Rafael – Laurell K. Hamilton

I WAS WORKING out in the weight room with Claudia, who was a more serious weightlifter than I would ever be, but she was teaching me how to trust my new supernatural strength. In the movies you become a vampire or a werewolf or whatever, and you just automatically know how it all works. In real life it wasn’t automatic, or at least it wasn’t for me. In all honesty, lifting some of the weights scared me, which meant I couldn’t lift them, because my mind convinced me it was impossible, which was why I’d started spending part of Saturday in the gym with Claudia. She was helping me work through my nerves and had patiently explained that a lot of people had the same issues when they first became shapeshifters. I wasn’t exactly a shapeshifter, but close enough. What were we talking about between lifting heavy objects? Men. You can take the human out of the girl, but you can’t take the girl out of the wererat, or something like that. “But Rafael is literally tall, dark, and handsome. His house is beautiful, and the pool is so nice I’m beginning to want one. He’s polite, well-spoken, a gentleman.” “All that is true,” Claudia said. “So why doesn’t he have more lady friends?” “Ask him,” she said, and lay down on the weight bench and started to wrap her dark hands around a truly frightening amount of weight. She was six feet, six inches tall and already had enough muscle visible around the sports bra and double shorts that I knew she could lift it. I’d seen her lift that much before, but it still sort of scared me for shoulder press.

I’d owned cars that didn’t weigh as much as she was about to lift on the specially reinforced bar. If she were merely human and it fell on her neck, she’d have a crushed larynx and be dead before medical help could arrive. If it landed on her chest, I might be able to call for help before she suffocated from not being able to expand her chest enough to keep breathing, but I couldn’t lift it off her. I could not spot her at these weights. I’d pointed that out to her, and she’d replied with, “This is the weight I’d be doing if you weren’t here.” She had a point, so I let it go. I thought I lifted respectable weight for being five foot three and female, but trying to lift in the same room with Claudia always made me feel sort of puny; of course, the Hulk might feel kind of puny trying to keep up with her, so I guess I shouldn’t worry about it. She got the weight clear of the bar. Lowered it slowly and with perfect control. The only sign of strain was the way her muscles corded and the sound of her breath as she did a sharp exhale and pushed the bar upward again.

I knew we were doing pyramid sets, so she’d be doing three to five reps on this last weight, but part of me just wanted her to put it back on the rack and be done. It wasn’t that I thought she couldn’t handle reps with it, I just wasn’t sure my nerves could handle watching her do it. She did five reps, her muscles working smoothly, showing no effort except for her breath being a little more serious at the end. She set the weight back in the rack, and I realized I’d been holding my breath, because it came out in a whoosh, as if I’d been the one lifting. She sat up and smiled at me. “You know I’m not in any danger when I lift. If I thought it was dangerous, I either wouldn’t do it, or I’d have someone in here to spot me.” “I know you’re very safety conscious in the gym, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to watching you and the other shapeshifters lift so much more than human-normal.” “You can lift more now, too,” she said, reaching for the towel she had to the side of the rack. It was just good manners to wipe off the bench after you were done.

“Yeah, but not that kind of weight.” “You’re smaller than me.” I laughed. “Most of the male guards are smaller than you.” She smiled, a fierce baring of white teeth in the deep brown of her face. “Your turn,” she said with that smile that was fierce and happy at the same time, as if a panther could smile like a person, though that wasn’t her flavor of wereanimal, but somehow rat just didn’t convey the dangerous beauty of Claudia. She let me help her put most of her weights back on the weight racks because I insisted on helping, but it was a workout just to do that part. I let her help me put my weights on the bar because it was fair. “Just so you know, I wouldn’t lift this by myself without someone to spot me.” She gave that fierce smile again, with a small deep chuckle.

