I WAS WASHING the dishes I'd used as I cooked for Calvin. My little duplex was peaceful. If Halleigh was home, she was being quiet as a mouse. I didn't mind washing dishes, to tell you the truth. It was a good time to let my mind drift around, and often I made good decisions while I was doing something completely mundane. Not too surprisingly, I was thinking of the night before. I was trying to remember exactly what Sweetie had said. Something about it had struck me wrong, but at the moment I hadn't exactly been in a position to raise my hand to ask a question. It had something to do with Sam.
I finally recalled that though she'd told Andy Bellefleur that the dog in the alley was a shapeshifter, she hadn't known it was Sam. There wasn't anything strange about that, since Sam had been in a bloodhound shape, not his usual collie form.
After I'd realized what had been bothering me, I thought my mind would be at peace. That didn't happen. There was something else - something else Sweetie had said. I thought and thought, but it just wouldn't pop to the top of my brain.
To my surprise, I found myself calling Andy Bellefleur at home. His sister Portia was just as surprised as I was when she answered, and she said rather coldly that she'd find Andy.
"Yes, Sookie?" Andy sounded neutral.
"Let me ask a question, Andy."
"When Sam was shot," I said, and paused, trying to figure out what to say.
"Okay," Andy said. "What about it?"
"Is it true that the bullet didn't match the others?"
"We didn't retrieve a bullet in every case." Not a direct answer, but probably as good as I was going to get.
"Hmmm. Okay," I said, then thanked him and hung up, uncertain if I'd learned what I wanted or not. I had to push it out of my mind and do something else. If there was a question there, it would eventually work its way to the top of the heap of the issues that burdened my thoughts.
What remained of the evening was quiet, which was getting to be a rare pleasure. With so little house to clean, and so little yard to care for, there would be lots of free hours to come. I read for an hour, worked a crossword puzzle, and went to bed at about eleven.
Amazingly, no one woke me all night. No one died, there weren't any fires, and no one had to alert me to any emergency.
The next morning I rose feeling better than I had in a week. A glance at the clock told me I'd slept all the way through to ten o'clock. Well, that wasn't so surprising. My shoulder felt nearly healed; my conscience had settled itself. I didn't think I had many secrets to keep, and that was a tremendous relief. I was used to keeping other people's secrets, but not my own.
The phone rang as I swallowed the last of my morning coffee. I put my paperback facedown on the kitchen table to mark my place and got up to answer it. "Hello," I said cheerfully.
"It's today," Alcide said, voice vibrating with excitement. "You need to come."
Thirty minutes my peace had lasted. Thirty minutes.
"I'm guessing you mean the contest for the position of packmaster."
"And I need to be there why?"
"You need to be there because the entire pack and all friends of the pack have to be there," Alcide said, his voice brooking no dissent. "Christine especially thought you should be a witness."
I might have argued if he hadn't added the bit about Christine. The wife of the former packmaster had struck me as a very intelligent woman with a cool head.
"All right," I said, trying not to sound grumpy. "Where and when?"
"At noon, be at the empty building at 2005 Clairemont. It used to be David & Van Such, the printing company."
I got a few directions and hung up. While I showered, I reasoned that this was a sporting event, so I dressed in my old denim skirt with a long-sleeved red tee. I pulled on some red tights (the skirt was quite short) and some black Mary Janes. They were a little scuffed, so I hoped that Christine would not look down at my shoes. I tucked my silver cross into my shirt; the religious significance wouldn't bother the Weres at all, but the silver might.
The defunct printing company of David & Van Such had been in a very modern building, in an equally modern industrial park, largely deserted this Saturday. All the businesses had been constructed to match: low gray stone and dark glass edifices, with crepe myrtle bushes all around, grass medians, and nice curbing. David & Van Such featured an ornamental bridge over an ornamental pond, and a red front door. In the spring, and after some restorative maintenance, it would be as pretty as a modern business building could get. Today, in the fading phase of winter, the dead weeds that had grown high during the previous summer waved in a chilly breeze. The skeletal crepe myrtles needed pruning back, and the water in the pond looked stagnant, with trash floating dismally here and there. The David & Van Such parking lot contained about thirty cars, including - ominously - an ambulance.
