Primal Touch by Amber

primal touch

Primal Touch
by Amber

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

-‘The Tyger’ by William Blake.
Part 1

Jagged shadows twisted wraithlike through the jungle undergrowth, flickering between the trees and grasses, forming a body for a pair of ice-blue eyes that shone with feral intensity in the darkness. She moved soundlessly along invisible trails, leaving not a trace of passage in the moist earth, avoiding twigs and surface roots with uncanny ease. From time to time she would pause to sniff the heavy air, and shafts of sunlight would reflect off bone-white teeth as her lips pulled back in a slight snarl, the rumbling purr that followed almost subliminal in depth.

She had stalked her prey for many hours now, and the stress was starting to wear on aching muscles. She would need to strike soon, before she tired, but she had learned a long time ago the merits of caution and patience. Prowling carefully around a shallow gully, her body held close to the ground, she listened to the unaccustomed sounds of the three men who had foolishly wandered into her hunting grounds.

David Tow swatted fiercely at a fly and scowled at his companions. “How much further? We’ve been walking for hours.”

The man in the lead glanced back and smirked, enjoying his partners irritation. “Whatsa matter, Dave? A few insects too much for ya?”

“Damn straight! I can’t breath in this place without swallowing a bloody bug!”

“Be another hour at least till we reach Corbin’s camp,” said the leader. “And that’s if he hasn’t moved on.”

“Moved on?” The third hunter, a short, wiry man with asian features, wiped his sweating brow angrily. “What d’ya mean, ‘moved on’ Jaz? He knows we’re comin’, right? Why would he clear out?”

Jaz shrugged with a wry grin. “Jack Corbin don’t like to wait around. If he finds a trail, he’s gonna take after it whether we’re there or not. So pick yer feet up boys, and hope we ain’t too late.”

Grumbling, the two men followed dejectedly in silence for long minutes. Dave eyed the jungle nervously, hearing the strange, alien cries of unseen animals. The dense foliage was constantly in motion all around, giving the eerie impression that invisible creatures lurked behind every shadow. “This place gives me the creeps, Tae,” Dave muttered to the asian man.

Tae shrugged, unconcerned. “You never hunted India before, huh?”

“Nope, mostly in Africa…you know, elephants and stuff. Bigger game, bigger target. It’s a lot more open than this…you can see what’s coming.”

Tae grinned. “Hunting tigers and leopards ain’t like that,” he said. “You just gotta be real careful, and hope they don’t find you before you find them.”

Dave shivered a little and clutched his rifle tighter, his eyes wide as they scanned the mysterious jungle undergrowth. “I got a bad feeling about this gig,” he said in a loud whisper. “I been hearing things ‘bout India the last few years.”

“Me, too.” Tae’s expression hardened. “But I’m not letting a few rumors and ghost-stories keep me from hunting that white gold that’s out here.”

“Damn straight,” Jaz put in, dropping back to listen to the conversation. “You know how much we stand to make from this hunt, Dave? Hell, it’s spicy enough we got Jack involved, and he don’t waste his time on bullshit!” He grinned wolfishly. “When we walk out this jungle, we’re gonna be rich men.”

“That’s if we walk outta here, Jaz,” Dave said ominously. “From what I heard, lotta guys like us aren’t gettin’ to be that lucky.” He slapped at another flying insect, feeling sweat trickle down his spine. “You hear about that team came out here three years back? Right in this same park, too, and huntin’ the same damn thing as what we are.”

Tae’s face grew very still and he nodded. “I heard the bodies were so ripped apart the rangers didn’t even know for sure if they were human. Had to get some medical guy out from Delhi just to figure out all the parts.”

“Bah!” Jaz waved his hand dismisively. “Amateurs! So they made a mistake and got shredded for it, big deal! All I know is, there’s a helluva good chance there’s a white tiger out here, and I want a piece of it. If you babies want to back out, go ahead. But remember…a chance like this only comes along once in a dozen lifetimes.” So saying, the tall hunter stalked off, taking the forward position and eventually vanishing into the thick undergrowth.

Tae and Dave exchanged glances, then sighed. “He’s right,” Tae said after a moment. “Poaching’s a dangerous game anyway you cut it. This is too good an opportunity to pass up.”

“Yeah, I guess. Still…” Dave pulled the butt of his rifle into his shoulder. “I’m not letting some freaky tiger-ghost take me out.”

“That’s the spirit.” Tae grinned and slapped his companion heartily on the back. “Now, you guard the rear, and I’ll run the flanks, okay?”

Dave nodded. “Be careful,” he warned. “There’re rangers out here too, don’t forget.”

“I won’t.” The short asian man waved and then disappeared off the practically non-existent trail, leaving Dave alone.

Dave nervously eyed the jungle, remembering some of the horror stories he’d heard before coming here. India wasn’t the same hunting ground it had once been, he lamented. Since the government had implemented the so-called “Project Tiger” back in ’72, things had started getting tougher, but in more recent years, they had gotten worse still. The Chinese were now almost militant about clamping down on poaching, and were urging their neighbors to do the same. Only the lure of hunting the great white tiger had called Dave away from Africa…and he could only hope the wild rumors of mysterious jungle terrors – the so-called ‘Indian Menace’ – were nothing more than exaggerations intended to scare away the gullible. Patting his rifle reassuringly, the poacher smiled weakly.

“Ya won’t be sneakin’ up on me, whatever you ar-”

It happened so suddenly Dave didn’t even have time to squeak. A tremendous force crashed into him from behind, knocking him to the forest floor and pinning him down. Dave struggled, winded from the impact, trying to flip himself over and call a warning even as the adrenaline surged through his blood. He felt a large warm body pressing him down, smelled the strong animal musk of sweat and death, then something crushed his head into the moist earth and stars flashed behind his eyes as his air supply was suddenly cut off. His hands scrabbled desperately for a weapon, but he’d lost his rifle in the fall. He tried to yell, then felt something burn across his shoulder. Panic engulfed him and his struggles grew more frantic as the burning turned to searing agony.

Something was clawing at his back and shoulders!

With a supreme effort, Dave managed to turn his head a fraction…just enough to dimly make out the light-orange stripped with shadowy dark lines that colored his attacker. Before he could draw breath to scream, however, something sharp pressed into his throat and tore upward. Dave managed a strangled croak, which turned into a shallow gurgle as his vision dimmed, then faded into black.

“Dave?”

Ice-blue eyes framed by darkness and death snapped up at the sound of someone crashing through the jungle. A low growl rumbled from somewhere deep in a coarse throat as the slight asian man appeared, his rifle shouldered. Hazel eyes widened as he came to a sudden stop.

Sharp teeth bared as she rose from her kill, turning malevolently intelligent eyes on the stunned man.

“Dear God!”

The rifle dropped as Tae stared, too stunned to move. Only when he heard the terrifying growl and saw the strange, striped form bearing down on him with unbelievable speed did he think to pull frantically at the trigger.

The gunshot startled the birds in the canopy above, its sharp report echoed by quickly-silenced screams.

***

“Jesus Christ!”

Ashley Richards covered her mouth, her emerald eyes wide as she stared at the two mauled bodies laying on the forest floor. Grady Neilson, her friend and partner, offered a comforting pat on the back and tried to urge her focus away from the grisly scene. Ashley shook his hand away and took a step closer, sparring a quick glance behind her to where Simon Reynolds was comforting his shocked assistant, before turning back to study their bloody discovery.

The man’s body lay face down on the forest floor, his rifle a few feet away. Great tears in the back of his shirt revealed a series of deep, bloody scratches. From the amount of blood soaking the earth around his neck, it was obvious the man’s throat had been torn out, and the churned dirt around him gave testimony to his desperate struggles before death. A second body lay nearby, similarly mauled.

Ashley studied the two bodies with dread curiousity. “What the hell happened here?” she pondered aloud.

Grady watched the young woman who had been his friend and workmate for over three years as she inspected the carnage, marveling not for the first time how Ashley never seemed to loose her composure. Her features were pale, but unafraid as she knealt to get a better view. As soon as Grady saw the young woman’s hands unconsciously start to pull the camera hanging around her neck up to eye-level, he cleared his throat. Ashley glanced back.

“Hmmm?”

He lifted an eyebrow meaningfully at the camera and shook his head. Ashley blushed.

“Oh…right.” She gave her hands a stern, slightly puzzled look, and silently ordered them to behave.

Grady hid a smile. No matter what the circumstances, if something interesting or new came along, Ashley’s first response was always to take a picture. He’d seen the young woman standing in the path of an elephant stampede, clicking away happily, completely oblivious to any peril. It was the type of fearlessness, coupled with an innate and insatiable curiousity, that made Ash such a difficult yet colorful friend to have around.

It was also what made her one of the best wildlife photographers in the business.

They’d been in India now for eight weeks, and had been about to wrap up their assignment when rumours filtered down from the parks department about a white tiger that had been sighted in the Bandhavgarh National Park. Unwilling to pass up such a remarkable opportunity, Ashley had used her considerable charm to convince a reluctant Grady to delay their return to the United States. Joining Simon and his assistant, Grace – two scientists who were tagging and monitoring the tiger populations in the area – the group had set out into the jungle, accompanied by their native guide and tracker, Tarun. No sooner had base camp been established than the sound of a gunshot echoed from the forest depths, and Tarun quickly rushed to invesitgate. Though he warned the group to remain at camp, Ashley had insisted on going with him, and the others had joined her, their curiousity piqued.

None of them had expected the carnage they found.

Ashley looked up from her study of the first dead man as Tarun appeared from the undergrowth. The Indian guide was a tall, muscular man prone to wearing open-necked shirts and cargo pants. Ashley raised a blonde eyebrow questioningly at his dark expression.

“There’s another one down the track,” Tarun reported calmly in his heavy Hindi accent. “Looks like he tried to make a run for it. Made it about thirty feet before he got taken down.” Hands on his hips, Tarun scowled at the torn bodies, then at the ground around them.

“What killed them?” asked Grady, the slight quaver in his voice giving lie to his outward calm.

“A tiger?” Ashley supposed.

Tarun shook his head. “Tigers don’t kill like this,” he said knowingly, “and they usually avoid humans.”

“Looks like a big cat of some kind. I mean…look at those claw marks.” Ashley pointed. “What else could it be?”

“Tigers don’t slit their prey’s throat,” Tarun argued, “Not so cleanly. And they leave tracks. Whatever did this didn’t leave any trace behind.” He shook his head, clearly more upset by the lack of tracks than by the bodies themselves.

“What should we do?” asked Simon timidly. The premeturely balding, middle-aged zoologist looked at the bloody remains for a second, then hastily averted his gaze. “W-we can’t just leave them here, can we?”

“No.” Tarun sighed. “Ashley, could you and Grady go find some good-sized branches? I’ll get the rope from the packs and we can make a set of litters. We’ll drag them back to camp, call the rangers, and get them to come deal with this.”

Ashley frowned. “Are you sure we should move them? I mean, won’t someone want to…you know…investigate the scene of the crime? Look for evidence?”

Tarun gestured to the ground. “No-one will find anything here,” he said angrily. “There is no evidence, no tracks, and I doubt the rangers or the police will waste much time on this at all. They’ve got better things to do with their time.”

“What do you mean?” asked Grady.

“Look at these guys.” Tarun pointed to the rifle one man still clutched pathetically in his bloody hand. “What do you think they were doing out here with guns like that? They’re poachers! Probably here to kill the same tiger you people came for!” He shook his head and spat angrily on the ground. “We take them back to camp and turn them over to the authorities. Where it goes from there is none of our business.”

Ashley glared at the dark man for long moments, and it looked to Grady as though she planned to take further issue with him. Then, she smiled a little coldly and said, “Fine,” grabbed Grady by the arm, and pulled him away to look for suitably strong branches to make a litter.

Nearly five hours later, Ashley watched from her fallen log seat as Tarun shook hands with a uniformed ranger and exchanged a few quiet words of thanks. It had taken over two hours to drag the bodies back to their base, even with all five of them putting in an effort, and a quick radio call had allerted the proper authorities who had immediately sent out a jeep team to relieve them of their charges. Though Ashley didn’t speak Hindi, from the tone of the conversation shared by Tarun and the head ranger, it seemed the uniformed man wanted to deal with everything as quickly and quietly as possible. As their visitors left, Tarun strode over to the others and took his seat beside the small campfire they’d lit as the sun disappeared, offering them a grim smile.

“Well, that’s that,” he said simply.

Ashley glared at him a little, her emerald eyes not a little sharper than usual. “So they’ll look into it, right?”

Tarun shrugged. “Maybe. But like I said, a couple of poachers won’t warrant much interest.” He paused a long time, then added ominously, “Besides…they know they won’t find anything. From what that guy told me, they’ve been seeing this sort of thing a lot the past few years.”

Grady leaned closer. “What sort of thing?”

“Poachers turning up dead in the jungle, ripped to pieces.” Tarun pulled a toothpick from his pocket and chewed it thoughtfully. The look on his face was the same one Ashley remembered seeing her father wear when he told ghost stories during family camping trips. “Not just here, either. Up in the Himalayan mountains, and on the grasslands…something hunting them down, then disappearing. It leaves no trace except the dead.”

Grace’s eyes were wide as saucers as she stared at him in terror. “Wh-what is it?”

Tarun shrugged and sighed dramatically. “No-one can tell for sure. But some of the more superstitious elders are spreading rumours about a spirit at work.” He eyed his attentive audience. “They say the goddess Durga has sent the great tiger she rides down here to protect its children.”

Ashley snorted. “You don’t believe that, do you?”

He smiled a little, then shook his head. Though she was at times infuriating, Tarun had to admit that in the few days he’d known her, the young blonde had proven more impressive than her slight, elfin features suggested. “Whatever killed those men was flesh and blood,” he said quietly. “I don’t know what it was…but I’ve seen tiger attacks, and that wasn’t like any tiger attack I’ve ever heard of.”

Simon cleared his throat. “Could it have been…” He hesitated. “Well…could it have been a man?”

“Human’s leave more tracks than any cat.” Tarun fixed each member of the group with a hard stare, finally settling his gaze on Ashley. “I think it would be for the best if we take extra care when we go out there. I’d like the chance to spend my commission.”

Each of them nodded sincerely, even Ashley. Tarun smiled.

“Good.” He clapped his hands and stood up. “Anyone hungry? I know I am after all the excitement.”

Somewhat unenthusiastic murmers of agreement met his change of subject; everyone still felt a little quesy with the memory of the slashed bodies so fresh in their minds. As Grady helped Tarun with the supplies, Ashley felt the hairs at the nape of her neck prickle, and she repressed a shiver. Glancing over her shoulder into the dark, the photographer frowned thoughtfully a moment, then turned back to the fire.

She had the eerie sensation that someone – or something – was watching her.

***

Perched in the branches of a giant tree, she watched the nearby campfire illuminate the faces of the group below. These people were not here to hunt, she could tell…but she meant to keep an eye on them nonetheless. As she looked on, her eyes slightly narrowed at the obvious spirit of comraderie displayed by the group, she found her attention settling more and more on the shorter of the two women. Something about the blonde stranger fascinated her. Called by a rare curiousity she couldn’t explain, the dark figure abandoned her lofty post and crept slowly closer to the camp, nostrils twitching at the dimly-remembered scents of civilisation. Eventually she settled down in the thick undergrowth, perfectly camoflagued in the firelight by the dark stripes across her form. Her shimmering blue eyes held an expression of almost fascination as she watched the blonde woman pick at her food.

The woman was small of frame, almost elfin, yet even her simple movements bespoke a natural grace and strength. Her features were beautiful, but not uncommonly so…still, the flash of her smile when one of her companions said something funny lit up her face and made her stand out from the others. Merriment and life sparkled in her eyes that were the same shade of green as the jungle foliage. There was something strange about the woman…something unusual. For the first time in many years, the watcher felt an uncommon tingle of interest grip her, making her want to move closer to the strange blonde.

For over an hour, she lay hidden in the shadows, body pressed against the dewy earth, watching, unable to tear herself away from the clearing. She knew she needed to leave, knew she would need to hunt soon if she wanted to eat that night…but she couldn’t convince her limbs to move. Even when the various people in the camp bid one another goodnight and retired to their individual tents, she couldn’t shake away the strangers lure. For another hour she lay there in silence, frozen, wresting against this insane desire to actually enter the camp and see the woman again. Eventually, realizing she wasn’t going to get anywhere if she didn’t satisfy this interest and move on, the dark figure rose and prowled forward, leaving the shadows behind.

Wary, alert, ready to bolt at the least sound or scent out of place, she ventured slowly towards the small dome tent the blonde had disappeared into. Pausing outside, she sniffed the air cautiously, uncertain whether to proceed or retreat. After a minute, unable to resist, she pushed her head through the gap in the tent and stepped inside.

It was dark in the tent, but years of hunting at night allowed her to make out the softly snoring form wrapped in a sleeping bag. Head cocked to the side, she moved closer…only barely resisting the urge to brush aside a lock of honey-colored hair that obscured her view. The stranger looked peaceful in slumber, her lips bowed slightly as though smiling at a pleasant dream. The dark figure bent forward, memorising the scent of the blonde woman, mesmerized, unable to prevent the low, rumbling purr that rose from deep in her belly. So caught up was she in watching the sleeping woman, it took her several seconds to acknowledge when the pale lashes flickered and parted, revealing fuzzy verdant eyes that quickly widened.

The flurry of movement startled her as the wakened blonde surged backwards, tangled in the sleeping bag, frantic to escape. A heartbeat later, the still night was shattered by a piercing scream. Stunned, the dark figure stood frozen for a long moment,
ice-blue eyes locked with emerald green, both breathing hard in shock. Then, the sound of alarm came from the other tents in the camp, and she scolded herself for ever doing this. Before the dazed blonde could draw breath for another scream, the shadowy figure whirled around and fled, disappearing instantly back into the jungle.

Ashley struggled to regain control of her rapidly beating heart, still trying to get her mind caught up with what was going on. The strange creature was gone, and she stared wide-eyed at the tent doorway, shaking a little, her breath coming in hard gasps. A moment later, Grady and Tarun appeared, the native guide holding a rifle and searching everywhere for a target.

“What happened!?!” Grady demanded, moving forward to comfort his partner, wondering where the danger was.

“I saw it!”

“What? What did you see?” Tarun stood guard at the doorway, now scanning the jungle.

Ashley stammered, confused. “I-I don’t…really know.” Her eyes narrowed as she tried to remember exactly what she’d seen in the indistinct light. “I-it had blue eyes…and stripes…”

“A tiger?” Tarun eyed her nervously, wondering. “Are you saying a tiger was in the camp?”

Ashley shook her head. “No, it wasn’t a tiger, it…Well…it looked almost…human.”

“What?”

“I’m not sure.” Ashley shrugged helplessly, recovering her nerves quickly now that the intruder was gone. “I couldn’t see it very well. But…it stood upright like a human. And…its eyes were human.” She put a hand to her forhead, wishing she’d gotten a better look. “I’m sorry. I just woke up and it was there, right in front of me.” She chuckled shortly at herself, willing herself to calm down. “It scared the shit out of me.”

“Hey, it’s okay. You’re safe now.” Grady gave her a quick hug and a reassuring pat on the shoulder. Tarun was shining a small flashlight at the ground outside the tent, then off into the jungle. He scowled.

“There’re no tracks,” he reported.

Ashley eyed him sternly, instantly on the defensive. “Are you saying I imagined it?”

“No…I’m saying that what you saw was probably the same thing that killed those men.”

“Oh…sorry.”

He smiled at her. “That’s okay.”

“Why’d it come here?” asked Simon nervously. The timid man looked somewhat ridiculous standing there in his flannel pijamas, but Ashley restrained the urge to giggle at him.

Tarun shouldered his rifle and glared at the jungle. “Maybe it was curious about us,” he guessed. “Perhaps it wanted to get a closer look.”

“Maybe.” Ashley gave her friends a shy smile. “Um…I’m sorry I woke you all.”

“Don’t mention it.” Grady grinned at his partner. “You look pretty shook up. Sure you don’t want some company for the night,” he offered. “I’ll be a gentleman.”

“Hah!” Ashley punched him softly on the arm. “I’ll be fine. Whatever it was, I think I scared it as much as it scared me.” Her eyes softened. “But thanks for the offer.”

“Okay. You call if you need anything.”

“I will.

Grady and the others trailed back to their own tents, leaving Ashley to herself. She could hear them whispering among themselves and smiled a bit sheepishly. It had been a long time since she’d been that frightened, she realised. The shock of waking up to those piercing blue eyes was still making her body tremble a little. Acknowledging that she was so keyed up right now that the prospect of sleep was gone for at least a few hours, Ashley lit a kerosene lamp and reached for the pile of books that lay next to her backpack. Grabbing one, she flicked it open and began to read about the great cats she was here to shoot.

Not so far away, a dark, striped figure used sharp claws to pull itself up into a tree. Settling down, still breathing a little hard from the encounter, the figure rested long moments in silence, still wrestling with the desire to return and see again those mesmerising eyes that seemed to call her to them with a song stronger than any she’d heard before.

***

The next morning, Ashley slept in a little after finally drifting off early in the morning, her eyes strained from lying awake reading by lamplight. By the time she emerged from her tent, tousled and blinking against the light, the rest of the group had been up and about for over an hour. She joined the others around the cold ashes of the fire, noticing Tarun was absent…probably off checking for signs of their midnight intruder.

“Sleep okay?” Grady inquired as she sat beside him, his sincerity ruined only by the amusement in his eyes. Ashley was usually the one who had to come kick him in the ribs to get him moving in the morning. The blonde scowled.

“Fine…from about three o’clock onwards. After that…thing…woke me up, I had so much adrenaline in me I could have run a marathon. I stayed up and did a bit of reading.”

“Mmm, I saw the light. I’m afraid the coffee’s cold, but I saved you some breakfast.” He handed her a bowl of porridge, and she rewarded his consideration with a charming smile.

“Thanks.” She eagerly spooned the sweet oats into her mouth, humming a little as the suger on them helped kick-start her recalcitrant body. “We gonna get the hide set up today?”

Grady nodded. “Yep. Tarun already found us a good spot down by the river. Said there were some good tracks and markings there, so you should get some good shots if you’re lucky. Then, once we’ve got you all set up, I was thinking I’d head over to the east ridge.” He gestured with a stick towards a ridge of rocky, trecherous-looking mountain that rose from the plains some distance away. “The view should be terrific.”

“Great…maybe I’ll come with you.”

“Sure, if you’d like.”

Grady and Ashley made a good team, and the magazine they worked for had taken advantage of their dynamic by making a point of sending them out together as often as possible. Ashley had an innate talent for photographing wildlife, impressing her peers with a seemingly endless supply of breathtaking shots that made others in the field jealous of both her talent and good fortune. She was always ready when an opportunity presented itself; even now, first thing in the morning, her camera was strapped around her neck, ready to go. Grady, on the other hand, was a scenic photographer, and he never failed to find the beauty and majesty in whatever landscape he was presented with. Together, they had become two of the most renowned nature photographers in America, their styles complementing each other and earning them both a string of interesting and ever-more challenging assignments in the past few years.

Grady enjoyed working with the vibrant, twenty-six year old photographer…although in the last twelve months or so he had begun to notice that more and more of their assignments sent them into potentially dangerous regions of the world. He had heard that Ashley was impressing her superiors with her work on dangerous wildlife…and he had seen her take increasingly greater risks to capture the perfect images that earned her a reputation for fearlessness and tenacity. Grady knew there was no point trying to talk Ashley into playing it a little safer…the young blonde seemed completely immune to any sense of how dangerous her work truly was, her focus at times blinding her to any peril. Grady could only shake his head in wonder, and pray she didn’t run out of luck.

Ashley finished her breakfast and turned her attention to Simon and Grace. “Will you guys be staying with me in the hide?”

Simon nodded. “We’ll let you get your shots, then we’ll tranq the tiger and tag it. It’s pretty routine stuff.” Simon was completing a research paper on the population of the Bengal tiger in the National Park, monitoring their movements and habits. “If we can provide evidence to back up the reports of a white tiger, we’ll probably call in a team to come out and collect it.” He shook his head a little ruefully. “The zoos’ll go crazy if we find it.”

“Mmm.” Ashley had done a fair bit of research, and knew the potential benefits that could be derived from the discovery of a white tiger in the wild. In the last hundred years, only a dozen or so white tigers had ever been reported in the wild, and with the rapid decline in the population of Bengal tigers – the only species to produce the white strain – that number was likely to drop a good deal further very quickly. The few specimens in captivity in the United States all owed their ancestry back to Mohan, a white male who had been captured by a Maharaja back in 1951, and who had then been mated with his daughter to produce more white tiger cubs. This inbreeding was the only way of securing the color-strain…unless another tiger could be captured who had the double recessive allele that produced the white pigmentation. That meant that the possibility of genetic defects, miscarrages, and early death rose with every new generation.

Ashley recalled the pictures she’d seen of white tigers, taken from captive specimens in the National Zoo in Washington D.C. The feline eyes that would normally be a tawny gold were instead a clear, piercing blue, and the chocolate-colored stripes had patterned a snow-white coat. The young blonde shivered a little in anticipation. If she could bring home photos of a white tiger from the wild…well, her already impressive reputation would soar. Not to mention the sheer challenge of such an endevour. It was an opportunity few ever saw, and Ashley didn’t intend to screw it up.

“Well…” Ashley slapped her thighs and stood up. “Sitting around here won’t get the hide built. Grady, why don’t you get the gear and meet me down by the river. I’ll go wash these up.” She scooped up the dirty dishes.

“Fine. Simon, could you give us a hand with the heavy stuff.”

“Um…sure.”

Leaving the others to get the aluminum poles and camoflague netting that made up their traveling hide, Ashley made her way down to the river with the dishes. They had set up camp some distance from the water source, not wanting to impact on the wildlife by scaring them away from their drinking spot, and the hike served to wake Ashley more thouroughly. By the time she reached the edge of the sluggish river, she was sweating lightly in the humid heat but feeling quite happy. Ashley liked the jungle, and the Bandhavgarh National Park was one of the nicest she had ever traveled too. Set among the Vindhayas, in Madhya Pradesh, the park was small of size but boasted the highest known density of tiger population in all of India…and was furthermore known as White Tiger Territory.

Of course, tigers weren’t the only thing worthy of note out here. There was so much to see in any direction…insects of every type and birds of every color. It was never truly quiet here, the jungle creatures constantly communicating in their mysterious ways. This was Ashley’s first trip to India, and what she had seen was enough to make her want to plan a return visit. While she didn’t much care for the crowded cities – she had never liked the feeling of being crushed against so many other people – the more rural areas were fascinating. There was a general atmosphere of respect for the animals of the land that was rare in most developed countries. Ashley had seen monkeys, peacocks, and even the deadly cobra living in apparent harmony with the people, who, rather than try to drive them away, tolerated and even payed tribute to their company. In one of the larger towns, Ashley had seen street performers dressed up like monkeys mimicking the actions of the miscievous creatures, and had been told by a tourist that the performers were paying homage to Haruman, one of the Hindu gods.

As someone who had always loved animals, and who now made a living from photographing them, Ashley could appreciate the kind of relationship the people of India had with their native wildlife. Outside of tribal cultures, it was rare to find such deification. Wandering along the course of the river now, Ashley paused to listen to the distant singing of a group of gibons, then started looking around for a safe place to wash the empty bowls.

Rounding a corner of the river, Ashley stopped suddenly and gasped. Before her, his back turned to her, stood a large, red-haired man apparently in the act of relieving himself against the trunk of a slender tree. He glanced back at the sound of her gasp, his eyes widening. Ashley stood frozen, her surprised mind taking several moments to piece together the man’s army-surplus clothing, rugged features, and the menacing-looking hunting rifle leaned against the tree. It suddenly occurred to her that this was another poacher…and that, furthermore, he probably wouldn’t want anyone knowing he was here. Unfortunately, by the time she’d processed that thought and started to turn around to run away, the man had zipped himself up and grabbed for his gun.

Ashley backed away, slowly putting down the dirty dishes and raising her hands cautiously. “Please…don’t hurt me.” She judged her chances of escape, not liking the odds. “I-I promise I won’t tell anyone you’re here.”

The man shook his head regretfully. “Sorry lady,” he said gruffly. “Can’t trust no-one in my line of work. Guess this is what ye get fer strayin’ off from the tour group, huh?”

“I-I’m not a tourist. I’m a photographer,” Ashley explained, holding up her camera as evidence. “I have friends…they’re not far away. If you kill me, they’ll call in help and this whole place’ll swarming with rangers.”

The poacher’s eyes narrowed shrewdly. “That true?”

“Uh huh.” She nodded frantically. “Let me go, and I swear I won’t tell them about you. You can just…go your way, and I’ll go mine. Whatdaya say?”

He considered a long moment, obviously wondering whether to believe her or not. Eventually, he shook his head again. “Sorry lady, but I can’t do it. Only one way to make sure ye stay quiet…so don’t make it harder than it has to be.” He slid the bolt on his rifle back, then continued his advance.

Ashley drew a deep breath through her nose and was just about to scream for help when a chilling, terrible sound stopped her – the sound of a low, rumbling growl so primal and fierce it stopped the poacher dead in his tracks. Slowly, the two turned as one to face the new danger. Two sets of eyes widened, and Ashley’s jaw dropped as she stared past the man to the strange figure crouched on the mammoth trunk of a fallen tree.

It was a woman. But a woman unlike any Ashley had ever seen before. Even though she was bent double in a feline pouncing position, it was clear that the woman was tall and powerfully built. She wore only a brief outfit consisting of a halter-top style shirt and a short skirt, both made from what Ashley was certain was genuine tiger fur. The outfit was almost invisible, however, for the woman’s entire body was colored the same way, her skin painted with ocher and pale ivory tones patterned with tawny brown stripes. Even her classic, angular face was done up to mimic the mask of a tiger, the stripes framing cold, clear blue eyes that were currently fixed firmly on the quavering poacher. A mass of dirty black hair tumbled down the woman’s shoulders, so thouroughly tangled it manifested in thin dreadlocks that reached half-way to her waist. Ashley saw the woman’s right hand tapping against the bole of the tree, and noticed four hooked talons jutting from between long, powerful fingers. Though primitive, Ashley had no doubts that the claws were as effective a weapon for the woman as they would be for a real tiger.

Hearing a hoarse, strangled gurgle from the poacher, Ashley managed to tear her focus from the strange woman and spared a glance over to her adversary. The man’s face was extremely pale behind the thick beard, his eyes bulging from their sockets in abject terror. The hands that gripped the rifle were shaking so badly Ashley thought for a moment the poacher was about to have a heart-attack. Frantic eyes darted left and right, searching for an escape. When the tiger-woman’s rumbling growl rose an octave, and her lips parted to reveal pearly-white teeth, the man apparantly decided to take his chances. He dropped the rifle, turned, and ran as fast as his trembling legs could carry him into the jungle, leaving Ashley behind with the strange intruder.

Emerald eyes widened, and Ashley found herself suddenly caught in the penetrating gaze of twin sapphires.

Uh oh!

Ashley swallowed hard as the tiger-woman gave a feral smile, revealing what seemed to the young blonde to be uncommonly large canine teeth. The full force of those unsettlingly clear cobalt eyes settled on her, the growl still rumbling but softer now. Ashley wanted to follow the poachers example and run away, but her legs refused to obey any such orders to do so. When she heard a quiet snick sound, she looked down and was appalled to realize her hands had lifted the camera about her neck and – entirely of their own volition – snapped a quick shot of the predatory figure on the log.

The striped woman suddenly rose from her crouch and stalked very slowly closer. Ashley held perfectly still, hardly daring to breath. “Shit, Ashley, what the hell have you gotten yourself into this time,” she muttered under her breath, her focus trained with fatalistic fascination on the sharp claw-like weapons held in each of the woman’s hands. The tiger-lady approached along a zig-zag path, her expression intense and curious, and Ashley remembered watching her niece’s two year old cat move the same way when she was stalking a mouse.

The comparison was not particularly encouraging.

The woman closed the distance between them, pausing when she got to within a few feet of the unblinking blonde. She leaned forward, her head cocked to the side as she sniffed interestedly, then stepped nearer still until Ashley could see the grainy texture of the paint that covered her body…could make out the lighter highlights in her dark, tangled hair. The woman circled Ashley, sniffing, her eyes roaming up and down. The young photographer held herself stiffly under the scrutiny, following the stranger with wide eyes.

“I really hope I don’t smell like dinner,” she breathed quietly to herself. She suddenly noticed that the woman was no longer growling…instead of the low, ominous rumbling, the stranger made a series of short, sharp barking coughs that Ashley wasn’t quite sure how to interpret. When the tiger-lady finished her inspection and stopped in front of her, Ashley offered a tremulous smile. It was met with a slight softening of stern features, and the young blonde noticed for the first time an expression of wary intrigue and reluctant fascination on the strangers face. The woman made the strange coughing bark again, the sound completely inhuman and beyond Ashley’s ability to replicate.

“Y-you’re not planning to eat me…are you?” Ash asked hopefully.

The dark head cocked to the side, a crooked smile tugging at the painted lips. Before Ashley had time to wonder if her words were understood, the sound of crunching footsteps and echoed conversation came from around the river-bend. Blue eyes widened instantly, darting to the forest. She gave Ashley a last, curious look, then whirled around and fled back into the jungle, wild hair whipping about her face as she ran. Ash noticed that her running style was unusual… perfectly suited for moving swiftly through the dense, unpredictable undergrowth. Within a heartbeat, the woman had disappeared as though she’d never been there.

Not a moment later, Grady and Tarun rounded the bend in the river, lugging between them the heavier components of the hide. Behind them trailed Simon, carrying the lighter coils of rope. “Hey, Ash!” called Grady. “Give us a hand.”

Ashley shook her head dazedly, still rooted to the spot. Grady finally realised something was wrong with his partner…then his eyes fell on the poacher’s abandoned rifle and he dropped his load and rushed to her side.

“Ashley…what happened? Are you okay?”

Ashley pointed a shaking finger to the jungle. “D-did you see her?”

“See who?”

“The tiger woman.” Ashley finally snapped out of her surprise and gestured wildly at the jungle. “She ran off when she heard you guys coming! Sh-she saved me from a poacher I found here…he was gonna kill me, and then she was there, and she scared him off! She had claws…a-and she was all stripy-”

Grady grabbed her by the shoulders and forced her to stop jumping around. “Slow down,” he insisted, glancing worriedly at Tarun who had picked up the rifle. “Tell us what happened from the beginning.”

Ashley explained the strange encounter quickly, her excitement building to the end of the story. As she spoke, Tarun inspected the rocky ground carefully, then moved over to the fallen log. When Ashley had finished, the Indian tracker smiled and pointed to something.

“There’re scratch marks here on the wood,” he said happily. “No tracks of the woman…but the poacher left a trail so obvious a blind elephant could follow him. He was running from something.”

“Of course he was running,” Ashley said angrily, planting her hands on her hips. “I just told you about the woman.”

“And I believe you,” he mollified her calmly. “I’m just saying she didn’t leave any footprints…only those scratch marks. Did she threaten you at all?”

Ashley considered. “I-I don’t think so. She growled a bit, but she didn’t seem to want to hurt me. It was more like…I don’t know. Like she was curious about me.”

“Did she say anything?”

Ash shook her head. “I don’t know if she knew how to talk. She looked like some freaky, female version of Tarzan…only with tigers instead of gorillas.” She sighed, wishing now that she’d had a little more time with the bizarre woman. “I wonder what she’s doing out here.”

“Killing poachers,” Tarun stated. He shouldered the rifle and scowled. “Let’s just hope she doesn’t think we’re here to harm anything. Come on…let’s get this hide set up.”

“Wait a minute!” Ashley glared at the man. “Aren’t we going to report this? I mean…she’s out here all alone. Shouldn’t we…you know…tell someone?”

“And what would we report? That there’s a jungle woman out here who thinks she’s a tiger? Bah! No-one’d believe us for a minute. We’ve got no proof, no evidence, and no tracks-”

“We do so!” Ashley held up her camera. “I took a picture of her. If we show it, they’ll have to believe us.”

“She has a point,” Simon chimed in, catching the young woman’s excitement. “Imagine it…a woman living out here alone in the jungle! If we could find her…”

Tarun considered, but still shook his head. “I’m not calling out the rangers for this. She could be anywhere, and there’s a whole lot of places she could hide. We’d never track her down.”

“So we just forget about her!?” Ashley spluttered for a moment, furious. “How can you be so cavalier about this!?”

“Because there’s nothing we can do,” he said firmly. “You’re here to photograph and tag tigers, not some crazy woman who thinks she’s a tiger. I’m not being paid to track down someone who doesn’t want to be found.”

Ashley glared at him for a long time, and was just about to argue further when Grady stopped her. “He’s right, Ash. We’ve got a job to do…let’s not get sidetracked. If we try to hunt her down, she might turn nasty. Let’s just do what we came here to do quickly, and get out before she decides we’re a threat.”

Ashley looked at her companions, but now even Simon shrugged helplessly. It was clear she was on her own. “Fine. We’ll let it go.” Folding her arms across her chest, Ashley glared at her companions and gave every indication that she was not pleased.

Grady sighed, knowing Ashley was going to be a pain in the ass to work with for a while. “Should we at least report the poacher?”

“I suppose. But the rangers know there’s been increased activity.” Tarun shrugged and shouldered the poachers rifle. “Without his gun, he won’t be able to do much damage.”

The four spent the next hour working in relative silence to set up the hide, Ashley treating her companions to the silent treatment and occasionally complementing that with cold glares aimed mostly at Tarun. Although the more conventional way to deal with tigers was to track them on elephant-back, Grady insisted the hide would work better. Though she didn’t say anything, Ashley suspected her partner was a little afraid of riding the great beasts. He’d refused to ride camels before, too. Still, she didn’t mind. The lumbering, awkward gait of the elephant made it difficult to focus for a shot, and Ashley thought the added danger of being on the ground would be more than compensated for by the additional quality of the pictures she could take.

Once the hide was up, the group decided to take a hike along the river to where Tarun knew a waterfall was located. Grady spent over an hour setting up shots and capturing the beauty of the scene, while Ashley wandered around looking at the various birds and the group of curious monkeys who decided to investigate their presence. All through the day, however, her mind continually returned to the strange woman. Who was she? What was she doing out here? Ashley’s curiosity was fully roused by this mystery. By the time they finished up and returned to camp for dinner, the young photographer had worked herself into a nice little obsession, and she knew without a doubt she had to learn more of the stranger. Fortunately, she considered, the woman seemed quite curious about them. Ashley suspected she would return in time…was perhaps watching them from hiding even now.

After the others had gone to bed, Ashley stayed awake beside the dying campfire, hoping the tiger lady would pay another visit now that she was alone. She waited nearly an hour, concentrating carefully, trying to sense the woman’s presence. Eventually, she sighed and reluctantly accepted that the stranger wasn’t going to be paying a visit tonight. Rising from her solitary vigil, rubbing sleepy eyes with the back of her wrist, Ashley had barely taken two steps back towards her tent when suddenly, something in the far-off distance drew her attention. Squinting a little, Ashley smiled to herself.

About half-way up the side of the nearby ridge of mountain, a faint orange speck of light glimmered in the darkness like a lonely star.

“There you are,” Ashley whispered to herself, grinning as she marked the location in her mind. “Well, well, well…seems you’re not so much an animal that you don’t know how to light a fire.”

Grinning as she kicked ashes over the fire to extinguish it, Ashley hummed to herself and went to bed…already planning a little hike out to the mountains in the morning.

***

Grady watched with a deep frown as his partner stuffed a rubber poncho into her backpack and threw it over her shoulder. Ashley had wolfed down her breakfast that morning, telling Simon and Grace to mind the hide; she was taking a walk.

“Where are you going?”

Ashley glanced at him, the mysterious smile on her face all too easy to interrpret.

“Shit Ashley…please tell me you’re not going off hunting that damn woman!”

Her smile grew a fraction wider.

Grady threw his hands up in the air in disbelief. “Jesus! What the hell is wrong with you!? Why do you have to go looking for trouble all the time Ashley?”

“I’m not looking for trouble,” she said very calmly. “I’m just going on a little hike out to the ridge, just like you suggested doing.”

“Then at least wait for me to get my gear so I can come with you. Or wait for Tarun to get back.” The Indian guide had gone off searching the forest for something, and now Grady was sure Ashley had timed her departure so she wouldn’t have to deal with him.

Ashley shook her head. “Sorry Grady, I’m going alone. Besides, you have your own work to do, remember?” She smiled fondly at his exasperated expression. Grady was always trying to look out for her, and while Ashley knew she didn’t need his help, it was nice to know someone cared. “Relax…I’ll be fine.”

“Ashley, this woman is almost certainly the one who killed those poachers,” Grady tried to reason. “She’s a murderer! You saw the bodies…you want to end up the same way?”

Ashley paused a moment, her features paling a little as she remembered the shredded, mauled bodies…the blood-soaked ground. Then she shook away the memories. “She’s had two opportunities to hurt me, and so far all she’s done is growl a bit. I don’t think she sees us as a threat.”

“Then can’t you just leave things be? Please!?” He took the shorter woman by the shoulders gently and caught her eyes. “For me? You know I try to stay out of your way when you want to go off and do something dangerous…but this is just plain foolish! I’m asking as a friend, Ash…just leave the woman alone.”

The sincere, pleading tone of voice very nearly worked. Ashley could tell Grady was genuine in his concern, but she couldn’t let something this interesting go without investigating. The curiosity that had been born in her blood simply wouldn’t permit it. She shook her head. “I can’t,” she said softly. “If it were anything else but this… But if I don’t do this, it’ll eat me up from the inside out till it drives me insane! I have to try to find her.”

“But why?”

Ashley shrugged. “I just do.” Standing on tip-toes, she planted a quick, soft kiss on Grady’s cheek. “It looks like about a two hour hike out to the mountain. If I’m not back by nightfall, don’t come looking for me.” She held up a hand to forestall his next words. “I mean it. You’ll only get lost in the dark. Wait till morning at least. Okay?”

He nodded reluctantly. “Just be sure that doesn’t happen.” He sighed, running his fingers through his uneven hair in what Ashley knew was a gesture of frustrated acceptance. “What makes you think she’s over near that mountain anyway?”

Ashley winked. “Just women’s intuition, I guess.” Adjusting the straps on her backpack a final time, she waved and walked out of camp.

The hike was as long as she anticipated, but Ashley took her time and enjoyed the journey. A few times along the way she stopped to take photographs, capturing a few shots of a group of young monkeys as they played among the short, twiggy bushes their parents sat under. By the time she reached the ridge, Ashley was breathing hard, and the front of her loose cotton shirt was damp with sweat. The young blonde led an active lifestyle that kept her extremely fit, but in the Indian heat that didn’t count for much. Thick, ominous-looking clouds had moved in from the north, turning the air humid. Taking a rest and refilling her water bag at a fast-running stream that circled the base of the mountain, Ashley studied the slope before her carefully, searching for the most likely site for a camp.

It didn’t take more than half an hour of exploring before she found it; a broad-entranced cave that tunneled into the side of the rocky mountain about half-way up. Ashley studied the undisturbed dusty ground at the mouth of the cave, smiling a little when she saw a few scuff-marks that might have been footprints. Pulling out a flashlight, the young blonde hesitated only long enough to flick it on before she slowly crept into the darkness.

The torch-light quickly revealed the signs of occupation Ashley had hoped for. Several small boulders had been positioned around a modest campfire in the center of the spacious cave, a blackened, cast-iron pot still sitting in the cold ashes. There was no sign of the mysterious woman, and Ashley didn’t know whether she was disappointed or relieved. She shone the light on a simple sleeping mat, then spotted several wooden crates stacked at the rear of the cave. Investigating, she found cans of fruit, heshen sacks filled with rice, a fully-stocked first-aid kit, as well as toiletries and hygiene products. The photographer grinned fully.

“Not enough of a ghost that you don’t need to eat, I see.”

The cave narrowed towards the rear, but Ashley saw it continued on some distance and opened up further down. She was just about to continue her explorations when a now familiar rumbling growl stopped her, raising gooseflesh on her arms. Green eyes widened in alarm as she felt the dark presense behind her, and she slowly turned around to face the mouth of the cave.

Sure enough, there stood the tiger-lady, watching her with eyes that gleamed with a feral intensity. Suddenly, Ashley wished she’d listened to Grady’s pleas, remembering the bodies in the jungle. There was little doubt the claw weapon’s the woman held had been responsible for the bloody carnage.

“Umm…” Ashley held up her hands peacefully. “I-I didn’t mean to intrude,” she stammered. “I saw the firelight last night and I just wanted to, um…say thank you. In person. You know, for yesterday, when you saved me from that guy by the river? My name’s Ashley. Ashley Richards.”

The ice-blue eyes held her for a long moment, then the growl died away to silence. The painted woman glanced around the cave, then, apparently deciding everything was as it should be, she stode towards her blonde visitor.

Ashley swallowed hard, her hands trembling nervously, but the tiger-woman ignored her completely and simply retrieved a scoop of rice from one of the sacks of supplies using a wooden dipper. She then went back to the campfire and emptied it into the pot, stirring in water before she began to build a fire over the dead ashes. From time to time, she glanced at the uncertain blonde, but had apparently dismissed her presense for the most part.

Ashley stood frozen as she watched the strange woman light the fire using a spark struck from a shard of flint. When the light grew sufficient, she shut off her flashlight and very slowly moved closer to the crouched figure.

“Umm…listen, I-I really didn’t mean to just barge in on you like this,” she said quietly. The dark woman glanced up, her expression blank. Ashley studied her curiously, her eyes narrowing. “I don’t suppose you speak English by any chance?”

No reaction.

“Hindi?”

Nothing.

Ashley sighed. “Great. I guess you’re not going to be much of a conversationalist then, huh?” She run her fingers through her hair and watched as the woman stirred the rice with the dipper, then added vegetables from a nearby pouch. “Well, I came out here to thank you, but you can’t even understand me, so I guess that’s gonna be tough. I should probably just be thankful you haven’t decided to add me to your dinner menu. Umm…” Ashley shrugged helplessly. She wanted to sit down and study the woman further, but the silence was getting uncomfortable. She nervously started backing towards the mouth of the cave. “Look…I think I should probably head back to my friends. They’ll get worried if I don’t return by sundown…you know how it is. But it was really nice to meet you, and I really appreciate you scaring that poacher off yesterday.” She paused. “Well…I guess I’ll…see you later.” Turning reluctantly, the young photographer started back outside.

“Stay.”

The single word, spoken in a raspy, hoarse whisper, stopped her instantly. Ashley spun back around to find the tiger-woman looking up at her frankly.

“What did you say?”

There was a long silence, then the woman shrugged and turned her attention back to her cooking. “There’s a storm coming down from the north,” she said softly in a low, ragged tone. “You’ll never make it back to your friends before it hits. If you like, you’re welcome to stay here till it passes.”

Stunned, Ashley stared at the crouched figure in amazment. “You can talk!”

The woman glanced up again, a hint of humour touching her cobalt eyes and a smile twitching her lips. “So can you.”

Ashley instantly moved closer, still shocked. “I mean you speak English. Why didn’t you say something instead of letting me prattle on like an idiot!?”

The woman’s smile widened, showing teeth. “It was nice just to hear someone talking,” she said eventually, coughing to clear her throat when her voice broke. “Sorry…it’s been a long time since I last spoke.”

Ashley shook her head a little in wonder, then, remembering she’d been invited to stay, she quickly sat down on the boulder opposite the painted woman. “I’m Ashley,” she said, holding out her hand.

The woman studied her hand curiously a moment, but made no move to shake it. “I know. I heard you the first time.”

Ashley grinned and took her hand back unpeturbed. “Do you have a name?”

The woman hesitated, and Ashley had the impression she was taking a moment to remember something. “Leandra,” she said after a long moment. “My name is Leandra Thornton.”

“Well it’s nice to meet you, Leandra Thornton,” Ashley said politely. Outside, a sudden clap of thunder exploded in the distance. The wind began to pick up, and the young blonde saw her companion was right; a storm was about to break. “Thanks for letting me stay here. I’d hate to be walking back in that.”

Leandra shrugged. “You hungry?” She held up the still simmering rice. “It’s not much, but it’s quite edible. There’s enough for both of us.”

“Yeah, that’d be great.” Ashley suddenly realised something about Leandra’s voice…her accent was familiar. “You’re an American, aren’t you?”

“I suppose I was…before I came here.” Leandra hesitated, then added, “I moved around a lot.”

“I see.” Ashley sat quietly while the striped woman stirred their meal. Thinking about what she was doing, the young blonde suddenly couldn’t help but grin. Here she was, in the middle of wild India, sitting in a cave opposite a woman dressed up like a tiger who was cooking them lunch. The situation was so bizarre it felt surreal. Still, Ashley wasn’t going to complain, and she let herself study Leandra a little more fully.

Leandra was long and lean, but her arms, stomach and thighs fairly rippled with powerful muscles beneath the paint. Ashley guessed she was at least six feet tall, positively dwarfing her own five foot four stature. Her motions were graceful and elegant…yet Ashley detected a slight stiffness when she used her right arm. She had high cheekbones that made her vivid blue eyes stand out all the more, and straight, angular features reminiscent of those found on ancient sculptures. The thick, dreadlocked hair gave her an impression of savage ruggedness. Her feet were bare, and she smelled pleasantly of musk and earth. In all, Ashley thought the strange woman was probably extremely beautiful under all the paint and hair.

Only when she glanced to the side and saw the two sets of hand-held, makeshift claws did Ashley remind herself this woman was a killer.

“Something wrong?”

“What?” Ashley looked up to find Leandra regarding her curiously. “No, nothing’s wrong. I was just…” She gestured to the claws. “I mean.” She studied the woman with what she hoped was a non-judgemental expression. “You killed those men…didn’t you?”

Leandra picked up the claws and held them up to the firelight. “They were hunting the tigers,” she said simply. “I hunted them.”

“You murdered them,” Ashley corrected.

Ice-blue eyes hardened. “They were scum,” Leandra hissed sharply, a growl rumbling in the back of her throat instinctively. “They deserved what they got!”

“Deserved to be slashed to pieces?”

“Yes!” Leandra suddenly settled down, the growl vanishing. “Have you ever seen what poachers do to the animals they kill?”

Ashley shook her head.

“They butcher them completely. Not a single part of a tiger is wasted. The bones are ground up and used in medicines that claim to cure muscle pain and arthritis. The tails are made into soaps to cure skin diseases. The flesh is cooked and made into Tiger soup, the brain into a cure for acne. Even the whiskers are made into charms of courage and protection. Those men hunt the tigers without a care for the fact that they’re almost wiped out. All they care about is their own greed!”

Ashley swallowed nervously. “So…you pass judgement and execute them?”

“Yes.” Leandra scowled. “They deserve to die. I know…I used to be one of them.”

“Oh.” The young photographer blinked in surprise. Eventually, she asked softly, “What changed you?”

The smile she got from Leandra was wistful, and she noticed the dark woman stretch her right arm stiffly. “Let’s just say someone sat me down and gave me a stern talking too,” she whispered hoarsly.

An awkward silence reigned for long minutes, Ashley barely repressing the urge to fidget. “How long have you been out here?”

Leandra cocked her head thoughtfully. “Not sure. What year is it?”

“You mean you don’t know?”

Blue eyes scanned the spartan cave. “No calendar. Out here, there’s only day and night, not month and year.”

Ashley considered that, then said, “It’s April, 1998.”

Leandra absorbed that, then grinned. “In that case, I’ve been out here nearly four years.” She shook her head a little, adding almost to herself, “It feels like a lot longer.”

“Four years!?” Ashley stared at her in wonder. “All alone in the jungle for four years!?”

“Not alone…the tigers keep me company.”

There was silence except for the sounds of the storm that had settled in outside until Leandra decided the rice was properly cooked. “I don’t have any bowls or spoons,” she apologized, instead dishing the meal out onto two huge palm-type leaves. She handed one to Ashley.

“That’s okay. I’m sure I’ll manage.” The hungry blonde used her fingers to shovel the rice and vegetable mix into her mouth. Green eyes widened in surprised pleasure. “Mmmm… This is pretty darn good.”

Leandra shrugged, but stayed silent. Her hunting had yielded poor results the last few days, forcing her to rely on her emergency staples.

As she ate, Ashley noticed the clear blue eyes would frequently dart up to study her, then quickly look away. It seemed Leandra was as curious about her as she was about Leandra. She couldn’t help but find the tall woman’s nervous, shy interest a little bemusing. She was also surprised to hear the low, rumbling sound of a feline purr coming from her companion as she enjoyed her meal, and she smiled.

“I guess you don’t get a lot of visitors out here, huh?”

Leandra shook her head, eating her meal slowly and carefully. “Not ones that are welcome.”

“And I guess, from all the stories of poachers being killed in other parts of the country, you must travel around some, right?”

“Wherever they go, I go.” Silence for a moment. “I like it here,” Leandra continued quietly in her deep, raspy voice. “Sometimes I camp near the Himalayan mountains. It gets cold up there.”

Ashley gestured to the wooden crates. “Where do you get the supplies?”

“Sometimes from the poachers,” Leandra replied. “For some things I have to go to the villages though. I take what I need.”

Ashley gave the woman’s carefully painted body a meaningful once over. “Why do you paint yourself like that?”

Leandra shrugged a little uncomfortably. “The tigers are colored as they are for a reason,” she said quietly. “It helps them hide in the shadows and the grasses. I live as they do…so I’ve had to learn to mimic their actions and appearance.” She cocked her head curiously and pointed at Ashley’s camera. “You’re a photographer?”

Ash grinned, accepting the change of topic easily. “One of the best,” she said proudly.

“Here to photograph the tigers?”

“Yep…among other things.”

Leandra grinned fractionally. “I could smell the plastic from your hide at fifty paces. A tiger could smell it from a hundred.” She gave the blonde a knowing look. “I think you’re looking for the same thing those poachers were looking for.”

“The white tiger?” Ashley shrugged. “I only want to take pictures of it…they want to kill it. There’s a big difference.”

“Mmm.” Leandra chewed thoughtfully, her expression difficult to read. “Sometimes people come here hoping to find a particular thing, but instead they find something much different than they expected.” She smiled coldly. “Those three men came to hunt a white tiger. They weren’t prepared for what they found instead.”

Something about the strange look in Leandra’s eyes suddenly clicked in Ashley’s head. She stared at the woman suspiciously. “I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess there is no white tiger, is there?”

Leandra’s expression didn’t change.

Ashley groaned. “It was you all along, wasn’t it? Some idiot tourist or something got a quick look at you, and they thought it was a white tiger.”

“Maybe.”

“Ugh…that’s just great! You know, I’m supposed to have already finished this assignment and be back on a plane for home. I only delayed it because I wanted a shot at that bloody cat.” She shook her head ruefully and finished the last of her rice. She and Grady had tickets to fly out in a fortnight, and they couldn’t refund them. Still, ever willing to look at the positive side of life, Ashley decided not to let the delay bother her. “I guess I should probably make the best of my time though…as long as I’m stuck here.”

Leandra licked her fingers thoughtfully as she studied the blonde. “So you’re disappointed?” she asked. “About not finding what you came for?”

“Well…yeah, actually. I mean, it’s a once in a lifetime thing, you know?” She sighed. “I’m glad I took a shot at it. And, on the bright side, I got to meet you!” She grinned. “It’s not everyday I run across such a…unique…individual as yourself. So I guess the trip out here was worth the hassle I’m gonna get when I return to work.”

Licking the last hint of flavour from her palm leaf, Leandra stood and wandered over to the cave mouth, looking outside as the rain began to ease. The thunder had moved into the distance now, the storm slowly passing over them.

Ashley watched the strange woman with fascination, her eyes on the way her feet seemed to flow over the ground rather than touch it. “How do you that?”

“Do what?”

She gestured to the ground that was almost baren of footprints. “You don’t make any noise when you walk…and you don’t leave footprints. How?”

Leandra smiled mysteriously. “When you spend enough time in the jungle, you learn to hide your movements. It’s simple really, once you get the hang of it. See…?” She demonstrated how she placed her feet when she walked, the weight evenly distributed, then rolling with the heel as she lifted up. Ashley grinned and shook her head in amazment.

“That’s pretty cool. You know, you’ve got half the people out there thinking you’re some kind of vigilante ghost. I’ll bet the poachers are terrified!”

“They are…and with good reason.”

Ashley joined Leandra at the cave entrance, and they watched in companionable silence as the rain pushed further south, eventually easing to a light drizzle. The young blonde knew it was after midday by now, and she had to get back to camp before Tarun decided to come after her, but she was reluctant to part with her new acquantance. Leandra was still flicking curious glances at her. Still…

“I really should get going, I suppose,” she said quietly.

“Mmm.”

