Nicky had put pressure on the wound with his bare hands while we waited for Bush to bring the officer paramedic who was still back at the clearing. I'd shoved plastic gloves at Nicky.
'I can't catch anything from him, Anita.'
'Ares caught it,' I said.
He'd frowned at me, but he hadn't argued after that, just taken the gloves and held his now-gloved hands to the wound.
Nathaniel, still in leopard form, sniffed at the wound and hissed. I started taking off my vest.
Becker asked, 'What are you doing, Marshal?'
'I'm going to give him my shirt to use at the wound, but first I have to get the vest off.'
She was one of only a handful of officers who had stayed here in the woods to guard us in case something else bad showed up. Though I'd heard one cop say, 'We're safer with them.'
I think they meant the three of us.
I got the vest off and spilled it to the ground in a clank of weapons. I peeled off my T-shirt, folded it into quarters, and handed it to Nicky. He reached for it, the gloves dark with blood and streaked with the infection, though I wasn't sure that was what it was, not exactly. Had everyone bitten tonight caught this? The other bites had not looked like vampire bites. They'd been zombie, or human looking. Was this infection something that vampires and shapeshifters could catch? If it was, then it was something new.
I slid the vest back on my shoulders. It was rough with just the bra on, but it was better than not having the vest in case of stray bullets. Besides, it helped me carry my weapons. I used to hate the vests when the government first started making us wear them, but now it was just part of how I carried my stuff.
'Pretty bra,' someone said.
I looked up at the knot of officers around us. I didn't know who had said it, just one of the men, so not Becker. I debated on whether to get angry, but it was a nice bra, all lacy and black. 'Thanks,' I said, and fastened the vest back into place so I could put my jacket back on.
'Do the panties match?'
Crap, the fact that I hadn't been hostile to the first comment had encouraged him. I looked up and said, 'Who said that?'
They shifted uncomfortably, and then the other men stepped back to leave one younger officer standing by himself. He'd been stupid and they weren't going to protect him, not out here, not with people bleeding and dying.
The leopard leaned against me like a big dog. I think Nathaniel was trying to remind me not to kill our friends. I put an arm around him and petted the warmth and comfort of his fur. It did help lower my blood pressure. 'And you are Officer what?'
'Connors, Officer Connors.' He said it clear, no mumbling, and met my gaze steady.
'Okay, Officer Connors, the man bleeding and hurt from fighting beside you against flesh-eating zombies and vampires is my friend. You must have friends back at the clearing who are hurt, or worse, right?'
'Sorry, I didn't hear that, can you use your outside voice?' I said. It was almost a relief to be able to upset about something this small.
'Yes,' he said, and there was the tiniest edge of anger now.
'Then is speculating out loud about a female officer's underwear appropriate under these circumstances?'
'No,' he said, nice and clear this time.
'Good to know we agree on that,' I said.
Bush came jogging back with another officer in tow. He introduced him as Officer Perkins. 'I heard you yell medic, but ... there's a lot of wounded.'
He went down on his knees beside Ares and looked down the nude length of his body. 'This was the hyena?' he'd asked.
He'd triple-gloved before he signaled Nicky to move back. He shone the light on the side of Ares' neck and just shook his head. 'Travers has a wound like this in his chest. It's the same infection that got Sheriff Callahan.'
'The wound doesn't seem to be closing. I thought lycanthropes healed better than this.'
'Wounds made by other preternaturals heal slower,' I said.
'So, because it's a vampire bite it's not healing?' he asked.
The big leopard rubbed at me. I ran my hands through his fur. 'It's okay, Nathaniel.'
He pushed at me again, and I turned to look into his leopard eyes, but the look in the eyes wasn't animal. He was trying to tell me something. I dropped shields a little more, trying to 'see' what he wanted to share. I was suddenly overwhelmed with grayish images, the scent of the night, and the feel of my body against his, but ... not the way a person thought of it, more like a ... I shoved my shields back in place, holding on to his leopard form to keep from swaying. I'd caught glimpses of things, but it was like looking at a jigsaw puzzle that had been swirled around on the floor. You knew there was a picture, but it was just bright bits of color and shapes.
