Ruin
by indie
Et Toujours! Et Jamais! Series



Three hours didn’t turn out to be three hours.  It was more like six.  Larry had called me and asked me for a favor.  Animators Inc. was so backlogged they were looking at civil suits from impatient customers.  Who would have thought it would be a time sensitive job?  We were dealing with dead people.  If it had just been Bert, I would have let him hang, but odds were that the animators would be named in the suit as well.  I couldn’t let that happen to Larry and Manny, and I had some strong suspicions that though I hadn’t been out on a call in more than four months that I would be named as well.  So I agreed to help out for the night.  I should have known better.  That weasel, Bert, had me raise five zombies.  My quick favor turned into an all night affair.

I wasn’t looking forward to going back to work full time.  Technically, my four months of leave were gone and Bert had finally stopped paying me.  But I hadn’t quit and he hadn’t fired me.  I was just sort of AWOL.  I really wanted to tell Bert to shove the job, but something kept me from doing it.  Maybe it was the money.  I didn’t like the idea of being financially dependent on Jean-Claude.  It was a good reason, but somehow I doubted it.  I’m an animator, but more than that I’m a necromancer.  It’s not a job description, it’s who I am.  I have an affinity with the dead.  My power is like a muscle that needs to be flexed.  If I didn’t work it regularly and control it, bad things tended to happen.  There is more than one reason I don’t keep pets anymore.

Tired and dirty, I pulled the Jeep into the small parking lot behind The Circus and cursed under my breath.  I hated staying at The Circus.  I had a house out in the suburbs with the white picket fence and everything.  It seemed a much more reasonable place to raise Phillip, even if it also housed my pard of wereleopards.  It gave me a superficial sense of normalcy.

I grabbed my jacket out of the back seat and shrugged into it.  I wasn’t cold.  I lived in Saint Louis and it was almost June, it was already hot and sticky.  But I was covered in chicken blood and despite the fact that it was less than two hours to dawn, The Circus would still be packed with people.  None of them should be in the sections of The Circus that I was planning to visit, but I didn’t want to chance it.  I wasn’t in the mood to be stared at.  The Circus had lots of oddities for curious gawkers, but I wasn’t on display.  I slammed the Jeep’s door shut and headed for the service entrance.

As a rule, I prefer baths before heading to bed, but not when covered in chicken gore.  Jean-Claude had installed a shower in his private bathroom and I was making good use of it while he waited in bed with our sleeping son.  I didn’t know if I would ever get used to my connection to Jean-Claude.  So much inside of me rebelled against it, against our attraction to one another.  He was a monster, I believed that, I just wasn’t so sure anymore that I wasn’t one too.  Bully for Phillip.  Maybe Bert would make me enough money to pay for all of Phillip’s therapy bills.

I opened the bathroom door, wrapped in my own thick terrycloth robe.  Jean-Claude had given me some gauzy silk and lace thing that I had promptly “lost”.  There were definite limits to how much I would allow him to insinuate himself into my life.  Most people would probably laugh at that comment.  We were together.  We had a child.  Maybe for some people that would equal happily ever after.  But I’ve already established that Jean-Claude and I are not people.

My lover was on the bed, lying on his back, with Phillip asleep and drooling on his bare chest.  I never would have taken Jean-Claude for the Mr. Mom type.  Shows you how much I know.  His devotion to Phillip never ceased to amaze me.  There were times when Phillip would be crying and I was almost at my wit’s end and Jean-Claude would simply take him and hold him.  He’d look down into that screaming red face and smile with an unearthly serenity.  I don’t know how he did it.  But he did.  And I was deeply grateful.

Jean-Claude slowly opened his eyes and looked at me.  He noticed the robe, but he didn’t say anything.  Point for the vampire.  “How was your evening with Lawrence?” he asked quietly, mindful of the infant on his chest.

I sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed.  “I didn’t work with Larry,” I said.  “Bert had all of us out on cases alone.  More efficient that way.”