“Umm…you know, if you’d like to come down and join us at the camp, I’m sure you’d be more than welco-”

“Thanks, but…I don’t think I’d fit in.” Leandra held up a painted hand and wiggled striped fingers at the blonde.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Ashley sighed. “Well, it was really nice meeting you Leandra. And I really do appreciate you saving me yesterday.”

“Welcome.”

Ashley was about to turn to leave when a hand grabbed her arm suddenly and stopped her. She glanced back with a raised eyebrow and saw Leandra obviously struggling with something. She waited patiently until the dark woman sorted herself out.

“I um…I know a place not too far from here,” she said very quietly. “It’s a favorite roosting spot for peacocks. If you wanted to…maybe I could…take you out there before you leave? I-I’m sure you could get some good pictures of them, I mean.”

Ashley’s smile took in the whole of her face. “Sure. That sounds great. How about we go there tommorrow?”

Leandra smiled too, her expression relieved but still shy. “Okay. I’ll um…come get you in the morning, alright? Just take a walk or something and I’ll find you.”

“Absolutely.” Ashley brushed a lock of hair behind her head. “I don’t suppose you want the others knowing about you, huh?”

Leandra shrugged. “Tell them what you want,” she said, her voice starting to crack from being used for the first time in years. “As long as they don’t tell the rangers about me, it’s okay.”

“Great. So, I’ll see you tommorrow?”

“Tommorrow.”

And with a few backward smiles and a happy wave, Ashley started making her way down the slope back to her friends. Leandra watched her go with a slight smile still curving her lips. Only when the blonde was out of sight did she turn back to the cave and seat herself comfortably on one of the boulders by the fire.

It was strange, the dark woman mused to herself. She had been alone for a long time now; four years seemed like too small a figure for the length of her self-imposed exile. It had been so long since she’d last spoken, the sound of her own voice had surprised her when she’d used it today. It seemed deeper than she remembered it. Even her own name had taken a moment to dig up from where had lain, unused, for so long in the back of her mind. Now, if she took a deep breath, Leandra could still detect the last traces of the blonde woman’s scent in the air. The scent of deoderant…purfume…cotton. Things she hadn’t thought of in a long time. Ashley hadn’t just brought herself into Leandra’s cave…she had brought with her a glimpse into a world the dark woman had turned away from long ago. Leandra now remembered what it felt like to hear another person talk…to have company. And she remembered other things, as well. Flashes of various images and remembrances returned to her; the tall, monolithic skyscrapers of the city…the softness of clean, feather-down blankets…the simple luxury of being able to eat without having to hunt first.

Leandra sat quietly, remembering things she had thought forgotten, and looking forward to hearing the sound of Ashley’s voice again in the morning.

***

Returning to the camp, Ashley endured Tarun’s frustrated scolding with a patient smile, content to ignore his reminders that he had been hired to guide them and keep them safe, and that he couldn’t very well do that if she was going to constantly run off alone. When his words had no effect on the cheerful blonde, Tarun threw his hands in the air and stormed off, muttering about how he’d never get work again if one of his customers got killed while under his care. Ashley watched him go with an amused smile, then settled herself comfortably on the ground by the fire. Grady joined her.

“I’m guessing from the satisfied look on your face that you found what you were looking for?” he said, curious despite himself.

“Indeed I did.” Ashley folded her hands behind her head and leaned back against the tree branch behind her.

“And?”

“And…her name is Leandra, and she’s very nice.”

Grady made an impressed sound and raised an eyebrow. “You spoke with her?”

“Yep. It just so happens she’s an American. We had quite a nice little chat. She even cooked us lunch.”

Grady shook his head in wonder. This was the sort of thing that could only ever happen to Ashley, he marveled. The young woman seemed to have a nack for finding adventure wherever she went. “So…what’s her story? Why is she out here?”

“Well, she…um…” Ashley’s smile faltered a little. “Actually, she didn’t say exactly why she’s out here,” she admitted after a moment reflecting on her meeting with Leandra. “I got the impression she follows the poachers around and, um…”

“And kills them,” Grady finished.

Ashley shrugged. “There’re militant groups all over the world that track down and exterminate poachers,” she argued in Leadra’s defence. “We saw some of that in Africa.” The situation with the African elephants was so dire that the government had been forced to take drastic action to stem the trade in black-market ivory. “Leandra’s not any worse than the men who are hunting the tigers to extinction.”

Grady merely grunted, knowing better than to argue with his partner. “Did she say why she dresses up like a tiger?”

Ashley grinned. “I think she wants to live like they do, and it helps her to look the part,” she explained. “She’s strange – even when she talks normally, her voice sounds like it comes from deep in her chest. She actually purrs when she’s relaxed! And I mean real purring, too, not fake stuff…like she has no control over it.” She shook her head, remembering. “She really does behave a lot like a cat.”

“So I take it she’s going to leave us in peace?”

“She knows why we’re here, and she doesn’t mind.” Ashley considered whether to tell Grady that there was no white tiger, but decided against it. While Grady probably wouldn’t mind, Simon and Grace would be very disappointed. Ashley thought it did the scientists good to have the hope of maybe finding the rare creature. “I think she was just curious about us before, and that’s why she came snooping around the other night.”

“Uh huh. So…I guess she wants to be left alone now, right?”

Ashley grinned, knowing Grady was hoping that with her questions about the tiger-woman answered, she would let the matter go. “Actually, she invited me out for a walk tommorrow morning,” she said casually. “There’s some place she knows where I can get some good shots of some peacocks, and she offered to show me.”

Grady eyed her carefully. “Are you certain that’s a good idea? Is she…safe?”

“Oh, for crying out loud, Grady,” Ash snorted. “She’s not going to hurt me! She’s been out here a long time with no-one to talk too! I think she just wants a little company, and I’m more than happy to give it to her.” She glared at her partner till he looked away. “She’s interesting, and unusual, and she’s probably very lonely. It doesn’t do any harm to be nice to her…especially if she can get me closer to the animals.”

“Alright!” Grady held up his arms in defeat. “Do what you want; you always do anyway! I’m just trying to watch out for you, that’s all.”

Ashley smirked. “I know that…but you haven’t even met her, so don’t judge her just on the fact that she’s a little different. I’ll be fine.”

Grady let the matter rest, and turned the conversation to more work-related issues. Ashley spent the afternoon seeing to her equipment, then wandered down to the river to join Simon and Grace at the hide. When night fell, the group came together around the campfire for dinner. Tarun was still upset at Ashley, but it was clear Grady had spoken with him about her, and he didn’t argue further about her actions.

Retiring to her tent, Ashley lit the kerosene lamp and began flicking through her texts on the great cats again, this time looking at the descriptions therein with her thoughts on her new acquaintance. She knew already that tigers were solitary animals, their only contact with others of their species occuring during breeding times, or the long period a cub would spend with its mother.

Their habitat was widespread, the great cats seemingly able to survive in any terrain that provided “some form of dense vegetative cover, sufficient large ungulate prey, and access to water.” She read a few passages of their hunting methods, not surprised that the tiger relied largely on stealth and camoflague to bring down prey. A tiger charge was apparently swift, sudden, and capable of tremendous power…but only in a short burst. A tiger would try to take its prey from behind, using its weight to bring the quarry to the ground before biting the neck and holding it down with a forelimb.

Sometimes they could jerk up swiftly and break the neck, and sometimes they would grasp the throat and strangle their prey (a technique that had given rise to the legend of blood-sucking tigers, which Ashley thought was ridiculous since cats didn’t have lips and therefore weren’t able to suck anything). Reading that, Ashley remembered the bodies of the poachers they’d found. The deep, slashing claw marks across their backs and the way their throats had been torn open… She shuddered, certain Leandra had learned her killing style from the creatures she protected and imitated.

Reading the passages, Ashley wondered what Leandra must have experienced in her four years in the jungle. The young blonde didn’t need to be a psychologist to realise that such an extensive period without social contact must have taken a toll on Leandra’s mind.

“Four years…” she mused quietly. “Fours years of living like an animal…of trying to be an animal.” She shook her head in wonder. “I wonder how much a person could forget about being a human in that kind of time.”

Putting aside her books and shutting down the lamp, Ashley lay in her sleeping bag deep in thought, picturing the dark woman’s behaviour today. Leandra had seemed okay. While her voice had been raspy from ill-use, she had spoken clearly and thoughtfully. She was polite. Ashley had a feeling she relied more on her sense of smell than a regular person would, but that was understandable. Lying in the dark now, Ashley recalled the little information Leandra had given about herself.

So, you said you used to be a poacher, right? she thought to herself, trying to piece together the dark woman’s history. I can picture that. It’d probably be the sort of thing that would teach good survival skills. But then, one day someone says something that maybe gives you an attack of conscience. So you decide to turn over a new leaf and do something to help the animals you used to hunt. And so you…you…

Unfortunately, that was where Ashley’s pondering ran in a brick wall. There are a lot safer, smarter and – let’s be honest – more effective ways to fight poaching than to come out here alone, dress up funny, and then start killing off the hunters one by one. Ashley sighed.

“There’s something else,” she whispered. “I’m betting it must take a lot for someone to just turn away from the rest of the world and decide to live with the animals instead.”

The young photographer then recalled the strange, almost desparate look in the icey-blue eyes as she’d been about to leave. The yearning expression on Leandra’s face just before she’d offered to show her the peacocks.

“You’ve been out here a long time,” she whispered to the absent woman. “No-one to talk too…no human contact except the men you hunt. You probably feel more kinship with the tigers than you do with your own species. And yet today, you not only talked to me, but you wanted to see me again.” Ashley considered that, feeling rather privelidged that Leandra had opened up a little to her. “I bet you’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a friend who can actually talk with you.” She smiled to herself at that. “Pehaps I should remind you.”

Closing her eyes, Ashley snuggled into a pillow of folded clothes and let herself drift off…the image of piercing blue eyes and a powerful, tawny-gold figure the last thing she remembered before sleep claimed her.

***

Ashley grinned with delight as she finished off another roll of film and changed the cartridge with an absent-minded ease mastered only after years of practice. Before her ranged a group of four peacocks and perhaps a dozen peafowl, the males displaying their magnificent shimmering tail-fans in the early morning light. The happy young blonde gave her unusual companion a radient smile before focusing for more shots.

“This is fantastic!” she exclaimed for the fifth time. “I can’t believe how close they let us get!”

Leandra smiled quietly, her attention more on the photographer then the birds. Sitting back on her haunches, the dark woman relaxed a little and just enjoyed Ashley’s vibrant, excited voice as she clicked away.

They had come out here just after first light, hiking the short distance to the clearing in relative silence. Upon arriving, Leandra surprised her companion by folding her hands over her mouth and giving a piercing, very authentic-sounding peacock call which instantly attracted a host of birds to them and got them preening and excited – much to Ashley’s delight. Now the sun was well into the sky, and Ashley was almost out of film. Leandra hadn’t spoken much, but it didn’t bother the young blonde, who talked a little about her family and her work just to fill the quiet. They each felt somewhat awkward in the presence of the other, but it didn’t matter.

Finally finishing off the last role of film she’d brought, Ashley fiddled with her camera a few moments before settling down next to her companion, still trying not to be too obvious about staring at her unusual appearance.

“Wow! I can’t believe how many pictures I got! I mean, I had a few shots already of peacocks, but nothing like these ones! I wish I’d brought more film, but I didn’t know it was going to be this good.” Grady had been trying to get her to update her equipment, always raving on about the superiority of digital cameras over the older models. Ashley refused to listen, however, prefering the comforting reliabilty and simplicity of using real film. Now, she smiled at the dark woman, noting absently that even Leandra’s sitting style was vaguely feline. She could also hear the sound of quiet purring, and knew from that her companion was in a good mood. “Thank you for bringing me out here.”

“You’re welcome.”

They watched the magnificent birds continue their antics for long minutes, enjoying the display. Leandra cast Ashley several furtive glances, unable to contain her interest in the young blonde. It had been so long since she’d wanted to be around another person, but there was something about Ashley that called to her. The photographer was cheerful and charming, her passion for her work evident in her enthusiasm. She talked about life in a world Leandra hadn’t been a part of for many years. Just watching her and being near her made the dark woman feel at peace in a way nothing ever had before. She didn’t want to loose that sense of tranquility yet, that sense of human connection she’d all but lost during the last four years…but she wasn’t sure how to keep hold of it either.

“You know…” she said quietly after a long contemplation, “if you wanted me to, I could show you some other places I know. There’s a spot up river a few miles where the elephants usually water. And there are lots of other birds and things you could photograph…I-I wouldn’t mind taking you to see them.”

Ashley smiled at the dark woman. “That’d be great.” She could sense again that her companion was very nervous, and actually found the strong, predatary woman’s uncertainty rather cute. “But you know Leandra…if you want to spend time with me, you don’t have to go to all this trouble.”

The dark woman’s expression grew even more nervous and she started to fidget with one of the cords of hair hanging over her chest. “Wh-what do you mean?”

“I mean it’s okay if you want a little company,” Ashley said gently, her eyes soft and open. “I guess you haven’t had a friend for a while, right?”

Shy, timid blue eyes glanced up, then quickly away. “Welll…maybe not in the people sense, no. But I do have friends out here.” She nodded at the peacocks.

Ashley chuckled. “I probably don’t want to meet some of your other friends though, huh?”

“Probably not.”

Ashley quieted and studied the painted woman for a moment. “I’d really like to be your friend too, Leandra,” she said quietly. “If you want some company, you can just say so and I’d be more than happy to spend time with you…even if it’s just for no reason. You don’t have to offer to take me to see the animals – you can just ask.” She paused, a little uncertain. “You know…I read that tigers are solitary. They spend almost all their time alone. But you’re not a tiger Leandra, you’re a human being.” From the guarded look in the dark woman’s face, Ashley realised she’d hit a nerve. “It’s not such a good thing for a human to be alone for so long.”

Leandra’s posture stiffened. “I know that,” she said coldly, the previous purring now replaced by a threatening growl.

Ashley raised her hands in a calming gesture. “I’m not trying to make you angry Leandra,” she said soothingly. “I’m sure you have a reason to be out here like this…and I’m not saying you shouldn’t be here if it’s what you want. I’m just saying that…maybe it would be good for you to be around another person. Like me, for example.” She smiled a little, reassured when Leandra realised the noises she was making and consciously stopped them with an embarrased look. “When was the last time you spoke actual words Leandra? I mean, before we met?”

The dark woman shrugged. “I guess about…three years ago,” she admitted quietly.

Ashley eyed her companion curiously. “Does anyone in the outside world know you’re here?” she probed gently. “Family? Friends?”

Leandra shook her head, faces flashing before her mind that she didn’t want to remember. “Anyone who knew me probably assumes I’m dead,” she whispered. “I doubt they’d miss me much anyway.”

The young photographer scooted a little closer, amused to see Leandra’s nostrils twitch as she sniffed the air. There were a thousand and one questions burning on the tip of her tongue – a thousand things she wanted to ask Leandra about her life and what had brought her here – but she restrained the desire to give them voice. Working with animals all her life had taught the young woman that you didn’t get close to a wild animal if you moved upon it too quickly; calm and patience worked best, and she decided to employ those same tactics with Leandra. “I think you need to be reminded that you’re not an animal,” Ashley said, very slowly reaching out and pushing back the mass of dreadlocks. “Under all this paint and hair, there’s a beautiul woman, not a giant cat. You don’t want to forget that.”

Leandra was almost dizzy from the scent of Ashley, her body trembling a little with fear as she wondered how to react to the photographers intimate proximity. The instincts that had been born in her these last four years urged her to push the blonde away and retreat, but Leandra suppresed them and, not knowing what else to do, sat very still as Ashley studied her face. “I haven’t forgotten,” she whispered. “But…it’s nice to be reminded sometimes. And um…I’d like to show you the animals anyway, if you want to see them.”

“Okay then.” Ashley smiled gently, then backed away and resumed her seat. “I’d like that.”

“Good.”

A long period of silence followed, before Leandra glanced shyly at the blonde. “You know…” she said quietly, “I’m not crazy or anything.”

Ashley chuckled at the comment. “I never thought you were.”

“Good.” Leandra offered a slight smile. “I was just confirming it.”

Ashley grinned and cast her eyes over the tall woman’s striped body. “I’m not gonna lie and say I think you’re exactly ‘normal’ Leandra, but…I’ve been around long enough to tell the difference between eccentricity and madness. I wouldn’t be here, with you now, if I thought you were insane.”

Leandra considered that, then nodded. She didn’t want to scare away her new friend, and acknowledged the fact that her appearance and behaviour were somewhat bizarre. It was good to know that Ashley wasn’t sitting there thinking she was some kind of mad-woman.

The two women sat quietly and watched the peacocks finish their preening then wander off looking for food. They remained until all the birds were gone, enjoying the peace of the forest and the sounds of the creatures at play all around them, each casting occasional sidelong glances at the other.

***

Through a pair of binoculars, a tall, well-built man watched as the group of five gathered around a small fire to share their evening meal and talk as the sun went down. Dressed in camoflague fatigues, shirt and vest, with several belts strapped around his waist and legs holding such things as a water flask, compass, and a broad-bladed hunting knife, the six-foot tall man cut an impressive, confident figure. His dark blonde hair was held back in a loose pony-tail, a few strands pulling loose in the humidity and clinging to his sweat-streaked face. His skin was deeply tanned, wrinkles forming at the corners of his eyes from years of squinting into the sunlight. Intense green eyes burned from deep in hollow sockets as he observed the gathering from a distance.

Behind him, another man watched in similar fashion, this one sporting bright red hair and a thick beard. A deep scowl pulled the corners of him mouth down when he spoted a familiar figure sitting comfortably on a fallen log and laughing with her friends.

“That’s her,” he said. “The little blonde bitch on the right.” He shook his head. “Told me she was a photographer or something. Guess it’s probably lucky fer me I didn’t kill her, right Jack?”

Jack Corbin grunted, shrewd eyes taking in the details of the camp and its inhabitants. “That balding guy ain’t no photographer,” he decided quickly. “Him and that brunnete sitting next to him are scientists or some such…probably doing research. The Indian guy must be their guide – getting paid to babysit…make sure nothing bad happens.” He focused carefully and managed to bring the young, petite blonde into sharper detail. She didn’t look like much, he thought, wondering whether he should believe the man behind him. “Blondie’s no worse for wear after your little encounter with the ‘Indian Menace’,” he observed.

The grizzly red-head scowled darkly. “Maybe she ran away like I did. Or maybe that thing only kills guys like us. How should I know what happened?”

Corbin nodded and replaced his binoculars in a case attached to the belt around his waist. “Tell me again what it looked like?”

“It was a woman,” the man explained for the dozenth time. “Only she was like a tiger. She had claws and her skin was stripy…and she moved like a cat.” He sighed. “I swear, it’s the truth.”

“And you ran away?”

“Damn right I ran! If you saw that thing, you’d a run away too!”

Corbin just grunted, still unsure what to make of this report. “I had three other men coming in for this hunt,” he said quietly. “They’re two days late now…I guess that means they didn’t make it.”

“If they got caught by the ghost, they sure as hell didn’t make it.”

“Mmm.”

Jack Corbin was not a man prone to flights of fancy. He had traveled to every continent on Earth, had tracked and hunted almost every creature capable of killing a man, and had never encountered any beast that couldn’t be overcome with caution and a loaded gun. His reputation was widespread among those who lived in the shadowy world of the black-market animal trade, and though he could have lived a soft life of luxury from the money he’d made in his dealings, Jack prefered the excitement and danger of his work.

Three years ago, he’d heard the reports of a poaching expedition that had been massacred in the Indian forests, the details of which had been enough to make even a ruthless hunter like Jack a little nervous. Still, at the time he’d just assumed it was some kind of scare tactic being used by the rangers to frighten away poachers; the stories of some mystical tiger-like spirit stalking the jungle, ravaging those who dared to hunt the great cats…he’d scoffed at the lunacy of it even as many of his comrades started avoiding the Indian territory.

In the three years that followed, more rumours had filtered down to him of men lost in the jungle – sometimes never found, sometimes discovered by rangers, mauled and shredded with fearful savagery. Now, lured here by the chance to hunt the rare white tiger, Jack wasn’t sure what to make of the story brought to him by his companion…but he intended to tread carefully. Jack hadn’t become successful as a poacher and smuggler by being foolish or rash.

The red-head shuffled uncomfortably as he watched Jack think. Shaun Duggan had never hunted with Jack Corbin before, but he knew the man by reputation…and what he’d heard both frightened him, and gave him confidance of success. “So…what’re we gonna do?”

Jack considered long and hard. Eventually he nodded to the distant campfire. “We’ll watch them closely,” he stated. “If they’re here for the tiger as well, maybe we won’t have to work so hard to find it. We can just let them do the work for us.”

“A-and what about the ghost?” Shaun asked, uncertain whether he’d been believed or not.

Jack shrugged. “We find it, and we kill it.” He turned away, shouldering his rifle and heading back to his own camp some two miles to the west. “If it’s real enough that it can kill a man, it’s real enough that we can kill it.”

“But…how?”

“Simple…” Jack grinned. “First, we lure it out of hiding. Once I get a good look at it, I’ll decide the best way to take it down.”

Shaun had his doubts about whether the strange tiger-woman could even be killed – he had been raised by his grandparents, who had instilled in him all their own old-world superstitions. To Shaun, the idea of a supernatural spirit guardian of the tigers wasn’t all that far-fetched. Still, he kept his apprehensions to himself, fearing less the uncertain danger of the ghost than the very real danger of his companion.

On the way back to camp, Jack pondered the safest way to lure out the strange menace…rather enjoying the first true challenge to his ability in a long while.
Part 2
In what distant deeps or skies,
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
-‘The Tyger’ by William Blake.
Ashley hummed a happy tune to herself, smiling cheerfully at Grady’s early-morning scowl as she handed out mugs of strong coffee to Simon and Grace, who exchanged amused glances at her merriment. The young photographer was in a very good mood this morning, already looking forward to another day spent in the company of her new friend.

For the last four days, Ashley had seen more of Leandra than she had any of her other companions. She’d quickly developed a routine of going for walks out into the forest around the camp and along the river, knowing that the mysterious dark woman would join her once she was alone. The one time Tarun had tried to follow as security, Leandra hadn’t shown up, and Ashley had lectured the protective guide for ten minutes about who was paying his bill. After that, Tarun had grudgingly accepted that he couldn’t control the infuriating blonde, and set his attention on helping the others.

The two women had settled into a comfortable rhythm, spending their days in peaceful companionship in the wilderness. Sometimes, Leandra would take Ashley out to places she knew were favorite haunts of various animals, other times to scenic locations she thought the young blonde might enjoy seeing. Leandra’s voice grew stronger as she accustomed it to being used again, and soon she was talking a little more, explaining the habits of the creatures with whom she shared the jungle.

Occasionally she would even relate an amusing story of their antics…such as the time a group of mischievous young monkeys had found a sleeping bear and decided to wake it up, scampering away quickly as the great beast tried futilely to catch them. Ashley was continuously amazed by the dark woman as she learned more of her life these past four years, fascinated most of all by the strange, symbiotic relationship Leandra seemed to have with the great cats who dominated everything out here – a relationship the dark woman only spoke of rarely, and which was obviously her strongest link to the forest.

Ashley in turn talked about her life in America; about her older sister, Evelyn, who had married young to a childhood sweetheart who had since become a successful physician; and about their daughter, Casey, who was now seventeen and seemingly intent on following in her aunt’s footsteps as a troublemaker. She described her house, and the quiet town that lay a short drive away.
When she spoke of the outside world, Ashley noticed Leandra’s expression would become even more intense and focused than usual, as though she wanted to absorb every word and description that was offered. Seeing Leandra’s obvious fascination with the world she’d left behind, Ashley talked more and more about her life and the places she’d visited.

Today, Ashley had risen earlier than usual, wanting to get in a quick bath before she went looking for Leandra. She grinned at Grady as he settled himself on his tree-branch seat with a groan, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

“Good morning, Grady,” she greeted happily in a sing-song voice.

“Urgh.” He accepted the coffee she offered, sipping the bitter brew slowly for a few minutes before meeting her sunny smile. “Why are you in such a good mood?” he scowled. “Last I heard you weren’t any closer to getting pictures of that damn cat. Let me guess…you’re going off with tiger-woman again today, right?”

“I told you, her name is Leandra…and yes, I’m spending the day with her.” Ashley gave her partner a quick grin. “I don’t see why you’re so down in the dumps about it, Grady. For one thing, she’s helping me get some unbelievable shots out there…and for another, she’s keeping me out of trouble, so you can get your own work done in peace without having to worry that I’m about to get run down by a herd of elephants or something.” That earned her a wry grin from her partner, who never missed an opportunity to remind her of the time he’d had to rescue her from a stampede in Africa because she’d been too busy taking photos to get out of the way. “Leandra’s a wonderful person, so don’t be so grumpy about me spending time with her.”

“And when are we going to be introduced to your mysterious friend?” asked Simon earnestly. The scientist was eager to meet Leandra, and had already probed Ashley for every scrap of information she had about her. “Did you ask her about letting us talk to her?”

Ashley sighed. While she knew Simon had only the best intentions, she also knew Leandra would not welcome his questions about her life. “I’m sorry Simon, but I don’t think she’d be interested,” she said, watching his expression drop. “She’s just a very private person, I’m afraid…and I don’t think she wants a lot of people all staring at her and asking lots of questions.”

“But I wouldn’t be invasive,” Simon argued. “I-I’d just like to see her, that’s all.”

“I know, and I’ll mention it to her. If she’s interested in meeting you, she’ll tell me when she’s ready. Okay?”

Simon reluctantly nodded. “Okay.”

Quickly finishing off her breakfast and grabbing a change of clothes and her bathing accessories, Ashley headed off to the river for a quick wash. The humidity in the jungle was high, and even though she was well accustomed to roughing it in the wilderness, Ashley didn’t like to feel sticky and smelly. Finding what she decided looked like a safe, fairly sheltered part of the river, the young blonde laid out her gear and started stripping down quickly, rather enjoying the little guilty thrill that came from being so exposed outdoors.

Just as she reached back to unhook her bra, a familiar throaty voice from behind called a cheerful greeting. “Morning Ashley. You taking a bath?”

Ashley gave a startled squeak and grabbed for her towel, using it to cover her chest as she spun around to glare at Leandra. The striped woman was perched on a boulder nearby, head cocked to the side as she regarded the blonde curiously.

“Damn it Leandra! What the hell are you doing here!?”

Leandra gave her a confused shrug. “What do you think I’m doing? I came to see you of course.”

Ashley blushed deep crimson. “You shouldn’t sneak up on people like that,” she scolded, securing the towel around her body more securely. “I was just about to…” She gestured to the pile of clothes, soap and washcloth, then at the river.

“Bathe?”

“Yes.”

Leandra shrugged and settled herself down on the rock more comfortably. “That’s okay. I’ll just wait till you’re done.”

Ashley laughed out loud, then realized the dark woman was serious. Frank, startlingly clear blue eyes continued to watch her openly, and her blush deepened. I guess a sense of modesty was one of the first things to go when she came out here.

“Umm…heh…w-would you mind…you know, turning around or something at least?”

Leandra cocked her head curiously. “Why?”

“Well, umm…I could use a little privacy, you know.”

Dark brows contracted in puzzlement, then shot up as Leandra grinned in sudden understanding. “Oh! You’re embarrassed to be naked around me?”

“No, but…” Ashley fidgeted with the edge of the towel uncertainly.

“You don’t need to be shy Ashley,” Leandra said simply. “I doubt you have anything there I don’t already own myself.”

“Well…I know that, but still…”

“Would you be more comfortable if I joined you?” Leandra asked, reaching immediately for the leather cord that held her top closed.

“NO!” Ashley quickly stopped that line of thought, shaking her head a little in amusement. “That’s a very nice offer, but I don’t think it’ll be necessary, thank you!”

Leandra shrugged and settled down again. “As you wish.”

Ashley sighed. “Do you even remember the meaning of the word modesty?”

“I understand the concept,” Leandra said dismisively, inspecting one of her claw-weapons seriously. “It doesn’t have any place out here. I lived naked for probably three months before I realized it was more comfortable to have at least some support.” She spread her arms to display her brief outfit. “Modesty is constructed from the concept of shame. Beyond comfort and need for warmth, clothing is entirely dispensable.” Seeing that Ashley didn’t seem likely to get her bath finished with if she didn’t give her some privacy, Leandra sighed and turned away a little. “I won’t watch you, if it makes you uncomfortable.”

Ashley groaned. This is what I get for making friends with Jungle Jane, she thought. “Fine.” Deciding to just make it quick and get it over with, the young blonde turned back to the river and pulled the towel from her body. Quickly stripping off her simple undergarments, she grabbed the soap and washcloth and waded out into the surprisingly cold, mountain-fed waters.

Lounging easily on the cool boulder, Leandra used the rock to touch up the edges of one of her claws, gently rubbing the bone weapon against the stone and blowing away the fine shavings. She inspected each of the hooked talons carefully, sharpening those that needed it before she felt her eyes start to drift curiously back to the river. Trying not to be noticeable, not wanting to do anything that might make Ashley uncomfortable around her, Leandra subtly observed the naked woman as she scrubbed herself vigorously.

The young blonde was fairly evenly tanned from living an outdoor lifestyle, and her body was lithe and firm from a physically demanding career. She was slender without being bony, delicate without being weak, and entirely enchanting to her observer.
High, still-firm breasts quickly captured Leandra’s attention, and the dark woman smiled a little as she enjoyed the sight of a naked female form for the first time in many years. Ashley was a very beautiful woman, and Leandra could admit she found her extremely attractive. Having learned from experience not to fight her instincts, Leandra didn’t bother to argue with her attraction…but she realized it would not be wise to act upon it, either.

After four years of social denial, the company Ashley gave so easily was like water to a man dying of thirst for Leandra; she craved it with a deep passion, hungered for every scrap that was offered, and hoarded each precious moment spent in the young woman’s presence away in her memory. She knew Ashley would be leaving sooner or later, and she didn’t want to do anything to hurry that departure…like frighten her away by expressing her less-platonic interest.

Tearing her gaze away from the nymph-like figure in the water, Leandra focused back on the jungle, trying to recall the faces of some of the women she’d bedded before coming out here. There had been many, she remembered, and not one of them had ever meant more to her than a simple night of pleasure.

She had seduced them, taken them, and then left them all as soon as something more interesting came along. Of course, it had been a long time since Leandra had thought more than fleetingly of sexual pleasure – the struggle for survival consumed most of her thoughts these days. Still, sneaking a peak at her new friend as she finished her bath, Leandra found that the myriad faces in her memory now dissolved into Ashley’s soft, gentle features, and she was glad the paint hid her blush as she wondered idly how the young woman might look in the throes of ecstasy.

“Okay, I’m ready.”

“Mmm?” Leandra looked back to find Ashley had finished her bath and was now dressed and waiting. The young woman had changed into an army green, cut-off tank-top and cargo shorts, her blonde hair still wet and tousled about her face. “Oh, great.”

“You want to wait here while I take this stuff back to camp?” Ashley asked, holding up her bundle of dirty clothes and the towel.

“Sure.”

“Great, I’ll be quick.” Ashley flashed a brilliant smile and hastened away, leaving Leandra to watch her departure with a wry smile. The dark woman happily let her eyes wander over the photographer’s backside before she disappeared back into the forest, enjoying the way the brief outfit displayed her slender curves. An unconscious rumble stirred in Leandra’s belly as she settled down contentedly on the rock to sun herself, purring happily as she looked forward to the day ahead.

* * *

“So, have your friends had any luck finding tigers?” Leandra asked as she helped her shorter companion navigate a treacherous stretch of dry river-bed.

Ashley accepted the assistance, having already slipped twice on the slimy rocks. “Some,” she replied, watching her striped companion spring barefoot from one rock to another, envying the unbelievable agility she could never hope to match. “Apparently they bagged a young male yesterday morning after I left. Hit him with a tranq gun then collared him – no problems.” She sighed quietly. “It would have been nice to see him. Simon thinks he’s probably the dominant tiger in this territory.”

“Actually,” Leandra smiled, “he’s a rogue male, just passing through.”

“How do you-” Ashley stopped at the knowing grin on the dark woman’s face, then rolled her eyes with a chuckle. “Right…forgot who I was talking too.”

“That you did.”

As they walked along, Ashley cast her companion a curious look. “So…just how close can you actually get to a tiger? Seriously,
I mean.”

“Seriously?” Leandra considered. “It depends.”

“On what?”

“Well…lots of things. Like – for example – how well the tiger knows me…what kind of mood it’s in. Plus, some species are more aggressive than others. And I wouldn’t get within a hundred feet of a male during mating season.”

Ashley absorbed this slowly. “Well, what’s the closest you’ve ever got? Have you ever petted one…like, a real wild one?”

A slightly uneasy expression tensed Leandra’s features for a moment and she rubbed at her right shoulder as though pained. “Let’s just say I’ve been closer than you’d ever want to get,” she said softly.

Hearing from her tone that the dark woman was getting uncomfortable, Ashley easily moved the conversation on. “Do you always keep your body painted like that?”

Leandra smiled a little, grateful that Ashley seemed to understand enough not to push. “Pretty much,” she replied. “It not only makes it easier to hide and blend in, it also helps to mask my scent.”

“What do you use for paint?”

“Crushed ochre and other kinds of clay or mud.” Leandra held up her patterned arm and showed it to the blonde. “I mix it with fat I take from my kills so it doesn’t wash away so easy in the rain.”

Ashley studied the grainy, rough texture of the paint, running a finger along Leandra’s arm and feeling the slightly greasy finish. “How long does it last?”

Leandra shrugged. “Depends on how active I am. Usually a week or two, and then I wash it off and take a bath. It takes a few hours to redo it again.” The dark woman was getting used to thinking in terms of days and hours again; frames of time she’d abandoned long ago, but which made more sense now that Ashley was around.

“Mmm.” Ashley smiled as she admired the intricacy and attention to detail of Leandra’s design. “Must be tough doing your back, huh?”

“It was at first,” Leandra grinned, “but I got used to it. Now it’s just another routine for me – I could do it blindfolded if I had too.”

“Well, I think it looks nice.” Ashley grinned at the shy smile she received from the simple complement. “Although,” she added, “you scared the shit out of me the first time I saw you.”

Leandra shrugged. “Yeah, well, that’s another good thing about it; if the poachers do see me, they’re usually so shocked they don’t react quick enough to save themselves.”

“Right.” Ashley’s smile faltered at the reminder that her companion was a killer. It was difficult to reconcile the memory of Leandra’s bloody handiwork with the considerate, sometimes charming woman she was coming to like more and more each passing day. Despite the constant predatory air that seemed to hang around Leandra like a cloud, Ashley could see the oddly vulnerable woman that lived beneath the primal markings and tangled hair. While there was no doubt in the young photographer’s mind that her companion was capable of extremely savage acts of violence, it was something she found very easy to forget about as she enjoyed the dark woman’s company.

Leandra saw the fleeting look of disquiet in Ashley’s oh-so-open expression, but before she could open her mouth to say something reassuring, the sharp report of a rifle shot in the distance echoed through the jungle, causing an instant clamoring among the startled birds in the canopy above. Leandra’s body tensed immediately, her head cocked to the side and her eyes sharp. Ashley met her gaze for a moment, paling a little as she heard the subliminal growl rumble from her striped companion.

“That was too far away to be Tarun.”

“Poachers,” Leandra hissed, her eyes alight with a fire Ashley hadn’t seen before.

“It could just be the rangers-”

“No,” Leandra quickly rejected. “That’s a large-caliber hunting rifle – only a poacher would have use for one out here.” Ice blue eyes softened with true regret. “I’m sorry…I have to check it out.”

Ashley sighed. “I understand,” she said quietly, cursing the interruption to their day.

“There’s a bend in the creek up ahead,” Leandra said, equally disappointed. “If you want to, you can wait there for me and I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“Okay.”

Leandra nodded, then turned to leave. A slender hand grabbed her arm suddenly and pulled her back, however, and she glanced over her shoulder into worried green eyes.

“Be careful,” Ashley whispered.

Leandra flashed a quick, toothy grin. “Always.” Patting the blonde woman’s hand reassuringly, she turned away and ran off into the jungle, her body blending quickly with the shifting shadows and dense undergrowth. Ashley watched her vanish, then sighed and continued on along the dry creek bed alone.

* * *

Leandra moved quickly and stealthily along barely visible forest trails, every sense open and alert to the slightest sound or presence. She knew this part of India better than any other, having spent the most amount of her time here, and she moved swiftly over the familiar ground. It wasn’t long before her pace slowed, and she started stalking with greater care as she neared the place she guessed was the origin of the gunshot. Sniffing the air and listening attentively, Leandra found nothing out of place. A quick but thorough search failed to turn up any blood or tracks, and the dark woman snarled a little in frustration.

This had to be the place! From the echo, Leandra was certain the shot had been fired from here, or somewhere very close-by. And she knew from experience that poachers didn’t take idle shots; they aimed only to kill, knowing that every shot fired meant the possibility of attracting the attention of any rangers in the area. Leandra didn’t have anything to fear from the patrols, confident that she could avoid them if they came snooping around, but as she continued searching for some signs of the shooter, the sense that something was wrong here grew inside. It was nothing she could put her finger on…just a gut-feeling of disquiet that made her even more cautious than usual.

Eventually, her patience was rewarded. A single spent shell nestled among the leaf-litter caught Leandra’s attention, and she swooped upon it immediately, cold eyes searching for and finding subtle tracks leading away. There was no sign of a kill, however…in fact, there was no sign of a target at all. Certainly no animal had been in this area for some time – a thought that made the striped woman all the more curious about why the shot had been fired. Shrugging, she moved into the deeper cover of the shadows, and began to hunt her quarry.

After several minutes of pursuit, the tracks left behind the comforting shelter of the jungle and moved into more open ground near a steeply cascading river. Leandra hesitated, not liking to leave behind her cover and venture into the open while she was hunting. Pacing a few feet back and forth, growling without realizing she was doing so, the dark woman felt her anger rise with her frustration. She considered this her territory…her hunting ground. Having spent so much time modeling herself and her behavior after the great jungle cats, Leandra had picked up the same territoriality they possessed. This was an invasion, and she didn’t like to let it go unpunished. Besides, if she let this poacher get away, it was possible he might actually find what he was almost certainly looking for…

Unwilling to give up the hunt, Leandra studied the surrounding wilderness carefully, then cautiously left behind the shelter of the undergrowth, every nerve-ending alive and ready to warn her of the slightest danger.

The tracks continued on for another hundred-odd paces, following the course of the river. For a while, Leandra had little trouble following them, then all of a sudden they disappeared into the rock-strewn waters. Crossing the swift-flowing but shallow river with remarkable agility, the dark woman searched along the banks for any continued sign.

Nothing. The poacher had seemingly vanished.

Before she could start to feel the frustration of her thwarted hunt, Leandra’s senses picked up on something out of place – the instincts that had kept her alive out here for four long years screamed a silent warning, and Leandra’s striped figure froze as she searched the surrounding wilderness for the cause of her discomfit. There was nothing visible, but the openness of her position now made her feel exposed and vulnerable. Not bothering to argue with her instincts, Leandra turned and ran as fast as she could back into the safety of the jungle. She wasn’t going to jeopardize her safety for this hunt…and she had learned a long time ago when to give up and wait for a better opportunity.

Within a heartbeat, Leandra’s figure was just another set of shadows cast by the canopy above, and she started making her way back to Ashley…wondering at the sense of peril that still disturbed her.

* * *

“Amazing!”

Jack Corbin breathed a quiet, impressed whistle, shaking his head a little as he watched the distant figure melt back into the underbrush. Even watching carefully through the powerful binoculars, Jack couldn’t find the woman once she’d disappeared. He turned back to his companion with a thin-lipped smile.

The plan had worked perfectly. As he had predicted, the single shot attracted the attention of the strange tiger-woman, and Jack had little trouble laying a trail for her to follow. Luring the stranger into the open allowed the poacher to watch from a safe distance where he could verify the threat she posed. And from what he’d seen, Jack had not been disappointed. His only regret was that their ruse may have alerted the woman to danger.

“It seems I owe you an apology, Shaun,” he said softly. “As difficult as your story may be to believe, I can’t deny the evidence of my own eyes.” He chuckled a little. “Not quite a ghost, however…she’s as much flesh and blood as you or I.”

Shaun grunted, his arms folded across his chest angrily. “So why didn’t you just shoot her from here?”

Jack shook his head. “She sensed us watching and ran,” he said, still marveling at the strange woman’s apparent hyper-awareness. “She’s quick and wary…we’ll need to set an ambush, which means finding her usual haunts first, then figuring out the pattern of her movements.”

“Who is she?” the brawny red-head wondered aloud.

“Probably some half-crazed vigilante,” Jack guessed with a shrug. “Some activist who took a bad trip and went nuts. Looks like she’s been living out here a while…which means she must have developed a good survival instinct. More animal than human, I’ll bet. Still…” He offered a confidant grin. “…we’ll be the one’s doing the hunting now, and while she may be fast, I doubt she’ll be able to dodge a bullet!”

“That’s if she’s human,” Shaun pointed out, still not entirely convinced. “She’s the one what’s killed all the other guys. I bet they were careful, too, but it didn’t do ’em any good, did it?”

Jack scowled. “They were taken by surprise,” he said softly. “She won’t be expecting us to attack her.” Seeing his words having little effect, the tall poacher sighed. “Look…that woman is all that stands between us and a fortune. We kill her, then we can start the hunt for the white tiger. If those scientist people find it before we do, we’ll just go in and take it – nice and simple. Are you gonna let your idiotic superstitions stop you from getting a nice fat paycheck?”

Shaun reluctantly shook his head. “Of course not. But-”

“But nothing! She’s just some whacked-out loon who’s gone psycho and started killing poachers! We put her down, and then when we get out of here, everyone else’ll be thanking us for getting rid of the ‘tiger-ghost’.” Jack clapped his brawny companion on the shoulder and turned him back towards their camp. “This is the sort of thing that’ll make for a powerful reputation,” he continued enticingly. “We’ll both be legends!”

Shaun’s eyes lit up. “Really?”

“Absolutely!”

“And you’re sure we can get her?”

Jack grinned. “I’ve hunted everything on this planet that walks or crawls…trust me Shaun, humans are a lot easier to kill than the big cats that’re out there.”

Shaun considered carefully, unable to resist the tempting idea of being able to brag that he’d helped to kill the ‘Indian Menace’. “Okay,” he said. “What do we do first.”

Jack patted his companion heartily on the back, and began to explain his simple plan.

* * *

“Hey!”

Ashley was sitting on a fallen log, trying not to fidget with concern, when the familiar low voice startled her. Jumping up and turning, she breathed a sigh of relief when Leandra’s striped form emerged from the forest.

“Jeez Leandra, what’d I tell you about sneaking up on me!” she scolded.

“Sorry.” Leandra smiled warmly, unable to hold a repentant expression. “I’ll try to remember to make noise next time.”

“Thanks.” Ashley sat back down and gestured for Leandra to join her. “So what did you find?”

Leandra shook her head. “Nothing much,” she said. “No blood or signs of a kill, and a single set of tracks that died in a river. But there was something strange about it…something wrong.”

“Like what?”

“Well…” Leandra thought back on the warning her body had given her, trying to figure out what had caused the desire to flee.
“It wasn’t really something I could hear, or smell, or even see. But I could feel something out there…like I was being watched.”

“I know what you’re talking about,” Ashley smiled. “I seem to recall experiencing the same thing the first night you paid me a visit.”

Leandra shrugged with a wry smile. “Can’t blame me for being interested,” she said quietly. “You did set up camp in my hunting ground, remember.”

“I know.” Ashley considered Leandra’s report. “Maybe the shot was just a signal or something,” she suggested. “It’s pretty easy to get lost out here if you don’t know what you’re doing. Maybe two groups were just using the sound of the gunshot to find each other.”

“Maybe.” The dark woman shook away the memory of the hunt, not wanting to have to think about her more primitive life while in Ashley’s company. Being with the young blonde made her feel more human than she’d felt in a long time…the simple contact eased her concerns about the day-to-day struggle she faced in her exile. “You want to keep going? There’s a nice little clearing not too far up ahead.”

“Sure.”

The two stood and continued on down the dry creek bed, Ashley starting a story of her niece’s last escapade which had resulted in a suspension from school. Leandra listened attentively, a slight smile on her face as she enjoyed the simple pleasure of hearing another person speaking.

* * *

The next day, Ashley took her walk down by the river and, as usual, Leandra quickly joined her. As soon as the striped figure emerged from the jungle, the photographer noticed a mysterious smile on her friend’s face, and quirked an eyebrow at her curiously.

“What are you smiling about?”

“Nothing big,” Leandra replied. “There’s a small herd of chitel feeding a few miles east of here in the grasslands. I found them last night, but there wasn’t time to hunt, so I left it for today. I haven’t been bringing in much prey lately, so this is good.”

“Why haven’t you been hunting?” Ashley asked, then suddenly realized the only possible reason. “Oh.” She smiled shyly. “You know, you don’t have to keep me entertained Leandra. If you need to hunt, that’s fine. I don’t want to be causing you problems.”

“It’s no problem.” Leandra started guiding their footsteps along the river bank, heading east. “I’d rather spend the time with you; it’s been a nice change for me to have another person around. But still, I could use the meat. I’ve been draining my rice supplies too quickly.”

“So…I guess you can’t do much today, huh?”

“Actually…” Leandra smiled shyly at her companion, “I was going to ask if you’d like to come with me. As long as you stay quiet, you shouldn’t frighten them away.”

Ashley’s face lit up with pleasure at the invitation, delighted at the opportunity to see more of how Leandra lived out here. “I’d love to come! Are you sure you don’t mind?”

“Very sure.”

“Well, okay then. Great!”

Leandra was pleased her offer was so well-received; she knew from all the questions the young woman asked that Ashley was fascinated by her more primitive habits…by how she had survived out here as an animal for so long. Still, she didn’t like to talk about it too much; didn’t like the idea that she was less a human than a simple beast…even if sometimes it were true. While the dark woman felt a little awkward revealing what, to her, seemed a barbaric and uncultured habit, the fact of the matter was that she needed to hunt, but at the same time she didn’t want to spend time away from Ashley. This was the best way to mix what she needed to do with what she wanted to do.

It took an hour to reach the place where the spotted deer were grazing, and Ashley’s simple tank-top was dark with sweat and clinging to her lithe figure by the time they arrived. The young blonde noted with a little envy that Leandra wasn’t even breathing hard, despite the humidity. The striped woman raised a hand to signal a halt just before the end of the dense jungle cover, her eyes intense and alive as she surveyed the open grasslands beyond. Ashley shivered a little with excitement, watching her companion interestedly as she sniffed the air.

“Alright,” Leandra said very quietly, licking her lips. “Can you see them?” She pointed.

Ashley squinted, standing on tip-toes to see over the high grass, but shook her head. “Nope.”

“Well, let’s see if we can get a little closer then.”

The two moved very slowly along the edge of the forest, Leandra making less noise than a ghost, while Ashley winced everytime she stepped on a dry twig or crinkly leaf, feeling clumsy next to the stealth of her friend. When they found a better position, Leandra pointed again and this time, Ashley was delighted to see the small group of chitel grazing cautiously no more than fifty feet away.

It was difficult to count how many deer there were, since some were sitting and resting, while others cropped at the dry grasses or stood on hind legs to reach the sweeter leaves of the trees above. Also, several of them seemed to be standing lookout; the large animals were well-accustomed to being prey for the great jungle cats or packs of scrawny wolves, and were suitably wary of any hunters. Ashley bit her lower lip.

“Can you get close enough without them seeing you?”

Leandra smiled a little at the question. “Seeing me? Yes. Smelling me is a little trickier. But they’re not the biggest problem. Look in the tree branches…just above where they’re feeding.”

Ashley looked, her eyes narrowing in confusion. “Monkeys?”

“Uh huh. They might be able to spot me easier, and if they do they’ll warn the chitel. The two groups often form alliances for mutual protection – it always helps to have friends out here when you’re on the bottom of the food-chain.”

Ashley shook her head, a little disappointed. She didn’t see any way Leandra could hope to get anywhere near the skittish deer. It was clear the dark woman hunted in the same manner as the great cats she mimicked, and without a gun, or at least a bow or a spear, it seemed a hopeless task. “Well…maybe you could wait for a better opportunity.”

Leandra smiled. “No need for that. Here…I’ll help you into this tree so you can get a better view.”

“Wait…you mean you think you can still do this?”

“Sure. I’ve stalked harder prey than this.”

“But…” Ashley looked between Leandra and the chitel, confused. “How can you-” Painted fingers pressed against her lips and stopped her questions.

“Just watch…and learn.”

With a helpful boost from her friend, Ashley climbed up into the lower branches of the stout tree and settled comfortably to watch. The extra height gave her a better view of the grassland, and she smiled down at Leandra.

“I’ll be moving into the wind,” the dark woman explained softly. “Just keep your eyes on that stretch of grass over there,” she indicated with her hand, “and you should be able to see me okay.”

“Alright. But I don’t see how you can do this.”

Leandra’s eyes were predatory yet playful. “You will.” Then she turned and vanished silently back into the jungle.

Ashley settled herself into a better position and waited, busying herself with checking her camera and getting ready to take photos should the opportunity present itself. Recalling what she’d read of tiger hunting techniques, the young woman thought it would be a miracle if Leandra could bring down one of the deer.

The dark woman was agile, and she was certainly stealthy, but she was trying to use the same methods as a creature that must outweigh her by at least a hundred pounds. A tiger could use its weight and strength to bring down prey, but Leandra had no such advantage. Also, Ashley remembered, a tiger had teeth…Leandra only had a set of claws, which, while they may have been long and admittedly very sharp, couldn’t compete with the gifts nature had provided the super-predator cats. According to her reading, only about one in twenty tiger attacks were successful; how could Leandra match them? Shaking her head, the young blonde looked through the view-finder on her camera, and waited for her companion to reappear.

After a time, Leandra’s tawny form emerged from the undergrowth. Ashley watched through the zoom on her camera, smiling a little. The dark woman was on all fours, holding herself only a few inches off the ground as she very slowly stalked towards the unsuspecting deer. Seeing her friend in action for the first time, Ashley now understood the merits of the body paint; the stripes blended in with the golden hue of the grasses, camouflaging Leandra very effectively. It took a while for the dark woman to gain ground on her wary prey, and she paused often to lay flat in grass, making sure the vigilant monkeys did not spy her moving closer. Ashley could only marvel at Leandra’s endurance. She was sure she couldn’t have held her body up like that for more than a few minutes, yet the dark woman seemed capable of maintaining her position indefinitely.

Damn, she’s good, Ashley thought to herself, snapping a few quick shots and admiring the display of primal cunning before her. Through the camera, she could see the muscles all along Leandra’s thighs, arms and stomach stand out like steel cords beneath the paint, and she shook her head in amazement. She’s certainly got the body for this stuff…all muscle and sinew, barely a hint of fat on her whole frame. Tough, lean…sexy as hell…

Wait a minute…Sexy?

Green eyes blinked in confusion at the unusual assessment that came unbidden to her mind, then narrowed a little in honest speculation as Ashley reviewed the distant, crouched figure of her friend.

Well…she is sexy, she admitted frankly. She’s got a body to die for, and absolutely gorgeous eyes. If her hair was introduced to a brush once in a while, I bet it’d look really great. And that husky, throaty voice…God, if she were one of those phone-sex girls, she’d make a fortune!

Ashley let her eyes roam a little more personally over Leandra, her lips pursing in serious contemplation. Plus, she added mentally, she’s got that whole sexual predator thing going on…even if she’s not aware of it. When she purrs, or stretches
herself…I don’t think she has any idea how hot that looks.

Green eyes rolled a little. God, Ashley, I didn’t think you went in for the ‘bad-girl’ type! Still, the young woman couldn’t deny the simple truth: Leandra was an extremely sexy, sensual creature, and she could admit to feeling more than a little attracted to her.

As Ashley was pondering her unusually desirous thoughts, Leandra had moved to within striking distance, and was now crouched in the tall grass on her haunches, visibly gathering her energy before she pounced. Ashley thought the tall woman seemed particularly cat-like at that moment, and was certain that if Leandra had possessed whiskers and a tail, they would both have been twitching with anticipation. The photographer snapped away with her camera unconsciously, her body tense with excitement and awe.

In a sudden burst of movement, Leandra pounced. Her attack was brief and incredibly swift, the dark woman throwing herself bodily at one of the smaller doe’s with enough power to knock the startled creature off its feet and onto its side. Even before Leandra’s hands had wrestled for a grip on her victims neck, the rest of the herd leapt away and sprinted desperately from the scene. In the trees above, the monkeys raised a chorus of protest and indignation at the stealthy intruder, seeking cover among the higher branches of their roost. The doe was stronger and tougher than Leandra, and quickly tried to regain its balance to flee…but a moment later Leandra attacked with a devastating, almost frenzied series of slashing swipes with her clawed hands, tearing out the throat of the terrified deer and holding it against the ground until it stopped thrashing.

Ashley’s mouth hung open at the savage display, images of the mauled poachers rising again in her mind. She shuddered, now seeing a more graphic display of Leandra’s killing technique and imagining how she must have used it against the human intruders. The young blonde lowered the camera with shaking hands. The attack had lasted only seconds, and had taken the deer completely by surprise – they’d never even seen it coming.

Swift, brutal, and frightfully effective…Leandra’s hunting style was every bit as awesome a spectacle as a real tiger attack.

Still, Ashley hadn’t been a wildlife photographer for so many years without seeing much that was savage and brutal. It was, she reminded herself, simply the way the natural world often worked. Leandra had lived in the wild for four years, making her home among some of the most effective predators on Earth. So of course, she’d had to learn to endure the harsh environment – had learned to hunt and survive just as the tigers had.

The only difference being that Leandra could defend herself against the one threat the great cats were helpless against: man.

Quickly securing the film from her camera in a plastic case, Ashley scampered down the tree and dashed over to her friend. When she reached Leandra, she was a little surprised to find the woman’s painted skin shimmering under a light sweat, and her breathes coming hard – almost panting. Trying to ignore the spattered blood that marked the dark woman’s body, and her crimson-stained hands, Ashley beamed a brilliant smile.

“That was incredible!” she said, crouching down next to her friend. “I’ve never seen anything like it!”

Leandra grinned, rubbing her side a little where the thrashing hooves of her prey had struck a glancing blow. “Thanks,” she panted, wiping her bloody hands in the grass and admiring her kill proudly. “It took a lot of practice to get the hang of hunting like this, but…” She shrugged. “It’s how I was taught.”

Ashley studied the slain doe, grimacing slightly at the horribly torn throat. “What now? I mean…you’re not just gonna start ripping it apart with your teeth, right?”

“Of course not.” Leandra chuckled a little, the throaty sound rumbling deep in her belly. “I’ll butcher it here – take the best parts with me and leave the rest for the wolves and the carrion feeders. I can dry and salt some of the meat, and eat the rest tonight.”

Ashley looked dubiously at Leandra’s claws. “You can’t carve a carcass with those, can you?”

“No.” Leandra reached into a hidden pocket stitched into the folds of her brief skirt and pulled out a small piece of flint-stone. She held it up, displaying a wickedly sharp edge. “When I first came out here I had a steel knife, but it’s gone now. I use this instead.”

“Oh.”

Ashley watched her friend swiftly cut away the skin of the doe and begin to harvest the best parts; the haunches, flanks and chest. Having spent time among tribal people both in Africa and Australia, Ashley wasn’t at all squeamish about the butchering process. She took the slices of bloody meat from Leandra and laid them on a bed of grasses she made. As Leandra worked, her eyes constantly flicked about them nervously, and Ashley watched her curiously.

“You expecting someone?”

Leandra shrugged. “A kill doesn’t go unnoticed out here for long,” she explained. “In a few minutes, something’s bound to find us and we have to be gone before that happens. I don’t want to have to fight off a pack of hungry wolves.”

Ashley understood, and started eyeing the surrounding grasslands with more trepidation. “Has that ever happened before?”

“A few times,” Leandra said simply. “During the first months I was out here, I didn’t have much luck catching food for myself.
I um…I had to scavenge what I could from the kills of others.”

Ashley didn’t even want to think what kinds of things Leandra must have eaten to survive. “Good thing you got better, huh?”

“Yeah.”

Finishing up hurriedly, the two friends gathered the bundles of meat and hastened away from the open grasslands, both women feeling much better as soon as they were once more in the shadows of the jungle. Leandra led the way back to her cave, where she invited Ashley to stay for lunch. The blonde was only too happy to agree, and they enjoyed a simple meal of venison and some kind of root vegetable that was sweet and nutty. Afterwards, Ashley helped her friend start curing the rest of the meat, first cutting it into thin strips and then laying it out on a rock by the fire to dry. She noticed Leandra’s appetite was somewhat voracious, and grinned.

“You remind me of my niece’s cat,” she said. “Everytime you offer her food, she just can’t resist, even if she’s already full.”

