The Killing Dance (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #6) - Chapter 11

11

I'd finally gotten dressed, red polo shirt, black jeans, black Nikes, the Firestar 9mm in its inner-pants holster. The gun was very visible against the red shirt, but hey, why try to hide it? Besides, I could feel the roil of power just outside the door. Shapeshifters, not all of them happy. Strong emotions make it harder to hide their power. Richard was one of the best at hiding it that I'd ever met. He'd fooled me for a while, made me think he was human. No one else had ever been able to do that.

I looked at myself in the mirror and realized that it wasn't facing a room full of lycanthropes that bothered me, it was facing a room full of people who knew that Richard and I had been making out. I preferred danger to embarrassment any day. I was used to danger.

The bathroom was just off the living room, so when I opened the door, they were all there, clustered on or around the couch. They glanced at me as I stepped out, and I nodded. "Hello."

Rafael said, "Hello, Anita." He was the Rat King, the wererats equivalent of pack leader. He was tall, dark, and handsome with strong Mexican features that made his face seem stern. Only his lips hinted that perhaps there were more smiles than frowns in him. He was wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt that left the brand on his arm bare. The brand was in the shape of a crown, and was the mark of kingship. There was no equivalent mark among the wolves. Being a lycanthrope meant different things, depending on the animal; different cultures as well as forms.

"I didn't know the wererats would be interested in the packs' internal squabbles," I said.

"Marcus is trying to unify all shapeshifters under one leader."

"Let me guess," I said, "he gets to be leader."

Rafael gave a small smile. "Yes."

"So you've thrown in with Richard as the lesser evil?" I made it a question.

"I've thrown in with Richard because he is a man of his word. Marcus has no honor. His bitch Raina has seen to that."

"I still think if we killed Raina, Marcus might be willing to talk with us." This from a woman who I thought I'd seen before but couldn't place. She sat on the floor sipping coffee from a mug. She had short blond hair, and was wearing a pink nylon jogging suit, jacket open over a pink T-shirt. It was a jogging suit made for looking at, not working out in, and I remembered her. I'd seen her at the Lunatic Cafe, Raina's restaurant. Her name was Christine. She wasn't a wolf, she was a weretiger. She was here to speak on behalf of the independent shapeshifters. Those who didn't have enough people to have a leader. Not every kind of lycanthropy was equally contagious. You could get cut to pieces by a weretiger and not get it. A werewolf could barely cut you and you got furry. Almost none of the cat-based lycanthropy was as contagious as wolf and rat. No one knew why. It was just the way it worked.

Richard introduced me to about fifteen others, first names only.

I said hi and leaned against the wall by the door. The couch was full, and so was the floor. Besides, I liked being out of reach of any shapeshifter I didn't know. Just a precaution.

"Actually, I've met Christine before," I said.

"Yes," Christine said, "the night you killed Alfred."

I shrugged. "Yeah."

"Why didn't you kill Raina last night when you had the chance?" she said.

Before I could answer, Richard interrupted. "If we kill Raina," he said, "Marcus will hunt us all down."

"I don't think he's up to the job," Sylvie said.

Richard shook his head. "No, I still won't give up on Marcus."

No one said anything, but the looks on their faces were enough. They agreed with me. Richard was going to get himself killed and hang his followers out to dry.

Louie came out of the kitchen carrying two mugs of coffee. He smiled at me. Louie was Richard's best friend, and he'd gone on a lot of hiking dates with us. He was five foot six, with eyes darker than my own, true black, not just darkest brown. His baby-fine black hair had been cut recently. He'd worn it long for all the time I'd known him, not a fashion statement like Richard; he just never got around to getting it cut. Now it was short enough that his ears showed, and he looked older, more like a professor with a doctorate in biology. He was a wererat, and one of Rafael's lieutenants. He handed me one of the mugs.

"These meetings have been so much more pleasant since Richard bought that coffeemaker. Thanks to you."

I took a big breath of coffee, and felt better instantly. Coffee might not be a cure-all, but it was close. "I'm not sure everyone is happy to see me."

"They're scared. It makes them a little hostile."

