still remembered the cold horror I'd felt when I realized how much I'd endangered all of us.
"Richard has had difficulties, ma petite. But we each have only one chink in our armor, the one that only you can heal. He was driven to merge his energies with mine. As you say, his bluff is very important to him."
"I didn't know, and I'm sorry for that. All I've been thinking about was how scared I was of being overwhelmed by the two of you. Marianne told me the truth when she thought I was ready to hear it."
"And are you done being frightened of us, ma petite?" His voice was careful when he asked, as if he were carrying a very full cup of very hot liquid up a long and narrow staircase.
I shook my head, realized he couldn't see it, and said, "I'm not brave. I'm pretty much terrified. Terrified that if I do this, there is no going back, that maybe I'm fooling myself about a choice. Maybe there is no choice and hasn't been for a long time. But however we end up arranging the bedrooms, I can't let us all go around with gaping metaphysical wounds. Too many things will sense the weakness and exploit it."
"Like the creature you met in New Mexico," he said, voice still as cautious as I'd ever heard it.
"Yeah," I said.
"Are you saying that tonight you will agree to letting us merge the marks, that we will at last close these, as you so colorfully put it, wounds?"
"If it doesn't endanger my leopards, yeah. We need to do it as soon as possible. I'd hate to make the big decision and then have one of us get killed before we could batten down the hatches."
I heard him sigh, as if some great tension had left him. "You do not know how long I have waited for you to understand all this."
"You could have told me."
"You would not have believed me. You would have thought it was another trick to bind you closer to me."
"You're right, I wouldn't have believed you."
"Will Richard be meeting us at the club, as well?"
I was quiet for a heartbeat. "No, I'm not going to call him."
"Why ever not? It is a shapeshifter difficulty more than a vampire one."
"You know why not."
"You fear he will be too squeamish to allow you to do what needs doing to save your leopards."
"Perhaps," Jean-Claude said.
"You aren't going to tell me to call him?"
"Why would I ask you to invite my chief rival for your affections to this little tete-a-tete? That would be foolish. I am many things, but foolish is not one of them."
That was certainly true. "Okay, give me directions, and I'll meet you and your people at the club."
"First, ma petite, what are you wearing?"
"Clothes, ma petite, what clothes are you wearing?"
"Is this a joke? Because I don't have time ..."
"It is not an idle question, ma petite. The sooner you answer, the sooner we can all leave."
I wanted to argue, but if Jean-Claude said he had a point he probably did. I told him what I was wearing.
"You surprise me, ma petite. With a little effort it should do nicely."
"I suggest you add boots to your ensemble. The ones I purchased for you would do very well."
"I planned on you wearing those boots just for me, ma petite. I was thinking of the other boots with the milder heels that I bought when you were so very angry about the others."
Oh. "Why do I have to change shoes?"
"Because, delicate flower that you are, you have the eyes of a policeman, and so it would be better if you wore leather boots instead of high heels. It would be better if you remember that you are trying to move through the club as quickly and smoothly as possible. No one will help you find your leopards if they think you are an outsider, especially a policeman."
"Nobody ever mistakes me for a cop."
"No, but they begin to mistake you for something that smells of guns and death. Look harmless tonight, ma petite, until it is time to be dangerous."
"I thought this friend of yours, this Narcissus, would just escort us in."
"He is not my friend, and I told you the club is neutral ground. Narcissus will see that no great harm comes to your cats, but that is all. He will not let you come barging in to his world like the proverbial bull in the china shop. That, he will not allow, nor will he allow us to bring in a small army of our own. He is the leader of the werehyenas, and they are the only army allowed inside the club. There is no Ulfric, or Master of the City, within its walls. You have only the dominance you bring with you and your body to see you through."
"I'll have a gun," I said.
"But a gun will not get you into the upper rooms."
"Trust me, I will find a way."
I didn't like the sound of that at all. "Why is it that most of the time whenever I ask you for help, it's never a case where we can just run in and start shooting?"
"And why is it, ma petite, that when you do not invite me that it is almost always a case where you run in and shoot everything that moves?"
"Point taken," I said.
"What are your priorities for the night?" he asked.
I knew what he meant. "I want the wereleopards safe."
"I don't want any of us going to jail, but eventually if not tonight, another night, they die." I listened to myself say it, and knew that I meant it.
"There is no mercy in you, ma petite."
"You say that like it's a bad thing."
"No, it is merely an observation."
I stood there, holding the phone, waiting to be shocked at what I was proposing. But I wasn't. I said, "I don't want to kill anyone if I don't have to."
"That is not true, ma petite."
"Fine, if they've killed my people, I want them dead. But I decided in New Mexico that I didn't want to be a sociopath, so I'm trying to act as if I'm not. So let's try to keep the body count low tonight, okay?"
"As you wish," he said. Then he added, "Do you really think that you can change the nature of what you are merely by wishing it?"
"Are you asking if I can stop being a sociopath, since I already am one?"
"I don't know, but if I don't pull myself back from the brink soon, Jean-Claude, there won't be any going back."
"I hear fear in your voice, ma petite."
"Yeah, you do."
"What do you fear?"
"I fear that by giving in to you and Richard that I'll lose myself. I fear that by not giving in to you and Richard I'll lose one of you. I fear that I'll get us killed because I'm thinking too much. I fear that I'm already a sociopath and there is no going back. Ronnie said that one of the reasons that I can't give you up and just settle down with Richard is that I can't give up a boyfriend who's colder than I am."
"I am sorry, ma petite." I wasn't sure exactly what he was apologizing for, but I accepted it anyway.
"Me, too. Give me directions to the club, I'll meet you there."
He gave me directions, and I read them back to him. We hung up. Neither of us said good-bye. Once upon a time we'd have ended the conversation with je t'aime, I love you. Once upon a time.