“It’s a survival trait,” Leandra said around a mouthful of charred venison. “You eat as much as you can, as quick as you can, before something bigger and stronger comes along and takes over.”

“Will the meat attract anything to the cave? I mean, the animals must be able to smell it from a mile away.”

“They won’t come here,” Leandra said confidently. “A wolf won’t get too close to a tiger or a leopard unless it’s starving…and the same goes for me.” She gave a feral grin. “I have the privilege of being near the top of the food-chain.”

“Oh…right.”

Ashley watched her friend surreptitiously as she used a rag to wash away the blood from her hands, green eyes wandering along the tall woman’s body with subtle stealth. She quickly became lost in the effect the rippling muscles had on the patterned skin, dark stripes flexing with every movement Leandra made. Ashley tried to imagine what Leandra might look like without the paint, and was surprised to find the image difficult to conjure. She was so accustomed to the stripes that she barely even noticed them as being unusual anymore; they were as much a part of Leandra as the claws, or the purring, or the aura of primal power she projected. With a roguish smile, Ashley allowed herself the guilty delight of enjoying the fact that her friends outfit left so very little to the imagination…and was soon trying to mentally fill in the few blanks that remained.

“Ashley?”

“Hmm?” Green eyes snapped into focus suddenly, and Ash blushed a little, realizing her mind had been about to take a happy little jaunt down Fantasy Lane. Fortunately, Leandra was apparently focused on her task of preparing the meat.

“Could you get me the salt? It’s in that small crate on the top over there.”

“Oh…um, sure. No problem.” Shaking her head ruefully, Ashley cleared her throat and retrieved the small paper bag filled with white salt. Handing it to Leandra, she settled down on her rock seat and continued to watch as her friend proceeded to salt the meat a little, the dark woman working quickly and easily. Ashley smiled to herself, and tried hard not to notice just how well-formed Leandra’s hands and fingers really were.

She succeeded…but only because her eyes quickly found other – even more interesting – parts of the tiger-woman to study.

* * *

It was nearly dark by the time Ashley made it back to camp, and Grady and Tarun were obviously starting to get nervous about her prolonged absence. At first they greeted her return with relieved thanks, but that quickly dissolved into another lecture.

“If you’re going to go out there traipsing through the jungle with that woman, the least you can do is come back at a reasonable hour!” Grady fumed, towering over his diminutive partner, who, as usual, showed not the slightest hint of being intimidated.

“I was perfectly alright!” Ashley returned, glaring up at him. “If I want to stay out there all night with Leandra, that’s my business, not yours!”

“Oh really? So you’ll just forget about your friends who are back here, worried sick about you, is that it?” Grady took a deep breath and tried to calm himself, knowing it wasn’t going to do any good if he got angrier. “Look, Ashley…just try to remember that when you’re gone for that long, and we have no idea where you are-”

“You did know where I was!” Ashley interrupted. “I was with Leandra…and that means I’m safe! She’d never let anything hurt me.”

Grady scowled, then noticed flecks of dark crimson staining the young woman’s arms and clothing. He pointed. “So what’s this? Blood?”

Ashley flushed a little. “It’s not mine,” she explained. “She took me hunting…I got a little dirty, that’s all.”

Grady threw his hands up in disbelief. “Hunting!? Are you going to try telling me that’s not potentially dangerous?”

“No,” she said angrily. “But it’s certainly no more dangerous than any of the other things I’ve done. Why is it pissing you off so much that I’m spending time with this woman?”

“I just don’t like you taking risks when you don’t need too, that’s all.” Grady shook his head and sat down next to the fire. Simon and Grace sat quietly and tried hard not to look like they were taking sides. “We’re here to do a job, Ashley…not spend time with the locals.”

“And Leandra’s helping me do my job.”

“Is she? Have you asked her about the white tiger?”

Ashley blushed a little, her mind working hard trying to figure out an answer. “I-I don’t…I mean, she uh-” She swallowed nervously. “She doesn’t really like to talk about the tigers much,” she said quietly. “I don’t want to push her about it.”

Grady slapped his thighs and sighed. “Well maybe you should,” he said. “Remember, we’re only here for another week and a bit. Then, we’re flying out of here and if you haven’t got the pictures by then, that’s it. You don’t get a second chance at this sort of thing.”

“I know that…but I’m not going to do anything to make Leandra uncomfortable.”

“And that’s another thing,” Grady continued. “I think maybe you’re getting attached to your subject. What happens when we leave? How’s Leandra going to take that?”

“She knows when I’m leaving. It’s good for her to have some company. Some human company.”

“So you’re telling me you’re not getting attached?”

Ashley lowered her eyes a little, remembering the thoughts she’d started having today. “There’s nothing wrong with making friends with her,” she said softly. “I like her…and I fully intend to spend as much time as I can with her before I have to go back home.”

The argument continued even after the sun had disappeared, and eventually Ashley, already tired from her busy day and in no mood to deal with her partner’s tantrum, announced that she was retiring to her tent. Knowing not to push any harder or he would be risking serious injury, Grady backed down and let her go without comment, but from his expression he seemed less than happy.

Inside her tent, Ashley breathed a sigh of relief and let go her tension. It was rare for her to argue with her partner like this. If she didn’t know better, she would have suspected Grady was jealous of the time she’d been spending with Leandra. As partners who spent so much time together both in the field and at work, of course there had been several times when rumors of a romantic or sexual affair between herself and her admittedly handsome partner had made the circuit round the offices. Ashley and Grady had both found the whispered suspicions rather amusing, and often teased each other with campy propositions and the like. Ashley knew her partner well, however; Grady enjoyed his bachelor lifestyle far too much to want a relationship with someone as troublesome and headstrong as herself. The two were friends and nothing more.

It was unusual for Grady to be this protective, Ashley mused as she stripped off her clothes and crawled into her sleeping bag. Laying back with a quiet groan as she relaxed aching muscles, the young blonde closed her eyes and hoped that, with a little time, Grady would get over whatever it was that was bothering him.

After a few moments of quiet peace, Ashley reflected on what had been an entirely pleasant – and very active – day. Fit as she was, Ashley’s calves and lower back were killing her; she wasn’t used to hiking so far all at once. Feeling the throbbing heat in her muscles spread almost pleasantly through her body, the young photographer let her attention turn to the more surprising thoughts that had cropped up in her mind that day.

Ashley had long ago admitted to herself that she had more than a passing interest in other women. Ever since she’d been a teenager, the idea of being intimate with another female had seemed like quite an enticing prospect. However, while Ashley may have been adventurous and bold in most aspects of her life, it was a characteristic that had not yet ventured into her personal relationships. In fact, her love life thus far could best be described as rather chaste and boring.

She hadn’t had a boyfriend in almost three years, and even though there had been a few women Ashley had considered extremely suitable candidates for a romantic liaison, she had never been able to summon up the courage to actually make the first move. The one time another woman had made a polite overture to her, Ashley had been so shocked and tongue-tied, she’d declined in a panic and then spent a whole week slapping herself on the forehead in regret.

Of course, Ashley could admit that the blame for most of her relationship problems lay squarely in her own lap. She was very involved in her work, she spent a lot of time overseas, and she was headstrong and didn’t take well to being told what to do – all of which were characteristics that made for a troublesome and oftimes infuriating partner. Ashley had pretty much resigned herself to the fact that she wasn’t likely to ever meet that ‘special someone,’ and had quickly found ways to deal with her natural wants and needs by herself. Though her sex-life had been less than inspiring, Ashley still had a vivid enough imagination and a healthy appetite, and she quite often found her fantasies drifting into contemplations of the female gender.

Still, Leandra was very different to any of her previous fantasy-lovers…and Ashley analyzed her feelings critically as she recalled the images from earlier that day of the dark woman stalking her prey.

Mostly, Ashley’s visions of the perfect woman ran along fairly simple lines. She would be of average height (being so short, Ashley didn’t want someone too tall to kiss properly), she would be cultured, sophisticated and confident…athletic, rather than muscular…she would have a stable job. Oh, and she would have long, silky fine hair through which Ashley could comb her fingers.

Characteristics that were noticeably absent in her new friend.

Leandra was at least six feet tall, and that was barefoot – too tall to make a comfortable kisser for the blonde photographer. While she may have been confident, the jungle woman was about the polar-opposite of cultured or refined; she painted her body and mimicked giant cats, she had no sense of modesty whatsoever, and she had a tendency to growl when upset. Leandra was lean, but her body was tough and hard from her difficult lifestyle…and a ‘job’ that was best not even analyzed. And finally, Ashley doubted highly that the thin, dark dreadlocks could ever be combed into a presentable enough state that she could run her fingers through them without getting tangled. All in all, Leandra was a far cry from the sort of person Ashley pictured herself being attracted too.

Well…maybe I’ve been barking up the wrong tree, Ashley thought to herself. Maybe the problem has been that I’ve always gone for the stable, steady type people who could maybe balance out my own impulsive tendencies, when all along I should have been looking for someone more like…

She paused. More like what? A woman who’s been living in the Indian jungle for four years and who likes to kill poachers with her bare hands?

It was, Ashley noted with a slightly wry smile, a faintly ridiculous situation.

Of course…she does have some interesting qualities, Ashley continued mentally. I mean, just because she doesn’t fit in with my perfect ideal doesn’t change the fact that she’s one hot lookin’ lady! And she has no inhibitions whatsoever…that’d certainly be a change! Thus far, Ashley’s sexual experiences had only ever explored two possible positions…neither of which had impressed her greatly. I bet Leandra would be the type who would be willing to try new things…experiment and stuff. Ashley grinned rakishly as she considered the possibilities of having such an open, unreserved lover.

God, I bet she’d be a wild one between the sheets!

Ashley hugged her makeshift pillow and hummed happily. Of course, she knew she was too chicken-shit to even consider making a move on her friend. There were far too many blindingly obvious reasons to steer clear of the whole messy idea. For one thing, she would be leaving soon. For another, Leandra’s uninhibitedness might not extend into this kind of situation.

And perhaps most of all, Ashley liked Leandra. She enjoyed spending time out here with her; enjoyed their increased camaraderie and the way Leandra was slowly starting to talk more about herself and her life. Ashley could see the almost desperate way the dark woman clung to every word she spoke, and she didn’t want to do anything that might make Leandra retreat back into her primal, animalistic world.

The dark woman may have made a fine subject for her fantasies, but Ashley knew she wasn’t the most suitable target for a meaningful – or even a meaningless – relationship.

Sighing again, Ashley rolled over and let herself drift away, imagining possible scenarios of what she knew could never be.

* * *

The next morning, Leandra woke just as the sun started lighting the distant horizon with a golden hue. The early morning chill didn’t bother her – in fact, it felt refreshing, and she uncurled her long, supple form with a sigh, wincing at the familiar stiffness in her right shoulder. Rising from the thin sleeping mat that served as her bed, she spent a few moments stretching her body before getting to her feet and beginning her morning routine.

Over a small fire, the dark woman cooked a few slivers of venison from yesterday’s kill. Leandra had never been good at cooking, but she had long since gotten used to the taste of burned food. Quickly tearing the charred meat apart with her teeth, she finished her meal and licked the grease from her fingers before wandering outside to meet the new day.

Usually, Leandra would spend her morning hunting the animals that often watered at this time down by the nearby creek. She would then patrol her hunting grounds, keeping an eye on the rangers and searching for any signs of more sinister intruders. Sometimes she would visit with her animal friends, reminding them of her presence here in the jungle lest they forget and mistake her for just another human tourist. But not today. The promise of Ashley’s company was more than enough to make her forget about her usual activities.

After watering at the creek – noting absently that she would need to redo her body-paint soon and take a bath – Leandra made her way out to Ashley’s camp. What would have been for most people a reasonable hike was for Leandra only a comparatively short walk, and by the time the sun had risen fully into the sky, the dark woman was perched among the branches of a tree, watching Ashley and her companions as they ate breakfast and talked.

Just watching the vibrant blonde from a distance made Leandra smile unconsciously and started a low rumbling purr deep in her chest. Leandra had learned to make such feline noises during her first year in the wilderness, when much of her time had been spent among the great cats, learning to mimic their behavior and habits so she could survive as they did. It had been an important skill to pick up – one that enabled her to understand at least a little of the subtle communications that went on between tigers. Knowing what sounds indicated contentment, or anger, or warning, went a long way to keeping the dark-haired woman alive while she lived among the unpredictable, often savage cats. Now – like breathing – she made the noises without any thought at all, and it took a conscious effort for her to control them.

Watching the group curiously, noting their interactions, Leandra grinned as she wondered how they would react if she wandered into their camp. Ashley had told her that the two scientists wanted to meet her, but Leandra was cautious about exposing herself to questions about her life. Would these people accept her? Would they be shocked by her appearance and mannerisms? Ashley had grown accustomed to her peculiarities during their time together, but it might not be so easy for others. Looking at the nearby gathering, watching her friend as she chatted with the other people, suddenly made Leandra wish she had the courage to enter their group and be a part of their apparent camaraderie. She wondered at the sudden impulse to join them, and realized it stemmed from a desire to be closer to Ashley.

She wanted to be a part of the blonde woman’s world…the world she had turned her back on a very long time ago.

Shaking her head a little to clear away the strange longings, Leandra noticed for the first time a subtle tension in the group below. Though she was too far away to hear their words, it was suddenly clear that there was some kind of conflict between Ashley and the man sitting next to her. Leandra’s eyes narrowed as she watched, seeing for the first time signs of displeasure in her friends face. From her sharp gestures and angry expression, Leandra could tell that Ashley was upset with her colleague over something.

Ashley stood up from her tree-stump seat and glared at the man, saying something that was obviously meant to put an end to their argument, then she turned and stalked off, heading down towards the river. Leandra smiled, knowing her friend was going to their normal meeting place. Her smile disappeared when the man threw down his plate and followed the young blonde. Ice-blue eyes narrowed in frustration, and the striped woman quickly leapt to the ground and moved after the two figures.

She caught up to them at the river, and watched from the cover of the jungle undergrowth as the heated conversation continued. Now, however, she was close enough to hear the nature of the conflict, and she was surprised to find it was about her!

“For the last time, Grady, I’m not staying at the hide with Simon!” the angry blonde fumed. “Now go away! Leandra won’t come if you’re here.”

From her hiding place, Leandra grinned. She accepts me so easily, she marveled happily. She doesn’t ask questions when she knows I don’t want to answer…she just lets me be who I am around her.

Unfortunately, the tall man with dark-brown hair didn’t back down. “Then maybe I should just stay with you,” he snapped, folding his arms over his chest. “You shouldn’t be going off like this with that woman!”

Leandra growled, not liking this man at all.

“I can do what I want, Grady! It’s none of your business!”

“It is when you’re not doing your job,” Grady returned. “You need to ask her about the white tiger! If she knows anything, you need to find out about it!”

Ashley’s face was flushed with anger. “I am NOT going to use Leandra just to get a few photos!” she shouted. “She’s my friend, not some hired tiger-tracker like Tarun! If you want the bloody cat found, why not go shout at him to do it! It’s what we’re paying him for, isn’t it?” The blonde turned away from the man, obviously intending to walk away.

“Wait a minute here, Ashley!” Grady reached out and grabbed her shoulder, spinning the young woman around forcefully and pushing her against a tree.

Leandra’s eyes lit up instantly with feral fires, and she sprang from the cover of the undergrowth without thinking twice. Before Grady could get another word out – and before Ashley could even think of retaliating herself – the dark woman had torn him away from the stunned photographer and hurled him against the bole of a fallen tree. His eyes widened in surprise, then panic as he met the cold gaze of the striped woman, and he gasped when she pressed razor-sharp claws into his neck. A low, ominous growl vibrated in her chest, and Leandra bared her teeth in a terrible snarl as she crouched over him.

“Leandra?” Ashley recovered from her shock, and the striped woman felt a calming hand touch her shoulder. “It’s okay, he wasn’t going to hurt me.”

Leandra glanced back at the blonde, instantly calmed by her soft green eyes and reassuring expression. Still, her growl turned deeper and she leaned closer still to Grady’s motionless face, sniffing at him and knowing he was terrified by the primitive gesture. With an effort, she resisted the urge to lick his cheek and see if she could get him to wet himself, instead retracting her claws slowly and stepping off the frozen man.

Ashley gave her a quick, decidedly wicked little grin and helped Grady stand. The man stared at Leandra in awed fear, the dark woman watching him closely, still growling.

“Grady, I think you should go back to camp now…don’t you?” Ashley suggested, thinking it would be best to get rid of him before Leandra decided to scare him some more.

Grady looked at her in shock. “This is the woman you keep saying is harmless!?” He gestured at the painted woman.

Leandra bared her teeth and gave a feline hiss.

“She was just protecting me,” Ashley explained, giving her dark friend a scolding look which was completely ignored. She gave her partner a little push in the direction of their camp. “I’m perfectly safe with Leandra…so go back to camp and leave us alone!”

Grady gave the primal-looking woman a final baleful glare, but eventually he nodded. “Fine. But we’re going to have a talk about this later on.” Then he turned and headed off back down the river bank.

Once he was out of sight, Ashley turned to Leandra and grinned. “You didn’t need to frighten him like that,” she rebuked the dark woman gently, her laughing eyes revealing that she wasn’t at all angry. “I thought he was going to pee his pants.”

Leandra returned the grin. “Sorry. I just saw him grab you and I guess I just…reacted.”

“Grady’s a little frustrated,” Ashley explained. Normally, she didn’t like other people butting in and trying to fight her battles for her, but for some reason Leandra’s swift defense of the perceived attack didn’t annoy her at all. In fact, it felt kind of nice. “I’m not sure why, but he’s got a bug up his arse about me spending so much time with you.”

Leandra shuffled her feet a little uncomfortably. “I don’t…want to be causing you problems,” she said quietly. “You know, if you have a job to do-”

“Hey…” Ashley took the dark woman’s arms and shook her head. “I’m doing my job just fine. Believe me Leandra, you’re not hindering my work at all.”

Leandra nodded her shy acceptance. “Okay then.” She smiled sheepishly. “I guess he’s not gonna like me any more for attacking him like that, huh?”

Ashley snorted. “I don’t care what Grady thinks. He should know better by now than to try and push me around like that. If you hadn’t put him in his place, I’d have done it myself.” She patted her friend on the shoulder. “Still, thank you for jumping in like that. It was a very nice gesture.”

“No problem.” Leandra toyed with one of her dreadlocks absently as they started walking down along the riverside. “I didn’t even really think about it,” she admitted after a moment of thought. “I just…didn’t like seeing him get rough with you. I mean…you’re my friend, so…”

“I understand.” Ashley studied her companion curiously. “Guess you’re a little territorial, huh?” she joked.

Leandra took the question seriously, however, and nodded a fraction. “I guess so. I don’t like it when…” She hesitated, her expression troubled. “I don’t like it when someone tries to hurt my friends.”

Ashley smiled, a pleasant tingle running through her body. “Well, I don’t mind if you’re a bit overprotective,” she smiled. “It’s not something I usually like, but I’m willing to make an exception for you.” She chuckled, and added, “Just as long as you don’t get it into your head to start marking your territory.”

Leandra couldn’t help herself, and laughed too. “I promise I’ll resist the urge, no matter how tempting it might be.”

“Good.”

Laughing and joking, the two women continued off into the jungle together, eager to enjoy another day of pleasant companionship.

* * *

A few hours later, seated on a low cliff looking down at the herd of Indian elephants splashing about in the shallow waters of a river below, Leandra recalled the conversation she’d overheard between Ashley and her partner. She glanced at the young blonde who was snapping away happily at the giant animals with her camera.

“Your friend seemed pretty upset about you not finding what you came here for,” she observed casually.

Ashley shrugged. “I haven’t told him there is no white tiger,” she admitted. “I think it’d probably just make him angrier now, so…”

“Hmm.” The dark woman was silent, considering. “It meant a lot to you, didn’t it?” she probed gently.

“What? Seeing the cat? Well, sure…I mean, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. And for someone in my career…” The blonde set her camera down and just sat with Leandra, watching the elephants. “It would have been something very special.”

“Mmmm.” Leandra cocked her head to the side, thinking. “Coming here looking for a wild tiger…wanting to get close to one…that’s a pretty dangerous job.”

“I know.” Ashley laughed a little. “But it’s no more dangerous than the other assignments I’ve had.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.” The photographer drew her legs under her and sat Indian-style on the rocky ridge. “I spent three months in a little village in Alaska once, shooting the polar bears and stuff. I got a lot closer to them than I really wanted too, let me tell you! Those things are faster than they look. And one time, we were in Australia photographing the crocodiles, and I had the brilliant idea of setting up an underwater hide right where the damn things were swimming!” She shook her head a little and chuckled. “I was lucky to get out of there with all my bits and pieces still attached…although I did get some amazing shots.”

“So…you’re used to taking risks?”

“Sure. It’s part of the job.”

“Does it ever scare you?”

Ashley shrugged. “I guess, sometimes. But usually only afterwards, when the bad stuff has already happened. I’ve been bitten three times by snakes, at least a dozen times by spiders, and I can’t tell you how many times by other things. One of the snake-bites was pretty scary – it hurt like hell, and my breathing went all funny…I started seeing spots and stuff. I was in hospital for a while.” She held out her left leg and displayed the faint white scars of the fang-marks. “I went into the water with a few great white sharks one time, and it freaked me out a little even though I was in a cage. The guys in the boat were throwing burly into the water, trying to get them to go crazy so it’d look more impressive on camera, so I was pretty nervous. Usually though, I’m too busy taking pictures to worry about the danger until it’s too late. I get scared afterwards.”

“So tigers are just another routine job for you, I suppose.”

“Well…yeah, I guess.” Ashley considered. “It’s my first time here, of course…and a white tiger’s pretty unusual.”

“You weren’t even supposed to come out here, were you?” Leandra asked, remembering what Ashley had said about delaying her return to the States for the chance to shoot the rare cat.

“No…but I’m glad I did. Maybe that’s part of the reason why Grady’s upset…he didn’t really want to come here, but I charmed him into it, and now all I’m doing is spending time with you.”

“You have a boss back home?”

“Yeah.”

“Will you get in trouble when you return empty-handed?”

Ash grinned. “What empty-handed?” She gestured towards the elephants. “Thanks to you, I’ve got some of the best stuff I’ve ever taken! A few people might bitch for a while, but no-one can complain about the quality of my work.” She paused, then added, “Besides, I have a very good reputation. My boss won’t yell at me too much, or I might take my talent elsewhere.”

“Mmm.” Leandra absorbed that, pleased that her friend wasn’t going to get into any trouble on her account. “You must have been doing this stuff for a while then, right?”

“Since I was a girl,” Ashley nodded. “I started out as an assistant when I was nineteen, and progressed from there.”

“And you like the work?”

“I love it.” Ashley sighed contentedly. “I get paid well, I get to see the world…and I’m doing something to help bring attention to the problems of endangered species everywhere. People see my work and it helps to generate more interest and support for environment protection groups. Plus,” she added with a sly grin, “on occasion, I get to meet some very interesting people. Like you.”

Leandra smiled, thinking sadly back on her own life. “Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if I’d found a good job that made me happy like that,” she whispered, almost to herself. “Sometimes I look back on everything I did…on all the mistakes I made…and I try to picture where I’d be now if things had worked out differently.”

Ashley heard the sudden change in the dark woman’s tone, and wondered nervously what she should say. Leandra hadn’t really spoken of her life before she came here, only alluding to the fact that she’d been a poacher at one time. The young blonde regarded her friend seriously. “We all make mistakes,” she offered hesitantly. “Even the best of us aren’t perfect…it’s a part of being human.”

“Maybe.” Leandra felt tears burn in her eyes as faces from her past rose in her memory. “But that doesn’t make it any easier.”

Ashley shifted a little closer, not wanting to push for more information but ready to listen if it was offered. She could sense Leandra wanted to open up to her, and she assumed what she hoped was an understanding expression. “You know what I think?
I think sometimes the hardest part about making a mistake is being able to accept it, and then move on.” She paused. “If you let something drag you down…if you let it fester inside you without confronting it…you never really learn from what you’ve done wrong. You understand?”

Leandra considered, then nodded thoughtfully. “I do.” After a moment, blue eyes looked up and pinned Ashley with an intense gaze. “Have you ever made a mistake,” Leandra asked in a low, quiet whisper, “that was so bad…so unforgivable…that you wished you could just curl up into a ball and die, because you couldn’t face the pain of dealing with the consequences?”

Ashley was silent, not expecting such a question. She could see a naked vulnerability in Leandra’s eyes that was filled with pain and despair, and she wondered what could possibly be so terrible as to cause such a depth of suffering. She was silent for long moments, before she shook her head. “No,” she whispered. “I can’t say that I have.” Her eyes flickered over Leandra’s face, seeing a slight trembling in the dark woman’s body. She moved a little closer, wanting to offer some kind of comfort. “Whatever happened, Leandra,” she said softly, “it’s in the past. You shouldn’t let it hurt you anymore.”

“Maybe.” Leandra looked away, uncomfortable, but Ashley gently lifted her chin up, forcing those blue eyes to meet her own.

“No matter what you did wrong…no matter how bad it was…it doesn’t change who you are today.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Leandra protested. “You have no idea what I was like before I came here! I was a heartless bitch; I hurt anyone who was stupid enough to get close to me! I slaughtered hundreds of animals just because I liked the sense of power it gave me!” She covered her face and turned away. “If you’d have met me back then, you wouldn’t have even wasted the time to spit in my direction!”

Ashley sighed, not quite knowing what to say to that. Eventually, she reached out and gently touched Leandra on the shoulder, petting her softly. “I don’t care what you were like before you came here, Leandra,” she whispered. “That’s not who you are now. If it were, do you think I’d be here with you now? That I’d be wanting to be your friend?”

Leandra was still for a moment, then she slowly turned around a little and looked up nervously at the young blonde. “I guess not.”

“Exactly.” Ashley smiled, closing the distance between them and pushing the dark cords of hair out of Leandra’s face. “Whatever you were in the past…when I look at you now, I see a good person, Leandra. A person I’ve grown to like very much in only a few short days.”

“Still…”

“Still, nothing. I’m sure you’ve done things you regret…things that you wish you could take back…but you can’t let those things keep you from trying to make a better life for yourself. If you made a mistake, no matter how bad it was, you should learn from it, and then put it behind you.”

Leandra smiled a little sadly, relishing the comfort for a moment before she drew away from her companion. “Some mistakes need to be punished, before they can be forgiven,” she said softly, then she turned her head and drew her knees up under her chin, the look in her eyes telling Ashley that the conversation was over.

Ashley sighed, and – knowing when it was time to back off – reluctantly went back to watching the elephants bathe.

* * *

It was a subdued Ashley who returned to an empty camp that evening. A quick look around confirmed that the others were still working, probably down at the hide or searching the jungle, and Ashley couldn’t help but feel a little grateful for their absence. She wanted some time to herself to do some serious thinking.

Leandra had remained pensive through the rest of the day, and the two had parted company much earlier than usual. Though Ashley wanted to ask more about Leandra’s past, she restrained her desires, knowing the questions would do more harm than good. So she had accepted the dark woman’s somber mood, and let the silence continue to build.

Not wanting to sit still, Ashley decided to make herself useful by gathering some firewood for later that night. As she wandered the perimeter of the camp collecting a bundle of dry, fallen limbs, the young photographer continued to reflect on her friend’s melancholy spirit. While she was concerned for Leandra, the young blonde couldn’t help but let her thoughts focus mostly on her own reactions to the revealing conversation of that morning. For some inexplicable reason, Ashley had found herself growing even more attracted to the dark woman after hearing the allusions to her troubled past. Somehow, the whole thing served to make Leandra all the more mysterious and intriguing…and Ashley now had to deal with the fact that she had developed an entirely frustrating and illogical – but nonetheless incredibly powerful – crush on the strange woman.

“Way to go, Ashley,” she mocked herself as she absently picked up more sticks. “Come out here on a simple assignment, and you go and get the hots for some freaky tiger-woman with enough emotional and psychological baggage to sink a battle-cruiser! Urgh!” She rubbed her forehead and groaned. “Why can’t you just have a normal life? You know… like your sister.

Find some guy, settle down, and start making a few babies. But nnnnooooo…you have to be adventurous! You have to go to In-dee-a,” she sang sarcastically. “Leandra is not my type…even if she is gorgeous.” She stopped and closed her eyes. “I am not attracted to disturbed people…even if they have got that whole sexy angst thing going on.” She shook her head determinedly.
“And I am not interested in getting naked and sweaty with some jungle woman…even though I bet she could get me screamin’ like a stream-train…” Ashley’s vivid imagination decided to kick in with a few images of potential – decidedly naughty – scenarios, and the young woman slapped herself on the forehead, trying to dislodge them. “Next thing you know, I’ll be visiting one of those leather-fetish bars and buying myself a leash!” she snorted…not quite able to convince herself that she wouldn’t mind trying a few new things if Leandra would show her the ropes.

Still, for all its impracticality, Ashley couldn’t help but be a little amused at herself. It had been a long time since she’d felt this way about someone, and it was kind of nice to finally have such a strong focus for her more licentious thoughts. Leandra’s distracted melancholy had allowed the blonde woman a chance to let her eyes roam with less fear of being caught (although, Ashley had admitted, half the fun of looking was knowing it was a little risky), and she’d spent most of her day sneaking peeks and trying not to giggle like a school-girl. Remembering now, she grinned fully, her eyes alight with devilish fires. “God, I’d forgotten what it feels like to have a serious crush,” she thought aloud. “I just hope she doesn’t catch on…I don’t wanna scare her off now that she’s opening up.”

If she were being honest with herself, Ashley didn’t thing Leandra was the sort of person who would be offended by another woman being attracted to her. From what she’d learned of the dark woman’s personality, Leandra didn’t really place any emphasis on trivial preferences like sexuality. Her life out here had apparently taught her to think in much more basic terms; good or bad, safe or dangerous, like or hate. The smaller, more inconsequential things, didn’t seem important to her. Still, Ashley didn’t want to rock the boat.

Besides, she thought, I wouldn’t even know how to tell her I like her. I mean, that I really like her. I can’t just come right out and say it. I’ve never had the guts to say it to a man before, so I sure as hell wouldn’t be able to say it to a woman!

Ashley paused, going over her mental ramblings. “What am I doing!? I can’t believe I’m actually trying to justify this thing, let alone that I’m wondering how to tell her I’ve got the hots for her! That’s enough…” Arms laden with a stack of wood, the blonde photographer made her way back to camp. “From now on, just stick to the fantasy and leave it at that. She can be your bad-girl dream-lover, but that’s it!” Dumping her load off by the fire, Ashley sat down and started the routine process of checking over her equipment, occupying her mind effectively with the simple chore.

It was some time later that the sound of approaching footsteps made her look up, and she met Grady’s somewhat cautious expression with a neutral face. He was alone. The tall man settled himself on the log-seat opposite her.

“Hey.”

Ashley regarded him coolly. “If you’re planning on another shouting match, save your breath,” she said quietly as she turned her attention back to her work. “Nothing you can say will make me stop spending time with Leandra, or convince me she’s of any danger.”

Grady sighed and ran his fingers through his neatly-cropped hair. “I know,” he said softly. “And I’m sorry I lost my cool this morning…I didn’t mean to grab you like that.”

“You’re just lucky Leandra was there,” the blonde said with a slight smile. “If she hadn’t jumped in like that, you’d be nursing a swollen crotch right now.”

Grady grinned crookedly. “Yeah, well…as it was she scared the shit out of me.”

“She was protecting me.”

“Mmm.” Grady was silent for long moments. “You know, until I actually saw her with my own eyes, I thought you were exaggerating a little. But she’s just as you described her…right down to the growling and snarling.”

“She’s nice once you get to know her.” Ashley stopped her careful work and set her equipment aside. “I don’t understand what you have against her.”

Grady frowned. “She’s an unnecessary distraction, and a killer,” he said. “Nothing you can say in her defense can change that fact. And having met her, I’m sorry Ash, but I like her even less.”

Ashley’s expression hardened a fraction. “She’s still my friend, and I do like her. So just accept it.”

“I know,” Grady said, holding his hands up peacefully. “You’ve made it quite clear you’re going to go your own way on this, regardless of how I feel, so…” He sighed. “I may not like it, but I’m not going to argue with you anymore. All I ask is that you be careful.”

Ashley’s face softened. “I will. Besides, we’re only here for another week or so, and then we’ll be on a plane heading back home.”

“Without the pictures we came here for,” Grady pointed out, ignoring his partner’s glare. “Remember the white tiger? The thing you managed to convince me was worth spending another fortnight in this sauna of a country for.”

“I also told you that tigers are one of the hardest creatures in the world to photograph in the wild,” Ashley reminded him. “If I even get a single shot of a normal bengal, I’ll consider myself lucky.”

“Well, you had the chance the other day, but you were off with your stripy friend instead of manning the hide with Simon and Grace.”

Ashley shrugged. “Finding Leandra out here is something much more remarkable than finding a tiger…and I intend to make the most of what time I have with her.” She decided to change the subject. “How’ve you been getting on? Is Tarun earning his check?”

Grady grinned, accepting that Ashley was ending the conversation on her new friend, and he started filling his partner in on his latest work. Smiling, happy to put any arguments behind her for now, Ashley listened attentively, and enjoyed not being mad at Grady any more.

* * *

Leandra couldn’t sleep.

All through the night, she had tossed and turned on her thin sleeping pallet, wishing for some kind of fatigue to steal her away. But restless thoughts haunted her and she’d only managed a few hours of shiftless, light slumber – not nearly enough to satisfy her.

The conversation with Ashley still sounded in her mind, and Leandra wished she could see things as the young blonde…wished she could put the past behind her and move on. But it wasn’t that simple. The dark woman had accepted her mistakes, and embraced the guilt that came with such acceptance, but she still owed a debt for the crimes she had committed.

Looking around the dark interior of the cave that formed her current home, Leandra scowled. Four years. Before Ashley had come along, she’d sometimes wondered how long her exile had lasted. Those four years seemed like half a lifetime, but during that time she had never thought greatly of the world she’d left behind. Now, things were changing.

Ashley.

The young woman had come along and shattered the perfect isolation of Leandra’s existence, bringing the sounds of laughter and conversation into what had been a silent world. Each day, Leandra felt herself yearning more and more for the simple human contact Ashley gave without a thought…felt herself wishing she could move on and continue her life.

Four years! she screamed silently. I’ve been out here for FOUR YEARS! I gave up EVERYTHING – my money, the comforts of my life…even my humanity. Isn’t that enough? Leandra folded her legs under her and sat, staring into nothing.

“I want to go home,” she admitted in a low whisper. Then she sighed longingly. “If only there was a home to go back too.”

The truth…Well, the truth was, she wanted to go home with Ashley. She wanted to be a part of the life described to her by the young woman; the nice home, the loving family, the caring friends. Leandra didn’t want to give up her connection to Ashley…wanted to remain close to the blonde photographer. During the day, she could feel her attraction intensify steadily until her heart ached with the strength of it. The sensation was strange to Leandra; an odd mix of unfamiliar emotional wants and very familiar physical desires. Lying awake all night, the dark woman wondered how she could show her friend just how much she meant to her.

The answer came easily to mind, but Leandra wrestled against it; she was uncertain about revealing what she considered to be a sacred trust to a woman she’d known scarcely a week. The arguments flew back and forth inside her head.

How do you know you can trust her with something like this?

She wouldn’t betray me. If I show her, she’ll understand how important it is that it remain a secret.

But why take the risk? You can’t be sure.

It would mean a lot to her. It would show her how much I trust and care for her.

This isn’t about caring. You’re not thinking with your head, that’s the problem.

What?

Come on! Four years of celibacy after a lifetime of debauchery, and now some cute little blonde comes along and you’ve got an itch you want her to scratch!

Leandra blushed a little. It’s not like that.

Isn’t it?

No. I like her. She’s not like any of the others…I care about her.

So you’re willing to betray your most sacred trust? Why?

Leandra’s lips quirked. “It would make her happy,” she whispered aloud. “I’d do anything to make her smile…and this means a lot to her.”

It puts her in danger.

“I’ll keep her safe.”

Even if you show her, it doesn’t mean she’ll ever see you as anything more than just a friend.

Leandra sighed and got to her feet, stretching as she made her way to the mouth of the cave. Her eyes went instantly to the distant camp she couldn’t see. “I don’t care,” she said softly. “I want to show her…and I’m going to.”

Leaving behind her doubts and fears, Leandra headed off down the mountain, her passage as silent as the night itself. Not bothering to question her decision, she headed off to get Ashley, already excited by the prospect of sharing her secret with another.
Part 3
And what shoulder, and what art,

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

And when thy heart began to beat,

What dread hand? and what dread feet?

-‘The Tyger’ by William Blake.

Ashley was startled awake when something pressed hard against her mouth, her eyes flashing open with momentary panic at the feeling of being smothered. She calmed quickly when she found intense cobalt eyes staring down at her, and the familiar mass of tangled dreadlocks silhouetted against the dim, pre-dawn light. As soon as she relaxed, the hand covering her mouth was removed and she sat up a little, pulling the sleeping bag tighter against her chest, a little self-conscious despite the fact that the darkness effectively hid her nudity.

“Leandra? What are you doing here?” Ashley glanced to the side where the phosphorescent glow of her wrist-watch revealed the early hour. “It’s not even three o’clock!” she exclaimed, annoyed at the interruption of her sleep.

“Shhh!” Leandra covered the young woman’s mouth quickly, her eyes darting around conspiratorially. “Be quiet! You’ll wake the others.”

“So?” Noticing the strange look in her friend’s eyes, Ashley sat up straighter. “Is something wrong?” she asked, suddenly concerned. “Are you okay?”

“Fine. I just need you to come with me now.”

“Why?”

Leandra shook her head. “I can’t say. You just have to trust me…please?”

Ashley studied the tension in Leandra’s dimly visible features, her natural curiosity helplessly piqued by this mysterious visit. “You can’t say where we’re going?”

Again, Leandra shook her head. “We need to hurry.”

“It can’t wait till morning?”

“No. Please…I promise, if you just come with me now, it’ll be worth it for you.”

Ashley pushed her disheveled hair from her face. “How long will we be gone?”

“All day.”

“I’ll have to tell Grady. He’ll be worried.”

“No!” Leandra firmly shook her head. “The others can’t know where we’re going.”

Ashley hesitated, knowing what would happen if she took off without telling her partner. “Look,” she reasoned, “if Grady wakes up and finds me gone, he’ll come looking for me with Tarun. Can I at least leave a note?”

Leandra considered, then nodded. “Fine. But be quick. I’ll meet you outside.” With that, she turned and disappeared silently out the tent door.

Left alone, Ashley quickly got dressed and pulled on her hiking boots. Tearing a blank page from her notebook, she scribbled a quick message for Grady, explaining that she was with Leandra and that she would return when she was ready. Since she didn’t know for sure how long she would be gone, Ashley made certain that the note made it clear she would be safe, and that she didn’t want Grady trying to come ‘rescue’ her. Leaving the note placed prominently on her sleeping bag, the blonde woman grabbed up her camera without thought, and quietly ventured out into the darkness.

Wandering out to the edge of the jungle, it didn’t take long for Ashley to rejoin her dark friend. Leandra moved through the night with almost liquid grace, silent as a wraith. The full moon revealed the shadowy stripes across her form, faded now but still effective camouflage, and her steely eyes flickered to the camera around Ashley’s neck. Her lips pursed in consideration, and Ashley saw indecision in the expressive face.

“I can leave it,” she offered, her curiosity now fully wakened.

Leandra shook her head. “It’s okay. But promise me that any photos you take stay private. You won’t use them for your magazine…only for yourself and those you trust.”

“I promise,” the blonde agreed instantly, realizing that whatever Leandra wanted to show her must be something very special and important to warrant this kind of secrecy.

“Come,” Leandra gestured to the jungle, finding a narrow trail hidden by the dense foliage. “It’s a long hike out to where we need to get to, and we need to hurry.”

“Is it safe?” Ashley eyed the darkness with proper caution, knowing that this was hunting time for the jungle predators.

Leandra smiled mysteriously. “Just stay close to me,” she whispered. “Nothing will bother us.”

Together, the two women made their way through the forest, Ashley following close behind the dim figure of her friend and trying hard not to trip over exposed roots or fallen tree limbs that tangled up the path. Again she found herself wishing for even half the natural stealth and ease of motion displayed by the taller woman, not a little envious of how easily Leandra moved over the often deceptive terrain. As the sun started to lighten the horizon with a rosy hue, the way became easier and Leandra quickened the pace. It wasn’t long before Ashley was asking for a break, already tired and starting to feel a little grumpy despite the exciting adventure. The blonde hated being woken before she was ready, and her body was protesting the early start to the day.

“Where are we going?” she grumbled when they paused to rest a few minutes. “Can you at least give me some clue?”

“A secret place,” Leandra replied shortly. She stood impatiently, looking into the darkness and listening to the animal calls all around. “We have to hurry. Come on.”

Ashley groaned and rolled her eyes. Her calves were killing her. “When I get home, I’m joining a gym.”

By the time the sun peaked over the distant mountains, Ashley was breathing hard and rubbing a stitch in her side. They were now further from the camp then they’d ever been together, and Ashley looked around curiously as Leandra slowed their pace and gestured for absolute silence. The jungle here was especially dense; the dew hung heavy in the air, and everything smelled moist and earthy.

Leandra knelt to study some vague print in the soil, then smiled and gestured for Ashley to join her on the ground. She looked seriously into the emerald eyes of the young photographer, leaning close to whisper in her ear. “Do you trust me?”

Ashley nodded immediately. “Of course.”

“With your life?”

Something in her tone made Ashley pause before she answered, and she considered gravely before nodding again. “With my life.”

Leandra smiled. “Promise me that this stays a secret,” she whispered.

“I promise.” Ashley wasn’t sure what this was about, but her nerves were tingling with excitement and she gave her word easily.

“Good.” Leandra got on all fours and motioned for Ashley to mimic her. Feeling slightly ridiculous, the photographer did so. “Do exactly what I say, when I say it,” Leandra instructed softly. “Don’t run away. Don’t make any threatening gestures or sharp movements. You’ll be safe with me…just as long as you don’t panic.”

Ashley nodded, suddenly noticing a strange silence in the jungle – a breathless sense of danger and tension. The jungle was never truly quiet…but the birds and other animals seemed oddly reluctant to make noise here. Her skin prickled as Leandra led the way further into the dense undergrowth on her hands and knees. Heart racing suddenly, Ashley followed close behind, not wanting to loose the protection of her friends proximity.

After a few minutes crawling through the ferns and foliage, Leandra stopped suddenly in a small clearing. Ashley watched, fascinated, as the dark woman sniffed the air thoroughly, then made two short, stuttering cough sounds…the same noises she had made when the two had first met.

Only this time, much to Ashley’s surprise, there was an identical reply from the jungle.

A reply that was followed by something far more terrifying; the sound of a throaty, ominous growl so powerful and deep it put Leandra’s imitation to shame.

Ashley froze dead in her tracks, feeling the strange sensation of her stomach turning to water as a cold shiver ran through her body. Rare fear flooded her senses as she watched the leaves of the undergrowth tremble, then part, revealing ice-blue eyes set in a blunt, feline face.

Eyes that immediately passed over Leandra and settled on her with dangerous intent.

There were few times in Ashley’s life that she had been afraid – truly afraid, that is. The kind of fear that makes the skin shiver with cold sweat, the heart leap into the throat. Feeling the weight of those burning eyes settle on her, seeing the long, pearly-white teeth gleam extra-large in the early light…Ashley couldn’t recall a time when she’d been more terrified in her long and hazardous career.

For thousands of years, tigers had been revered and honored by people all over the world, their strength, ferocity and sheer power earning them a place in history and mythology that extended far beyond the eastern lands of India and China. Creatures of fierce beauty, tigers had long been deified as symbols of courage and strength. Mankind’s fascination with the great jungle cats had, over time, resulted in their near-extinction from over-hunting, and even though they were now protected, the law couldn’t stop the demand for them.

Now, watching the great beast that stalked slowly towards her, Ashley understood why it was that tigers had earned the fear and admiration of a hundred generations of people.

The cat was, to Ashley’s wide eyes, huge. It stood about four feet high at the shoulder, and was probably about eight feet long from its nose to the tip of its quivering tail. It took a moment for Ashley to notice that this tiger was unusual – where the thick fur should have been colored a tawny orange, instead it was solid white, marked with stripes of a rich chocolate brown. Still, when the growl turned into a savage roar of trespass, Ashley didn’t think she’d have cared if the cat was bright pink with blue polka-dots. It was only with an effort that she retained control of her bladder muscles as the beast drew nearer, sniffing at the air and apparently not liking what it smelled.

Then, Leandra was there. The dark woman moved quickly to stand between Ashley and the white tiger, her own actions perfectly feline as she again made the strange coughing sound. Turning slightly, she glanced back at the frozen blonde.

“Don’t look her in the eyes,” she ordered quietly. “She’ll take it as a challenge.”

As soon as the instructions penetrated the cloud of fear, Ashley immediately cast her eyes submissively at the ground before the giant predator, trusting that Leandra knew what she was doing. Flicking glances at the dark woman, she watched the subtle interactions that were occurring between the striped woman and the cautious beast.

The tigeress stopped in front of Leandra, sniffing at her curiously and with definite recognition. She bared her teeth again, this time not in a snarl, but almost as though tasting the dark woman’s scent. A low, rumbling growl that no longer seemed threatening emanated from deep in the tiger’s chest. Leandra crawled forward slowly, dipping her head and exposing her neck. To Ashley’s astonishment, the tigeress responded by nuzzling her, butting their heads together in the same way her niece’s cat did when she was being affectionate. Leandra responded in kind, replicating the noises the tigeress made as closely as a human was able, and returning the head-butts and nuzzling happily before turning and moving back to Ashley’s side. The tigeress watched, then approached slowly, still cautious and growling slightly. Leandra met the green eyes of the uncertain blonde and smiled reassuringly.

“Trust me,” she whispered. “Just stay still until she gets used to you.”

Ashley nodded to show she understood, but as the great tigress drew closer till she could smell the dank scent of her breath, it became harder and harder not to turn and run as fast as she could from the clearing. Leandra was making strange sounds again, which Ashley thought were probably intended to explain that she was a friend, not dinner, to the cat. The tigress sniffed at the blonde photographer curiously, ears twitching. Ashley forced herself to remain completely still as a tongue with the texture of sandpaper licked the side of her face, then she smiled with relief as the cat nudged her with her blunt face in a gesture of apparent acceptance. Leandra too smiled as she watched the first meeting between her old friend, and her new one.

Apparently satisfied that the strange blonde woman was no threat, the white tigress ambled back to the edge of the clearing and settled herself down on her haunches, panting a little in the heat that was already growing as the sun warmed the jungle. Leandra patted a still-trembling Ashley on the shoulder. “You did good,” she said with a smile.

“Thanks.” Ashley was quickly overcoming her fear now that the shock was fading. She stared at the tigress in awe, marveling at how close she was to the great cat. She wiped at her face where she’d been licked, shaking her head and regarding the dark woman with amazement. “So this is one of your ‘friends’, I take it?”

Leandra grinned and nodded. “Her name is Shar-Ranjana. At least, that’s the name I gave her.”

“I thought you said there was no white tiger,” Ashley said, narrowing her eyes at her friend, who just grinned wider.

“No, you said there was no white tiger. I just didn’t correct you.”

Ashley considered that, still enthralled by the magnificent creature sitting not more than fifteen feet from her. “She’s beautiful.”

“Yes, she is.” Leandra regarded Shar-Ranjana with a look that was affectionate yet sorrowful. “I’ve known her most of her life. She was just a cub when I first came out here, and she grew up with me being near.”

“What about her parents?” asked Ashley. “They must have been like her, right? Where are they?”

Leandra shook her head. “They’re both dead,” she whispered. “So is her brother.”

“Oh.” From the look of regret and sorrow on Leandra’s face, Ashley wondered for a moment if perhaps the dark woman was the one responsible for their deaths. She was reassured when her friend added, “Her father was the one who helped keep me alive the first few months I was out here. He was…” She hesitated. “He was very special to me.”

“How did he die?”

Leandra shrugged. “Poachers.”

Ashley reached out and patted the dark woman on the shoulder, sensing a little of how important Shar-Ranjana’s father must have been to Leandra. “I’m sorry.”

Leandra smiled at the gesture of consolation. “Thanks.”

“So…” Ashley returned her attention to the white tigress, who was watching them with lazy interest. “I guess you were right. This surprise is certainly worth the early wake-up call.”

Leandra’s smile turned into a grin. “Oh, this is only half the surprise,” she said.

“Really?”

“Uh huh. The other half should be coming any minute now.” No sooner were the words past her lips than the jungle undergrowth behind Shar-Ranjana began to quiver and jump.

“Um…” Ashley watched a little nervously, not sure her heart could take the appearance of another tiger. Her concern was replaced with amazed delight as two small orange, fur-covered forms bounded into the clearing, stopping their playful wrestling when they caught sight of Leandra and rushing over to greet the dark woman with juvenile enthusiasm.

The photographer watched as Leandra smacked and nuzzled the two tiger cubs playfully, before they turned their attention in her direction. After a few moments of caution and a lot of sniffing and licking, the two decided the blonde stranger was okay and grappled for her attention enthusiastically. Giggling, Ashley sat cross-legged and let the cubs crawl over her, careful to avoid their needle-sharp claws. Aware of the ever-watchful eyes of the resting Shar-Ranjana, she took care to be gentle, and didn’t offer protest when they started chewing on her arms.

“They’re gorgeous!” Ash exclaimed. “Ow…be gentle.” She carefully disengaged one of the cubs, laughing a little and petting them both happily.

Leandra crawled over to where the white tigress sat and joined her there, the two watching Ashley play with the two cubs. The look of joy and delight on the young woman’s face touched the dark woman deeply, and she purred with content as she settled herself against Shar-Ranjana’s warm flank. Ashley took her camera and started taking photos of her new play-mates, giggling and laughing at their antics as they pawed at the strange device curiously. Shar-Ranjana licked the sweat from Leandra’s back as she watched over her cubs, though she seemed quite content to let someone else deal with their energetic exuberance for a while.

Pausing in her play, Ashley looked up and smiled at the sight of Leandra sitting next to the white tigress. The image was almost too perfect; the orange and striped form of the dark-haired woman beside the enormous pale cat, their expressions somehow identical despite the obvious differences of their features. Grinning, the blonde brought her camera up and snapped several shots of the two, certain she was going to have to have a copy enlarged and framed for her private collection.

“I can’t believe this.” She cuddled with one of the young cubs, stroking its orange fur curiously. “Why aren’t these two white as well?”

“They were fathered by a normal bengal,” Leandra explained. “Shar-Ranjana has to stay in hiding a lot because of them, but the poachers are still looking. If she’s found – either by the rangers, or the poachers – she’ll be taken from the jungle and kept in a cage. Or worse, she’ll be shot and butchered for her parts. A white tiger is worth its weight in gold.”

Ashley nodded, understanding how much Leandra was trusting her with by showing her this secret. “You didn’t have to show me this,” she observed simply. “You could have let me go without telling me.”

Leandra shrugged, avoiding eye contact. “I wanted you to see.”

Ashley flushed a little with pleasure at the gesture of such faith. “Thank you,” she said. “This really means a lot to me…and you can trust me not to tell. I know Simon and Grace are only trying to protect the tigers, but you’re right. They’d want to put her in a zoo or something.”

Leandra nodded. “That’s not where Shar-Ranjana belongs. She’s a wild animal…the jungle is her home.”

“Mmm.”

Ashley and Leandra spent several hours with Shar-Ranjana and her cubs, the tigress patiently enduring both the interest of the young blonde, and the oft-enthusiastic antics of her young. Thankfully, Ashley had grabbed plenty of film, and she snapped away merrily at the indulgent yet dignified expression on the tiger mother’s feline face as her cubs grabbed at her flanks and tried to encourage her to play with them.

The young photographer was also amazed at the subtle and not-so-subtle interactions that went on between Shar-Ranjana and Leandra. The tigress treated her human cohort almost like a sibling, the two trading friendly swats and lots of growling and head-rubbing, which Ashley quickly saw was a symbol of acceptance and camaraderie. Leandra also explained that the strange coughing sounds were a signal of contentment and greeting common among the tigers when they were at peace.

Still, by the time the sun had reached its zenith in the skies, it was becoming clearer that Shar-Ranjana was growing weary of the company and wanted to be left in peace again. Leandra, recognizing the signs from long years of sometimes painful education, told her blonde friend to take her last few shots before they had to leave. A few moments later, with a few backward glances, the great white tigress led her cubs back onto the denser jungle paths, leaving the two women alone once more.

Clicking a last shot of the great cat before she disappeared, Ashley smiled and shook her head in wonder. Glancing to her companion, she found Leandra’s ice-blue eyes looking back at her with deep intensity. “Thank you,” she said softly. “I really don’t know what to say, but…” She smiled and reached out to pat the dark woman’s arm. “That was very special Leandra.”

Leandra’s skin burned at the simple contact, and she almost shuddered with longing for something more. Controlling the desire that had had four years to build up, she returned the smile fondly. “I’m glad you liked it.”

The two watched the jungle undergrowth for long moments in silence, before they turned in unison and left the clearing, both sorry the visit was over.

***

“I still can’t believe I got that close to a white tiger!” Ashley exclaimed, still wearing the same grin she’d sported all day since they’d left the clearing. “I mean, that’s got to be some kind of record or something, right? How many people in history do you think could honestly say they’ve had a white tiger lick their face?”

“Not many,” Leandra replied, enjoying the excitement of her shorter companion. Ashley was practically vibrating with the force of her rapture, and the dark woman was happy to bask in the warmth of her enthusiasm. It had felt so good to finally share the secret of Shar-Ranjana with someone who truly appreciated the miracle of the rare cat, and Leandra wished now more than ever that Ashley didn’t have to go back to the States.

Every time she reminded herself that the vibrant blonde would be gone in a week, Leandra felt her heart ache with the anticipated loss. She thought back on the last four years – the endless months that lasted forever…the silence in her head that could not be filled by the noises of the jungle – and feared this time, she would surely go insane. How could she go back to the way things had been? Ashley had burst the bubble of isolation that had been Leandra’s home for so long, and there was no way of rebuilding the walls.

Helplessly staring at the young woman walking beside her, enthralled by the light in her eyes and the laughter in her lips, Leandra struggled against the uncertainty that wanted to creep into her mind; the fear that Ashley would discover her true feelings, and perhaps decide to break off the burgeoning friendship that was swiftly becoming the most important thing in the dark woman’s lonely world. It was not something Leandra was accustomed to feeling.

Always before, she had been assertive with the women she seduced; cool, determined, and always assured of success. This was the first time she’d feared the consequences of rejection…feared she might loose something she couldn’t get back. As much as she wanted to bed the young blonde – and certain long-dormant parts of her body were aching with the strength of that desire – she valued more the simple friendship and comfort she found in her continued company.

“Say, I’m kinda hungry.” Ashley’s voice penetrated Leandra’s troubled thoughts. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to feed me? I mean, it was your fault I missed breakfast, afterall.” Hopeful emerald eyes batted persuasively at the tall woman.

Leandra smiled instantly. “Sure. I could use a bite myself.”

“Great. Lead the way, oh mighty jungle woman.”

Leandra laughed as she turned their footsteps in the direction of her camp, leading the way through the thick foliage. She put aside her troublesome thoughts, concentrating her attention once more on the sounds of the animals around her as they communicated a wealth of information few could interpret.

Following close behind the tall woman, Ashley struggled to commit every moment of her encounter that morning to memory. Already, the experience was becoming almost dreamlike in her mind, in the way intense, profound experiences often do. Still, at least she had the photographs to remind her, and she clutched her camera protectively as she walked, lamenting for a moment that she could never publish the pictures. She knew she would never betray the trust Leandra had shown her just to advance her career.

As they walked along, Ashley found her attention focusing helplessly on the woman before her. Her eyes roamed hungrily up and down Leandra’s back, pausing frequently on her toned thighs and backside. The young blonde licked her lips slightly, thoroughly enjoying the view. Her hands itched to reach out and…and… Well, and do something.

Now I guess I can understand why guys are always pinching women on the ass, she thought with a wicked little grin. She wriggled her fingers wishfully. I’m kinda tempted to try that myself…

With an effort, Ashley fought the urge, but she let her eyes continue their intent explorations of hard muscle and painted skin. How come I never noticed how long her legs are? God, they just go on forever!

They walked for some time, Ashley growing tired quickly after the long hike and even Leandra panting a little as they reached the flatlands that led up to the mountain where the dark woman made her home. Ashley, still very much focused on her licentious ponderings, was quick to notice when a sudden tension froze her companion, the muscles in her back and thighs locking up. Leandra stopped in her tracks, and the young photographer feared for a moment her voyeurism had been detected. When Leandra raised a hand to indicate a halt, Ashley felt a shiver run down her spine as she realized such was not the case; the dark woman had sensed something amiss in the forest.

