He nodded, long hair spilling around his face. "Okay." The one word was almost too soft to hear above the fighting.
I stepped out into the main room, and it was chaos. I couldn't see Richard. There was just a mass of bodies, arms, legs, a clawed form rose above the rest, a man-wolf close to seven feet tall. He reached down and drew Richard out of the mess, claws digging into his body. Richard shoved a hand that was too long to be human, and not furry enough to be wolf, under the werewolf's throat. The creature gagged, spitting blood.
A wolf almost as long as Richard was tall leapt upon his back. Richard staggered, but didn't fall. The mouth sank teeth into his shoulder. Furred claws and human hands grabbed at him from every side. Fuck it. I fired the machine gun into the wooden floor. It would have looked more impressive if I'd fired into the overhead lights, but bullets come down at the same speed they go up, and I didn't want to catch my own ricochet. Holding the machine gun one-handed was a trip. I held on and sprayed a line from me to the bed. I ended with the gun pointing at the fight. Everyone had frozen, shocked. Richard crawled out of the mess, bleeding. He got to his feet, swaying a bit, but moving on his own power. I could never have carried both him and Stephen, let alone the machine gun.
He stopped in front of the curtain, waiting for me to come to him. Stephen sagged against me, arms limp. I think he'd passed out. It was an agonizingly slow walk to Richard. If I tripped and went down, they'd be on me. They watched me move with eyes, human and wolf, but nothing I could have talked to. They watched me like they wondered what I'd taste like and would enjoy finding out.
The giant man-wolf spoke, its furry jaws thick and strange around human words. "You can't kill us all, human."
He was right. I raised the machine gun a little. "True, but who's going to be first in line?"
No one else moved as I walked. When I reached Richard, he took Stephen from me, cradling him in his arms like he was a child. Blood seeped down his face from a cut on his forehead. It covered half his face like a mask. "Stephen is never to come back here, not ever," Richard said.
The man-wolf spoke again, "You are not a killer, Richard. That is your weakness. Even if we bring Stephen back here, you will not kill us for it. You will hurt us, but not kill us."
Richard didn't say anything. It was probably true. Damn.
"I'll kill you," I said.
"Anita, you don't understand what you're saying," Richard said.
I glanced at him, then back to the waiting masses. "Killing is all they understand, Richard. If you aren't willing to kill them, Stephen isn't safe. I want him safe."
"Enough to kill for it?" Richard asked.
"Yeah," I said, "enough to kill for it."
The wolfman stared at me. "You are not one of us."
"It doesn't matter. Stephen is off limits. Tell Raina if he gets dragged back here, I'll hold her personally responsible."
"Tell me yourself." Raina stood in the hallway, naked, and totally comfortable as if she'd been wearing the finest silk. Gabriel was at her back.
"If anyone brings Stephen back here, tries to force him into the movies, I'll kill you."
"Even if I have nothing to do with it."
I smiled, like I would believe that. "Even if, no matter who does it, or why, it'll be your ass on the line."
She nodded her head, almost a bow. "So be it, Anita Blake. But know this, you have challenged me in front of my pack. I cannot let that stand unanswered. If you were another shapeshifter, we would duel, but your being human poses a problem."
"You know this, bitch. I am human, so if you expect me to drop my gun and fight you one on one, you're crazy."
"That would hardly be fair, would it?"
"I didn't think you worried much about being fair, after what I saw in the back room."
"Oh, that," she said, "Stephen will never rise in the pack. There is no more challenge to him. He is anyone's meat that is higher in the pack."
"Not anymore," I said.
"You offer him your protection?" she asked.
I'd been asked this question once before and knew it meant more than it sounded like it did, but I didn't care. I wanted Stephen safe, and I'd do what it took, killing or making myself a target. Hell, the assassin would probably finish me soon, anyway. "Yeah, he's under my protection."
"He's already under my protection, Anita," Richard said.
