The Harlequin / Chapter 13-14

Chapter 13-14


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Chapter Thirteen

I WOKE ON the floor of Jean-Claude's bedroom with Nathaniel staring down at me. I glanced to my right and found Richard on the floor with Micah beside him. There were guards in the room, and the smell of burning.

Richard's first words were, "You all right?"

I nodded.

His second words were, "What's burning?"

"The bed," Micah said.

"What?" I asked.

"The cross in its bag that you have underneath your pillow got hot enough that it set the pillow on fire," Micah said.

"Shit," I said.

Claudia appeared above me with a fire extinguisher in her hands. "What the hell happened, Anita?"

I stared up at her, and there was a lot of her to stare up at. She was one of the tallest people I'd ever met, and lifted weights in a serious fashion. Her black hair was in its usual tight ponytail, her face free of makeup, and still strikingly beautiful.

"That bitch queen vampire came again, didn't she?" Remus said.

I tried to sit up, but if Nathaniel hadn't caught me, I'd have fallen back to the floor. The last time I'd fought off the darkness, I'd been damn near killed by my own beasts trying to tear their way out of my human body. Apparently today I'd just be weak. I could live with that.

Remus was standing scowling at the foot of the bed. He was tall, muscled, and blond, but his face was a crisscross of scars, as if he'd been badly broken and put back together again. When he was angry enough, his face mottled, and you could see the pale lines against the flushed skin of his face. He almost never made eye contact with anyone. I think because he didn't want to see in others' faces what they thought of his own. But when he got upset enough he'd meet your eyes, then you could see how lovely the eyes were, all green and gray with long lashes. Tonight I got a good dose of the eyes.

I leaned into the warm curve of Nathaniel's body and said, "Yeah, it was the Mother of All Darkness."

"At least your beasts aren't trying to tear you apart this time," Claudia said.

"Yeah," I said, "at least."

Then I felt something stirring inside me, as if something big and furred had brushed the inside of my body. "Oh, shit," I whispered.

Nathaniel leaned in and sniffed just above my face. "I smell something. Cat, but it's not leopard." He closed his eyes and breathed in deep. "It's not lion."

I shook my head.

Richard said, "She said it was a parting gift."

I looked inside myself, in that place where the beasts waited. There was a gleam of eyes, then a face came out of the shadows. A face the color of night and flame: tiger.

"Oh, shit," I said louder, "tiger."

"Crap," Claudia said.

To my knowledge there was only one weretiger in the entire St. Louis area. Christine worked as an insurance agent and was miles away. She'd never get here in time for me to share my beast with her and keep it from tearing me apart. Either Marmee Noir had decided it was time for me to finally be a shapeshifter for real, and she'd chosen tiger, or she meant to kill me. If she couldn't have me, no one could. Possessive bitch.

But I was better at controlling the beast than I had been the last time she tried this. I called the other animals. We could play metaphysical tag for a while, at least. The black panther looked frail compared to the great striped beast. The wolf growled and flared its ruff of fur. The tiger stared at them, waiting. The lioness came from the darkness last, almost the same size as the tiger. They were animals that should never have met in the wild, never have tried their great strengths against one another. But the inside of my body was a lot weirder than any zoo. The beasts stared at the newcomer, and we waited. By calling them all at once, I kept myself from trying to turn into any single one of them. But eventually my body would choose, and when that happened there had to be a weretiger in the room.

"Call Christine," Micah said. He'd helped me learn this control. He knew what I was doing.

"Jean-Claude warned me that Anita might be collecting more kitty-cats," Remus said, "so we went shopping." He turned to one of the guards by the door. "Go get Soledad. We need her ASAP."

The man went out the door at a jog. Remus turned back to me. "She'll do what needs doing."

"She's a wererat?" I managed to say.

"She's pretending to be one of Rafael's rats, but she's a tiger. We had to promise to keep her secret before she'd agree to stay in town."

"She's probably running from an arranged marriage. Tigers are weird about keeping it in the family," Claudia said.

