I turned away so I couldn't watch Nathaniel undress, because I didn't trust my face not to show exactly how much it moved me, and I didn't want that very private look captured on video for strange police officers and maybe lawyers to watch later. I was uncomfortable enough having him take off so much on film without sharing any more with strangers. Tyburn wanted to record it in case there were questions later about how we found Denny and how we caught the bad guy. Because if he was still with her, we'd find them both, and we didn't have a warrant of execution for this one, which meant that we'd have to play by normal U.S. Marshal rules, not the preternatural branch rules, and not kill him/her/it on sight. We don't normally get called into a case until there are enough bodies to get us a warrant of execution for some preternatural bad guy. I had started my career as a licensed vampire executioner. Having a badge hadn't really changed my job description much; there was just more paperwork now.
"Why is Murdock coming with us if he's not going to turn into a werelion and help track?" Dunley asked. The big officer who had questioned Micah, Nathaniel, and me earlier when Bettina had just been missing was the local whom Tyburn had assigned to stay with us while we tracked.
"Because whatever we're hunting may be a shapeshifter of some kind, which means it might be contagious to anyone that isn't already carrying lycanthropy," I said.
"So what, Murdock is going to throw his body in the way in case we're attacked by it?"
"Something like that," I said.
"Or I will fight it for you," Olaf said. He'd insisted on being in the room for the filming. I had to trust that he had enough control of his beast that he wouldn't shift just being near someone else doing it. I did trust him that far, especially after he'd admitted to not having enough control in the car. Since Olaf had stayed, so had Edward. Bernardo had gone off to get himself together, but his parting words had been, "Don't leave without me. I want a piece of this hunt." We'd promised him we would call him so he could come with.
"I'm used to fighting my own battles," Dunley said, and shifted in such a way that his arms flexed a little. He was a big, athletic guy, used to being one of the toughest, if not the toughest, man in the room. He was looking at Nicky and Olaf and doing the physical math in his head and not sure he would win. Like most people who have spent their lives being the biggest and baddest, he didn't like that idea much.
Olaf stood against the wall, just inside the doorway, so he had a line of sight to the room's main door. Dunley was standing near him, so the difference in height was even more noticeable. I couldn't decide if his standing close to the bigger man meant that he was comfortable with the size difference, or if it was a type of posturing, like he was saying, Look, I'm big, too. Standing there meant that both of them were very close to the uniformed officer who was going to be videoing Nathaniel. Officer Milford kept glancing back at them as she set up her equipment. I wasn't sure if the only videographer they had was a woman, or if they thought she'd be more comfortable watching Nathaniel strip than a male officer would have been, or if it hadn't occurred to anyone to care either way.
Nicky had moved away from the two other men and closer to me. Either he didn't feel the need to play "mine's bigger than yours" with the other two, or he was posturing over the only thing he cared about: me and Nathaniel. Mostly me.
"The Marshals Service has a precedent for keeping officers that catch lycanthropy on the job, but no other law enforcement entity does yet, so we're just all trying to help you keep your badge, Dunley," Edward said from his chair near the far corner, where he sat with a wall to his back and a good view of the entire room. He was back to his Ted drawl. I'd noticed it calmed people sometimes, or made them underestimate him. I think both were on purpose.
"I appreciate that, Forrester, but if this bastard attacks us, I'm not sure I can stand back and let Murdock put himself in harm's way for me."
Surprisingly it was Nathaniel who answered the concern. "That's because you look at me and see a man that's smaller, softer-looking to you. You look at Nicky and just think civilian. You don't understand what we are yet."
"I know you're a wereleopard and he's a werelion. I Googled both of you. I found pictures of you in animal form and a write-up about him being the leader of your local lions. I looked up pictures of other werelions when I couldn't find ones of Murdock."
"Pictures aren't the same," Nathaniel said.
I'd been behaving myself and not looking at Nathaniel, but looking at Olaf and Dunley meant I was also able to see Officer Milford as she pointed her camera behind me at my sweetie. Her biggest concern had been the two big guys standing almost directly behind her, which no cop would have liked, but suddenly I watched her sort of startle at what she was seeing through her camera lens.
It made me glance behind me at Nathaniel. I expected him to be naked from her reaction, but the only thing he'd taken off was his shirt. I mean, he had a great upper body, from the spread of his shoulders and the swell of his pectorals to the flat plains of his stomach . . . His hands went to the waistband of his shorts and I looked away. One, so the camera didn't accidently capture my reaction to him pulling the shorts off, and two, so I could watch Officer Milford's reaction. If she'd reacted that strongly to just his shirt coming off, I wanted to see what she'd do when the rest came off.
"Seeing pictures is different from seeing it in person," Nathaniel said, and I realized he was still talking to Dunley. For a second I wondered if I'd missed part of the conversation looking at him and Officer Milford. I hoped not, but Nathaniel could have that effect on me sometimes.