Stephen came out of the guest room dressed in clothes that fit too well to be Richard's. A blue dress shirt, tucked into faded blue jeans. The only man in the room that was close to Richard's size was Jason. Jason never minded sharing his clothes.

"Why does everyone look so grim?" I asked.

Louie leaned against the wall, sipping coffee. "Jean-Claude withdrew his support of Marcus and threw in with Richard. I can't believe neither of them mentioned that."

"They said something about having formed a bargain, but they didn't explain." I thought about what he'd just told me. "Marcus must be pissed."

The smile faded from his face. "That is an understatement." He looked at me. "You don't understand, do you?"

"Understand what?" I asked.

"Without Jean-Claude's backing, Marcus doesn't stand a chance of forcing the rest of the shapeshifters under his control. His dreams of empire building are finished."

"If he doesn't stand a chance, why is everyone so worried?"

Louie gave a sad smile. "What Marcus can't control, he has a tendency to kill."

"You mean he'd start a war?"

"Yes."

"Not just with Richard and the pack, you mean, but an all-out war with all the other shapeshifters in town?"

Louie nodded. "Except the wereleopards. Gabriel is their leader and he sides with Raina."

I thought about it for a second or two. "Sweet Jesus, it would be a bloodbath."

"And there'd be no way of containing it, Anita. Some of it would spill over onto the normal world. There are still three states in this country that will pay hundreds of dollars in bounty for a dead shapeshifter, no questions asked. A war like this could make the practice look practical."

"Do you two have something better to do?" Christine asked. I was beginning not to like her. It was she that knocked on the door and interrupted Richard and me. Frankly, for that I was sort of grateful. The thought of everyone hearing us go further would have been too embarrassing for words.

Louie moved back to sit on the floor with the others. I stayed leaning against the wall, sipping my coffee.

"Are you going to join us?" she asked.

"I'm fine where I am," I said.

"Too good to sit with us?" a man in his late thirties with dark blue eyes asked. He was about five foot eight; it was hard to tell with him sitting on the floor. He was dressed in a suit, complete with tie, as if he was on his way to work. His name was Neal.

"Not good enough," I said, "not good enough by half."

"What the hell's that supposed to mean?" he asked. "I don't like having a normal here."

"Leave it alone, Neal," Richard said.

"Why? She's laughing at us."

Richard glanced back at me from his corner of the couch. "Come join us, Anita?"

Sylvie was sitting beside Richard, not too close, but still, there was not enough room for me. Rafael sat on the end of the couch, spine straight, ankle propped on one knee.

"Couch looks full," I said.

Richard held out his hand to me. "We'll make room."

"She isn't even pack," Sylvie said. "I won't give up my seat to her. No offense to you, Anita, you don't know any better." Her voice was matter-of-fact, not hostile, but the look she gave Richard wasn't exactly friendly.

"No offense taken," I said. I wasn't sure I wanted to sit on the couch surrounded by lycanthropes anyway. Even supposedly friendly ones. Everyone in the room was stronger and faster than I was, just a fact. The only leg up I had was the gun. If I sat right beside them, I'd never get it out in time.

"I want my girlfriend to sit with me, Sylvie, that's all," Richard said. "It isn't meant as a challenge to your position in the lukoi." His voice sounded patient like he was talking to a child.

"What did you say?" Sylvie asked. She looked shocked.

"We are the lukoi. Anita knows that."

"You shared our words with her?" Neal said, outrage thick in his voice.

I wanted to say that it was just words, but I didn't. Who says I'm not getting smarter?

"There was a time when sharing our secrets with normals could get you a death sentence," Sylvie said.

"Even Marcus doesn't allow that anymore."

"How much of our secrets do you know, human?"

I shrugged. "A few words, that's all."

Sylvie stared at me. "You want your human girlfriend to cuddle up next to you, is that it, Richard?"

"Yes," he said. There was no trace of anger in his voice.

Personally, I didn't like the way she'd said "human."

Sylvie knelt on the couch, staring at me. "Come human, sit with us."

I stared at her. "Why the change of heart?"

