I walked up to see a laughing group of guards, most with their hair still damp from the shower, walking toward me. The laughter faded a little around the edges, as they all tried to do their own version of greeting one of their bosses. Two nodded, one said, "Ma'am," and one gave a very crisp salute. It wasn't the first time one of the fresh-from-the-military guys had done that. I'd been told the rules. I did not salute back; if I'd been a superior officer then it would have been my call whether to return the salute anyway, but since I'd never served in the military for real, my saluting could be seen as a sign of disrespect.
I nodded back. If I could remember names I used them with the nod, though honestly we had so many new guys coming in to use the gym that I didn't know all the names anymore. Now that I knew that Micah and the other leaders were trying to recruit enough "soldiers" to replace all the werehyenas if we needed to, I understood why there were so many new faces. Most of the new guys must have liked a morning workout, because the amount of noise from inside the showers was a lot.
I stood just outside the door, steeling myself to go into the shared locker room where we could put our weapons and some people undressed. If we'd known we were going to have more female guards we might have built two locker rooms, but no one thought of it when the plans were laid out, or maybe lycanthropes just didn't sweat nudity, even in the shower, so maybe it was just me feeling all squirmy awkward about it? Either way, I wished for a girls' locker room as I hesitated at the open doorway; I wished really, really hard. But like all the female sportscasters who'd been told, sure you can have all the chances to interview the players that the male sportscasters have, but you still have to go into the shower and see the people you're trying to interview possibly naked--there really is no such thing as equality, just different levels of inequality, and how hard are you willing to fight for it all? Fuck.
Did I yell out "girl in the locker room" the way they did in some of the professional sports locker rooms? I realized I would have been a lot more comfortable if someone inside there were a lover of mine, but knowing they were men I'd never seen nude, or had no "right" to see nude, made me more embarrassed. I'm not saying that made sense; I'm just saying that's how I felt.
Someone walked around the open doorway so fast, they ran right into me and sent me stumbling backward. I barely kept my feet. It was one of the new female guards from L.A. She was a little taller than me, and built like a feminine square with shoulders broad enough to make most men very proud. Sheer greater mass had almost set me on my ass.
"Oh, I'm . . . so sorry." She blushed scarlet even through the darkness of her skin, which was a nice solid brown, as if she'd tan incredibly dark given a chance.
She reached out to touch my arm as if to reassure herself I was okay, then dropped her hand as if she didn't know what to do with it. "I didn't see you. I mean, I wasn't noticing. I mean . . ."
I laughed. "It's okay, Pepita, right?"
She nodded. "Yes, I'm Pepita, but they call me Peppy."
"Which do you prefer?" I asked.
She looked confused for a second, and then said, "Peppy, I am so not a little anything." And she spread her hands wide to sort of take in the thickness of her body.
"Don't apologize for not being little; you'll be able to lift weights that I can't even imagine lifting."
She looked pleased and ran a finger through her short, black hair, tucking it behind one ear where it didn't stay. Either she had only cut it short recently, or it was a very old habit from years of having much longer hair. Some habitual gestures stay on for years after the reason for them is long past.
She was still dressed in baggy gym shorts and an oversized men's T-shirt, as if she wanted to hide her body even while she worked out, or maybe it was just comfortable and I was projecting.
"You just finish working out?" I asked.
She nodded, smiled. "Yes."
"But you didn't shower yet."
The smile faded. "No," and she looked down, not meeting my brown eyes with her own anymore.
"Too many men, and not enough privacy for you in there?"
Her eyes darted up to me and then she looked at the floor again. "I know we're all shapeshifters and nudity is okay, but . . ."
"You're still the only girl with a bunch of guys, most of whom are cute and very in shape, and you're all expected to pretend you don't notice each other."
She looked at me. "Yeah, we didn't do this kind of big group thing at home. Claudia told me that she did it and so could I."
"Is she in there now?" I asked.
Pepita, I mean Peppy, shook her head.
"When did Claudia tell you that?"
"When she showed us around the gym area. We asked where the girls' locker room was and she told us that we were going to be professional about this, just like we were about any other part of our job."
"That sounds like Claudia," I said.
"I know she's right, but . . ." She looked at the ground again.
"Honestly, I don't like coming down here when there are this many of the guys either."
She looked up at me, hopeful and suspicious all at once. "Really, or are you just trying to make me feel less like a pussy?"
"I swear that this is a little too much testosterone in one place, at one time, even for me."
She grinned suddenly and it made her look even younger than I knew she was, but it was also a good smile. She was suddenly pretty, and not just muscle that happened to be a girl.
"We'll go in together; that way at least neither of us will be the only girl."
The grin turned to relief. "Thank you, Senora Blake, thank you so much."
"Anita, call me Anita."
She nodded, smiling. "Okay, Anita, thank you."
"Don't thank me yet, we still have to brave the locker room and run the gauntlet of naked guys to get to the covered shower stalls."
She laughed then. "If you can do it, I can do it."
"Then let's do it," I said.
We walked into the locker room together, and because Peppy needed me to be brave, it was easier to do it. Yay for easier.