"What?" I said.

"We'll explain later, promise," Claudia said.

Remus said, "Most of the solo tigers I've met all hide what they are really well. Most of them can even hide their energy enough to pass for human."

I wanted to look at Richard, but didn't dare. Even the thought made the wolf stand up straighter and think about coming closer. Once Richard had played human for me, and I'd been fooled. I buried my face against Nathaniel's arm, smelled his leopard, and the wolf quieted, but the leopard began to pace.

I still didn't have a werelion to call my own. I wasn't even sure we had a lion in the place tonight, but I should have known that Remus and Claudia would think of it. "We better send for the lions, too," she said.

Remus just looked at the door. One of the other guards opened the door, then hesitated. "Which one?"

"Travis."

The guard went. I would have protested the choice, but of the few lions we had he was probably one of the best. None of the local lions really appealed to me - they were too weak. My lioness didn't want food, she wanted a mate. I'd worked hard not to give her one. Eventually she'd pick one whether I liked it or not. Or that was the prevailing theory. Since what I was doing metaphysically was pretty much impossible, it was just a theory. None of us truly knew how all this was going to turn out. I sat in Nathaniel's arms and tried to think evenly about all the beasts. But Nathaniel was too close, and the scent of his skin too real. The leopard turned and began to pace up that corridor that led to pain.

I gripped Nathaniel's arm. "I can't hold them."

Richard crawled to me and put his arm by my face. The musk of wolf was there, to slow the leopard and send it circling around, not trying to come out. But now the wolf paced toward the light. Not good.

Travis got there before Soledad. His blond-brown curls were tousled from sleep, his face still not wholly awake. He was wearing the bottoms of a pair of cotton pajamas, and nothing else. They'd dragged him from bed with no time to do anything. He was a college student and I wondered briefly if his Rex, lion king, had made him stay here with us instead of going to class.

He knelt by my legs and didn't even react to the fact that I was nude. Either the guard had explained the problem or he could feel it. His sleepy face began to clear, and an intelligence that was both too acute and one of his best features began to fill his gold-brown eyes. He held his wrist out to me, and the lioness began to pace. The three of them played tag with my beasts. As one moved, they traded whose skin I was smelling. But it would not last; eventually my body would pick someone.

The tiger moved up, and there was no tiger to smell. But the others distracted me, calling their beasts, keeping us playing our metaphysical musical chairs, except I was the chair.

I waited for the tiger to try to tear me apart as the other three beasts had done periodically, but the tiger sat there, waiting. Wolf, leopard, lion; the three men played me like a game of tag, putting their bare skin close enough for me to smell it, touch it, and the tiger waited. Then a thing happened that had never happened before with any of the other beasts - the tiger began to fade; like some monstrous version of the Cheshire cat, it began to fade in pieces. I settled back in Nathaniel and Richard's arms, with Travis kneeling beside us. Travis was close, but not as close as the other two. My mistake. The tiger fading had made me let my guard down. Big mistake. The leopard and wolf paced around each other. The lioness saw her opportunity and charged past them, up that long black tunnel inside me. The leopard and wolf were still circling each other. The lioness didn't care about them. She just wanted to be real.

Richard put his wrist near my face, but it was too late for simple measures. The lioness hit my body as if it were a wall. It felt like a small car crashed into me from the inside. The impact jerked me off the floor, tore me out of their surprised hands. My body hit the floor and they tried to cradle me, but it was too late. The lioness stretched inside my body, trying to fit all that huge cat inside me. There was no room. I was too small. The lioness was trapped, trapped in a small, dark space. She reacted like any wild animal; she tried to destroy the trap. Tried to claw and bite her way out of it. The trouble was, my body was what she was trying to tear her way out of.

I shrieked, while the muscles in my body tried to tear themselves off my bones. You try to forget how much it hurts, and then it's happening and you can't forget. Can't think, can't be, can't do anything but hurt!

