I wrapped my good arm across his back so I could feel his skin split, and the fur flow out like solid water, hot velvet under my hand. His mouth reformed against mine, so that the kiss had to change, because the mouth he had now couldn't kiss like his human body. Not enough lip. I licked my tongue along teeth sharp enough to eat me for real. He drew back, and I was left to wipe the heavy liquid off my face, so I could see him. The face was leopard, and human, a strangely graceful mix. Leopardman worked better than wolfman, maybe because the cat had a shorter muzzle naturally.
I raised both my arms toward him, and realized that the left arm was working now. I hadn't shifted, but something about giving him my beast had given me some of the benefits of healing that shifting would have done. Interesting.
I hugged him, and found his fur dry, though my body was covered in the clear goo that shifters "bled" when they changed. I never understood how their fur came through dry, but it always did.
I ran my hands over the unbelievable softness of his fur, felt the muscled strength of him, and felt that his body wasn't at all unhappy to be pressed against mine. We'd made love once before when he was in this form, and at that moment it didn't sound like an entirely bad idea, but there was someone else inside me, waiting.
The lion roared where it was still standing, patient. It let me know that it--she--was still there.
"Shit," I whispered.
Nathaniel snuffled next to my face. "Lion."
Micah rolled off the bed. "We need a werelion, fast, before it decides to try to tear its way out."
"We have no lions," Jean-Claude said.
I thought about it. I thought, I need a lion. I thought about the golden fur, the dark, orange-amber eyes. I put the call out, not for my lion, but for a lion. I felt an answer, like a distant voice. I felt two answering tugs, almost as if I held two leashes. One was reluctant, the other was eager.
"They're coming, or at least he is," I whispered.
"Who's coming?" Nathaniel said in that growling voice.
"Cookie," I said, because for the life of me I couldn't think of his real name. All I could think of was what I'd nicknamed him in my head because of his Cookie Monster-blue hair.
We heard raised voices before anyone knocked at the door. Men's voices, arguing just outside the door. Lisandro went to the door after Claudia nodded. He opened the door to reveal Cookie with his blue spiked hair, and the brunette werelion. Cutting--no, Pierce. His name was Pierce. Cookie was smiling as he came through the door, wearing nothing but jeans, with a gun stuck inside the waistband. As if the reason for the pants wasn't modesty, but a place to put the gun. Pierce glowered as he came through the door. He was completely dressed, though his shirt was buttoned crookedly, and his jacket tucked badly on one side to flash the shoulder holster. The gun looked like a Beretta. Not my choice for concealed carry, but then I have small hands.
I wasn't surprised to see them. I'd called them. I was surprised to see Octavius, Augustine's human servant, at their heels. He was dressed as impeccably as he'd been earlier except that he had no tie, and his cuffs were loose in the sleeves of his elegant suit jacket. If the cuffs hadn't been loose, he wouldn't even have looked like he'd rushed.
"This is outrageous," he said. "First you insult and humiliate my master, then you try to steal his lions. Did you think that since Augustine is asleep for the day you could simply take them?" He got a good look at me on the bed. He stopped, I think, because some of the people in the room had moved so he could see me on the bed. Me and Nathaniel. I don't know what he thought we'd been doing, but I suddenly saw it through an outsider's eyes. Me, nude on the bed covered in clear, sticky liquid. Nathaniel nude and excited in leopardman form cuddled in my arms. Other men in the room already nude. What would I have thought if I'd walked in on all this? Probably the same thing Octavius was thinking.
The look on Cookie's face showed that he was thinking the same thing, but he was happy about it. He started toward the bed, but Pierce grabbed his arm, held him. Cookie growled at him, and that one trickle of sound made the lion inside me tense.
"Don't let her mind-fuck you," Pierce said.
"You heard her call, too," Cookie said. "You couldn't say no, either."
"But I don't want to go to her. I don't want her to use me." He turned the other man so he was facing away from the bed. Cookie had a tattoo of Cookie Monster, as in Sesame Street, on his right shoulder. A happy little Cookie Monster eating cookies. So the hair color wasn't an accident.
"I want her to use me."
"Fight it," Pierce said.
"I don't want to fight it," Cookie said.
"If our master were awake, you would not dare do this," Octavius said. He walked around them both, walked closer to the bed. Claudia and Lisandro stepped between him and the bed. But it was when he saw Jean-Claude stepping out from the wall that his face fell apart. Fear, fear and confusion, chased over his face. He was totally shocked to see Jean-Claude there. He fought, and finally mastered his face. But the first look was enough, the first look and his remark that Augustine was asleep. For the first time I figured it out. It wasn't that we'd slept the day away and Claudia and the rest were back on duty. It was that we'd barely been asleep at all, and Jean-Claude had not died at dawn. He, like Damian, did not die at dawn if he slept touching me.
Octavius gave arrogance, but shelved the anger, as if he didn't want to start the fight. He bowed. "Jean-Claude, I did not think you would be up. I did not see you standing there. I do have better manners than this; my anger made me forget myself. Please, forgive me." His words were clear, but he said them a little too fast. I think it was his version of babbling nervously.
"There is nothing to forgive, Octavius--if you do not hinder us, that is."
Octavius faced him, and nothing could keep the discomfort out of the set of his shoulders. "Hinder you in what way?"
Jean-Claude stood before the man, still nude, but as comfortable as any of the shapeshifters. He wore his body as if it were the most costly robe in the world, or as if he were not aware he was naked. "Augustine said that these two werelions are supposed to be pomme de sang candidates for ma petite."
Octavius gave a small nod. "That is true."
"We may have been too hasty with our rejection of them earlier. I believe that there were errors of etiquette on both sides, would you not say that was true?"
"Perhaps, perhaps we were all a little hasty earlier," Octavius admitted, his voice showing that he wasn't sure where this was going, and was trying to be cautious without being insulting. I think if Jean-Claude hadn't been standing there, and his own master dead to the world, he'd have been less cautious and more angry. Hell, if it had just been me and the shapeshifters, I think he'd just have told us to go f**k ourselves, or some polite version of that.
"Ma petite would taste one of your lions now. I think in light of all that has happened it might be well to cement a stronger tie with your master. We are, after all, two of the most powerful masters in this country, and between us we are certainly the most powerful territories in the middle of this country." I followed the phrasing. It implied, but did not say, that between the two of them they could rule the middle of this country, and wouldn't it be better to be allies than enemies? Or maybe I was actually picking up a little of Jean-Claude's thoughts, just a touch. He had no intention of doing some sort of war of conquest, but to imply it gave us both the leverage of fear and greed. Fear of being our enemy, and greed to take part in the spoils if we did decide to conquer. Jean-Claude played him.
Octavius licked his lips, then stood a little straighter as if he'd realized he was slumping. "Perhaps. I know that Augustine's intent was to offer the lions as pommes de sang. Or as barter for one of your females."
"I do not barter my people. I believe ma petite made that clear to your master."
Octavius nodded. "Yes, very clear." Anger threaded through his voice, and he fought it off, so that his next words were empty and inoffensive. "I think it would please my master if you found his pomme de sang candidates worthy of attention."
Jean-Claude looked at me then. His face was empty, lovely, but it was his voice in my head, soft, the merest brush of contact, that told me what he wanted. "Call them."
I held my hand out to them, and said, "Come to me."