I’d only recently learned Claudia was a throaty alto when she sang, and that she could sing. It had been worth going to karaoke just to hear her. I lay back on the bench and centered myself under the bar. I hadn’t been super strong long enough to really believe it all the time. I looked at the weights and thought, I’m about to press three times my body weight, which was ridiculous, except that I’d done it before. Claudia put her hands over the bar, ready to help if I needed it; without her there I would have been scared to do it. I wrapped my hands around the bar, using the roughened part of it to help me decide on hand placement, and then I couldn’t put it off anymore. Lifting this amount of weight off the rack wasn’t about strength really, it was about believing it was possible. I’d learned that I couldn’t look too hard at the weight on either side of the bar, because it made part of my head start screaming, Impossible, I can’t lift this! I could do the inhuman weights for most of the exercises and just marvel at it, but the chest press and the squat rack both spooked me, because if they went wrong, I could end up crippled or dead, if I’d been human, and of course that was the other part that rattled around in my brain. How human was I? How much did the metaphysical connections to the vampires and the shapeshifters help me here? They made me stronger and harder to hurt.

They helped me heal faster than human-normal from cuts, stabs, bullets, a brain injury, but did they cover being crushed? Did I really want to find out just to lift in the gym? Saying it that way made it sound stupid. “You can do this, Anita, you know you can,” Claudia said, leaning her face a little more into my line of sight. I looked up into her true brown eyes, the utter surety in her face. She was right, I knew she was right. “I can do this,” I said. She gave that fierce smile again and leaned over to whisper, “We got company, make me proud.” I didn’t point out that whoever had come into the weight room would have to be a shapeshifter, which meant that they would be able to lift this and more, but as I’d learned in the weight room when I was merely human, it wasn’t always about who was stronger, it was about who wanted it more. I wanted it, because if the guards who just walked in had been ones she liked, she’d have yelled it out, teased them about me being tougher than them. That she’d whispered it meant she didn’t like them, which probably meant neither would I. I suddenly wasn’t afraid of the weights; Claudia was there, she could catch anything I could lift, and besides, I wanted to make her proud.

She’d started being my weight-lifting partner even though I wasn’t strong enough to spot for her. She was teaching me how to use the new supernatural strength, and without saying it out loud she enjoyed having another woman who worked out hard. I cleared the weight off the rack, took in my breath, and started lowering the bar down. My body had a moment of going You’re joking, right? when my elbows bent and the bar touched my chest, not resting on it, but just touching it. My arms trembled as I started pushing upward. The elbow on the side that had the most scars hesitated a second, and then I was pushing up, using my breath to help push the weight up, as if I could blow it away from me. I could feel the muscles bunch and move in a way that no other exercise made them do, or maybe weights made me more aware of it. I loved the feel of my body fighting to lift it, and then I was up, all the way up. I’d done it! The thrill of adrenaline, the relief, and then the thought Can I do it again? I fought my arms to make sure the weight went down steady and controlled. I touched my chest, this time a little more solidly, and there was that moment when the weight didn’t want to be lifted.

I pushed and the elbow on my left arm hesitated again like the joint was thinking about it, and then the muscles kicked in and the bar started to rise. I fought not to arch my back and cheat with more of my body than I was supposed to use. There was a little more tremble in my arms as I got the bar all the way back up. I debated on trying for a third rep, but the fine tremble in my muscles said no. All I had to do now was put it back in the rack. My arms were trembling visibly now. Claudia started to put her hands on the bar, but I snarled, “No, don’t touch it!” She moved her hands wide so the room could see she wasn’t helping. I couldn’t seem to sink it on the rack—it was like trying to thread a needle that weighed a ton when your arms were starting to do the spaghetti wobble. I thought I was going to lose it for just a second and really regretted not letting Claudia help me, but then the bar sank home on the rack with a satisfyingly soft clank. I was breathing hard but grinning up at her as she grinned down at me.

She offered me a fist to bump. It took me two tries to manage with my arms a little wobbly. “Personal best for you,” she said. “Two reps, that’s all she can do at that weight, and she’s supposed to be our queen,” a male voice whined from across the room. It was Kane, one of my least favorite people. Perfect. “Come over here and prove you can do better,” Claudia said. I sat up, careful not to bang my head on the now safely racked weight bar, and if you think that doesn’t happen, you haven’t been in enough weight rooms. I sat on the bench with my arms still shaky. We’d already done a full round of weights before we started with the pyramid sets, so I’d earned the sweat along my spine and the noodle arms.