Jean-Claude nodded.  He didn’t seem to see anything wrong with Bert’s business practices.  They had the same work ethic, success at any cost and neither of them cared what anyone thought of them.  Somehow I’d never noticed how similar Bert and Jean-Claude were.  It wasn’t a happy thought.

“Is something wrong, ma petite?” he asked.

I shrugged.  “I was just thinking that if you were in Bert’s position that you would probably do the same thing,” I said.

Jean-Claude watched me for a moment and then said, “Indeed.”

I frowned at him.  From the moment I met him, I had always known that underneath all of the sensuality and beauty that Jean-Claude’s core was absolutely ruthless.  For a long time, that kept me away from him, but now it kept me near.  His ruthlessness extended to Phillip’s protection.  He would protect him at any cost and he would never leave him.  A big part of my problem with Richard was his bleeding heart.  He was obsessed with finding non-violent ways to get things done.  In our world, violence was the currency in which we traded.  I loved Richard and I lusted after him.  A lot.  But I didn’t trust him to get the job done when it counted.  And I didn’t trust him to protect himself.  Richard was a victim at heart.  The only thing that saved him from ending up in a body bag was that he was incredibly powerful.  Jean-Claude was so not a victim that the very idea was laughable.  He would survive and if he survived, Phillip would survive.  Funny how your idea of important characteristics in a mate changes over time.

I nudged Jean-Claude and he scooted over on the bed. The movement jostled Phillip and he started to fuss.  His big blue eyes opened and he looked unhappily at Jean-Claude.  I propped a few pillows up against the headboard and my movement caught his eye.  When he realized it was me, the squalling started in earnest.  Jean-Claude gave me a bemused look and handed me the baby.  I leaned back against the pillows and pulled him close, cuddling him.  Jean-Claude propped himself up on one elbow to watch as Phillip settled back to sleep, snuggled to my chest.

He was still watching when I bundled Phillip in his little blanket and put him down on the other side of the bed so that I was between my son and my lover.  I made a move to straighten my robe and Jean-Claude stopped me.  The look in his eyes made me swallow audibly.  I looked nervously at Phillip.

“He is fine, ma petite,” Jean-Claude whispered, drawing me near.

My expression must not have looked convinced because he chuckled lightly.  “Twentieth century sensibilities are so amusing,” he said with a smile.  “I assure you that for a very long time, it was not uncommon for children to share a bed with their parents.”

I chewed on my bottom lip and looked at him.  “I don’t want to wake him,” I said.

“Then we shall be very quiet,” Jean-Claude said as he pulled me closer and sealed his lips to mine.

*****
It was late morning when I woke.  Don’t ask me how I knew, I just did.  Even though we were deep underground, in Jean-Claude’s private chambers beneath The Circus, I instinctively knew where the sun was in the sky.

Thankfully, Phillip was still sleeping.  I tried to make sure he stayed that way as I scooted off the bed and ran for the bathroom.  I made it to the toilet before throwing up all of the meager contents of my stomach and then doing a good deal of dry heaving.  I knelt on the floor panting heavily as I rested my forehead against the cool porcelain.

Phillip’s cry sounded from the bedroom and I groaned.  My stomach spasmed painfully, letting me know that regardless of the fact that my baby was crying, it wasn’t done with me yet.  I retched violently into the bowl, dry heaving so hard that I felt like I was going to crack a rib.  When it passed, I rested my head against the rim again.  Phillip’s crying had stopped and I sighed in relief.  This deep underground and in his lair, Jean-Claude could move about during the day.  It wasn’t something he did often, but with Phillip in distress, he made the effort.

Despite his silence, I knew when Jean-Claude padded up behind me.  “Ma petite?” he said gently.

I laughed mirthlessly, but didn’t raise my head.  “It’s not me,” I said before I tore off a handful of toilet paper to wipe my mouth.

“I know,” he said, and there was a surprising hint of worry in his voice.  “I have also felt this sickness.”