Though I wore a jacket, the day suddenly seemed colder as I went from the parking lot and across the bridge to the front door. I was sorry I'd left my heavier coat at home, but it hadn't seemed worth bringing for a brief run between enclosed spaces. The glass front of David & Van Such, broken only by the red door, reflected the clear pale blue sky and the dead grass.
It didn't seem right to knock at a business door, so I slipped inside. Two people were ahead of me, having crossed the now-empty reception area. They passed through plain gray double doors. I followed them, wondering what I was getting into.
We entered what had been the manufacturing area, I suppose; the huge presses were long gone. Or maybe this cavern of a room had been full of desks manned by clerks taking orders or doing accounting work. Skylights in the roof let in some illumination. There was a cluster of people close to the middle of the space.
Well, I hadn't gotten the clothes thing right. The women were mostly wearing nicer pants outfits, and I glimpsed a dress here and there. I shrugged. Who could have known?
There were a few people in the crowd I hadn't seen at the funeral. I nodded at a red-haired Were named Amanda (I knew her from the Witch War), and she nodded back. I was surprised to spot Claudine and Claude. The twins looked marvelous, as always. Claudine was wearing a deep green sweater and black pants, and Claude was wearing a black sweater and deep green pants. The effect was striking. Since the two fairies were the only obvious non-Weres in attendance, I went to stand with them.
Claudine bent and kissed me on the cheek, and so did Claude. Their kisses felt exactly the same.
"What's going to happen?" I whispered the question because the group was abnormally quiet. I could see things hanging from the ceiling, but in the poor light I couldn't imagine what they were.
"There will be several tests," Claudine murmured. "You're not much of a screamer, right?"
I never had been, but I wondered if I'd break new ground today.
A door opened on the far side of the room, and Jackson Herveaux and Patrick Furnan came in. They were naked. Having seen very few men naked, I didn't have much basis for comparison, but I have to say that these two Weres weren't my ideal. Jackson, though certainly fit, was an older man with skinny legs, and Patrick (though he, too, looked strong and muscular) was barrel-like in form.
After I'd adjusted to the nakedness of the men, I noticed that each was accompanied by another Were. Alcide followed his father, and a young blond man trailed Patrick. Alcide and the blond Were remained fully clothed. "It would've been nice if they'd been naked, huh?" Claudine whispered, nodding at the younger men. "They're the seconds."
Like in a duel. I looked to see if they carried pistols or swords, but their hands were empty.
I noticed Christine only when she went to the front of the crowd. She reached above her head and clapped her hands one time. There hadn't been much chatter before this, but now the huge space fell completely silent. The delicate woman with her silver hair commanded all attention.
She consulted a booklet before she began. "We meet to discern the next leader of the Shreveport pack, also called the Long Tooth pack. To be the leader of the pack, these Weres must compete in three tests." Christine paused to look down at the book.
Three was a good mystical number. I would have expected three.
I hoped none of these tests involved blood. Fat chance.
"The first test is the test of agility." Christine gestured behind her at a roped-off area. It looked like a giant playground in the dim light. "Then the test of endurance." She pointed at a carpeted area to her left. "Then the test of might in battle." She waved a hand at a structure behind her.
So much for no blood.
"Then the winner must mate with another Were, to ensure the survival of the pack."
I sure hoped part four would be symbolic. After all, Patrick Furnan had a wife, who was standing apart with a group that was definitely pro-Patrick.
That seemed like four tests to me, not three, unless the mating part was kind of like the winner's trophy.
Claude and Claudine took my hands and gave them a simultaneous squeeze. "This is gonna be bad," I whispered, and they nodded in unison.
I saw two uniformed paramedics standing toward the back of the crowd. They were both shifters of some kind, their brain patterns told me. With them was a person - well, maybe a creature - I hadn't seen for months: Dr. Ludwig. She caught my eye and bowed to me. Since she was around three feet tall, she didn't have far to lean. I bowed back. Dr. Ludwig had a large nose, olive skin, and thick wavy brown hair. I was glad she was there. I had no idea what Dr. Ludwig actually was, other than nonhuman, but she was a good doctor. My back would have been permanently scarred - assuming I'd lived - if Dr. Ludwig hadn't treated me after a maenad attack. I'd escaped with a couple of bad days and a fine white tracery across my shoulder blades, thanks to the tiny doctor.