I sat there letting my pulse and breathing get under control. The fact that I was breathing as if I’d done cardio meant I’d really pushed myself for that personal best on the chest press. Yay, me! Staring across the room at Kane, I didn’t feel personally victorious, I felt defeated. Kane was a problem that I didn’t know how to fix, and he was right, technically I was about to be everyone’s queen, and Kane wasn’t the only one who thought I wasn’t up to the job. He was just the only one who was this vocal about it. I’d kicked his ass twice, once with magic and once without. I’d put a gun to his head that last time because there was only so much I could do against shapeshifters that could grow their own claws and fangs. I was almost as fast and strong as they were, but I couldn’t grow my own weapons. The other man with him said, “Kane, we’re here to work out, just leave it.” “She’s too human to be in charge of all of us, you said so yourself, Helios.

” Helios gave me a look that was almost pleading. “I didn’t say it to her face, though. I’m sorry, Ms. Blake, and I’m really sorry, Claudia.” “Why are you sorrier to me than to Anita?” she asked. “She may be queen someday, but you’ll beat my ass in combatives.” The moment he called fight practice combatives, I knew he was one of the former military that we’d been hiring as guards. Popping hot for lycanthropy—sorry, Therianthropy—was still an automatic discharge from all branches of military service, which meant we’d been picking up some well-trained talent courtesy of Uncle Sam’s shortsighted policies. “I think Anita could win on the mat,” Claudia said. Helios, who was blond and six feet tall, in obvious good shape, grinned.

“I didn’t say she couldn’t win on points, but she can’t pound me into the mat, and you can.” “Anita can’t win unless she sucker punches you first,” Kane said as he strutted his way through the full set of free weights with a few machines and big metal frames of the squat rack. He was six feet even just like Helios, but where the former teams guy was starting to let his blond hair grow out, Kane still had his hair shaved down to dark stubble with that high widow’s peak at the front so that the skin went back from it sharply, which always made me want to ask if he’d started shaving because he was going bald, or if it was just a fashion choice. I knew it wasn’t a military buzz, because Kane had never worn a uniform, he didn’t have the discipline for it. “Kane, we’re here to work on your form in the weight room, not make trouble,” Helios called after him. Kane blinked big, dark brown eyes at me, because he was close enough for that kind of detail. “It’s not going to be any trouble,” he answered the other man, but his attention was all on me. The lack of hair left his face unadorned so you could see he had good bone structure and was handsome, almost prettily so; the body that showed around the tank top, exercise shorts, and jogging shoes wasn’t bad, but it was more a body that was lean because he was built that way than lean because he worked out and watched his nutrition. Claudia handed me my towel, and I used it to wipe down the weight bench. She started taking the weight off the bar.

“I thought I was going to do reps with that,” Kane said. “It’s three times Anita’s body weight. She did two reps with it after a full workout with me in the weight room, and then starting back with pyramid sets. You can either do a full workout with weights of my choice for you, or you can just jump right to doing chest press with three times your body weight.” She gave that smile that was more a snarl again. Claudia didn’t like Kane, because he was supposed to be one of the guards and she didn’t think he was good enough. I agreed, but Kane and I were feuding over a man, sort of. It’s always hard to be the ex-girlfriend when the new boyfriend is a jealous bitch. I picked up my water bottle and started trying to rehydrate. “That’s not fair,” Kane said, and that handsome face scrunched down into the sour lines that were usually how he looked, at least around me.

It stole all his pouty good looks and showed him for what he was—unpleasant. Claudia stopped taking weights off the bar long enough to give him a look. “Not fair, really?” There was a dangerous undertone in her voice. I don’t mean dangerous as in violence, but in the you’ve-just-mouthed-off-to-your-coach/martial-arts-instructor/drillsergeant/dad way. Helios was hurrying toward us, saying, “He didn’t mean it.” Claudia turned her head enough to aim the look at Helios. He stopped moving toward us. “Are you his babysitter today?” “I don’t need a babysitter,” Kane said; he hadn’t understood the look or the tone in Claudia’s voice. “No, ma’am,” Helios said, both of them ignoring Kane’s comment. I started taking weight off the other side of my bar.

