I'd finally gotten dressed, red polo shirt, black jeans, black Nikes, the Firestar 9mm in its inner-pants holster. The gun was very visible against the red shirt, but hey, why try to hide it? Besides, I could feel the roil of power just outside the door. Shapeshifters, not all of them happy. Strong emotions make it harder to hide their power. Richard was one of the best at hiding it that I'd ever met. He'd fooled me for a while, made me think he was human. No one else had ever been able to do that.
I looked at myself in the mirror and realized that it wasn't facing a room full of lycanthropes that bothered me, it was facing a room full of people who knew that Richard and I had been making out. I preferred danger to embarrassment any day. I was used to danger.
The bathroom was just off the living room, so when I opened the door, they were all there, clustered on or around the couch. They glanced at me as I stepped out, and I nodded. "Hello."
Rafael said, "Hello, Anita." He was the Rat King, the wererats equivalent of pack leader. He was tall, dark, and handsome with strong Mexican features that made his face seem stern. Only his lips hinted that perhaps there were more smiles than frowns in him. He was wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt that left the brand on his arm bare. The brand was in the shape of a crown, and was the mark of kingship. There was no equivalent mark among the wolves. Being a lycanthrope meant different things, depending on the animal; different cultures as well as forms.
"I didn't know the wererats would be interested in the packs' internal squabbles," I said.
"Marcus is trying to unify all shapeshifters under one leader."
"Let me guess," I said, "he gets to be leader."
Rafael gave a small smile. "Yes."
"So you've thrown in with Richard as the lesser evil?" I made it a question.
"I've thrown in with Richard because he is a man of his word. Marcus has no honor. His bitch Raina has seen to that."
"I still think if we killed Raina, Marcus might be willing to talk with us." This from a woman who I thought I'd seen before but couldn't place. She sat on the floor sipping coffee from a mug. She had short blond hair, and was wearing a pink nylon jogging suit, jacket open over a pink T-shirt. It was a jogging suit made for looking at, not working out in, and I remembered her. I'd seen her at the Lunatic Cafe, Raina's restaurant. Her name was Christine. She wasn't a wolf, she was a weretiger. She was here to speak on behalf of the independent shapeshifters. Those who didn't have enough people to have a leader. Not every kind of lycanthropy was equally contagious. You could get cut to pieces by a weretiger and not get it. A werewolf could barely cut you and you got furry. Almost none of the cat-based lycanthropy was as contagious as wolf and rat. No one knew why. It was just the way it worked.
Richard introduced me to about fifteen others, first names only.
I said hi and leaned against the wall by the door. The couch was full, and so was the floor. Besides, I liked being out of reach of any shapeshifter I didn't know. Just a precaution.
"Actually, I've met Christine before," I said.
"Yes," Christine said, "the night you killed Alfred."
I shrugged. "Yeah."
"Why didn't you kill Raina last night when you had the chance?" she said.
Before I could answer, Richard interrupted. "If we kill Raina," he said, "Marcus will hunt us all down."
"I don't think he's up to the job," Sylvie said.
Richard shook his head. "No, I still won't give up on Marcus."
No one said anything, but the looks on their faces were enough. They agreed with me. Richard was going to get himself killed and hang his followers out to dry.
Louie came out of the kitchen carrying two mugs of coffee. He smiled at me. Louie was Richard's best friend, and he'd gone on a lot of hiking dates with us. He was five foot six, with eyes darker than my own, true black, not just darkest brown. His baby-fine black hair had been cut recently. He'd worn it long for all the time I'd known him, not a fashion statement like Richard; he just never got around to getting it cut. Now it was short enough that his ears showed, and he looked older, more like a professor with a doctorate in biology. He was a wererat, and one of Rafael's lieutenants. He handed me one of the mugs.
"These meetings have been so much more pleasant since Richard bought that coffeemaker. Thanks to you."
I took a big breath of coffee, and felt better instantly. Coffee might not be a cure-all, but it was close. "I'm not sure everyone is happy to see me."
"They're scared. It makes them a little hostile."
