But underneath those thoughts were others, though thoughts might be the wrong word. His beast was in there, his wolf, and it wanted me to change. It wanted me to be wolf, because then I would belong to it. Can't be lupa and Nimir-Ra if you're actually wolf for real.
The thought made me look across the bed, until I found Micah. I saw it in his eyes, the loss, as if he were already certain of it. No way. I would not lose him, not now. I turned to look around the room for my other leopard. Turned too fast, hurt the muscles in my left shoulder, muscles I'd torn.
Nathaniel came to the side of the bed as if he understood that I was looking for him.
There were tears drying on his face, as if he'd cried, and hadn't bothered to wipe them away. You could date outside your species, I knew that, but I remembered Richard saying once that dominants don't. If you were high enough up in the power hierarchy, you didn't date outside the pack. I was lupa; there was no higher-ranking female than me. I was Bolverk, which would have made me like an officer anyway. Either way you cut it, if the wolf I could touch came out for real, then I'd lose more than a surprise pregnancy.
I knew I had at least one more beast inside me. I held leopard, the way I held wolf. If I was finally going to go all the way furry, could I choose what kind of furry? Looking into Nathaniel's face, watching Micah look away so I wouldn't read his face, I knew I had to try.
I gazed up at Richard. I said it out loud: "You don't want me to change, that's why you won't help."
"You don't want to be one of us, not for real." His face was sliding back to that arrogant, angry mask.
His anger showed, almost a pleased anger, as if that one statement proved that I was no better than he was, no more comfortable in furry skin.
I looked at Micah and Nathaniel. Micah had moved so that he could hug Nathaniel. "Micah, Nathaniel, help me call leopard."
Micah looked startled. "It's not a choice, Anita. I can smell what you are."
I started to shake my head, but whatever I'd done to my left shoulder made it hurt too much. "I hold four different strains. Why can't I pick which way I go?"
Graham and Clay looked at Richard, as if wondering what he'd say. "I think you're out of choices," he said, "but if you want to try, I won't stop you." He was hurt, and his trying to hide it made it more painful to see. If I changed, he'd look elsewhere. I didn't think he'd find someone willing to share him with what amounted to a permanent mistress, furry or not, but hey, it wasn't my life. It was his life.
I could see the wolf in my head, like a waking dream, all subtle cream and white and black and gray. It looked at me with eyes that were an amber so dark they were almost brown. It was like looking into a piece of your soul and having it look back.
Richard slid off the bed. The wolf didn't panic; it stood there in me, patient, waiting. Graham started to follow, sliding off. The wolf paced closer to the surface again, agitated. I grabbed his arm. "Stay." He froze under my touch, half kneeling beside the bed.
Clay looked from me to Richard. "Stay until she says go," Richard said, in a voice that managed to be closed, empty, and angry all at the same time.
"Micah, Nathaniel, help me raise our beast." They didn't argue or hesitate; they simply crawled up on the bed. They crawled toward me in that graceful way that the lycanthropes had, as if they had muscles that we mere mortals didn't have, as if they could have balanced a cup on their backs.
Hurt as I was, watching them crawl toward me nude quickened my breathing, sped my pulse. It made the wolf start to pace in tight, agitated circles. I didn't have a hand to touch Clay. "Clay, touch me." He closed the small distance he'd made for Richard to straddle me. He pressed his body against the line of mine, but was careful not to touch my left shoulder. He was a quick study, and he seldom argued. It was sort of refreshing.
Micah touched my legs, but Nathaniel crawled around Clay, so he could be by my head. Micah asked, "What do you need us to do?"
I'd never tried to call one animal instead of another. We'd only learned about a month ago that I held three different kinds of lycanthropy. Wolf and leopard hadn't been all that unexpected, but lion, that had caught me off guard. Such a delicate injury, so little blood, but sometimes a nick is enough with blood-borne diseases.
"I don't know, yet." I knew how to call someone else's beast, if it matched mine. Richard had taught me the theory of that. I thought of leopard. I simply thought of it, and I felt it stir inside me. It was always the oddest sensation, as if there were some deep cave inside me, and the beast lived there until called. Now it uncurled itself, stretched, and began to rise. My body was like a dark liquid that the beast rose inside of; that was all pretty typical of being a lycanthrope. The problem was that my body lacked the switch to actually shift, and once the beast got to the surface of my body, there was no place to go. Or there hadn't been, up until now.