If I was careful, I wouldn’t drop anything on myself. My arms were still letting me know that I’d used them, but they weren’t trembling anymore. Claudia put up the weight in her hand. Her side was clean, so she could turn her full attention to the men. I kept putting up the weights on the other side of the bar and staying out of it. “Who told you to bring Kane to the weight room?” she asked. “Bobby Lee.” Helios looked uncomfortable for a moment, and then he stood to attention, shoulders back, hands at his sides. He looked at the far wall of the room, rather than directly at Claudia. “What were his exact orders?” The bodyguards were a lot less formal than the military, but we had so many of them now that it just saved time and confusion to use some of the military jargon.

“Take Kane to the weight room, work on his form, because it sucks. If it still sucks after you’ve worked with him, I’m going to personally smoke both your asses.” I’d never heard Bobby Lee say anything that harsh to me, but then he never had to tell me to work harder in training. “So, you’re Kane’s battle buddy today,” Claudia said, still in that you-done-fucked-up tone. Helios swallowed visibly, but stayed at attention as he answered, “Yes, ma’am.” “What’s a battle buddy?” Kane asked. Claudia said, “Anita, tell Kane what a battle buddy is.” She didn’t even look behind her, she just assumed I’d answer. I didn’t come to attention, but I did pause in the middle of putting up the last weight. “A battle buddy is a military term for someone who has your back as a friend and/or has seen combat with you, so they have your back as a brother in arms.

It also means someone that an officer, or drill sargeant, has assigned to a soldier who is a screwup or lacks training. Their battle buddy is supposed to help train them, or make sure they don’t screw up.” Helios’s eyes flicked to me and then back to the invisible point on the wall. The eye flick meant I’d either surprised, interested, or impressed him with my answer. “You were never military. How do you know that?” Kane asked. “I asked someone,” I said. “Anita, what happens if the screwup the battle buddy is supposed to be babysitting continues to screw up?” Claudia made it sound like an order, and technically I was her boss, but in the weight room and in fight practice she was the expert—that made her the boss. “The battle buddy gets punished along with the screwup.” “I am not a screwup,” Kane said; he almost yelled it, his hands already in fists at his sides.

I sniffed the air before I could stop myself. His anger smelled like food. I could feed like an energy vampire on two things, lust and wrath, two of the deadly sins. I’d met real vampires that could feed off fear, violence, even death. In the grand scheme of things, I’d gotten lucky on my menu. “Ma’am, may I intercede before he does anything more that we’ll both regret?” Helios asked. “You may,” Claudia said. “I don’t need your help,” Kane snarled, half turning toward the other man. “I’m helping myself, not you,” Helios said, and he dropped out of attention, just relaxing into himself, or his ordinary stance. “We’re werehyenas, we shouldn’t have to take orders from rats!” “Narcissus, our Oba, told us to train with the other guards; that means taking orders from whoever is higher rank.

That includes Claudia, Bobby Lee, and Fredo.” “It’s not natural for different animal groups to work together,” Kane said, but at least he wasn’t yelling. His anger was fading, too, which was just as well. I’d fed off him once, and that was enough. I’d done it to make a point that I was dominant over him, but the lesson hadn’t sunk in for Kane, just like a lot of lessons didn’t sink in for him. Helios stepped not just closer to Kane, but so he moved the other man back a little from Claudia. I don’t think he wanted to know what the punishment would be if Kane took a swing at her. “I’m learning a lot from all the training here in St. Louis. I’m a teams guy, I came in here with serious skills, but Jake has hundreds of years of fighting practice.