Stephen came out of the guest room dressed in clothes that fit too well to be Richard's. A blue dress shirt, tucked into faded blue jeans. The only man in the room that was close to Richard's size was Jason. Jason never minded sharing his clothes.
"Why does everyone look so grim?" I asked.
Louie leaned against the wall, sipping coffee. "Jean-Claude withdrew his support of Marcus and threw in with Richard. I can't believe neither of them mentioned that."
"They said something about having formed a bargain, but they didn't explain." I thought about what he'd just told me. "Marcus must be pissed."
The smile faded from his face. "That is an understatement." He looked at me. "You don't understand, do you?"
"Understand what?" I asked.
"Without Jean-Claude's backing, Marcus doesn't stand a chance of forcing the rest of the shapeshifters under his control. His dreams of empire building are finished."
"If he doesn't stand a chance, why is everyone so worried?"
Louie gave a sad smile. "What Marcus can't control, he has a tendency to kill."
"You mean he'd start a war?"
"Not just with Richard and the pack, you mean, but an all-out war with all the other shapeshifters in town?"
Louie nodded. "Except the wereleopards. Gabriel is their leader and he sides with Raina."
I thought about it for a second or two. "Sweet Jesus, it would be a bloodbath."
"And there'd be no way of containing it, Anita. Some of it would spill over onto the normal world. There are still three states in this country that will pay hundreds of dollars in bounty for a dead shapeshifter, no questions asked. A war like this could make the practice look practical."
"Do you two have something better to do?" Christine asked. I was beginning not to like her. It was she that knocked on the door and interrupted Richard and me. Frankly, for that I was sort of grateful. The thought of everyone hearing us go further would have been too embarrassing for words.
Louie moved back to sit on the floor with the others. I stayed leaning against the wall, sipping my coffee.
"Are you going to join us?" she asked.
"I'm fine where I am," I said.
"Too good to sit with us?" a man in his late thirties with dark blue eyes asked. He was about five foot eight; it was hard to tell with him sitting on the floor. He was dressed in a suit, complete with tie, as if he was on his way to work. His name was Neal.
"Not good enough," I said, "not good enough by half."
"What the hell's that supposed to mean?" he asked. "I don't like having a normal here."
"Leave it alone, Neal," Richard said.
"Why? She's laughing at us."
Richard glanced back at me from his corner of the couch. "Come join us, Anita?"
Sylvie was sitting beside Richard, not too close, but still, there was not enough room for me. Rafael sat on the end of the couch, spine straight, ankle propped on one knee.
"Couch looks full," I said.
Richard held out his hand to me. "We'll make room."
"She isn't even pack," Sylvie said. "I won't give up my seat to her. No offense to you, Anita, you don't know any better." Her voice was matter-of-fact, not hostile, but the look she gave Richard wasn't exactly friendly.
"No offense taken," I said. I wasn't sure I wanted to sit on the couch surrounded by lycanthropes anyway. Even supposedly friendly ones. Everyone in the room was stronger and faster than I was, just a fact. The only leg up I had was the gun. If I sat right beside them, I'd never get it out in time.
"I want my girlfriend to sit with me, Sylvie, that's all," Richard said. "It isn't meant as a challenge to your position in the lukoi." His voice sounded patient like he was talking to a child.
"What did you say?" Sylvie asked. She looked shocked.
"We are the lukoi. Anita knows that."
"You shared our words with her?" Neal said, outrage thick in his voice.
I wanted to say that it was just words, but I didn't. Who says I'm not getting smarter?
"There was a time when sharing our secrets with normals could get you a death sentence," Sylvie said.
"Even Marcus doesn't allow that anymore."
"How much of our secrets do you know, human?"
I shrugged. "A few words, that's all."
Sylvie stared at me. "You want your human girlfriend to cuddle up next to you, is that it, Richard?"
"Yes," he said. There was no trace of anger in his voice.
Personally, I didn't like the way she'd said "human."
Sylvie knelt on the couch, staring at me. "Come human, sit with us."
I stared at her. "Why the change of heart?"
"Not everything has to do with the pack hierarchy. That's what Richard is always telling us. Sit by your lover. I'll scoot over." She did, curling up on the couch, near Rafael.
