"I hide my weakness. I am lion. I am strong. I am . . ." She fell slowly to her knees, catching herself with one hand.
I went to help her, but she said, "NO!"
I knelt back from her, not sure what to do. "Kelly, I'm sorry, you should have said something."
"There's nothing you can do, Anita. I'm weak, you can't change that."
"You aren't weak," I said.
"No," I said, "you're strong, Kelly."
"Not strong enough," she said, and her eyes were shiny with the tears she was trying not to cry.
I reached out but didn't touch her. I wanted to hold her, tell her I was sorry and that it would be all right, but she didn't need false comfort, and that's what it was, because unless there was a loophole in lion culture, she was going to lose to Magda unless the other lioness was hurt enough to give up the fighting.
Kelly started to shiver. I was pretty sure it was more shock than the cooler temperature of the underground, but I took off my suit jacket anyway. She protested, but I put it around her shoulders. "Just take the jacket, at least let me do that."
She looked up at me, eyes lingering on my arms. "How can you wear so many dresses and shirts that show all your scars? It shows that you've lost fights, that you're weak. No lion would ever do that," Kelly said.
I looked down at my bare arms as if I hadn't really looked at them before, and in a way I hadn't. I'd long ago given up on covering the scars I'd acquired on the job. I looked down at my arms. There was a mass of scar tissue at the bend of my left arm where a vampire had tried to eat his way through it, through me, not because he could eat solid food, because he couldn't, but just to hurt. The cross-shaped burn scar below that on my forearm was a little crooked now because the claws of a shapeshifted witch had cut me. Her little mini-coven had killed lycanthropes in full animal form and used black magic to make enchanted belts so they could turn into those animals at will, without being cursed to follow the moon. I had friends who were witches, Wiccan, and they were nice, moral people, but every religious group has people who make you want to say, I'm not with them, or even, They're evil. There was a shiny scar higher up on my arm where a bullet had grazed me before I got enough of Jean-Claude's power to heal a non-silver bullet. The blouse actually did hide the scrape scar on my back where a vampire's human servant had tried to stab me with my own shattered wooden stake. That was back in the day when I still staked vampires outside a morgue kill; shotguns were so much less work. There was a delicate trace of scars across my ass where a wereleopard had cut me up while he tried to rape me and put it in a snuff film. I looked down at the muscled, scarred landscape of my body.
"I didn't lose any of these fights; I won them all. Everyone who hurt me is dead; I killed them. I think of the scars as an advertisement for just what a bad-ass I am." I smiled at her, and she gave me a weak one in return.
It was Lita who said, "You dress like you don't care about the scars at all."
I shrugged. "I guess I don't."[email protected]@@@[email protected]@@@@=======
"It would bother me," she said.
"You get used to it," I said.
"So you weren't okay with it when you were my age?"
My age? I thought. I was thirty-one, and she was only twenty-one, so I guess it was accurate. I thought about it. "Actually, no, it never did bother me, if you mean cosmetically. I was worried that I might lose the full use of my arm from this." I touched the mound of scars on the inside of my elbow bend.
Lita looked at me, head slightly to one side. "You didn't worry that it'd make men not want you?"
"You didn't worry that it made you look like a victim?" Kelly asked.
I frowned at her. "No, every time I look at my scars I think that I lived, and I killed what hurt me. These are victory marks, not victim," I said.
Nicky offered me his hand, and I took it, a little puzzled. He pulled me back in against the front of his body, and he hugged me one-armed so we could both keep our gun arms free. I leaned into the solid strength of him, knowing that he'd be fast enough and deadly enough to give me those few extra seconds.
"What if Nicky fucked Kelly?" Lita asked.
Whatever look Nicky and I gave her made her hold her one hand up, as if she were unarmed. The other hand staying on the strap of her AR made it sort of a halfhearted gesture, but it was better than her usual. "Hey, I thought somewhere in all that, you said if she'd been the Rex's lover there wouldn't be a challenge."
I looked up along the line of Nicky's chest, my hands folding over the rock-hardness of his forearm. "Is Lita right?"
