Raphael’s thoughts ran along the same lines. “The navigator will want to silence you before you create a paper trail he can’t destroy. You might end up hosting a bloodsucking party tonight. So we go to your apartment, take what you need, and then go to my place. He didn’t see me except in bouda form.”
Raphael twitched his nose. “Are you so scared to stay with me that you’d actually prefer to be ripped apart by a couple of vampires?”
“I’m not scared of you.”
His lips stretched back in a nightmarish smile, exhibiting a wall of teeth capable of snapping a cow’s femur in half like a toothpick. “I promise to keep my hands, tongue, and other body parts to myself. You risk your life by staying home. It’s late and we’re both too wiped out to go climbing into the People’s lair tonight. What do you risk by coming with me?”
“A huge migraine from being in your company.” Try as I might, I couldn’t find any fault with his reasoning. It was logically sound. And I wanted to see his place. I practically itched with curiosity.
“I’ll share my aspirin,” he promised.
“And that’s all you will share. I mean it, Raphael. Touch any part of me with any part of you without permission and I’ll put bullets into you.”
It took me almost ten minutes of chanting to start the Jeep. Equipped with an enchanted water engine in addition to its gasoline one, the Jeep managed to attain the speed of nearly forty miles per hour during the magic wave, which in itself was an enormous achievement of magic manipulation. Unfortunately, it suffered from the illness affecting every magic-capable vehicle: it made noise. Not the typical mechanical noise of an engine either. No, it snarled, coughed, roared, and belched thunder in its effort to attain sonic supremacy, so all conversation had to be carried out at a screaming level. I kept quiet and Raphael napped. When a tired shapeshifter wants his rest, you could fire cannons next to him. He won’t care.
A few minutes later we pulled up before my apartment. Raphael followed me up the stairs, dimly lit by the pale blue glow of feylanterns, and sauntered into my living room. I opened the side door leading to one of the two bedrooms, which I used for storage, and heard Raphael suck in the air through his nostrils.
I glanced up and saw the thing. He had left it in the living room, but I kept bumping into it and eventually moved it here, to a corner by the barred window. A six-foot-tall metal chandelier-like contraption made of thin brass wire, the thing stretched from the ceiling to the floor, rotating slowly. Branches of wire stuck out from it and on the branches little glass ornaments shimmered, suspended on golden chains. The ornaments contained thongs.
“You kept it,” he said softly.
I shrugged. I actually hadn’t taken into account the effect it might have on him. A miscalculation on my part. “It beats digging for my underwear in the drawer.”
His eyes widened. “Are you wearing one now?”
“Mind out of my pants!” I ordered. “One more infraction, and I’m staying home.”
He said nothing. I grabbed a blue duffel bag and went about the bedroom collecting equipment. My travel kit: spare toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush, deodorant. Crossbow bolts in neat bundles, their broadheads safely wrapped in soft wool in a box. Sharpshooter IV, a nice light crossbow. I pulled open the dresser and plucked a few boxes of ammo from it. Silver point.
“You’re the only woman I know who keeps bullets in her dresser,” he said.
“I use this room for storage.”
“There are bullets in the other dresser, too,” he said.
I suppose it was inevitable. He was a man, a bouda, and he had access to my apartment. It would be impossible for him not to have examined the contents of my dresser. At least he didn’t write on it in a big red marker, RAPHAEL WAS HERE.
“I like to be prepared. I don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night, empty my clip into some crazed shapeshifter sneaking about my apartment, and then have to run around looking for more ammo when he doesn’t stay down.”
If he knew I had lied about the thing, he wouldn’t be wincing. He’d be grinning ear to ear. I wasn’t sure myself why I had kept it, except that it must’ve taken him hours to assemble it all, and it would’ve required nearly godlike ninja skills to slip away from the strict security of the Midnight Games to set it up. He went through all that trouble for me. I couldn’t throw it away.
Having filled my duffel with weapons of destruction, I headed to my bedroom and shut the door in his face when he tried to follow. He didn’t need to see me pack my spare underwear.
I packed a change of clothes and paused. I was incredibly filthy. Incredibly disgustingly filthy. I had to take a shower either here, where I had my shampoo and my soap, or in Raphael’s apartment. I grabbed a change of clothes and a firearm and stepped out of the room. “I’m going to shower. Stay out of my bathroom.”
I got into the bathroom, slid the tiny deadbolt closed, and heard him lean on the wall next to it. “I’ve seen you naked, you know,” he said. “Twice.”