But somewhere during the rising liquid feel of fur curving against places that nothing should have touched, I realized that there were two shapes rising for the surface. I'd tried to call leopard, but I was about to get double for my money.
The wolf bristled, his ruff standing up, his body stiffening. I felt his fear. He knew he was about to be outnumbered, and inside my body there was no pack to call. The wolf stood his ground, making himself look as large and fierce as he could, then the cats hit the surface of my body, and the wolf fled. I could feel him running, running back the way he had come. Like he was heading home. It was the first time I realized that my body wasn't just a prison, but also a den, a place of safety.
The cats hit the surface together, and the force of it bowed my spine, threw my body upward, as if some great force had hit me from behind. I fell back to the bed, screaming with the pain of my abused body taking yet another hit tonight. I needed this to stop. We needed it to stop.
I saw the cats. The leopard looked small beside the lion. Small, sleek, and gleaming black. It had backed away from the larger cat. I didn't blame it. The lioness was huge, a great, tawny beast of a cat. Maybe it would have looked smaller if I hadn't been looking at wolf, and now leopard. The lion was staring at the leopard in a way that was patient, waiting for the leopard to decide what to do next. The lion had the confidence of several hundred pounds of extra muscle on its side.
I let go of Graham and used my good hand to reach for Nathaniel. He bent over my face so that when I touched him, his face was nearly above mine. I buried my face against the sweet warmth of his neck. He always smelled like vanilla to me, but underneath that was the scent of leopard. Sharper than the musk of wolf, less sweet, more exotic for lack of a better word. The leopard stopped being defensive, and looked up with eyes that were soft and gray, with just a hint of green in them. I didn't call Here kitty-kitty, but I called it all the same.
The leopard rose up through me, and hit the surface of my body. It filled me like a hand sliding inside a glove, so that I felt it stretch out and out, filling me. I waited for that fullness to finally split my skin and step out, but nothing happened. I could feel fur rubbing against my skin on the wrong side; I could feel it in there. I gazed down my body, and watched things roll under the skin of my stomach like the cat was rubbing against me. The sensation left me nauseous, but that was all. It wasn't as violent as the wolf had been, but I still wasn't shifting.
Graham and Clay slid off the bed so that Micah could move up beside me. "It's there, but it's not coming out--why?"
Nathaniel slid down so that the two men framed my body with their own. "I don't know," Micah said.
"Give your beast to me," Nathaniel said.
I looked up at him, and thought at the furred thing inside me. It was patient because I wasn't afraid of it. I'd embraced it, welcomed it. Now it slid inside me, waiting for release. A release that I couldn't give it.
"I've taken your beast once before," he said.
"I remember." I turned my head, just enough to see Micah's face. I looked a question at him.
"Give your leopard to him, Anita."
Nathaniel pressed his body closer to my side, so I could feel him pressed soft against my hip. He leaned over me, propping himself across my body with one arm, so he laid no weight on my upper body. He leaned in for a kiss, and I felt the leopard roll toward him like something half liquid and half solid fur. His mouth found mine, and we kissed. The last time I'd given him my beast had been almost as violent as tonight, but I'd been fighting; now I simply gave it to him, and Nathaniel didn't fight. He kissed me hard and deep, as if he were trying to taste that furred shape, and the next moment that shape spilled up through my mouth. I felt it as never before, as if truly it slipped up and out through my mouth. I had a moment of choking, and then it was in him. My leopard smashed into his body, smashed into his beast. The force of it pushed his body off the bed, like a blow, but he fought to keep on kissing me. Fought to kiss me as thick, heavy liquid ran over my body from his. So warm, hot, as if he were bleeding to death. I opened my eyes enough to see that the liquid was clear, but had to close my eyes to keep it from getting in them. His hands were on my face, trapping us in the kiss. But I wanted the kiss, I wanted this. I wanted, needed the release, and my body couldn't give it.