Weight, pressing me down, hands holding my wrists on the floor. Something pinning my lower body. I opened my eyes and found Travis above me. The lioness screamed her frustration, because she'd seen him before. She didn't like him. She didn't want him. Travis tried to grab my face in his hands, tried to take my beast into him, but the lioness was too close to the surface, and we agreed on one thing. Travis was weak. We didn't want him.

I bit him, sank teeth into his wrist. The lioness meant it to chase him away, and so did I, but the moment that hot blood spilled into my mouth, all I could taste was lion. I could taste Travis's beast in his blood and that was enough. I looked up at him with his blood spilling out of my mouth, and I shoved my beast into him. I gave the lioness what she wanted. I gave her a body that could make her real. The lioness spilled out of me in a rush of heat and power that felt like it was taking my skin with it. I screamed, and Travis's screams echoed mine.

One minute Travis was staring down at me, the next second he exploded, bits of skin and meat and liquid spraying over me. A lion rose above me, shaking its maned head, staggering as it straddled me, as if even in lion form he hurt. He made a sound halfway between a roar and a moan, and fell to his side beside me. I lay there, my body aching from my toes to the roots of my hair. God, I hurt, but it was fading, a bone-grinding ache, but it was fading. As it faded, I was able to pay attention to the fact that I was covered in that clear, warm goo that shapeshifters seem to lose instead of blood when they change. The more violent the change the more of it there seems to be. I'd given my beast to Travis, and even though it wasn't exactly my beast, it was as if my lioness did go to him, for a while. The pain faded enough so I could think about something else, and the first thought was that when Haven had taken my beast, he hadn't been weakened by it. Hell, Nathaniel, Micah, even Clay and Graham didn't collapse like Travis did. He was weak. I needed someone strong.

Then I had other things to worry about, because the wolf decided she wanted a chance. She ran up that tunnel like a pale ghost. I had time to say, "Wolf," then she hit me, and I was back to writhing on the floor.

I reached out, and Richard was there. He wrapped his arms around me, held me tight while my body tried to tear itself apart. He pinned my face with one strong hand. He called his beast. His power hit mine, and it felt like my blood was boiling. I shrieked, tried to tell him to stop. He leaned in to kiss me, while his power combined with mine to boil me alive. I tried to give him my wolf, but I couldn't. It couldn't get past the weight of his power.

His power began to push my beast back like boiling water pushing a forest fire back. It worked, but it felt like my skin was singeing and smoking as he forced my beast back. He drove it back to that place deep inside me. He drove it back, and it went whimpering. I whimpered with it, because it felt as if my body had been burned with power. I tried to look down at my body, and the world swam in streamers of color and nausea. I'd seen Richard force people to swallow their beasts before, but I'd never known that it hurt.

When my vision cleared, Richard was smiling down at me. He looked pleased. "I wasn't sure it was going to work," he said, and there was strain in his own voice as if it had cost him something, too.

I whispered in a voice that was broken from screaming, "That hurt."

His smile faded around the edges, but I didn't have time to worry about his hurt feelings, because the leopard spilled up into me like poison trying to find a way to drip out of my skin.

Nathaniel's arms found me, but Micah took me from him. Micah wrapped his arms around me, pinned me to his body. My leopard knew his, knew the smell and taste of it. The energy went into him like a huge hot breath. It washed over his human body, and fur followed the power, like turning a shirt inside out. Micah was one of the smoothest shifts of any wereanimal I'd ever seen. Only Chimera had changed more easily and less messily than he did.

I was left clasped to the front of his furred body. Held by a body that was half man and half leopard. Travis had only two shapes: lion and human. Every other wereanimal in the room had three: animal, human, and half-and-half. Once I'd thought you had to be powerful to do the half-human form. But I'd been spending too much time around really powerful wereanimals. Now, I thought that only the weak couldn't do it.

I let Micah hold me, but I was too weak to hold him back. He laid me gently on the floor and lay down on his side beside me, propped up on one elbow. I stared up into his black-furred face, a strangely graceful mix of cat and human. His eyes looked just as at home in this face as his other one. They were both Micah to me.