"Not everything has to do with the pack hierarchy. That's what Richard is always telling us. Sit by your lover. I'll scoot over." She did, curling up on the couch, near Rafael.

The Rat King glanced at me. He raised an eyebrow, almost a shrug. I didn't trust Sylvie, but I trusted Rafael, and I trusted Richard, at least here, today. I realized that I would have trusted Rafael last night. He wouldn't have the moral qualms that Richard had. Poor Richard was like a lone voice crying in the wilderness. God help me, I agreed with the pagans.

Louie and Stephen were curled on the floor, close by. I was among friends. Even Jason, grinning up at me, wouldn't let me get hurt. Jason was Jean-Claude's wolf to call, as was Stephen. I think if they let me get killed, they might not survive much longer than I did.

"Anita?" Richard made it a question.

I sighed and pushed away from the wall. I was among friends, so why were the muscles in my back so tight it hurt to move? Paranoid? Who me?

I walked around the couch, coffee mug in my left hand. Sylvie patted the couch, smiling, but not like she meant it.

I sat beside Richard. His arm slid over my shoulders. My right arm was pressed against his side, not too tightly. He knew how much I hated having my gun hand impeded.

Leaning into the warmth of his body, I relaxed. The tightness in my shoulders eased. I took a sip of coffee. We were all being terribly civilized.

Richard put his lips against my face, and whispered, "Thank you."

Those two words earned him a lot of brownie points. He knew what it had cost me to sit down among the wolves, rats, and cats. Not sitting with him would have undermined him in front of the pack and the other

leaders. I wasn't here to make the situation worse.

"Who saved you last night, Stephen?" Sylvie asked. Her voice was sweet, face pleasant. I didn't trust her at all.

Every eye turned to Stephen. He tried to huddle into the floor, as if he could go invisible, but it didn't work. He stared at Richard, eyes wide.

"Go ahead, Stephen, tell the truth. I won't be mad."

Stephen swallowed. "Anita saved me."

"Richard was fighting about twenty lycanthropes at the time," I said. "He told me to get Stephen, so I did."

Neal sniffed Stephen, running his nose just above the other man's face and neck, down his shoulder. It wasn't a human gesture, and it was unnerving in the well-dressed man. "He has her scent on his skin." Neal glared at me. "He's been with her."

I expected an outcry, but instead, the others crowded around Stephen, sniffing his skin, touching him, and bringing their fingers close to their own faces. Only Sylvie, Jason, Rafael, and Louie stayed sitting. One by one, the rest turned to Richard and me.

"He's right," Christine said. "Her scent clings to his skin. You don't get that much scent just by carrying someone."

Richard's hand tightened on my shoulder. I glanced at his face. It was calm, only a slight tightness around the eyes betrayed tension. "I was patrolling the woods for assassins," Richard said. "Stephen didn't want to be alone. I sent him to Anita."

"We know about the assassination attempts," Sylvie said.

I widened my eyes. "You do, do you?"

"Richard wants us to help protect you. If we're going to take a bullet for you, we need to know why."

I met her eyes. Her pretty face was harsh, the bones in her cheeks standing out.

"I'm not asking anyone to take my bullet," I said. I scooted out from under Richard's arm, which put me closer to Sylvie, not an improvement.

Richard didn't fight it. He drew his arm back. "I should have talked to you before I told them."

"Damn straight," I said.

Sylvie leaned her arms on the back of the couch, bringing her face inches from mine. "Are you going to chastise our would-be pack leader, human?"

"You say humanlike it's a bad thing, Sylvie. Jealous?"

She drew back like I'd hit her. A look that was part pain, part rage passed across her face. "Most of us here survived an attack, human. We did not choose this." Her voice was chokingly harsh.

I'd expected a lot of things from her, but not the pain of a survivor. I was sorry I'd made the crack. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything personal by it."

"You have no idea how personal it is."

"That's enough, Sylvie," Richard said.

She rose on her knees to meet Richard's face over my head. "Don't you even have the balls to be angry that she slept with a subordinate male?"

