I HID AS much of me behind the door as I could, but with one hand on the doorknob and the other hand still holding a gun; it was a little awkward in so many ways.
The guards were Shadwell and Rowe. That was wrong. They hadnt been our guards in the night. What time was it? How long had we been out? Had we cycled back through our guard shifts? Shit, again.
Its all right, guys, I said.
The hell it is, Rowe said.
We cant let them in, Blake, Shadwell said, not without clearing it with someone.
I looked farther down the hall, and there they were. Jamil and Shang-Da stood in front of whoever was behind; they were not small men and seemed to fill the hallway. Shang-Da was well over six feet, the tallest Chinese man Id ever met. His hair was cut short, and he wore a long black trench coat. I knew it wasnt because of the summer heat. There would be dangerous toys under the coat. Jamil was almost five inches shorter, which put him at about six feet. He looked small, but then everyone looked small beside Shang-Da. Jamils hair was in cornrows to his waist with tiny white beads showing. He wore a white suit that made his skin look even darker than it was. The suit was a generous cut, not the formfitting style he preferred. Some suits he had were for show, but this was a business suit of someone who wore weapons and didnt want them spotted. It was a tailoring challenge, I knew that myself.
They were Richards bodyguards, his Skll and Hat, respectively. The names are the wolves in Norse mythology that chase the sun and moon. When they catch them, it will be the end of the world. In werewolf society they are the guards who keep the Ulfric, wolf king, safe.
I looked at them from Rowe and Shadwells perspective. Even if you couldnt feel the otherworldly energy rolling off them, no self-respecting guard would let them inside any room. They just needed signs that said bad ass. No, strike that, they didnt need signs. It was too obvious to need anything else but them standing there.
I dont know how to explain this to you, Shadwell, Rowe, but they are the bodyguards of my friend. They wont move out of the way as long as you have guns out. I appreciate the guns not being pointed at anyone, but theyre just doing their job.
Were trying to do ours, too, Shadwell said. He risked a tiny glance my way, then put all his attention back to the men in the hallway. But you do not make it easy to guard you, Ms. Blake.
I didnt correct him to add the Marshal. I wasnt feeling very marshally right now. I was sore, and tired, and scared, and I wanted badly to talk to the wolves in the hall.
I made my own gun more visible against the door frame, simply by moving my hand up. Oh, I dont know, Shadwell, I think I do a pretty good job of protecting myself.
My voice sounded so confident. Good for me; inside I was screaming. I could feel Richard just a few yards away. He had to be here for a very good reason, and the only reason I could think of was to help me, or tell me something, like why I couldnt feel Jean-Claude metaphysically. I wanted some answers, I needed some help, but me hysterical wouldnt get the guards to move. Okay, maybe it would, but if I lost it that badly, it wouldnt be pretend. I didnt want to be that weak in front of the werewolves. Shang-Da didnt really like me much. He thought I was bad for their Ulfric. There were nights I agreed with him.
Dont make me come out there, Shadwell.
That a threat? he asked.
No, more a plea, I cant find a robe. Id rather not flash the hallway.
It was Rowe who gave me a longer glance than he should have, with what was standing in the hallway. All he could see was an arm to the shoulder, but theres something about telling some men that youre naked. It makes them a little distracted.
Eyes front, Shadwell said.
Rowe did whaTHE was told.
I cant explain this to you, Shadwell, but I need them inside with me.
Why? he asked, without turning his gaze from the men in the hall.
What could I say that would make sense, and not out Richard further than he already was? Nothing came to mind.
Crispin came up behind me. He whispered, Why do you need them when you have me?
I gave him a look that has made bad guys run for cover. He lowered his head, almost a bow. Fine, fine, dont waste the full look on me.
The stripper slept over, Rowe said, and his voice made it sound like he didnt approve.
Who I sleep with is none of your business, Rowe.
How many men you have in there? he asked.
None of your business, I said.
It is if were supposed to guard you.
Then go, just go. I dont need you. I dont want you. Go.
The stripper in question walked a few steps away and came back with the suit coat of the other tiger. Why hadnt I thought of that? Too easy, too hard.
Crispin stood in the doorway, obviously nude. We moved back enough from the door so I wasnt in view while he held the coat for me. He helped me into it while I traded hands back and forth with the gun.
We cant leave without orders, Shadwell said.
Fuck your orders, I said. I was glad that the red tiger was tall and broad. It meant that his suit jacket covered me completely, almost to my knees. Crispin helped me button it. I looked like I was five and playing dress-up in my fathers clothes, but I didnt care. I was covered, and that was all that counted.
I stepped out into the hallway, and realized that my gun was still in my left hand. I did practice left-handed. You never knew when youd need both hands, or injure your right. But it wasnt comfortable. But as I moved into the hallway, my left hand felt just right on the gun. It even had an ambidextrous safety, not that it wasnt already off, but still, if you had to shoot left-handed the Browning wasnt a bad gun for it.