“Near-death experiences don’t count,” I said, stripping off my clothes and trying not to think of Raphael holding me firmly and whispering soft encouragements in my ear, while Doolittle had cut silver out of my body. Some memories were too dangerous to carry around.
When I emerged, clean, dressed, and smelling mostly of coconut with only mere traces of dead cat, I found Raphael examining the photographs on my shelf. Short little me and my mother, a petite blonde, standing side by side.
“You’re about eight?” he guessed.
“Eleven. I was always small for my age. Weaker than everyone else.” I touched the photograph gently. “In the wild, hyena cubs are born with functioning eyes and teeth. They start fighting the moment they’re born, and the stronger female tries to kill her sisters. Sometimes the weaker girls get too scared to nurse and die of starvation. The adults try to stop it, but hyena cubs will dig tunnels, too small for adults to enter, so they’ll fight to death there.”
“Boudas don’t dig tunnels,” Raphael said softly.
“You’re right. They don’t have to hide their violence from adults either.” They just try to beat you to death in the open. They do it right in front of your mother because they know she can’t protect you.
I reached into the frame and pulled out a small photograph resting behind it. The man on it hunched over oddly, nude, yet still dappled with faint outlines of hyena spots. His arms were too thickly muscled, his face too heavy on the jaws, its skin darkening at the nose. His round eyes were solid black.
Lyc-V, the virus that created shapeshifters, infected humans and animals alike. Very rarely it produced an animal-were, a creature who started his life as an animal and gained the ability to turn human. Most didn’t survive the transformation. Of the rare few who did, the majority suffered from severe retardation. Mute and stupid, they were universally reviled. The human shapeshifters killed them on sight. But once in a while, an animal-were turned out to be intelligent, learned to speak, and could express his thoughts. And even more rarely, he could breed.
I was the product of a mating between a female bouda and a hyenawere. My father was an animal. The shapeshifters called people like me “beastkin.” And they killed us. No trial, no questions, nothing but immediate death. That’s why I hid my secret self deep inside and never let her out.
Raphael’s clawed, furry hand rested on my shoulder gently.
I wanted him to hold me. It was a completely ridiculous feeling. I was an adult, more capable than most of protecting myself, yet as he stood there next to me, I had the heartbreaking longing to be held almost like a child, to draw strength from him. Instead I shrugged off his hand, slid the photograph back into the frame, and headed for the door.
“Home, sweet home,” Raphael growled, pointing to a beautiful two-story brick townhome.
He nodded. It was a lot of house and it looked quite dignified from the outside. Considering his Casanova tendencies, the inside was likely to feature heart-shaped vibrating beds and disco balls.
“What is it you do, Raphael?”
“This and that,” he murmured.
I had run a background scan on him when he first came on to me, but aside from his first name and his status as the only child of Aunt B, the alpha of Clan Hyena, nothing came up. He belonged to the upper level of the Pack’s command and his records were sealed. To dig deeper, I needed a warrant.
However, I had also made some inquiries with a couple of female boudas. His name was Raphael Medrano. The Pack owned a number of businesses, and Raphael ran one of them: Medrano Extractors. When magic brought down a structure, it ground concrete to useless powder, but it left the metal behind. The extractors went in and salvaged what could be saved and then sold it to the highest bidder or bought it themselves. The job carried a high level of danger, but with half of the world in ruins, Raphael wouldn’t be out of a job anytime soon.
He took my duffel, unlocked the door, and held it open for me while I carried Boom Baby inside. The door opened into a spacious living room with a vaulted ceiling. The floor was wood, the rug plain and beige, matching an oversized soft sofa diligently guarded by a blocky dark wood coffee table. A flat screen hung on the wall, angled toward the couch. Massive cubes of wooden shelves lined the opposite wall, housing books and DVDs.
The walls were custom painted in a light-brown-and-gray pattern resembling stone. No pictures decorated them; instead, Raphael displayed weapons: swords and knives in every shape and size imaginable. The place was clean, neat, and uncluttered, free of knickknacks and throw pillows. A very masculine house. Like stepping into the lair of some medieval lord with a penchant for frequent dusting.
Raphael locked the door. “Make yourself comfortable. My fridge is your fridge. I’m off to shower.”
I placed Boom Baby under the window for easy access in case of emergency and sat on the couch. Above me the soothing noise of the shower announced Raphael scrubbing himself clean. He’d napped on the way to the Order, so he would likely manage the transformation without passing out. The thought of naked human Raphael in the shower was terribly distracting.