Cookie turned immediately, only Pierce's hand on his arm stopping him. "Don't make me fight you, Pierce."
"If he is not strong enough to resist," Octavius said, "release him to his fate."
Cookie looked at Octavius. "You don't understand; I don't want to resist her. I want her to take me."
Pierce tried to turn Cookie back to him. "Don't you see, that's wrong. She's already rolled you, man. She's already done you, and you don't even know it."
"Maybe, but if that's what's happening, I'm okay with it." The edge of smile I had seen vanished, and his voice was low and serious when he said, "Take your hands off me, Pierce. I won't ask again."
"Let him go," Octavius said. "That is an order, Pierce."
Pierce gave him an angry look, but he let the other man go. He even raised his hands in the air, as if it wasn't his fault.
There was a small part of me that wanted to see if I could force Pierce to come too, but Cookie was coming. One lion was enough, for now.
CLAUDIA STOPPED HIM, standing in his way, towering over him. It was probably the first time he'd met a woman tall enough and muscular enough to do that. Just seeing his reaction to it would say a lot about him.
"Call your rat off, Blake," Cookie said.
"Give up the gun and I move," she said.
"I was more armed than this when she touched me earlier."
"Then you were bodyguarding your master, now you're about to get up close and personal with one of mine." Her voice was low and matter-of-fact. I thought it was interesting that she implied I was one of her masters. News to me.
I could see one shoulder enough to know he shrugged, then he must have handed the gun over, because Claudia moved aside.
He padded toward the bed on bare feet, the first button of his jeans already undone. Had it been before, or had he caught the gun on it as he pulled? The last would be careless. Was he careless?
I was way too calm. I watched him come toward the bed with a detachment that surprised me. It was like a type of shock, almost, or... the lion was utterly dispassionate about the man walking toward us. In some ways animals are more reactive than we are; people mistake that for emotion, but it's not. There was no emotion from the cat in my head. She waited. Waited with a sort of cold, wary patience, as if she could have watched him forever, and felt nothing. It was his choice whether we got along, or chased him away. If he did something stupid, or weak, she wouldn't accept him. She'd kill him before she'd accept him, but there was no passion to the decision. It was colder than any thought I'd ever had, except when I'd decided to kill. Then there is a moment of cold clarity, a moment of something that is almost peaceful. My moment of peaceful sociopathy was stretched to an eternity in the head of that big cat.
Nathaniel moved, and that made me turn to him, but the lion in my head roared at me, swiped a claw across the inside of my body. She let me know that she needed my eyes and had no interest in leopard. The pain of her claws spasmed through me. I was partially healed from what I'd done with Nathaniel, but that one swipe showed me that I was still hurt. Hurt in places that there'd be no way to bandage. Part of me wanted to fight her, and turn to Nathaniel, but I knew if I did, she'd do worse. I fought my own stubbornness for a moment, eyes closed, concentrating. Trying to decide if I'd grown up enough to let this small loss go, or if I had to win at every damn thing. If I let the lion think it could boss me around, would that set a bad precedent for later? Then a thought came to me; the lion was me. I was fighting with myself. How terribly Freudian, or would it be Jungian? Either way, how strangely me.
The thought was so me, that it opened my eyes. Cookie was standing beside the bed. His hands were at his sides. The look on his face was eager, but wary, as if he'd finally figured out that something might be wrong. His blue hair was flattened on top as if he'd been asleep when I'd called him. His eyes were very blue as he stared down at me. I could see the tattoo on his left shoulder now: the faces of Bert and Ernie. I sensed a theme.
"Any more tattoos?"
He grinned. "Yeah, want to see?"
"I don't know," I said.
"You called me," he said, and his voice was softer, as if he wasn't sure what was happening, and was finally not sure he was happy to be here. Cautious, at last. It pleased the cat in my head. Pleased me, too, I guess.
Micah said, "She needs to give you her beast."
Cookie turned to him, frowning. "I don't understand." His nostrils flared, as he scented the air. "She smells like lion, but she smelled like leopard earlier. She smelled like wolf, too." He shook his head, as if clearing his mind from the scent. He looked down at me, frowning, speaking softly. "What are you?"
The truth would have been, I wasn't sure, but some of the people in this room weren't our friends. Octavius would be our enemy if he could. I was about to try for half-truth, when Jean-Claude stepped up beside the bed and spoke. "Ma petite seems to have the ability to acquire the animals of the vampires she comes in close contact with. I knew she gained wolf through me, as some servants do. She gained leopard through contact with another. It may be her closeness with your own master that has brought lion to her." Not a lie, but it certainly wasn't the whole truth. But hey, I had no better suggestions.
"That would make her very dangerous," Octavius said from near the door. He and Pierce were still close to the door as if for a quick getaway.
"It would make her powerful, yes," Jean-Claude said.
"Dangerous," Octavius said. "Do the other masters know that they risk seduction and the loss of their animals to you, Jean-Claude, or are we your first victims?"
Jean-Claude sighed, and the sound echoed through the room, and slid over my skin. The lioness paced, growled low and deep, and the sound slid from my lips. "Don't," I said.
"My apologies, ma petite," he said. He turned to Octavius. "Truth then between us, Octavius, before you think even worse of us. I know you of old; you will spread these rumors. So I give you truth, and I will know if you tell, because no one in this room will tell but you."
"I do not gossip."
"You have always gossiped." He motioned to me. "Anita holds different types of lycanthropy inside her."
"That is not possible."
"Nor is it possible for her to have a vampire servant, or an animal to call that is not mine, but those are true things."
"We had heard, but we thought the servant was rumor."
Jean-Claude shook his head. "Augustine is powerful enough to see truth. When he sees her with Damian, he would know the truth anyway. I tell you only a night early, oh, a day early." He said it as if he had just remembered that he was up at dawn. He had so not forgotten. "I swear to you that human doctors have drawn her blood and tested it. She carries more than one strain of lycanthropy, and yet has not shifted to any. She holds the animal but seems unable to turn. They have tried to tear their way out tonight, and still she cannot shift."
Micah added, "She's stuck at that point where the beast is trying to get out, and you don't know how to let it out."
"Ouch," Cookie said. He looked down at me, smiling. "You've had a hard morning."
"You have no idea," I said.
"Yes he does," Nathaniel growled from beside me.
The two shapeshifters looked at each other. It was a long look. "Yeah, I remember the first time, we all do."
"She fought, fought it to a standstill."
He looked at me, eyes narrowing. "You can't do that, no one can."
"Never underestimate how stubborn Anita can be," Richard said from across the room. "You'll regret it, if you do."
I looked at him. He'd taken one of the chairs near the fireplace, as far from the bed as he could get without leaving the room. He was mostly in shadow, so that I couldn't see his face well. But then again, maybe I didn't want to see his face right then.
"Don't mistake force of will for stubbornness," Micah said. "There is a difference."
"It looks the same to me," Richard said.
"It would," Micah said.
A low growl trickled from Richard, and it echoed through the room, much the way Jean-Claude's sigh had. The sound made me shiver but not with the promise of sex; it flared across my skin like heat, and the lion reacted to it. She spilled into my skin like the leopard had done, like the wolf had done. I was suddenly writhing on the bed, screaming again. I did not want to hurt again. But if I didn't want to be wolf, I sure as hell didn't want to be lion. I didn't even know the lion pride here well. Shit. If sheer force of will was keeping me in human skin, my will was getting worn down. Eventually, I'd lose this fight. I didn't want it to be now.