The Rat King glanced at me. He raised an eyebrow, almost a shrug. I didn't trust Sylvie, but I trusted Rafael, and I trusted Richard, at least here, today. I realized that I would have trusted Rafael last night. He wouldn't have the moral qualms that Richard had. Poor Richard was like a lone voice crying in the wilderness. God help me, I agreed with the pagans.
Louie and Stephen were curled on the floor, close by. I was among friends. Even Jason, grinning up at me, wouldn't let me get hurt. Jason was Jean-Claude's wolf to call, as was Stephen. I think if they let me get killed, they might not survive much longer than I did.
"Anita?" Richard made it a question.
I sighed and pushed away from the wall. I was among friends, so why were the muscles in my back so tight it hurt to move? Paranoid? Who me?
I walked around the couch, coffee mug in my left hand. Sylvie patted the couch, smiling, but not like she meant it.
I sat beside Richard. His arm slid over my shoulders. My right arm was pressed against his side, not too tightly. He knew how much I hated having my gun hand impeded.
Leaning into the warmth of his body, I relaxed. The tightness in my shoulders eased. I took a sip of coffee. We were all being terribly civilized.
Richard put his lips against my face, and whispered, "Thank you."
Those two words earned him a lot of brownie points. He knew what it had cost me to sit down among the wolves, rats, and cats. Not sitting with him would have undermined him in front of the pack and the other leaders. I wasn't here to make the situation worse.
"Who saved you last night, Stephen?" Sylvie asked. Her voice was sweet, face pleasant. I didn't trust her at all.
Every eye turned to Stephen. He tried to huddle into the floor, as if he could go invisible, but it didn't work. He stared at Richard, eyes wide.
"Go ahead, Stephen, tell the truth. I won't be mad."
Stephen swallowed. "Anita saved me."
"Richard was fighting about twenty lycanthropes at the time," I said. "He told me to get Stephen, so I did."
Neal sniffed Stephen, running his nose just above the other man's face and neck, down his shoulder. It wasn't a human gesture, and it was unnerving in the well-dressed man. "He has her scent on his skin." Neal glared at me. "He's been with her."
I expected an outcry, but instead, the others crowded around Stephen, sniffing his skin, touching him, and bringing their fingers close to their own faces. Only Sylvie, Jason, Rafael, and Louie stayed sitting. One by one, the rest turned to Richard and me.
"He's right," Christine said. "Her scent clings to his skin. You don't get that much scent just by carrying someone."
Richard's hand tightened on my shoulder. I glanced at his face. It was calm, only a slight tightness around the eyes betrayed tension. "I was patrolling the woods for assassins," Richard said. "Stephen didn't want to be alone. I sent him to Anita."
"We know about the assassination attempts," Sylvie said.
I widened my eyes. "You do, do you?"
"Richard wants us to help protect you. If we're going to take a bullet for you, we need to know why."
I met her eyes. Her pretty face was harsh, the bones in her cheeks standing out.
"I'm not asking anyone to take my bullet," I said. I scooted out from under Richard's arm, which put me closer to Sylvie, not an improvement.
Richard didn't fight it. He drew his arm back. "I should have talked to you before I told them."
"Damn straight," I said.
Sylvie leaned her arms on the back of the couch, bringing her face inches from mine. "Are you going to chastise our would-be pack leader, human?"
"You say humanlike it's a bad thing, Sylvie. Jealous?"
She drew back like I'd hit her. A look that was part pain, part rage passed across her face. "Most of us here survived an attack, human. We did not choose this." Her voice was chokingly harsh.
I'd expected a lot of things from her, but not the pain of a survivor. I was sorry I'd made the crack. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything personal by it."
"You have no idea how personal it is."
"That's enough, Sylvie," Richard said.
She rose on her knees to meet Richard's face over my head. "Don't you even have the balls to be angry that she slept with a subordinate male?"
"Wait a minute," I said. "Stephen and I did not have sex. We literally slept together, nothing else."
Neal plunged his face into Stephen's crotch and sniffed. It wasn't a human gesture. Stephen let him do it, and that wasn't very human, either.