"Kelly is one of my fighters, not a piece of ass, and she's worked hard to earn that."
"So if you and she had sex, then Magda would back off?"
"No," Kelly said, "no, nothing personal, Nicky, but if I hide behind you like that she still wins."
"You can't keep being cut up like this," I said.
"I'll heal," she said.
"Would you really let Nicky sleep with her?" Meng Die asked.
I shrugged, still wrapped in the warmth of Nicky's hug, and then said, "To stop this from happening, yeah, if he and Kelly were okay with it, yeah."
"So you do let him fuck other people?" Lita asked.
"Not yet, I mean . . . it hasn't come up as a topic."
Lita looked at him as if he were crazy. "You could have permission to fuck other people and you don't even ask."
"I'm happy with what I've got," he said.
"But it's extra pussy and you wouldn't even get in trouble." Lita looked completely dumbfounded, as if she couldn't believe he was passing up the opportunity.
"I love Anita, and she loves me." He bent over and laid a gentle kiss on the side of my face. I turned my face so we could kiss for real. It was as tender as any kiss I'd ever had.
"But she loves the Master of the City, and the leopard king, and . . . hell, Rafael, our king, fucks her. You could fuck other women and you don't . . . why not?"
Nicky rose up from the kiss and said, "I'm happier than I've ever been. I don't want to fuck that up, literally. It's just not worth it."
"You mean I'm not worth it," Lita said.
He hugged me a little tighter in against his body. "You said it, I didn't."
"Anita likes girls, too, now," Meng Die said. "You could proposition her if you just wanted power, Lita. I mean, if all you want is to be closer to the center of things, why not go straight to the source?"
"I didn't hit on Nicky for power. I like bad boys, and big, physical guys; he's like a two-fer for me."
"And I lose out, because I'm too nice a guy," Dino said in a fake mournful voice. I knew that gleam in his eye well enough to know he was starting to tease her. Lita didn't know him that well.
"Look, you're just not my type, sorry."
He laughed a rumble of sound with that big barrel chest of his to make it echo. "You're not really mine, either."
She frowned. "Then why do you keep harping on
"Because I can," he said.
She frowned harder, creating lines between her eyes that were already starting to carve their way in; if she wasn't careful she'd bloom early and age early the way that some women did who looked lush and finished at twenty-one. Those of us who bloomed later lasted longer sometimes; it all came down to genetics, if you smoked, or tanned too much. I wondered if Lita smoked; she didn't smell like she smoked.
"You'd turn me down?" she asked.
He gave that deep chuckle again. "Ask and find out."
I was no longer sure if he was teasing or had maneuvered Lita into propositioning him so he could say yes. If it was what he'd just done, then Dino was way more devious than I'd given him credit for.
Nicky hugged me, and I felt his body go still; he was watching the show, too. We were both wondering if Dino was doing it on purpose.
Lita was one of those young women who feel they can have any man they want, at least once, and Dino had hinted he'd turn her down. It was her ego that said, "So you want to do it?"
She gave him a disgusted look. "Fuck, do you want to fuck after we get off shift?"
He grinned wide and bright in his dark face. "Sure, why not?" Even his answer had been calculated to make her try harder when they fucked. He was already playing her to get a second try at sex, which meant that Dino was much brighter about social stuff and women than I had ever dreamt.
"Yeah," Nicky whispered into the top of my hair, which meant he hadn't known this about Dino either. He'd fooled us both, which meant we'd both watch him more closely now and not take his friendliness for granted. If you're good at playing people for one thing, you can be equally good at playing them for another. Hmm . . . I didn't like suddenly wondering if Dino's friendship was really real.
"What about you, lioness?" Meng Die asked.
Kelly was sitting on the floor now, not even pretending to be about to get up. She had pulled my jacket around her and was still shivering slightly. It all meant she wasn't fit for duty, but we'd cross that bridge in a few minutes; if bad guys jumped me now, I felt pretty secure with the guards I had.
"What about me?" she asked.
"You could sleep with Anita; no one in St. Louis picks fights with her lovers."
Kelly glanced up at me. "Nothing personal, Anita, but I'm just not into girls."