"Did you do that to make a point?" Richard's voice, angry.

Micah looked up at him and spoke in that gravelly purr that he had in this shape. "What point would that be?"

"That I caused her more pain making her swallow her beast than you did by taking it."

"I took her beast because I'm not powerful enough to make her swallow it, and because being forced to swallow it can hurt, a lot."

"So I cause her more pain, and you come off the hero."

If I hadn't been exhausted, and aching from head to toe, I'd have told Richard to stop it, not to fight, but I was too tired. He'd slept over. He'd helped me with Marmee Noir. It had all been going so well. I didn't want it to go badly. Damn it, damn it.

"I called her leopard, instead of letting Nathaniel do it, because I can do this." He moved away enough so he wasn't touching me, and then it was like magic. It was as if the black fur were tiny flames that spilled off and blew away in the wind of his power, and everywhere the black blew away there was skin underneath. Everyone else looked as if they were being torn apart and remade, or pulled inside out when they shifted. The best you could hope for was to have the other body melt away and the beast, or the human, pull itself out of the other form. But Micah, Micah just changed. One minute leopardman, the next human again. If I hadn't seen Chimera shift from one form to the other like water spilling back and forth between hands, I'd have said Micah was the best at shifting I'd ever seen.

Micah looked up at Richard. "Nathaniel would have been trapped in leopard form for hours."

I couldn't see Richard's face because I was turned to Micah, and it seemed like too much effort to turn my head the other way. But I heard the disbelief in his voice. "It's supposed to cost if you change back before six hours, sometimes longer. Aren't you exhausted?"

"No," Micah said.

"Are you disoriented at all?"

"I wouldn't want to jump to my feet, but give me a few minutes and I'll be fine."

"I've never seen anyone who can shift back and forth like that."

"I've seen one other who was better," Micah said.

"Who?"

"Chimera," and just saying it caused Micah's face to take on that serious, sorrow-filled expression that I knew too well.

I reached up to touch his arm. I'd have liked to touch his face, but those extra inches seemed too much effort. He smiled down at me, as if he knew what even that small effort had cost.

A woman's voice said, "If this guy could change shape easier than that, I'd have liked to meet him."

Soledad came to stand over us. She wasn't as tall as some of the guards, well under six feet, but from flat on the floor, she looked tall enough. She was slender but curvy, with hair cut boy short and dyed a shade of yellow that didn't occur in nature. With the hair you'd expect more makeup, but she usually did lipstick and just enough liner to accent her brown eyes. She stared down at me with that look she usually had, like she thought something was funny and would laugh any minute. I'd realized a few days ago that it was her version of a blank face.

I might have asked her what she was thinking, staring down at me, but the tiger flashed inside the darkness in me. No, please, no, I thought.

Soledad stared down at me. The smile slipped away from her face, and I saw something I hadn't expected for a moment: fear. I might have asked what she was afraid of, but the tiger started racing up that long dark hallway inside me. I reached up to her.

She hesitated.

Claudia said, "Do your job, Soledad."

She leaned over to take my hand, saying, "In this world I would rather live two days like a tiger than a hundred years like a sheep."

I might have asked what she was quoting, but the moment her hand touched mine, the tiger sped up. It bounded down that hallway, and I braced for the impact.

Chapter Fourteen

THE IMPACT NEVER came. The tiger hit my skin, my body, and kept going. I didn't give my beast to Soledad; it just washed out of me and into her. It didn't hurt me; it was as if all that went down my hand to hers was power. It just happened to look like a tiger. I wasn't sure that was it at all because Soledad didn't change shape. She half-collapsed around me, catching herself with her free hand so she didn't fall on top of me. Her breath came in sharp pants, as if something hurt, but I wasn't feeling it. I was just holding her hand and watching her face.

She managed to whisper, "You don't hold tiger inside you."

"I think you're right," I said. My voice still sounded hoarse from all the screaming, but at least I could talk above a whisper.