The contestants entered the "ring" - actually a large square marked off by those velvet ropes and metal-topped posts that they use in hotels. I'd thought the enclosed area looked like a playground, but now, as the lights came up, I realized I was seeing something more like a jumping arena for horses crossed with a gymnastics arena - or a course for a dog agility competition for giant dogs.
Christine said, "You will change." Christine moved away to melt back into the crowd. Both candidates dropped to the ground, and the air around them began to shimmer and distort. Changing quickly at one's desire was a great source of pride among shifters. The two Weres achieved their change at nearly the same instant. Jackson Herveaux became a huge black wolf, like his son. Patrick Furnan was pale gray, broad in the chest, a bit shorter in length.
As the small crowd drew closer, hugging the velvet ropes, one of the biggest men I'd ever seen emerged from the darkest shadows to step into the arena. I recognized him as the man whom I'd last seen at Colonel Flood's funeral. At least six and half feet tall, today he was bare-chested and barefoot. He was impressively muscular, and his chest was as hairless as his head. He looked like a genie; he would have appeared quite natural with a sash and pantaloons. Instead, he was wearing aged blue jeans. His eyes were pits of pitch. Of course, he was a shape-shifter of some kind, but I could not imagine what he turned into.
"Whoa," breathed Claude.
"Hooboy," whispered Claudia.
"Wowzers," I muttered.
Standing between the contenders, the tall man led them to the start of the course.
"Once the test begins, no pack member can interrupt," he said, looking from one Were to the other.
"First contestant is Patrick, wolf of this pack," the tall man said. His bass voice was as dramatic as the distant rumble of drums.
I understood, then; he was the referee. "Patrick goes first, by coin flip," the tall man said.
Before I could think it was pretty funny that all this ceremony included a coin toss, the pale wolf was off, moving so fast that I could hardly keep track of him. He flew up a ramp, leaped three barrels, hit the ground on the far side at a dash, went up another ramp and through a ring hanging from the ceiling (which rocked violently after he was through it), and dropped down on the ground, crawling on all fours through a clear tunnel that was very narrow and twisted at intervals. It was like the one sold in pet stores for ferrets or gerbils, just bigger. Once out of the tunnel, the wolf, mouth open in a pant, came to a level area covered with Astroturf. Here, he paused and considered before putting out a foot. Every step was like that, as the wolf worked its way across the twenty yards or so of this particular area. Suddenly a section of Astroturf leaped up as a trap snapped shut, narrowly missing the wolf's hind leg. The wolf yipped in consternation, frozen in place. It must have been agonizing, trying to restrain himself from dashing for the safety of the platform that was now only a few feet away.
I was shivering, though this contest had little to do with me. The tension was clearly showing among the Weres. They didn't seem to be moving quite as humans did anymore. Even the overly made-up Mrs. Furnan had wide round eyes now, eyes that didn't look like a woman's even under all that makeup.
As the gray wolf took his final test, a leap from a dead stop that had to cover the length of perhaps two cars, a howl of triumph erupted from Patrick's mate's throat. The gray wolf stood safely on the platform. The referee checked a stopwatch in his hand.
"Second candidate," said the big man, "Jackson Herveaux, wolf of this pack." A brain close to me supplied me with the big man's name.
"Quinn," I whispered to Claudine. Her eyes opened wide. The name was significant to her in a way I could not guess.
Jackson Herveaux began the same test of skills that Patrick had already completed. He was more graceful going through the suspended hoop; it scarcely moved as he sailed through. He took a little longer, I thought, getting through the tunnel. He seemed to realize it, too, because he stepped into the trap field more hastily than I thought wise. He stopped dead, maybe coming to the same conclusion. He bent to use his nose more carefully. The information he got from this made him quiver all over. With exquisite care, the werewolf raised one black forepaw and moved it a fraction of an inch. We were holding our breath as he worked forward in a completely different style from his predecessor. Patrick Furnan had moved in big steps, with longish pauses in between for careful sniffing, a sort of hurry-up-and-wait style. Jackson Herveaux moved very steadily in small increments, his nose always busy, his movements cannily plotted. To my relief, Alcide's father made it across unharmed, without springing any of the traps.