“What’s wrong?”

“Shhh.”

Leandra tilted her face upwards, her whole body listening to the jungle around her. A faint trace of scent still lingered in the air; sweat and leather and the familiar evil tang of gun-oil. Nothing appeared out of place, but Leandra hadn’t survived so long out here by taking things for granted. She concentrated on the sounds of the animals, hearing instantly that something was amiss. A pregnant sense of expectation lay heavy in the air, the creatures here obviously waiting for something to happen before they called attention to themselves once more. Leandra knew the signs.

Something was hunting close-by.

A lesser human would have missed the faintly audible click. A normal person would never have noticed the barely-visible glimmer of sunlight off sand-blasted metal. Leandra was far from normal, however, and her reflexes had her moving even before her brain had fully processed the information.

“Get down!”

Throwing herself at the startled blonde behind her, Leandra brought them both to the ground, trying to cushion their fall with her own body. A second later, the booming crack! of a rifle blast shattered the tell-tale silence, and a fist-sized chunk was torn from
a nearby tree. Leandra was crouched protectively over her winded friend instantly, cold eyes searching with predatory intent all around, every pore of her open and waiting for some kind of motion. Ashley caught her breath and rolled onto her stomach,
wide-eyed and uncertain, but facing the attack with more confusion than fear.

“What was that?”

“A rifle,” Leandra hissed. “Stay quiet. I’m not sure where they are.”

It suddenly made sense. The mysterious shot from the other day…the feeling of disquiet. Leandra cursed herself, knowing she should have seen this coming. She’d been lured out into the open, had allowed herself to become the hunted. A poacher was out there, no doubt seeking to eradicate the threat that had plagued the black-market animal trade these past four years.

Leandra waited with honed patience for her adversary to make the first mistake, her hands gripping the twin sets of claws eagerly, every muscle taut and ready to pounce when the moment came.

Fortunately, whoever was out there was either foolish or arrogant. Scarcely a minute had passed before Leandra heard a faint rustling sound and the metallic snick of the gun being loaded again. Her eyes instantly pinned the location of the noise – a sheltered patch of undergrowth perfect for an ambush. Pressing her blonde companion to the ground with a look that told her to stay put, Leandra crawled silently forward, stalking towards the unseen attacker.

Rising for a moment from the cover of the grass, the striped woman ducked as a second shot rang out, raising the dust closeby. Leandra didn’t hesitate now, and sprang forward into the shadows with a savage and very authentic roar. She heard a curse, then detected movement. Without thinking, she ducked the rifle-butt that swung at her head before lashing out with her right hand, claws extended. She found nothing but air, and darted forward again. This time, she managed to overbalance her adversary so he stumbled out from his cover. Leandra followed quickly, pausing to study the rugged-looking man who gained his feet again with impressive speed.

“Bitch,” the man spat angrily, reversing his hold on the empty gun so he could use it as a club.

Leandra growled low in her throat. She took a quick assessment of her opponent, recognizing a veteran of the field when she saw one. Moving closer, she dodged to the side and charged at him, all thoughts of fatigue vanishing with a surge of adrenaline.

The man swung a hard blow, trying to keep her back. Leandra ducked the swing easily and smashed the blunt part of her palm into his arm, causing him to let go the weapon which spun away into the forest, lost. Unperturbed, the poacher quickly drew a large, gleaming knife from his side and held it out angrily.

Leandra and the man moved back and forth, neither willing to make the first move. As they tested one another for signs of weakness, a second man armed with a stout, makeshift club appeared from hiding and began to creep closer to Leandra’s exposed back.

“Leandra, behind you!” Unable to stay silent as she watched the second man close the distance to her friend, Ashley rose from her place in the grass and called the warning. Leandra spun around and lashed out with a clawed hand, keeping the second man at bay. The first poacher pressed in, trying to take advantage of her distraction, only to realize his mistake moments later when a powerful leg caught him in the stomach and kicked him onto his back. Winded, the poacher gestured towards the exposed photographer.

“Get the blonde!”

Sapphire eyes flared with fear and fury. “NO!”

Leandra moved much faster than the enormous, red-bearded man as he made a dash towards Ashley. She ducked his clumsy but forceful swing and darted behind his guard. Before the man could force her back, Leandra struck. Twin claws snapped out, tearing across his exposed belly and drawing deep blood, before she retreated.

Ashley covered her mouth, emerald eyes wide as she watched the look of shock and pain turn to one of dawning comprehension on the man’s face. The man clutched his stomach with trembling hands, desperately trying to hold himself together as he stared at Leandra in puzzled surprise. He turned, managing to make it a few steps back towards the cover of the jungle before he fell to the ground, his life staining the grass deep crimson as it flowed from the mortal wound.

Leandra turned back to the other poacher, thin dreadlocks lying tousled over her face as she stalked forward. The man gained his feet and met her advance with an expression of grim determination.

Ashley stared in shock at the body of the gutted poacher, recognizing him as the man Leandra had saved her from when they first met. Her mind struggled to comprehend the sudden course of events, and she watched fearfully as Leandra closed with the second man.

This time, the striped woman didn’t hesitate. No testing jabs or feints…she lashed out with savage strength and raw fury. The poacher’s knife darted towards her chest, but she evaded it narrowly and sprang forward with a feral hiss. The poacher stumbled backwards, trying to put some distance between himself and the furious jungle woman, but Leandra pressed her assault relentlessly. She blocked a second frantic stab and slapped the steel blade out of her enemy’s grip.

He managed to respond with a hard backhand, but Leandra whipped her fists forward in a double punch that sent him reeling. Again she didn’t back away, every line of her body radiating anger and lethal intent. Another successful attack drew a neat set of bloody lines across the man’s chest, tearing through the cloth of his shirt with wicked ease.

The poacher no longer seemed so confident of victory, and he looked around for a possible weapon. Seeing none, he swung a desperate punch at Leandra’s face. The dark woman dodged to the side too late, catching the blow on her right shoulder.

It was a minor hit…but its effect was more devastating than either Ashley or the poacher could have expected.

Leandra clutched her arm and screamed in pure agony, dropping limply to the ground as though struck by lightening. Ashley watched in stunned confusion as her friend seemed to curl around herself in obvious pain, her right arm seemingly paralyzed by the simple blow. The poacher stared for a second, uncertain what had happened, before he realized the advantage was his once more. He lashed out with a short, sharp kick to Leandra’s face, sending the dark woman onto her back, still holding her arm against her body. The poacher looked from the trembling woman to the jungle, then to the body of his companion.

By now, Ashley had grabbed up a thick tree branch and was running forward, intent on carrying the fight until Leandra recovered from whatever had downed her. The poacher saw her coming and, with a grim curse, made his decision. While he could probably have handled the short blonde, there was no saying how long the fierce tiger-woman would be out of commission. Clearly, it was time to retreat and lick his wounds.

With a last dark look at the approaching blonde, the poacher turned and ran back into the cover of the jungle.

Ashley dropped her makeshift weapon when she saw the man flee. Sprinting over to Leandra, she threw herself on the ground beside her and tried to think of something to do that would help the still writhing woman. Leandra’s eyes were squeezed shut, involuntary tears escaping and running down her face. “Leandra? What’s wrong?” Her hands fluttered uncertainly over the stripped woman, reluctant to touch her lest she make things worse. “Is it your shoulder?”

A faint nod. Leandra was tense now, but she started to calm a little.

“Is it dislocated?” Ashley asked. “I know how to reset it, if you’ll just let me look-”

“DON’T TOUCH ME!”

Ashley’s hands withdrew instantly as Leandra recoiled in fear. “I won’t hurt you Leandra, but I need to see what’s wrong.”

“No…please. Just give me a minute and I’ll be okay.” Leandra struggled and managed to pull herself into a sitting position, her right arm still held tightly against her body. She gasped a little and swayed, but remained upright.

“What happened?” Ashley asked, wanting to examine the injury but respecting her friend’s desire not to be touched.

Leandra shook her head. “It’s nothing. He just hit me in a bad spot, that’s all.” She smiled shakily, the left side of her mouth already starting to swell from the kick she’d received from the poacher. “I just need a few moments to rest, then we’ll get out of here. No telling when he might decide to come back and finish the job.”

Ashley nodded and sat beside the dark woman, her eyes still shadowed with concern. She looked over at the body of the second man and shuddered. “What should we do about him?”

“Nothing,” Leandra scowled. “Let the carrion feeders do their work. The rangers have enough problems without having to deal with burial detail.”

Ashley sighed internally. “Fine.” She killed him because he was coming after me, her mind acknowledged. She’d heard the desperate tone in her friend’s voice when she’d rushed to intercept the poacher, had seen the angry, protective expression in her face. Knowing Leandra was a killer and actually seeing her kill were two very different things for the young photographer. I must be crazy, she thought. How can I be falling for this woman? She kills without remorse…without shame. How can I feel so safe around her when I know what she’s capable of?

The answer came easily to mind as she studied her recovering companion. Because I know she’d never hurt me. She trusted me enough to show me Shar-Ranjana, even though she’s only known me a week. She invited me into her life, spoke with me when she’s stayed silent for three years… She’s lived out here as an animal for so long…death is just another part of life for her.

“Alright,” Leandra said grimly, struggling to her feet with a gasp of pain. Ashley helped her up. “Let’s go.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Ashley asked. She could see clearly that Leandra was still hurting. Beneath the faded paint, the photographer was certain Leandra’s face would be pale and drawn.

But the tall woman brushed her concern aside easily. “I’ll be fine. It’s happened before. Sometimes it takes a while to get better, that’s all.”

“Alright.” Ashley watched her friend carefully as they started walking, noticing the way Leandra’s jaw clenched tightly and the dizzy, glazed look in her eyes. One way or another, I need to see that shoulder. She’s in pain. How can she expect me to just do nothing?

By the time they were half-way up the mountain to the cave, Leandra was swaying noticeably and had lost the stealth that so characterized her movements. She tripped over loose stones and her breathing was coming in short, hard gasps. It was all Ashley could do to keep herself from stopping them right there and demanding that she be allowed to inspect the injury, but she knew Leandra would fight her off. She waited till they were safely back in Leandra’s camp before she pressed her friend.

“Let me see it,” she ordered sternly once the dark woman had settled herself wearily on her sleeping pallet.

Leandra drew away. “There’s nothing you can do,” she insisted. “I’ll be fine if I can just rest.” But her eyes betrayed her suffering and Ashley’s face hardened.

“Leandra, I’m not going to just sit here while you’re hurting. I have to do something. That hit shouldn’t have affected you like that.” She crossed her arms stubbornly over her chest and glared down at her friend. “Let me look.”

For a moment, Leandra’s face said she wasn’t going to cooperate, but then she silently nodded her acceptance and moved to expose her shoulder to the younger woman.

Ashley knelt beside her friend and gently reached out. She paused when Leandra flinched in reflex, then very slowly tugged the simple fur halter-top away from the dark woman’s shoulder. Leandra’s face was a stony mask as she struggled to permit the inspection.

Beneath the brief clothing, Leandra’s skin remained covered with dusty paint. Ashley ran her sensitive fingers over the exposed area, searching for some sign of injury in the bone. Instead, she felt a series of lumps and ridges in the skin itself, and she leaned closer to examine the irregularities in the dim light. Blonde brows contracted in puzzlement, then shot up as understanding dawned.

Hidden by the paint and the clothing, Leandra’s shoulder revealed a series of raised scar-tissue that ran in a strange pattern along her chest near her collar-bone. A quick check revealed a second set of scars on the painted woman’s back, nearly identical to the ones at the front. Ashley ran her fingertips over the old wounds, feeling her friend take a sharp intake of breath as she probed gently.

“What happened here?” she asked quietly, puzzled.

Leandra grit her teeth and gave a half-shrug with her uninjured shoulder. “Shar-Ranjana’s father didn’t exactly take an immediate liking to me.”

“He what?” Ashley stared at the raised marks, and suddenly saw them for what they were: bite marks. Very large bite marks. She gasped. “A tiger did this?”

Leandra nodded. “A long time ago…when I first came here.” She shifted a little on the ground, the memories of that time making her uncomfortable. “It’s a long story.”

Ashley recognized the signs; this wasn’t a topic Leandra wanted to discuss. Still, she could feel the tension in her friends body, could read it in the taut muscles that refused to relax. Her fingertips probed a little harder, earning a sharp grunt of pain from the dark woman. “How long ago did this happen?”

“Four years or so.” Tears ran down Leandra’s cheeks, though her face remained stoic. Her throat started closing, the throbbing agony in her shoulder beginning to overwhelm her. She wanted nothing more than to curl up in a ball and wait for the pain to subside as it always did, but she couldn’t. Turning her head, she looked into soft green eyes that were filled with compassion and sympathy. “Why won’t it stop hurting?” she choked.

Not knowing what else to do, Ashley offered comfort the best way she knew how. She reached out and gently pulled Leandra into a hug. The dark woman tensed at first, but weakened almost instantly. A sob wrenched from deep in her throat as she let the tears come. With her good hand she clutched Ashley to her and buried her face in the silky hair that smelled of apricot and flowers. “Why won’t it stop?” she sobbed, releasing her pain for the first time since she’d received the wounds.

Ashley hugged Leandra tightly, letting her cry. She made soothing noises, trying to comfort the dark woman as her body was wracked with helpless shudders. When Leandra started to calm, the photographer stroked her coarse dreadlocks softly, wishing she could offer more than a shoulder to cry on. “It’s alright,” she whispered gently. “It’ll be okay.”

Leandra’s sobs eventually weakened and stopped. Recovering, she tried to pull away but found herself caught by emerald eyes. Embarrassed, she wiped at her face with her wrist, smearing the intricate paint. “I’m sorry-” Fingers pressed against her lips, stopping her.

“There’s nothing to be sorry for Leandra,” Ashley said softly. “Sometimes we all need to cry.”

Leandra snuffled a little, then nodded, casting her eyes on the ground. “It’s just…” She struggled for a moment. “Sometimes I don’t feel it for days, and I start to think maybe it’s never going to hurt again. And then, something happens like I’ll knock it during a hunt, or bump it on a tree branch…and it feels just as bad as when it first happened.” She shook her head angrily. “Why does it still hurt?”

“I don’t know.” Ashley studied the marks again. “Did the doctors do any surgery?”

“There were no doctors,” Leandra said. “A couple from one of the villages helped me while I was recovering, but…” She half-shrugged again. “I couldn’t go to a hospital.”

Ashley’s eyes narrowed. “Then it’s no wonder it still hurts Leandra. The muscles and nerves must be all screwed up. My brother-in-law is a physician. He deals with this kind of damage all the time, only usually it comes from sports injuries.” She shook her head, amazed that Leandra had been able to survive out here with such an injury. “It could probably be fixed,” she continued. “But you’d need to go to a hospital and have surgery done.”

Leandra smiled grimly. “That’s not too likely while I’m living out here, is it?”

Ashley returned the smile hesitantly. “I guess not.” She rubbed at the smeared stripes on the dark woman’s face. “Guess you’re gonna need to redo your paint job, huh.”

“Yeah.” Leandra sighed and lay down on her pallet, relaxing and willing the pain to recede. “I’ll take a bath tomorrow. There’s a little waterfall not too far away. I usually go there to clean up and mix the paint.”

“Mmm.” Ashley forced her mind not to venture into any contemplation’s involving her friend’s naked, wet body. She decided to turn her thoughts to more pressing concerns. “Who do you think those men were?”

“Poachers.” Leandra closed her eyes and blew a lock of hair from her face. “I’ve listened to some of them over the years. They call me the ‘Indian Menace’. Those guys probably decided to get rid of me so they could go after Shar-Ranjana without having to watch their backs.” She sighed. “I’d wager there’s a lot of people out there who’d pay good money to have me put down.”

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

“Why should it? I’m quieter, faster and deadlier than they are. I’ll survive. They won’t.”

Ashley shook her head at Leandra’s simple logic. That’s how she’s learned things work. Predator, prey. She’s the more effective killer, so nothing else matters. “What if that man comes back with others? Can you dodge a bullet?”

Leandra grinned. “I dodged two today, didn’t I?”

The blonde woman sighed. “Forget it.” She looked around the cave. “Do you have a rag or something? Your shoulder might feel better with a cold compress.”

Leandra gestured towards the crates at the back of the cave. “Over there.”

“Thanks.” Ashley rummaged through the stocks of rice, salt and other staples before she found a bundle of torn cloth. Ripping some up, she ventured cautiously to the river at the base of the mountain and returned shortly with a saucepan full of water. After dipping the rags into the cool water, she pressed them against Leandra’s shoulder. The dark woman flinched at first, but smiled as the heat in her muscles was bled from her by the cloth.

“That feels niiiice,” she sighed, a low purr rumbling unconsciously in her belly and throat. Ashley grinned at the sounds, knowing she was doing something right. I wonder what it might take to get her reeeeally purring, she pondered wickedly, thinking of a few things she might like to try. Mmmm…this is one kitten I wouldn’t mind letting lick my bowl clean.

Her face instantly colored, and she was grateful Leandra’s eyes were closed. Bad Ashley! she scolded mentally. Bad, bad Ashley! Get your mind out of the gutter. But as soon as she let her eyes roam down the full length of Leandra’s wonderfully-exposed form she couldn’t stop the prurient thoughts from coming. She licked her suddenly dry lips. Cats like being stroked, right? Her fingers itched. Maybe I could just stroke her a little lower…I’m sure she’d like that… Her eyes flirted with the hem of Leandra’s brief skirt. Then I could slide my fingers up her thighs and around her hips…then maybe down until I reach…

Ashley’s eyes snapped open and she pulled herself out of her little fantasy with a shake and a shudder. Leandra sensed her movement and glanced up.

“Something wrong?”

“Uh…no, I was just…” Ashley struggled to formulate coherent thought, her eyes eventually finding a lifeline. “…noticing it’s getting near the afternoon. Grady’ll probably start to get worried if I’m not back by sundown, and it’ll take me at least two hours to make it back to camp…so…”

“You have to go?”

Ashley almost nodded, but something in Leandra’s voice stopped her. There was a fear there. A desperation and desire to hold this moment for a little longer. “Do you want me to stay?” she asked very softly.

Leandra looked away, the fingers of her left hand toying with her dreadlocks. “No. Not if it’s going to cause problems for you.”

The photographer sidled closer. “So…you do want me to stay?”

Leandra shrugged. “Yes.”

Ash grinned. To hell with Grady, she thought. Like I told him, if I want to spend the whole night with Leandra, he’s got nothing to say about it. “Then I’ll stay.” She smiled at the look of pure delight on the dark woman’s face, knowing that look was worth every moment of hassle she was going to get for this little adventure. “Afterall,” she added with a grin, “you did promise you’d feed me, right?”

***

It took him almost an hour, but at last he caught sight of the flash of sunlight off metal blinking from the underbrush. Jack Corbin grunted with satisfaction and grabbed up the rifle he’d lost during his encounter with the ferocious jungle-woman. Checking the weapon carefully, he was pleased to find it in working order, and soon it was loaded and slung over his shoulder once more.

Stepping out onto the grasslands, the weary poacher regarded the flurry of feathers and bloodied beak’s that writhed about on the ground nearby with detached interest. The scavenger birds had been quick to descend and feast on the body of Shaun Duggan, and within moments they would have it stripped to the bone. Jack watched the feeding without a flicker of emotion. The loss of his partner had been unfortunate, but certainly not crippling.

Jack watched for a few more moments before he turned away, his eyes locking on a distant light that glowed from half-way up the nearby mountain range. His quarry had retreated just as he had, and he knew exactly where she had gone. Still, he had no intention of attacking the tiger-woman in her lair. She would have the advantage there, and would fight all the harder to defend her home. No, he thought, better to wait for her to come out into the open; somewhere he could get a clear shot and neutralize her advantage of stealth and speed.

The ambush had not gone as Jack had hoped. The strange woman was more canny than he’d expected, somehow picking up on his presence and evading his shot with impressive agility. Jack didn’t like to think he’d underestimated his prey, but in this case he had to admit that he’d assumed too much. The dark-haired woman was even more dangerous than he’d thought, and he knew he’d only escaped death with a lucky punch.

Still, all had not been in vain. He’d discovered two very important holes in the armor of his quarry. First, the strange weakness that had felled her so easily. Jack wasn’t sure what was wrong with the woman’s shoulder, but guessed it was an old wound of some sort. Regardless, it would serve as an advantage he could exploit in a hand-to-hand fight next time…if things came to that.

Second – and more intriguing – was the young blonde. Jack hadn’t been expecting her appearance, and it had jeopardized his original plan thoroughly. Still, he had noted with interest the desperate tone in the dark woman’s voice when the photographer was threatened, and his thoughts went instantly to ways he might use her against her friend. Certainly, she might be used as bait to lure the dangerous jungle-woman out into the open.

Smiling, ignoring the pain that burned from the deep cuts across his chest and the bruises in his body, Jack Corbin turned and made his way back to his own camp. He would rest this night and treat his wounds, and tomorrow begin planning for his next attack. As he tracked along the narrow jungle trails, Jack felt something niggling at the back of his mind like an annoying drone that refused to depart. There had been something about the strange woman…something beyond her wild appearance and savage nature. Those clear, ice-blue eyes and chiseled features had, for a second there, seemed almost familiar.

Shaking his head, hoping to rid himself of the disturbing sensation, Jack scowled darkly and looked forward to round two.

***

Ashley tossed her leaf-plate away and leaned back against the rock behind her with a long, guttural sigh of utter contentment. Across the fire, Leandra nibbled the edges of her own leaf briefly before consuming the entire thing. Ashley grinned as the dark woman chewed the bitter plant and swallowed.

“Delicious,” she pronounced happily.

Leandra nodded and rubbed her still-tender shoulder.

The meal had been another simple affair consisting of rice, root vegetables and diced chunks of salted venison, all seasoned with a mix of wild herbs and dried leaves. Leandra had taken a mild painkiller from her first-aid kit, and now felt considerably better. Outside, the sun was staining the distant horizon with interesting shades of pink and orange, turning the edges of the clouds deep purple.

“It’s going to be dark soon,” Leandra noted.

“Mmhmm.”

“You know, if you want to go back to your own camp, I can take you,” the dark woman offered, even as she hoped Ashley would stay. “My shoulder feels much better now. It wouldn’t be a problem.”

“Actually, I’d rather stay here if it’s okay with you.” Ashley didn’t want to leave Leandra now. If she went back to her tent, she knew she’d lie awake all night thinking of her dark-haired friend. She looked at the thin, rough pallet dubiously. “Think there’s enough room on that thing for two?”

Leandra’s heart almost thudded to a painful stop. Her eyes widened. Does she mean she wants us to sleep next to one another? That close? Oh God, give me strength! “Um…sure, I-I guess, if-” She cleared her throat nervously. “If you want. But you know,
I could sleep on the ground if you need the room.”

Ashley smiled, wondering at Leandra’s flustered reaction. Maybe I could just sleep on top of you, she suggested silently. “Don’t be silly Leandra. We can just snuggle up together and that way we’ll both be comfortable. Although…” She chewed her lower lip coyly and carefully watched her friends reaction. “I usually prefer to sleep in the buff. I don’t suppose that’s a good idea without a blanket though, huh?”

Leandra’s blush was hidden by the thin layer of paint, but her throat went dry as a desert as all the moisture in her body headed south at the visual image her mind concocted of a naked, sweaty Ashley writhing in rapture on her sleeping pallet. “Um, n-no, probably not,” she managed to say, her voice noticeably strained. “I-it gets cold just before dawn.”

Ashley grinned rakishly, pleased at the response. What’s got you so tongue-tied, Jungle Jane? “Oh well, I can manage for one night I suppose. Besides…you’ll keep me warm, right?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Great.”

As the sun began its decent in earnest, the two women watched from the mouth of the cave as the stars took their places in the heavens. Here and there a dark hole formed in the sky where clouds hid the sparkling lights. The distant sound of gibbons singing reached them from the forest below, echoing with the strange calls of the night-hunters and their prey. Ashley watched and listened to the majestic symphony of the jungle, trying not to dwell on the fact that she’d be leaving this world behind in less than a week.

She turned to the silently watchful woman sitting beside her. “Do you ever miss all the things you gave up when you came out here?” she asked quietly.

Leandra’s eyes seemed to almost glow in flickering light of the fire, her face an interesting study of shadowed hollows and primitive stripes. “Sometimes,” she whispered.

“Do you ever…think of going back?”

“Sometimes.” Leandra was silent for long moments. “Going back means opening old wounds. I…” she swallowed hard. “I don’t know that I’ve earned the right to leave this place yet.”

Ashley considered that statement, and suddenly something clicked in her mind. “This is a punishment, isn’t it?” she said, shifting around to face her friend more directly. “You’re out here because you’re trying to make up for something?”

Leandra nodded.

“For being a poacher?”

Silence for a moment. Then the quiet answer, “Not just for that.” Leandra’s eyes were distant, obviously looking back at the past. “It’s difficult to explain.”

Ashley heard the unspoken words. She’s never had to explain it to anyone but herself. She convicted herself of whatever crime she thinks she’s committed, she passed judgement, and she enforced her decision…and the only one she’s ever had to answer too is herself. “You don’t have to tell me about it if you don’t want to.”

Again, the silence descended, Leandra sitting cross-legged on a large rock, her eyes staring thoughtfully up at the moon. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Of course.”

Clear sapphires regarded the blonde photographer through a curtain of dreadlocks. “Why do you like me?”

Ashley looked uncertain. “Wh-what do you mean?”

“Why do you want to be my friend like this? You’ve seen what I do…how I live. Why would you want to be friends with a killer?”

Ashley cocked her head to the side. “You’re a nice person, Leandra,” she said softly. “I admit, I don’t really like what you’re doing out here, but…” she shrugged. “I can take it separate from the person you are. I think you’re interesting, loyal…and I don’t know why, but I feel really comfortable when I’m with you. Safe.” Her eyes turned inquisitive. “Why do you ask?”

Leandra looked away, shrugging a little. “I guess I just never thought of myself as being a likeable person,” she said very quietly.

Leandra’s voice was filled with a childlike quality that touched Ashley deep inside. She shifted closer. “Why would you think that?”

“Because it’s the truth.” Leandra paused, then corrected, “At least it used to be. I never really had any friends…except my younger brother.”

“You have a brother?”

A faint nod, coupled with an even fainter smile. “Ricky. I haven’t seen him in…” She thought for a moment. “…probably seven or eight years. He must think I’m dead.” A lone finger traced an idle pattern in the dirt. “I bet he’s happier thinking that than knowing the truth.”

Ashley was shocked at the bitterness in her friends voice – a bitterness she sensed Leandra was aiming at herself. “How can you say that? I’m sure your brother misses you terribly!”

Blue eyes fixed on the young woman seriously. “The last thing he told me before I left was that he wished he could be more like me, even for just a moment. That way, he said, he could have had the cold-bloodedness to kill me without feeling any sorrow. I doubt he’d be thrilled to find out I’m still alive.”

Ash was silent, not knowing what to say. Leandra turned back to the darkening jungle once more, her eyes turgid with emotions she’d forced herself not to feel for a long time. “My dad was in construction,” she said, her voice low and even. “We moved around a lot, wherever the work was. It was hard on Ricky and me, having to change schools so often. We were really close growing up…and when I started falling in with the wrong crowd, little brother came along for the ride. I think it was just easier for me to set myself up as a bad-girl bitch, rather than make the effort to find real friends who I’d have to leave anyway as soon as my father found another contract. By the time I was eighteen, I was selling drugs to the other kids and helping my ‘friends’ fence the guns and other shit they stole. Pretty soon, we were getting in trouble for heavier stuff. I made other friends; people who offered to give me a better cut of the money. People who wanted someone willing to do what they were told without questions.”

Ashley listened in silence, not willing to speak for fear Leandra would stop.

“I was pretty smart – maybe not academically, but I had a good sense for dealing in the black market. I left home when I was nineteen and I took Ricky with me. He was sixteen. The cops didn’t look too hard at him, so we made a good team. I learned quick, and it wasn’t long before I attracted the attention of the big boys. I was hired as a runner at first, then discovered I had a talent for smuggling and started moving up in the world. I got cocky…and it was only a matter of time before I started treading on the wrong feet.

“Ricky and I worked together for a long time, but over the years he changed. When his girlfriend O.D’d, things got strained between us. It was like I was walking forward and I’d keep drawing a line in the sand for him to cross. And every time, I’d promise that it’d be as far as we’d go; I wouldn’t ask for more than this. And he followed me everytime…until one day I guess he just decided he’d come far enough, and couldn’t follow me anymore.”

Leandra sighed and ran long fingers through her tangled hair. “We parted on less-than-friendly terms. I was angry at him for leaving me. I thought we were going to be a team forever. When he left, I called him a coward…told him he was gutless for leaving me. He didn’t care. And when he was gone, neither did I. About anything. I threw myself into my work, not caring who I pissed off just as long as I got paid. Eventually, it caught up with me. I screwed over the wrong people…and they decided to make it personal.” Leandra’s eyes were wet with unshed tears as she said quietly, “My parents house was firebombed on a Friday night. It burned to the ground…with them inside.”

Ashley covered her mouth in horror. “Oh Leandra! I’m so sorry!”

The dark-haired woman nodded. “I never told them what I was doing, but I think deep down they had some idea. At the funeral, Ricky blamed me for their deaths. It was my fault, he said…and even though I shrugged him off at the time, I knew he was right.”

“No!” Ashley gripped Leandra’s shoulder and forced her to meet her gaze. “That’s not true. You couldn’t have known.”

Leandra’s eyes flashed. “Don’t you think I know that?” She frowned and pulled away. “For the next three years that’s all I told myself! I wasn’t the one who threw the firebombs. I didn’t mean for them die. But it doesn’t change the fact that if it weren’t for me, they’d still be alive! And no matter how much I told myself I didn’t care what Ricky had said to me, it still hurt. It hurt worse than I could deal with. And the only way I could think of to handle the pain was to numb myself to everything I was doing.

“After that, I decided I didn’t want to work for anyone but myself anymore. I set out on my own, and with the connections I’d made it wasn’t long before I was making more money than ever before. I had it all; power, cash, drugs, sex. I buried myself in it all and tried to forget how much it had cost me. Soon, the drugs got harder, the sex got rougher…and I didn’t care who got hurt because of me. And then, I found a new market to exploit – the black market animal trade.

“It was unbelievable. The demand was high, the risks were low, and the money was insane. A single bird could bring in tens of thousands of dollars! I started trapping animals in Australia first, then moved to Africa and Asia. Before long, I wanted more, and I went after bigger prey. I liked it. Hunting elephants, rhinos, lions…everything. Eventually, I wasn’t really doing it for the money anymore, but for the pleasure. It made me feel powerful…in control. Dangerous.” Ice-blue eyes closed and Leandra shook her head scornfully. “I was such an idiot! I thought I was the Great White Hunter reborn. I thought I was top shit. If only I’d known…” She faded off, her eyes opening reflectively. “Then one day, one of my sources heard a rumor from the rangers in India. A safari group had seen something strange in the jungle…something no-one really believed was actually out there. A white tiger.”

Leandra took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. “I knew the odds that the rumor was true were practically non-existent. I knew it was stupid to even consider going. But the chance – however remote – was too incredible to pass up. I wanted the tiger – not for the money it could bring me, but for a trophy. Something I could have stuffed and mounted so I could look at it and tell myself how damn good I was.” A painted lip curled derisively. “I left everything and hopped the first flight out here, ready to hunt.

“It took me weeks just to track down where the reports had come from. The Bandhavgarh National Park is pretty well patrolled, but I didn’t care. Most poachers went in groups, but I didn’t want to share this one. I came out here four years ago alone, and I started searching for tracks. I found a few normal tigers, but no sign of the one I wanted. Then suddenly, out of the blue, I found the fresh markings. A recent kill…paw-prints. Somehow I knew this was the one. I followed the tracks…even when they started leading into denser jungle. I was brash and arrogant…and I deserved exactly what I got.”

Ashley saw the slight motion as Leandra rolled her sore shoulder at the memory. “He found you first, huh?”

Leandra nodded. “I never even saw it coming,” she whispered. “One moment I was walking along, stalking my prey…the next, I was on the ground with four-hundred pounds of cat pinning me down. I can still remember the moment I realized that I’d walked right into a trap. The tiger had been hunting me all along. I struggled, but I could barely move. Then I felt hot breath at my neck…pressure and heat on my back where claws started raking me.” Leandra’s face was still, but her eyes were alive with the remembered terror. A shudder ran through her body and she hugged herself tight. “I’ve never felt anything worse than the sensation of those teeth clamping down on my shoulder…feeling the unbelievable power in those jaws as they started biting. I was screaming like a child. My vision flashed on and off and I could feel the vibrations of a growl going through my arm and neck. I knew I was going to die…and in the moment before I passed out, I was grateful. I knew I deserved to die for everything I’d done. This was my judgement. Final justice. And I remember welcoming the end to all my repressed guilt and shame with every fiber of my being.”

Ashley listened wide-eyed to the story, hanging on Leandra’s every word. “What happened?”

Leandra shrugged. “I woke up. My shoulder was a throbbing mess of blood, the muscle exposed right down to the bone. I didn’t know what was happening…why the tiger hadn’t killed me. I looked around…and he was sitting there not ten feet away. Like a statue. Just looking at me with eyes like ice.” The emotion in Leandra’s voice changed subtly, the horror of the memories now blending to an expression of wonder. “I can’t even begin to describe what happened next. I’m not really sure I understand it myself. But the way he looked at me…it was like he could see every sin I’d ever committed, every hurt I’d inflicted.”

Her voice became a whisper. “His eyes washed over my soul like a benediction, and suddenly all the pain I’d tried to numb myself to rushed in to fill the empty places inside. I stared back at him, and I saw an intelligence and understanding there that was beyond the animal. And I realized he was going to spare me. Show me a mercy I never would have shown him. I understood it as clearly as if he’d spoken the words.” Leandra sighed. “He was so beautiful…so strong and noble as he sat there watching me. And I was filled with shame that I’d ever thought to hunt him. I looked back at what my life had become…and I realized that in all those years, I hadn’t done a single thing that I was honestly proud of. If I had died that day, my life would have brought nothing but pain and sorrow to the world.”

Leandra was quiet for a moment, gathering herself. “I’d lost a lot of blood,” she continued softly. “I wasn’t conscious long. But just before I passed out again, something in his eyes changed. I don’t know how, but something passed between us…and I realized his mercy came with a price. He didn’t kill me, but a part of me died that day. When I woke up, I was in a hut on the outskirts of a village. I’m still not sure how I got there. The couple who lived there wouldn’t tell me anything. They saw my clothes – they knew what I was. But they didn’t turn me in. I think…somehow…they understood something had changed in me.
They nursed me back to health, and I left as soon as I could walk again. I came back out here, leaving everything behind; my clothes, my identification, my weapons – except a single knife. I could feel the guilt of every evil thing I’d ever done weighing me down: the death of my parents, the lives I’d destroyed with the drugs and guns I smuggled and sold, the torture of all the animals I’d caged or butchered. And I saw a way to even the scales. A punishment I deserved.”

Ashley listened, for the first time appreciating what Leandra was doing out here. “You exiled yourself to the jungle, to protect the animals you once hunted.”

Leandra nodded. “It felt like the first truly right thing I’d done in my whole life,” she whispered.

By now, the dark outside had deepened, the stars and the moon illuminating swathes of rippling jungle in shimmering lines of iridescence. Ashley listened to the jungle sounds in the silence that followed Leandra’s words, trying to imagine what it must have been like for the dark woman to first come back here; still weak from her injury, naked and torn within herself, reborn into a savage world to live among creatures equipped by evolution to survive against harsh odds. “How did you manage to live?”

Leandra shifted and shrugged. “I almost didn’t. It was hard at first. I’d been such a good hunter before, I thought I’d have no trouble surviving. But I was very wrong. Hunting with a gun is one thing…but the animals out here are built to be alert. In the beginning, I couldn’t get within a hundred feet of an animal without it running. I was hurting, filthy and wishing I could just die rather than face the life I was choosing. But I didn’t give in. I ate whatever food I could find…sometimes the meat that the carrion feeders had abandoned. Sometimes I had to fight them off. The bad food made me sick and I got weaker.

“Then, I found the white tiger again. This time, he didn’t attack me. I started following him around, thinking I could eat from his kills after he was finished feeding. He tolerated my presence; there was something in the way he looked at me now that said he understood what I was doing – understood the decision I’d made better than I did. Over the days and weeks, I started moving closer and closer to him, and he only occasionally warned me away. I learned from the noises he made and the way he moved what he was thinking; when he was hungry, angry, annoyed, content. I started learning from him…started to mimic his actions.
Soon, I was moving quieter…faster. My hunting began to yield success. The other tigers in the area got used to me, including Shar-Ranjana’s mother and brother. I named the great white tiger Shar-Tushar, and we grew to understand and respect one another. When poachers came, I hunted them to protect my new family. It felt good…knowing I was saving the animals. It felt like I was making up for a part of my own crimes. I made my outfit from the skin of a young male tiger who died in a territorial dispute with Shar-Tushar. I snuck into a small village and stole things I knew I needed: a toothbrush, toiletries, things like that.”

“But you couldn’t grab a hairbrush?” Ashley teased, plucking at one of Leandra’s dark dreadlocks.

Leandra smiled. “By then, my hair was too tangled for it to matter much. I started to get my life back in order, adjusting to my new home fairly well. I was still learning a lot everyday, and I was determined that I was going to be every bit as much a tiger as my new family. Painting my skin helped to hide me from prey, and I blended in better. I started wandering further from this place, going to the places I knew were favorite hunting sites for poachers. Still, no matter where I went, I never strayed too far.” Leandra paused. “In the end though, it didn’t matter. I wasn’t here when Shar-Tushar needed me the most. Again, I couldn’t save my family.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Ashley instantly consoled, hearing the self-recrimination in Leandra’s tone. “I’m sure you tried to save them.”

“I was away to the north at the time,” the dark woman said softly. “I came back to find them all gone. By the time I found them, the poachers had already killed and bagged Shar-Tushar, his mate, and his son. I don’t know how Shar-Ranjana escaped their notice. There were about fifteen of them, well equipped with jeeps and radio-tracking gear to keep an eye on the rangers. They’d killed leopards, deer, elephants…and my family.”

Ashley couldn’t stand the look of grief on Leandra’s face as she recalled the slaughter of the tigers. “What did you do?”

“The only thing I could do.” Leandra’s eyes were cold now. “I avenged their deaths.”

The blonde photographer shivered at the feral gleam in Leandra’s eyes. She could well imagine how terrifying a thing the tiger-woman’s wrath would have been at that moment.

“I knew I couldn’t take on so many while they were alert during the day. So I waited for night to fall before I moved into their camp. Most of them were asleep.” Sapphire eyes closed and Leandra drew a calming breath. “When the rangers found what I’d left of the poachers, I could see the horror on their faces. I knew word would get out about the massacre…and I hoped it would serve as a warning to those who dared enter the jungle. I took Shar-Tushar and the others away and buried them deep in the forest. But first, I took the teeth from the two adults and used them to craft these.” She held up her clawed hands, and Ashley recognized for the first time that the ‘claws’ were actually fangs. Leandra smiled wistfully. “I carry a part of them wherever I go now. And everytime I kill, I avenge them a little more.

“After that, I stayed in the area a while making sure Shar-Ranjana survived. I helped her to hunt and together we survived until she was competent enough to go her own way. I wanted to stay, but the absence of Shar-Tushar made things seem so empty. I traveled around, hunting the poachers wherever they went, even into the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains.” Leandra regarded Ashley fondly. “I had no idea how long I’d been out here before you showed up. It felt like decades. I hadn’t realized how much I’d forgotten of my former life – even my own name got buried after a while.”

Ashley returned the smile in equal measure. “It sounds very lonely,” she said softly.

“Yeah, well…you get used to it after a while.” Clear cobalt eyes lowered. “But I’m glad you came here. I…” She hesitated. “It feels good to have someone to talk with again.”

The young woman absorbed the kind words eagerly, enjoying the warm tingle that coursed through her blood at the intense look in Leandra’s eyes. “You’re welcome.” She reached out a hand and gently touched the dark woman’s shoulder. “I’m glad you trusted me enough to tell me all that,” she said softly. “It means a lot to me.”

Leandra’s nostrils flared, breathing in the scent of the younger woman as her skin burned from the innocent contact. “We should get some sleep,” she observed quietly. “Tomorrow should be a busy day.”

“Oh?”

“I need to take a wash and redo my paint…and there’s still a poacher out there somewhere. I’d rather be the hunter than the prey.”

“Oh…right.” Ashley sighed and glanced at Leandra’s sleeping pallet. “You don’t snore, do you?”

Leandra grinned. “I don’t think so. Then again, it’s been a while since anyone slept close enough to tell me.”

“Well, I’m a pretty heavy sleeper anyway, so…” Ashley stood and helped the dark woman to her feet. They made their way over the mat and, after a moment of initial awkwardness, arranged themselves comfortably. Ashley, accustomed to having a pillow, quickly found Leandra’s shoulder made a suitable substitute, and she breathed contentedly as she shifted closer.

“Is this okay?”

Leandra’s throat tightened, the urge to wrap her arms around the smaller woman almost too strong to resist. “Sure,” she rasped.

“Great.” Ashley pressed her lower body firmer into the warmth of her sleeping companion. With every breath she took she could almost taste the heavy scent that was unique to Leandra; a distinctive combination of moist earth and a wild musk that Ashley knew she was growing addicted too. “Will you be able to sleep with me like this?”

Leandra considered seriously. “I don’t know. I haven’t tried for a long time. I slept with Shar-Ranjana while she was younger, but since then…I should drift off though. Don’t worry about it.”

“Okay.” Ashley yawned and closed her eyes, feeling safe and relaxed in Leandra’s presence. “You let me know if I’m annoying you, right?”

“I will.” Long fingers reached up to twine gently with golden locks, and Leandra purred helplessly at the silky sensation. “Sweet dreams.”

“Mmm.” Ashley was already half asleep, her arms wrapping unconsciously around the painted body next to her and pulling tighter. “Night.”

Leandra grinned in the darkness and lay awake, determined to enjoy the almost-forgotten feeling of another woman pressed so close against her. It was, she knew, something she might not feel again for a very long time.

***

The next morning, Ashley roused slowly from a refreshing sleep, her senses taking a moment to fully acknowledge her position. There was a moment of disorientation when she felt the unusual sensation of another person beside – and in some places, under – her, but as soon as she remembered where she was, the blonde photographer smiled and snuggled against the warmth of her companion happily.

“Are you awake?” asked the familiar raspy voice softly.

“Mmmm.” Ashley moaned a little and shook her head. “Not if it means I have to get up.”

Low vibrations shivered through Leandra’s body as she chuckled. “Fine.” A hand reached up and stroked the young woman’s hair softly. “I guess it won’t hurt us to sleep in.”

“Good.” Ashley cracked an eyelid and looked up at the dark woman’s face. “If I weren’t here, you’d probably be out and about already, wouldn’t you?”

“If you weren’t here, I’d probably have been out hunting through the night, so right now I’d be resting or bathing. During the day, I usually only hunt people…unless I need the meat.”

“Oh.” Ashley chewed her lower lip thoughtfully for a moment. “Tigers like to swim, don’t they?”

“Uh huh.”

“Do you?”

“Yep.” Leandra shifted slightly, enjoying the weight of the smaller woman pressed against her. “It’s a good way to cool down during the hotter parts of the day. You’ll like this waterfall I go too; it’s really secluded, and there are all these overhanging ferns and palms.”

“Sounds nice.” Ashley yawned and stretched a little, letting her body wake more fully. “You don’t have any coffee by any chance, do you?”

Leandra shook her head. “Sorry.”

“Mmm, that’s okay.” She considered a moment, then asked, “Do you ever miss all those little luxuries like coffee? I mean, it must be four years since you last had pizza, or chocolate, or beer.”

“You get used to it after a while, like anything else. Honestly, I haven’t even thought about that stuff much since I came here.” She grinned, and added, “I think the thing that was hardest to get used to was the lack of…shall we say, ‘personal companionship’.”

Ashley almost swallowed her tongue. “Re-really?”

“Yeah. I didn’t actually think about it a whole lot, but my body still got antsy if you know what I mean. Before, I used sex to relieve tension…and to distract me from thinking about anything too hard. It took a while for me to get adjusted to using all my energy for survival, rather than pleasure.”

Ashley was silent. Leandra had such an honest, blunt way of talking about herself that she’d never experienced before. It was refreshing in a strange way, and the young photographer found it easy to respond in kind. “It’s been a while for me, too,” she admitted quietly. “My job isn’t exactly conducive to building a relationship, so…” She trailed off, before grinning wickedly.
“It didn’t take long for me to find ways of keeping myself happy though.”

Leandra returned the grin and drawled, “I bet.” Wanting to distract herself before she could dwell further on thoughts of Ashley making herself ‘happy’, Leandra retrieved her arm from under her friend and sat up quickly. “Alright, that’s enough sleep time. We need to get moving.”

Ashley grumbled, but followed her tall companion’s example by moving over to the fireplace. In the back of her mind, however, the young blonde was wondering curiously at the way Leandra had ended their brief conversation. Not much for girl-talk, huh Jungle Jane? Why is that, when you’re so open about everything else? Ash grinned as she started building a small fire, wanting very much to read more into her friend’s behavior than she knew was really there.

After a simple breakfast of wild oats and dried fruit, Leandra gathered a small leather pouch from her supplies and led the way out of the cave. It was a short hike around the mountain to where Leandra’s waterfall was located, but the way was difficult and sometimes treacherous. Trudging up a steep slope littered with loose shale, Ashley blew her bangs from her eyes and smiled thanks at Leandra as the dark woman helped her balance. When the trail became too thickly overgrown with creeper vines and brambles, Leandra led the way forward on her hands and knees, encouraging her reluctant companion to follow. Ashley cursed quietly when she set her hand down on a sharp thorn, wondering as she sucked her palm if it might be better to turn back.

When they eventually reached their destination, however, the photographer was glad she’d stuck with it.

Thirty feet high, the waterfall wasn’t as large as some Ashley had seen, but the way it cascaded down over dozens of jutting rocks broke the curtain of water into a series of spectacular chains that threw irridenscent rainbows into the air in all directions. The thundering fall drove itself hard into a deep pool of clear, slightly emerald water which streamed lazily away to the south over a river of boulders. Gigantic tree-ferns and majestic palms swept their fronds out over the waters, smaller plants clinging precariously to the rock face of the fall itself, adding color to the mottled browns and grays of the stone. In the canopy above, a riot of brilliantly-colored birds squawked and screeched, obviously nesting close to the abundant water supply.

Gazing at the breath-taking sight, Ashley found herself smiling unconsciously. “It’s beautiful.”

“Yes, it is.” Leandra was pleased with her friend’s response. “And it’s very private, too. Not many of the larger animals can get down here. They usually water either above or below the fall itself. See over there?” She pointed to a chunk of orange rock near the base of the precipice. “That’s the stuff I use to mix my paint. Come, I’ll show you.”

For the next hour, Leandra showed her friend around the area, demonstrating how she crushed the soft rock into a powder which she then mixed with animal fat from her pouch and water from the stream to create a thick orange paste. The two mixed up white and brown paints from other rocks until Leandra judged she had sufficient quantities to cover her body with. Then the dark woman laid the various wooden bowls on a convenient flat rock and reached for the laces of her top.

“You ready for a swim?”

“Um…sh-sure, I guess.” Ashley couldn’t help but flush deep crimson as Leandra casually slipped out of her simple garments and tossed them next to the paint-filled bowls, then leant forward to grab a lump of raw soap from her little leather pouch. With her attraction to the tall woman growing stronger by the hour, it was impossible for the young photographer to keep her eyes from wandering rapidly over Leandra’s toned figure. She stared helplessly for a few seconds at the painted breasts before her gaze dropped lower, journeying over defined abdominal muscles to the neat thatch of dark hair that lay between those powerful thighs. When Leandra turned and waded out into the pool, Ashley was treated to a perfect view of firm buttocks and a slight hip-swagger than nearly gave her heart palpitations. Standing up, her fingers toyed reluctantly with the hem of her own shirt. She watched Leandra swim out to the center of the pool, marveling at how unselfconscious the dark woman seemed.

She’s not shy, I’ll give her that. Ashley wished she had that kind of boldness and lack of inhibition. Although she didn’t mind being naked outdoors when she was alone – traveling to remote locations instilled a certain degree of realism in a person – Ashley had never been one to go skinny-dipping with others. Deciding on a compromise that would let her maintain at least some sense of modesty, the blonde quickly stripped down to bra and panties before wading out into the chilly pool.

Leandra smiled when she saw her friend still wearing her undergarments, but made no comment beyond a deliciously raised eyebrow. Ashley shrugged and blushed. “I didn’t bring a suit,” she explained diffidently.

Leandra laughed. “I didn’t say anything.” Diving under the water, the naked woman wet her tangled hair and threw it back over her shoulder. “But you really shouldn’t be shy. I mean, it’s just me here, right?”

“I know, but…”

Leandra grinned. “You have a nice body Ashley…you’re fit, healthy. You shouldn’t by afraid to show that off.”

“Hey, it’s not like I’m a prude or anything,” Ashley defended, going to poke her friend in the ribs but thinking better of it. Secretly though, she was flattered by Leandra’s assessment. She thinks I’m attractive! That’s a good start.

“Uh huh.” Leandra grinned. Swimming back to a shallower section of the pool, she started scrubbing herself with the coarse lump of soap, quickly working up a generous lather that colored orange and then brown almost immediately. The dusty paint washed away into the pool, revealing pale skin beneath. Watching surreptitiously, Ashley was surprised by how pale Leandra was without the markings. I guess it makes sense though, she thought. Afterall, the paint must keep her from being exposed to much sunlight. Still, as Leandra ducked under the water and shook herself vigorously, Ashley couldn’t help but find the change in her appearance somewhat curious.

Wet sapphire eyes blinked at her happily, and Leandra flashed a toothy grin as she swept her dreadlocks from her face. She stood in the shallower water, raising herself above the pool and spreading her arms in a simple display. “Well…what do you think?”

Given permission, Ashley let her eyes wander everywhere. Delicious! was her first reaction. She cocked her head to the side and decided not to give so honest an opinion. “I kinda thought you’d be more tanned,” she offered thoughtfully. “You know, to go with the dark hair and all.”

Leandra chuckled. “That’s what I get for being nocturnal I guess.”

“It’s funny,” Ashley observed. “When I first saw you, I thought you looked really weird. All the paint, and the claws and the wild hair. But now, I don’t even notice those things anymore. To tell the truth, it’s a little weird seeing you like this.”

“The woman beneath the paint, huh?” Leandra lowered herself back into the water once more and swam out into the deeper parts of the pool where Ashley was. “It’s all me though…regardless of how I look.”

“I know.” Ashley flashed a playful smirk at her friend, then swept her arm along the water top, splashing the dark woman full in the face. Leandra growled menacingly, but Ashley laughed and repeated her action. Predatory blue eyes locked with mischievous green for a split second, before both women started pushing water at one another, alternately laughing and cursing. Their voices were swallowed by the thunder of the fall and the cries of the birds who watched serenely from the tree-tops above.

The two swam and played in the crystalline waters till they grew too tired, then retired to the shore. While Ashley dried herself off on her shorts, Leandra just shook herself like a dog, spraying droplets all over the place. Ashley giggled and raised an arm to ward off the deluge, grinning at her friend who made no move to reach for her own clothes. Completely at ease with her nakedness, Leandra instead picked up the small bowl containing the orange paste. Stirring the contents with her fingertip, she began to draw a series of lines over her body in a ritual she’d obviously practiced hundreds of times before.

Tugging her shirt on over her semi-dry head, Ashley sat on a rock and watched the process with fascination. Stamping down the desire to focus more heavily on Leandra’s very tempting-looking breasts, she watched curiously as the jungle woman slowly spread the paint over her sides, across her ribcage, back and collar, and down her legs and arms. Switching to the pale white paint, Leandra then proceeded to fill in the exposed areas of her chest, under her arms, and finally along her inner thighs. With confidant motions, she blurred the two tones till they merged correctly, giving her an accurate reproduction of a true tiger’s coloring. When she was satisfied with her work, Leandra stood with arms spread away from her body, face turned to the sun overhead.

“I have to let the first coat dry before I add the stripes,” she explained to the watching blonde. “I do my face last, since it requires a little more patience and care.”

“Right.” Ashley shook her head, amazed at the overall effect. “Do you uh…need any help?”

Leandra was about to say no when she caught the hopeful expression on the younger woman’s face. She gave a mental shrug. What the hell.

“Sure, if you like. You can do my back. You remember the design, right?”

Ashley nodded quickly, her eyes lighting up at the prospect of being allowed to run her hands over her friend’s body without any guilt. When Leandra decided the chalky paint had dried sufficiently, she picked up the third bowl containing the chocolate brown paste and gestured Ashley over. Cracks appeared in the smooth paint covering her body when she moved, and a few flakes chipped off, but the overall effect was not damaged. “Here.”

Ashley took the offered bowl. Leandra pulled her tangled hair over her shoulder and turned her exposed back to the photographer. Ash swallowed hard and dipped a finger into the grainy paste, noticing several old scars that were faintly visible beneath the tawny orange paint. She realized after a moment that they were the marks of Shar-Tushar’s claws. With infinite care, the blonde photographer drew a thick, tapering line along Leandra’s lower ribcage. Smiling at the approving grunt from her companion, she proceeded to fill in more stripes in a deliberate pattern until Leandra’s back was correctly covered. Lost in her work, Ashley continued down till her finger was tracing tantalizingly close to Leandra’s backside. When she received no comment or protest, the blonde knelt on the ground and proceeded to apply stripes to the backs of firm thighs and buttocks, her breath growing a little shallower as she committed every detail of the body before her to memory.

Standing very still, making a conscious effort not to purr, Leandra let her friend continue down her legs. Her eyes closed blissfully, enjoying the electric tingle that raced over her skin wherever the wandering finger ran. It was difficult to stop her body from responding to the gentle caresses, but Leandra managed by focusing on keeping her breathing deep and even. Eventually, she reminded herself that she had her own work to do, and reached down to dip her finger in the bowl Ashley held. Soon, Leandra was covering her chest with the dark stripes, feeling gooseflesh break out over her skin when she drew the lines over her sensitive breasts. Together, the two women worked in concert until Leandra’s body was properly decorated.

Ashley stood on somewhat shaky legs, looking into clear, ice-blue eyes that seemed strangely darker than usual. Without a word, she reached for the other bowls and handed them to Leandra. The jungle woman stepped onto a lower rock, putting her eye-to-eye with her shorter companion. Taking this as consent to continue, the blonde photographer began to gently cover Leandra’s face with the paint, carefully rubbing the fine, grainy paste across the high cheekbones and noble features of her friend. Leandra showed her by example where to add the paler tones, and before long Ashley was reaching for the third bowl, ready to paint the tiger mask pattern that had become so very familiar to her these last few days.

There was, she considered as she traced fine lines around piercing eyes, something extremely erotic about the whole process of painting Leandra. It was so intimate…so physical. While she applied gently tapering short lines across the dark woman’s cheeks, Ashley was conscious of those intense eyes watching her with an unblinking gaze. Her own eyes skipped constantly to Leandra’s full lips, and she felt the strong pull of this woman’s allure draw her closer…felt the desire to press her own lips against those that she traced with trembling fingers.

And then, before she quite realized it was happening, Ashley found herself fulfilling that desire.

Verdant eyes closed and she moaned helplessly as she kissed Leandra with the lightest of touches. The smell of earth and water and ash filled her senses and her hands drifted away, their task forgotten. For a timeless instant, Ashley lost herself in the sensation of heat against her lips…before her eyes snapped open suddenly and she withdrew, flustered and embarrassed.

Leandra’s expression was one of surprise and uncertainty; her whole body was frozen like a startled deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. Ashley felt a moment of pure panic lance through her, felt her heart suddenly leap into her throat as she realized what she’d done.

“Oh God!” A hand clapped over her mouth. “I-I-I’m sorry!” Ashley backed away from Leandra, wishing more than anything she could have these last few minutes back to do over again. But what was done was done, she knew, and the stunned look in Leandra’s eyes brought cold fear to the photographer as she realized her momentary lapse into fantasy may have destroyed whatever friendship she might have had with the mysterious jungle woman. “I-I didn’t mean to… I mean, I shouldn’t have done…” Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes. Ashley stood helplessly for several seconds by the water’s edge, then turned and fled back into the forest without a word.