Looking in Milford's direction meant I could also see the men behind her. Dunley had dropped his gaze so he could sort of keep track of what was happening but not exactly watch. Pussy. But my smile at Dunley's discomfort was spoiled by Olaf's reaction. He looked at Nathaniel without any sign of embarrassment, but he was also watching Milford as she started to blush, and then he looked at me, and then back at Nathaniel. He was watching him strip in a dispassionate sort of way, as if he wanted to see how it was done, and he seemed fascinated by the effect on Milford. I'd never seen a brunette blush so red.
It made me steal a glance behind me. Nathaniel was nude, and the rest of him was just as beautiful as his upper body had promised. All the gym work and nutrition showed in the muscled strength of him, but some things weren't about exercise; some things were just genetic luck, and Nathaniel had been very lucky.
I turned away again because I didn't want the camera to capture how much I liked the view. That was personal, and having him nude for a police video was personal enough. I felt the rush of energy like a warm summer wind dancing across my skin and knew he was changing shape. I turned, shivering in reaction to all that energy, in time to watch his human form be engulfed by new flesh, bones glinting white for a second before black fur poured over everything and he folded down into that other form that was as much him as the human man I loved. All that smooth-skinned beauty was covered in fur now, but there are other kinds of beauty. He looked at me with leopard eyes that were a rich, pale gray. Just as I never met another human with eyes like his human eyes, I'd never met another wereleopard with eyes the same color as his. He opened his mouth in a huge kitty-cat yawn, flashing a mouthful of shiny white fangs.
I heard Milford gasp. It made me glance at her. She looked pale as she lowered her camera. I don't know if she was supposed to stop filming at this point, or if she had forgotten everything but staring at the huge cat in front of her.
"Jesus," Dunley said. I wondered if he realized he had his hand on the butt of his gun. If he'd drawn it, I'd have said something, but the first time you see someone who had been human just a few minutes before turn into an animal, it can be a shock.
"Leopards aren't that big," Milford said, voice a little shaky to match how pale she still looked.
"Wereleopards are," Nicky said.
I looked back at Nathaniel and tried to see him the way that Milford and Dunley's faces showed they were seeing him. His fu
r was perfectly black, like a piece of darkness carved into velvet-furred muscle the size of a pony. He was at least twice the size of an ordinary leopard, and the look in his eyes was too full of intelligence, humanity--something that was both of those things and neither. The eyes and body were as purely leopard as Nathaniel could ever be, but as I gazed into those deep gray eyes, he was still in there. It was still Nathaniel, no matter what shape was wrapped around him.
"Are all wereanimals that much bigger than the real thing?" Dunley asked.
"Some," Nicky said. He walked up to the big cat, and it rubbed itself around his waist and stomach, because that's how high up his body Nathaniel could reach in this form. It was the same movement that your house cat does around your ankles, except that in this form he could reach a lot higher than our ankles.
"Online he's like the leopardman, not"--Milford made a vague gesture toward Nathaniel--"this."
"We have the best sense of smell in this form," Nicky said.
"Do all shapeshifters have three forms like this?" Dunley asked.
"No," I said, "most only have two." I went to stand with Nicky and Nathaniel.
"Be careful," Milford said, and the fear was so clear I could smell it on the air like some harsh perfume.
"Nathaniel won't hurt me," I said, and stroked my hand through the thick sensation of his fur as he rubbed himself between Nicky and me. I did have to brace so he didn't stagger me backward, or even off my feet. I'd learned that the rubbing against us was like petting your human, except with your whole body, and when your body is that big and that strong, well, you need to be ready for it.
"How can you be sure of that?" Dunley asked. He smelled like fear, too. He was just hiding it better than Milford. He could control his breathing and his heart rate, his body posture, his words, his face, but he couldn't keep his body from reacting at the deepest levels to being in a room with a predator that big and that potentially deadly. At his base level, where the lizard brain lives, Dunley was afraid, and the scent of that was on his skin. It tightened my stomach and I realized I was hungry. I also realized that it wasn't me who was hungry.
I looked at Nathaniel, and he looked up at me with those gray eyes so like his human eyes, but not. I cradled that big, furred face in my human hands and rested my face against the top of his head, rubbing my cheek against the unbelievable richness of his fur. I whispered against one of his soft, triangular ears, "Did you eat until you were full at breakfast?"
He shook his head while I was still holding him. "Damn it, Nathaniel, you're beautiful. You don't have to keep watching your weight like this." Dunley's fear spiked through the scent of his aftershave and soap. He smelled . . . thicker, for lack of a better word, than Milford, as if his scent weighed more. I didn't know if it was because he was actually bigger, or if it was some arcane, unexplainable thing. I knew part of it was that he was just more afraid than anyone else in the room.
"Please stop putting your face that close to his . . . mouth, Marshal Blake," Dunley said.
"Can I pet him?" Milford asked.
"No," Dunley said.