THE WERETIGER SIGHED and was suddenly heavier on top of me, as if some tension had left his body. Always so hard in front of the humans, he said in that growling voice.
Off, and I added, please. He had saved us; saved me, buTHE was still heavy.
He half-rolled, half-fell off me, to collapse on his side beside me. He blinked those strange blue eyes at me.
Im sorry if I hurt you, I said.
He smiled; it was a smile full of teeth that could have shredded my throat, but it was a smile. And Id learned through working with the police on serial killer cases that humans had teeth, too. I had so learned things about my fellow human beings that I did not want to know. It made me calmer around the monsters, because I knew scratch us deep enough and we were all monsters.
You fought your tiger. If you had just given it to me, then it wouldnt have hurt either of us.
It must have shown on my face, because his face looked curious, speculative. You didnt know that, he said.
I know that if a lycanthrope fights his beast, the change is more violent; I guess I just never made the logic leap.
Youve done this before with someone, Jason said.
Of course I have. Im an adult male of my clan. This is how we keep our pregnant females from losing our babies.
Jason and I both looked at him. I said it out loud. The weretigers do this routinely with their pregnant females?
Yes, Crispin said, and then he frowned, though his face made it more of a snarl. And you should know that. He frowned/snarled harder. Though your tiger was white, and were the only white tiger clan in the United States. You should be one of our females, but youre not. He rose up on one elbow, balancing with the other arm flat on the wet carpet as if he were still shaky. His face showed concern, all sympathy. You survived an attack, but it cant be one of our clan. We would never do that. Its against the law of every clan to bring someone over against their will. He went back to frowning. And when our master says to attack, it is for killing. We dont leave survivors. He said it easily, as if he knew he could confess all his sins to me.
I felt compelled to say, I really am a federal marshal, Crispin. Be careful what you say to me.
Do they know youre one of us?
I looked at Jason. What could we tell this stranger? What was safe to share? He seemed to understand the look, as he so often did.
Youre one of Maxs tigers from Las Vegas, right? Jason said.
Crispin moved his gaze to the standing man. Yes.
Max knows what Anita is, and isnt. If he didnt share that with you, its probably not something he wants shared with you. Nothing personal, but I think my master would have to talk to yours before we could explain.
Are you hinting that shes not a weretiger? Crispin asked.
The humans say a picture is worth a thousand words. We know a smell is worth a hell of a lot more.
Crispin just nodded.
Jason knelt in the damp carpet on the other side of me from the weretiger.
The beasts are quiet, I said. I really dont want you both to go furry on me, literally or figuratively.
Do you feel well enough to sit up? he asked.
I thought about it, explored my body not with hands but with thought. I hurt, but not as bad as Id feared. I started to struggle to sit up, and Jasons arm was there only seconds before Crispins longer one. They looked at each other over my head, and I had a moment to feel the testosterone rise.
Dont even think it, I said.
Among our people a female mates with only one male. Its all about competition.
Jason swallowed a laugh, which puzzled the weretiger and made me frown at him. Sorry, Jason said, but Im just thinking that tiger would so not be Anitas animal.
I frowned harder at him.
Just think about your wolf, just enough to bring it to smelling depth.
Smelling depth? I made it a question.
Trust me, Anita, just a little thought, and hell get the idea.
I dont want to, Jason. Im tired, and I hurt, and I dont want this to get out of hand again.
He tried to hug me to him, but Crispins arm was in the way. Crispins long, clawlike hand curled around my waist, between my body and Jasons.
I leaned in against Jasons body as much as that furred and muscled arm would let me. Jason cradled my face against his chest, pressed me to the scent of his skin underneath the T-shirt. I got a glimpse of dark gold eyes surrounded by white and dark fur. My body reacted to it, and the wolf simply started trotting up the metaphysical path inside me. I thought, No. Back.
She hesitated, the wolf, then looked at me. There was suddenly something in her eyes that said No right back at me.
You smell of wolf now, Crispin said. He leaned in, snuffling along my hair and face. It brought the scent of tiger again. Tiger should have been quiet, but there were still tigers inside me. Still striped faces to move in the dark.
I clung harder to Jason, but the wolf wasnt cooperating either. The wolf gave me that flat look, as if to let me know that she obeyed me because she had to, but she still wanted out. She still wanted freedom.
She cant be both wolf and tiger, Crispin said.
You have no idea, Jason said.