THE ROOM WAS so full of men in various states of undress that we had to thread our way through them like a maze of naked guys. It might have been erotic, but they were also joking and doing that rough talk that passes for sweet nothings between guy friends. I kept my head down and studied the tile floor like we were going to be graded later.
"Fuck, Ricky, your dick is going to fall off if you keep using it that much." I couldn't tell who said it, but the Ricky in question was beside us as I pushed my way between them to one of the weapons lockers, because he answered.
"Hey, can I help it if the ladies can't get enough of this?" and he gyrated his hips, making his junk swing. I did my very best to ignore it, but since it was damn near hitting my elbow, it was harder to ignore than it might have been.
I willed myself not to blush and opened the locker.
"Jesus, Ricky, stop shaking your junk at the new girls," a third voice called out. I realized that with my head down, my hair plastered to my head from the drying goop, and me wearing the black on black that was damn near the guards' uniform, they'd mistaken me for one of the new female guards from L.A. Perfect.
"Hey, she's not complaining, are you, baby?" Ricky said, and he actually leaned his shoulder against the closed lockers, arms crossed, in that popular-jock kind of way. They start doing it in high school, or earlier, but I'd never had anyone do it while they were naked. Life is just full of new experiences.
I froze with the door open on the locker, and looked up. I had to look way up, because Ricky was over a foot taller than me. I finally met the handsome, arrogant face, his shoulder still leaning against the lockers, arms crossed over the muscular chest, so high school jock. His eyes were big and brown with thick eyelashes, and the nearly perfect arch of black eyebrows that women want but never seem to have naturally. His hair was a brown so dark that calling
it light black seemed more accurate. He'd already blow-dried his hair back in feathering on the sides as if the 1980s had never died, but hey, maybe it was coming back in style.
I glared into those big brown eyes. My glare is pretty good; I've had really bad people flinch at the sight of it. Ricky was unimpressed; in fact, he grinned at me. He didn't recognize me. Maybe we needed an introduction to the new troops; I'd suggest it to Claudia later.
"First, don't call me baby."
"Anything you say, darling," he said, still grinning.
"Second, leave the 'darlings' to Bobby Lee, he's southern and I can't seem to break him of it."
"Okay, sugar britches," he said, still so pleased with himself. But the other men had started to go quiet; not all of them, but it was spreading through them. Someone had recognized me and shared with the class.
I smiled and knew it was the unpleasant one, the one I couldn't seem to keep off my face when I was unhappy with someone. Ricky just saw a smile, because he started to lean down toward me.
"You're not very bright, are you?" I asked.
He stopped leaning down and had a moment of puzzlement, but then the grin came back and he was all arrogant recovery. "Oh, sugar britches, I'm smart enough to rock your world."
I laughed then; I couldn't help it. "Jesus, please tell me that line never works for you."
He was back to softly puzzled, and his eyes were finally showing that he knew something was wrong, but not what, yet.
"God, I hope you shoot better than you think," I said, as I unbuckled my belt so I could begin to unthread all the holsters.
"Well, sugar britches, I think well enough that you're starting to take off your clothes."
"Before I decide to nickname you, dumbass, let's have a quiz."
"No need to be mean, sugar britches."
I held up my Browning BDM. "What's this?"
"More specific," I said.
"I don't have to play 'what the fuck is this' with you," he said, finally not happy with himself, because he didn't recognize the Browning. A lot of the newer guards didn't.
"Too hard for you? Let's try something easier." I took out my backup gun, the Sig Sauer P238.
He frowned at me and turned to his locker. He got his underwear on, a pair of black fitted briefs. The underwear wasn't bad.
"Come on, just the make, not even the model; you can do it, Ricky-boy."
"Fuck you," he said, wiggling into a pair of tight jeans, but hey, I wore my jeans tight, too.
"What, if it's not a Glock you don't know what the fuck it is?" I asked.
"Dumbass it is," I said, putting the Sig in with the Browning.
He turned and glared down at me, trying to use his height to intimidate. The first trickle of energy eased out from him, his beast peeking out with his anger.
I sniffed the air near his chest, invading his personal space, but he didn't tease me about it now. He'd decided not to like me. I was okay with that.
He smelled like wolf, but out loud I said, "You smell like puppy."
He leaned over me again, but this time it was supposed to be menacing, not seductive. It managed to be neither. "Werewolf, I'm a werewolf."
"Great, since you obviously don't know guns, let's try something that werewolves are supposed to be really good at. What am I?"
He drew back from me, forgetting he was trying to loom menacingly. "What?"
"I could smell that you were a puppy; tell me what I am."
"I'm not a puppy, I'm a wolf," he said between gritted teeth.
"Prove it, what am I?"
"I don't have to prove anything to you, chickie." He pulled his T-shirt on without spreading the neck open, so his carefully styled hair was mussed. He was mad.
"I'll make it easy for you." I raised my arm up toward his face.
He turned away and tried to ignore me.
"So much for the famous nose of the werewolves; I guess that reputation is all talk, too," I said, and unthreaded the extra magazine holders from my belt and laid the extra ammo in with the guns.
"What's that supposed to mean, too? You don't know me, or my reputation."