His energy poured over my skin, marching down my nerve endings like electric kisses. His fur flowed under my hands, and for the first time I held him as his human form pulled its way out of the fur and muscles of his leopard. The power of it shivered through my body so that I shuddered as his skin flowed smooth and fever-hot against me.
Becker exclaimed behind us, 'Oh, my God!'
I wondered if she said it from watching him shift form or because he was now crouched naked, hidden only by the fall of his unbound hair. She hadn't said anything when Ares changed form, so it was probably the whole nude-and-beautiful-man-who-wasn't-wounded-and-unconscious thing. It's just bad form to lust after the wounded, but Nathaniel wasn't wounded. He fit into the curve of my arm and body like he always did, as if he'd been meant to be there all along. As nice as it had been to cuddle his leopard, this was better, more comforting to me.
'I've never seen you change back to human this soon,' Nicky said from the other side of Ares and Officer Perkins.
'I've never tried to change back this soon,' Nathaniel said, and his voice was a little shaky.
I hugged him close, marveling at how warm he was, how silken his skin and hair. I buried my face in his hair the way you'd take a stiff drink to calm your nerves. I found the heavy leather of his collar still around his neck, though looser.
'You're supposed to pass out after you shift back,' Nicky said.
'In case I do pass out, Anita, remember the vampire that bit me in Tennessee?' he asked.
I'd known about rotting vampires, but the first time I knew that they could infect people with their bite was when one of them bit Nathaniel. He'd lain on a hotel bed screaming in pain and would have died if Asher and Damian hadn't drained the sickness out of his body, risking their own lives to do it. Asher had been strong enough to be okay, but Damian had nearly rotted to death. I'd saved him by letting him feed on me, and risked dying the same way, but since I'd asked Damian to save Nathaniel, I'd had to try. This was before Nathaniel was my animal to call and before Damian was my vampire servant. It all seemed so long ago and far away now. 'How could I forget?' I said, and hugged him tighter. It seemed unthinkable that once I hadn't loved him, once I had done everything I could to avoid being his lover, and now he was one of the most important people in my life.
'Ares has only one animal form, like I did back then; he's not going to be able to heal this any more than I could.'
I went still as we hugged. I raised my face up from his hair and met his eyes. 'Ares has only one form?'
'He's a big, dominant, athletic guy; I thought that translated into two beast forms.'
'Not always.' This from Nicky.
'I'm not sure what you're talking about,' Perkins said, 'but I've got patients to finish prepping for the helicopter that's coming.'
'What about Ares?' I asked.
'I'll send him when the chopper comes back.'
'No,' Nathaniel said, 'he needs to get to the hospital as soon as possible.'
'Lycanthropes heal anything. There is only so much room in the helicopter that's coming. I cannot triage a lycanthrope ahead of injured humans.'
I looked at Nathaniel. 'You mean it will move just as fast in Ares as it did in you in Tennessee?'
'See, you healed just fine,' Perkins said.
'I had help, and we don't have any of that kind of help with us,' Nathaniel said, and gave me a long, serious look. He meant we didn't have vampires with us, and even if we did, they'd need to be powerful enough to heal Ares without catching the rotting disease themselves. Asher had been strong enough, but Damian had almost died of it.
I turned back to Perkins. 'Trust me; this will kill him just like it's killing Officer Travers.'
'Lycanthropes can't get infections,' the paramedic said.
'Nathaniel is alive because we had extraordinary ... healing help, but on his own without that help he would be dead now. It is the only infection I've seen that can be fatal to them. I swear to you that I am not lying to try to get my guy on your chopper. I saw the bodies in the morgue that had this, and a bite near any major artery can travel to organs you need to stay alive. If this gets to his brain or heart, then he'll die from it.'
'You don't know that,' Perkins said, 'and I do know that three of the men waiting for transport will be dead within two hours or less without more medical care than I can give them.'