The black wolf gathered himself for the final long leap and launched himself into the air with all his power. His landing was less than graceful, as his hind paws had to scrabble to cling to the edge of the landing site. But he made it, and a few congratulatory yips echoed through the empty space.
"Both candidates pass the agility test," Quinn said. His eyes roamed the crowd. When they passed over our odd trio - two tall black-haired twin fairies and a much shorter blond human - his gaze may have lingered a moment, but it was hard to say.
Christine was trying to get my attention. When she saw I was looking at her, she gave a tiny, sharp nod of her head to a spot by the test-of-endurance pen. Puzzled but obedient, I eased through the crowd. I didn't know the twins had followed me until they resumed standing to either side of me. There was something about this that Christine wanted me to see, to... Of course. She wanted me to use my talent here. She suspected... skulduggery. As Alcide and his blond counterpart took their places in the pen, I noticed they were both gloved. Their attention was totally absorbed by this contest; leaving nothing for me to sieve from that focus. That left the two wolves. I'd never tried to look inside the mind of a shifted person.
With considerable anxiety, I concentrated on opening myself to their thoughts. As you might expect, the blend of human and dog thought patterns was quite challenging. At first scan I could only pick up the same kind of focus, but then I detected a difference.
As Alcide lifted an eighteen-inch-long silver rod, my stomach felt cold and shivery. Watching the blond Were next to him repeat the gesture, I felt my lips draw back in distaste. The gloves were not totally necessary, because in human form, a Were's skin would not be damaged by the silver. In wolf form, silver was terribly painful.
Furnan's blond second ran his covered hands over the silver, as if testing the bar for hidden faults.
I had no idea why silver weakened vampires and burned them, and why it could be fatal to Weres, while it had no effect on fairies - who, however, could not bear prolonged exposure to iron. But I knew these things were true, and I knew the upcoming test would be awful to watch.
However, I was there to witness it. Something was going to happen that needed my attention. I turned my mind back to the little difference I'd read in Patrick's thoughts. In his Were form, these were so primitive they hardly qualified as "thoughts."
Quinn stood between the two seconds, his smooth scalp picking up a gleam of light. He had a timing watch in his hands.
"The candidates will take the silver now," he said, and with his gloved hands Alcide put the bar in his father's mouth. The black wolf clamped down and sat, just as the light gray wolf did with his silver bar. The two seconds drew back. A high whine of pain came from Jackson Herveaux, while Patrick Furnan showed no signs of stress other than heavy panting. As the delicate skin of his gums and lips began to smoke and smell a little, Jackson's whining became louder. Patrick's skin showed the same painful symptoms, but Patrick was silent.
"They're so brave," whispered Claude, watching with fascinated horror at the torment the two wolves were enduring. It was becoming apparent that the older wolf would not win this contest. The visible signs of pain were increasing every second, and though Alcide stood there focusing solely on his father to add his support, at any moment it would be over. Except...
"He's cheating," I said clearly, pointing at the gray wolf.
"No member of the pack may speak." Quinn's deep voice was not angry, merely matter-of-fact.
"I'm not a pack member."
"You challenge the contest?" Quinn was looking at me now. All the pack members who'd been standing close around me dropped back until I stood alone with the two fairies, who were looking down at me with some surprise and dismay.
"You bet your ass I do. Smell the gloves Patrick's second was wearing."
The blond second looked completely blindsided. And guilty.
"Drop the bars," Quinn commanded, and the two wolves complied, Jackson Herveaux with a whimper. Alcide dropped to his knees by his father, putting his arms around the older wolf.
Quinn, moving as smoothly as if his joints were oiled, knelt to retrieve the gloves that Patrick's second had tossed to the floor. Libby Furnan's hand darted over the velvet rope to snatch them up, but a deep snarl from Quinn told her to stop. It made my own spine tingle, and I was much farther away than Libby.
Quinn picked up the gloves and smelled them.
He looked down at Patrick Furnan with a contempt so heavy that I was surprised the wolf didn't crumple under its weight.
