Dev looked at Jean-Claude. "No fur here."
"I see that," Jean-Claude said, trying for a neutral voice but not quite succeeding. The fact that he couldn't control his voice meant something about all of this had hit either an issue or a potential happy spot; whichever it was, it moved him.
"The first night I came here, you put me with Asher while you and Richard took Envy. She's already dumped him, and you're not happy with her."
"She does not share well enough."
"She's a beautiful woman."
"Most men are grateful that anyone that beautiful is with them."
"Beautiful men can be the same way, mon ami."
"Envy's never been with anyone who thought they were the pretty one in the relationship."
Jean-Claude gave that Gallic shrug that could have meant he agreed, or not.
"It's the girl rule," I said. "Never date someone prettier than you are. I broke it so long ago, I don't worry about it."
Dev smiled, hands still gripping us as he swayed slightly again.
"Maybe you should sit down," Micah said.
Dev gave a small shake of his head. "Envy thinks she's more beautiful than you are, you know that, right?"
I nodded. "She's tall, leggy, blond, and blue-eyed; of course she does."
"And that doesn't bother you?"
"Women have been doing that math on me all my life, I'm used to it."
"Modern American women seem to believe that being tall and thin is beauty, but I have lived in centuries when that was not so."
"But when she enters a room, heads turn and follow all that height and blondness," I said. "I've never gotten that same treatment just walking through a crowd."
Dev grinned. "Only because you're so short we can't see you over the crowd."
I gave him the look the comment deserved, but truth was truth.
"In a crowd we're invisible," Micah said.
Dev laughed and then swayed again. Jean-Claude moved a chair up and we helped sit him down. "How do you do this without feeling tired afterward?" Dev asked.
"I do rapid change better than most."
"You do, but damn, I feel shaky."
"You need to refuel."
"You mean eat something."
"I should, but I don't have to."
Dev looked back up at Jean-Claude. "You're in love with Anita, so Envy let that go, but when she realized you see so many of the men as more attractive than she is, that's when she couldn't deal with it."
"Has she looked at the men in our group?" I asked.
Dev smiled. "She's not used to having to compete with men and women for someone's attention, Anita, no matter how pretty they are, because you don't just value the men for their beauty--well, except for Asher maybe. For the rest you prefer men who hit the gym, and the only woman in your life besides Envy hits the gym as hard as the men."
"I'll never muscle up like Richard, no matter how much I lift."
"But you've got more muscles than most women, and a hell of a lot more than Envy."
"Why is it that most of the golden tigers learned to be good in bed and with fighting, but Envy and a few other men, and women, didn't?"
"Even among our clan not everyone is great at athletics, so we let people play to their strengths. Adam is an amazing lawyer, but I wouldn't trust his fighting skills. For some of the females of our clan, the legend says a new Master of Tigers, not a new mistress. I think Envy believed that just being a beautiful woman would win her points with the new master."
"What if he'd been gay?" I asked.
"I'm not the only one of our males who thinks men are cool."
The power was beginning to fade; we just couldn't hold it.
"Whatever we're going to do with this power, we need to do it, Jean-Claude. I think Dev's being tired is helping it fade."
"I know what I wanted to do with it," Dev said, "but I don't think I'm up to what I wanted to do earlier." He gripped our arms tight and looked up at all three of us. "But I still want us to raise the power and have sex later; I haven't changed my mind."
"We'd have to negotiate what you mean by sex between the two of us," Micah said.
Dev nodded. "I know, but if I can bring this kind of power to the table I want to have a serious shot at being the tiger you commit to."
Jean-Claude looked at Micah. "You made your vote very clear earlier, mon chat, and it was not for Mephistopheles."
"For this kind of power, my vote could change."
"Such a very practical cat."
Micah nodded. "Usually."
"I'm sleeping with all of you, so sex with all of us would work, but we're talking about a lot more than just sex."
"That is true, ma petite; are you saying you have reservations about him joining us?"
"Nothing personal to Dev, but Micah expressed serious reservations just a little bit ago. I don't understand why he changed his mind this quickly."
I looked into his face and saw only certainty. "The power changed your mind?"
"The next time an animal group calls us to help them solve a problem, I might be able to do rapid shifting between forms and not have to fight, or seduce, or anything but show them that I'm more than just leopard. That's rare. It might be enough of a show of strength that there wouldn't need to be anything else."
The Coalition only traveled into other people's territory when they were called in by either the police or the shapeshifters themselves. Sometimes Micah was able to negotiate a peace between everyone, but more often the lycanthropes would handle things in private away from hum
an eyes, and that usually involved a fight. Sometimes sex, but most of the time blood, injury, or death had to happen before the problem was solved, like with the lion pride on the West Coast that thought it could take over the local cougar group. Their feeble excuse had been They're mountain lions, and all lions belong to us. Forget explaining the biology that made cougars much closer to leopards evolutionarily, because it would turn out to be a love affair gone horribly wrong between the dominant female of the cougars and the Rex of the pride. Micah risked his life with every fight, and risked the females thinking the political seduction was actual seduction. One group's queen had tried to make Micah her long-distance relationship and even made noises about threatening me. If a little sex would keep him from having to fight shapeshifters twice his size I'd have been okay with it, but after that incident he'd been more reluctant to use sex as a bargaining chip.
If just changing shape like this could stop the fighting and the need for seduction, then . . . "The fights have been more serious than you've let me know, haven't they?"
"You and I are the same size, Anita. Speed, surprise, and utter ruthlessness are our advantages, but my reputation as a fighter has gotten around. They know most of my tricks and they usually outweigh me by a body weight. That wouldn't be so bad, but they're as trained as I am, or more trained, in fighting. No one wins every fight, Anita."
We gave each other some very serious eye contact, and he let me feel what he hadn't before, that he'd begun to worry about the fights, the same way Rafael the rat king was worrying. He gently closed that line of reasoning down, so I couldn't read his thoughts anymore. If I'd tried that I'd have shut down all the power flowing through us, but Micah was able to shut down parts without shutting off the whole. Only Jean-Claude was better at it. "That was Rafael's secret; please don't bring it up unless he tells you."
I hesitated and then nodded. "Okay."
"I won't tell either," Dev said.
We looked at him and realized that he was sitting there quietly, and probably peeking inside every thought we shared. The fact that neither of us had thought about that meant either we were more power drunk than we thought, or the power liked Dev so much it was smooth and didn't alert us.
"What of Asher?" Jean-Claude asked.
"Are you king?" Dev asked.
Jean-Claude went very still for a moment as if his whole body held its breath, and then he said, "Yes."