'Take the brain or the heart of a wereanimal and they won't heal, they'll just die. If this infection rots either of those organs, then it's the same as blowing them out with a shotgun; they're gone either way.'
'They know how to treat it better now; it's not that fast-acting,' Perkins said.
'With treatment it's not, but I'm worried that the higher metabolism he has as a shifter may actually move it through his body faster than if he were human.'
Perkins gave me a narrow look. I fought the urge to yell at him. Nathaniel hugged me closer, trying to soothe me, so I wouldn't lose my temper. He was right. If I screamed at the nice paramedic he would ignore me, and Ares wouldn't get on the first chopper.
'Look, Marshal, we have two men who will die within the hour, and that's not counting Travers.'
'How many will fit on the chopper?' I asked.
'Six. The clearing is only big enough for a Black Hawk.'
'Then there's room for your two critical, plus Travers, and Ares, plus one more,' I said.
He looked grim, never a good sign. 'I don't mean to be harsh, but I have to triage on the basis of severity of injury and likelihood of recovery. If I accept that your friend here has the same thing Travers has, then that doesn't change my mind. My understanding is that they will have to try to cut away the infected flesh. We don't have a lycanthrope blood supply, especially not for AB-negative, which is what Nick said he was. That's the rarest blood type in this country; there's never enough of it.'
I didn't bother to ask how Nicky knew Ares' blood type. I'd ask later after we saved him. 'A shapeshifter can take human blood, it's just the other way around that can give someone lycanthropy,' I said.
'In most of the western states, even Colorado, the blood supply for lycanthropes and normal humans is strictly separate.'
'You're saying that even if we get him there they can't operate in time, because he'll need blood,' I said.
He nodded. 'I'm sorry, but yes.'
'What if you had a lycanthrope with O-negative blood type?'
'One person might be able to donate enough for a conservative operation, but what are the chances of finding a universal donor with lycanthropy?' Perkins said.
'You're O-negative and a lycanthrope?'
'I carry lycanthropy but don't shift form, so technically I'm not a lycanthrope.'
'It's not possible to carry and not shift.'
'So they keep telling me, but I failed my blood test three years ago and so far what you see is what you get.'
He blinked hard, frowning. 'If you are lying to me, Blake ...'
'I swear to you I'm not. My blood work is on record with the Marshals Service.'
Perkins gave me another suspicious look.
Nicky called out, 'I hear the chopper.'
'I don't hear anything,' Perkins said.
'I don't either, but if Nicky says he hears it, we'll hear it soon.' I'd barely finished saying it when I heard the distant chop-chop-chop sound of the helicopter blades. They were distant but coming. 'I hear it,' I said.
'I still don't,' Perkins said. It was another couple of minutes before he heard it. Sometimes I didn't appreciate that I had super-hearing since I was usually surrounded by shapeshifters and vampires.
I said something I don't say often; I said, 'Please, don't let him die, not like this.'
He frowned at me. 'Damn it, fine, can Nick carry him back to the clearing?'
'Follow me, and you're going to have to ride along, Blake. We'll have to put you in the helicopter equivalent of a jump seat, and only if the pilot says the weight distribution will tolerate your extra.'
'You better pray you're small enough for everyone who needs to be on this chopper, plus one blood donor.'
Nicky picked up Ares easily and followed Perkins. Nathaniel took my left hand in his and spoke low. 'How's your phobia of flying doing?'
I stiffened, stopped walking, and almost stumbled. 'Motherfucker,' I said, softly, but with feeling.
'You didn't think about it, did you?'
'If I can save him, I'm going to,' I said.
He squeezed my hand and said, 'That's my girl.'
'Yes,' I said, 'I am.' We kissed gently as we walked, and the first tree limb caught in his hair. It wouldn't be the last. Becker actually took the ponytail holder out of her own hair and gave it to him so he could braid it. It also inadvertently exposed his body completely. Some good deeds do get rewarded.