“Ashley, wait!” Leandra shook her head as she saw the blonde woman retreat, her senses momentarily overwhelmed by the kiss which had stunned her into inaction. She started to give chase, then cursed and grabbed for her clothes. Struggling into the simple top and skirt, fumbling in a rush to get the laces tied, Leandra cursed herself for freezing like that…for not responding to the kiss. Running her fingers through her tangled hair, the dark woman wondered how best to rectify the situation. Unaccustomed to dealing with other people’s feelings, it took her several moments to decide on a course of action.

Following the blonde, Leandra shook her head in frustration. “Damn it.”

***

Rushing through the jungle, heedless of the branches and vines that whipped at her and tried to snag her clothes, Ashley felt hot tears burn down her cheeks. I will not cry, I will not cry, I will not cry. She repeated the litany in her mind over and over, fighting the despair that made her want to curl into a ball and forget this day had ever happened. Despite the mantra, her eyes continued to stream and she fought against the choking sobs that pulled at her throat.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid!” She smacked herself in the forehead with each word. “I’m such an idiot!” Just when Leandra had been opening up…just as they’d started to share more and more…she’d gone and ruined everything by giving in to her baser desires. “She’ll probably never want to talk to me again!” Ashley’s mind, lost in confusion and self-recrimination, didn’t bother to look for any kind of hope that Leandra might be understanding; might not care about her attraction. All her thoughts were negative, tainted with the dark tones that always preceded depression and despair. The image of Leandra’s shocked expression was burned in her memory, and in Ashley’s despondent state of mind it quickly developed a fictional twist of distaste and withdrawal.

Without thinking, Ashley made her way down the gravelly, dangerous slope, not caring when she slipped and cut her ankle on a sharp fragment of shale. Tears blurring her vision, she reached the base of the mountain and walked as quickly as she could back in the direction of her own camp. Right now, all she wanted to do was retreat to her tent, lie down, and lecture herself repeatedly about how foolish her attraction to Leandra had been.

It was a long way back to the campsite, but in her cloud of dejection the distance seemed to grow smaller. When at last she reached the circle of tents and the small, dead cooking fire, Ashley was relieved to find that Grady and the others were nowhere in sight. She really didn’t feel like dealing with any lectures about how irresponsible it had been to stay with Leandra last night. Snuffling miserably, feeling sticky and dirty even though she’d just bathed, the blonde photographer flung back the flap that led into her own tent and stepped inside…

…only to stop suddenly when she was greeted by a familiar pair of ice-blue eyes waiting within.

There was no point in running away again. Ashley was just too damned tired. She felt ashamed and drained, and shuffled a little, unable to hold Leandra’s gaze for more than a moment.

“It’s not fair that you can do that,” she said quietly, irrationally annoyed at the tall woman’s speed.

Leandra stepped closer and the photographer backed up pace. “Ashley, we need to talk-” she began.

“No!” Ashley cut her off. “Please Leandra, I feel stupid enough as it is. Can’t you just leave me alone? I’m sorry, alright. I got carried away and I shouldn’t have. You obviously didn’t like it, so there’s nothing more to talk abo- Mmph!”

Leandra’s lips silenced her, descending with passion and force. Ashley resisted for a brief moment, but her legs gave out when Leandra’s tongue deftly invaded her mouth and began a confident seduction of her own. Firm hands ran from her neck down her back before gripping her butt and pulling her into a fierce embrace. Completely overwhelmed by the sensual assault, Ashley could offer no protest beyond a throaty moan when she felt Leandra’s breasts push against her.

The kiss lasted several seconds, and Leandra made certain it conveyed in no uncertain terms the depth of her desire. When at last she pulled away, flushed and breathless, the dazed and slightly goofy look on Ashley’s face told the dark woman she had made her point.

“You took me by surprise,” she whispered huskily into the blonde’s neck. “I’m sorry I didn’t have time to respond…but I’m not going to let you think for a moment that I didn’t want you to do that. Or that I didn’t enjoy it very much.”

Ashley nearly swooned. “Y-you really mean that?” she asked. “You’re not just saying it to make me feel better?”

Sapphire eyes grew hooded, darkening with salacious fires. “You need more convincing?” Her lips descended again, removing any doubt that could still linger and leaving Ashley gasping. When Leandra withdrew this time, she smiled crookedly down at the younger woman. “I think we’ve both got a lot of thinking to do,” she whispered, removing her hands reluctantly from Ashley’s backside. “I’ll give you some time, okay?”

Ashley nodded dazedly. “Uh huh.”

“Come find me tomorrow; we’ll talk then.” Leandra placed a last, almost chaste kiss on Ashley’s cheek, her eyes promising more, then backed slowly out of the tent.

Ashley watched the tall, striped figure as she disappeared back into the jungle. Turning back to the tent, a slow, incredulous grin worked its way helplessly across her mouth. Ashley pumped a single fist in the air. “Yessss!!”

Her despair completely forgotten, the photographer threw herself down on her sleeping-bag and closed her eyes. Thinking could wait, she decided. For now, she wanted to just enjoy the memory of that amazing kiss…and dream of what else might be in store for her.
Part 4
What the hammer? and what the chain,

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? what dread grasp,

Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

-‘The Tyger’ by William Blake.

For the rest of that morning, Ashley lay in her tent, eyes closed, smiling dreamily at nothing in particular. From time to time she would take a deep breath and catch the scent of earth and ash that still lingered in the air even after Leandra had departed, and would flush at the memory of the dark woman’s searing kiss. Ashley wondered idly where Grady and the others had gotten to, but she felt no urge to go looking for them. Right now, she was happy just to let her thoughts drift lazily by, and enjoy the knowledge that her attraction to Leandra was fully reciprocated.

Of course, there were now about a thousand and one new complications that would have to be dealt with sooner or later — complications that went far beyond those of a normal romantic relationship. A part of Ashley’s mind wanted to address these problems right away, but she ignored it for the time being and focused instead on the warm tingles that still traced around her lips. There would be time enough later to discuss practical realities with Leandra…time enough to figure out what this all meant and where it might go from here. Certainly, Ashley thought, from the ardor in the dark woman’s kiss earlier, Leandra was interested in taking this attraction a whole lot further. She smiled. And that’s just fine with me.

It was late afternoon by the time Grady and the others returned to camp, and Ashley startled out of her dreamy state as soon as she heard their voices approaching. She knew her partner would probably be pissed at her for spending the night out with Leandra, but it took several seconds for her to shift mental gears. Frankly, she wasn’t in the mood to deal with Grady. She just wanted to rest and remember her morning with the darkly enchanting tiger-woman. However, when she heard her name being called and the sound of footsteps nearing the tent, Ash sighed and gave a mental shrug. It was time to do some explaining.

“Ashley? Are you in there?”

“Yeah Grady.” Ashley got up and opened the tent flap, stepping out into the pre-dusk and facing her partner with a neutral expression. “Something you wanted?”

Grady visibly collected himself, obviously realizing that blowing his stack wasn’t going to get him anywhere. After so many years of working with Ashley, he knew her well enough to understand when to back off about something…and he could see the blonde photographer was starting to get defensive over his continued disapproval of her friendship with Leandra.

Folding his hands across his chest, Grady cocked his head to the side and said quietly, “I just wanted to make sure you were okay. You didn’t come back last night.”

Ashley shrugged. “Yeah, I stayed out with Leandra. She hurt herself and I didn’t want to leave her alone out there.”

“Oh.” A pause. “Is she alright?”

A faint smile curled the corners of Ashley’s lips. “She’s fine. Thank you for asking.”

Grady returned the smile a little more fully. Glancing down, he noticed a dark stain of crimson and pointed to Ashley’s ankle. “What happened here?”

“Huh?” Ash glanced down and noticed that the cut on her calf had bled freely. “Oh…I kinda tripped on some loose stones coming back here, that’s all. I hadn’t even noticed it.”

“Yeah, well, a cut like that could turn septic if you don’t treat it properly…especially out here.”

“I know. I’ll take care of it.” Ashley studied Grady a moment in silence before she said quietly, “Listen…I’m sorry about running off like that and not telling you about it. It’s just Leandra wanted to show me something secret, and it couldn’t wait till dawn, so…”

Grady nodded. “Figured it was something like that.”

“I wanted to wake you up, but she didn’t want you trying to follow or anything. Given your recent behavior, I think she was justified with her concern.”

“Uh huh.” Grady pursed his lips. “Well I hope whatever it was she wanted to show you was worth the worry you cost me.”

Ash grinned more fully and cast her eyes at the ground for a second, remembering her wonderful encounter with Shar-Ranjana. “It was…believe me.”

“You going out with her again tomorrow?”

It was only with an effort that Ashley avoided blushing at the thought of what tomorrow might bring, but she managed a fairly indifferent nod. “I guess so.”

The tall man grunted softly. “Well…be careful, huh? I don’t want to be explaining to the boss-man why I let you get yourself killed out here, okay?”

“Okay.”

“And make sure you get some disinfectant on that cut. You don’t want lockjaw or gangrene or anything like that.”

“I will.” Ash hesitated a moment, then stood on tip-toes to deliver a soft kiss on Grady’s stubble-covered cheek. She grinned at the raised eyebrow that her gesture caused, and shrugged. “Thank you for caring.”

“Hey,” Grady laughed, “if I don’t look after you, who will?”

Ash mock-punched her partner, but chuckled too. “Give me a minute to get this thing cleaned up and I’ll give you a hand with dinner.”

“Sure.”

Ashley turned back into the tent, hearing Grady return to the others by the dead campfire. Sitting on her sleeping bag, Ash rummaged around in her backpack till her fingers located the small but well-stocked first-aid kit within. With a cotton swab, the blonde photographer gently cleaned the small cut on her shin before applying a healthy coating of disinfectant. After covering the entire wound with an adhesive bandage, Ashley joined her friends outside, nodding to a glowering Tarun and receiving curious expressions of interest from Grace and Simon.

Over a rather unimaginative dinner of stewed meat and vegetables, Ashley listened quietly to the others as they talked about their day. Simon made polite inquires about talking to Leandra regarding help finding more tigers, but Ashley’s evasive responses were enough to tell him not to get his hopes up. It seemed the two scientists were having a rather disappointing time of it, their efforts to monitor the tiger population yielding only minimal success. Still, Ashley knew she could never talk about Shar-Ranjana…no matter how much it would mean to Simon and his assistant. She recognized a sacred trust when she saw it.

Even as she listened to the conversations of her friends, Ashley’s mind was still preoccupied by the earlier events of that day. For the most part, the young blonde was content to sit silently in the flickering light of the fire, smiling a wondering, quiet smile and shivering a little at the remembered passion of Leandra’s embrace. When everyone had finished their dinner, Ashley offered her services as dishwasher and, with help from Grace, took the small pile of plates and cutlery over to the bucket of water near the perimeter of the camp. She didn’t notice the curious and slightly amused smile on Grace’s face as the scientist followed behind her.

Dipping each plate into the water quickly, Ashley and Grace worked together in silence, the taller brunette flicking occasional glances at the blonde photographer’s obvious preoccupation. Drying the dishes on a rag, Grace raised an eyebrow at her companion. “Ashley?”

“Hmm?”

An uncertain pause. “I don’t want you to think I’m being nosey or anything, and I know we don’t really know one another that well, but…”

Clear emerald eyes flicked up curiously. “No, that’s okay. What’s on your mind.”

“Welll…” Grace bit her lower lip. “I was just wanting to make sure everything was okay with you. I mean, with you and Leandra.”

Ashley sat up a little straighter. “Okay? What do you mean? Why wouldn’t it be?”

Grace hesitated again, clearly not wanting to overstep her boundaries. “Well, you’ve been really distracted all afternoon is all, and you’ve been wearing that goofy smile since you got back.” She shrugged and glanced away. “Plus, I saw the handprints on your butt. It doesn’t take much guess-work to figure out who put them there.”

Ashley blushed, her eyes widening as she quickly brushed her hands on the back of her shorts. Sure enough, she felt the dried dust-marks from where Leandra had gripped her and pulled her tighter into their embrace. “I-I…We didn’t do-”

Grace held up her hands. “I’m not judging you or anything like that,” she said quickly. “You’re a big girl, and it’s none of my business. But I just wanted to make sure you’re not being…forced into anything, that’s all.”

Ashley regarded the other woman carefully a moment, but found only a genuine concern in her open face. She smiled. “Well, I appreciate that Grace. Really I do. But I can assure you, Leandra isn’t forcing me into anything at all.”

Grace nodded. “I didn’t really think she was…but it’s always good to check.”

“Thank you.” Ash nodded back towards the campfire, where the three men were still talking and laughing. “You think they noticed?”

“I doubt it.”

“Good.” Ashley didn’t think that Grady would be thrilled to hear about her more personal interest in the tiger woman. “You won’t tell them, will you?”

“Of course not. It’s not my business.” Grace reached for another dish and wiped it with the rag. “You and Leandra have been spending a lot of time together,” she observed casually. “I guess you’ve gotten to know her pretty well, huh?”

Ashley shrugged. “Yeah, I have.” She finished washing the last plate, but made no move to return to the others. It felt good to talk about Leandra with someone else, to express her thoughts to another person who wouldn’t be judgmental. Growing up, Ashley had always appreciated having a sister around to share things with, but it was something she missed a lot when her work took her overseas. This whole experience was very new to the young blonde, and her thoughts were running helter-skelter through her head in an exciting, confused jumble. Although she’d only known Grace a short while, she rather liked the quiet, introspective zoologist, and decided a little girl-talk wouldn’t hurt. “It’s surprising, really,” she said softly. “Leandra’s not the sort of woman I ever pictured myself being attracted too.”

“Hmm.” Grace stopped drying the plates and gave Ashley her full attention.

“But she’s gentle, and caring, and I feel so safe when I’m with her.” Ashley sighed, blowing her feathered bangs from her eyes. “All she has to do is look at me sometimes, and my legs go all rubbery. It’s stupid to get involved with her, I know, but…I don’t care.”

“Is this the first time you’ve been attracted to another woman?” Grace asked interestedly.

“Attracted, no. But it’s the first time I ever acted on it.” Ashley smiled sheepishly. “Believe it or not, I’m not really good at this sort of thing. My relationships tend to run cold pretty quick.” She looked off into the jungle, her eyes dreamy. “But it’s not like that with Leandra. We went for a swim this morning, and one thing kind of led to another. One minute I was thinking about kissing her…and then POW! I was.”

Grace smiled. “It sounds pretty intense.”

“It is. Everything about Leandra is intense. And I want more time with her…time to give this thing the chance it deserves.” Ashley sighed. “I don’t know what I’ll do when we have to leave. I’m trying not to think too much about it right now.”

Grace reached out and offered the photographer a shy pat of consolation. “She sounds very special to you. To hear Grady talk about her, you’d think she was the devil or something.”

Ash laughed shortly. “Well, she has a pretty savage side to her personality too. Living out here as a predator for so long, I guess that’s understandable.” Emerald eyes took on a conspiratorial glint. “But to tell the truth, I think that’s part of what I find so attractive about her. She’s so animal…so unrestrained and primal. It’s not something I thought I liked, but…” she grinned, “in Leandra, I think it’s sexy as hell.”

Grace smirked. “And from the position of those handprints, I’d say she thinks the same about you.”

A flush of crimson spread over Ashley’s face as she nodded. “Seems that way, yeah.” She picked up the dried dishes and cutlery and cradled them in her arms. “I guess we’ll be talking more about it when I see her tomorrow, but right now, I just want to enjoy this feeling without thinking about the complications.” A sudden gust of wind and a distant clap of thunder heralded the coming of a storm, and the two women exchanged glances.

“I hope things work out,” Grace said gently.

Ashley nodded. “Me too.” Standing, she offered a sincere smile. “And thanks. For offering a friendly ear.”

“Hey, I know what it’s like being a woman in a male-dominated environment,” Grace laughed shyly. “Sometimes it’s nice to have another woman around to talk with.”

A flash of lightening illuminated the distant mountains, and a call from Grady got the two women moving back to the ring of tents. Depositing the dishes inside a small knapsack, Ashley said her good-nights and retreated to her tent just as the first fat drops of rain began falling from the sky.

* * *

The rain pelted down from the heavy clouds above, drenching the jungle in a sudden downpour and carving small, muddy rivers through the undergrowth. The night was dark, moon and stars alike hidden by the obstructing clouds. Still, the heat remained, turning the air in Leandra’s cave into a sultry sauna. The striped woman looked out over her hunting grounds from the mouth of the cave, her eyes taking it all in with quiet satisfaction.

This was the perfect time to hunt, Leandra knew. The rain was an effective dampener for both sound and scent, and the animals would all be sheltering under trees, not searching for potential hunters in the impenetrable dark. But Leandra didn’t feel like hunting tonight. The memory of Ashley’s hands as they traced striped patterns over her flesh still burned in the dark woman’s mind. The heat of her lips…the taste of her tongue…

Leandra smiled in the darkness. No. There would be no hunting this night.

She kissed me.

She kissed me!

Leandra hadn’t anticipated this development, hadn’t hoped to dream that her attraction to the younger blonde might be reciprocated. And she certainly hadn’t counted on Ashley making the first move. But she had. And now things had changed forever.

New and wonderful feelings were currently running through Leandra’s senses, thoughts and emotions that she’d not experienced in many years…or at all. For four years, this jungle had been both home and prison for the dark woman. She had struggled against it, had loved and hated it, and in the end, had come to learn a great deal about herself because of it. The jungle was a harsh instructor, and her lessons were sometimes painful…but now, for the first time in those four years, Leandra’s eyes looked beyond the endless ocean of grasslands and forests, and saw again the world she’d left behind.

And for the first time in those four years, she saw a future that did not involve this savage world of predator and prey.

A future that involved Ashley.

“Ashley.” Leandra whispered the name softly, smiling at how the simple word affected her. Painted fingers rose to trace painted lips, recalling the kiss and wanting desperately to relive it. Leandra wondered what Ashley was thinking about right now. How did she feel about all this? Her desires were obvious to Leandra from the way she’d responded that morning…but Leandra had never cared for anyone the way she cared now for the petite blonde. Always before, she had pursued, conquered, and then abandoned her lovers. She didn’t want something so transient and insubstantial with Ashley. She wanted a relationship. Something that could comfort her and embrace her…could heal the old wounds which still pained her. Leandra was entering a new world, she knew…and a part of her felt as naked and vulnerable as when she’d first returned here after her encounter with Shar-Tushar.

Watching the rain fall, sniffing the air that was thick with moisture and the scent of wet rebirth, Leandra sat silently and waited for the morrow. Things would be clearer in the light, she thought…and she could see Ashley once more.

Somehow, Leandra knew, this was right. As strong as her fears were, these new desires and emotions were stronger still…and when all was said and done, Leandra knew she had no choice but to put her faith in them, and in the woman who was at the heart of their creation.

* * *

Bright and early the next morning, Ashley woke after a pleasantly restless sleep to find the day dawning humid and misty after the passage of the storm last night. The campsite was a muddy quagmire, pools of water settling into shallow depressions everywhere. The jungle dripped and flowed, and Ashley was instantly damp with sweat. Still, nothing could dispel the spirit of good humor that infected the young blonde.

By the time her companions emerged grumpily from their tents, Ashley had already coaxed a small campfire to life from the few pieces of dry wood that had escaped the rain, boiled water for coffee, and prepared a simple but sustaining breakfast from their dwindling supplies. But with her anticipation of the coming day running feverishly high, there was barely time for the group to offer their thanks before Ashley said her good-byes and headed off towards the river, eager to meet with Leandra.

Wandering along the water’s edge, Ashley looked around for the tiger-woman but found no sign of her. After a half-hour, she was starting to worry that Leandra might not show. But when she reached the small waterfall that she’d explored that first day in the jungle, Ashley felt her concerns fly away instantly when she spied the familiar striped figure sitting cat-like on a rocky overhang, head bent slightly into the breeze. Her lips spread into a helpless smile as she approached, and Leandra sensed her presence and turned to face her.

“Hey.” Ashley almost bounced her way to the dark woman, grinning like an idiot at the smile Leandra graced her with. She came to a stop a few feet from her tall friend, suddenly feeling a little awkward. Knawing her lower lip, she shuffled uncertainly, trying to think of something appropriate to say. “Some storm last night, huh?”

Leandra grinned, stepped forward, and pulled the shorter woman into a possessive embrace. Ducking her head, she quickly claimed Ashley’s lips with a hungry kiss, dueling slowly with a soft tongue when the photographer parted her lips and invited her in.

After several seconds of seductive exploration, Leandra broke the kiss and smiled down at the dazed look in Ashley’s eyes. The blonde licked her lips and grinned, pleasantly surprised. “What was that for?”

Leandra shrugged. “You just looked like that was the kind of ‘good-morning’ you were hoping for, but you weren’t certain you were going to get it,” she explained simply, running her hands down the crease of the smaller woman’s back. “You never have to worry about that Ashley. I’ll never stop wanting to kiss you like that.”

Ashley’s grin nearly swallowed her ears, so wide did it grow. “Really?”

“Really,” Leandra promised, sealing her words with another long kiss.

Ashley sighed as she wrapped her arms around Leandra and laid her head on her breast. Feeling the solid, powerful body pulled tight against her own felt so right, so perfect to her. But she knew there were issues that needed addressing before they could continue. “I guess we should talk, huh?”

Leandra nodded, running her fingers through silken blonde hair before she reluctantly withdrew. “Yeah…we probably should.” Taking the younger woman’s hand in her own — noticing without meaning to the way Ashley’s soft, pink skin contrasted so sharply against her own callused, painted hand — Leandra led the way over to the edge of the overhang and helped the photographer settle herself on a dry rock. Sitting beside her, Leandra smiled a little nervously at her friend.

“This is kinda awkward, isn’t it?”

Ashley nodded. “Yeah, it is.” She took a deep breath. “I was up half the night, listening to the storm and thinking about you. And about how much you’ve come to mean to me.”

Leandra squeezed Ashley’s hand gently. “You mean a lot to me, too.”

“I think I made a list of about a hundred different reasons why this is stupid,” Ashley admitted. “I know we should just put a stop to it before it goes any further, before we both get hurt…” She smiled at the sudden guarded, fearful expression that washed over Leandra’s expressive face. “But I don’t care about any of that,” she instantly continued. “I really like you, Leandra. More than I can remember liking anyone in my whole life. And I don’t want to run away from this just because it seems like a bad idea, or because it seems too risky. This is all kinda new for me…and I don’t really know what your thoughts are…but…”

“I want to keep going,” Leandra said quickly — almost desperately. Emerald eyes caught and held her in a powerful spell, and she swallowed hard. “I-I’ve never met anyone like you Ashley. I’ve never felt anything like how I feel around you. It’s pretty new for me, too, but…I don’t want to stop.”

Ash nodded. “I should warn you now,” she said, “I’ve got a terrible track record with relationships. They never seem to last more than a month or two.”

Leandra grinned. “That’s okay. I’ve never really had a relationship — at least not one that lasted longer than the next morning.”

Ashley smiled fractionally, then glanced away shyly, frowning. “I’ve never actually…” She paused. “With a woman, I mean…”

Cobalt eyes widened for a heartbeat, surprised, but Leandra’s grip on the younger blonde’s hand didn’t falter. “Are you…okay about this then?” she asked softly. “I mean…that I’m a woman?”

Ashley looked up. “Of course. I’ve always known there was…some level of interest there, I just…didn’t expect it to happen quite like this, that’s all. I mean, it’s unexpected.” She hesitated. “I take it you’ve been with other women before.”

Leandra nodded. “It always felt better for me…more comfortable.” Her eyes darkened for a moment, remembering with regret the women she’d used and then tossed aside without a care. “I want you to understand,” she said earnestly, “I’m not taking this lightly Ashley. You’re not just some casual plaything for me. I don’t want to treat you the way I’ve treated others in my life. I care too much for you.”

Tears pricked at the corners of Ashley’s verdant eyes at the sincerity in Leandra’s words. “I feel the same way.”

There was more to be said; both of them knew it, but neither wanted to broach the subject of Ashley’s rapidly-approaching departure, nor the matter of Leandra’s unorthodox life-style. It was enough for now that they were together…and committed to pursuing whatever bond was drawing them closer together.

“So…” Ashley raised an eyebrow at the dark woman. “Where do we go from here?”

Leandra shrugged. “Where would you like to go from here?”

“Wellll…” The blonde blushed and glanced away to the river. “I thought the kissing was a really good place to start.”

Leandra grinned fully, her eyes dancing playfully. “Did you now?”

“Uh huh.” Ashley leaned forward, tilting her head to the side and accepting the dark woman’s lips with a happy little mew of pleasure. Strong arms wound their way around her body, and she quickly responded in kind, shuddering at the sensation of Leandra’s heated body pressing so close against her own. Future concerns were set aside without hesitation, and in some remote part of her brain, Ashley realized one of the simple truths about this primal world that had been the dark woman’s home for so long.

In the jungle, life was only ever a single moment.

And if that moment was right…then nothing else mattered.

* * *

They spent the long day together in pleasant companionship, neither of them caring about the few showers that rained down from time to time, or about the steamy heat. Leandra took the young photographer out to a remote part of the Park and, from the safety of the branches of a towering tree, showed her where a young male leopard made his home. Ashley smiled with delight at every new secret Leandra revealed to her, enjoying more than ever the way the dark woman invited her into her world, and so willingly shared these everyday miracles with her. Their day was interspersed with frequent make-out sessions, and by the time the sun started coloring the edges of the horizon with painted tones of purple and crimson, Ashley’s face was streaked with patches of dusty paint from kissing Leandra so much.

Only when dusk had given over to dark did they part ways. Leandra led the way with familiar ease back to Ashley’s camp, then stood uncertainly beside the younger woman.

“You could always…stay the night with me, you know,” she suggested in a throaty, hopeful whisper.

Ashley smiled and ran her fingers over the dark woman’s chiseled jaw fondly. “I’d like that,” she said earnestly. “But I should really go back. I know Grady worries about me…and I’ve barely spent any time with the others lately.” She chuckled shortly. “As tempting as the alternatives are — and believe me-” Her voice dropped several octaves and her emerald eyes darkened “-I’m finding them veeery tempting indeed right now — I have to put in a little work-time.”

Leandra lowered her head in acceptance. “I understand.”

Standing on tip-toes, Ashley gave the striped woman a final kiss, then accepted a little help cleaning the marks from her face. “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”

“Okay.”

They parted with many backward glances, and even after the young blonde was out of sight, Leandra stood staring after her for many long moments…a part of her wanting desperately to follow. Sighing, she circled the camp instead and climbed stealthily into one of the giant trees just outside the perimeter, where she settled down on a comfortable limb. From her lofty perch, Leandra watched Ashley join her companions for dinner, a slight, longing smile curving her lips. She stayed in the tree, watching and thinking about how her life was changing, until the moon hung high in the night sky. Then, knowing she would need sleep for the day ahead, Leandra leapt silently to the ground and returned to her cave…thinking for the first time in a long time just how lonely her home seemed.

Before the sun had even risen the next morning, Ashley was awake in her bed-roll, urging the dawn on anxiously as she lay in the warm darkness. Deciding the day was never going to move along quickly enough for her liking, the young woman shuffled off her sleeping bag and ventured outside. Again, she prepared a campfire and sipped a steaming cup of coffee while eating the leftovers from last night, greeted her companions cheerfully, then left before they could convince her to spend the day in the hide with them. Down along the river Ashley wandered, every pore of her open and alert to Leandra’s presence.

So focused were her thoughts on the enigmatic jungle woman that when a large hand grabbed her from behind and clamped firmly over her mouth, pulling her back against a muscular body, Ashley didn’t struggle for a long moment, figuring Leandra had surprised her. But when she heard the unfamiliar jangle of steel against leather, and caught the scent of unfamiliar sweat, her verdant eyes widened. Something cold and sharp pressed against her throat, and stale breath tickled the fine hairs behind her ears.

“Just behave yourself girly,” said a soft, lethal voice, “and I might let you live through this.”

The poacher!

The momentary shock vanished, replaced instantly with anger. Ashley was small, and lightweight, but she was far from weak, and she didn’t roll over easily. Going limp in her captors arms, pretending to be paralyzed with fear, Ashley let the man support her fully, forcing him to relax his grip on the knife held to her throat. As soon as she felt the steel edge waver, Ashley lifted her right foot and drove it with all her strength down and into the man’s unprotected shin-bone. The poacher grunted in surprise and pain, his hold loosening. Ashley capitalized instantly by twisting slightly and nailing an elbow into his side. She was about to go for the groin — a strike which might have ensured her escape — when the poacher recovered from his surprise, spinning her around and landing a dizzying backhand across her face. Ashley’s vision went white, stars flashing before her eyes, and she gasped when a fist punched her in the stomach, knocking the breath from her lungs.

The poacher grabbed her again, the knife digging painfully into her throat in a silent but clear threat of what would happen if she struggled further. “Feisty little thing, ain’t ya,” the man grunted. “But I’ll let that one go. Any more though, and that tiger-freak bitch will be following a blood-trail to your body. Understand?”

Ashley gasped for air, her face feeling numb from the blow. But she managed a weak nod.

“Good.” The knife retreated, dragging down her body to the edge of her tank-top. Ashley tensed as the cool steel edge ran along her belly, but the poacher didn’t cut her. Instead, he swiftly sliced a thin strip from the material. Holding up the scrap, he nodded, pleased.

“What do you want with me?” Ashley asked quietly. “My friends will know I’m gone. They’ll call the rangers.”

“Maybe.” The poacher began walking Ashley back into the jungle. “But those idiots couldn’t find me if they tried. And right now, I’m only interested in one particular friend you have. I think she’ll be pretty desperate to get you back, too.”

Ashley tensed. “You mean..”

“That’s right. That tiger-freak has been making a nuisance of herself for far too long now. It’s time she was put down. Permanently.”

Ashley snorted defiantly. “What makes you think you can take her? She’s been hunting poachers like you for years now.”

“True.” The poacher tangled his fingers in Ashley’s hair and pulled it sharply, wrenching an involuntary cry from the young woman. “But I have the advantage now.” He leaned closer, and Ashley recoiled in disgust. “We’re going cat-hunting,” he whispered, “and I’ve got a feeling you’re the perfect little mouse to use as bait.”

Using her hair as a grip, the poacher pushed Ashley in front of him and forced their way deeper into the jungle. Wincing in pain, Ashley said a silent prayer to any deities who cared to listen, asking them to keep Leandra safe.

* * *

Leandra grew concerned after waiting by the river almost an hour for Ashley to join her, but without result. Confused, she stealthily made her way back to her friends camp, thinking perhaps something had delayed the young woman, but there was no sign of trouble or concern among the others. A feeling of disquiet ran like a chill up her spine. Something was wrong.

“Where is she?”

Returning to the forest and the river, Leandra searched for tracks and found them fresh and clear in the mud left by the recent rainfall. However, her eyes widened when she found a second set of footprints over the top of those made by Ashley — signs of heavy army boots, large enough to fit a man. Leandra lifted her head and sniffed. The air still carried the scent of danger and steel.

Leandra followed the tracks swiftly, her entire posture and demeanor changing instantly to that of the jungle predator, and it took her only a few moments to find further evidence that something terrible was happening. Stabbed into the trunk of one of the forest trees by a slender hunting dagger was a torn scrap of cloth. Snatching the material down, Leandra brought it to her nose and breathed in the familiar scent of the photographer. A low rumble burred deep in the striped woman’s chest as Leandra realized what had happened.

Bait.

The poacher had discerned a weakness, and was now intent on exploiting it by using Ashley to lure her into the open.

For a moment, pure rage filled the dark woman’s senses, making her want to just charge in and slash the man who had dared to threaten Ashley to pieces. But Leandra hadn’t survived so long out here without learning the merits of patience. She took a calming breath and focused her energy into a tight, controlled ball, thinking carefully how to best execute an effective rescue. Tigers hunted their prey with stealth and cunning; if they charged too soon, their quarry would bolt, too late, and they might miss their opportunity. Leandra had spent days and weeks watching and learning from the great jungle cats. Four years had taught her control, infinite patience.

Eyes as cold as chips of glacier ice narrowed, and the dark striped form melted away swiftly into the forest undergrowth, moving with honed stealth along the trail left by the poacher and his captive.

The tracks were easy to follow; evidently, the poacher wanted Leandra to come to him…and to know that he had the young photographer. Leandra moved cautiously, not wanting to stumble into an ambush and ruin any chance of rescuing Ashley. When the trail turned back towards the river, it became clear to the striped woman what her adversary was thinking. As the trees thinned and gave way to the stony ground that preceded the water’s edge, Leandra saw she had judged correctly. Crouching down in the shadows, her body held tense against the soaked earth, she studied the man standing a hundred feet away on the same rocky outcropping she herself had sat by just yesterday.

The man stood, alert and watchful, his rifle held in the crook of his arm, ready to use. His other hand was wrapped tightly in the long blonde hair of the woman beside him, and from the slight wince that pulled at Ashley’s pretty face now and again, it was clear to Leandra he wasn’t being gentle. The poacher held Ashley at arm’s length, facing the edge of the precipice. His intent was easily deduced; if Leandra attempted any kind of frontal assault, he had only to give the young photographer a quick shove, and she would fall into the rocky waters below.

Swiftly, Leandra assessed the situation, studying the surrounding jungle to determine how she might use the natural environment to her advantage. She instantly rejected a direct confrontation; the poacher would have all the time in the world to take aim with his rifle and shoot her down, no matter how fast she ran or how well she dodged. The ground between Leandra and the man was open, completely bereft of any kind of cover. Stealth would avail her little, which was obviously why he had chosen this place. Undeterred, Leandra shifted her attention to the precipice itself, and smiled as a plan formed in her mind.

The edge of the drop was sheer, but below, the jungle encroached right down to the water’s edge. Leandra moved wraithlike along the edge of the tree-line, circling her quarry’s position till she came to the base of the cliff. Looking up, she was pleased to note that the rock wall before her provided numerous cracks and outcroppings that would make acceptable handholds. The poacher was paying no attention to what lay behind him, obviously considering the cliff unclimbable. Leandra realized this was the other reason he had chosen this particular location to set himself up; he figured to force a frontal assault by reducing the range of direction from which she could attack.

Leandra grinned ferally. He was underestimating her abilities again…and she intended to take advantage of that mistake.

Slowly, wary of any sound or scent that might signal she’d been mistaken in her assumptions, Leandra crept from the jungle cover and slipped into the knee-deep waters. The sound of the nearby waterfall effectively masked any sound, and she reached for the first hand-hold. Tugging a few times to ensure the rock wasn’t loose, Leandra hoisted herself upwards, testing for and finding a solid foothold before reaching for another grip higher up.

The climb was difficult, but not near as impossible as the poacher had guessed. Leandra’s fingers were toughened from years of constant struggling against her home, but they were aching by the time she neared the top of the precipice. Thick vines twisted across the rock-face here and there, at times providing a helpful hand-hold, but more often proving an obstacle to her ascent. Spray from the fall made sections of the rock slippery with green moss, making it difficult to find purchase. Still, Leandra kept her mind focused on the task at hand, determined not to let Ashley be harmed because of her.

When she drew closer to the top of the precipice, Leandra found she could make out words from above, and she smiled when she heard the angry tone Ashley was using.

Above the river, unaware of the striped figure steadily drawing nearer, Ashley glared at the man pulling her hair. “You’re a dead man, you know,” she said coldly. “I’ve seen what she does to guys like you…it’s not pretty.”

The poacher just smiled and gave her hair an extra twist. “I respect her abilities, girly, and I’m not taking any chances this time.” He surveyed the broad stretch of open rock that lay before him…barren and devoid of shelter. “If she wants you back, she’ll have to give herself up sooner or later.”

Ash snorted derisively and pulled at the hand that gripped her — not because she hoped to escape, but just to demonstrate her defiance. She was conscious of the drop behind her, already having judged her chances of surviving a fall as about fifty-fifty. If she hit a submerged rock, it was all over, but if she was lucky enough to land in a deeper patch of water, she’d almost certainly be okay. Still, she wasn’t too keen on testing the odds just yet. “What even makes you think she’ll care that you’ve got me?”

“I saw the way she reacted the last time you were in danger,” he said confidently, glancing at her smugly. “She dropped everything and ran to protect you. I’ve seen hunting dogs do that to protect their masters…it’s the same thing. She’s got an animal’s loyalty, and I’m gonna use it to put her down.”

Ashley couldn’t help but smile inwardly at that assessment, knowing it to be true. She will protect me, she thought. Just like when Grady grabbed me. She’s loyal and defensive…and she’ll save me even it means risking her own life to do it.

“Why?” she demanded out loud. “What do you care about her? Why not just leave her alone?”

Again, he eyed her smugly. “I think you know why. It’s the same reason you’re out here in this god-forsaken Park.” He glanced pointedly to the camera still strapped about Ashley’s neck. “White gold. We’re both here to shoot it…just in slightly different ways.” He leaned closer. “Believe it or not, we’re a lot alike, you and I. The only difference is, you carry a camera, and I carry a gun.”

“We’re nothing alike!” Ashley spat. “And you can forget about the white tiger; it doesn’t exist!”

“What?”

Ashley grinned triumphantly, pleased at the sudden change in her captor’s attitude. “That’s right. It’s just some bullshit rumor! A tourist got a look at Leandra, and thought she was a white tiger.” She laughed at his angry surprise, not caring that his hand gripped tighter at her hair. If she was going to die, the least she could do was protect Shar-Ranjana. “Even if you kill Leandra, you’ll be walking out of here empty-handed…and probably with every ranger in the Park hot on your trail.”

The poacher’s eyes widened a moment in frustration, his mind clearly processing this information and judging whether it was the truth. However, the frustration faded as he latched onto something more interesting. “Leandra? That’s her name, is it? Leandra?”

Ashley’s smile faltered uncertainly, and she wished she hadn’t let that slip. For some reason, just sharing Leandra’s name with this man seemed like a betrayal of trust. Her lips tightened stubbornly, but her captor yanked hard on her hair, his eyes threatening worse. Ashley gasped in pain, clawing futilely at the hand that gripped her. “Yes.”

“Leandra?” The poacher looked back towards the jungle, his eyes lost in thought. “Leandra Thornton?”

Before Ashley even had time to think about refusing to answer, a striped form leapt from nowhere and crouched a split second on the very edge of precipice. The poacher sensed the movement and swung around, rifle spinning, but Leandra darted forward with the speed of a panther, grabbing the barrel and yanking it skyward. There was a sudden flash as the striped woman lashed out with her free hand, punching the rifle from the man’s grip and tossing it over the cliff. At almost precisely the same instant, Leandra twisted to the side and landed a vicious kick to her adversaries ribcage, forcing his grip on Ashley to go limp and giving her the opportunity to pull the younger woman behind her and out of harms way.

The poacher recovered quickly, however, pulling a second knife from his side and holding it forth. Leandra displayed her bone claws, their edges rough but wickedly sharp. The two hunter’s squared off while Ashley retreated a few paces from the edge of the precipice, not wanting to be a distraction for Leandra, but needing to stay close in case she could help.

Leandra studied the man before her more carefully. “You know who I am, huh?” She smirked. “I’d thought most people would have forgotten by now.”

“Not likely,” the man returned. “I used to hear stories about you all the time. In fact I was looking forward to meeting you…but then you went and pulled a Houdini, disappearing off the face of the earth.” He waved the knife to warn her back, studying her with greater interest now. “Everyone always wondered what happened to you.”

“Well now you know.” Leandra paced along the edge of the cliff, balancing gracefully without a thought to the drop behind her.

“I’m surprised no-one managed to put it together,” the poacher continued. “You vanish, and then a year later the ‘Indian Menace’ suddenly starts picking us off one by one. Kind of a coincidence, don’t you think.”

Ice blue eyes narrowed. “I just gave everyone what they deserved,” she said softly, a low growl rumbling deep in her chest. “But you have me at a disadvantage. You know who I am, but…” She raised a dark brow curiously.

The poacher smiled thinly. “My name is Corbin. Jack Corbin.”

Leandra burrowed through the names that had lain for so long, unused, in the deepest parts of her memory, and after a moment she found the right one. She nodded. “I know that name,” she said softly. “You’re the man who led the expedition into Garamba Park about six years ago — the one that almost wiped out the white rhinos there.” The man bowed slightly in acknowledgement. Leandra’s growl grew louder. “You’re a butcher,” she stated coldly.

“No moreso than you were,” Jack sneered.

“Perhaps.” Leandra knew she couldn’t refute her own actions…but her determination to repent was renewed. “But now I hunt the hunters. And you know what?” She grinned, showing sharp canines. “I’m better at this than I ever was at poaching.”

The steel blade flickered in the suns feeble rays. “We’ll see.”

The two circled one another, eyes locked together, watching for signs of weakness or intent. Jack feinted high with his knife, drawing Leandra forward before aiming a strike at her right shoulder. Leandra had anticipated that her opponent would try to hit her there, knowing it could earn him a swift victory, and she easily twisted to the side, dodging back then leaping forward, her claws snapping out in twin arcs. Jack retreated momentarily before pushing in again, slashing repeatedly to keep Leandra from making a move and forcing the dark woman to fall back to the very edge of the cliff face. The striped woman was unbothered by her precarious position, pacing along the precipice with the agility of a tight-rope walker. Jack snarled and pressed the attack, trying to force her over, but Leandra ducked and rolled out of the way, skillfully avoiding the silver flash of steel.

On the sidelines, Ashley watched breathlessly as Leandra fought against the poacher. Looking around for a weapon of some sort, she quickly spied a short length of branch lying among the stones and grabbed it up, knowing that if Leandra were struck down, she would have to carry the fight herself. Studying the two wary combatants, Ashley immediately saw that Leandra was a lot swifter and more agile than her enemy, and probably matched the burly poacher in terms of strength and endurance. Still, Jack Corbin had only to land a single hit to the weakened muscles in Leandra’s shoulder, and victory would most likely be his. Ashley knew the odds were uncertain, and she waited to defend her friend should she be needed.

Jack was breathing hard after only a few minutes fighting, but he was pleased to note that the tiger-woman was panting slightly too. The jungle humidity sapped the strength quickly, and Jack knew it was best to finish this thing quickly. He hadn’t wanted to take the formidable woman on in hand-to-hand combat, but again his plans had been disrupted. Knowing he needed to neutralize Leandra’s advantage of speed, Jack rushed the dark-haired woman and grappled for her arms. Leandra snarled as she saw what he intended, but couldn’t move aside in time to avoid being pinned against the drop behind her. Jack grabbed each of her hands just behind the wrist and tried to push her backwards, but Leandra refused to back down. Bone claws racked against the poacher’s arms, but Jack ignored the pain, sensing victory. With every muscle in his forearms and neck straining to press his momentary advantage, Jack edged their way closer to the edge of the precipice. Leandra, growling determinedly, fought to hold her ground.

“I may not get my white tiger,” Jack grunted, “but at least I’ll be able to say I killed the ‘Indian Menace.”

Leandra hissed, baring pearly-white teeth, the muscles in her shoulder burning as they absorbed ever more strain. “Better men than you have thought the same thing,” she snarled.

Watching the two as they wrestled for control, Ashley wondered if this was the right time to jump in. Jack was focused entirely on his struggle; she could sneak up behind him and club his on the back of the head easily. But just as she started creeping forward to help her friend, Leandra made her move.

The end was, as it usually is, almost blindingly fast. Leandra twisted her arm and managed to slip free from the poacher’s grasp, if only for a moment. But a moment was all she needed. With a primal roar of triumph, the striped woman lashed out with her claws, raking them in a savage uppercut across Jack Corbin’s face. Shocked, Jack lost his control. Moving quickly before he could recover, Leandra spun them both around, then used her shoulder to deliver a hard push to Jack’s chest. The poacher swore furiously for a second, his anger making him slow to realize that his feet were half-hanging over a long drop. He wavered a moment on the edge, still gripping Leandra with one hand…then, with a strangled cry, he fell…

…Refusing to release his solid hold on Leandra’s wrist.

“NO!” Time seemed to slow to a crawl as Ashley watched, horrified, as Jack used his last strength to drag Leandra over the edge after him. She saw the surprised look that flashed through the dark woman’s cobalt eyes…saw a momentary panic and concern. Her legs froze, ignoring for a heartbeat any orders to move forward. By the time Ashley had rushed to help, Leandra had fallen without a sound, disappearing over the ledge.

“NO LEANDRA!!” Ashley dashed to the edge of the cliff, tears already streaming down her face. For a moment, the fear was overwhelming, and she couldn’t even process the terrible events. This couldn’t happen! Not now…not ever! Ashley threw herself down on the rocky ground and peered into the churning waters below. Through her blurred vision, she saw no sign of either Jack or Leandra, and a sob wrenched from the back of her throat as she felt a burning pain fill her heart. The crushing reality of the situation broke over her, the hope that this was all some terrible nightmare vanishing, and Ashley shook her head in denial. “No…Please no.”

In that moment, the jungle seemed silent for the first time since she’d arrived.

Then, like a miracle, a familiar raspy voice called up from below. “Ashley?”

Emerald eyes widened instantly, tears forgotten. “Leandra?”

A barely audible grunt. “Can you give me a hand? I’ve hurt my leg.”

Ashley gave a half-sob, half-cry noise and rushed to look over the edge again. There, dangling from one of the thick vines that wrapped across the cliff-face, was Leandra. Sweaty, her face creased into a grimace of pain…but alive!

“H-hang on Leandra! I’ll get something to throw down!” Ashley scrambled away quickly, wiping her face and feeling a sense of such relief flood through her body that it made her physically weak. Looking around in a daze, the young photographer’s eyes latched onto a thick, rope-like vine hanging not far away, and she quickly grabbed it up, tearing it free from its roots with desperate strength. Dragging the length back with her to the edge, she tossed one end down to where Leandra hung, then grabbed the other and planted her feet firmly. “Can you climb up?”

A pause. “Yeah…I think so. You got the other end?”

“I got it.”

“Okay.”

Ashley braced herself as the vine suddenly pulled at her, and she redoubled her efforts to hold on as she took the weight from Leandra’s body. After several agonizing minutes, a painted, slightly bloody hand appeared over the edge of the crag, searching for a hold. Ashley immediately grabbed for it and helped the dark woman up to safety, struggling when the heavier woman almost pulled her over. As soon as she was certain Leandra was out of harms way, Ashley threw her arms around the striped woman and clutched her desperately close.

“I thought you were gone!” she cried. “I thought…”

“Shhh. It’s okay. I’m fine now.” Fingers combed reassuringly through her tangled hair, and Ashley pressed herself harder still against Leandra, shaking with the strength of her relief. It was several moments before she managed to regain her composure enough to draw away and look up into soft, sapphire eyes.

“Don’t you ever scare me like that again, you hear me?” she said hoarsely.

Leandra smiled and wiped away the tear marks with the back of her hand. “I promise.” The two sat quietly, just soaking in the presence of one another, before Leandra winced and shifted her position. “I think we should get back to the cave,” she observed, looking down at her left thigh. “I got banged up a bit when I grabbed the vine.”

Ashley snuffled and followed the dark woman’s eyes, gasping when she saw the wicked gash on Leandra’s leg. “Oh my God!” She reached out to help, but withdrew when Leandra flinched. “You’re right Leandra…that needs a bandage.”

“And probably a few stitches, too.” Leandra frowned. “I have everything I need in my supplies. Can you help me up?”

“Of course.” Ashley got to her feet and helped Leandra stand. The dark woman limped quite severely, blood flowing sluggishly down her leg from the wound, and Ashley didn’t even ask if she could help. She simply grabbed the dark woman’s arm and wrapped it around her neck, supporting some of her weight as they began making their way slowly back towards Leandra’s home.

Leandra smiled quietly, and accepted the assistance without comment.

* * *

Some distance downstream, a trembling hand emerged from the swift-flowing river and grabbed for a half-submerged log that had fallen into the water. Gasping for breath, Jack pulled himself more fully onto the lifeline, his body aching and weak. His right leg was broken; he could feel the splintered bones grinding against each other, bringing flashing stars to his vision. He suspected at least two ribs were cracked; his breathing came in harsh and painful gasps. Blood still flowed from the deep gashes scored across his face by the tiger-woman’s claws, running into his eyes and matting his dripping hair. Still, he managed to haul his body free from the chill, mountain-fed waters before collapsing on the muddy bank. Broken. Bleeding.

But alive.

Jack had been a hunter all his life. He was a shrewd and ruthless businessman…and though it didn’t happen often, he knew when he was beaten. This hunt was worthless now. He was in no condition to carry the fight any further, and wouldn’t be for some time. It was going to be a struggle just to make it out of the jungle in one piece, especially if he didn’t find safe ground before the night-hunters detected his presence.

There was no white tiger. He believed the words of the blonde photographer; they rang true in his head. While he was willing to deal with the dangerous tiger-bitch if it meant there was a reward for his efforts, Jack wasn’t the type to pursue a personal grudge…at least not until he was fit enough to do so.

Cursing under his breath, Jack accepted defeat. It was time to leave this place…before his losses grew any more dire.

* * *

Some time later, Ashley watched with a slight grimace as Leandra drew a sharp needle through her skin one final time and tugged the surgical cord tight, pulling together the ragged edges of her torn flesh. The blonde held out a small pair of scissors to the dark woman, who used them to cut the suture string after she’d tied it off.

Leandra flexed her leg slowly, testing it. “Hmm.” She grunted softly in satisfaction. “Seems okay.”

“It’ll need to be cleaned with disinfectant,” Ashley pointed out, rummaging through Leandra’s first-aid kit till she found the appropriate bottle and a few cotton swabs. She also found a neatly-rolled bandage, and set it down in front of her. “Here…stretch out your leg and I’ll wrap it.”

Leandra dutifully complied, closing her eyes with a contented smile as she felt the younger woman’s fingers gently wash away the blood and begin cleaning the wound with the antibacterial liquid. Her leg burned a little from the cut, but it wasn’t too bad. Her hands were covered in numerous minor cuts and abrasions, and she ached all over from the fight…but nevertheless, Leandra felt calm and sedate after the unpleasant start to the day.

Ashley glanced at dark woman seriously as she worked. “Do you think he’s dead?” she asked softly.

Leandra shrugged. “I didn’t see a body. Did you?”

Ashley shook her head.

“Then maybe not.” Leandra sighed and shifted. “I should probably go check it out.”

Ashley stayed silent, glancing up only when Leandra made no move to return to the hunt. “Do you have too?”

Leandra took a deep breath. She was sick of this game against the bothersome poacher, and furthermore, she could tell that Ashley was still shaken from her ordeal that morning. “He could do more damage if he survives.” Still she didn’t move, feeling Ashley’s gentle eyes pleading with her to stay. “But no…I don’t have to go.”

Ashley smiled softly. “Good,” she whispered, returning to her gentle ministrations.

As she worked, Ashley let her eyes roam along the firm contours of Leandra’s upper thigh, and her breathing grew slightly more shallow. The hem of Leandra’s short tiger-fur skirt ran high up her legs, leaving a lot for the young blonde to admire as she gently cleaned the neatly-sutured cut. Without realizing it, her work slowed as her point of focus drifted to more interesting things than first-aid, and Ashley licked suddenly dry lips as her fingers roamed unconsciously over the painted flesh before her. The drama of that morning faded quickly as Ashley’s blood ran feverishly through her body, and the beating of her heart intensified.

Leandra smiled when she felt the subtle change in the touches of her companion, her body awakening with the first flushes of desire. She remained absolutely still, not wanting to break Ashley from her apparent trance, and wondering how far the young woman would go before she realized what she was doing.

Ashley’s fingers caressed ever higher, wandering almost to the edge of Leandra’s skirt before she shook herself a little and ordered herself to behave. Picking up the bandage, she began to wrap it around the dark woman’s leg, not noticing the amused expression on the dark woman’s painted face. Still, her eyes continued their explorations, and Ashley could feel the cave growing warmer by the minute.

Leandra shifted slightly, watching Ashley’s eyes crawl over the length of her body. “Would you like to see more?” she asked in a throaty whisper.

“Huh?” Emerald eyes glanced up, surprised.

“Would you like to see more?” Leandra repeated. “I could take off the skirt if you want me too. You know you only have to ask.”

Ashley flushed bright red, caught totally off-guard by the frank question…and moreso by the heat in Leandra’s gaze. She lowered her eyes and quickly returned her attentions back to bandaging Leandra’s leg. “Um…n-no, that’s…not necessary.” Jeez Ashley! Get your head out of the gutter here!

Leandra grinned. “You don’t have to be embarrassed about it Ashley,” she said in the same low, rumbling purr. “It’s natural to get excited by the person you’re attracted too. I know I’d find it…very arousing…if you were naked.” Ashley’s flush grew — if possible — even deeper, and Leandra leaned forward a little further. “I don’t mind showing you more…if you’d like.”

Ashley was silent for several moments, struggling to rein in a libido that was awakening with a ravenous appetite for the first time in many years. Leandra’s husky voice was having a powerful effect on her body, and Ash wasn’t certain how to respond to such an unreservedly sexual suggestion. Eventually, she glanced up at the striped face of her friend shyly. “You’re a lot different from anyone I’ve ever been involved with before,” she said quietly. “I just…” She struggled to find the words to explain. “It’s not just that you’re…well, you know…a woman. None of the guys I’ve dated have ever really been all that…outgoing…with this stuff. You know, kind of…to the point, I guess. You’re a lot more…open, then they ever were. You understand?”

Leandra considered Ashley’s words carefully, then nodded sincerely. “Does it bother you?”

“Well…not bother, exactly.” Ashley lowered her head coyly. “It’s just different for me. I’m not used to it, that’s all.”

“Do you like it?”

Ashley thought a moment, then gave an almost imperceptible nod. “It’s kinda nice, I guess.”

Leandra grinned. “So…would you like me to take the skirt off?”

Ashley met the seductive pull of those clear sapphire eyes that were darkening with hungry fires, and couldn’t help but laugh. “Let’s keep it on for now, shall we? Maintain at least a little mystery for later on.”

“Mystery? Ashley, you’ve already seen me naked. You helped paint me…or have you forgotten so quickly.”

Ashley shuddered at the memory. “How could I forget,” she rasped, before clearing her throat and shaking herself free of a delicious fantasy that skipped teasingly across her mind. “But, um…still, I think we should save something for later on. Okay?”

Leandra studied the blonde curiously, wondering at the hint of promise in her eyes, before nodding agreeably. “Absolutely.”

“Great.” Ashley dropped her gaze back to the leg she was working on, finishing up with the bandage and securing the loose end with a butterfly clip. When she was done, she shyly let her hands continue wandering along the painted leg, exploring over Leandra’s calves down to her thickly-callused feet. Leandra made no signs of disapproval, so Ashley continued for several delicious moments in silence, the simple touches exciting her in a way she’d never experienced, and starting a deep ache in the pit of her belly. It was the first time she’d ever touched another woman so intimately, and thoughts of a more detailed exploration were seeming more appealing now than ever before.

For the rest of that day, Ashley stayed with Leandra in the cave, only leaving briefly to retrieve water from the nearby stream. Thankfully, Leandra’s supplies were sufficient to provide both women with a satisfying lunch, and Ashley filled the time by talking more about her life and family. Leandra was content to simply lie on her pallet and let the younger woman’s words flow over her soothingly. The cut on her leg showed no signs of retaining heat, and didn’t seem likely to turn septic, but for the time being Leandra didn’t feel the need to stress her injury any further. Besides, she considered with a smile, it was kind of nice to just lie back and enjoy Ashley’s continued pampering.

For her part, Ashley enjoyed tending to the injured woman’s needs almost as much as Leandra. But although she kept up a constant rain of chatter, most of Ashley’s mind was preoccupied with ponderings of a more licentious nature — chiefly centered around the dark woman’s earlier offer. And the more Ashley considered Leandra’s words, the more intrigued she became by the possibilities.

She said all I have to do is ask, the young blonde considered wickedly. And she wasn’t just bluffing, either. If I’d said yes, she’d be sitting there naked right now, letting me look at her all I want.

Ashley’s mental wanderings pursued that line of thought to the next obvious point. She’d probably let me touch her if I wanted to, too.

And kiss her.

And…

All of a sudden, the fantasies and never-to-be scenario’s that Ashley had only ever entertained in her own imagination took on a more serious quality. I bet she’d let me do anything I wanted, Ashley considered, the very thought of how far she might take such a liberty making her shiver with arousal. Flicking glances at the striped woman lying languidly on the pallet across the cave, Ashley’s eyes narrowed to predatory slits.

“The sun’s going down,” Leandra’s throaty purr observed. “It’ll be dark soon. I’ll walk you back to your camp if you want.”

The corners of Ashley’s lips quirked into a seductive smile. “What if I’d rather stay here tonight?” she asked softly, her voice sounding almost as husky as Leandra’s.

Cobalt eyes widened at the tone of Ashley’s voice, and Leandra saw instantly by the hungry look in the young woman’s eyes just where Ashley’s thoughts had taken her. Heat swept through her loins like wildfire, and she sat up a little straighter. “I-if that’s what you want…I’d like that very much.”