I turned and met his gaze, regardless of the fact that I knew I looked terrible.  How was the sickness bothering him?  Definitely not as violently as it was bothering me.  Of course, I was physically the weakest of our triumvirate.  “I’ll be out in a minute,” I said.  He nodded and left.

I flushed the toilet and grimaced.  Wounds I could deal with; stab me, shoot me, break my arm.  Queasy stomachs though, they were at the top of my list of unpleasant things.  Somewhere close to having someone stick me with a needle.  Morning sickness had been one thing.  I put up with it because I had no choice and because I knew when it boiled down to it, it had been my own fault I was sick.  I had sex with Jean-Claude.  We weren’t as careful as we should have been.  I ended up pregnant and nauseous.  I made my bed and I lay in it, miserable though I was.

This, however, was not my bed.   This was not my sickness.  I knew for a fact that I wasn’t pregnant.  I had taken some pretty serious precautions.  It wasn’t so much that I abhorred the idea of another child.  I loved my son and the experience of being a mother was infinitely more rewarding and enjoyable than I ever could have foreseen.  But I was not going though another nine months of wondering if I was going to give birth to a revenant or a stillborn child.  If Jean-Claude decided he wanted more kids, he was going to have to find another broodmare.  I wasn’t taking anymore chances.   My left arm was already covered with mounds of scar tissue, so what was one more?  It wasn’t a scar really, I’m a human servant and my healing abilities are phenomenal, but you could feel the six tiny bumps under the skin.  They felt like match sticks.  This form of birth control was supposed to be good for five years and the only way around that was to physically remove it.  When I said no more kids, I meant it.  The only reason I chose this method over a more permanent surgical procedure was that the doctors would have had to put me under.  I didn’t have that kind of time.  I had a baby and a pard to deal with.  I’m not really sure which one ate up more of my time.

I pushed myself to my feet and walked over to the sink.  I avoided looking at myself in the mirror.  I knew I looked like hell, I didn’t need visual confirmation.  I brushed my teeth and headed into the bedroom.

Jean-Claude was giving Phillip a bottle.  The contraceptive prevented me from nursing.  Yes, I felt like a bad mother. No, I wasn’t going to reconsider.  I curled up on the bed and looked at our son.  Okay, so I wasn’t so much looking at Phillip as avoiding looking at Jean-Claude, but I was feeling particularly cowardly this morning.

Richard was sick.  I knew this.  Jean-Claude knew this.  The entire pack knew this.  He was so sick that it was physically impacting the rest of the triumvirate.  I didn’t know if Richard’s sickness was physical or mental, but it was definitely manifesting physically in me.

More than a month ago, Jean-Claude had pretty much convinced me to renew my relationship with Richard.  I had yet to do anything about it.  Every time I looked at Phillip, I hesitated.  I always got these flashes of him in second grade telling his class about his mommy’s boyfriend and about how well Uncle Richard got along with his daddy.  It just made me cringe.  I so did not want to be one of those women.  I may have been a candidate for Federal prison, but I didn’t particularly want to be one for Jerry Springer.

So I hadn’t talked to Richard.  I hadn’t been a particularly big help with Dolph’s ongoing investigation either.  That fact alone was bothering me more than my nausea.  Richard was Richard.  I couldn’t do anything about the fact that he was pissed I had chosen Jean-Claude.  Dolph’s investigation, however ... that was different.  After Nathaniel’s murder I kept the pard close.  On the nights I didn’t sleep with Jean-Claude, I slept with them.  Me and Phillip curled up in a mound of bodies like a bunch of puppies.  Sad as it was, Nathaniel’s death made me realize my place with them.  I am their Nimir-Ra, their animal mother, their alpha, their protector.  If anyone wanted to hurt any of my leopards ever again, they were going to have to go through me to do it, and through the small contingent of constant bodyguards I had protecting them.  Was it stupid to have a bunch of vampires protecting a pard of wereleopards?  Maybe.  I didn’t care.  Damien was mine.  If I said ‘protect the leopards’, he did it.  Same with a couple of Jean-Claude’s muscle, though their orders came from him not me.  No one was hurting my pard again.