"What's wrong?" Claudia asked from behind us.

"I think Marmee Noir couldn't turn me into a tiger," I said. I kept looking at Soledad's face, though. She still looked hurt. I asked, "Are you all right?"

She nodded, but her lips were pressed in a tight, thin line. I think she was lying to me about being all right.

"I think she's hurt," I said.

Claudia knelt beside us. "Soledad, are you hurt?"

She shook her head.

"Tell me you aren't hurt," Claudia said.

Soledad just kept shaking her head. Claudia helped the other woman to her feet, and Soledad's knees wouldn't hold her. Claudia had to catch her, or she'd have fallen to the floor. Remus came on the other side of her and helped ease her to the edge of the bed. He asked, "What's wrong with her?"

"I'm not sure," Claudia said.

Soledad found her voice. "That was not a weretiger."

I tried to sit up, and Micah had to help me. Richard moved in on the other side to help me sit between them. "It was Marmee Noir," I said.

"Who?" Soledad asked.

"The Mother of All Darkness, the queen of the vampires."

"It smelled like tiger, not vampire," she said.

"Tigers are one of her animals to call," I said.

Soledad shook her head and leaned against Claudia for a moment. "All right, I admit it, I don't feel so good."

"Why didn't she bring her beast?" Nathaniel asked.

"Anita isn't a weretiger, so the tiger couldn't be as real as the rest of the beasts," Micah said.

"What do you mean?" Richard asked.

"We'd been wondering if Anita is picking up beasts because she survived attacks, or if it's vampire powers, and she'll collect animals to call as if they are types of lycanthropy. I think this answers the question. She's never been attacked by a weretiger, and Chimera didn't hold tiger as one of his shapes."

"So why try to call tiger?" Richard said. "Why not call one of the cats Anita already has?"

"I don't know," Micah said.

I had a thought. "She's been inside my head deep enough to know that I didn't think we had a tiger nearby. She said she wanted to make me hers, but if she couldn't have me, then..."

"She meant for the tiger to tear you apart," Richard said, softly.

"Or she was trying to make you a tiger from a distance," Soledad said. "I don't think she knew what would happen. I don't think she cared what would happen. The power that brushed me didn't think like a tiger."

"What did it think like?" I asked.

"A serial killer, a butcher. Tigers only hunt when they're hungry. This thing hunts because it's bored."

"Yeah," I said, "that sounds like Mommie Dark. Sorry you got a taste of her, Soledad."

She gave a weak smile. "My job to take the hits for you, right?" But she was pale, and looked as close to fainting as I thought I'd ever see one of the guards.

"Chimera might not have been a tiger," Remus said, "but he did hold hyena, snake, and bear, at least those three more. Why doesn't Anita react to them, too?"

Micah shrugged. "She's never been attacked by them. She seems to need to be bled by an animal first." He stroked his hand down my bare back. It reminded me that we were nude, but strangely because everyone else treated it like it was nothing, so could I.

Richard settled in closer to my other side, as if that one touch of Micah's made him have to touch me, too. Or maybe he was just nervous and letting himself take comfort. I looked for bad motives for Richard. I didn't mean to do it, but he'd hurt me so badly and so often that I finally realized I looked for the negative in him, not the positive. I took a deep breath in and let it out slow.

"You all right?" Remus asked, but his eyes did a slide to each side of me, as if he knew what was wrong.

I nodded, and the movement was too fast. I ached, but it was sharper than that. The pain would fade, but damn, I didn't know how the real wereanimals did it. Changing completely had to hurt worse than this in-between stuff.

Remus asked, "Do you know why you don't react to all of Chimera's animal forms?"

"Jean-Claude thinks maybe I need a vamp with that animal to call to mess with me before the beast rises."

"So a combination of the attacks you've survived and vamp powers," he said.

"Something like that," I said.

Richard moved his hand across my shoulders, drawing me in against his body, and away from Micah. I tried not to tense up, but failed. He stopped in midmotion and just kept his hand on me. The movement that had been so natural was suddenly awkward. Awkward moments when I'm naked make me want clothes.