"Wait a minute," I said. "Stephen and I did not have sex. We literally slept together, nothing else."

Neal plunged his face into Stephen's crotch and sniffed. It wasn't a human gesture. Stephen let him do it, and that wasn't very human, either.

Jason leaned in, sniffing my leg.

I put my coffee cup on my knee, in front of his face. "Don't even think it," I said.

Jason grinned up at me. "Can't blame a guy for trying."

"I can," Richard said softly.

Jason smiled at him and scooted back.

Neal raised his face and shook his head. "They didn't have sex."

"He said she'd protect me," Stephen said. The silence grew so thick you could have walked on it.

"Is that what you said?" Sylvie asked. She was staring at Richard like he'd done something very bad.

Richard took a deep enough breath that his shoulders shuddered. "Yes, that's what I said."

"Stephen," Sylvie said, "Did you believe she'd protect you? If Raina had come through the door, would you have trusted Anita to save you?"

Stephen looked at the floor, then up, his eyes darted to Richard, then to me. His eyes finally stopped, staring at me. "She had me sleep near the wall so she'd be in front in case anything came through the door."

And I'd thought I'd been subtle.

"What would you have done if Raina hadcome?" Sylvie asked.

Everyone was watching me, except Richard. Their eyes were very intent, and I knew the question meant more than it should have. "I'd have killed her."

"Not just shot her or wounded her?" Christine asked.

I shook my head. "She got her free pass last night. If she comes after Stephen again, I'll kill her."

"You mean that, don't you?" Sylvie said.

"Every word," I said.

There was a hum of energy in the room, almost as if they were all sharing some telepathic message. I don't think they were, but something was happening. The energy level in the room was rising, and I didn't like it. I sat the coffee mug on the floor. I wanted both my hands free.

Sylvie grabbed me around the waist and rolled us off the couch. We were on the floor with her riding my back before I could react. I went for the gun, and her hand was there first. She jerked the gun out of its holster and tossed it away. She wasn't fast, she was miraculous, and I was in deeper shit than I could get out of.

The bend of her arm was tucked under my chin like in a strangle hold, positioned just right so she could black me out without killing me. Her legs locked around my waist, as close as she could get and not climb down my shirt.

A half dozen werewolves flowed between her and Richard. He was standing, hands in fists at his side. His power poured through the room, deeper and higher, until it was like being buried alive in some kind of static charge.

"Don't," I whispered. I wasn't talking to Richard.

I felt something open inside Sylvie, a trembling, vibrating energy flowed from her skin across my body. It was almost hot, like opening the door to an oven. Where her skin touched me, I shivered. It was painful, like small electric shocks.

"What are you doing, Sylvie?" Richard asked. His voice had gone low and growling deep; it didn't sound human. I expected his eyes to be amber, but they were the same solid brown as always. Human eyes, but the look in them was not. The beast stared out of Richard's eyes. I knew in that moment that he was truly dangerous. I also knew that all that impressive power wouldn't save me if Sylvie wanted to rip my head off.

My pulse thudded against her arm like a trapped butterfly. I forced my voice calm. "What's going on?"

"I'm going to make you his mate."

"You're not contagious in human form," I said.

"Really?" she said. The arm around my throat grew warm, pulsing like a beating heart. I felt the muscles slide under her skin.

"Richard." My voice sounded high and wispy. Fear will do that to you.

Rafael and Louie were on their feet now. The werewolves that had joined Sylvie in this little protest fanned out to cover the rats, too.

I couldn't see Stephen. He was somewhere behind us, crouched on the floor, last I saw.

Jason crouched at Richard's feet, facing the other werewolves. But at least ten of them just sat there, watching, not taking sides. "You've been holding out on us," Jason said.

Sylvie flexed the arm around my neck. I had a glimpse of a long-clawed hand. "Only Raina is higher in the pack than I am, Jason."

Richard faced the werewolves. He brought his hands upward, making a soothing gesture like he'd done at the movie set. The prickling energy in the room went down a notch. He was forcing their power back.

"All it takes is a scratch, Richard," Sylvie said. "You'll never reach us in time."