"Until you're willing to kill to back it up, it doesn't mean a whole lot to these people."
"You will kill to support Richard's claims of protection?" Raina asked.
"She doesn't understand what you're asking," Richard said. "It isn't a fair question unless she understands it."
"Then explain it to her, Richard, but not tonight. It grows late, and if we are to get any filming done, we must hurry. Take your little human and explain the rules to her. Explain how deep a hole she's dug herself tonight. When she understands the rules, call me. And I will think of a way to make a duel between us as fair as possible. Perhaps I could blindfold myself or tie one arm behind my back."
I started to say something, but Richard said, "Come on, Anita. We have to go now." He was right. I could kill a lot of them, but not all. I hadn't brought a spare clip for the machine gun. I hadn't thought I'd need it. Silly me.
We got out the door with me walking backwards, ready to shoot anyone who stuck a head out. No one followed us. Richard carried Stephen through the late spring night and didn't look back, as if he knew they wouldn't follow.
I opened the door, and he laid Stephen in the backseat. "Can you drive home?" he asked.
"Yeah, how bad are you hurt?"
"Not bad, but I'd like to ride back here with Stephen in case he wakes up." I couldn't argue with that. I drove. We were safe. We were all actually still alive. But if they'd rushed us, we wouldn't be. Now that we were safe, I could be mad. "Well, we survived. No thanks to your little plan," I said.
"And no one died, thanks to my little plan," Richard said.
"Only because I was better armed than usual."
"You were right," he said, "it was a trap. Happy?"
"Yeah, I'm happy," I said.
"Glad to hear it." Underneath the sarcasm he was tired. I could hear it in his voice.
"What are you supposed to explain to me, Richard?" I glanced in the rearview mirror but couldn't see his face in the dark.
"Raina backs up Marcus's orders. She's his lupa. He uses her to do things he doesn't approve of, like torture."
"So I set myself up as your lupa."
"Yes, I'm the Fenrir. Normally, I'd already have a lupa picked out. The pack is divided, Anita. I've given my protection to my followers so that if Marcus tries to hurt them, I come after him, or my followers will act to protect each other with my blessing. Without a Fenrir or a pack leader to back you up, it's a sort of mutiny to go against the pack leader's orders."
"What's the penalty for mutiny?"
"Death or mutilation."
"I thought you guys could heal anything short of a death wound."
"Not if you shove burning metal into it. Fire purifies and stops the healing process, unless you reopen the wound."
"It works that way with vampires, too," I said.
"I didn't know that," he said, but not like he really cared.
"How have you risen to next in line to lead and not killed anyone? You had to fight a lot of duels to get to the top of the heap."
"Only the fight for Ulfric has to be to the death. All I had to do was beat them all."
"Which is why you take karate and lift weights, so you'll be good enough to beat them." We'd had this discussion before when I asked if lifting weights when you could bench press a small car was redundant. He'd replied, not if everyone you're fighting can lift a car, too. He had a point.
"But if you won't kill, then your threat doesn't have much bite, no pun intended."
"We're not animals, Anita. Just because this is the way it's always been in the pack doesn't mean things can't change. We are still people, and that means we can control ourselves. Dammit, there has to be a better way than slaughtering each other."
I shook my head. "Don't blame it on the animals. Real wolves don't kill each other for dominance."
"Only werewolves," he said. He sounded tired.
"I admire your goals, Richard."
"But you don't agree."
"No, I don't agree."
His voice came from the darkness out of the backseat. "Stephen doesn't have any wounds. Why was he screaming?"
My shoulders hunched, and I made myself sit up straight. I turned onto Old Highway 21, and tried to think of a delicate way to tell him, but there was nothing delicate about rape. I told him what I'd seen.
The silence from the backseat lasted a very long time. I was almost to the turnoff for his house when he said, "And you think if I'd killed a few people along the way, this wouldn't have happened?"
"I think they're more afraid of Raina and Marcus than they are of you, so yeah."