Ashley’s smile grew wider, and she abandoned her seat by the fire to crawl closer to where Leandra lay. Her eyes scanned slowly over every inch of the dark woman’s frame, from the wild, unkempt hair to the elegant, chiseled features, down over planes of toned, painted muscle and golden skin. The light from the fire flickered over the tiger-woman’s body like a bronze caress, running primitive shadows over every intriguing dip and hollow. Leandra’s eyes were clear as shards of tundra ice, yet they projected a heat that struck Ashley to her core.

“Leandra?”

“Yes?”

Ashley swallowed, for a moment unsure if she could actually ask the question she wanted. But looking at the sensuous, exotic creature lying before her, she rallied her courage. “Would you mind taking off your top?”

The dark woman was still for several heartbeats, then, without a word, she reached for the laces that held the brief scrap of tiger-fur closed over her breasts. Ashley watched, hardly breathing, as Leandra slowly pulled the cord free and shrugged the simple garment from her shoulders. The firelight washed over the dark woman’s naked torso, and Ashley let herself stare, her fingers twitching eagerly.

Leandra sat patiently, letting the younger woman look, feeling wetness bloom between her legs at the fixated intent in Ashley’s sparkling jade eyes. “You can come closer,” she invited.

Ashley didn’t even hesitate, crawling forward till her knees brushed against the edges of the coarse sleeping mat. Her attention wandered constantly back and forth between Leandra’s exposed breasts and her flashing eyes, and she slowly leaned closer till her lips brushed against those of the striped woman. With a quiet whimper, Ashley let her tongue glide forth to stroke lightly against Leandra’s lips. The kiss deepened quickly, and the young blonde trembled when she felt Leandra’s naked breasts press against her chest. A cautious hand rose and began tracing along the dark woman’s collar with the lightest of touches, feeling a low, purring vibration rumble through the sensitive skin. Breaking the kiss, Ashley looked down and watched her fingers as they drew over the slightly faded stripes, shaking noticeably as they wandered closer to Leandra’s full breasts.

Leandra’s breaths were coming in ragged, shallow gasps as she fought the urge to simply throw the young blonde to the ground and ravish her senseless. In the past, she knew, she wouldn’t have given a second thought to simply taking Ashley right away — from the lust in those blazing emerald eyes, Leandra knew she would not be rejected. But much had changed these past four years, and Leandra was fearful of hurting her friend by moving things too fast. Just as Ashley’s fingers began to descend lower over her chest, Leandra caught the photographer’s gaze and held it.

“Are you sure?”

Ashley sucked on her lower lip, then nodded shyly. “I want you,” she breathed softly.

“But there’s no rush. We don’t have to do anything if you’re not ready.” Leandra paused, seeing an uncertainty in Ashley’s eyes that conflicted with the hunger. This was Ashley’s first time with another woman, Leandra reminded herself. “I don’t want you to regret a single moment of the time we spend together.”

Ashley absorbed the gentle concern in Leandra’s eyes, and felt her love for the dark woman deepen impossibly further. “I could never regret anything I do with you, Leandra,” she whispered. “And I want this. I want it so much…”

Leandra shuddered at the young woman’s tone, and knew she couldn’t fight the inevitable. “Me, too.”

Reassured, Ashley let her fingers continue their southward journey. Her excitement grew to dizzying heights when she traced around Leandra’s nipples, and felt how strongly her touch was affecting the dark woman. Ashley had imagined touching another woman in this way many times…but the reality was so much better than any of her fantasies had ever been. Leandra’s body was so soft and smooth, even covered in the thin, dusty paint, and Ashley found herself becoming lost in every new curve she discovered. She smiled shakily at the cobalt eyes that watched her, unblinking.

“I’m…not really sure how to do this,” she admitted timidly.

Leandra smiled encouragingly. “Just follow you’re instincts,” she advised huskily. “Touch me the way you like to be touched.”

Ashley returned her attention back to what her hands were doing, unable to stop her smile from turning rakish. That should be easy enough, she thought. I’ve got a whole lot of experience in that department!

Gently at first, then with greater confidence, Ashley caressed the dark woman’s chest, her fingers running in long strokes over the defined ribcage, before returning to tease and torment rock-hard nipples. “You’re so soft,” she murmured in awe. Listening to Leandra’s breathing as it went ragged, Ashley learned which areas elicited the strongest responses, and her touches grew steadily bolder. Before long, her eyes were drifting down to the brief skirt that wrapped about the tiger-woman’s waist, and her fingers started craving new territory to explore.

Seeing where Ashley’s focus was shifting, Leandra unlaced the skirt and lifted herself off the pallet, letting the cloth slide away and exposing her completely to Ashley’s enthralled gaze. The young blonde stared at the vision before her, hands trembling noticeably as they rested on Leandra’s abdomen. Glancing up at the dark woman, she received a nod and a reassuring smile.

Taking that as permission to continue, Ashley shifted closer and let her fingers roam ever lower. She could smell the musky scent of Leandra’s desire…and her mouth watered at the thought that she was the one to inspire such arousal. As her fingers began to move hesitantly towards Leandra’s pulsing center, Ashley’s lips descended upon the woman lying under her, kissing her ardently and feeling the dark woman respond with equal passion.

The young blonde let go her fears and caution as she fed from Leandra’s mouth, for the first time in her life allowing carnal desires to completely consume her. Her hunger redoubled, and she groaned excitedly as Leandra’s hands began to tug urgently at her own clothes. Breaking contact momentarily, Ashley stripped as quick as she could, all sense of modesty abandoned to the urgency of the moment. As soon as she was naked, her lips returned to their feast, this time seeking out Leandra’s throat and sucking forcefully at the thundering pulse-point.

Leandra groaned as she felt her younger lover’s excitement, only able to take a moment to let her eyes wander appreciatively over Ashley’s lithe figure before the blonde attacked her hungrily. A cry was torn from her throat when the young woman’s slender fingers grazed her center, and her hips bucked eagerly, craving more. Ashley took her time, however, her touches straying for long minutes first over sensitized inner thighs and stomach, before they returned to where Leandra’s need was greatest.

Ashley’s lips forged a hot, wet trail down Leandra’s collar, then dipped quickly lower to snare each nipple in turn. The young photographer was completely caught up in the passion of the moment, more turned-on than she’d ever been in her entire life. Her teeth pulled lightly at Leandra’s sensitized flesh, then, hearing the way the dark woman responded, bit harder. Leandra convulsed, and Ashley’s fingers finally sought out liquid heat and began a slow, steady massage. She broke contact and looked down at the body writhing beneath her, breathless with desire as her fingers flowed through Leandra’s slick folds.

Leandra bit her lip to hold back a scream as her lover stroked her earnestly, her eyes locking for a timeless moment with the emerald gems above her. “Oh God! Harder, please! Harder!” she gasped, her hands clawing at the ground as Ashley complied, slowing only long enough to curl two fingers inwards, entering her with a single smooth stroke. Leandra whimpered, her eyes squeezing shut as pleasure zinged through her body, electrifying her blood and filling her senses with ecstasies long-forgotten.

Ashley was stunned at the heat that enveloped her fingers. Leandra felt like liquid silk, and the young woman eagerly set about satisfying her new lover. Though she’d never touched another woman intimately, Ashley had a lot of experience keeping herself happy, and she applied that expertise to this new situation. From the way Leandra’s body pulsed around her buried digits, Ashley decided she was doing okay.

Unfortunately, four years of abstinence had taken a toll on the dark woman…and all too soon the first delicious spasms of climax began to twist in Leandra’s belly. Though she fought against the inevitable waves, wanting to enjoy her lover’s touch as long as possible, the intent look of fixed concentration Ashley wore, coupled with the addition of a third finger to the two already thrusting deeply into her core, quickly sent her hurtling over the threshold of pleasure. Leandra’s body stiffened, her eyes stared up blankly at Ashley’s face, and she cried out loud as searing bolts of white-hot ecstasy tore through her loins and spread a quick burn through the rest of her body. Ashley continued thrusting into her clenching sex, dragging out the pleasure for as long as she could, before Leandra collapsed, gasping, back onto the sleeping pallet.

Ashley smiled as she slowly withdrew her fingers from their warm nest, feeling the last few pulses grip at her pleasantly. An expression of dazed wonder graced her features as she looked at Leandra’s sweat-streaked body and face, and her heart almost stopped when sated sapphire eyes turned on her with radiant joy.

“Thank you,” Leandra whispered, taking some time to catch her breath after the quick but stunning orgasm. “God, that was…” She grinned, shaking her head. “Incredible.”

Ashley’s smile turned into a full-fledged grin, her eyes positively glowing in the firelight. “Really?”

Leandra nodded sincerely. “Really.”

“Huh.” Ashley settled herself beside the striped form of her new lover. “I don’t think I’ve ever been described as ‘incredible’ before,” she mused aloud. “At least, not in this particular department.”

Leandra matched her grin. “Well, I think you’re incredible in all departments,” she purred seductively, letting her eyes drink in the vision of Ashley’s nakedness hungrily. “And if you’ll give me a minute or two to recover… I’ll be sure to thank you properly.”

Ashley shivered at the husky promise. Propping herself up on one elbow, she continued running her eyes over Leandra’s powerful frame, feeling the heat radiating from her lovers body. Her fingers still glistened with the dark woman’s essence, and, after making sure Leandra’s eyes were closed, Ashley lifted them to her lips and took a guilty little lick. She smiled at the exotic flavor, finding it very much to her liking, and proceeded to quickly sample the remainder. When her fingers were clean, Ashley’s eyes returned to feast upon Leandra’s nakedness once more.

Thinking back to all the dream-lovers that had populated her fantasies over the years, Ashley couldn’t believe the characteristics that had been common to them all. What the hell was I thinking? she wondered silently. Sophisticated? Cultured? They’ve got nothing on Leandra! Simply put, the dark woman was the epitome of animal sensuality; savage nobility, coupled with primeval strength and passion, all packed into a convenient, six-foot something body that fairly reeked of carnal sexuality. Ashley’s eyes glowed as the fires in them sparked once more, and her hands reached out to begin a second exploration.

Cobalt eyes flew open instantly. “Oh, no you don’t!”

Ashley gave a startled yelp as powerful yet gentle fingers wrapped around her wrists and pushed her back. Leandra twisted about, quickly pinning the naked blonde to the sleeping mat and bringing their faces together. “It’s my turn now,” she growled, pressing her uninjured thigh against Ashley’s heated center. The blonde shuddered, her eyes rolling in their sockets as Leandra began a slow grind.

Painted hands released their hold on the young woman’s wrists, stroking down Ashley’s arms till they reached her chest. Leandra quickly brought her lover’s breasts to attention, massaging the soft flesh with the palms of her hands as her fingers sought out stiffened nipples and began to pinch and roll them gently, then with greater urgency as they both grew more excited.

Lying on her back on the rough pallet, Ashley whimpered at the attentions her body was receiving. She wasn’t a hundred percent sure what to expect from Leandra, but she was certainly enjoying the ride so far. No-one had ever touched her with this kind of almost frenzied passion…and the young woman found herself getting wetter at the thought of what might lie in store for her. When Leandra kissed her ardently, she responded with fierce hunger, her tongue fighting an erotic battle for dominance against her lover’s. She was quickly forced into a route, however, when one of Leandra’s hands quested southwards and, upon encountering the source of her need, began to play promisingly through dampened curls.

Leandra swallowed a moan when she felt just how ready her lover was for her, amazed at the river of heat that awaited her touch. Her lips abandoned those of the blonde to trail a scorching path down her slender neck, past her left shoulder, then onwards till they encountered the tempting swell of her breasts. Swiftly, the dark woman began an oral assault that soon had Ashley gasping and whimpering helplessly, the young photographer writhing under the skilled caress of teeth and tongue. But Leandra knew there were even more tempting delights to sample, and her mouth watered hungrily at the sensations her fingers were encountering below.

Giving Ashley’s right nipple a final tug, Leandra looked up at the young woman breathlessly, finding emerald eyes burning with need. “Let me taste you,” she gasped. “Please?”

Ashley hesitated, uncertain. “Um…”

“You’ll like it, I promise.” Leandra licked her lips, her senses filled with the younger woman’s intoxicating scent. “Please Ashley?”

Ashley bit her lower lip, considering, then gave a mental shrug. What the heck…you only live once. She nodded, and let her legs splay further apart. “Okay.”

Leandra grinned, and swiftly began laying a wet line of kisses and licks down her lover’s body, drawing ever closer to the source of Ashley’s heat.

Ashley lay back and closed her eyes, focusing on the sensations generated by Leandra’s oral ministrations. She blushed in reflex as the dark woman settled between her legs, feeling the air caress her intimately and making her fully aware of how exposed and open she was to her lover. This was a pleasure Ashley had never experienced before; something none of her previous lovers had offered, and which she’d never been able to find the courage to ask for. Still, she’d often wondered how this might feel…and it appeared she was about to find out.

A sudden brush of warm air flowed across her sensitized sex, and Ashley tensed, then relaxed as Leandra blew against her again. The first touch of Leandra’s tongue ran along the inside of her left thigh, and Ashley trembled as her core pulsed anxiously. She could feel how wet she was…how ready. This kind of patient foreplay was new to her, and her hands grasped the edges of the sleeping mat tightly as she forced her body to lie still as Leandra’s tongue played havoc with her already over-loaded libido.

The teasing licks continued for long minutes as Ashley squirmed anxiously, then suddenly they became more purposeful. Leandra’s lips and tongue abandoned Ashley’s thighs and began a more serious exploration of her velvet folds. Ashley’s hips bucked hard against the erotic assault, and she cried out when the tiger-woman lashed her hard nub repeatedly, before returning to the long, slow strokes that swiftly began to drive her insane. Her hands grabbed for Leandra’s hair, pulling the dark woman closer as she convulsed. “Oh, fuck!” Ashley gasped, white lights exploding behind her eyelids as the most unbelievable sensations ripped through her sex.

Leandra grinned around her feast as she brought her fingers to Ashley’s entrance. “You like?”

“Yes! Gods, please Leandra…don’t stop!” Ashley’s fingers held on desperately to Leandra’s dreadlocks, seeking an anchor as her body thrust forward, completely out of her control.

“Would you like more?” Leandra managed to ask as the young blonde pulled her hard into her center.

Ashley almost sobbed when she felt the firmer touch of Leandra’s fingers slide tauntingly against her wetness. “Yes!” Her hips surged upwards, pleading. “Urgh! Inside…please Leandra! Inside now!”

The dark woman complied, pushing into Ashley slowly, delighting at the way the young woman’s inner muscles pulled at her welcomingly. It had been a long time since Leandra had last been with a woman, but the skills which had lain for so long unused in the back of her mind returned swiftly as she felt Ashley’s thighs tense and relax against her body. It was quickly apparent to Leandra that her young lover’s body was on a hair-trigger, ready to explode at any moment, so she forced herself to move slowly, wanting to drag out Ashley’s pleasure as long as she could. Ashley continued to whimper and plead, obviously lost in a world of ecstasy, and Leandra smiled as she thrust slowly and deeply into the photographer’s depths. Everytime the dark woman sensed her lover drawing closer to the edge, she would pause in her ministrations till Ashley calmed, in this way keeping the young blonde hovering constantly at the very brink of orgasm.

Still, the patient love-making could only continue for so long before Ashley’s body reached the limit of its endurance. When Leandra felt the first spasms grip at her fingers, she immediately curled her fingers inward and began to thrust harder, her lips seeking out Ashley’s engorged bud and wrapping around it tightly. As her tongue lashed with the speed of a hummingbird’s wings against the tiny bundle of nerve-endings, Leandra sucked relentlessly. Ashley screamed as her body stiffened, crying out words that only vaguely resembled Leandra’s name as the waves of her climax pounded through her sweat-slicked frame. The pleasure was more overwhelming than any she’d experienced before, and Leandra refused to let it die away quickly. But eventually, the young woman collapsed weakly back to the ground, panting for breath as she pushed gently at Leandra’s head.

“No more,” she begged. “God…I couldn’t take any more.”

Leandra grinned, planting a final loving kiss to Ashley’s sex before stretching out full-length beside her shorter companion. “Was that to your liking, my lady?” she asked impishly, her ice-blue eyes sparkling in the dying light of the ill-tended fire.

Ashley blew her damp bangs from her eyes and sighed. “I’ll say.” Her body was still awash with warm tingles. “That was…phenomenal.”

“Good.” Leandra leaned down and kissed the younger woman softly on the lips, letting her taste herself briefly. “I’m glad I could make you feel good.”

Ash smiled, wrapping her arms around Leandra and pulling their bodies into a tight embrace. “You make me feel wonderful every moment we’re together,” she whispered sincerely. “Thank you.”

Leandra smiled in the fading light, feeling at peace and sated in a way she’d never experienced before. “Thank you.”

“Mmm.”

For long moments, the two lay as one in the glow of the dying fire. Ashley’s eyes fluttered, then closed, and soon the young woman’s breathing deepened as she drifted off, exhausted. But Leandra lay awake a long time in the darkness, her eyes staring upwards at nothing, one hand playing gently through the fine pale hair of her companion and lover. The sounds from outside continued to speak their mysterious knowledge to her…but Leandra felt herself distanced from that world of hunter and prey, wrapped up in a new world of peace and love she’d never hoped to find.

And in that moment, Leandra knew there was no way she could ever live without these feelings…could never fully return to that solitary world of the jungle predator.

* * *

It was sometime later in the night that Leandra woke from a dreamless sleep, her body slightly chilled. Her internal clock told her it was still several hours till dawn, and the night air carried a cold bite. She immediately sensed the absence of her bed-mate, and sat up slowly, stretching her injured leg stiffly as she looked around.

Ashley sat at the mouth of the cave, her head propped on her folded hands as she looked out at the forests and plains below. She’d donned her shirt and shorts to ward against the chill, but Leandra’s sensitive ears still detected the shiver in each breath the young woman took. Shafts of light beamed down through the thin cloud cover, illuminating Ashley’s features and casting her hair into an iridescent halo. Leandra rose and padded silently over the young woman, noticing the pensive expression that marred her companions elfin features.

“Hey.”

Green eyes that turned almost crystalline in the moonlight glanced up. Ashley smiled. “Hey.”

“You okay?”

“Of course.” Ashley patted the ground next to her invitingly, and Leandra kneeled beside her. The two watched the shifting shadows of the clouds in silence, before Leandra spoke.

“You don’t…regret anything, do you?”

Ashley shook her head immediately. “I told you, Leandra…I could never regret the time we’ve spent together.” She paused, adding with a roguish grin, “And I could certainly never regret doing that with you.”

Leandra smiled, then eyed the blonde curiously. “You just…look a little sad, that’s all.”

“Not sad. Just thinking.” Ashley sighed. “Today’s going to be my last full day out here. We leave the next morning.”

Now Leandra understood. She shifted on the ground, stretching her wounded leg out to relieve the pressure on the stitches.
“I know.”

“It seems so close. I’ve been trying so hard not to think about it, you know? I don’t…” Ashley trailed off, unable to find the words to express her feelings for a long moment. “I didn’t want to spoil what was happening between us by bringing it up, but…after last night, I know I can’t avoid it anymore.”

Leandra nodded, understanding completely. She’d been deliberately avoiding thinking too much about Ashley’s imminent departure as well…and about the changes she was going to have to make if she intended to keep the young woman in her life. Glancing at Ashley quickly, Leandra found herself suddenly caught by an intensity there she’d not expected.

“Ask me to stay,” Ashley whispered.

“What?”

“Ask me to stay, Leandra. Just ask, and I’ll do it.”

Leandra stared, thrown totally for a loop by Ashley’s words. She shook her head. “I-I can’t…I mean, you can’t! Ashley, you have a home, a family! You can’t just-”

“I will…” Ashley sat up straighter and faced the dark woman directly. “If you ask me to, I will.”

“Ashley-”

“No.” The young woman shook her head angrily. “I don’t want to leave you, Leandra. It’s not fair! I can’t just walk away from this thing…not now. I-” Ashley paused, lowering her face as she fought against tears of frustration. “I want to be with you. I want to wake up every morning and know you’ll be waking right beside me. I’ve never felt this way about anyone in my whole life Leandra…but I know that what we have together doesn’t come along very often. And if I walk away now…if I just try to forget all the time I’ve shared with you…I know the chances are I’ll never get to feel this way again. Ever.” She snuffled. “And I don’t want that.”

Leandra gazed into the emerald eyes of her friend and lover, seeing the unshed tears and touched deeply by Ashley’s words.
“I don’t want to forget you either, Ashley,” she whispered softly. “But I can’t ask you to live in this world with me. I don’t want to be the one that takes you from your family…your work. I know how much you love doing what you do.”

“But I love you more!”

Leandra was silent as took in Ashley’s fierce words of devotion, then she smiled a little incredulous smile. “You do?”

“Yes.” Ashley reached out and clasped Leandra’s striped hands in her own. “I love you more than anyone in the world Leandra…and I can’t loose you now that I’ve finally found you.”

That was all I needed to hear, Leandra realized, feeling any doubts about her feelings for Ashley disappear in a heartbeat. “Well…” she considered quietly, “…when you leave here, I could always just…come along with you.”

“What?” Ashley frowned, wondering if she’d heard right. “Y-you mean…back to the States?”

“If you wanted me to.”

For a second, Ashley’s mind could only scream YES!!, knowing this was what she’d been dreaming of unconsciously for the past several days. But reluctantly, she forced herself to be rational. “Leandra, I-I can’t ask you do that.”

“Why not?”

“Well…I just can’t, that’s all. I mean…you have friends here, too. What about Shar-Ranjana? What about the other tigers you protect?”

“There’ll always be poachers, Ashley,” the dark woman said quietly. “Just because I leave here doesn’t mean I have to stop helping these animals. And as for Shar-Ranjana…” She shrugged sadly. “Just being here doesn’t mean I could save her forever. Afterall, I couldn’t save her family. But she’s smart. She stays hidden in the remote parts of the Park…and the rangers do their job fairly well.” She cocked her head to the side, then added, “Besides, if Corbin survived, he’ll be leaving the jungle believing that there is no white tiger…thanks to you.”

Ashley smiled a little. “Maybe he didn’t believe me.”

“He did. I could see it in his face — he was angry at wasting his time on a useless hunt. If he gets out of here, the word’ll spread and every poacher in the region will think the rumors are just lies. Shar-Ranjana will be as safe as she can be in this place…and it won’t much matter if I stay or leave.”

“But-”

Leandra halted any further arguments by pressing her fingers gently against the young woman’s lips. “I want to leave here, Ashley,” she whispered with absolute certainty. “I’m ready. I want to be a part of your life.” Ashley stilled, seeing the conviction in Leandra’s expressive blue eyes. “Do you remember what you said to me about letting go of the past?” Leandra asked.

Ashley nodded.

“You were right. I can’t let the person I used to be stop me from becoming someone better. I’m ready to face the future now…as long as I do it with you by my side.”

Cautious hope spread across Ashley face as she realized Leandra was serious in her intent, and her thoughts filled joyously with possible scenarios of a life with the dark woman. “You’re sure about this? What if it doesn’t work out?”

“Then we’ll deal with it when the time comes.” Leandra glanced away, her eyes wandering to the jungle that had been her home for so long. “I don’t…have any money,” she said hesitantly. “At least not with me, but-”

“Oh Leandra.” Ash grinned. “That doesn’t matter. You can stay with me; I have a big house with lots of space…as long as you don’t mind a little extra company. My niece, Casey, spends a lot of time there when I’m home.” She leaned forward and planted a quick kiss on the dark woman’s painted cheek. “I don’t care how rich you are…or what you do. Just as long as you’re with me.”

Leandra nodded. “It’s not going to be easy,” she warned gently. “I’ve been out here a long time. My head…might need some time to adjust.” The dark woman studied her own striped flesh in the moonlight, embarrassed at even having to bring these points up.

But Ashley nodded in understanding. “We’ll take it slow,” she promised. “You can have all the time you need.”

Leandra’s eyes were shy as she glanced up through the curtain of her tangled hair. “Thank you.”

Ash smiled. “I can cover your plane ticket, but I don’t know about a passport or-”

“That’s okay,” Leandra interrupted, already having thought ahead. “I buried all that stuff when I first came back here. It might take a while — I never thought I’d need it again — but I think I could find it if I look.”

“Really?” Ashley shook her head in wonder, excited now at the reality that she would be returning home with Leandra at her side. I can’t wait to introduce her to my parents, she thought with a wry grin. Ashley’s family had long ago accustomed itself to the shock of hearing about her many misadventures…but the young photographer could picture their reaction when she brought home a jungle woman. “When can we get started?”

Leandra grinned. “In the morning. We can go take a quick bath, then I’ll start putting my things together and saying my good-byes. If you can arrange the rest…I’ll be ready to leave by tomorrow.”

“Excellent.” She chuckled aloud, then threw her arms around Leandra neck and hugged her tightly. “I can’t believe this! I mean…I wasn’t even willing to hope you’d want to come with me, but…” Her grin was impossibly wide. “This is going to be so perfect, Leandra, I promise. You and me…together.”

Leandra purred at the very thought. “Forever.”

“Forever.” Ashley pulled away from the embrace and kissed the other woman ardently. “I can’t wait.”

“Mmm.” Leandra was silent for a long moment, feeling the warmth of the younger woman’s body against her own. “Ashley?”

“Yeah?”

Leandra’s eyes darkened. “Have you ever wondered what’s it like to make love under a waterfall.”

The shiver that ran through Ashley’s slender frame had nothing to do with the chill, pre-dawn air. “Um…well, n-not really.”

Leandra’s voice dropped to a throaty rumble. “Would you like to find out?”

Green eyes darkened instantly. “Are you offering to show me?”

“I most certainly am.”

Ash grinned. “It’s still dark outside,” she observed coyly.

“Well I guess we’ll have to keep ourselves busy till the sun comes up.” Leandra rose with feline grace and offered her hand to the young blonde. “Won’t we?”

Ashley quickly accepted the dark woman’s hand, stripping off her clothes as Leandra led the way back to the sleeping mat.

* * *

“She’s what!?!”

Ashley faced her incredulous partner without flinching, having prepared herself for this little speech earlier. She and Leandra had parted after an extremely satisfying morning spent, for the most part, under and around the dark woman’s private waterfall, engaging in long sessions of love-making which only left the young photographer wanting more. When their passions had been sated — if only for the moment — Ashley had returned to her own camp so she could prepare for their departure the following day. Leandra had promised earnestly that she would be here early the next morning, ready to leave. Ashley didn’t know for sure what preparations the jungle woman was making, but she respected that they needed to be made alone. For now, the young photographer had to deal with other issues.

“I told you Grady, Leandra’s coming with us,” she repeated calmly, keeping her voice level and even. “What’s so difficult to understand?”

“Ashley…” Grady’s jaw worked, but for a moment couldn’t decide which words to form first. “Are you insane!? I mean…why would you even…You can’t just…” He shook his head, turning red as he tried to form a coherent sentence together.

Ashley watched her vexed partner with a faintly amused smile. “I can. I have. It’s all taken care of. She’ll be here in the morning.”

“Will she talk with us?” Simon, standing to one side and obviously nervous about interrupting, couldn’t help but step forward as he listened. “It wouldn’t have to be much, just…a few little pieces of information, you know? Anything that might help us.”

Ashley smiled at the pleasant, balding man reassuringly. “I’m sure she’ll be happy to answer a few questions — just as long as you’re nice about it.”

Simon quickly nodded his head vigorously. “O-of course! I wouldn’t dream of being intrusive.”

“Just remember, she’d not used to being around people, okay? She’ll probably be a bit edgy till she gets the hang of social interaction again.”

“Edgy?” Grady gestured wildly with his arms. “This woman is a KILLER Ashley, or have you conveniently forgotten about that fact? How do you know she won’t snap and try to kill us all?” He glanced over to Tarun, but the Indian guide held up his hands, unwilling to get involved.

“Leandra’s perfectly safe,” Ashley insisted. “She’s a little…rough around the edges, but…she’s very gentle at heart.”

“This is crazy!” Grady continued to fume. “Why on earth would you want to drag her back with us? This is so unlike you, Ashley.” He paused when that comment earned him a very amused raised eyebrow. “Okay, scratch that. This is exactly like you. But it’s still stupid.”

“What’s so stupid about it, Grady?” Ashley planted her hands on her hips sternly. “The fact that Leandra wants to rejoin a society she hasn’t seen in four years, or that I’m willing to help her?” Emerald eyes hardened. “Tell me, Mister Judgmental, what do you think I should do? Turn my back on her? Just leave her out here so she can go insane?”

Grady studied his feet, then shook his head. “That’s not what I’m saying-”

“Isn’t it?”

“No! I just…think you’re rushing into things, that’s all. I mean, you’ve known the woman less than a fortnight, for God’s sake!”

“I know enough about her to realize that Leandra’s a wonderful, loving and gentle person,” Ashley stated firmly. “I’m not just going to abandon her now. She deserves the chance to live a normal life.”

“Okay, well think about that for a moment here. Where’s she going to stay when we get back to the States? How will she survive?”

“Simple. She’ll stay with me, and I’ll support her till she gets her feet back.”

“What!?!”
“It’s my decision Grady, not yours.” Ashley took two steps closer to her partner, her posture tense. “Leandra’s going to be a part of my life from now on. You’d better get used to that fact quickly, or I’m afraid we won’t be able to work together in the future. And I don’t want that.”

“I can’t believe this, Ash!” Grady could see from the unwavering gaze the young woman fixed him with that she was serious. “How can you…Wait a minute.” Suddenly, something clicked in Grady’s mind. His eyes narrowed. “A part of your life? What exactly do you mean by that?”

Ashley’s eyes didn’t waver for a moment. “I mean Leandra and I are going to be together a lot from now on,” she said softly. “You’re a smart man, Grady. You figure it out.”

There was a long period of awkward silence. On the sidelines, Simon twisted his hands nervously as he watched the drama being played out before him, then quickly retreated behind his assistant. Grace looked on with a smile. Tarun, reading the young blonde’s posture and feeling the waves of tension rolling off of her, just rolled his eyes and hoped Grady had the good sense not to choke on his own foot.

Grady stared at the diminutive blonde, his brain struggling to process this latest detail. “So…you and her are…”

Ashley nodded. “Is that a problem?”

“Well…um, n-no, it’s not a problem, I just…” Grady cleared his throat and looked away, clearly not knowing how to take this. “I-I didn’t know you…” He waved his hand.

“Neither did I.”

Grady considered. “So…this explains a lot, I guess. At least I know now why you’re spending so many nights out with her-”

Ashley flushed a little angrily at her partners tone. “What we do together is none of your business,” she stated. “And the fact remains that when we leave here, we’re taking her with us. She had a few things to do before we go — saying good-byes and getting her stuff together — but she promised to be here in the morning.”

Grady nodded, still stunned by Ashley’s sudden coming out. “What about a ticket?”

Ashley smiled faintly. “We’ll have time to get an extra for her. Don’t worry about anything, I’ll cover her fare.” She paused, eyeing the taller man sternly. “You don’t have to like this, Grady,” she said, “but if you really are my friend, you’ll at least make an effort to be civil to her. Okay?”

Again, Grady nodded. “Fine.”

“Good. Now, if you’ll excuse me,” Ashley glanced at the others each in turn, “I have some things of my own to get straightened out before we head off. Give a yell when dinner’s ready.” And so saying, the young photographer marched purposefully towards her own tent.

Simon and Grace watched her leave, then exchanged glances. Simon shrugged. “I wonder…”

Grace raised an eyebrow. “About what?”

“Well…about who exactly a woman living out here all alone would have to say goodbye too.”

* * *

In a remote part of the Park, far from the trails and tracks left by the rangers and tourists, Leandra stood before a neat row of three tall stones that lay half-buried in the earth. At her side, sitting sedately like a giant ivory statue, Shar-Ranjana watched the dark woman with primitive understanding. Here, and nowhere else in the jungle, the animals were silent. Here, and nowhere else, sound seemed out of place. Even the trees were reluctant to disturb the tranquility, and they made only hushed murmurs in even the strongest winds.

Leandra smiled down at the great white tigeress, tears already pricking at the corners of her eyes. Shar-Ranjana nuzzled her hip affectionately, sniffing with distaste at the unfamiliar scents that clung to the dark woman. Gone were the intricate pattern of stripes that had covered Leandra’s powerful frame. Gone were the tiger-fur top and skirt. In their place, Leandra wore a green, sleeveless shirt, and loose cotton trousers cinched at the waist with a simple leather belt. Her feet were still bare; she’d tried to wear boots, but found them restrictive and uncomfortable. The clothes felt strange against her body, yet at the same time, seemed familiar. She’d taken them from a poacher more than a year ago, stashing them with her supplies to be used as rags. Never had she thought to actually have need of wearing them.

But then again, she’d never thought to leave this place.

Facing the three stones, Leandra sighed and reached out, running her hand along each cool surface in turn. Remembered images of Shar-Tushar, his mate and his son flashed before her eyes…and with them, memories of the night she’d brought their bodies here to bury. The night she’d lost her family all over again. Feelings of grief, regret, and longing washed over Leandra, but where the anger had always been, there was now only a sense of peace…calm. And she knew her decision was right.

“I thought this place would be my home forever,” she said softly. “I thought I’d live out here till the jungle killed me.” Her eyes went to the largest of the three stones, and she smiled sadly. “I thought that was the reason you let me live, all those years ago. So that I could pay for the lives I’d destroyed by giving up my own. But I was wrong, wasn’t I? You let me live so I could learn from what I’d been. So that I could forgive myself…and find my place in the world again.” Her smile grew wistful. “Well…it took a while…but I did it.”

Leandra felt Shar-Ranjana nudge her again, and she petted the great cat fondly. “I think you would have liked Ashley,” she continued. “She’s gentle, and kind, and beautiful. And she loves me.” Leandra shook her head in wonder. “I don’t know why, or how…but I can see it in her eyes…and feel it in her touch. And I know that I want to be near that forever.”

The tears were falling freely now, blurring her vision. Leandra snuffled and wiped her nose. “I’ll never forget you,” she promised hoarsely. “And I’ll never forget the debt I owe. But there are other ways for me to make up for what I was — ways that still let me be a part of Ashley’s life. But I promise, you’ll always be a part of me…forever.”

From the pocket of the shirt, Leandra produced a short length of plaited hair, tied at both ends with strong leather twine. One third of the plait was dark and thick, taken from one of her own slender dreadlocks. Another was made from Ashley’s fine, silken pale tresses. And the third was a marriage of the two, twisted together to form a single strand. Laying a soft kiss on the token, Leandra placed it solemnly on the ground before the stone marker.

“I’ll come back someday,” Leandra whispered, her throat closing over the words as she choked back a sob. “This isn’t really goodbye. But I have to go…and I won’t be around so much anymore, so you’ll have to watch over Shar-Ranjana for me.” One hand buried in the thick fur of the tigress, clutching with desperate strength. Shar-Ranjana, seeming to understand the needs of her companion, accepted the rough treatment without issue. Leandra lowered her head a moment, letting her wild mass of tangled hair cover her face as she composed herself. Taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly, she looked up through her dreadlocks at the stone.

“I know I’ve said it a thousand times before,” she whispered, “and I know you understand. But I need to say it one last time. I’m sorry.” Bitter tears streamed from ice-blue eyes, and Leandra’s jaw trembled. “I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you when it mattered the most. I’m sorry you had to die.” She lowered her head again, listening to the strange silence and feeling the spirit of the great white cat sooth her grief with his presence.

For a long time, Leandra knelt before the three graves in silence, unmoving, feeling the warmth of Shar-Ranjana beside her. Then, standing, she turned and walked away.

Leaving behind the heart of one life, to begin another.
Part 5
When the stars threw down their spears

And water’d heaven with their tears:

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the lamb make thee?

-‘The Tyger’ by William Blake.

With an exaggerated grunt, Ashley tossed the neatly-rolled bundle that had moments ago been her tent into the back of the ranger jeep along with the rest of her supplies. Flashing a quick smile towards the men who were helping to load the camping gear, Ash took a moment to wipe the sweat from her face with her forearm. It was another steamy day in the Indian wilds, and the young photographer was feeling sticky and bedraggled already, her loose tank-top clinging to her lithe frame annoyingly. As much as she was going to miss India, Ashley was now really looking forward to getting back home, where she planned on taking a nice loooong shower…preferably one that included a certain tall, dark and drop-dead gorgeous jungle woman.

A jungle woman who was, she noticed, running late.

Ashley didn’t want to get all nervous – didn’t want to worry about the nagging sense of fear that had been growing in her all morning – but Leandra had promised to be here early and, so far, she hadn’t put in an appearance. The gear was almost all loaded now. Grady was accepting a little help from one of the more burly rangers to lift the final heavy chest containing their more fragile camera equipment, and Ash watched the two men carefully set their burden on the back seat of the second of three jeeps that had arrived at first light. The campsite was empty now, the scattered ashes and scorched earth from their campfire about the only lingering evidence of their presence here. As her companions began to claim their seats for the ride out, Ashley felt their eyes all turn to focus on her. She frowned, casting her eyes around at the jungle, willing Leandra to appear.

Grady sighed. “We can’t wait forever, Ash,” he stated matter-of-factly.

“She’ll be here,” Ashley insisted stubbornly. “She promised.”

“Then where is she?” Grady hesitated, not wanting to test his partner’s recent mercurial temper. But after a few moments, the silence grew too heavy. “Look, maybe she changed her mind. Maybe she’s-”

“She’s coming.” Ashley pinned her work-mate with a determined glare, her lips pulling into a stern line as she set her hands firmly on her hips. “Leandra wouldn’t lie to me about wanting to leave here, and even if she did, she wouldn’t let me go without at least saying good-bye. She’ll be here.”

Seeing from her expression that Ashley wasn’t going to be open to negotiations on this matter, Grady sighed again and gestured to Tarun. The Indian guide quietly explained to the impatient but curious rangers that they were going to need a few more minutes.

Turning back to the jungle, Ashley fought against the part of her that wanted to panic. She will be here, she insisted silently, even as her emerald eyes deepened with concern. And if she doesn’t come, I’m not leaving. I don’t care about the consequences, I’m not letting her get away with chickening out at the last moment…

But before Ashley’s concerns had a chance to grow any larger, she suddenly caught sight of a tall figure approaching from across the grasslands with a long-legged, familiar stride. Glancing back at the waiting group behind her, she grinned. “See, I told you.” Scolding herself for ever doubting her lover, Ashley rushed to greet Leandra.

As she neared the dark woman, Ashley stopped and stared, a helpless smile tugging at her lips as she ran her eyes over Leandra’s frame. She whistled. “Very nice!”

Leandra’s clear sapphire eyes rolled, and she smiled shyly. “Thanks.” Without the paint and primal markings, Leandra’s pale skin glistened under a fine layer of sweat in the Indian humidity. She’d pulled her long, dark dreadlocks into a thick pony-tail, revealing her classic, angular features better and highlighting her stunning eyes. After seeing the picture on her passport, taken almost five years ago, Leandra had realized just how much her appearance had changed during her jungle exile.

“You look so…” Ashley trailed off. “I mean, it’s weird to see you without all the stripes and stuff.”

“Yeah, well…I can’t very well walk out of here wearing tiger-fur and carrying claws, can I?” Leandra plucked at her new clothes awkwardly. “I feel kinda naked without them, to tell the truth. And I couldn’t stand the shoes, so…”

“That’s okay, you don’t have to wear them if you don’t want too.” Ashley couldn’t help herself, and reached out to touch the taller woman’s face. Yesterday, during their prolonged waterfall shower, she’d had the opportunity to more fully explore Leandra’s body without the markings, but the new outfit was still a sharp contrast to what she’d grown accustomed to over the past two weeks. Noticing a small rucksack slung over her lover’s shoulder, she cocked an eyebrow questioningly. “What’s in there?”

“Just a few momentos. My clothes, my claws…and my passport and identification.” Leandra smiled crookedly. “I hope they don’t ask too many questions at the airport. I look a bit different now than when I came here.”

“I’m sure we’ll manage. But will you be able to get tiger claws onto the plane? Isn’t that illegal?”

Leandra’s smile turned into a roguish grin. “You’re forgetting, my love, what I used to be. Just because I’m not a smuggler anymore doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten how to do it. Believe me, customs won’t find them.”

Ashley shook her head. “I’m not gonna ask any questions,” she laughed. “Just don’t get caught. I don’t want them shipping you off to jail just when I’m about to get you home.”

Leandra smiled, then ducked down to plant a soft kiss on Ashley’s lips. “Don’t worry…I’ll be fine.” Straightening, she turned her attention to the three vehicles, and their waiting occupants. She took a deep breath. “Guess it’s time to go, huh?”

“Yep.” Ashley took the taller woman’s hand, feeling instantly how Leandra was trembling slightly. “It’s okay to be nervous, Leandra, but they won’t hurt you. They’re all very nice people.”

Leandra nodded, but her eyes were still turgid. “Will you be sitting next to me?”

“Uh huh, it’s all arranged.” Ashley stroked Leandra’s hand with her thumb in a soothing manner. It was hard for her to imagine what Leandra must be going through; returning to a world she hadn’t been part of for so long. Having to leash all those animal instincts that had kept her alive out here for four years. “I’ll be right with you the whole way. It’s a long trip, and I know it’s not gonna be easy for you, but when it’s all over, you can relax.”

“I know.” Leandra swallowed nervously, then looked seriously into the emerald gaze of the young blonde. “I…I haven’t had to be a human for a long time,” she whispered softly, uncertain how to properly express her fears. “I don’t know…how I’ll react..”

“I understand,” Ashley immediately calmed. “We’ll take it slow, just like I said. Don’t worry, Leandra…you’ll do just fine, I know it.”

Leandra smiled, seeing absolute confidence in the expressive eyes of the younger woman. She nodded. “Okay then. Let’s get this over with.”

Hands clasped together, the two women approached the clustered jeeps together. Leandra’s nostrils twitched as she caught the unfamiliar scents of steel and gas and rubber – scents she’d never really noticed before her exile, but which now seemed almost overwhelming to her. As she met each set of curious eyes in turn, Leandra realized just how sharp her senses had grown out here; she could almost detect each person’s individual scent, could hear every rustle of plastic and cloth. Reaching the first jeep, the dark woman smiled tentatively at the people watching her with interest and, she noted, not a little caution.

Ashley only released her lover’s hand as they drew alongside the first mud-tracked vehicle. She nodded to her other companions. “Leandra, I’d like you to meet Simon Reynolds, and his assistant, Grace Stirling.”

Leandra nodded politely, her eyes still shy. “Nice to meet you both.” Her voice was quiet and raspy, but Simon bobbed his head in return and offered a broad, excited smile.

“We’ve heard a lot about you from Miss Richards,” the zoologist said enthusiastically, holding out his hand. Leandra recoiled slightly, and Simon quickly withdrew, his smile growing uncertain. “Um…I-I was wondering if perhaps, on the ride out, you might be willing to answer a few questions? Nothing big, just…a few things about the tigers, if that would be okay? I mean, it’s such a unique…situation, to meet someone with such an intimate understanding of the cats. I-I don’t want to be a bother, especially since this is probably very stressful for you, but…perhaps…?” He produced a somewhat owlish expression of hopeful anticipation that Leandra couldn’t help but smile.

“I think that would be okay.”

“Excellent!” Simon’s eyes lit up excitedly, and he squeezed his slender form against the far end of the back seat to make room. “I-if you don’t mind…?”

With a quick glance towards the rangers and the occupants of the other two jeeps, Leandra leapt gracefully in beside Simon, crouching on the vinyl seat in a tense, feline posture that seemed more comfortable to her than sitting normally. Ashley hid a wry grin, and climbed in after her.

Leandra started slightly when the jeep’s engine roared to life, but she settled quickly as soon as Ashley laid a comforting hand on her knee. As they began the drive out of the Park, Leandra managed to distract herself by concentrating on answering Simon’s questions about the habits of the tigers she’d observed – their favorite locations, social interactions, and so on.

Still, it took every ounce of willpower she possessed just to sit still inside the lurching, mechanical beast as it made its clumsy way through the jungle along one of the more worn tracks, and Leandra tried hard not to think about the fact that very soon, she would be surrounded by hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people. Or about the fact that she would have to endure a torturous, extremely long plane-ride that would take her half-way around the world before she could relax. As she talked, Leandra tried hard to remember all the little intricacies of human social interaction that she’d all but abandoned during her life out here; all the things that had once been second nature, but which served no purpose in the jungle depths, and had therefore been discarded.

Why do humans have to be so much more complicated than other animals? she asked herself silently. Why do they… She paused. Why do we have to place so much importance on so many things that don’t matter? Considering all the changes she was going to have to adjust to, Leandra felt herself becoming overwhelmed. She felt exposed and vulnerable without the shadows of the jungle around her – without the tawny stripes that had been her protection for so long. What the hell am I thinking? I must be out of my mind! I can’t do this! Why am I even trying?

Only when she looked to the side and found those sympathetic emerald eyes gazing back at her did Leandra’s mind grow calm. Ashley’s quiet smile and comforting presence eased the dark woman’s fears, and gave her the courage to face the challenges that lay ahead.

Smiling in return, Leandra focused her attention back to Simon. That’s why I’m doing this, she thought peacefully. For her. For the way she makes me feel. As long as I can know that she’ll be with me – everytime I turn around, everytime I wake up, everytime I make a mistake, or feel like it’s all too hard – as long as I can see that love in her eyes, this is worth whatever hardships it costs.

And as the jungle began to give way to the first signs of rural life, Leandra concentrated on the feel of Ashley’s hand as it gently stroked her leg, willing to ignore the rest of the world just to enjoy the solace of her lover’s touch.

***

“Look Leandra, I’m not saying that stewardess wasn’t coming on to you, okay? I’m just saying that you could have simply asked her politely to remove her hand instead of growling at her like that.”

“It worked, didn’t it?” Leandra gave a rakish grin, her eyes glinting wickedly. “She took her hand off my thigh so fast you’d think I had the plague…and she didn’t bother me for the rest of the flight.”

Ashley sighed and shook her head, trying not to smile as she remembered the look on the overly-friendly girl’s face when Leandra had warned her away with a primitive snarl. Of course, she got off lightly. Another minute of ‘Are you sure I can’t do anything else to make your flight more enjoyable?’ and she might have found my teeth in her hand…cheap little hussy! Glancing out the window of the taxi as it drove along quiet, neatly groomed streets, Ashley felt the tension of the last forty-eight hours melt away as she recognized the familiar surroundings. “Well, we’re almost home now – another ten minutes or so. And I for one will be glad to be able to just kick back and relax.”

“Me too.” Leandra was looking around her new surrounding with interest, and was pleased to note that the road outside quickly left the suburban sprawl behind, venturing into pleasant woodlands with only a few houses spaced every now and then along the route.

The trip had been every bit as difficult for Leandra as she’d anticipated, despite the fact that it was – almost miraculously – disaster free. No-one had questioned her somewhat dated passport. No-one had searched her luggage and found the concealed tiger-parts. The plane-ride had been quiet and uneventful…with the minor exception of the young stewardess with the eager hands. Leandra had even managed a few minutes restless sleep on the long flight, even though the seats felt strange against her body, and the air smelled stale and cloying. Still, international travel is a stressful ordeal under even the most ideal of circumstances, and Leandra was looking forward to being alone again with the one woman she felt truly comfortable around.

Soon enough, they reached their destination. The cab pulled over to the curb outside a sprawling, two-story brick veneer house set among the tranquil forest. As Ashley thanked the driver and handed over a few bills, Leandra exited the vehicle with a sigh of relief. It was going to take a while to get used to things like cars again, she acknowledged, stretching her arms above her head and grunting. The tension and stress of the journey back to civilization made her right shoulder ache, and the pain was making her a little grumpy. Still, her mood changed quickly as soon as she reminded herself it was all over now.

Looking around at her new surroundings, Leandra smiled. All around in every direction, tall redwoods and aspens spread their branches high into the air, sheltering smaller saplings and underbrush beneath their boughs. Although it was a far cry from the humid jungle and sprawling grass plains that had been her home in India, Leandra felt a good deal more comfortable just being in such a natural setting. There was a sense of safety to be found in the gently shifting shadows of the trees, and the dark woman took a moment just to listen to the sounds of unfamiliar birdcalls that filled the air, before she turned her attention to studying the house itself.

The gardens leading up to the house were somewhat wild and overgrown, but Leandra realized quickly that they had been carefully nurtured to appear that way on purpose. The garden suited the forest setting perfectly – not trying to bring order to the scene, but rather, complementing it with a harmonious design that probably required very little maintenance. The house continued this embrace of the natural world, sporting many large-paned windows and even a few stained-glass designs of kingfishers and other birds. Leandra smiled as the cab pulled away and Ashley joined her, the younger woman lifting her heavy backpack and fumbling for a set of keys.

“Home, sweet home,” the young blonde grinned. “Come on, I’ll show you around.”

Leandra followed the photographer up a twisting rock pathway that ran up a few steps to the front door of the house. Ashley unlocked the door and knocked it open with her hip, gesturing for Leandra to precede her inside. Leandra accepted the invitation, and looked around with great interest at what was to be her new home.

The first thing that struck her was the sense of openness and space. The many huge windows allowed natural light to flow in from outside, and Leandra appreciated the feeling of freedom it created. Hardwood floors covered by a few Indian-style rugs shone in the sunlight, and the interior walls were dotted with dozens of large, framed photographs, each depicting a spectacular shot of one animal or another. In the center of the room was a sunken sitting area with a large-screen television and an extremely comfortable-looking sectional couch.

An archway to the right led into a neatly-arranged dining area and kitchen, and a closed door on the left led to what Leandra assumed was probably a bedroom. A set of stairs ran up the far wall, giving access to the second floor of the house. Numerous indoor plants set tastefully around the room continued the natural theme. The air smelled clean and fresh, and Leandra felt her tensions drift further away.

“Well…” Ashley dumped her backpack on the hardwood floor and blew her bangs from her eyes. “What do you think?”

Leandra smiled. “I think I should have looked more seriously at pursuing a career in photography,” she said, her tone impressed. “How can you afford a place like this?”

Ash shrugged modestly. “A combination of raw talent, good luck, and generous parents.” She laughed a little and began tugging her lover around the sunken living room. “I get paid well for my work, but that’s not how it is for most photographers. I just happen to be one of the best in my field.” Leading the dark woman over to the far wall, she pointed out a number of plaques and framed awards hung proudly beside pictures of various animals. “See? When you get this much praise, your talent suddenly comes at a much higher price.”

Leandra leaned forward and studied the awards, reading the elegant words of glowing approbation from Ashley’s peers. “I’m impressed.”

“Yeah, well…” Ashley shuffled her feet unassumingly. “Like I said, I’m lucky.”

Leandra gestured to the many photographs hanging on the walls. “Did you take all these?”

“Uh huh. They’re my favorites; the best of the best.”

“They’re magnificent.” Leandra wandered around, pausing to study a fantastic underwater shot of a humpback whale and her calf. “You’re more than lucky, Ashley. This is pure talent.”

Ash blushed at the praise. “Thank you.”

“Still, this house must have cost a fortune…especially for someone as young as you.”

“My parents helped me buy it,” Ashley admitted. “They live nearby, and I guess they were willing to support me a bit if it meant keeping me close to them…especially since I travel so much. They did the same with my sister; she lives a few minutes up the road.”

Leandra nodded, still looking around. “No pets?”

“Only Melanie.” Ashley pointed to a cabinet that was recessed in the right wall of the living room. Wandering over to investigate, Leandra’s eyes searched among the rocks and tree-branches inside until she made out the shiny, serpentine body within. Looking closer, she caught sight of a pale, slightly dusky-colored snake with a head that looked as though it had been dipped in black ink.

“A black headed python,” she identified quickly. “These only live in Australia.”

“Yep. I fell in love with them when I was over there a few years ago. It took a while, but I eventually found a dealer who could get me one…for the right price.”

Leandra watched the sleepy reptile for a moment, before commenting, “I thought you’d have more animals. I mean, you spend all your life around them, so…”

“Yeah, I do,” Ashley agreed. “And I’d love to get a dog or something, but the fact is my life’s not exactly suited to having a lot of pets. Melanie doesn’t need that much care, so she doesn’t mind my not being around much for her. My niece, Casey, absolutely adores her, so she takes care of feeding and cleaning duties when I’m overseas.”

“I see.”

Ashley held out her hand. “Come on, I’ll show you the rest. My bedroom’s upstairs.”

Leandra grinned at the mischievous twinkle in her lover’s emerald eyes, and accepted the offered hand happily. “Lead on.”

The photographer led her dark companion through the dining room and kitchen, then pointed to the closed door. “That’s Casey’s room,” she explained. “She spends a lot of time here, so I gave her some space of her own.”

A short hallway led to a study filled wall-to-wall with overflowing bookcases, and beyond that was a spacious bathroom and toilet. Leandra smiled at the thought of taking a shower using water that wasn’t icy cold, and decided that was one of the first things she was going to do as soon as she’d seen the rest of the house.

Upstairs, Leandra was shown a second, rather empty bedroom, as well as a sun-room that led out to a wrap-around balcony. Finally, Ashley pushed open the final door and pulled the dark woman into what was obviously her own bedroom. The room contained a large, neatly-made bed, a dresser, wardrobe, and all the other usual bedroom furnishings. A small doorway to the side led into an ensuite, and another led outside to the balcony. Leandra smiled, her sharpened senses detecting the scent of her lover in the air.

Ashley spread her arms out to encompass the room. “I hope you like it,” she said softly. “If you need some space of your own for a while, you’re welcome to use the other bedroom, but…” she gave a shy smile. “There’s plenty of space in here.”

Leandra hesitated, a little overwhelmed at the changes in her life this past day and night had brought about. Accustomed to living among creatures who placed great importance on territoriality, she had a lot of respect for personal boundaries. “I don’t want to crowd you, Ash. I mean, it’s enough for you to offer me a place to stay in your home, but…”

“I don’t mind,” Ashley quickly reassured. “I mean, it’s a big bed afterall…and it’d be such a waste for me to have to sleep alone on it now that you’re here to keep me company.”

Leandra grinned, seeing only sincerity in the younger woman’s face. “Okay then,” she agreed. “If you don’t mind.”

“I practically insist.” The short blonde wrapped her arms around Leandra’s waist and pulled her close. “I didn’t drag you half-way around the world just to have to sleep in another room. I want you as close to me as I can get you.”

Leandra bent down and kissed the photographer. This kind of affection was still new for her, but she was quickly accepting the way her body craved any contact with Ashley she could get. “Can I talk you into sharing a shower with me?” she purred. “I could use a change of clothes.”

“Mmm, I dunno.” Ashley grinned, her eyes narrowing to seductive slits. “Are you gonna make it worth my while?”

Leandra almost growled. “I think we could come to an arrangement.”

“Okay.” Ashley stepped back, releasing her hold on the dark woman. “Just give me a minute first though. I should call my sister and tell her I’m back. Why don’t you look around a little and make yourself comfortable; you know, rummage through the wardrobe, open a few drawers…stuff like that. Maybe you can find something of mine to wear.” She ran her eyes appreciatively over Leandra’s long, muscular form. “I think we’re going to have to take you shopping though…can’t have you running around naked for too long.”

Leandra cocked an eyebrow saucily. “You can have me anyway you want me,” she husked throatily. “Anytime.”

Heat flushed immediately through Ashley’s loins, a fire sparked at the hooded desire in Leandra’s smoky eyes. She swallowed hard. “That sounds like the kind of offer I can live with.” No-one else had ever been able to arouse this kind of sexual hunger in her the way Leandra could, and Ashley was still adjusting to having a lover with such a confident and seductive attitude.
Shuddering, the young blonde shook herself free of the impulse to just jump on Leandra, wrestle her to the bed, and have her wicked way with her right now; there were things that needed to be done first. From the slightly amused but hungry expression Leandra wore, it was clear the dark woman recognized her desire…and would have been only too happy to oblige it. She smiled. “Later.”

Leandra watched her lover exit the room, letting herself enjoy for a moment the extra little hip-swagger Ashley threw in for her benefit, before she took a deep breath and looked around. Left alone, the dark woman decided to do exactly as Ash had suggested, and opened the wardrobe.

Inside, the young blonde had organized her clothes into neat sections, and Leandra began to search for something that might fit her larger frame. She found a sleep shirt and a pair of sweat-pants that would have positively swamped her smaller lover, and threw them on the bed. As she closed the wardrobe door, Leandra caught sight of her reflection in the mirror on the dresser. She paused, studying the face looking back at her curiously.

It had four years since Leandra had last seen her reflection so clearly; the rippling surface of water ponds in the jungle couldn’t match the clarity of the smooth glass mirror. Those four years had taken their toll, she considered, reaching up a hand and running her fingertips over her face. Her skin was pale from being covered by mud and paint, and there were a few more lines creasing the corners of her eyes and mouth.

