Rafael by Laurell K. Hamilton

1


            I WAS WORKING out in the weight room with Claudia, who was a more serious weightlifter than I would ever be, but she was teaching me how to trust my new supernatural strength. In the movies you become a vampire or a werewolf or whatever, and you just automatically know how it all works. In real life it wasn’t automatic, or at least it wasn’t for me. In all honesty, lifting some of the weights scared me, which meant I couldn’t lift them, because my mind convinced me it was impossible, which was why I’d started spending part of Saturday in the gym with Claudia. She was helping me work through my nerves and had patiently explained that a lot of people had the same issues when they first became shapeshifters. I wasn’t exactly a shapeshifter, but close enough. What were we talking about between lifting heavy objects? Men. You can take the human out of the girl, but you can’t take the girl out of the wererat, or something like that.

            “But Rafael is literally tall, dark, and handsome. His house is beautiful, and the pool is so nice I’m beginning to want one. He’s polite, well-spoken, a gentleman.”

            “All that is true,” Claudia said.

            “So why doesn’t he have more lady friends?”

            “Ask him,” she said, and lay down on the weight bench and started to wrap her dark hands around a truly frightening amount of weight. She was six feet, six inches tall and already had enough muscle visible around the sports bra and double shorts that I knew she could lift it. I’d seen her lift that much before, but it still sort of scared me for shoulder press. I’d owned cars that didn’t weigh as much as she was about to lift on the specially reinforced bar. If she were merely human and it fell on her neck, she’d have a crushed larynx and be dead before medical help could arrive. If it landed on her chest, I might be able to call for help before she suffocated from not being able to expand her chest enough to keep breathing, but I couldn’t lift it off her. I could not spot her at these weights. I’d pointed that out to her, and she’d replied with, “This is the weight I’d be doing if you weren’t here.” She had a point, so I let it go.

            I thought I lifted respectable weight for being five foot three and female, but trying to lift in the same room with Claudia always made me feel sort of puny; of course, the Hulk might feel kind of puny trying to keep up with her, so I guess I shouldn’t worry about it.

            She got the weight clear of the bar. Lowered it slowly and with perfect control. The only sign of strain was the way her muscles corded and the sound of her breath as she did a sharp exhale and pushed the bar upward again. I knew we were doing pyramid sets, so she’d be doing three to five reps on this last weight, but part of me just wanted her to put it back on the rack and be done. It wasn’t that I thought she couldn’t handle reps with it, I just wasn’t sure my nerves could handle watching her do it.

            She did five reps, her muscles working smoothly, showing no effort except for her breath being a little more serious at the end. She set the weight back in the rack, and I realized I’d been holding my breath, because it came out in a whoosh, as if I’d been the one lifting.

            She sat up and smiled at me. “You know I’m not in any danger when I lift. If I thought it was dangerous, I either wouldn’t do it, or I’d have someone in here to spot me.”

            “I know you’re very safety conscious in the gym, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to watching you and the other shapeshifters lift so much more than human-normal.”

            “You can lift more now, too,” she said, reaching for the towel she had to the side of the rack. It was just good manners to wipe off the bench after you were done.

            “Yeah, but not that kind of weight.”

            “You’re smaller than me.”

            I laughed. “Most of the male guards are smaller than you.”

            She smiled, a fierce baring of white teeth in the deep brown of her face. “Your turn,” she said with that smile that was fierce and happy at the same time, as if a panther could smile like a person, though that wasn’t her flavor of wereanimal, but somehow rat just didn’t convey the dangerous beauty of Claudia.

            She let me help her put most of her weights back on the weight racks because I insisted on helping, but it was a workout just to do that part. I let her help me put my weights on the bar because it was fair. “Just so you know, I wouldn’t lift this by myself without someone to spot me.”

            She gave that fierce smile again, with a small deep chuckle. I’d only recently learned Claudia was a throaty alto when she sang, and that she could sing. It had been worth going to karaoke just to hear her.