Crispin snuffled against my neck, tickling with fur and almost nibbling. It made me shiver, made my body react low and hard. It wasnt a fear reaction. The wolf started trotting harder, and the tigers trailed behind, not too close, but coming. The only thing that made it not an absolute complete clusterfuck was that leopard and lion were still in hiding. But we didnt need them to have it go horribly, horribly wrong.
You have to feed the ardeur, Anita, now. Thats part of whats wrong.
We fed the ardeur before the party.
Youre acting like we didnt, like you need to feed again.
I pushed away from both of them, trying to breathe in things that didnt smell like either animal. God, it was like I almost needed someone who wasnt furry to quiet the beasts tonight.
The ardeur was the talk of everyone who came back from St. Louis after the big meeting. That you have to feed off sex like a real succubus. I thought it was just rumor. Are you saying its true?
I got up on all fours, debated on whether I could stand, thought I could, and tried it. I was a little unsteady but I managed. Away from the two wereanimals the beasts had slowed, but they hadnt gone away. I could still see them behind my eyes like a waking dream.
If its true, Crispin said, I volunteer to help in any way you need.
I shook my head without looking back at them.
Jason said, Ive got it covered, thanks.
I dont think you do.
A low growl came from behind me, and I didnt think it was Crispin. Get out, Jason said.
I think if it comes to a fight, you wont win, Crispin said.
Let me be clear here, tiger. Im grateful for the help, but dont threaten Jason. Hes my friend, my lover, and my masters pomme de sang.
He wants to kick me out, but I can feel your tiger, Anita. I can feel it. Its not gone. Im the only weretiger within a hundred miles or more. You need me tonight.
I need his wolf, too. I finally turned and looked back at them. Jason was standing, but the weretiger was on the floor. Hed rolled away from the wet spot wed made on the carpet, buTHE was lounging more catlike than human. If hed been a cat it wouldnt have been erotic in the least, buTHE so wasnt a cat. All the fur in the world wouldnt change whaTHE was, and whaTHE was not.
I smell the wolf, but you cant be both, can you?
I shook my head, again. Long story.
Anita, you need to feed, Jason said.
I know, but every time Im close to you, Jason, the wolf seems stronger.
Ill help, Crispin said.
I gave him a hard look, which didnt seem to faze him in the least. The tiger reacts to you. I dont know whats wrong tonight.
I took you to a room that was so thick with sexual tension you could have walked on it, Jason said. We both know that can make it hard on the ardeur, on you. I wanted to see the girls. I wanted to flirt and be flirted with, and I forgot my duties. He shook his head. You and Jean-Claude trusted me to take care of you and I failed. We have to feed you again. I think once we do that the beasts will calm.
By the way, Crispin said, what the hell is with that necklace of yours?
I glanced down at the charm on its chain. It was back to being dull and almost unreadable. But I had the image burned inside my mind, as if I would never forget it.
Crispin went to all fours and started crawling toward me, in that graceful I-have-muscles-in-places-you-cant-see way that they could do in this form, or even human form. It was just a little more disturbing in this form.
No closer, Crispin, I said.
Jason stepped between us. You heard her.
Crispin growled, a sound that made my body react both for sex and for the tigers crowded at the back of my wolf. No fighting, I thought, as hard as I could. The beasts could fight inside me, and it hurt like hell. Stop it; stop it, both of you. I am having real trouble here with both the tiger and the wolf. I dont need you to make it worse.
Then you should stop calling to me, Crispin said.
Yes, you did. He sat back on his haunches, hands hanging down between his knees so that at leasTHE was covered and I could look at him without worrying about staring at his groin. I tried not to stare at strange mens genitalia; just politeness, I guess. Or squeamishness.
I didnt mean to, I said.
You call to me like a little queen.
You dont mean that as a pet name, do you? Jason said.
He turned those strange blue eyes to the other man. No, little queen is what we call our dominant females who would be powerful enough to eventually break off and form their own clan if our queen would allow it.
What happens if she doesnt allow it? I asked.
She kills the little queen, or has her killed, after shes bred at least once.
I just stared at him. I couldnt read the tiger face quite well enough. Jason said, I think hes serious.
I am. He held his arm up, and showing through the white fur was a raw burn mark. What is this mark on me?
Jason, I said, you look at it. I dont think closer to the tiger is better.