"I forbid this," Richard growled. "No one is to be infected against their will. Especially Anita."

"Why?" Sylvie said. "Because if she wasn't human, you wouldn't want her? Not taking the pack to your bed is just another way of denying what you are, Richard."

Something passed over his face behind the anger and the power: uncertainty.

I knew in that moment she was right.

Sylvie whispered in my ear, her breath warm on my face. "See his face."

"Yeah," I said.

"He accuses you of not being able to sleep with him because you think he's a monster, but if I make you one of us, he won't want you. He thinks of all of us as monsters, but not good old Richard. He's better than the rest of us."

"I will hurt you, Sylvie. I'll bleed you, do you understand," Richard said.

"But you won't kill me, will you?" she said. Her arm flexed, long claws tickled down my face.

I put my hands on her arm, trying to hold it away from me, and not succeeding. "I'llkill you," I said.

She went very still against my body. "For changing you into one of us? For losing you Richard's love when he sees you monstrous and furry?"

I spoke very low, very carefully. "You hate what you are, Sylvie."

Her arm convulsed tight enough that I couldn't breathe for a second. "I don't hate what I am. I accept what I am." Her arm loosened.

I took a shaky breath and tried again. "I saw the look on your face when I accused you of being jealous. You are jealous of me being human, Sylvie. You know you are."

She held her other hand up in front of my face, letting me get a good look at the long, thin claws. The hand at my throat combed claws through my hair.

"You know that Raina has forbidden us to make you lukoi. She's afraid if you joined us, you'd be a better bitch than she is."

"How flattering," I whispered. I looked at Richard through the backs of the werewolves. His eyes had gone amber and alien. Even now, I knew, he wouldn't kill Sylvie. Even if she bled me, infected me, he wouldn't kill her. It was there in the pain on his face. The confusion replacing the fear.

Maybe Sylvie saw it. Maybe she'd made her point. Whatever, she uncurled herself from my body and stood carefully on the other side of me.

I scuttled away on all fours as fast as I could go. It wasn't pretty, it wasn't slick, but it was effective.

I crawled until I came to the far wall. I stayed sitting against it, as far away from everything in the room as I could get.

The other werewolves had faded away. Sylvie and Richard stood facing each other. Sylvie's eyes had gone a strange liquid grey, wolf eyes.

Richard flung his power outward. It ate along my skin, tore a gasp from my throat.

Sylvie stood in that flood of power and didn't flinch. "The power is impressive, Richard, but it means nothing as long as Marcus lives."

He backhanded her, in a blur of motion that was too fast to follow. Sylvie careened into the wall and slid to the floor, stunned.

"I am pack leader," Richard's voice roared, and he raised clawed hands to the sky. He fell to his knees, and I didn't go to help. I stayed huddled against the wall, wishing I'd packed an extra gun.

Richard crouched on the floor, rocking gently. He curled on his knees into a ball, and I felt him swallow the power back. I felt it drain away. He stayed crouched

on the floor, hugging himself for a long time after the power vanished from the room, head down, his hair hiding his face.

Sylvie got to her knees and crawled towards him. She crouched beside him, smoothing his hair back on one side. "We would follow you anywhere if you would kill for us. She will kill for us. If your mate, your lupa, will kill for us, it might be enough."

Richard raised his head up with a shudder. "No one is to be infected against their will, that is my word, and my order." He raised back on his knees.

Sylvie stayed crouched down, face near the floor, a sign of abasement. "But you will not kill to enforce it."

"I will kill to protect Anita," Rafael said.

Everyone looked at him.

He met their eyes and didn't back down. "If anyone touches her against her will, I and mine will hunt them down."

"Rafael," Richard said, "don't do this."

He stared at Richard. "You bring a human among us, but you do not protect her. Someone has to."

I wanted to say I could protect myself, but it wasn't true. I was good, but I was just human. It wasn't enough.

"I can't let you do my dirty work for me," he said.

"I am your friend, Richard," Rafael said. "I do not mind."

Sylvie hugged the ground at Richard's feet. "Will you let the Rat King kill your pack? Is he our leader now?"