He turned to face the rest of the crowd. "The woman is right." Quinn's deep voice gave the words the gravity of stone. "There's a drug on the gloves. It made Furnan's skin numb when the silver was placed in his mouth, so he could last longer. I declare him loser of this part of the contest. The pack will have to decide whether he should forfeit any right to continue, and whether his second should still be a pack member." The fair-haired Were was cringing as if he expected someone to hit him. I didn't know why his punishment should be worse than Patrick's; maybe the lower your rank, the worse your punishment? Not exactly fair; but then, I wasn't a Were.
"The pack will vote," Christine called. She met my eyes and I knew this was why she wanted me here. "If the rest of you would step into the outer room?"
Quinn, Claude, Claudine, and three shape-shifters moved with me to the doors leading into the other room. There was more natural light there, which was a pleasure. Less of a pleasure was the curiosity that pooled around me. My shields were still down, and I felt the suspicion and conjecture flowing from the brains of my companions, except, of course, from the two fairies. To Claude and Claudine, my peculiarity was a rare gift, and I was a lucky woman.
"Come here," Quinn rumbled, and I thought about telling him to take his commands and shove them where the sun don't shine. But that would be childish, and I had nothing to fear. (At least that's what I told myself about seven times in rapid succession.) I made my spine stiffen, and I strode up to him and looked up into his face.
"You don't have to stick your jaw out like that," he said calmly. "I'm not going to hit you."
"I never thought you were," I said with a snap in my voice that I was proud of. I found that his round eyes were the very dark, rich, purple-brown of pansies. Wow, they were pretty! I smiled out of sheer pleasure... and a dollop of relief.
Unexpectedly, he smiled back. He had full lips, very even white teeth, and a sturdy column of a neck.
"How often do you have to shave?" I asked, fascinated with his smoothness.
He laughed from the belly.
"Are you scared of anything?" he asked.
"So many things," I said regretfully.
He considered that for a moment. "Do you have an extrasensitive sense of smell?"
"Do you know the blond one?"
"Never saw him before."
"Then how did you know?"
"Sookie is a telepath," Claude said. When he got the full weight of the big man's stare, he looked like he was sorry he'd interrupted. "My sister is her, ah, guardian," Claude concluded in a rush.
"Then you're doing a terrible job," Quinn told Claudine.
"Don't you get onto Claudine," I said indignantly. "Claudine's saved my life a bunch."
Quinn looked exasperated. "Fairies," he muttered. "The Weres aren't going to be happy about your piece of information," he told me. "At least half of them are going to wish you were dead. If your safety is Claudine's top priority, she should have held your mouth shut."
Claudine looked crushed.
"Hey," I said, "cut it out. I know you've got friends in there you're worried about, but don't take that out on Claudine. Or me," I added hastily, as his eyes fixed on mine.
"I have no friends in there. And I shave every morning," he said.
"Okay, then." I nodded, nonplussed.
"Or if I'm going out in the evening."
"To do something special."
What would Quinn consider special?
The doors opened, interrupting one of the strangest conversations I'd ever had.
"You can come back in," said a young Were in three-inch-high fuck-me shoes. She was wearing a burgundy sheath, and when we followed her back into the big room, she gave her walk some extra sway. I wondered whom she was trying to entrance, Quinn or Claude. Or maybe Claudine?
"This is our judgment," said Christine to Quinn. "We'll resume the contest where it ended. According to the vote, since Patrick cheated on the second test, he is declared the loser of that test. Of the agility test, too. However, he's allowed to stay in the running. But, to win, he has to win the last test decisively." I wasn't sure what "decisively" meant in this context. From Christine's face, I was certain it didn't bode well. For the first time, I realized that justice might not prevail.
Alcide looked very grim, when I found his face in the crowd. This judgment seemed clearly biased in favor of his father's opponent. I hadn't realized that there were more Weres in the Furnan camp than the Herveaux camp, and I wondered when that shift had occurred. The balance had seemed more even at the funeral.
Since I had already interfered, I felt free to interfere some more. I began wandering among the pack members, listening to their brains. Though the twisted and turned brains of all Weres and shifters are difficult to decipher, I began to pick up a clue here and there. The Furnans, I learned, had followed their plan of leaking stories about Jackson Herveaux's gambling habits, talking up how unreliable that made Jackson as a leader.