Jason did what I asked, and Crispin raised his arm up obediently. Its the charm. The symbols in a circle and the many-headed tiger inside it. Youve branded him.
I didnt mean to, I said.
What is that charm supposed to do? Crispin asked.
I debated on what to say. It was supposed to keep Marmee Noir from taking me over from far away in Europe. It was designed so she couldnt be as big and bad a vampire as she truly was, but I was beginning to wonder if the charm could do other things that no one had told me about. Had the werewolf who gave it to me known that it had other magic in it? Was it a trap instead of a treasure? Shit. I needed Jean-Claude. I needed to be home, not out here in some strange city with just Jason. If the metaphysical shit hit the fan, I needed more help.
Your face, Crispin said. Youre afraid to tell me.
I can say this, that its never reacted to anyone like it did tonight.
Am I the first weretiger youve been around since you got the charm?
A very logical question. One other, but sheweve been very careful around each other. I didnt add that Christine was an attack survivor. I was beginning to wonder if a born tigertheir word for itwas different enough to make the charm react this differently. Maybe. Or maybe Marmee Noir was figuring out ways around its magic. I needed help.
He is the first male youve been around, Jason said.
I looked at him. So?
He gave me a look. Anita, come on, your magic is based on sex, and girls just dont do it for you. Not that that doesnt disappoint me sometimes.
Hey, fantasize about your little girl-on-girl mnage trois on your own time. Ive still got wolf and a herd of tigers staring at me in the dark inside my head. I dont know whats wrong, Jason, and I dont know how to fix it.
You need to feed.
I nodded. We need some privacy, Crispin. Thanks for the help, and sorry youve got like a brand, but I need to feed now.
You mean you and the wolf are going to have sex.
I closed my eyes and counted slowly to ten, then said, calmly, Yes, that is what I mean.
The tiger inside you may not like that.
I looked at Jason. He hung his head. Honestly, your beasts have been quiet. I would never have brought you with just the two of us, if I thought you needed all your animals with you. I mean, at least its only the two. This is a small town, Anita. There arent going to be that many wereanimals.
Only the two, Crispin said, standing. What does that mean? Are there more inside you? He started toward me, and again Jason moved in his way. The tiger gave a low, rumbling sound from that wide chest. He towered over Jason, but he, like me, was used to being towered over. It didnt impress either of us. But we were used to playing these games at home with people we knew, or who knew us. Playing where we had other people to back us. Crispin didnt know us, didnt understand us, and we didnt understand him.
He went from standing there to attacking Jason. One minute fine, the next claws and teeth, and Jason was still in human form. Blood spattered; Crispin hitting him too fast, too much for him to change. Fuck.
The Browning was on the floor on the other side of them, which said more than anything else how messed up I was. I had a choice of wading into a fight with silver blades, or going for the gun. I went for the gun.
I had the gun in my hand, was raising it up to aim at that tall white figure, when he threw Jason at me, literally. I had just enough time to point the gun up so that it didnt accidentally go off into Jasons body, and then I was on the ground with him on top of me, stunned by the force of the blow, and the weight.
His blood spattered my face, and my wolf started running. No, no!
There was a white blur above me like an out-of-focus mountain. Clawed hands pinned my gun hand and tried for Jasons throat. Jason put up an arm to block the blow. I tried to move my hand for an angle that would let me fire into the weretiger. Jasons hands fumbled at my sleeve, ripped it. He drew my silver knife and struck out at the tiger. Blood spilled across me in a hot arc. I waited for the tigers to chase my wolf, but they looked into the dark. There was something in the dark that was not my beasts.
Id told Chuck and the guards that a vampire didnt have to be in the room with you to fuck you over, but I hadnt realized just how true that was about to be.
Marmee Noir had tried to mark me, and failed as a vampire, but she was truly a shapeshifter, an older strain of both that could live in the same host body. The darkness inside my mind wavered and I heard her voice. Your control is formidable, necromancer. I need it gone.
One moment there was a fight, the next the ardeur was free. She tore my shields down. She destroyed me. She made of me something that simply needed. If it had been blood lust she had raised, I would have torn out Jasons throat, anyones throat. There was nothing but the need. It rose up out of the darkness that she had planted inside me. It hit the cross that shone on my chest, and I tore it off, threw it away. It hit the charm, made it glow, and that, too, went spinning away.
There was no gun, no knife. There was only flesh, and hands, and mouths, and bodies. Then there was only darkness.