I thought calm, mundane thoughts as I moved toward Shang-Da and Jamil. Rowe grabbed my arm and whirled me back toward him. I let him do it, let his own momentum turn me back toward him; I turned my shoulder into his body, and my foot swept him as I came. He ended up on the ground with my arm still gripped. I twisted my arm in his grip, helped by the bulky coat, and ended with a one-armed joint lock on his elbow. I put enough pressure on the arm thaTHE made a pain sound for me. He still had a gun in his other hand. If this had been a real fight, Id have had to shoot him a second or two before this.
He started to bring his gun up, but mine was already pointed at his face. Move, and die, I said.
You point that gun at her, Jamil said, and you die before he does.
I didnt look away from Rowe on the ground. I trusted that Jamil had a gun out and pointed where it needed to go.
I stared down into Rowes face, kept the periphery of his hand and its gun in my sight. Open your hand, Rowe, just let go of the gun.
Fuck you, he said.
I dont think so. I smiled and could feel it was unpleasant. It was sort of the smile I used sometimes when I knew I was about to kill somebody, but at the same time it didnt feel like me, exactly.
Why had I upped the violence in the hallway? I hadnt needed to do this, but it was a little late to say oops. I stared down at Rowe. His pulse was thick in the side of his throat. He could control his face, but the pulse and beat of his body gave him away. He was scared. Should he have been? Would I really shoot him? There was a small piece of myself that said, quietly, If we have to, sure.
I took a deep breath, and let it out slow. You shouldnt have grabbed me, Rowe. Maybe I overreacted, but you shouldnt grab a woman like that unless you know how shell take it.
Dont go all soft on us, Anita. This from Shang-Da.
They helped me last night, Shang-Da. My Hat was not there to protect me, but these two men were.
You smell of fresh wounds. They did not do a very good job.
The shift had changed to other men. These two did their best.
Then why are you about to shoot one of them? It was Richards voice. That calm, matter-of-fact, hail-fellow-well-met voice. My chest actually felt like it squeezed tight at the sound of his voice. God, would I ever stop reacting to him like this? Honest answer: no. Answer I wanted to hear: maybe.
He touched me, and I didnt want him to. My voice sounded rough around the edges as if I couldnt get enough air.
I felt him coming closer. Heard Shang-Da and Jamil protest. They have guns; we cant let you go forward.
Richard said, Shadwell, right?
Yes, Shadwell said.
Put up your gun, and Ill come help.
Help who? Shadwell asked.
Everyone. And there again in his voice was that confidence thaTHE would do whaTHE said. He would try to make it better. At his best, Richard really meant that. Problem was that sometimes there was no way to help everyone. He wasnt so good in situations where there were no good choices. He tended to freeze, or react badly. Of course, I was at my best when the choices all went south. We could have been a good team, if we hadnt hated each other. Okay, honestly, we didnt exactly hate each other.
I didnt really think that Shadwell would put up his gun, buTHE did. He even said, Drop your gun, Rowe.
You grabbed her first, Rowe. Maybe she overreacted, but you did touch her.
No way, I am not dropping my gun.
Just open your hand, and slide away from it, Shadwell said.
Theyve mind-fucked you, Rowe said.
She could shoot you before you even brought your weapon up.
Im her bodyguard, for Gods sake, I wouldnt hurt her.
Then drop the gun, I said, softly.
He gave me a look that was part hate and part confusion. How the hell did we get here? he said.
You touched me.
A lot of guys touched you last night, according to the last shift.
And there, there it was, the sad fact that once a woman lets more than one man touch her, some men think less of her. More than that, they think they should get a shot, too. A woman who will sleep with more than one man will do anything, right? Wrong, but hed touched me out of anger, and frustration, and a confusion that had less to do with his job and more to do with him not understanding me.
It seemed a stupid reason to get shot, but Id seen stupider. You didnt touch me to keep me safe, Rowe. You touched me because there was a naked stripper in my room, and I was naked, and he helped me put on yet another mans coat to come out into the hallway, to meet even more men. You touched me in anger, and I reacted to that anger. Dont ever touch me in anger again, or well finish this talk I dropped his arm and fell on him at the same time, pinning his upper arms under my hands, with the gun still in one. He probably could have wriggled away, but his eyes were wide and startled. I had his gun arm pinned. I leaned over his face, and spoke low and soft; with each word I moved my face lower, until with the last few syllables I was just above his mouth. And-you-will-not-like-the-end-of-the-conversation.
Richards voice behind me said, Anita, dont.
I moved back enough to see Rowes eyes. He was afraid, I could taste that on the air above his skin, but underneath that, he wanted me to kiss him. He wanted me to finish what Id started. Hed have let me do it, at least a kiss. That made me stop. That Rowe, with a gun still in one hand, would have let me press him to the floor and kiss the hell out of him, and not have fought back.
Something had gone horribly wrong with the ardeur. I backed off from Rowe and stood up, carefully. Hed let his gun fall from his hand. He stared up at me more like a child caught in the dark. He whispered, Please.
I shook my head, and said the only thing I could think of. Im sorry. I went for the door to our room. The werewolves followed me, and this time neither Shadwell nor Rowe tried to stop them.