He stared down at her, and something happened to his face, not otherworldly, or wolf, but a hardness, almost a sadness passed over him. I watched it, and I didn't like it. If I'd had my gun, I might have shot Sylvie for making that look pass over his face. "I will kill anyone who breaks my word. I have spoken, and it is law."

Sylvie abased herself even lower, and the other wolves came crowding around, crawling on the floor, abasing themselves in front of him. Some of them licked his hands, touched his body. They moved around him until he was nearly hidden from sight.

Richard stood up, walking through them, their hands clinging to his legs. He bent down and picked up the Firestar from the floor and walked over to me. He looked normal enough, all the wolfish changes hidden away. He handed me the gun, butt first. "Are you all right?"

I cradled the gun in both hands. "Sure."

"I value your humanity, Anita. Sylvie's right. How can I ask you to embrace my beast, when I can't do it myself?" The pain on his face was heartrending. "I will kill to keep you safe. Does that make you happy?"

I stared up at him. "No," I said. "I thought it would, but no." I felt like Rafael, I'd kill for him. I'd kill to keep the pain out of his eyes.

I holstered the gun and raised my right hand to him. His eyes widened. He understood the gesture. He took my hand and raised me to my feet. He drew me with him towards the waiting wolves.

I hung back, pulling on his hand.

"I said I'd kill for you, Anita." His voice was soft and harsh at the same time. "Don't you believe I'd do it?"

His eyes were utterly sad. It was like something inside of him that he'd kept alive all these years was dead now. I believed the look in his eyes. He would kill to protect me, and the decision had cost him dearly.

The werewolves closed around us. I would have said they crawled around us, but that didn't cover what they were doing. Crawling wasn't graceful, or sensuous, but this was. They moved like they had muscles in places that people didn't. They circled us and rolled their eyes up at us. When I met those eyes, they looked away, all except Sylvie. She met my gaze and held it. It was a challenge, but I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do about it.

A hand touched me, and I jerked away from it. Only Richard's hand on mine kept me from going for my gun. He held both my hands in his and drew me to him, our bodies not quite touching. He met my eyes and held them. He wasn't afraid. I tried to relax, but it wasn't working.

"This is my lupa. Know her scent, know her skin. She has shed our blood, and shed her blood for us. She stands as protector for those weaker than herself. She will kill for us, if we ask. She is your alpha."

Sylvie and Neal stood up. They both moved out of the circle. They stood, staring at me, at Richard. The others crouched on the floor, watching.

"She is not dominant to me," Sylvie said.

"She is not even one of us," Neal said, "I won't bow to her. I could break her in half with one hand." He shook his head. "She isn't my alpha."

"What's happening, Richard?" I asked.

"I tried to bring you into the pack, make you one of us without contaminating you."

"Why?" I asked.

"If you're going to protect Stephen, then you deserve the protection of the pack. If you're going to take risks for us, then you deserve to have the benefits of our protection."

"No offense," I said, "but I haven't been too impressed with your protection so far." The minute I said it, I wished I hadn't. His face fell.

"You made it personal last night with Raina, Anita. You have no idea how dangerous she is. I wanted you to have everyone's protection in case something happened to me."

I looked up at him. "You will kill Marcus if he jumps you, right? No more being squeamish." I touched his arm. I studied his face. "Answer me, Richard."

He nodded, finally. "I won't let him kill me."

"You will kill him; promise me."

His jaw tightened, the muscle thrumming. "I promise."

"Well, hallelujah," Sylvie said. She stared at me. "I withdraw my challenge. You aren't dominant to me, but you can be his alpha female. You're a good influence on him." She stepped back into the circle, but didn't kneel. "Come on Neal," she said, "let it go."

He shook his head. "No, she isn't one of us. She can't be. I won't acknowledge her as alpha."

"All you have to do is prove to Neal that you're serious," Sylvie said. "You just have to make him hurt a little."

"Since he could probably survive a direct hit with a mack truck, how am I supposed to hurt him?"

She shrugged.

"I didn't think anyone would challenge you. I'm sorry," Richard said.