"You are an arrogant, bragging blowhard, who refused to take the sniff challenge. What kind of weak-ass wereanimal can't tell another person's flavor of beast by scent?"
"Wolf!" He snarled it into my face.
I laughed at him as the energy prickled along my skin. My wolf stood up, shaking her pale fur inside me. "A big bad wolf would know what I am; you don't, so you aren't a big bad wolf."
"You're a rat like all the other short Hispanic chickies from L.A."
I gave the unpleasant smile again. "Since chickie can be slang for prostitute, don't ever call any of the female guards that again."
"Or what? What will you do if I call you all chickie?"
"You didn't really listen to what I said, did you, puppy?"
"Don't call me that." He snarled it in my face, and it got him close enough to smell me. He stopped and the anger began to fade a little. "The gunk is tigers, more than one kind, but you"--he sniffed along my hair and face--"you smell like wolf, but you can't be."
"Why can't I be?" I asked.
"I've been here almost two months, and I've never seen you at any of the get-togethers."
"My schedule's a little full, makes it hard to be everywhere."
The room had gone quiet a while ago, but Ricky hadn't noticed. His powers of observation sucked. I hoped he fought well, because if he didn't he was just good-looking muscle that at best was cannon fodder, and at worst was going to get someone else hurt, because he wouldn't be up to the job. Had Richard picked him? If so, I was going to ask Rafael if he could help the wolves pick their new recruits from now on, because this one looked good, but he wasn't.
Micah reached out to me, just a barest brush of energy, and my leopard raised its head and sniffed the air. "Now you smell like leopard, but that's not possible," Ricky said.
"What's not possible, puppy?"
"Stop calling me that!" His anger was so ready to spill up and over him, and his wolf came right with it.
"Make me, puppy," I said.
"Ricky . . ." someone said, taking pity on him at last.
"Make me stop calling you puppy; prove to me that you're the big bad wolf."
"Sticks and stones, puppy, sticks and stones."
"What are you fucking talking about?"
I moved closer to him, drawn by the heat of his anger and the musk of his wolf, but it was the anger I wanted. I was hungry, and his anger sat on my tongue bittersweet like super-dark chocolate; it's sweet, but there's that undertone of bitterness that can become its own addiction.
"Here puppy, puppy, puppy," I whispered from inches away. I was too close for him to swing at me, sex close. He was so angry it was like a fire that I could warm my hands over, such rage, just because I'd pricked his ego. I was provoking him, because I needed to feed and I had other options besides sex now.
I caught movement, as some of the others, including Peppy, started to move forward to intercede as the big man menaced me. I said, "Everyone back off, this is just puppy and me, isn't it, puppy?"
He yelled, "STOP CALLING ME THAT!" And he moved, too fast for even me to follow. His hands were around my upper arms, picking me up, feet dangling, as he slammed me against the lockers. But I was ready for it, and my head didn't slam back into them, which would have stunned me, and my back had had worse done to it. I wrapped as much of my small hands around his arms as I could, but it wasn't to keep him from slamming me again; it was to get skin-to-skin contact. The moment I touched him, I fed. All that anger, all that rage, that red haze that could have pounded me against the lockers until I broke, was mine to drink down from his skin to mine.
He looked confused, and then he began to collapse as his knees buckled. I
was set back on my feet as he sat down heavily on the benches in front of the lockers. His hands dropped to his lap, as if he had lost strength in his arms. His face was soft and confused. The heat of his wolf was gone, siphoned away with his anger. Oh, he was still a werewolf, but he wouldn't be able to shapeshift until he recovered a little more of himself; until then it was almost like being human. Some of the guards I did trust had been working with me in private, discovering the limits of this new ability to feed on anger by touching someone. I could drain from a distance, too, but it wasn't as powerful or as satisfying a feeding.
"What did . . . what did you . . . do to me?" he asked, and he couldn't quite make his eyes focus on me, or much of anything.
I felt so much better. "I fed on your anger."
"What . . . are you?"
"Wrong question, Ricky," I said.
"What?" He was still fighting to focus his eyes, his hands limp at his sides.
"It's not what am I. It's who am I?"
"I don't understand."
"Oh, fuck," he said, softly, trying hard to look at me without his gaze wandering to the side.
"You're lucky, I've gotten better at eating anger; when I first started doing it I took people's memories, so it was like being rolled by a real vampire, but you remember everything that just happened, don't you, puppy?"
"Don't . . . call me that." He managed to focus his eyes.
"Then prove to me that you're more wolf than puppy. The next time I ask you what make and model a gun is, I'll expect you to know. Don't ever wave your junk in the face of any of the female guards again, unless you know, absolutely know, they want you to do it. Don't ever call any of your fellow guards chickie, or whore, ever again. Just because a woman thinks you're a horse's ass doesn't mean she's a whore; it just means she sees through your bullshit."
"I didn't know who you were," he said, but the anger was already back.
"Anger, back so soon, puppy, maybe I'll just make you my bitch for feeding on rage."
His eyes showed fear for a minute; that scared him.
"Oh, you don't like that idea at all, do you?"
"No," he said, and there was a little bit of snarl to the word.