Her hair, once her proudest feature besides her electric-blue eyes, now framed her face in a mass of tangled snarls. Although she’d always kept herself in shape, life as a jungle predator had equipped Leandra with a body built for endurance, speed, and sheer power. Whipcord muscles rippled along her arms, thighs and stomach. Grinning a little, Leandra stood straighter in front of the mirror and flexed the new muscles.

“Not too bad,” she whispered softly, eyeing herself critically. “Not too bad at all.”

Leandra had lost any sense of self-image during her exile – it hadn’t mattered how she looked, since no-one who ever saw her lived long enough to offer any compliments – but it was nice to know that she was still attractive. It mattered more to her now that she had Ashley in her life.

Turning away from the mirror, Leandra padded around the room, her footsteps as silent as they’d ever been. She studied the few ornaments that rested on the bedside table and dresser drawer, seeing photographs of a few people she guessed were Ashley’s family members. Stepping round the bed, Leandra ran her hands along the bed quilt, just luxuriating in the soft, feathery sensation after having slept on the ground for so long. Wandering around the room, she took a tour outside onto the balcony and looked around, smiling at the view of tranquil forests and placid gardens.

Should be fun to explore, she thought, looking forward to learning more about her new environment. Although Ashley’s home was very nice, and she had no doubts that she would be comfortable here, Leandra knew it would take a long time before she could fully break free of the desire to return to the protective embrace of the forest shadows. Four years alone in the jungle can’t help but leave a mark, she idly observed. It’ll be in my blood forever now. I just hope Ashley can understand that.

Turning back into the bedroom, Leandra sat on the bed a moment, thinking. After a moment or two, her eyes wandered to the bedside drawer, and she gave in to the temptation to snoop a little. Pulling open the top drawer and peeking inside, Leandra studied the contents curiously. A wrinkled, obviously much-loved romance novel…a small box of mints…an appointment diary…and finally…

Leandra’s eyes widened slightly, and her lips formed a wicked grin. “Well, well, well, what have we here?” She reached in and pulled out the smooth, cylindrical plastic device that lay suspiciously at the very back of the drawer. “I guess Little Miss Innocent’s not so pure afterall.” Leandra’s sensitive ears picked up the sound of footsteps approaching, and she glanced up as Ashley entered the room, one dark brow raised devilishly as she held up her find.

“Well, I hope you don’t mind but my sister wants to come over for a visit. She hasn’t seen me in a few months, so I said she could drop b- Eeek!!” Ashley’s eyes grew wide as saucers and her face colored with an instant blush as she saw what Leandra was holding.

The dark woman grinned and waved the vibrator at her lover. “You should have told me I was going to have some competition.”

“Where did you…” Ashley sprang forward, grabbing for the plastic device. “Give me that!”

“Why?” Leandra used her longer arms to good advantage, keeping her find out of Ashley’s reach. “Are you gonna give me a private demonstration? I think I’d like that.”

“Leandra!” Ashley wrestled with her dark lover, unable to pin the stronger woman down. “Give it!”

“Oh, come on…” Leandra pouted and retreated back towards the ensuite. Ashley stalked her slowly, eyes narrowed to menacing slits. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you to share your toys?”

“Leandra…” Ashley stepped closer.

“I guess a girl needs something to keep her happy on those lonely nights, right?”

“Hey, I’ve gone without a boyfriend for a long time now,” Ashley defended. “I have normal appetites that need to be satisfied, just like everyone else.”

Leandra purred. “I know.” She backed up a few steps, feeling the cooler air of the tiled bathroom behind her. “You wanna take that shower now?” Long, tapered fingers stroked the length of the plastic shaft seductively.

Ashley licked suddenly dry lips, her face glowing bright red at the carnal look in Leandra’s eyes. “Give it back first.”

“Why?” Leandra grinned, sensing her lover’s rising desire. “I was thinking maybe we could…play…a little.”

Emerald eyes widened, and a shiver of arousal ran the length of Ashley’s spine. “Wh-what do you mean?”

“Wellll…” Leandra considered, studying the vibrator thoughtfully. “It’s just a suggestion, but…I wouldn’t mind letting you…watch me…”

Ashley’s breathing suddenly accelerated dangerously, her heart beating harder at the images her creative imagination hurried to put forth. “I-I-I don’t…know…”

“It’ll be fun,” Leandra promised in a husky whisper. “We can make it an ‘active audience participation’ kind of thing if you’d like.” The dark woman began unbuttoning her shirt with her left hand.

Ashley’s nostrils flared as pale skin was revealed, and she felt her inhibitions swiftly become overwhelmed by the strength of her lust. “Umm…”

“You know, I haven’t had a hot shower in four years.” Leandra slipped the khaki shirt from her shoulders, exposing her naked chest to the younger blonde. “It’d be a terrible shame if I had to do this all by myself…” Ashley’s eyes darkened to a smoky jade hue, and Leandra grinned as she turned around and entered the small bathroom.

Ashley considered for a moment, then shrugged. “Well, we don’t want that.” Stripping off her own clothes frantically, the blonde photographer hastened after her dark lover quickly, not wanting the show to start without her.

***

Sometime later, a flushed, tousled, but extremely satisfied Ashley emerged from upstairs, still toweling her hair dry. After the shower, which had involved a very detailed and thoroughly enjoyable demonstration of her ‘plastic friend’, Ashley had left her dark lover to get dressed while she went in search of something to eat. Wandering into the kitchen, the young photographer began to rummage through poorly-stocked cupboards, hoping to find a packet of biscuits or something that hadn’t expired during her overseas trip.

“Hey sis, what’s up?”

The voice startled Ashley completely, and she whirled around quickly, almost slamming the cupboard door on her fingers. Cursing, she glared at the intruder acidly.

“Jesus Christ, Eve! Can’t you knock on the door or something next time?!”

Evelyn Richards just grinned unrepentantly and moved in to hug her sister. “It’s not often I get to take you by surprise, Ash. And for your information, I did knock. You didn’t answer, so I figured you were in the shower or something and let myself in.” She ran her eyes up and down her younger sibling’s slender frame, looking for any signs of injury or illness. It wasn’t uncommon for Ash to return from her trips covered in insect bites, nasty scratches, and sometimes worse. Eve saw a few marks on Ashley’s neck and chest, and a suspicious-looking band-aid on her ankle, but that was it. She nodded, reassured. “You look pretty good. How was India? Did you bring anything back with you? You know Casey’s gonna kill you if you didn’t get her that sarong she was asking about.”

“Umm…” Ashley glanced at the stairs. “Well…I didn’t get to go shopping as much as I wanted too…things got a little hectic towards the end. But umm…I did get to bring one really interesting surprise back with me.”

“Really? What?”

At that point Leandra’s husky voice called from upstairs. “Hey Ashley? If you can’t find anything in the kitchen, I’ve got something up here you could nibble on.”

Eve looked from the stairway to her brightly-flushed sister, then back again. “Who’s that?”

Ashley shrugged sheepishly. “That’s my surprise.”

Eve raised an eyebrow, but before she could ask for more elaboration, Leandra appeared at the bottom of the stairway. The clothes she’d borrowed from Ashley fit her a little snugly, and her hair and body were still dripping with water, making them cling to every impressive curve of her six-foot-something frame. Ashley shook her head when she saw her lover, rolling her eyes a little at the water pooling around her feet. I guess she’s forgotten about towels and stuff, too.

Leandra stopped uncertainly when she saw Evelyn. “Oh…I-I didn’t…hear the door…” She gave Ashley an apologetic look and stepped closer to her. Despite the fact that the stranger was older than Ashley, and her body carried a few extra pounds, the resemblance between the two women was strong enough that Leandra quickly guessed this was her lover’s sister.

“Eve, I’d like you to meet Leandra,” Ashley quickly made introductions. “Leandra, this it my sister, Evelyn.”

Leandra smiled shyly. “Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise.” Eve studied the tall, dripping woman curiously, conscious of the intense chemistry going on between her and her sister.

“Um…Leandra’s going to be staying with me,” Ashley explained, reaching out a hand to pull her lover closer.

“I see.”

Leandra squeezed Ashley’s hand lightly. Aware of the interested jade eyes studying her, the dark woman glanced hopefully towards the door, seeking an escape route. “Um…I was thinking maybe I’d go take a look around outside, if that’s okay. I’m sure you two have a lot of catching up to do.”

“Sure.” Ashley nodded, understanding that Leandra was giving her some space…and also that she needed some herself. “Just don’t go climbing too many trees or rolling around in any mud patches. I just got you clean, and I’d like to keep you that way for a while.”

“I know.” Leandra glanced at Eve, then leaned down to give Ashley a quick kiss, taking the opportunity to whisper “I love you,” into the younger woman’s ear. Just saying the words out loud gave her a warm, sweet feeling all over, and she resolved to say them more often. Turning, Leandra offered a nod to the watching Eve. “Ashley’s told me a lot about you. It’s nice to finally meet you in person.”

“Well, I look forward to getting to know you better, Leandra.”

The dark woman smiled, then headed for the door on silent footsteps.

“Leandra?” Ashley called just as she reached for the handle.

“Mmm?”

“If you see anyone out there, try not to growl at them.” Ash grinned. “Remember, we have to live with these people, okay?”

Sapphire eyes glinted playfully. “I’ll be good,” Leandra promised dutifully, giving her lover a quick wink before she disappeared thankfully outside.

Ashley watched the door close, then turned back to face her sister. Eve raised an eyebrow at her, and she shuffled somewhat awkwardly. “Um…that was Leandra.”

“So I see.” Evelyn was obviously trying to hide a shit-eating grin.

Ash sighed, not really prepared for this conversation yet. “You know, I could really use some coffee. You want a cup? I think I had some in here…” She began to rummage through the cupboards again.

“Sounds good.” Eve claimed a spot on one of the barstools and rested her arms on the breakfast counter, then studied her embarrassed sister with an amused smile. It was rare for Ashley to get flustered, and she was rather enjoying it. “Let me see if I understand this.” She cleared her throat. “You went to India on a shoot, and you brought back…a woman? What’s the matter, couldn’t find anything good in the souvenir shops?”

“It’s a long story.”

“Oh, I’ll bet. And I can’t wait to hear it.”

Ashley set the kettle on to boil, and occupied herself with preparing two cups. She glanced at Evelyn a few times, trying to gauge her reaction. Thankfully, she found no trace of persecution or distaste being aimed towards her by her sibling, and she took a deep breath before exhaling slowly. “I don’t really know where to start…”

Eve nodded, deciding to take pity on her younger sibling. “You and her are…involved, right?”

Ash nodded.

“I see.” Eve was silent for a moment, studying her sister with a carefully neutral expression. “You never told me you were interested in women.”

“Yeah, well…” Ashley shrugged awkwardly. “You know me; I’m not really comfortable talking about that sort of stuff. And I guess you could say Leandra’s kind of a first for me… in more ways than one.”

“Aahh.” Evelyn grinned. “Well, she seems nice. A little quiet, maybe, but…”

“When you get to know her a bit better, you’ll understand why that is.”

Eve cocked her head to the side. “What was that bit there about her growling at the neighbors?”

“Believe me, it was a valid warning.” The kettle finished boiling, and Ashley added steaming water to the cups along with coffee and sugar. She handed one cup to her sister, and left the other on the bench. “Wait here a minute, I’ll get something that might help explain better.”

The young photographer raced upstairs, and returned a moment later carrying a small paper folder. Reaching in, she drew out a couple of polaroids and handed them to her sister.

Eve took the pictures and studied them curiously. “What’s this?”

“That’s Leandra…before I got her back here,” Ash explained quietly.

Eve’s eyes narrowed in confusion. Each photograph showed the dark woman dressed in her striped tiger-fur outfit, her body painted up like a halloween costume. The jungle filled in the background, vines and palms obscuring the scene. Even in the still picture, Leandra managed to convey at least a sense of the savage, primal energy that so characterized her in the jungle. “Why is she all dressed up like that?”

“It’s how she looked.” Ashley paused, then explained simply, “She’s been living alone in the jungle for the last four years. I was pretty much the first person she talked too in that whole time…expect for the tigers.”

Eve’s eyes widened, and she stared at her sister. “You’re kidding?”

“Nope.” Ashley reached for her coffee and took a sip. “It’s hard to believe, but she’s been living as a tiger all that time. She can hunt like they do, move like they do…she can even talk like they do! She’s absolutely amazing to watch in action.”

“But…Why? I mean, what was she doing out there?”

“She had her reasons.” Ash hesitated, not comfortable sharing the secrets of Leandra’s life, even with her own sister. “I guess life hit her badly, and she needed some time to get herself together again.”

Evelyn studied the pictures again, now understanding them more clearly. She shook her head, amazed. “How the hell did you hook up with her?”

“When we went out there, we happened to set up camp in her hunting ground.” Ashley climbed onto the barstool next to her sister. “She was curious about us, and came snooping round one night – scared the heck out of me, I’ll tell you. Then, one morning I was out by the river, and I got in some trouble there. I surprised a poacher, and Leandra came along and scared him off. She disappeared before I could say much to her, but that night, I saw her campfire. So you know me, I couldn’t let things be well enough alone. The next morning I went looking for her, wanting to say thank you, and I guess we just kinda…clicked.”

Eve shook her head in awe. She was accustomed to hearing about Ashley’s adventures, but this story was even more wild than usual. “That’s unbelievable.”

“I know.” Ash grinned. “She was really lonely out there, so we started spending time together. She showed me everything she knew, shared all her secrets with me. We really fit together well, and the more I got to know her, the more I liked her. I couldn’t really help it; I fell for her – hard.” She chuckled a little sheepishly. “Imagine my surprise when I found out she felt the same way!”

Eve grinned. She knew her sister wasn’t the most outgoing person when it came to romance. “Well…” She studied the pictures closely. “She’s easy on the eyes, I’ll give you that. And I guess she can’t be any worse than that last guy you dated. What was his name? Steve?”

“Urgh! Don’t remind me!” Ashley made a face and laughed. “Leandra’s nothing like anyone I’ve ever been involved with.”

Eve smiled warmly, reading Ashley’s excitement easily. It was obvious Leandra was about her favorite topic at the moment, and she was happy just to see her sister so filled with joy. “I guess this is pretty serious then, huh?” she asked quietly.

Ash nodded. “She came half-way around the world just to be with me,” she whispered, “and if she hadn’t, I would have stayed in the jungle just to be with her. She left her whole world behind for me…and I know that wasn’t easy for her. So yeah…it’s about as serious as it gets.”

“Well…I’m happy for you, sis.” Eve leaned over and gave the younger woman a hug. “She must love you a lot to give up everything just to stay by your side.”

“Thanks.” Ash felt an unrealized tension ease from her shoulder, glad she had support from her sister. “That means a lot to me.”

Eve pulled away from the embrace, her eyes dropping to Ashley’s neck and chest. She grinned mischievously. “And all of a sudden, these marks are looking less and less like insect bites, and more like love-bites.”

Ash blushed and tried futilely to pull her shirt over the light bruises. “Yeah, well…Leandra gets pretty intense sometimes.”

Eve waggled her eyebrows, thoroughly enjoying her sister’s unusual display of discomfort. “I’ll bet.” Usually, Ashley was bold and assertive, and Eve had always admired and envied her forthright attitude. It was a nice change to see the young blonde blushing like a schoolgirl. “What’re you planning on telling mum and dad? I take it they don’t know you’re back?”

“No, I was going to wait a while before I called them.” Ashley rubbed her eyes and took another sip of coffee. “I need some time to get rested after the flight…and also to let Leandra get settled in. Coming back to civilization must be some serious culture-shock for her.”

“Uh huh.” Eve considered this latest twist to her sister’s already convoluted history. Ashley had always gone her own way, and to hell with anyone who tried to talk her out of it. Headstrong and independent, she had caused her parents a lot of headaches during her life. Eve wasn’t sure how they were going to take the news that their daughter had dragged home a wild-woman from the Indian jungles, or that she was now romantically involved with said wild-woman. Still, she was accustomed to acting as an intermediary between the two groups, and quickly stepped in the smooth the way as much as possible. “Would it help if I talked to them first? Maybe explain things a little so they have some time to get used to the idea?”

Ashley shrugged. “You can if you like,” she said indifferently, her expression stern. “But Leandra’s here to stay, no matter how they feel about it. It’s not like I can send her back there. I love her, and that’s just something they’re gonna have accept.”

“Still, this is pretty big news, Ash,” Evelyn pointed out patiently. “I mean…mom and dad don’t freak out easily, but it’s going to be a shock to hear you’ve switched teams like this.”

Ashley considered that and had to agree her sister was right. She sighed. “I’ll call them tomorrow night,” she allowed. “If you want to go over there and explain the situation before that, I don’t mind.”

Evelyn smiled, knowing that this was as close as Ashley would get to actually asking for some help. “No problem.” Swallowing the last of the coffee, Eve dropped the cup off in the sink and turned to regard her sibling. “Casey’s gonna go nuts.”

Ash snorted. “Trust me Eve, I think she’ll get along just fine with Leandra.” Casey had never really gotten along well with any of her past romances. The somewhat rebellious seventeen year old treated her aunt more like an older sister; they were close to the same age, were both determined to do what they wanted in life regardless of the opinions of other, and they spent a lot of time together. Casey sometimes got a bit defensive when Ashley had a boyfriend. Still, for some reason the young photographer didn’t foresee any troubles regarding Leandra – it was just a feeling she had, but somehow she knew the two would get along.

“She’ll be home from school in about another hour,” Eve said. “I should warn you, she’s been waiting none-to-patiently for you to get back for the past two weeks. Will it be okay if she comes around tonight?”

“Sure, no problem. You want me to feed her?”

Eve glanced at the bare cupboards wryly. “I think I’d better do that. Looks like you need to do some shopping.”

“Yeah. I’ll take a trip into town tomorrow and restock. Leandra needs some new clothes, and I should stop in at work and process some film.” She grinned as she put the polaroids back in their folder. “Just wait till you see some of the other shots I got. You won’t believe them, they’re so amazing!”

“I can’t wait.” Eve glanced at the oven clock. “I better head off,” she said regretfully. “I should have started cooking dinner an hour ago. But I’ll stop by as soon as I get some spare time, okay? I’m looking forward to getting to know your new friend a bit better.” She gave her sister a farewell hug. “You’re not planning anymore trips for a while, right?”

“I hope not.” Ash returned the hug with equal strength. “It’s good to be home again. I missed having someone to talk too about…everything.”

Eve smiled warmly and tousled her sisters hair affectionately. “We’ll sit down and have a proper talk soon, I promise. I want to hear everything about your latest adventure…all the details.” Her jade eyes sparkled playfully. “Even the juicy ones.”

Ash blushed and gave her sister a gentle shove. “I’m not the type to kiss and tell,” she said primly.

“Yeah, well I’ve been a staid old married mother for nearly eighteen years young lady, so the least you can do is give me a few interesting tid-bits.” Eve grinned. “I’ll see you later Ash.”

“Yeah, see ya.”

Ashley watched her sister through the window as she got in her car and drove off, glad to have received such understanding from her older sibling. Although she liked to tell herself she didn’t care what her family thought of Leandra, Ash realized that deep down, she still wanted their approval. She had been so successful in the choices she’d made in her life, and her parents were justly proud of her efforts. Now, she wanted them to love and accept Leandra the same way she did…and a part of her was fearful that they wouldn’t be able or willing to embrace this latest development in her life.

Sighing, Ashley headed upstairs to retrieve her shoes so she could go searching for her lover in the forests. On the way, she smiled at the trail of water Leandra had left after her shower, shaking her head with fond indulgence.

“We’ve got a lot of re-education to go through, Jungle Jane.” Ash knew that getting Leandra back to civilization wasn’t going to instantly tame the wild instincts that had developed in her these last four years. The dark woman was going to need a lot of patience and understanding in the weeks ahead…and Ashley had no illusions about this being some kind of fairytale romance where everything was always easy. It was going to take hard work and endless compassion in order for their budding relationship to survive.

Still, Ashley had never been one to back down from a challenge. She had faith in the strength of her love for Leandra…and she was almost looking forward to the challenges that they were going to face in the coming days

***

Later that night, Leandra sat on the floor of the sunken living room, her back propped against the lounge behind her, legs extended fully across the comfortable Indian rug before her. Ashley sat behind the dark woman, one leg thrown over each of her shoulders, playing idly with a few cords of tangled ebony hair. A couple of empty dinner plates sat on the coffee table, only one of which had any cutlery on it, since Leandra still preferred eating with her hands.

The television was on, and images of colorful cartoon characters played across the screen to the quiet sounds of accompanying music. Leandra watched as the Road Runner evaded yet another wildly improbable scheme cooked up by Wiley Coyote, a slight, innocent smile curling the corners of her mouth. Most of her focus, however, was concentrated on the warmth of her lovers legs wrapped around her neck, and the subtle pleasure of Ashley’s fingers twisting through her dreadlocks. Leandra released a sigh as she relaxed more fully into her new home.

“It’s nice to know some things don’t change,” she remarked huskily. “Television seems just as inane as I remember it.”

Ashley smiled. “I think they’re kinda cute,” she said, watching as the ever-persistent Coyote plummeted good-naturedly off a cliff. “Even though you know he’ll never catch the Road Runner, it still makes it funny when he fails. And he never gives up…that’s a good message.”

Leandra grunted, and began stroking the photographers bare feet softly. “I’m exhausted.”

“Me too.” Just thinking of how tired she was caused Ashley to yawn. “Jet-lag plus stress equals one massive energy drain. We’ll get some sleep soon.”

“Mmm.” Leandra was silent for a few moments, thinking. “What are we doing tomorrow?”

“I thought we’d go into town and do some shopping. You can’t be comfortable wearing clothes that are five sizes too small for you.”

Leandra purred as she glanced behind her with narrowed eyes. “You could always take them off me,” she suggested.

Ashley blushed. “I could…but I think that’d be a bit much for when Casey stops by.”

Leandra’s expression changed. “Oh, right. I’d forgotten about that.”

Ashley could tell Leandra was still feeling very out of her element in this world of family, friends, and human community. She patted the dark woman’s shoulder comfortingly. “You don’t need to worry, Leandra. Casey doesn’t bite.”

“I know, it’s just…” Leandra struggled, unable to express how difficult it was for her to be around other people. “I haven’t had to socialize with anyone in so long…it’s hard to remember how to act. In the jungle, things were so much simpler. The rules were clearer. Here, things are so much more…complex.”

“You’ll get the hang of it again soon,” Ashley said reassuringly. “There’s no reason to rush anything. We’ll take it as slow as you want.” She paused, before adding, “It’ll be Saturday tomorrow. We can go to one of the quieter places to look for clothes if you like. It’ll be fine, you’ll see.”

Thoughts of shopping for clothes reminded Leandra of another thing. “What about money?”

“I don’t mind paying our expenses-”

“Ashley, I can’t just expect you to support me forever,” Leandra insisted. “That’s not fair on either of us.”

Ashley sighed, knowing that if their positions had been reversed, she’d have felt the same way. Leandra had lived a long time in a world where the only person she could rely on was herself; it wasn’t reasonable to expect her to sacrifice her independence. “Okay, so…you can make it up to me once you’ve settled in. You need some time, Leandra. This is a big move for you.”

“I know. But I’ve been thinking about it, and I think there might be at least a temporary solution.”

“Oh?”

Leandra shifted around so she could face her partner directly. “Before I went to India, I was pretty well off. I had an expensive apartment in New York, and a lot of assets.”

“But you’ve been gone for four years,” Ash pointed out. “How can you be sure that stuff is still in your name. You could have been declared legally dead, you’ve been missing for so long.”

“Maybe. But I had money stashed in several overseas accounts that no-one could have touched. And there were a few storage houses holding my stuff…they would have been paid automatically. It might take a while, but I know all the details are in my head somewhere. If I have some time, I could remember them. The money would be more than enough to pay my way, at least till I figure out a way to earn my keep.”

Ashley considered this idea, and admitted it sounded reasonable. She nodded. “Okay then…if that would make you feel better.”

“It would.” Leandra turned back around and pulled Ashley’s legs tighter against her chest. She sighed. “You know, I’d forgotten how much importance people place on money,” she whispered after a period of silence. “It’s kind of ironic, in a way – I spent so much of my life trying to accumulate as much wealth and power as I could, just like most people do, thinking it gave me greater control over my life. But four years in the jungle has a way of changing your priorities…of showing you what’s really important.
The control I thought I had was just an illusion, and all the money in the world couldn’t have saved me if Shar-Tushar had decided to take my life.” She smiled reflectively. “When you strip it all away…all the money, the home, the secure little world where you’re in charge of everything you see and touch and desire…when it’s all gone, you start to understand just how little control you really do have. I hadn’t really thought about it till now…but it’s kind of liberating to live as an animal. So much simpler. Hunt, eat, sleep.” She cast a saucy glance behind her to Ashley’s attentive gaze. “Mate.”

Ashley smiled slightly. “You’re going to miss that world, aren’t you?”

Leandra shrugged. “Maybe.” Her lips twitched into a firm line. “Have you ever heard about how some people who have been in prison a long time start to fear their freedom?”

“Institutionalization? Yeah.”

“I can understand that,” Leandra said quietly. “The jungle was my prison…my punishment. I hated it so much sometimes…but in a way, I loved it just as intensely. It was my world. I understood it…and even though sometimes it hurt me, I learned a lot about myself from experiencing it the way I did.” Ice-blue eyes regarded Ashley seriously. “But at the end of the day, I’m glad you came along before it became too late for me to leave my prison.”

Ashley felt the full force of Leandra’s love and affection hit her suddenly as she looked into those burning sapphire gems, but before she could think of any words to say in response, there was a quick knock from the door. Both women glanced up, then turned to regard each other.

“That’ll be Casey,” Ash said.

“Mmm.” Leandra disentangled herself from the younger woman and stood up. She helped Ashley to her feet. “I think I’ll go take a look around outside…maybe climb that great big oak tree out there.”

“You don’t have to go, Leandra. I mean…” The knocking repeated, and Ashley went to answer it. “Casey’s gonna want to meet you sooner or later, so you might as well-” She turned back around, but found the living room empty. Leandra had vanished as swift and silent as a dark zephyr. “…stay…” Ashley sighed and turned back to the front door. “Damn, that woman moves fast,” she muttered. “I’m gonna have to get a bell or something to tie around her neck.”

***

Sitting in the branches of the ancient, knarled oak tree that dominated the backyard of Ashley’s home, Leandra closed her eyes and listened peacefully to the sounds of the night animals all around. Things were a good deal quieter in this sedate forest than they were in steamy depths of the Indian jungle, but Leandra could detect the subtle calls and cries that others would ignore. Her hearing was finely tuned to pick up the most minute details, and to her the night air told a dramatic story of hunter and prey.

My first night back in civilization, she thought quietly to herself. I can already tell I’m going to be spending a lot of time in this tree. The oak was huge and ancient, its branches sweeping close to the ground and providing easy holds for any climbers. Leandra had positioned herself high up among the topmost branches of the great tree, hidden from below by the dense foliage. She felt safe here…comfortable. Although she wasn’t exactly afraid of meeting the rest of Ashley’s family, Leandra could accept that she was somewhat nervous. She’d lost her own family a long time ago – all the interactions and familial relations were strange to her. Leandra was certain she’d never quite be able to fit in with this new world, no matter how she tried.

I fit in with the tigers better than I do with my own species, she considered sadly.

A sudden noise below caused Leandra to tense, and she shifted on her perch to listen as footsteps made their way closer to the base of the oak. Sniffing the air, the dark woman detected an unfamiliar scent. Not Ashley, she concluded. As the sound of someone climbing up towards her grew louder, Leandra sat quietly in the shadows and waited, her senses picking up the smells of leather, perfume and youth.

Moments later, a hand reached up and wrapped around the thick branch on which Leandra was sitting. A second joined it, and soon a young girl pulled herself up onto the perch with a slight grunt. Taking a second to look around, she spied Leandra against the bole of the tree and smiled briefly.

“Hi.”

“Hello.”

The girl settled herself somewhat awkwardly on the branch, then studied Leandra curiously. “I’m Casey…Ashley’s niece.”

Leandra smiled a quiet smile. “It’s nice to meet you Casey.”

“Yeah.”

Leandra was a little amused at the young girls posture and attitude. So many years spent among the unpredictable and often savage jungle cats had given her a lot of experience reading expression and body language, and right now she had the distinct impression that Casey was sizing her up against a very critical scale. Well, she thought. Can’t avoid this forever, I suppose.

From what Leandra could see in the shifting light of the half-moon, Casey looked to be right at the rebellious part of her adolescence. She was about Ashley’s size – maybe an inch or two taller, and slender as a reed – but she held herself with an almost aggressive confidence that Leandra recognized from her lover. The left side of her face was framed by light blonde hair, while the right was shadowed by bright green locks. Several metal loops sparkled along the rim of each ear, and a single elegant ring hooked through her left nostril. Dark eye-shadow made her emerald eyes seem almost disconcertingly bright, and she wore torn denim jeans and a black T-shirt sporting a picture of what Leandra guessed was some rock-band or other. Just looking at Casey, Leandra had a sudden flash image of what Ashley might have looked like at seventeen.

Casey performed her own assessment, running shrewd eyes up and down Leandra’s curled-up form. When she was finished, she regarded the dark-haired woman with a flicker of reluctant interest. “Ash said you were going to be living with her.”

Leandra nodded. “That’s right.”

“So…you’re her girlfriend now?”

“I suppose I am.” Leandra smiled. I’ve never been anyone’s ‘girlfriend’ before. “Is that a problem?”

Casey shrugged. “Doesn’t matter to me. Ash never told me she liked chicks or nothing, but I’m not surprised.” She paused with a slight smile. “I doubt there’s anything she could do that’d surprise me anymore.”

“I bet.”

“Do you love her?”

Leandra was momentarily taken aback by the bluntness of the question, but she appreciated the sharp challenge in the teenager’s eyes. She nodded. “I love her more than I can put into words,” she said, not breaking eye-contact. “I’d rather die than live without her in my life.”

Casey held Leandra’s gaze a long moment, reading her sincerity. Then she nodded, apparently satisfied. “Most of the guys she dated before avoided that question. They hummed and harred and talked about devotion and companionship…but they couldn’t actually say the words.”

“You don’t need to worry about that, Casey. I could say them a thousand times a day and I’d mean them every bit as much as I do right now.”

“Good.” Casey was silent for a long while, then she gestured to Leandra’s hair. “Pretty cool dreads. How long did it take to grow them?”

“A few years…although it wasn’t exactly by choice. They just sort of grew that way.” Leandra fingered one of the thin cords hanging over her shoulder absently. “I like the nose-ring. Kinda goes with the bright green hair.”

“Thanks.” Casey smiled, and her resemblance to Ashley was suddenly a lot stronger. “My mom about had a fit when I got it done. I want to get my tongue pierced too, but she said not till I’m eighteen.” There was a pause. “Ash said you used to live in the jungle with the tigers. Is that true?”

Leandra inclined her head slightly. “For four years.”

“Wh-what was it like?”

“Lonely. Painful.” Leandra shrugged. “But I learned a lot from them.”

“Really? Like what?”

Casey was now looking at Leandra with definite curiosity and interest. The dark woman felt herself warming to her lover’s niece, and she relaxed her posture slightly. “Like how to move quietly, for one thing. How to track by scent. I could smell you coming when you were still on the ground.”

“Yeah?” Casey’s eyes widened a little.

“Yeah.” Leandra hesitated. “I could teach you, if you wanna learn.”

The young blonde considered, then shrugged. “That sounds pretty cool. When?”

“Anytime you like.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Okay. I’m going shopping with Ashley in the morning, but if you like we could go walking after that and I’ll show you some stuff.”

“Cool.” Casey grinned fully, her eyes lighting up her entire face. “You know…” She shifted closer to Leandra. “Ash has never really had great taste in guys. Most of her boyfriends were jerks…they didn’t like it when she tried to stand up for herself, or when she had to travel all the time.” She paused, studying the dark woman in the moonlight. “It’s nice to know she has better taste in chicks.”

Leandra raised a dark brow in amusement, her lips quirking into a half-grin. “Thank you.”

“Welcome.” Casey looked around at the dark forest all around. “So…were you hiding out here because of me?”

This time Leandra couldn’t help herself, and she laughed quietly at the teenager’s brashness. “Sort of,” she admitted. “You haven’t seen your aunt in a long time, and I know how close the two of you are just from listening to her talk about you. I didn’t want to get in the way of you catching up.”

“Heh.” Casey smirked, and added another mental point in Leandra’s favor. “Most of Ash’s boyfriends hated having me around all the time.” She gave the dark woman a friendly look. “You don’t have to wait around out here if you don’t want to.”

“It’s okay. I like the night-time…and it’s interesting just listening to the different animals.”

“Yeah, well, you can do that some other night,” Casey repositioned herself on the bough, preparing to climb her way down the massive tree. She fixed Leandra with a stern gaze. “Come on. You and Ash can tell me all about how you two got together.”

Leandra considered, then nodded. “Fine.” Rising from her seat, the former jungle woman glanced at the ground below for a second, then sprang into the air. With the agility of a trapeze artist, she grabbed for a lower branch, then another, moving down the trunk of the oak with fluid speed till she landed soundlessly on the ground. Casey watched wide-eyed, then quickly scampered down after her. When she reached the base of the tree, the teenager stared at Leandra in awe.

“That was like…Wow! You’re like a circus person! How’d you do that?”

Leandra shrugged modestly. “Four years in the jungle…you learn a lot of things.”

Casey stared a moment longer, then grabbed the dark woman by the hand and started dragging her back towards the house. “You and me are gonna get along just fine, Tiger Tarzan,” she said confidently.

Leandra grinned, and followed her lover’s niece obediently back inside.

***

After the stress of the last two days – having left behind her jungle home, traveled half-way around the world, and then endured a rather late night with Ashley and Casey – it was small wonder that the midday sun found Leandra still deep in the arms of a restorative sleep. The dark woman lay wrapped in the softness of her lover’s embrace, having been tugged up the stairs close to midnight by Ashley, the two women so drawn with fatigue that they hadn’t even bothered getting undressed, but simply fell into bed and pulled the covers over their weary bodies before drifting off almost immediately.

Ashley was the first to wake, and she smiled even before her eyes opened at the feel of the warm, powerful body pressed against her. One arm was curled possessively around Leandra’s waist, and she had thrown a leg over the dark woman’s hip at some point during the night. Twisting around slightly, careful not to wake her bed-mate, Ashley glanced at the alarm clock that rested on the bedside table and groaned.

We’ve slept half the day away. Studying Leandra’s face at close range, Ashley noticed the beginnings of dark circles under the older woman’s eyes. I guess she needed the rest. We both did.

Still, Ashley knew she could only let her partner sleep a little longer; there was a lot to do today. Not only would she need to go clothes shopping, but Ashley knew she needed to call in at the magazine so she could begin processing film. Her boss would probably want to rave at her a little, but she wasn’t too worried about that. Joseph Harding was a shrewd man, and he knew talent well enough to recognize how important Ashley was to his business. In the last few years, her pictures had managed to increase sales by a significant margin, so he wouldn’t complain too much about her late return. Still, Ashley knew she was going to have a lot of work to do in the next few weeks; selecting which shots to use and which to discard, coordinating with Grady to find the best scenic spreads to complement her pictures, as well as setting up arrangements for her next assignment.

It was going to be a busy time for the young woman…especially with the changes in her personal life.

Fortunately, Leandra woke not too much later, starting slightly as she sensed the unfamiliar sensations of smooth, warm sheets and a soft mattress. But the feel of Ashley’s slight body curled against her own seemed perfectly natural to the dark woman, and she smiled at the clean scent of shampoo and body lotion that clung to her lover. Her arms tightened around the slender waist.

“Mmmm…Morning.”

“Good morning.” Ashley twisted slightly so she could look up at the ice-blue eyes and tangled hair of her lover. “Did you sleep well?”

Leandra stretched, a purr rumbling in her belly. “Wonderfully,” she rasped throatily.

“The bed didn’t feel too strange did it? I mean, you’re used to sleeping on the ground, so…”

“It was fine.” Leandra smiled a soft, loving smile. “I adapt quickly…especially when I have such great incentive.” She glanced down at Ashley’s fully-clothed body held tight against her own. Ashley lifted herself up and laid a kiss on Leandra’s lips. The dark woman sighed. “I can’t believe how soft sheets can be.”

The two snuggled for a few minutes beneath the sheets, exchanging light caresses that hinted at something deeper, before Ashley decided to get them moving. They shared a simple breakfast of toast and coffee, then began making plans for the day. When Casey stopped by for a visit, she invited herself along for the ride, and Ashley decided to take advantage of her presence to speed things up a bit.

It was decided that Ashley would drive them all into town, where she would leave Casey and Leandra to go shopping while she checked in at work. Casey agreed readily, and Ashley was amused when she noticed the way her niece was flicking glances at Leandra. She’s hooked, the young photographer thought with a grin. Finally I’m involved with someone she can relate to…someone interesting and exciting. Casey liked things that were different and unpredictable…which was one of the things that had cemented her bond with Ashley. Leandra had lived a shady life as a poacher and smuggler, then spent four years living with giant jungle cats…she was about as different and unpredictable as a person could be! Small wonder then that Casey was fascinated by her.

The town of Silver Falls was situated about a quarter hour drive from Ashley’s house; quiet, serene and untroubled, the town was supported by year-round tourists who came to visit the beautiful forests that bordered the mountains to the north. Driving along the winding road that led into town, Ashley glanced at her partner sitting next to her in the passenger seat, trying to gauge her mood. Leandra’s face was tense, her eyes staring straight ahead and her breathing somewhat hurried.

Reaching out a hand, Ash petted the dark woman on the thigh. “You okay?”

Leandra nodded shortly. “Fine.”

“Will you be alright with Casey? I can come with you if you want me to.”

“No, I-I can manage.” Leandra took a deep breath and tried hard to relax. It was difficult for her though. The journey back to civilization had been something of a blur in her mind, and Leandra was trying to remember the last time she’d gone shopping before her jungle exile.

In the back seat, Casey watched the interactions of the two grown-ups curiously. She could sense Leandra’s nervousness, and noticed the way Ashley’s touch seemed to calm her instantly. “The shops should be pretty quiet,” she put in. “Most people around here prefer to go camping or stuff on the weekends. We’ll be okay Leandra, trust me.”

Leandra nodded again, looking around outside at the neatly-spaced shops and houses that lined the streets.

Ashley pulled over outside one of the department stores and let Leandra and Casey out of the car. Unwinding the window, she handed her dark-haired lover a plastic card. “That’s my savings account,” she explained. “Casey knows the pass-code, so just use it to buy whatever you like.” Leandra opened her mouth to protest, but Ashley insisted. “I want you to at least have clothes that fit you properly Leandra. You can pay me back later if you want to, but don’t argue with me now.”

Leandra read the stubborn expression on the younger woman’s face, and reluctantly pocketed the card. “Fine.”

“We’ll meet back here in an hour, okay?” The blonde eyed her niece sternly. “You behave yourself,” she said seriously. “I don’t want you making things harder for Leandra than they already are.”

Casey rolled her eyes and shifted her feet. She’d been caught shoplifting a few times this last year, and had more recently developed quite an acid tongue that she liked to exercise against the shop assistants. “I won’t smart-mouth anyone,” she promised sullenly. “And I’ll make sure we stay out of trouble.” Glancing aside, she shot Leandra a crooked grin.

Ashley saw the look, and frowned. She glared at Leandra. “And you…play nice with the people, okay? No growling, no snarling, and no destroying the merchandise.”

Leandra smiled. “I’ll try to restrain myself.”

Ashley looked from one set of eyes to the other, then, satisfied the two were going to behave themselves, she blew a quick kiss towards Leandra and pulled away from the curb. One hour, she thought as she glanced in the rearview mirror. How much trouble could they possibly find in an hour?

Left alone, Casey immediately grabbed Leandra’s hand and began pulling her towards the automatic doors leading into the department store. “Come on…let’s go spend some of Ash’s money!”

Following somewhat more hesitantly after her enthusiastic guide, Leandra flinched as they entered the store and were immediately caught under the glare of the bright fluorescent lighting that was universally adopted by all retail shopping centers.
The dark woman glanced around, taking stock of her environment in a single glance as she had trained herself to do during her exile. There were only a few groups of people wandering the aisles today, their voices mixing with the sound of classical music played through invisible speakers. The air was filled overwhelmingly with conflicting smells – disinfectant, perfume, and the subtle scent of pressed and cleaned fabric. Leandra felt exposed in the artificial light, and had to restrain the urge to flee.

The survival instincts that she’d honed in the jungle had instilled in Leandra a natural inclination towards staying hidden in the background, unseen. As she followed Casey towards the women’s clothing section of the store, Leandra’s eyes darted all around with penetrating intensity, and she concentrated on blending in with the other shoppers.

Her guide, however, did not seem to adhere to a similar set of ideals. Casey strode purposefully down the aisles, chin lifted, wearing a slightly amused smirk. The other shoppers didn’t even glance at Leandra, but a few of them stared at the young teenager from out of the corners of their eyes. Casey’s bright green hair, aggressively assertive demeanor, and leather-and-denim clothing made her stand out in the neatly-ordered store, and she seemed to actually enjoy the attention.

“So, what sort of stuff do you want to look at?” Casey asked as they reached their destination. “I don’t really see you as the dress-wearing sort, right?”

Leandra smiled and shook her head. “Let’s stick with jeans and T-shirts for now, okay?”

“Sure thing.” Casey lead them to the racks of variously arranged cotton shirts and began to pick through them. “Any preference for color?”

“Umm…n-no, I don’t think so.” Leandra eyed the clothing curiously.

“Been a long time since you had a choice, huh?” Casey observed with a smile.

“Yeah…it has.”

“You wanna check out the shoe department, too.” Casey glanced meaningfully at Leandra’s bare feet. “You step on some broken glass or something, and you’ll be hobbling for a while.”

“I doubt it.” Leandra lifted one foot and showed the girl her callused soles. “My feet are pretty tough. I can walk over sharp rocks and thorns and they don’t hurt me. It’s more comfortable like this.”

Casey shrugged. “Alright, they’re your feet.”

Sorting through the racks shrewdly, Casey helped select three T-shirts, two pairs of jeans, and a pair of sweat-pants for Leandra. The dark woman didn’t bother trying the clothes on; she simply held them against her body to determine their fit, confident that she’d be able to live with any minor faults. As they wandered through the women’s fashion section, Leandra noticed a store security officer tailing them discretely.

“Looks like they’ve decided we’re the suspicious types,” she noted to her companion.

Casey glanced over at the neatly-dressed man and rolled her eyes. “That’s what you get when you’re a teenager,” she frowned. “Every shop I go to these days, they always look at me like I’m about to club ‘em with a sack of pennies or something!” She stared mutely at the detective for several moments, waiting for him to realize he’d been spotted, then turned away and deliberately ignored his presence. “Come on.”

Leandra smiled as her younger companion led them into the lingerie section. Glancing behind, she noticed the in-store detective had decided not to pursue them any further. Looking around at the various lacy undergarments, Leandra’s interest in shopping suddenly rose a few notches, and she slowed her strides accordingly.

Casey stopped beside the taller woman. “Need something here, too?”

“I guess so.” Leandra reached out to run her fingers along the satin cloth of a fringed teddy, a slight smile twitching the corners of her lips upwards. “Maybe it might be nice to have something special to wear…something Ashley might like.”

Casey grinned fully, seeing instantly where Leandra’s mind was headed. This was an aspect she’d not considered when she first learned her aunt was dating another woman, but Casey was willing to embrace it. “You mean…something she might like to see you in?

“Yeah.” Leandra glanced at the youth curiously. “Is there something wrong with wanting to look good for the woman I love?”

“Of course not. It’s just…” Casey hesitated. “It’s a little weird talking about Ash like that, that’s all.”

“Because she’s your aunt, or because I’m a woman?”

Casey shrugged. “Ash is a lot more than just my aunt,” she explained simply. “She’s my best friend. I mean, I don’t really think of her as ‘Auntie Ashley’, you know? She’s just…my friend. It’s weird talking about her like this because…well…” Casey sucked on her lower lip. “Ash doesn’t really do much in this particular field, if you know what I mean. She never has. I always just figured she put most of her passion into her work rather than…you know…into the bedroom.”

Leandra grinned rakishly. “You think she‘s a prude?”

“I didn’t say that!” Casey held up a hand in protest. “It’s just…”

“I can tell you right now, Casey, that Ashley is just as passionate and energetic a lover as she is a photographer,” Leandra said, her eyes sparkling playfully. “Where do you think I got these bruises on my collar.”

Casey stared as Leandra pulled her shirt to the side, revealing several faded patches of what looked suspiciously like teeth-marks. She hastily averted her gaze. “You can spare me the details,” she said wryly, turning her attention back to the racks of lingerie.

The two women browsed along the aisle in silence for a time, before Casey checked a glance at the taller woman. “Leandra?”

“Hmm?”

“Can I ask you a…personal question?”

“Sure.”

“What’s it like? Being with a woman, I mean?”

Leandra stopped looking at the lacy undergarments and gave the teenager her full attention. “Are you asking in general, or…?”

Casey blushed. “Yeah, general is good. I mean…” She paused, considering. “We’re doing sex ed in school right now, and one of the girls asked about that stuff. The teacher got all nervous and said he couldn’t answer because it wasn’t part of the material he’d been given. It was pretty stupid, I thought. You know, we’re there to learn about this stuff, but it’s not much good to anyone who happens to be gay, right?”

Leandra sighed. “I guess they just don’t want to have to think about it,” she said quietly. “Some things never change.”

“Yeah. Like I said, pretty stupid. So…I was just kinda curious, you know?”

“Yeah, I understand.” Leandra thought for a moment, wondering what she should say. She’d never really had to justify, defend or explain her sexual orientation before; no-one had dared say anything about it during her years as a smuggler, and it hadn’t been an issue during her exile. “I don’t really know what I can tell you. I’ve never been with a man before, so I can’t really compare it to anything.”

“So…you’ve always known you liked girls?”

“I figured it out fairly young, yeah. But you’ve got to understand, I figured out a lot of things young…and not all them were good.”

Casey nodded. “Don’t worry. I’m not into drugs or anything like that.” She paused. “What did your parents think?”

“I never told them.” Leandra was silent for a moment, remembering sadly the faces of her mother and father. “I didn’t tell them about a lot of things in my life. But my brother knew I was gay, and it was never a problem for him really. He admired me a lot when we were younger, and I doubt he cared much who I was sleeping with.”

“I see.” Casey listened attentively, remembering what little information Ash had told her about Leandra last night. “I’ve thought about it,” she remarked casually. “You know…about being with another girl. I guess it might be cool…” She caught Leandra’s glance, and laughed. “Don’t get me wrong or nothing, okay. I like guys just fine. But say if I was out somewhere, and a good looking girl started coming on to me…I’d probably go along with it. No point limiting my experiences, right?”

Leandra smiled. “Right.”

Casey fingered the cloth of a lacey nighty absently. “I’ve never told anyone that,” she said quietly. “Not even Ash, and I tell her pretty much anything.”

Leandra saw a slight wavering in Casey’s confident shell, and she nodded. “I understand…and I won’t tell anyone if you don’t want me too.” She smiled, remembering Shar-Ranjana. “Believe me, I know the importance of keeping secrets.”

“Thanks.” Casey gave the older woman a grateful smile, then turned back to the clothing hanging on the racks. Her smile turned into a rakish grin as she spotted something interesting. “What about this?” She pulled out a satin slip made from tiger-pattern cloth, and held it against Leandra’s upper body. “Perfect!”

Leandra rolled her eyes and took the slip from the teenager. “Ashley’s already seen me in more tiger stripes than she could count, and she can have me in the real thing anytime she wants. I think something different would be better…something sexy that she’d appreciate.”

“Okaaay…how about this?” Casey pulled down another article and held it up.

Leandra laughed, studying the imitation-leather bustier with its silver inlaid chains. “Ummm…I think that might be a little on the kinky side, don’t you?”

Casey waggled her eyebrows saucily. “You never know…might be just what she needs to broaden her horizons.” She looked Leandra up and down, taking knowing measure of her strong, predatory aura. “I’m betting it wouldn’t be the first time you’d worn something like this, huh?”

Leandra lifted a single brow in amusement. “Maybe.”

“Well then…no harm in introducing Ash to something new. She might like it.”

Leandra considered, and had to admit the idea gave her a tingle. Memories of nights spent with former lovers rose in her mind, and she imagined sharing such erotic delights with the woman who had won her heart. After a moment of delicious fantasy, however, Leandra shook her head. “I think we should find a middle ground for starters, shall we? Something a little…tamer?” She scanned the arranged undergarments searchingly. “Maybe this.” She pulled out an elegant black satin slip and panty set and held it against her body, nodding. “This is nice.”

Casey pursed her lips, considering. “I guess.”

Leandra smiled, already knowing how she was going to thank Ashley for buying her the clothes. “Trust me…with some appropriate lighting and a romantic setting, this’ll be just the thing.”

The blonde teenager groaned and covered her ears. “Something tells me I’m gonna be putting up with a whole lotta make-out sessions now that you’re around.”

“Hey, I can’t help it. Ashley’s gorgeous…and she’s a great kisser.”

“Yeah, well, save the lovey-dovey crap for when I’m not around, if you can control yourself.” Casey laughed. “If I have to think of what you two get up too when you’re alone, it’ll scar me for life!”

Leandra laughed as well, and added the lingerie to the other clothes. She had to admit, she was liking Casey a lot. Even before her stay in the jungle, Leandra had never had an easy time making friends, and it was nice to meet someone besides Ashley who she could feel comfortable just hanging out with. “Come on, let’s finish this up and see if we can find something to eat before we have to meet back up with Ashley.”

***

“I’ve been in this business for twenty years, Richards, and in that time I’ve had to put up with a whole lotta crap from stuck-up, know-it-all photographers just like you, who thought their talent put them above the rules! You were supposed to be back here, assignment completed, two weeks ago! You had no right to rush off like that into the jungle without first consulting me!”

Ashley blinked innocently at the man berating her from across his desk, the slight smile on her lips entirely unconcerned. Joseph Harding, editor-in-chief of the popular magazine ‘Wild Planet’, was a bear of a man. Standing easily six feet tall and weighing at least two hundred and thirty pounds, he towered over the young blonde in all his blustering fury.

Beneath his full beard, Mr. Harding’s face was bright red, and his neck was swallowed up by his broad shoulders, making him look somewhat like an oversized bulldog. But Ashley knew her boss’s bark was far worse than his bite. She had been working for ‘Wild Planet’ many years now, and this wasn’t the first time her antics had landed her in hot water. So she waited with a patient, expectant expression for Joseph to cool down.

It wasn’t a long wait.

Glaring down at the diminutive blonde, Joseph saw his words have absolutely no effect, and heaved a great sigh. Taking a calming breath, he looked again at the selection of sample shots laid out before him – pictures taken by Ashley on her recent expedition. Glancing back at the photographer, he scowled. “If it weren’t for your damn luck, Richards, I’d have fired you a thousand times before today,” he muttered.

Ashley smiled complacently. “Luck’s all well and good, Mr. Harding, but you’re looking at talent, plain and simple,” she stated calmly. “And as for me taking off without giving notice, I tried to get in contact with you, and your secretary told me you were unavailable.”

“So you shouldn’t have gone!”

“In which case, you’d be tearing me up right now for missing one of the greatest opportunities ever to come along.” Ash regarded her boss sternly. “You know as well as I do that even the chance – however remote – of shooting a white tiger in the wild was worth the risk and the delay. And even though I didn’t find it, I wasn’t wasting my time or your money.” She gestured to the still slides – images she knew were well above her already high standard, thanks to Leandra’s assistance. “The rest are just as good…maybe better. I don’t see what the problem is.”

Joseph looked between the slides and his troublesome employee, and scowled. “Fine,” he conceded after a moment. “Get the rest of this stuff developed and sorted, and we’ll let this go…again.”

Ashley smiled charmingly. “Thank you.” Rising from her seat, the young blonde turned and walked out the door of Joseph’s office, glad to got the minor confrontation out of the way.

Wandering through the sprawling office complex that was the hub of the nature magazine, Ashley smiled and exchanged brief pleasantries with her fellow co-workers. The young photographer was well liked by her colleagues…with the minor exception of a few photog’s like herself, who were somewhat jealous of her talent and good-fortune. Still, Ashley’s easy-going temperament, quick wit, and charming good humor made her quite popular around the offices.

Pushing open a door marked with the words ‘Studio – PRIVATE’, Ashley found herself in a large, professionally-lit room that was designed to revolve around a single stage set against the far wall. Several people milled about in the studio, and Ashley looked around till she found the face she was looking for. When she spotted the tall, slender man wearing thick-lensed glasses, she assumed her most charming smile and headed over.

“Hey James!” she called as she approached. “Can you spare a minute?”

James Grosser glanced up from his work, his face instantly lighting up when he saw who was calling to him. He nodded quickly. “Sh-sure Ash. I heard you were back. Did you have a good trip?”

Ashley’s smile was brighter than the sun itself, and completely overwhelmed the nervous man. “Yeah, thanks. I had a great time.” It was a well-known fact that James had a crush on the attractive photographer, and Ashley wasn’t above using his infatuation to her own advantage. James was a likeable enough fellow – the shy, quiet, bookish type – and Ashley found his adoration kind of cute. She knew he would never manage to summon the courage to actually ask her out, which saved her from having to offer any rejections, but she made a point of throwing the young man a kind word and a charming smile every now and then. And Ashley knew James was the perfect person to ask for help in her current mission.

“Umm…listen, I was wondering if you could do me a really big favor…?” She batted her eyelids hopefully.

James almost fell over himself at the thought that Ashley wanted his help. “Of course! You know you can ask me for anything. What can I do for you?”

“Well, the thing is, I need to get a little time in one of the processing labs. It’ll only be a few minutes, I promise, but…I have some…personal shots I need to handle by myself.”

James nodded immediately. “Sure, I think I can work something out. Room 4 should be clear for most of tomorrow, but…you know, if you need some film processed I’d be happy to do it for you.”

“Uhh…actually, I’d rather do it myself.” Ashley assumed a coy, slightly seductive attitude. “The photos are kinda…private…if you know what I mean…”

James took a moment to fully understand the meaning of those words, and when he did, he blushed furiously and cleared his throat. “Well, ah…sh-sure, I understand. No problem…I’ll uh…work out a time for you and let you know.”

“Thank you.” Ashley patted James on the shoulder. “I really appreciate it.”

“A-anytime Ash.”

“I’ll see you later.” Ashley gave him a final crooked grin, then turned and exited the studio. She needed time in the labs to develop the pictures of Leandra and Shar-Ranjana in private, and this was the best way to guarantee that no-one interrupted her. She had the idea of hanging a print of the great white tigress in her bedroom, thinking Leandra would certainly appreciate having a continued reminder of her feline sister that she could look at every morning. And she figured that her little insinuation to James had been reward enough for his help, knowing that imaginations of what the mysterious pictures might be of would keep her admirer wondering for a long time to come.

Pleased with her day’s work thus far, Ashley headed towards her own work station to catch up on whatever tasks needed doing. She wanted to get everything done as quickly as possible, knowing that Leandra might start getting more nervous if she was late. Thinking of her lover, Ashley said a silent prayer to any gods who might be listening, hoping that they keep Leandra and her guide safe, and out of trouble.

Still, I’d better do this stuff quick, she thought. Putting those two together for too long can’t be a good thing. A rebellious teenager and a woman who’s been living like a giant cat for four years…

Yep, better do whatever I have to do and get back to them quickly.

***

Ashley replaced the cordless phone on its wall-mount and ran her fingers through her hair in frustration. “Damn it.”

After picking up Leandra and Casey – who, thankfully, appeared to have stayed out of trouble – Ashley drove them all back home, making a quick stop along the way to pick up enough groceries to last at least a few days. She made sure to include a few special treats she thought Leandra might appreciate…things the dark woman hadn’t been able to enjoy during her life in the jungle.

Returning home, Leandra had taken Casey for a walk in the forest to demonstrate some of the skills she’d acquired from her association with the great striped cats, while Ashley packed away the fresh food. It was late afternoon by the time Ashley drove her niece home, and when she returned, she decided to make her promised phone-call to her parents before she started dinner.

The conversation had been somewhat tense, and the young photographer guessed from that that her parents had been informed of Leandra’s presence, and also of her involvement with the jungle woman. It had been awkward, but Ashley managed to skirt the issue for the most part, wanting a little time to get settled before she confronted her folks about the changes she was making in her life. Still, even pleading fatigue hadn’t been enough to completely get her mom to drop the case, and Ashley had been cornered into agreeing to a dinner visit on Wednesday night.