But the fact that the Blooddrinker’s pard was safe didn’t mean that the murders had stopped.  They were still happening.  Three of the victims had been lukoi.  I was lupa.  I could feel Richard through the marks.  Their deaths lay heavy on my conscience.  Maybe not as sharp as Nathaniel, but they were there.  And I wasn’t doing anything to stop it because I was too much of a coward to talk to Richard.

“He will drag us all down with him,” Jean-Claude said softly.

I buried my head in the pillow and sighed.  “I know,” I said.

“Jason is available to escort you to Monsieur Zeeman’s home this morning,” he said.  It wasn’t an order.  I may have been his human servant, but Jean-Claude studiously avoided power plays with me.  It was sort of like the relationship I had with Edward.  Respect.  We treaded carefully with one another mostly because there was no way to find out who was better without going all the way.  With me and Edward, it would mean drawing down and one of us dying.  With Jean-Claude it would mean finding out once and for all who was Master.  On one hand, Jean-Claude was Master of the City and I was his human servant, but on the other, I was a necromancer and he was really just an animated corpse.  You didn’t live to be four hundred years old without learning how to be careful.  I knew that Jean-Claude had no intention of ever pressing the issue with me.

“Fine,” I said.  I pushed myself into a sitting position and looked at my lover.  His midnight blue eyes were soft.  He blinked slow, like a cat.  God, he’s beautiful.  He leaned forward and kissed me deeply – and then he sent me off to see our Richard.

*****
Richard’s house was like mine, in the middle of nowhere.  Normally his place looked like a Normal Rockwell painting, the perfect little sanctuary for a family.  At least, that’s how it had looked the last time I saw it, more than a year ago.  Now it looked like it was a rental for a bunch of frat boys.  The yard was a mess with trash and empty beer cans strewn about.

On the Edge.  That’s how both Irving and Jean-Claude had described Richard.  I hadn’t really believed them, despite the fact that I could feel how unwell my former fiancé was.  Richard had been there when Phillip was born and he seemed composed enough at the time.  Maybe he wasn’t jumping for joy, but I hadn’t seen him as a man whose life was spiraling out of control.  Maybe he’d been wearing a mask for me.  It was a sobering thought.  If Richard had managed to become that good of an actor, what else about him had changed?

Jason pulled into the driveway, parking behind Richard’s 4x4.  His Mustang was presumably in the garage, but there was another vehicle I didn’t recognize, a newer Ford Ranger with deep metallic purple paint.  It was eleven o’clock in the morning on a Saturday.  Richard’s company had stopped by early.

I caught Jason’s eyes in the mirror and then looked at the truck.  “Anyone you know?” I asked.

Jason shifted the Jeep into park, but left the engine on so the air conditioner would run.  He shifted in his seat to look at me.  “Richard has a lot of new ... friends,” he said.

Jason wasn’t subtle, especially when it came to sex.  His meaning was starkly clear.  Richard’s company hadn’t come by early, they’d stayed late.  There was another woman in bed with Richard right this moment.  The mere thought of it made my stomach roil again.  I hated myself for it, but it was true.  I had a child with Jean-Claude, but the idea of Richard sleeping around made me ill.  I took a deep breath.  “Anyone you know?” I asked.  I was trying for nonchalance and failing miserably.

Jason shook his head.  “Richard gets around.  A lot.  He’s fucked or fucking every dominant female lukoi he can find as well as some heavy petting with human women.”

I swallowed harshly and tasted bile. I was going to be adult about this if it killed me.  Richard had a lover before, but he’d been celibate for years, just like me.  Apparently, he was singing a different tune now.  “He must be eager to get rid of me,” I said.

Jason shrugged and sat back in his seat, looking at Richard’s house.  “He seems eager, but I don’t buy it.  He could have replaced you by now, but he didn’t.  He’s just fucking around, hurting you, hurting himself.”

I was silent for almost a minute as I thought about what Jason had said.  “So you think he’s trying to get back at me rather than get rid of me?” I asked.