I knew from Alcide that the stories about his father's gambling were true. Though I didn't admire the Furnans for playing this card, I didn't consider it stacking the deck, either.
The two competitors were still in wolf form. If I had understood correctly, they had been scheduled to fight anyway. I was standing by Amanda. "What's changed about the last test?" I asked. The redhead whispered that now the fight was no longer a regular match, with the contestant left standing after five minutes declared the winner. Now, to win the fight "decisively," the loser had to be dead or disabled.
This was more than I'd bargained for, but I knew without asking that I couldn't leave.
The group gathered around a wire dome that reminded me irresistibly of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. You remember - "Two men enter, one man leaves." I guess this was the wolf equivalent. Quinn opened the door, and the two large wolves slunk in, casting their gazes from side to side as they counted their supporters. Or at least, that's what I guessed they were doing.
Quinn turned and beckoned to me.
Ah-oh. I frowned. The dark, purple-brown eyes were intent. The man meant business. I approached him reluctantly.
"Go read their minds again," he told me. He laid a huge hand on my shoulder. He turned me to face him, which brought me face-to-face - well, so to speak - with his dark brown nipples. Disconcerted, I looked up. "Listen, blondie, all you have to do is go in there and do your thing," he said reassuringly.
He couldn't have had this idea while the wolves were outside the cage? What if he shut the door on me? I looked over my shoulder at Claudine, who was frantically shaking her head.
"Why do I need to? What purpose will it serve?" I asked, not being a total idiot.
"Is he gonna cheat again?" Quinn asked so softly that I knew no one else could hear him. "Does Furnan have some means of cheating that I can't see?"
"Do you guarantee my safety?"
He met my eyes. "Yes," he said without hesitation. He opened the door to the cage. Though he had to stoop, he came in behind me.
The two wolves approached me cautiously. Their smell was strong; like dog, but muskier and wilder. Nervously, I laid my hand on Patrick Furnan's head. I looked in his head as hard as I could, and I could discern nothing but rage at me for costing him his win in the endurance contest. There was a glowing coal of purpose about the coming battle, which he intended to win by sheer ruthlessness.
I sighed, shook my head, moved my hand away. To be fair, I put my hand on Jackson's shoulders, which were so high I was startled all over. The wolf was literally vibrating, a faint shiver that made his fur quiver under my touch. His whole resolve was bent toward rending his rival limb from limb. But Jackson was afraid of the younger wolf.
"All clear," I said, and Quinn turned away to open the door. He crouched to step through, and I was about to follow him when the burgundy-sheathed girl shrieked. Moving faster than I thought such a large man could move, Quinn spun on his foot, grabbed my arm with one hand, and yanked with all his might. With his other hand he slammed shut the door, and I heard something crash against it.
The noises behind me told me the battle had already started, but I was pinned against a huge expanse of smooth tan skin.
With my ear to Quinn's chest, I could hear the rumble inside as well as outside as he asked, "Did he get you?"
I had my own shaking and quivering going on. My leg was wet, and I saw that my tights were ripped, and blood was running from an abrasion on the side of my right calf. Had my leg scraped the door when Quinn had shut it so quickly, or had I been bitten? Oh my God, if I'd been bitten...
Everyone else was pressed against the wire cage, watching the snarling, whirling wolves. Their spittle and blood flew in fine sprays, dotting the spectators. I glanced back to see Jackson's grip on Patrick's hind leg broken when Patrick bent himself backward to bite Jackson's muzzle. I caught a glimpse of Alcide's face, intent and anguished.
I didn't want to watch this. I would rather look at this stranger's hide than watch the two men killing each other.
"I'm bleeding," I told Quinn. "It's not bad."
A high yip from the cage suggested that one of the wolves had scored a hit. I cringed.
The big man half carried me over to the wall. That was a good distance from the fight. He helped me turn and sink down into a sitting position.