"If you back my threat with killing, it undermines everything I've tried to do."
"I love you, Richard, and I admire what you're trying to do. I don't want to undermine you, but if they touch Stephen again, I'll do what I said I'd do. I'll kill them."
"They're my people, Anita. I don't want them dead."
"They're not your people, Richard. They're just a bunch of strangers that happen to share your disease. Stephen is your people. Every shapeshifter who threw their support to you and risked Marcus's anger, they're your people. They've risked everything for you, Richard."
"When Stephen joined the pack, I was the one who told Raina she couldn't have him. I've always stood by him."
"Your intentions are good, Richard, but they didn't keep him safe tonight."
"If I let you kill for me, Anita, it's the same as doing it myself."
"I didn't ask your permission, Richard."
He leaned on the back of the seat, and I realized he wasn't wearing his seat belt. I started to tell him to put it on, but didn't. It was his car, and he could survive a trip through the windshield. "You mean if they take Stephen again, you'll kill them because you said you'd kill them, not for me."
"A threat's not worth anything if you aren't willing to back it up," I said.
"You'd kill for Stephen. Why? Because he saved your life?"
I shook my head. It was hard to explain. "Not just that. When I saw him tonight, what they were doing to him . . . He was crying, Richard. He was . . . Oh, hell, Richard, he's mine now. There are a handful of people that I'd kill for, kill to keep safe, kill to revenge. Stephen's name got added to the list tonight."
"Is my name on the list?" he asked. He rested his chin on my shoulder over the seat. He rubbed his cheek on my face and I could feel a faint beard stubble, scratchy and real.
"You know it is."
"I don't understand how you can talk about killing so casually."
"My bid for Ulfric would be stronger if I were willing to kill, but I'm not sure it would be worth it."
"If you want to martyr yourself for high ideals, fine. I don't like it, but fine. But don't martyr the people who trust you. They're worth more than any set of ideals. You nearly got yourself killed tonight."
"You don't just believe in something when it's easy, Anita. Killing is wrong."
"Fine," I said, "but you also nearly got me killed tonight. Do you understand that? If they had rushed us, I wouldn't have made it out. I will not go down in flames because you want to play Gandhi."
"You can stay home next time."
"Dammit, that isn't what I'm saying, and you know it. You're trying to live in some Ozzie and Harriet world, Richard. Maybe life used to work like that, but it doesn't anymore. If you don't give up on this, you're going to get killed."
"If I really thought I had to become a murderer to survive, I think I'd rather not survive."
I glanced at him. His expression was peaceful, like a saint. But you only got to be a saint if you died. I looked back at the road. I could give Richard up, but if I left him, he was going to end up dead. He'd have gone in there tonight without anyone, and he wouldn't have made it out.
Tears burned at the back of my eyes. "I don't know if I'd survive it if you died on me, Richard. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"
He kissed my cheek, and something warm and liquid seeped down my neck. "I love you, too."
They were only words. He was going to get killed on me. He was going to do everything short of suicide. "You're bleeding on me," I said.
He sighed and leaned back into the darkness. "I'm bleeding a lot. Too bad Jean-Claude isn't here to lick it up." He made a bitter sound low in his throat.
"Do you need a doctor?"
"Get me home, Anita. If I need a doctor, I know a wererat that makes house calls." He sounded tired, weary, as if he didn't want to talk anymore. Not about the wounds, or the pack, or his high ideals. I let the silence grow and didn't know how to break it. A soft sound filled the quiet dark, and I realized that Richard was crying. He whispered, "I'm sorry, Stephen. I am so sorry."
I didn't say anything because I didn't have anything good to say. Just lately I had noticed that I could kill people and not blink. No attack of conscience, no nightmares, nothing. It was like some part of me had turned off. It didn't bother me that I was able to kill so easily. It did bother me that it didn't bother me. But it had its uses, like tonight. I think every last furry one of them had believed I'd do it. Sometimes, it was good to be scary.