“You got it,” he said.

“Wonderful,” I said dryly.

*****
I climbed out of the Jeep, walking through the too tall grass towards the front door.  A broken lawn chair was lying in the weeds.  This wasn’t like Richard.  He was usually so composed, so controlled.  He was a junior high teacher and he loved his job.  School had been out for a month and it looked like he’d been on a bender since then.  I wasn’t certain I wanted to walk into his home, but I didn’t have any choice.

The door was unlocked.  Stupid move, but I guess if you can survive a non-silver shotgun blast to the chest it’s not such a big deal.  I pushed the door open and stepped into Richard’s living room.  Or what was left of it.  My God.  Richard’s house looked like it had been ransacked.  For a good minute I stood there wondering if he’d been burglarized when I realized that there was a pattern to the carnage.  Over the course of our relationship, I’d given Richard a few presents and I’d managed to leave a few things at his house.  The tapes I had given him were shredded and strewn across the floor, a picture of the two of us together was nailed to the wall with a huge hunting knife.

I took a deep breath.  Damn Richard for falling apart like this.  People got dumped every day, but they didn’t let it ruin their lives.  I stalked down the hallway to his bedroom and pushed open the door ...

And instantly regretted it.

She was blonde.  I noticed that much.  Of course, how could I miss it?  Her head was bobbing up and down in Richard’s crotch.  I turned and looked at the wall, but I didn’t leave.

“I need to talk to you.  Now,” I said.

“I’m kind of busy at the moment,” he said.  His voice was breathy with a slight grunting to it.  I doubted she was that good.  He was just showing off for my benefit.  He knew the second I walked in the house, hell, probably the second I stepped out of the Jeep.  He set up this whole scene.

“Yeah, real busy,” I said.  “I’ll bet twenty bucks you don’t know what her name is.”

I was looking at the mirror on his dresser, it let me see their faces without getting the rest of the show.  The woman looked at him.  Richard was wracking his brain so hard I was surprised smoke wasn’t rising off the top of his head.  I tried not to laugh.  It really wasn’t funny.

“You bastard!” the nameless chippie barked before jumping off the bed. She was definitely lukoi.  As she brushed past me to storm down the hall, I could feel it, but it wasn’t overpowering.  Given how visibly angry she was, that was something of a shock.  Jason had said Richard was sleeping with dominant females, but the chippie definitely wasn’t a dominant.  A dominant I could have sensed from the doorway, but I hadn’t known she was lukoi until she brushed against me.  So, she wasn’t a dominant, she’d just been convenient.  I didn’t think it was possible, but Richard slid down another notch in my estimation.

Richard met my glare in the mirror and I smiled sweetly.  I knew if I was waiting for him to get dressed that it would be a cold day in hell.  It was fine. I’d seen him naked before.  I turned to face him and his full Monty.  His enthusiasm was apparently waning.

I looked at him, really looked at him, and cringed.  He looked terrible.  He was muscled, much more so than the last time I saw him, but leaner as well.  The bones in his face stood out in harsh relief.  I never though of Richard as carrying around any fat, but I guess he had because there wasn’t an ounce of it on him now.  It was like he couldn’t abide any softness at all.  His hair was longer, probably reaching the middle of his back, but it was greasy and unkempt.  The bedroom was even more of a mess than the rest of the house.  It looked like he hadn’t changed the sheets in months, which was really disgusting because they were navy blue sheets.  Certain types of stains show up really well on dark sheets.

“You look like shit, Richard,” I said.  And people say I’m not politic.  Right.

“Why are you here?” he countered just as tactlessly.

I smiled and it was really more of a baring of teeth.  “To see if you’ve really become as pathetic as everyone says,” I replied.

Richard growled and there was nothing human about the sound.  I felt his power prickle over my skin and it was hard to breathe.  All of the hair on the back of my neck stood up.  Richard plays harmless really well.  It’s easy to forget that he’s Ulfric.  I was regretting my mistake.

