“We’re just friends with benefits,” I said.

Jason nodded, and sipped his coffee.

“Richard is your wolf king; is he making your life hard in the pack?”

Jason looked down.

“Talk to me,” I said.

“I’ll never be high in the pack hierarchy, Anita, but that’s because I’m more a lover than a fighter.” He grinned, trying to make a joke of it.

“Is Richard taking his feelings out on you?”

“Not really. I can fight enough to hold my own and not be picked on in the pack, but I’ll never be good enough to rise much, and honestly I don’t want to be in charge.”

“I know you’re more dominant than you let on, but that you truly don’t want to be in charge of the other werewolves,” I said.

“Not even a little bit,” he said, and took another sip of coffee.

“So, you’re all saying that Richard sees Nathaniel, Micah, and even Jason as not worthy to have won the fair maiden,” Envy said.

“Something like that,” I said.

“I don’t think it’s in the front of his head,” Nathaniel said, and squeezed my hand.

“How he feels about Nathaniel and me is,” Jason said. “We are literally further down in the structure of our animal groups, and he’s the Ulfric, the leader. Among the wolves, that means that anything he wants is pretty much his, and he knows that he could kick our asses, but here we sit, happier and more a part of Anita’s life than he is, and that is what he has trouble accepting.”

“But Micah is Nimir-Raj, leopard king, and the head of the Coalition, so he’s becoming like the leader for all the animal groups in town, and even across the country. Why does Richard have an issue with him?”

“Because Micah is five-three and Richard is six-one,” Jason said.

“What?” Envy asked.

“You know how most women walk into a room and assess the beauty in the room to see where they rate, and who might give them a run for their money?” Jason asked.

“Sure,” Envy said.

“A lot of men do the same thing, but they’re not looking at who’s better-looking, they’re assessing threats, physical potential.”

Envy gave him wide eyes.

“No, really, they do,” I said.

“I don’t,” Nathaniel said.

“Me, either, but that’s because we both know that we are not the biggest, baddest man in the room most of the time. We both made peace with that reality years ago,” Jason said.

“So you’re saying that Richard looks at Micah and thinks he can take him in a fight, so Micah shouldn’t be winning Anita either.”

“It’s more than that. If it was a fight with referees, Richard would win; I think Micah would concede that,” Jason said.

Nathaniel and I nodded.

“But if the fight was for real, for dominance of an animal group, Micah would win,” Jason said.

“But wait, how?”

“He’d kill Richard,” I said.

Envy looked at me. “Because he sees Richard as a rival for you?”

“No, Micah kills for the same reason I do in a fight, because we’re too small not to. If we weren’t willing to be more ruthless than a bigger opponent, then we’d both have died years ago.”

“Are you serious?” she asked.

“Absolutely,” I said.

“He hates Micah the most, because Richard knows he should be able to win the fight, and at some level he knows he wouldn’t,” Jason said.

“Why wouldn’t he?” she asked.

“Because Richard would hesitate going for the kill,” I said.

“But if Micah killed Richard, wouldn’t you be upset? Wouldn’t you blame Micah?”

“You mean if Richard pushed it and Micah finished it, would it mess up our relationship?”

“Yes.”

“It would be hard, but I’d understand why Micah did it.”

“I don’t love Richard, but if Micah killed him, I’d have a hard time getting over it.”

“One of the reasons Richard isn’t my main lover is that he didn’t approve of me being willing to kill to prove my point. He wanted there to be a more civilized way to handle things.”

“Anita and Micah are almost equally ruthless,” Nathaniel said.

“You’re saying they both kill more easily than Richard.”

“Oh, hell yes,” he said.

“But you’re in love with Micah and Anita.”

“I am.”

“How can you say they’re both ruthless, if you love them?”

“Maybe part of what I love is their ruthlessness.”

“That’s just fucked up,” she said.

“Insulting us is not going to win you points,” I said.

“Sorry, but I just don’t understand. How do you really feel about loving people because they’re ruthless?”

“Safer,” Nathaniel said.

I squeezed his hand and we exchanged one of those loving looks. The fact that we did it while talking about the fact that we were willing to kill to defend the people we loved was just part of our special little snowflake of a love.

“The weretigers fight among themselves, but we don’t kill each other for dominance,” she said.

“You’re gold clan, which means there were never enough of you to risk death. You weren’t allowed to kill each other over dominance,” I said.

“There still aren’t enough of us to just kill each other over stupid things like this.”

“But there are lots of werewolves, and wereleopards,” Jason said.

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“It’s a difference in culture between the animal groups. Tigers are matriarchal, which means the leaders don’t fight and kill each other to lead; they have champions for that, or enough psychic powers to just overpower everyone in the clan,” I said.

“Leopards don’t kill each other as much as the wolves do,” Nathaniel said.

“So why does Micah kill so easily when he’s a wereleopard?” she asked.

“Because Micah came up through a mixed animal group that was run like lions, wolves, and hyenas, which are three of the most violent subcultures we have,” Jason said.

I looked at him. “You’ve talked to Micah about this, haven’t you?”

“Here’s this new guy in town who’s an inch shorter than me and is everyone’s dominant leader. I wanted to know how he did it.”

“So you could do it, too?” I asked.

He shrugged, grinned, and then it faded to a smile, his eyes not exactly happy. “I don’t want it bad enough to do what Micah and you do. I acknowledged that, and moved on.”

“One of the few reasons that we would kill one of our own was if they picked a fight and killed another golden tiger,” Envy said.

“The wolves allow you to tap out of a fight before you get killed, but it’s up to the winner to grant mercy or take your life,” Jason said.

“How have you survived?” Envy asked.

“Most people in our pack like me.”

“So they don’t want to hurt you,” she said.

“And I’m not high enough in the pack structure, so fighting me won’t gain them anything.”

“And when death is a possibility, there has to be something to gain,” she said.

“Yes, or you have to hate someone enough to risk it.”

She shivered. “God, that is barbaric.”

“Richard prefers fights to be less than lethal, and if he thinks that you killed when you didn’t have to, you get punished, so it’s a softer pack structure than some,” Jason said.

What he didn’t say out loud was that I was the pack’s Bolverk, the doer of evil deeds. I was Richard’s punisher, his threat to bad little werewolves; in effect, I enabled him to keep his conscience and hands cleaner. I hadn’t taken the job to help Richard. I’d taken it to keep my friends like Jason, and others, safe from the other wolves, and from out-of-town werewolves trying to move in on our local pack, because Richard’s reputation was too soft.

Now it wasn’t a problem. Micah’s reputation and mine combined meant that animal groups that wanted to try to take over other cities stayed the fuck away from St. Louis. There were easier ways to die than coming here, and no, I didn’t feel bad about that. I’d seen too many people die because of territorial disputes between animal groups, or even vampires. We’d put a big sign over our territory saying, Nothing here is worth dying over, but if you insist, we will fucking kill you.

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