"You expect people to be nice, Richard. It's one of your best qualities and greatest weaknesses," I said.

"Refuse the challenge, Anita."

"If I refuse, then what?"

"It's over. You won't be a member of the pack, but I can order them to protect you from Raina. It's almost as good."

"I told you, I don't want anyone being ordered to take a bullet for me. Besides, no way am I volunteering to go one on one with a lycanthrope. I'll keep my gun, thanks anyway."

The doorbell rang. It was probably Edward. Damn. I looked at the little group, and even though they were in human form, he'd know what they were. He was better at smelling monsters than I was, at least live ones. "If you guys can tone it down a bit, I'll get the door."

"Edward?" Richard made it a question.

"Probably," I said.

He stared around at the group. "Everybody up off the floor. He's another normal."

They got to their feet, slowly, almost reluctantly. They seemed almost intoxicated, as if the power in the room had done more for them than for me.

I went for the door. I was halfway to it when Richard yelled, "No!"

I dropped to the ground, rolling, and felt the air whistling over me where Neal had swung. If he'd been any good at fighting, he'd have nailed me. The missed swing put him off balance, and I foot-swept him to the floor, but he got to his feet again before I could stand, like there were springs in his spine. It was impressive as hell.

"Stop it, Neal," Sylvie said.

"She didn't refuse the challenge. It's my right."

I scuttled backwards, still on the ground, not sure what to do. The closed drapes of the picture window were at my back if I stood up. I wasn't sure standing up was my best bet. "Give me the rules, quick," I said.

"First blood," Sylvie said. "Human form only."

"If he shapeshifts, you can shoot him," Richard said.

"Agreed," Sylvie said, others murmured their agreement.

Peachy. Neal leaped for me, leaving the ground completely, hands outstretched. I came up on one knee, grabbed his jacket, and rolled on my back, letting his amazing momentum carry us both. I shoved both feet into his stomach and pushed with everything I had. He flew over me in a near perfect arc. He'd set himself up for a textbook tomoe-nage throw.

He smashed through the window, taking the curtain with him. I rolled to my feet and stared at the gaping window. Broken shards of glass sprinkled onto the carpet and the yard beyond. Neal struggled out of the curtain, blood running down his face where the glass had cut him.

Edward was on the ground in a combat stance, gun out. He pointed it at Neal, as he struggled free of the curtain.

"Don't shoot him," I said. "I think the fight's over."

Neal stood, kicking free of the clinging curtain. "I'll kill you."

I drew the Firestar and pointed it at him. "I don't think so."

Richard stepped up beside me. "She drew first blood, Neal. The fight is over, unless you want to fight me, too."

"And me," Sylvie said. She stepped up on the other side of Richard. The rest of the pack stepped up behind us. Stephen crouched at my feet.

"She is pack now," Sylvie said. "You fight one of us, and you fight all of us."

Edward raised his eyebrows at me. "What is going on, Anita?"

"I think I've been adopted," I said.

Neal glared at me.

"Do it, Neal," Sylvie said.

Neal knelt in the glass and the curtain. The cuts were already beginning to heal on his face. Glass wasn't silver or the claws of another monster, so he healed almost magically.

"You are dominant. You are alpha." The words were dragged from his throat. "If this window hadn't been here, you couldn't have bloodied me."

"Why do you think I moved in front of it, Neal?" I asked.

His eyes squinted. "You planned this?"

I nodded and raised my gun skyward. "I'm not just another pretty face."

Richard took my left hand, squeezing it gently. "That's the God's honest truth."

I put up the Firestar.

Edward shook his head, smiling, but didn't put his gun up. He did stop pointing it at anyone. "You are the only person I know who leads a more interesting life than I do."

Jason patted me on the back. "Tomorrow night we'll take you out chasing deer."

"I thought you'd chase cars," I said.

He grinned. "What fun is that? Cars don't bleed."

I smiled, and then stopped. His eyes were as innocent as spring skies, as joyous, and staring into them, I wasn't sure if he was kidding me or not. I almost asked, but didn't. I wasn't sure I wanted to know.