He got out of the bed.  I don’t know how to describe it.  He didn’t climb or crawl or jump.  It was just this fluid movement, like he had muscle and bone and sinew in places where humans don’t have them.  Werewolves are fast.  Very fast.  But Richard wasn’t going for speed.  He stalked towards me very slowly.  My sense of self preservation was screaming for me to run for the door.  I held my ground for several different reasons.  First off, I didn’t back down for anyone.  Secondly, even if I had run, Richard would have caught me before I made it out of the bedroom.  Better to seem brave than defeated.

He kept coming until I had to back up to avoid touching him.  My back hit the wall.  He stopped walking, but leaned forward, placing his hands against the wall on either side of my head.  I met his gaze without flinching.  He looked me up and down, appraising me like I was a piece of meat.

His lip curled into a snarl.  “I don’t take a vampire’s sloppy seconds,” he sneered.

I swallowed hard and cursed myself for blushing.  I had showered before I went to bed last night, not after.  Lycanthropes have amazing senses of smell.

“Classy, Richard,” I said.  “But I’m sure you’ve picked up on the fact that I’m not offering.”  Ha ha.  Use his predator’s instincts against him.  Sure, he knew that I had sex with Jean-Claude, but he also had to know that being near him wasn’t turning me on at the moment.  That said a lot.  Usually simply being near Richard was enough to make my body run hot.  Seeing him without clothes and I automatically lost forty I.Q. points.  Today, nothing was happening.

He flinched like I had struck him and backed up.  I kept the eye contact, mostly because I was afraid if I let my gaze wander that an offer might be issued by my body, regardless of what my mind thought.

“You’re not welcome here,” he said.  “Get out.”

“I’m your lupa,” I countered, staying rooted where I was.

He looked at me and I think he wanted his expression to be condescending and hurtful.  It wasn’t.  I could see the naked pain in his eyes.  “Only until I find a replacement,” he said.

“Replacement?” I asked incredulously.  “You’re not looking for a replacement, Richard.  You’re looking for a distraction.  There is no way the chippie that was in here this morning could ever be lupa, even if she is lukoi.”

Richard’s jaw tightened as he looked at me.  It must have hurt to know I was right.  A lot of lukoi openly opposed my position as lupa.  They didn’t feel that a human could ever be dominant to lukoi.  If they had seen the chippie, they might have changed their tune.  She was lukoi, but she wasn’t dominant.  She was meat.  I had been accused of being a lot of things, but meat was never one of them.

His expression changed and he laughed.  It was not a happy sound.  He stepped backwards and sat down on the bed, cradling his head in his hands.  I watched him, waited for him to move, but he didn’t.  Slowly, I crept forward.  I crouched on the balls of my feet in front of him and tentatively touched the backs of his hands where they covered his face.

He sighed and I felt it shudder through his large frame.  “Please, Anita,” he said without looking at me.  “Please go.”

“I can’t, Richard,” I said.  Some part of me wanted my voice to be comforting and warm, but it wasn’t.  It held the business-edge, the practicality that he so despised in me.

Lifting his head, Richard looked at me.  He was defeated.  There was no other way to explain it, he had given up.  “You’ve been gone a long time,” he said.  “You don’t understand.”

I looked at Richard and my compassion melted away.  Maybe it was my exposure to Jean-Claude, maybe it was the fact that I was a mother now, but I didn’t have time for his ideologies.  I protected me and mine with whatever necessary.  Richard was so damn enamored of his morality that it wasn’t going to cost him his life, it was going to cost all of us and I wasn’t willing to pay up.

“Don’t understand what?” I snapped, rising to my feet so I could look down at him.  “Understand that you’re giving up?  Trust me, I got that one.  Problem is that you’re not just letting yourself down with this, Richard.  You’re putting all of us in danger, me, Phillip, Jean-Claude, the pack.  Everyone is in danger because of your moral dilemmas.”