"Then you should react to us, the hyenas, because we're Asher's animal to call and he has messed with you, Anita. Messed with you so much he almost killed you."

I tried not to think about Asher, tried not to dwell on what we had done together the last time we'd been allowed alone together. His bite was orgasmic; combine that with actual sex and it was an experience you'd give your life for, and I'd almost done just that.

Micah touched my shoulder. "Anita, don't."

I jumped and looked at him, startled. He was right, I'd almost thought too hard about Asher. Just the memory could come back and duplicate the pleasure, at the most inopportune moments, or the most embarrassing. I shoved thoughts of Asher and his hair like spun gold as far away as I was able. But he never seemed to be too far from my thoughts lately, not since the night that we'd both gotten so caught up in his ability to bring pleasure...

Micah grabbed me, hard, and turned me to look at him. "Anita, think about something else."

I nodded. "You're right, you are right."

"You're still having flashbacks to that night?" Richard made it a question.

I nodded.

He touched my back again, tentatively, gently. Not trying to move me away from Micah, but just touching me. That I could deal with. "Hard to compete with someone who can make you orgasm just from remembering."

I turned and looked at him. He looked away, as if he wasn't certain I'd like what I saw on his face. I already knew he was jealous of the other men. I couldn't even blame him, I guess. He let all that heavy hair fall forward, to help hide his face. It wasn't as long as Asher's hair, but the gesture was similar. Asher used his hair to hide the scars that the old Inquisition had given him centuries ago when they'd tried to burn the devil out of him with holy water. Was Richard mimicking that hiding gesture on purpose, or by accident?

Travis, the lion, gave a gasping breath. It turned my attention to him and away from Richard. Micah let go of me so I could run my hand down the soft furred side of the lion. Travis's lion was a pale straw gold. He rolled over on his stomach and looked at me with a perfect lion face, but the look out of that face wasn't lion. The look said, clearly, that there was still a person in there. Lions just didn't give you that disgusted look.

"I'm sorry it hurt," I said.

He shook his head hard enough to fluff his mane. It was dry. I never understood that, but though changing shape was wet work, the product at each end was always mostly dry. The floor or bed would be wet, people around them could be wet, but they were dry. I'd asked all the lycanthropes in my life how that worked, and they didn't know either.

"I'll take Travis to find food," Nathaniel said. He stood there, still nude, still covered in some of the gunk that had managed to miss the lion.

"You'll need to shower," Micah said.

"I'll catch one in the group showers."

Nathaniel was quietly counting himself out for the morning feed - morning sex. It occurred to me then that I hadn't fed last night before bed. The ardeur hadn't risen, and we hadn't woken it on purpose.

I looked toward Damian's coffin, but the bed blocked my view. "Shit," I said, softly.

"Jean-Claude says that you can practice going longer between feedings," Nathaniel said.

"But I have to feed now." I sounded disappointed and couldn't help it. Having sex when you wanted to was one thing; being forced to have sex because you might die was different. I didn't like to be forced to do anything, even things I enjoyed.

"I'll take Travis to the food area, and I'll clean up." He looked at the two men still beside me. I caught a quick flash of feeling. He was out of here. He could stand his ground when he needed to, but Nathaniel didn't really like to play the king-of-the-hill games, especially when I was the hill. He knew it pissed me off, so he opted out most of the time. Micah, too, sometimes. They lived with me, which meant they had to understand me better than some of the other men in my life. Okay, better than Richard. There, I'd said it, at least in my head. He usually turned everything into a pissing contest. Trouble was, I felt like I was the one getting pissed on.

"Who did you feed on last?" Richard asked.

"Me," Micah said, and looked at the other man.

They had a moment where they just looked at each other, and like last night in the bed, I felt superfluous. "I don't know how to do this," Richard said.

"Just say it," Micah said.

"I don't want to have to ask your permission to have sex with Anita."