Quinn lowered himself to the floor, too. He was so graceful for someone so large that I was absorbed in just watching him move. He knelt by me to pull off my shoes, and then my tights, which were ripped to shreds and dabbled with blood. I was silent and shaking as he sank down to lie on his stomach. He gripped my knee and my ankle in his huge hands as if my leg were a large drumstick. Without saying a word, Quinn began to lick the blood from my calf. I was afraid this was preparatory to taking a bite, but Dr. Ludwig trotted over, looked down, and nodded. "You'll be fine," she said dismissively. After patting me on the head as if I were an injured dog, the tiny doctor trotted back to her attendants.
Meanwhile, though I would not have thought it was possible for me to be anything but on the knife-edge of suspense, the leg-licking thing was providing an entirely unexpected diversion. I shifted restlessly, stifling a gasp. Maybe I should remove my leg from Quinn's possession? Watching the gleaming bald head bob up and down as he licked was making me think of something worlds away from the life-and-death battle taking place across the room. Quinn was working more and more slowly, his tongue warm and a little rough as he cleaned my leg. Though his brain was the most opaque shifter brain I'd ever encountered, I got the idea he was having the same reaction that I was.
When he finished, he laid his head on my thigh. He was breathing heavily, and I was trying not to. His hands released their grip but stroked my leg deliberately. He looked up at me. His eyes had changed. They were golden, solid gold. The color filled his eyes. Whoa.
I guess he could tell from my face that I was, to put it mildly, conflicted about our little interlude.
"Not our time and place, babe," he said. "God, that was... great." He stretched, and it wasn't an outward extension of arms and chest, the way humans stretch. He rippled from the base of his spine to his shoulders. It was one of the oddest things I'd ever seen, and I'd seen a lot of odd things. "Do you know who I am?" he asked.
I nodded. "Quinn?" I said, feeling my cheeks color.
"I've heard your name is Sookie," he said, rising to his knees.
"Sookie Stackhouse," I said.
He put his hand under my chin so I'd look up at him. I stared into his eyes as hard as I could. He didn't blink.
"I wonder what you're seeing," he said finally, and removed his hand.
I glanced down at my leg. The mark on it, now clear of blood, was almost certainly a scrape from the metal of the door. "Not a bite," I said, my voice faltering on the last word. The tension left me in a rush.
"Nope. No she-wolf in your future," he agreed, and flowed to his feet. He held out his hand. I took it, and he had me on my feet in a second. A piercing yelp from the cage yanked me back into the here and now.
"Tell me something. Why the hell can't they just vote?" I asked him.
Quinn's round eyes, back to their purple-brown color and properly surrounded with white, crinkled at the corners with amusement.
"Not the way of the shifter, babe. You're going to see me later," Quinn promised. Without another word he strode back to the cage, and my little field trip was over. I had to turn my attention back to the truly important thing happening in this building.
Claudine and Claude were looking anxiously over their shoulders when I found them. They made a little space for me to ease in between them, and wrapped their arms around me when I was in place. They seemed very upset, and Claudine had two tears trailing down her cheeks. When I saw the situation in the cage, I understood why.
The lighter wolf was winning. The black wolf's coat was matted with blood. He was still on his feet, still snarling, but one of his hind legs was giving way under his weight from time to time. He managed to pull himself back up twice, but the third time the leg collapsed, the younger wolf was on him, the two spinning over and over in a terrifying blur of teeth, torn flesh, and fur.
Forgetting the silence rules, all the Weres were screaming their support of one contestant or the other, or just howling. The violence and the noise blended together to make a chaotic collage. I finally spotted Alcide pounding his hands against the metal in futile agitation. I had never felt so sorry for anyone in my life. I wondered if he'd try to break into the combat cage. But another look told me that even if Alcide's respect for pack rules broke down and he attempted to go to his father's aid, Quinn was blocking the door. That was why the pack had brought in an outsider, of course.
Abruptly, the fight was over. The lighter wolf had the darker one by the throat. He was gripping, but not biting. Maybe Jackson would have gone on struggling if he hadn't been so severely wounded, but his strength was exhausted. He lay whining, quite unable to defend himself, disabled. The room fell completely silent.
"Patrick Furnan is declared the winner," said Quinn, his voice neutral.
And then Patrick Furnan bit down on Jackson Herveaux's throat and killed him.
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