Richard met my gaze and he didn’t look defeated anymore, he looked pissed.  Maybe it was my words, maybe it was my stance.  Whether he was particularly adept at it or not, Richard was an alpha and wasn’t in the habit of letting anyone ride roughshod over him.  He stood up, forcing me to take several steps back.  He didn’t lord over me because he knew it wouldn’t work, but he did meet my gaze.

“You deserted us,” he said, his voice tight with just a hint of something darker in it, a wolf’s growl.  “You are lupa and yet you left us to fend for ourselves.  You’ve been gone for a year, Anita.  A year!  In that time, the pack has changed.  I have changed.  You have no room to criticize me or my methods.”

The words stung.  He was right.  I had failed the pack, just as I had failed my pard.  But the pard was stronger now.  I was doing my best to forge us into a cohesive until.  Wounds were healing, slowly but surely.  This was my attempt to make amends with the pack, but Richard was clear on the fact that I was no longer wanted.  Too bad.  I was lupa.  I may not have been a good one, but there it was, all the same.

“I know that I could have handled things better,” I said, “but I did what I had to do.  At least I just left.  I made it clear that I couldn’t handle it.  You stayed.  You remain Ulfric when you’re clearly not in a position to lead.  You put the entire pack in danger.”

He blinked at me slowly and shook his head.  He snorted.  “You know there is no stepping down,” he said.  “You think I’m not fit to remain Ulfric, but you know the only way out of this job is to be killed.”

I nodded slowly and dropped my eyes.  What else was I supposed to do?  I was mad at Richard for giving up and for not giving up.  I was mad at him because I was mad at myself.  Because we had both failed the pack.  I doubted that any of them had any illusions about why Richard was falling apart.  It was my fault.  Actually it wasn’t.  It was Richard’s reactions to my choices, Richard’s inability to accept things and move on.  But it was easier to blame me.  Easier for everyone.

“You’re right,” I said.  “You can’t step down as Ulfric and I can’t let you die.  That means you have to lead, Richard.”

“I’m trying,” he snapped.  I was getting the impression that several people must have had this same conversation with him.  I was betting on Sylvie and Louie, maybe even Shang Da and Jamil.

“Well, try harder,” I countered.  “You’re doing a terrible job at the moment.  You’re supposed to be their alpha, their king, but you’re acting like a spoiled child.  You can’t have your favorite toy so you’re placating yourself any way you can, booze, women.  Your wolves are a pack, and as such they have to do what is best for the pack.  You used to be their alpha, but you’re becoming the cur, Richard.  You know what they do with the cur.  They cull it from the pack.  You can’t afford that.  I can’t afford that.  My baby can’t afford that.”

Richard laughed and it was not a happy sound.  He stared at me for a long moment.  “Your baby,” he said.

I shifted nervously.  This kind of reaction I would have expected from Edward, or even Jean-Claude but Richard was usually an open book.  “What about Phillip?” I asked.

“You say I’m not a strong leader,” he said.  “You say that I’m becoming the cur, that the pack will look out for themselves and get rid of me ...”

“Yeah.”

“Do you know what they want me to do, Anita?” he asked and there was a self-loathing edge to his voice, a desperation.

“What?” I asked, almost completely sure I didn’t want the answer.

“They want me to kill him, to bring him before the pack and let them have him.  They want to rip your precious son to pieces and then they want me to reclaim you and give you to them.”

I swallowed harshly.  “They want you to kill Phillip and then to rape and murder me?”  Jean-Claude had told me as much, but somehow it was abstract when he said it, some arcane ritual.  It wasn’t an actual possibility.  It wasn’t something that Richard was being encouraged to do.  But it was.

“Yes, Anita,” he said, his anger to the fore.  “That is what a strong leader would do.  That is what is in the best interest of the pack, but somehow I can’t make myself murder a child or harm you, regardless of how angry I am with you.”

I nodded slowly.  He had a point.  Maybe acting in the best interest of the pack wasn’t such a good thing.  “There has to be another way,” I said.

“There isn’t,” he countered.

“There has to be.”

[end Ruin]

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