Micah laughed then, a sharp, surprised burst of sound. "I can't believe you said that."

"Well, I don't," Richard said.

"It's not my permission you need, Richard," Micah said.

Then Richard seemed to get it, because he looked at me. He actually had the grace to look embarrassed. "I didn't mean it that way."

"How did you mean it?" I asked, and tried to keep the words as neutral as I could.

"I'm trying to get along with the other men in your life. I don't know how to do that, Anita. I want to ask you to feed on me, but I feel like I have to ask for everyone's okay, not just yours; am I wrong?"

I felt my face soften. He was trying so hard. I touched his hair. There was an edge of drying goop in it. I guess I was a bigger mess since Travis had been practically on top of me when he shifted. Violent shifting is always messier. "We need to get cleaned up," I said.

He gave me uncertain eyes.

"I'll go with Nathaniel to the showers," Micah said, standing up. He petted Travis's back. "Come on, ol' lion, we'll get you fed."

Micah bent over and gave me a quick kiss and a reassuring smile. He did his best to let me know it was all right with him. One of my favorite things about Micah was that he usually made things better, easier, not worse.

He walked out with the huge, slinking form of the lion on one side and Nathaniel on the other. Nathaniel blew me a kiss from the door, but didn't try for a kiss on the lips. I wasn't sure why, but I'd have liked the kiss.

Richard touched my arm, gently. It made me look at him. Whatever he saw on my face didn't make him happy. His eyes showed it. Since I didn't know what was in my eyes, I couldn't change it. Whatever he saw on my face was what was there to see.

He gave a smile that left his eyes sad. "Let's use the bathtub and clean up." He looked down, his hair sliding around his face. He took a breath deep enough that it moved his shoulders up and down. "If that's all right with you."

I touched his arm. "A nice hot bath would help with the aches. Does it hurt this much to shift completely?"

Richard frowned, thinking, then shook his head. "No, I mean it hurts while you're doing it sometimes, but with practice, no. You seem to be stuck at the early stages when it hurts the most."

"Great," I said.

I heard water running in the bathroom. Remus or Claudia had sent someone in to start the bath. The tub was big; it took a while to fill.

Richard stood up and offered me a hand. He'd moved so that I had his body in profile - the smooth, strong line of his hip to stare at instead of other things. I appreciated the modesty. Sometimes when he wasn't modest, I just didn't think very clearly. Of course, it wasn't just his manhood that made me go wow. I stared up the line of his body, from feet, to the muscled swell of calf, thigh, the tight curve of his ass, the waist that led up to the swell of that chest, those shoulders. He held one muscled arm down at me, and I followed that arm to the face. That face. It wasn't just that he was handsome, or that his newly long hair framed it all, but the eyes. Pure brown, deep, rich, and full of a weight that was just Richard. A weight of personality and strength that once I'd thought would be enough to sustain me. I saw all of it in seconds, so that I was able to not just give him my hand in his, but wrap my other hand around his wrist. A wrist thick enough that I couldn't hold it between thumb and forefinger. He was just too big. He pulled me gently to my feet.

It hurt to stand, and I swayed, clutching at him. He put his other hand at my back to steady me. "Let me pick you up, Anita, please." He knew I didn't like to be carried. It made me feel weak, but tonight I hurt, and I knew that it would mean something to him to do it.

I whispered, "Yes."

He smiled, that smile that brightened his whole face. He picked me up in his arms, and I cuddled in against the strength of him. Just holding me in his arms, I could feel the potential in his body, so strong.

I let my head rest in the curve of his shoulder and didn't fight the fact that I was small in his arms. Once it had bothered me, but some part of me had grown up, or accepted it. Maybe I just didn't need to be the biggest, baddest ass in the room anymore. Maybe I was finally old enough to let someone else be the one in charge. Maybe.

I draped an arm around his neck and breathed in the scent of him. It loosened something tight and frightened in the center of my being. It felt a little like the rabbit was cuddling with the wolf, but if a lion can lie down with a lamb, why not?


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