I’m learning things from him that no one else could teach me. I don’t care if he’s a werewolf.” “Jake has only lived that long because he’s tied to his vampire master. He’s a slave to the vampires.” “Oh, come on, you’re Asher’s moitié bête, his animal to call, just like Jake and his master,” I said, and instantly regretted saying anything. “You stay out of this!” Kane said, and he was instantly angry again. I had that effect on him. Helios tried to move him back away from both of us, but Kane went wide around the bench toward me. I wasn’t armed, not even with a knife, because I was in the gym underneath the Circus of the Damned. If I wasn’t safe in our inner sanctum, then something was wrong.

I hoped that something wasn’t six feet of tall, dark, and stupid. Helios moved so fast it was just a blur and he was between me and Kane. The military trained the special forces to be better than the best; add to that the extra speed of a wereanimal and they were scary good. “Back it up, Kane,” Helios said. I used Helios’s body to hide the fact that I was backing up and around the weight racks. I did not want Kane to take a swing at me with me pressed up against the weights with nowhere to go. I’d beat him once hand to hand, but I’d sucker punched him while he was still arguing about the rules. Professionals act while amateurs are still asking what the fuck just happened. Sometimes being a professional doesn’t mean throwing the first punch, it means avoiding the fight altogether. “Are you going to hide behind one of your guards, Anita?” “She’s supposed to hide behind us.

We’re her bodyguards,” Helios said. “Then why does she train with us? Why is she always down here training?” I was far enough out into the room now. I figured between Claudia and Helios they could wrestle Kane without involving me. He’d been training harder in the fighting part of things since I kicked his ass. He didn’t work harder anywhere else; I think he wanted a rematch, but I didn’t. He was at least cruiserweight, or even heavyweight, and I was bantamweight at best, and if two fighters are equally trained, size matters. “I’m a U.S. Marshal for the Preternatural Branch; I train so I can go up against the monsters and survive.” “She just called us all monsters, the kind she executes.

” “I’ve seen what happens when one of us goes rogue,” Helios said. “We are monsters. We need people like Blake who can take us out when we go full beast mode.” “Why are you taking her side? Did she fuck you like she fucks all the other men?” “That’s out of line,” Helios said. “So, you did fuck her!” “Oh, for the love of God, Kane, it’s not my fault that Asher is bisexual and not just gay the way you want him to be,” I said. “He’d be gay if it wasn’t for you,” Kane said, and he had moved so he could see me around the other man. “Asher is Asher, he’s over six hundred years old, I didn’t change any of his sexual preferences.” “Liar!” He screamed it at me. “I’m not sleeping with your boyfriend, Kane.” “But he still wants you!” “And that is not my fault,” I said.

“Lying bitch!” Kane moved toward me and Helios stepped in between us. Kane pushed him hard enough to make the other man stumble. Helios made a fist, and part of me wanted him to take the swing. Kane seemed to see it, too, because he calmed for a second and said, “Sorry, Helios, it’s not your fault, it’s hers.” And the calm was gone as if it had never been, he was right back to being furious—at me. “Let Asher sleep with other women, and maybe he’ll get me out of his system.” “No! It’s not women he wants, it’s just you, he’s only hetero for you.” I tried to see something in his face that I could reason with, but there was nothing but the jealous rage. It pinched his features down so that the handsome was all gone. Some people really are pretty when they’re angry; Kane wasn’t one of them.

“You act like I’m the only woman he ever slept with, Kane. I know he slept with Dulcia, the leader of your old hyena clan.” “Only because Jean-Claude told him to seduce her.” “What about Belle Morte and Julianna?” Kane made a sound low in his chest, and an eerie high-pitched growl spilled out of his human lips. “Anita, just go, hit the showers. He’ll calm down once you’re gone,” Claudia said. “Asher is bisexual, Kane. You can’t change that about him.” His human words came out with that hyena squeal threading through them, so the sound raised the hairs at the back of my neck. “I can love him enough so he won’t need anyone else.

” “You sound like a woman who marries a gay man convinced she can love him straight.” I shouldn’t have said it, but I was just so tired of him. He started rushing me, but Helios was there wrapping his arms around him from behind. I expected Kane to fight Helios then, but he just kept staring at me, trying to get at me like a dog on a chain.

.

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