Sighing, Ashley closed her eyes and hoped the dinner would go okay. It wasn’t so much that she was worried what her parents might think of Leandra – although that was certainly part of it – but rather she felt concern for how their judgement and possible rejection could affect Leandra. Ashley knew the dark woman didn’t want their relationship to cause problems between her and her family.

“Hey, Ashley?” Leandra’s voice called from upstairs. “Could you come up here for a minute? I’ve got something for you.”

Ashley smiled. “Well…might as well give her some warning about Wednesday,” she muttered, climbing wearily up the stairs and pushing open the door to her bedroom. “Leandra? What did you want to-?” Ashley’s voice choked off at the end of her sentence, her brain unable to complete its sequence of thought as she saw the vision before her.

The bedroom was lit in the soft glow of several-dozen candles positioned on the dresser and bedside tables. Soft music played in the background, and the air was sweet with the scent of burning wax. But it was the sight of Leandra that stole Ashley’s breath. The dark woman lay on the bed, clad in a brief satin slip and lace panties that hugged every curve of her toned, powerful body. Dark sapphire eyes glinted in the candle-light, and a seductive smile greeted the young blonde when she finally pulled her eyes away from their feast of flesh and form.

Leandra purred deep in her throat as she watched Ashley’s reaction, pleased at the instant look of hunger that filled the younger woman’s eyes. “I thought we’d skip dinner for a while,” she said in a voice that dripped with raw animal lust. “Unless you’re feeling hungry now…?”

Ashley took a step closer to the dark goddess lying on her bed, her eyelids growing hooded. “Oh, I’m feeling hungry now alright.” She licked her lips.

“Excellent.” Leandra shifted on the bed, assuming a new position which better displayed the finer points of her new lingerie. Running her fingertips along the cloth covering her outer ribcage, she smiled at her lover coyly. “You like it?”

Ashley nodded immediately, all thoughts of family and problematic dinner invitations vanishing. “Very much so.”

“I bought it to say thank-you. For everything you’ve done for me…for giving me back my life…for understanding me the way you do.” Leandra rose to a crouching position and Ashley stepped closer still till their faces were almost touching. “Thank you Ashley…for loving me.”

Ashley’s response was swift and passionate. She crushed her lips against Leandra’s, her tongue wasting no time gaining access to the dark woman’s mouth. Leandra’s hands reached out and began to work at the buttons on Ashley’s jeans. As soon as they were off, Ashley pushed Leandra onto her back and straddled her, breathing hard as she pinned her dark lover to the bed and ground her center firmly against a well-muscled abdomen. Her eyes were ablaze with ignited arousal, and she pressed a series of heated kisses over Leandra’s lips and chest.

Breaking away breathlessly, Leandra smiled up at the younger woman. “I’m glad you like it..”

Ashley groaned, her eyes and hands wandering everywhere over Leandra’s scarcely-veiled body. “God, I think it’s the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen!” she gasped, her voice thick with sudden hunger. Ashley could feel the heat in her belly flare into a sudden bonfire, and she marveled how Leandra could inspire her passion so easily. “You have no idea what you do to me!”

“So tell me.” Leandra’s breathing was also ragged, and she wrapped her hands around Ashley’s slender waist to steady her rocking hips. The photographer paused, uncertain.

“What?”

“I want to know how you feel…what you want.” Leandra’s sultry eyes regarded her young love earnestly. “You’ve told me everything else, but now I want to hear about your fantasies. About every erotic dream you’ve ever had…no matter how silly you think it is. I want to bring you all the pleasure I possibly can.”

Ashley blushed. “Y-you want me to tell you about my fantasies?”

“Uh huh.” Leandra smiled crookedly. “Tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine.”

“Umm…” Ash chewed her lower lip, still fully caught up in the moment, but uncertain. No-one had ever asked her about this stuff before, and she’d never had the desire to share…but Leandra wasn’t like any lover she’d ever experienced. She gave Leandra a slight smile. “Well…some of my fantasies you’ve already fulfilled.”

“Oh? Like what?”

“Like the shower…” Ashley’s voice was low and shy, but her eyes radiated heat like glowing embers. “And maybe the waterfall morning, too.”

“Are there any things you’d like to try?” Leandra asked in a smoky tone. “Anything you’d like me to do…or that you’d like to do to me?”

Ashley blushed instantly, and Leandra grinned like a Cheshire cat. “Tell me.”

“Welll…it’s not really a fantasy as such, it’s just…something I’ve thought about sometimes…”

“I’ll do anything you ask, Ashley. Anything.”

Ash smiled, seeing a whole world of erotic possibilities open up with that simple word. She leaned close to Leandra’s neck and whispered, “Would you growl for me?”

Both Leandra’s eyebrows shot up. “What?”

Ashley’s hesitated. “You know…that growly, rumbly noise you make. The one that vibrates through your chest.” Her hands traced the undersides of Leandra’s breasts, feeling her ribcage expand and contract.

“You want to hear me growl?”

Ashley’s blush only intensified at the slight look of amused curiosity in Leandra’s tone. “Forget it. It’s silly, I know, but I just- Ulp!!” Ashley almost bit her tongue in surprise as Leandra twisted beneath her and easily rolled on top of her. In a second, the young blonde found herself pressed hard into the soft mattress by Leandra’s powerful frame. She tensed on reflex, but melted when a low, rumbling growl rolled over her senses, and she felt the vibrations send shockwaves to her core. The simple sound was the very essence of Leandra’s animal side; primal, carnal, and deeply arousing.

Leandra grinned as she felt the instant effect her growl had on her lover. “That turns you on, doesn’t it?”

Ashley struggled for breath, unable to fight her body’s reaction. She nodded, exhilarated by the sound Leandra made, and the predatory gleam in her crystalline eyes. “I-it’s silly, isn’t it?”

“Not if you like it.” The growl continued deep in Leandra’s throat even as she spoke. The dark woman pressed her lips against Ashley’s neck and nipped lightly at the skin, feeling the young photographer shudder beneath her body. Running her hands down Ashley’s chest, Leandra quickly divested her lover of shirt and bra, then gripped her wrists lightly and spread her arms wide. “This is going to take a long time,” she purred. “I want you to keep your arms exactly where they are. Can you do that?”

Ashley whimpered slightly as she felt the heat of Leandra’s right thigh press against her highly-sensitized center, but she managed a quick nod.

Leandra smiled. “If you touch me, I’ll stop,” she warned softly. “Are you sure you can behave yourself…or should I tie your hands to the bedposts?”

“Oh God..!” Ashley squirmed, her arousal reaching an almost overwhelming level at the simple suggestion. In truth, the idea of being tied, completely at her lover’s mercy, was extremely appealing at that moment, but Ashley sensed Leandra wanted her to do this with willpower alone, and so decided to take the harder road. “I-I can behave,” she whispered.

Leandra smiled, pleased. “Good.” Soft lips planted a trail of kisses down Ashley’s throat and between her breasts. “When I’m done…I promise you can do anything to me that you want. But for now, let me show you how much I love you.”

Releasing her hold on Ashley’s wrists, Leandra’s hands began to explore the younger woman’s body, running feather-light touches down her arms, teasing her breasts till they ached for a firmer touch, then skirting downwards along her ribcage to her outer thighs. Leandra followed this path with her lips and tongue, seeking out the most sensitive regions of Ashley’s body and tormenting her with tantalizing caresses that only stoked the embers of her passion to even greater heat.

Ashley struggled against the urge to put her hands on Leandra’s head so she could guide her movements, grabbing for the bedsheets to resist the temptation. No lover had ever sparked her ardor the way Leandra did. There was never any awkward fumbling with Leandra…no need for directions or instructions. The dark woman’s touch was confident and knowledgeable. She seemed to know every erogenous zone in Ashley’s entire body… including some the young photographer had never known existed. Ashley panted as Leandra’s mouth moved nearer to the center of her need, a fine sheen of sweat already glistening over body, making her glow in the candle-light.

Leandra smiled as she neared her goal, detecting the musky scent of Ashley’s arousal. Positioning herself between the blonde woman’s eagerly spread legs, Leandra took a moment just to enjoy the sight of her lover exposed so intimately for her attention, before she bent her head forward and ran her tongue along the slick folds. Ashley bucked her hips, a needful squeak escaping her throat before she settled. Leandra grinned, and began to trace the outer lips of Ashley’s sex, using her hands to hold the young woman steady beneath her.

Ashley moaned and whimpered, her jaw clenched tight with the effort it took to control her need to touch Leandra. Pleasure sparked from Leandra’s devoted ministrations rushed through her body, and Ashley cried out in delight when she felt two fingers slowly penetrate her core. Her cry of pleasure became a growl of frustration when she found her lover’s grip on her waist prevented her from controlling the rhythm of their love-making, and she felt more than heard Leandra chuckle.

“Patience,” the dark woman counseled softly, pausing in her efforts. “Just relax…I know what I’m doing.”

“Urgh!” Ashley struggled for breath as she willed herself to give Leandra total control over her body. A moment later, she felt the silken sensation of the dark woman’s tongue against her clitoris, and felt the deliciously long fingers resume their thrusting. After several minutes, the first tingles of climax began to pulse like a warning through her blood, and Ashley bit her lip to keep from begging Leandra to go faster.

Leandra felt Ashley pulse around her fingers, and heard the ragged edge in her breathing. For a second she considered backing off, letting the younger woman calm before she continued, but then she decided against it. Wrapping her tongue around the glistening bundle of nerves that crowned Ashley’s sex, Leandra stroked her lover with firm lashes as she thrust harder with her hand. A few moments later, she was rewarded with the sudden cry of ecstasy as Ashley’s body went rigid, and she felt her lover climax against her mouth and around her buried digits. Her devoted attentions continued till the orgasm subsided, and Leandra drew back to take in the sight of Ashley’s sated body.

The young blonde struggled to gain control of her breathing as she sat up to thank Leandra. But as soon as she began to move her arms, she found them instantly pinned, and smoky sapphire eyes regarded her with hungry intent.

“Uh uh uh,” Leandra growled. “I’m a long way from being finished with you yet, my love. That was just a little something to take the edge off.”

“But that-”

Leandra pressed her glistening fingers against Ashley’s lips, smiling when the young blonde caught the scent of her own arousal. “I want to hear you climax again,” she whispered. “I want to feel you shudder and writhe from my touch. And I want to see how many times I can do that to you before your body can’t take anymore..” She pressed Ashley’s hands back down against the mattress. “Are you sure you can control yourself?”

Ashley was still dizzy from her first orgasm, and that dizziness increased as she understood Leandra’s intentions. Still, she nodded, and lay back quietly against the bed, feeling the air cool against her sweat-slicked body. “I can take it.” She paused. “N-not that I’m complaining or anything, but…just how much more were you planning on giving me? I mean…you know…”

Leandra grinned as she began working her way back down her lover’s body, tasting the salt from her sweat and purring. “Let’s just say I’m going to make sure it’s slow…” She gently bit Ashley’s right nipple. “…intense…” Her teeth moved on to the left. “…and utterly satisfying.”

Ashley whimpered as she lay back and stared up at the ceiling, bracing herself for what she had no doubts would be an extremely thorough ravishing. She was about to become the most satiated woman in the western world.
Part 6
Tyger Tyger burning bright,

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye,

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

-‘The Tyger’ by William Blake.

Casey pushed open the door and stepped inside, smiling when she detected interesting smells of cooking food emanating from the kitchen. “Hey mom,” she called in greeting. “What’s for dinner?”

“Tuna casserole.” Evelyn Richards glanced up from her work at the kitchen bench, her eyes widening when she caught sight of her daughter. “Casey, could you at least wipe your feet before you come inside!? And where are your shoes? Have you been running around out there barefoot?”

“Yep. I was practicing some of the stuff Leandra showed me. She never wears shoes – says you can move quieter without them.” Casey obediently scuffed her bare feet on the welcome mat before she continued inside. “Is dad home yet?”

“No. He called a few minutes ago…said he’d be a half-hour late.” Evelyn regarded her daughter curiously. “What sort of stuff did Leandra show you?”

Casey shrugged. “Just how she moves fast, how she climbs trees and stuff. It’s pretty cool. We went out into the forest, and I’d take my eyes off her for a second, and POOF! She’d just disappear! And then I’d look around for her, and she’d be standing right behind me! I didn’t even hear her move. And she’s real quick, too…and she can make all these really cool animal noises, and when she does, the birds and stuff all come around because they think she’s one of them! She even showed me how to do tiger noises. Listen…” Casey concentrated, and managed to make a fairly decent growling sound. She smiled proudly at her mother. “Pretty cool, huh?”

Eve smiled indulgently. “I guess.” She started chopping herbs on a wooden board. “So…you like her?”

“Yeah, she’s okay.”

“Really?” Evelyn raised an eyebrow. Usually, when Ashley introduced a new love interest, she would have to listen to an hour long rant from Casey, listing every reason why the poor man wasn’t good enough for the blonde photographer. She was a little surprised that Leandra was different.

Casey shrugged again. “She’s better than any of those other guys Ash went out with.” She scowled. “Bunch of stiffs and suits. At least Leandra’s got a sense of humor…and she doesn’t try to be the Big Man with Ash. They’re good together.”

“Uh huh. And it doesn’t bother you that she’s…you know…gay?”

Casey snorted and rolled her eyes. “What do I care? If Ash likes girls, that’s cool. And she could do a whole lot worse than Leandra – she’s pretty hot…with those eyes, and the cool dreads and stuff.”

Evelyn considered as she chopped, recognizing from the subtle admiration in Casey’s tone that her daughter had found a new idol in Leandra…and wondering what kind of influence the dark-haired woman would be on her impressionable child. Casey was at a difficult age right now, and Evelyn had always been thankful for the role Ashley played in her life. Because Evelyn’s husband, Jason, often had to work long hours as a physician, it hadn’t been easy for Eve raising such a headstrong child as Casey had developed into. Quick-witted, rebellious, and with a keen intellect that gave rise to an acid tongue, Casey was a source of constant worry for her parents. Fortunately, she had found a kindred spirit in her aunt, and Ashley’s influence had helped to turn Casey away from many dangerous paths she might have otherwise ventured onto. Now, it seemed she had found another focus for her attention in Leandra, and Evelyn’s curiosity about her sister’s new partner suddenly gained a new perspective in light of how she might affect her daughter.

“So…what’s she like? I only got to see her for a second before she took off. Is she nice?”

“I wouldn’t exactly describe her as ‘nice.’” Casey said after a moment of thought, grinning as she remembered her day with Leandra. “She seemed a bit nervous while we were shopping, but I guess that’s natural. I mean, I can’t even begin to imagine what it’d be like to live with tigers for four whole years! It’s almost like she’s still half-animal. I could see her watching everything around us, as though we were going to be attacked at any moment. But she was okay when we were out in the forest…she really relaxed a lot.”

“What did you talk about?”

“I dunno.” Casey shrugged. “Stuff. Mostly Ashley, I guess…and a bit about what it was like for her living in the jungle.” She paused. “I don’t think she liked talking about herself much…she just gave bits and pieces of information. But Ash told me she used to be a poacher and a smuggler, and told me not to ask too many questions about her life story.”

Evelyn nodded, recognizing the intense look in her daughter’s eyes. Casey had always loved things that were mysterious; anything that didn’t quite fit the mould, or that left her curious for more details, and she would immediately begin to employ a subtle sequence of interrogation techniques until she was satisfied she knew the whole story. It was a trait she had in common with her aunt, but unlike Ashley, Casey had an infinite amount of patience. She could pursue her quest for months if need be, gathering little pieces of information that she could put together until she knew the truth. Leandra was certainly mysterious enough to garner her interest.

“Well, you should respect her privacy,” Eve said firmly. “It might take Leandra a while to settle in, and I don’t want you doing anything to make it harder for her.”

“She doesn’t mind me being around,” Casey defended. “I think she liked me. In fact, she offered to show me more stuff whenever I wanted…like after school for example. I mean, if you said it was okay…”

Evelyn set the knife she was using down on the counter top and regarded her daughter with the kind of stern look only a mother can wear. “What about your homework?”

Casey rolled her eyes. “What about it? I’m doing okay.” Which was true. Casey managed to maintain at least a B average, even though she shied away from any form of study, and despite the fact that she was something of an outcast at school. “Besides, the stuff Leandra’s teaching me is useful too. She’s got real life experience. I could learn a lot from her.”

Eve studied the innocent expression on her child’s face for a long moment, knowing full well that Casey was quite capable of lying if it suited her purposes. “If you fall behind in class,” she warned, “I’ll find out about it sooner or later.”

“I won’t.”

“Have you asked Ashley if she minds? Maybe she wants some extra private time now that she’s got Leandra around.”

“She won’t mind. Besides, if they want to make with the lovey-dovey stuff, they can do it when I’m at school.”

“Mmmm.” Evelyn frowned, considering possible ways her daughter might find to use the things Leandra taught her to further her trouble-making. “We’ll talk to your father about it tonight,” she allowed.

Casey’s face lit up instantly, clearly taking this as a sign of imminent victory. “Thanks mom.”

“Mmph.” Eve picked up the knife and continued chopping vegetables. “Just be sure your grades don’t slip, young lady, or I’ll slap a curfew on you so fast it’ll make your head spin.” The threat was, she knew, somewhat hollow. Evelyn knew her daughter would never respect a curfew if she didn’t feel like it…and she wasn’t sure how to enforce one if it came right down to it. Even after nearly eighteen years as a mother, she was somewhat uncertain how to handle her headstrong child.

But Casey didn’t argue now. She just nodded her head and gave her mother a quick peck on the cheek. “No need. You’ll see…Leandra’s cool.” The young blonde-green haired girl headed towards the stairs. “I’ll be in my room. Give me a yell when dad gets home…I want to tell him about the stuff Leandra showed me.”

“Okay Case.”

Evelyn watched her daughter race up the stairs, smiling slightly at the look of fierce concentration she wore as she tried to move silently. She shook her head ruefully as she returned to the preparations for dinner…shuddering a little at the thought of Casey adding jungle survival skills to her repetoir of chaos.

***

Leaving her young lover passed out on the bed after her marathon ravishing, Leandra padded silently downstairs in search of something to feed Ashley when she awoke. Investigating the cupboards, she found them neatly stocked with various foodstuffs; pasta, cans of fruit, and an array of condiments she’d not tasted in many years. Leandra frowned, considering her choices. She didn’t have the skills to actually cook anything herself, and so decided to check the refrigerator for something a little more simple. Ice-blue eyes immediately locked on a brown and purple package on the top shelf, and Leandra smiled as she reached in and pulled out the block of dairy-milk chocolate.

“Perfect!”

Returning happily to the bedroom, her lips pulling into a sensuous smile as she detected the strong musk of her lover’s lingering scent in the room, Leandra crawled slowly back into bed. Setting the chocolate down on the bedside table, she took a moment just to gaze lovingly at the comatose blonde. Ashley’s face was peaceful, if slightly flushed, and her hair fanned out around her in messy tangles. Her lithe body glowed in the low light of the candles that still burned away the darkness, every muscle highlighted under a light sheen of sweat. Gently, Leandra reached out and ran her fingers over the elfin features of her lover, smiling when Ashley’s eyelids twitched, then parted.

“Hey.”

Ashley wriggled on the bed, her eyes a little dazed and confused as she looked up at the dark woman. “Hey. Wh-what happened?” Her voice was almost as husky as Leandra’s from crying out during their love-making.

“You passed out,” Leandra grinned, planting a chaste kiss on the blonde’s lips. “I went downstairs and got something to eat – figured you’d be hungry.” She picked up the chocolate and held it out like a token, pleased when Ashley’s eyes lit up instantly.

“Mmmph! Gimme!”

“Uh uh…let me.” Leandra unwrapped the paper and foil wrapping, then snapped off a row of the dark treat. “Open up.”

Ashley complied, sighing contentedly as she let Leandra feed her. “Mmmm…God, you’re spoiling me.”

“I’m enjoying it just as much as you are,” Leandra whispered, her body instantly sparking with heat when Ashley’s tongue accidentally scored along her fingertips as she accepted the last of the chocolate. Her sapphire eyes darkened salaciously as they skipped from Ashley’s face down over her nude body, and she remembered the sound of the younger woman’s screams of ecstasy that had filled the room not ten minutes ago.

Ashley paused mid-chew when she saw the hungry look in Leandra’s eyes. “Leandra…”

“Huh?” Leandra’s focus snapped back to Ashley’s face. “What?”

“Stop looking at me like that.”

Sapphire eyes blinked innocently. “Like what?”

“You know like what.” Ash shifted on the bed, feeling her body respond helplessly to Leandra’s presence, and suddenly noticing that she was feeling rather tender in certain sensitive areas. “If I have to go through another ravishing like that again any time soon, I can tell you right now I won’t survive. I’ll be sore enough in the morning as it is after what you did to me.”

Leandra grinned rakishly. “I didn’t hear any complaints,” she purred. “In fact…” She leaned closer and nipped lightly at the skin above Ashley’s breast. “I seem to recall at more than one point you were crying out for more…”

Ashley shuddered, enjoying the sensation of Leandra’s teeth against her flesh, but knowing she couldn’t carry on any further. “Leandra…”

“I could be gentle,” the dark woman whispered persuasively, her fingers beginning a trek down Ashley’s body. “I could make it so soft you’d barely feel me there at all.”

“Urgh!” Ash groaned, but managed to stop Leandra’s advance before it continued past the point of no return. “I can’t,” she said with breathless regret. “I wish I could, but…I really can’t take any more.”

Leandra stopped and studied her lover, then nodded. “Okay. I’ll behave.” Placing one last kiss to the blonde photographer’s cleavage, she pulled back and settled down beside the shorter woman. Picking up the momentarily-forgotten chocolate, she broke off another piece and popped it into her own mouth. Instantly, her eyes closed in rapture, and a loud purr began to rumble through her chest. “Mmmm.”

Ash grinned and sat up a little. “Nice?”

“Mmmhmmm.” Leandra felt the chocolate almost explode against her taste-buds, amazed at the overwhelming flavor after so many years living without.

“I thought you’d like it.” Ash helped herself to another piece. “I got a bunch of other stuff, too. It’s only fair that I re-introduce you to all the things you missed out on in the jungle.” She traced a finger down Leandra’s chest, exploring along the edge of the satin slip that still clothed the dark woman. “I wish I had the energy to give you more pleasure than just chocolate…but you kinda wore me out.”

Leandra clasped her hand over Ashley’s, and smiled down at the younger woman. “That’s okay. You can pay me back in the morning if you like.” Leandra’s body was still singing a song of arousal, but she was content to ignore it for now. During the course of Ashley’s ravishing, Leandra had paused at intervals to see to her own pleasure, using such moments to drive the young blonde almost insane with desire as she was forced to watch but not participate. It had been, for both of them, the most delicious of tortures. “Tonight was all for you.”

“Mmm.” Ashley lay back on the bedsheets, enjoying the warmth of the body pressed against her and feeling the tingles of her spent passion still run like little electric feathers over her skin. “You know,” she whispered, “I…really enjoyed tonight Leandra. It was…” She paused, trying to find the words to express how the dark woman had made her feel. “It was something I’ve never really experienced before. I mean…no-one else ever did…all that stuff for me before.” She glanced up at her lover shyly. “I’ve never actually…gone more than one round before.”

Leandra grinned. “Well get used to it, my love,” she husked seductively. “Ravishing you only once would be such a waste. I could do it a thousand times a day and still hunger for more.”

Ashley blushed and lowered her eyes coyly. “You’d say anything to get me worked up again.”

“Can I help it that you’re so delicious?” Leandra placed a piece of chocolate between her teeth, then fed it to her lover with a deep kiss, the two parting only when the chocolate had melted between them. Leandra licked Ashley’s lips and grinned. “I think we’ll have to work on your endurance a little though.”

Ashley snorted indignantly and pushed the dark woman off her with a laugh. “We’ll see how well you do, as soon as I get my strength back!” Rolling over, the petite blonde managed to pin Leandra to the bed and ground herself against her. Leandra was so soft and strong and smooth, Ashley couldn’t help but become lost in the sensation of touching her body. “In the morning, I get to play.”

Leandra growled, sending thrills through the sated blonde above her. “I’m looking forward to it.”

“Mmm.” Ashley smiled a wicked smile, running her hands over Leandra’s body for a few more moments before she withdrew. Laying back down on the rumpled sheets, the young blonde blew a few errant hairs from her face and sighed. “By the way, I called my parents. Before you distracted me, I was going to tell you that we’ve been invited to dinner on Wednesday. I tried to get out of it, but…my mom can be pretty persistent.”

“That’s okay.” Leandra hesitated, not certain how to interpret her lover’s tone. “Are you sure I was invited?”

“Oh yeah, quite sure.” Ashley grimaced, remembering the awkward conversation. “She said something along the lines of bringing my ‘new guest’ over to meet them.” She snorted inelegantly. “Couldn’t even bring herself to call you my lover…or partner, or whatever.”

Leandra propped herself up on one elbow and studied the younger woman curiously. “Are you worried about them meeting me? I mean…I know I’m not exactly Miss Social Etiquette, but…”

“No, it’s nothing like that,” Ashley quickly assured, seeing Leandra had misinterpreted her tone. “I’m not ashamed of you Leandra. I love you. I just…” She paused, taking a deep breath and sorting her thoughts. “I know how my folks sometimes react to things they don’t understand or approve of. Like when my sister got pregnant at eighteen, they really flew off the handle at her. I mean, they started threatening to never speak with her again, and stuff like that. Of course, after a while, they calmed down and were all supportive, but…not at first.” She looked up into the deep cobalt eyes of the dark woman. “I don’t want them to say anything that might hurt you, Leandra…or make you think that you and I shouldn’t be together. And I know that it’s entirely possible they might do exactly that. They just…don’t like controversy, or anything they don’t understand. It might take them a while to accept that we’re together…and in the mean while, they might well make things uncomfortable for both of us.”

Leandra listened carefully, realizing her lover wasn’t worried about her not being good enough for her family, but rather, was concerned she might be wounded by their disapproval. She smiled slightly. “Nothing they could say or do could make me love you any less, Ash,” she whispered, stroking the damp, tangled blonde hair absently. “I want them to at least know who I am. I mean…I’m a part of your life now, right?”

Ash smiled a little more brightly. “Right. But still, Wednesday doesn’t really give you a whole lot of time to settle in. You’re having to adjust to a lot of changes, Leandra. You can’t rush that.”

“I know.” Leandra relaxed back onto the mattress, snuggling her long body against that of the shorter blonde. “But I can manage a simple dinner invitation easily enough.”

The two lay in silence for a few minutes, Ashley reaching out with her left hand and drawing idle patterns on her lover’s toned abdomen, enjoying the little rumbling purrs her attentions earned her. “I’m glad Casey took so well to you,” she said softly. “She can be a little abrasive sometimes when I start seeing someone new.”

“Yeah, I can see that.” Leandra grinned. “I like her. She’s got a lot of you in her personality.” She was thoughtful for a moment, then added quietly, “I can remember when I was her age; all attitude and arrogance. But she’s a good kid…and I can see how much she loves you just from talking with her. She really looks up to you.”

“Mmm.” Ashley yawned, feeling herself start to slip into a restorative sleep. Her senses were exhausted from Leandra’s passionate love-making, and she used the last of her strength to pull the rumpled blankets over her and her partner. Wrapping her arms around Leandra’s waist, she pulled the dark woman snuggly against her and kissed a pale shoulder. “Well now she can look up to you as well,” she murmured drowsily.

Leandra smiled as she heard Ashley’s breathing start to deepen, and she watched as blonde-lashed eyelids fluttered, then closed. For a moment, she contented herself with simply watching as Ashley abandoned herself to slumber, taking in every beloved feature of the young photographer and feeling her adoration warm her heart with an achingly soft burn. Then, Leandra settled her arm more comfortably around Ashley’s lithe form, and closed her eyes as well. “Sweet dreams Ash,” she whispered into the blonde tresses that tickled her chin.

Ashley whimpered unconsciously, and tightened her hold in her sleep.

***

The next few days passed quietly for the couple. Ashley was forced to abandon Leandra from time to time when the duties of her work called her attention away, but the dark woman didn’t mind. She used her time alone to more fully explore the open woodlands that surrounded her new home, and had soon acquainted herself with every rock and tree within a five mile radius. The adjustment from her Indian jungle home to this temperate climate took her a little while to make, but Leandra soon found herself quite enjoying the mild Spring weather, and the spirit of rebirth and renewal that infected the animals of the forest. She prowled along unseen trails, occasionally playing a game of stalking hikers and tourists who clumped along the more well-traveled pathways. The pretend hunting was fun for Leandra, and came naturally to her, and she found endless amusement in startling the ever-wary hikers with loud, bear-like noises.

Casey was a frequent visitor, spending almost every minute she could spare away from study in the company of her aunt’s new house-guest. Leandra found the teenager an enthusiastic student, and a sharp-witted companion. For her part, Casey struggled without complaint in her quest to toughen the soles of her feet so she could walk barefoot over brambles and sharp rocks, even going so far as to refuse to wear shoes to school anymore – an action which prompted a new round of phone-calls from her concerned teachers. Casey eventually got tired of hearing about ‘proper dress code’, and argued some vaguely religious reason why she couldn’t wear shoes – an excuse that had never failed her in the past. Sure enough, the teachers sighed wearily and accepted her decision.

Although she was forced to spend many precious hours away from home seeing to her duties at the office, Ashley couldn’t have been happier. Content for the moment to forget about their Wednesday night appointment with her parents, the young photographer let herself just enjoy the simple pleasure of having Leandra with her almost all the time. Having never been in a co-habitation relationship before, Ashley was pleasantly surprised to find that she adjusted well to Leandra’s intrusion into her personal space. The two women never argued or disagreed, despite the fact that Leandra still had a long way to go before she was, as Ashley fondly put it, ‘house-trained’. The young blonde actually found it kind of adorable that her lover kept forgetting about little things like using bath-towels, cutlery, or laundry baskets, and picked up after her for the most part without comment.

Living together also gave Ashley new insight into her lover. Every day, it seemed, she learned something new about Leandra as the dark-haired woman began to familiarize herself once more with the modern world. Things that Ashley took for granted suddenly took on new meaning as Leandra re-discovered them; things like music, and books, and a well-cooked meal. Simple comforts that most people took for granted seemed to delight Leandra each time she experienced them. And as Ashley learned more about the dark woman, her love for her only deepened. As the days passed, their connect grew stronger and more binding, and they reveled unabashedly in their affection and passion for one another.

Ashley in particular found herself growing ever more addicted to this new world of sexual freedom. Leandra was, without a doubt, the most uninhibited, passionate, and playful lover she had ever had, and Ashley slowly began to relax as she grew more accustomed to being able to explore her desires more fully. The young blonde took particular delight in the discovery that Leandra was an extremely spontaneous lover; sometimes all the warning she got was a momentary look of animal hunger before the dark woman pounced on her and began a frenzied conquest of her body. Their love-making ranged from slow and breathtakingly intense, to hot and carnal, a simple raw desire to satisfy their lust for one another. Ashley found it all intoxicating and very exciting, and was far too happy to question this newly awakened outgoing attitude in her sexuality.

On Tuesday night, Ashley surprised her lover with a special gift: a large, flat object, wrapped in tiger-print paper. Leandra tore away the wrapping, and grinned in surprised delight at the framed print of herself and Shar-Ranjana that Ashley had taken in the jungle.

“It’s beautiful!” She admired the picture a moment, tears forming at the corners of her eyes as she looked at the face of her tiger-sister, then Leandra threw an arm around Ashley and gave her a long kiss. “Thank you so much!”

“You’re welcome.” Ashley smiled, glad her gift had been well-received. “I thought you’d appreciate a little reminder of her. We can hang it in the bedroom, and you can see her every morning when you wake up.”

Casey, sitting on the lounge opposite the couple, gagged noisily at their open display of affection, then moved closer to study the print. “What is it?” Her eyes widened when she saw the picture of the pale, striped cat, and she stared at her aunt accusingly. “I thought you said there wasn’t any white tiger! That’s what you told your boss, isn’t it?”

Ashley eyed her niece sternly. “Yes, it is, and as far as anyone else is concerned, this picture doesn’t exist.” She gestured for Casey to sit, then explained carefully. “You have to keep this a secret, okay Case? No-one else can know about Shar-Ranjana.”

“Shar who?”

“Shar-Ranjana.” Leandra smiled at the picture again. “She was my friend in the jungle…the last of my family. Her existence is a sacred trust for me.” She looked up and regarded the teenager with a serious expression. “If people know about her, they’ll hunt her down and lock her in a cage…or kill her. I showed Ashley because I trusted her to keep my secrets. I hope I can trust you as well.”

Casey stared from the picture to Leandra, then back. “You’re so close to her,” she whispered in awe. “She didn’t attack you?”

“She was raised with me being close to her. We were like siblings,” Leandra explained. “Will you promise never to tell anyone about this picture Casey?”

The young blonde nodded, a feeling of quiet pleasure tingling through her blood at being trusted with something so important…at being included in this secret as an equal to the adults. “I promise.” Her sea-green eyes studied the great cat for another moment, then shifted to the image of Leandra, dressed in her tiger fur and striped paint. “You look so different there.”

“It was a different world,” Leandra commented softly. “There were very different rules.”

Casey turned towards Ashley. “How close did you get to her?”

Ash smiled, remembering her magical experience in the jungle. “Well, she came right up to me and gave me a good licking. I even got to pet her a bit.”

Casey smirked and lifted an eyebrow. “I was talking about the cat.”

Ashley rolled her eyes, but felt her color rise nonetheless. “Hardy har har.”

***

Wednesday night came all too soon for Ashley, and she sighed as she pulled her car up outside her parents stately house. Turning her head, she regarded her lover carefully, seeing signs of tension in Leandra’s expressive face. “You ready?”

Leandra nodded. “As I’ll ever be.” The dark woman had been bracing herself mentally for this night all week, and now that the moment had arrived, she was feeling pretty darn nervous. “Meeting my girlfriend’s parents…” She grinned a little ruefully. “That’s not something I ever thought I’d have to go through.”

Ashley gave a quick smile. “You’ll do fine Leandra. Don’t let them get to you. It’s going to take them a while to get used to the idea that you’re here to stay…and until then, they might be a little abrasive.”

Leandra took a deep breath and readied herself. “Okay. Let’s get this over with.”

Stepping out of the vehicle, Leandra took a moment to study the house before her. It was similar in appearance to Ashley’s home, but possessed a greater air of structure and discipline. The gardens were neatly groomed and obviously well cared for. There were fewer windows, and a stone-walk path led around to the rear of the house. Walking up to the front door, her hand clasped thankfully in Ashley’s own, Leandra concentrated on keeping her breaths even and controlled, fighting down the urge to escape into the soothing shadows of the forest that lay just across the road.

Ashley pushed a finger to the elegant brass doorbell, and was answered by a musical jangle from inside. A moment later, the door was opened by a slender woman of medium height, with sharp blue eyes and ash blonde hair that was liberally streaked with grey. The woman smiled delightedly at Ashley, and instantly pulled her into a hug.

“Ashley! It’s so good to have you back!” The woman held Ashley by her shoulders and studied her face, her smile only growing brighter. “You look fantastic! Eve said you weren’t sporting too many new injuries, but she sometimes says that just to spare me the worry.”

Ashley smiled in return. “It’s good to see you too, Mom.” She drew back a little from the embrace, and Leandra suddenly found herself caught by the elder woman’s sharp gaze. They both smiled a little hesitantly at one another, uncertain. “Mom…this is Leandra Thornton. Leandra, I’d like you meet my mother, Emily Richards.”

Leandra bobbed her head politely, feeling the pull of the forest shadows even more strongly now, and wishing she could just hide in their protective embrace. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Likewise.” Emily Richards ran her eyes speculatively over Leandra’s length, her lips pursing slightly as she took in the tangled dreadlocks and predatory tension that seemed to radiate from the dark woman in palpable waves. She looked from Leandra to Ashley, taking in the way the two women were standing with shoulders touching. She smiled a little thinly as she regarded her daughter. “Evelyn mentioned your new friend. I’m looking forward to hearing more about her.”

Ashley winced slightly at the way her mother had dismissed Leandra so quickly, reading in an instant the disapproval in the older woman’s tone. Leandra was wearing cotton pants and a simple white shirt. With her intense eyes and unkempt hair, she looked – to Ashley’s admittedly biased eyes at least – ruggedly gorgeous. Her mother, however, seemed to have a different opinion. Still, the young photographer had never cared much about stepping off the path her parents had laid out for her, and she wasn’t going to let this bother her now. Her concern was more for how Leandra might be hurt by their reaction.

“Why don’t you two come inside?” Emily stepped back and waved the two women in. “Eve and Jason should be here soon, and Casey promised she’d come. Dinner is all ready. We can sit and talk for a few minutes about your trip.”

“Thanks.” Ashley took Leandra’s hand again and led the way into the living-room. Leandra took in her surroundings with a quick glance, noting the expensive oak-wood furniture that was neatly arranged throughout the room, and the classic framed prints of oil paintings that dotted the walls. The air smelled of polish and cinnamon, and the hardwood floor felt cold against her bare feet. In all, this house felt a lot colder and less welcoming to the dark woman than Ashley’s happy home.

An elderly gentleman sitting in one of the plush armchairs looked up from the newspaper he was reading as they entered the room, and smiled as soon as he saw Ashley. The blonde photographer returned the smile with one of her own, and released Leandra’s hand so she could accept the embrace he moved to bestow upon her.

“Ashley! How are you, sweetheart? Let me look at you.” The man pulled back and ran his eyes over Ashley, then hugged her again. “You look great.”

“Thanks daddy.” Ashley parted from the embrace and regarded her father fondly. “You’re not looking so bad yourself.”

Owen Richard’s smile grew even wider, before his eyes swept past his daughter to where Leandra stood, somewhat uncertainly, in the entryway. “You must be Leandra,” he said. “I’m Owen, Ashley’s father. It’s nice to meet you.” He held out his hand.

Leandra hesitated only a moment before she stepped forward and shook hands with her lover’s father. “Nice to meet you too,” she said shyly. “Ashley’s told me a lot about you.” Not quite the truth; Leandra knew Ashley’s father was the one who first introduced her to photography by buying her a camera for her tenth birthday present, and she knew he had operated a small but successful Real Estate agency before retiring a few years ago, but beyond that, the young blonde had spoken only a little about her parents. Still, looking into the intelligent, benevolent eyes of the man, seeing there a far warmer welcome than she’d received from Ashley’s mother, Leandra decided the polite lie couldn’t hurt.

Owen nodded, then gestured towards the lounge. “Come in…sit down, both of you. Tell me all about India. Was is hot there? I’ve heard enough horror stories about that country that I had nightmares about what you must have been going through.”

Leandra smiled as Ashley took her hand and led them over to the couch, already quite liking Owen. He had a very friendly, fatherly demeanor to him that couldn’t help but ease some of the dark woman’s nerves, and his voice carried the same inviting, easy-going attitude as his daughter’s.

Ashley began telling her father about her trip to the East, keeping her descriptions carefully vague. Emily joined her husband, and Leandra felt the older woman’s eyes studying her with a curiosity that seemed…not exactly hostile, but certainly defensive. That makes sense, the dark woman thought. I’m her daughter’s new lesbian lover, straight out of the jungle. She has every right to be defensive…just like Shar-Ranjana was so protective of her cubs. It’s a natural instinct for a mother to want to keep her offspring safe from harm – and right now, she sees me as a possible threat. Leandra sat quietly as Ashley talked about her jungle adventure, concentrating on the reassuring pressure of the young blonde woman’s hand against her own.

Owen listened to his daughter’s tale with interest, knowing from years of experience that she was leaving out a lot of details. Ashley tended to gloss over the dangers of her work, and he had learned to listen for the evasions in her stories. It was instantly clear to him that she was avoiding any mention of how she’d met Leandra, so he decided on a more direct approach.

“And how did you two meet up?” he inquired when Ashley paused in her tale. His eyes met Leandra’s. “Were you working in the Park while Ashley was there, Leandra?”

“Umm…n-not exactly,” Leandra stammered, uncertain how to explain the nature of her presence in India. She glanced hopefully at Ashley for rescue.

“Leandra was sort of working with the rangers to help control the poachers over there,” Ashley quickly improvised, “and to keep track of the tiger populations. We met up one day kind of by accident, and she offered to help me with my shoots.” The photographer squeezed Leandra’s hand and gave the dark woman an adoring look. “Leandra’s an expert tracker, and she’s great with animals. We hit it off right from the start.”

“I see.” Owen was quiet for a moment, seeing the obvious connection between his daughter and this tall, dark stranger with the matted hair. He regarded Leandra again curiously. “So you gave up your job just to stay with Ashley?”

“Well…” Leandra swallowed nervously. “My job was kind of a temporary thing, so…” She shrugged. “I wanted to be with Ash more than I wanted to stay in India.”

“Mmm.” Owen stroked his chin thoughtfully. When he’d first heard that his youngest daughter had brought home a female lover from her trip to the East, Owens first reaction had actually been one of simple relief. After so many years spent living in fear of the phone-call that would inform him that Ashley had been killed on an expedition, Owen couldn’t help but feel anything other than joy just knowing his child was still safe. Of course, this development wasn’t something he’d expected, and perhaps didn’t even agree with…but he’d learned a long time ago to be happy with what he had – especially in regards to his youngest daughter. Seeing Ashley now holding hands with Leandra, and recognizing the devotion in the dark woman’s eyes, Owen was impressed. This woman had traveled half-way around the world, and had given up a job, simply to remain by his daughter’s side. That was quite a sacrifice.

His wife, however, was less easily swayed.

“And what are your plans now?” Emily asked bluntly, her eyes fixed on her youngest daughter. “Evelyn was sketchy about the details, Ashley, but she made it clear you two are living together.”

“That’s right.” Ashley faced her mother’s disapproval without flinching. “Leandra’s staying with me.”

“And what happens next?” Emily turned her attention to Leandra. “What exactly are your plans for the future, Leandra? Were you thinking to apply for work in the area?”

Leandra froze under the assault of the older woman’s gaze. “I-I hadn’t…really thought much about it, but-” She paused, glancing at Ashley. “I guess I’ll probably look for something in animal welfare.”

“I see. And will you be finding a place of your own after you get your feet back?”

“Mom…” Ashley’s tone was warning, and her eyes were slits of steel, but Emily was unperturbed.

“I just think you’re moving awfully fast in this…thing.” She gestured to Ashley and Leandra’s clasped hands. “I mean, how long have you known each other? What, about a month? Less?” Ashley’s face colored, and Emily nodded. “You know the problems you’ve had in the past, Ashley. Living together could easily make things much messier down the track.”

“Mom, Leandra is not-”

Ashley’s response was interrupted – thankfully, Leandra thought – by the musical jangling of the doorbell. “That’ll be Eve.” The young blonde gave her mother a quick glare, then stood up, pulling Leandra with her. “I’m going to show Leandra the backyard,” she said stiffly, then turned and dragged her dark lover away.

Sighing, Emily straightened her shirt a little and gave her husband a dirty look. “You go get the food set up outside,” she instructed. “I’ll answer the door.”

Owen grimaced, but silently went to carry out his assignment.

Outside, Leandra and Ashley both took a calming breath before they smiled at one another. “I’m sorry about my mom,” Ash apologized. “I knew she was going to be like this.”

“It’s okay. I understand where she’s coming from, really. She doesn’t know anything about me, and all of a sudden I’m living in your house and sleeping in your bed. Believe me…” Leandra grinned wryly. “I’ve seen enough protective mothers in my life that I don’t hold it against her.”

Ashley gave her tall lover a quick hug. “Thanks for being so understanding. Although-” she gave a wicked little grin. “-if you want to do a little growling and snarling later on, I promise to look the other way.”

Leandra laughed, and gave the young blonde a kiss on the tip of her nose. “I doubt that’d make the kind of impression I’m going for.”

“Mmm, but it might be good for a laugh.”

Grinning, the two women turned and looked out at the backyard. The pre-dusk gloom was lit by several porch lights artfully arranged to display the landscaped garden and inground pool, and a redwood table had been set up on the patio with several plates of finger-food. The small expanse of lawn was obviously well-tended, and a number of tree-ferns gave the garden a slightly tropical feel. Leandra smiled. “Nice.”

“Mmhmm.” Ashley sighed, feeling comforted by the familiar scenery of what had been her childhood home. “My mom loves to get her hands dirty out here. When I was younger, I used to take my camera into the garden during the mornings when it was all foggy and photograph the spider webs. They used to get all covered in dew, and the water beads would sparkle like diamonds in the light. It was great.”

“I can imagine.” Leandra smiled at the mental image of her lover as a child, coming out here and taking pictures with youthful enthusiasm. “Your dad seems nice.”

“Yeah, he’s pretty great. He used to be a lot more up-tight, but since he retired he’s kinda cooled down a bit. I like him more now he’s not working.”

Just then, the two were interrupted by a familiar voice. “Hey, you guys! What’s up?”

The two women turned to greet the intruder, and Leandra flashed Casey a quick grin. “Not much. And with you?”

The teenager shrugged with a scowl. She’d greeted her grandparents with a couple of quick hugs, before coming out here in search of her new favorite jungle friend. “Same old stuff. Some kid at school made a crack about me being barefoot, so I made a comment about his acne scars and he got pissed and tried to throw a punch.” She laughed shortly. “Unfortunately, he tripped over his own feet and ended up falling flat on his face! I almost wet my pants I laughed so hard!”

Ashley rolled her eyes, but Leandra chuckled. Her mirth petered out, however, with the appearance of Evelyn and a tall, handsome man with chiseled features and light-brown hair. Casey turned when she saw Leandra’s focus shift, and instantly grabbed the man’s hand and began to tugging him forward.

“Leandra, this is my dad. Dad, this is Leandra.”

The man smiled at his daughter fondly before extending his hand. “Jason Harrid,” he introduced. “Casey’s told me a lot about you, Leandra. It’s nice to finally be able to put a face to the name.”

Leandra shook hands and offered a polite response, feeling a little more confident now as the gestures of introduction and welcome were becoming more familiar. From the time she’d spent with Casey these last few days, Leandra knew Jason Harrid was a devoted father, but she could detect the scent of a doctor on the man, and remembered that he was a physician at the local hospital. Still, his eyes were gentle and friendly, if a little uncertain. That was to be expected, she knew. Casey had been adopting many of Leandra’s mannerisms recently, and any parent would be curious in these circumstances.

Evelyn gave the dark woman a welcome smile of her own. “Nice to see you again, Leandra,” she said kindly. “How have you been settling in?”

“Very well, thank you.” Leandra gave her lover’s sister a shy look. “Ashley’s been helping to make me extreeeemely comfortable – in fact, she’s been spoiling me a bit lately.” Ice-blue eyes regarded the blonde photographer with wicked humor.

Ashley flushed a little, and cleared her throat, seeing the seductive glimmer in her lover’s eyes. “Yes, well…I happen to believe you deserve a little spoiling.”

Evelyn smirked, interpreting her sister’s blush and seeing the sexual undercurrent of emotions that flashed momentarily between Ashley and Leandra. She reminded herself to sit down latter and have a little chat with her sibling. Ashley had already warned her not to make any mention of Leandra’s past to their parents, and Eve had in turn warned Casey very sternly about keeping certain things quiet. There was no need to rock an already unstable boat with stories about Leandra the Human Tiger.

Owen and Emily soon joined the group outside, both carrying large platters of food which they placed on the table. Dinner was an informal affair, for which Leandra in particular was thankful. Plates and cutlery were brought out, and everyone just sort of helped themselves to what was available. Feeling a definite sense of self-consciousness – afterall, this was the first time she’d eaten in front of anyone other than Ashley in four years – Leandra was extra-careful as she selected coleslaw, salad, and a few slices of honeyed ham from the table and placed them on her plate. After eyeing the cutlery with trepidation, the dark woman shrugged and began to eat with her fingers, knowing she’d only embarrass herself if she tried to use a fork.

Ashley stayed close to Leandra as they ate, claiming a spot beside the dark woman so she could offer protection in case her lover got an attack of nerves…and also to ensure her family didn’t overwhelm her. She could see the tension in Leandra’s eyes, and in the way she kept glancing around as though searching for an escape. Fortunately, Casey was on hand to keep the dark woman somewhat distracted, eagerly showing her off to her parents, who were already curious about Ashley’s new romance.

Ashley was grateful when her father joined them and began to make friendly conversation, inquiring about Leandra’s life in India and how she and Ashley had gotten together. Leandra fielded the questions shyly, but well; her intimacy with the tigers and other animals gave her the kind of knowledge only a true expert could possess, and she managed to sound like a genuine ranger.

Ashley was impressed. She knew this was difficult for Leandra, and had envisioned numerous potential disasters that could ruin this night, but her concerns diminished over the next few hours. Leandra came across as being a modest, quiet sort of person with a great love for animals, and the looks she cast towards Ashley were illustration enough of how much she loved the young woman. Ashley’s family seemed to accept her into their midst, and the photographer gave her father and sister looks of thanks. Glancing aside, however, her expression turned slightly sour when she saw the worried, disapproving eyes of her mother watching from across the way.

When her mother went back inside, Ashley made a subtle gesture for Casey to take her place beside Leandra, then whispered “I’ll be back in a minute,” into her lover’s ear. Leandra nodded, then went back to listening to Owen, who was telling some stories about the many misadventures of Ashley’s youth.

Ash found her mother in the kitchen. Emily glanced up when she heard the young blonde approach, reading in the stubborn set of Ashley’s jaw that her daughter was mad. The tone of her voice made it even clearer. “I think we need to talk about this.”

“About what?”

“About the way you’re treating Leandra.” Ashley folded her arms across her chest and glowered. “Everyone else is at least making an effort to be nice to her…even dad, and I remember some times when he’s been less than liberal-minded in his opinions. But you’re sitting out there staring daggers at her, without even trying to get to know her. It wouldn’t kill you to say something kind, or failing that, to just stop being so hostile.”

Emily sighed and rested her hands on the kitchen bench wearily. “You don’t understand, Ashley,” she said quietly. “I just… This isn’t something I ever thought I’d have to deal with. I don’t want you getting hurt because of this.”

“I’m not going to get hurt, mom.”

“How can you say that?” Emily looked at her daughter in confusion. “Ashley, you’ve never had a relationship last more than a month! Now all of sudden you drag home some woman from India, and just let her move in with you! She has no job, no place to go if things end up going badly, and no way to support herself. How can you possibly say you won’t get hurt?”

Ashley’s eyes narrowed, hearing the emphasis her mother placed on the word ‘woman.’ “Are you upset because I’m sleeping with another woman? Is that what this is all about?”

“No!”

“I think it is!” Ashley shook her head. “Well I’m a grown-up now, mom, and this is what I want. If you can’t deal with the fact that I’m a lesbian, that’s your problem, not mine. I don’t much care if you agree with me being with Leandra or not. But I do care when your behavior starts to hurt the woman I love.”

“Love!? Ashley, I don’t care who you’re sleeping with, be they male or female. If you want to…experiment…then I think that’s great! But you can’t honestly believe that you love this woman! You only met her a few weeks ago!”

“And that’s all the time it took.” Ashley shook her head, trying to calm herself down. She didn’t want the sound of raised voices carrying outside, certain Leandra would rush to her defense. “Leandra is the most wonderful, caring, sensitive person in the world, and if you’d spend just five minutes talking with her with an open mind, you’d realize just how much she loves me. Do you think this is easy for her? Coming here to meet you knowing that you might not approve of her?”

“Look, I’m sure-”

“Well let me tell you, it isn’t. She’s scared out of her mind right now, and you’re making it that much harder for her to relax.” Ashley took another calming breath. “Leandra hasn’t had an easy life, mom. It doesn’t take much to make her feel guilty, and she punishes herself for every little thing that goes wrong. Being around other people is hard for her now, but she’s trying to make this work because you’re my family, and she knows that you’re a big part of my life.”

“All I’m saying is that you should be careful, Ash,” Emily argued quietly. “I’ve seen you get all excited about a relationship before, only to have it fall apart a few weeks later.”

“Leandra’s not like anyone I’ve ever been involved with. Why can’t you see that? She makes me feel complete…loved. She’d sooner jump off a building than hurt me, and she’d die to protect me from harm.” Ashley saw her mother’s resolve start to weaken in the face of her absolute certainty, and took a step closer. “Can’t you at least give her a chance? She’s not half as intimidating as she looks once you start talking with her.” She threw in a convincing, hopeful little smile. “Please?”

Emily sighed, helpless against her daughter’s convincing expression. “I suppose.”

Ashley’s smile grew a fraction wider and more sincere. “Thank you mom. It means a lot to me.”

“I’m not saying I’m going to like her right away,” Emily swiftly stated, “and I plan on keeping an eye on her. But…I guess I can be a bit more civil to her.”

“That’s all I’m asking for.”

Returning to the others, Ashley made a brief stop at the ice-filled cooler that sat underneath the table and grabbed a couple of beers. Splashing noises from the pool caught her attention, and Ash smiled when she saw that Casey had changed into her bathing suit and was taking a dip with her parents. Leandra was watching with definite interest from the sidelines, and Ashley wished briefly she’d thought to buy a suit for the dark woman. Although, she considered wickedly, recalling memories of her jungle adventures, there are advantages to going without. Still, she knew how much Leandra loved the water, and made a mental note to grab a bathing suit when she next went into town.

“Don’t get any ideas about stripping off and jumping in,” she grinned as she reclaimed her place beside Leandra. “You’d give everyone a heart attack.”

The dark woman grinned playfully. “Afraid to show me off?”

“No…but I don’t think they need to see all the…shall we say, more intimate facets of your personality?”

Leandra laughed. “Don’t worry, I can restrain myself.”

“Good. We’re not in the jungle anymore.” Ash glanced up in time to see Casey dive into the pool with a squeal, then she offered her lover one of the bottles she held. “You want something to drink?”

Leandra studied the offering a moment, her eyes filled with a strange emotion Ashley couldn’t read, then she shook head slightly. “No thanks.”

“Are you sure? It might help you relax a little…take the edge off, you know?”

Leandra was quiet, then leaned closer to the young blonde. “I used to use drugs and alcohol to numb myself to the world around me,” she said softly. “They helped to stop me from thinking or feeling the things I wanted to avoid. I just…don’t want to take that road again.” She smiled, and Ashley felt her heart melt. “I don’t want anything to dull the experience of being with you.”

“Oh.” Ashley quickly put the second beer on the bench beside her, mentally berating herself for not thinking of this before. She used to be an addict, she reminded herself, remembering what Leandra had said about her former life. Of course she wants to avoid the temptation…just like anyone who’s recovered from that kind of thing would want. She smiled at her lover. “I’m sorry. I just thought…”

“That’s okay. I know you were just trying to help.”

Ash held up her own bottle. “Do you mind if I drink?”

Leandra smiled. “No, go ahead. Just don’t get carried away; remember, you have to drive us home.”

“I’ll be good.” Ash twisted the lid off the bottle and took a sip, sighing a little in pleasure as the cool, malty liquid slid down her throat. She was quite partial to the occasional beer, and was happy to indulge after her assignment to India. “You know, if you wanted to drive, I’d be happy to let you. I mean, you’d be rusty, but the roads are quiet out here. And those old skills never really go away.”

“Thanks, but…I don’t think so.”

“Why not? It’d be a good thing to practice… get used to it again.”

“I can’t drive,” Leandra admitted. “I never actually learned how.”

Ashley paused as she was about to take another sip, and stared at Leandra in shock. “You’re kidding?”

“Nope.”

“You never learned to drive a car? How did you get around?”

“I rode a motorcycle.” Leandra grinned at the instant expression of interest that lit Ashley’s bright-green eyes. “Just before I left, I’d bought my first Harley. It was pretty great.”

“Really? Wow.” Ashley rubbed her shoulder against Leandra slightly. “I can just imagine you on a big black bike,” she grinned. “I bet you looked sexy as hell.”

Leandra felt her stomach flutter, and cleared her throat. “I put the bike in storage before I left for India,” she noted with a slight smirk. “If it’s still there, maybe…”

Ash grinned instantly, images of herself wrapping her arms around Leandra’s leather-clad waist as they drove along an open freeway on a rumbling Harley making her insides shiver. “I’d love to take a ride with you.” She gave the dark woman a light kiss on the lips, conscious only as they parted of her father’s eyes watching a little awkwardly from across the yard. She licked her lips and took another sip of beer. “Better not get too frisky right now,” she whispered.

Leandra nodded, a slight smile twisting the very corners of her mouth. “I guess not. Maybe later?”

Ashley’s grin widened devilishly. “Count on it.”

The rest of the night passed quite pleasantly. Leandra was quick to note the change in attitude Ashley’s mother adopted, and surmised that the young blonde had stepped in at her defense. She was touched and grateful for the simple gesture, and managed to exchange a few polite words of conversation with Emily as the evening wore on. Later on, Casey dragged Leandra away into the house, wanting to practice some of her jungle-stealth techniques in privacy, which left Ashley behind to have a little chat with her sister.

“She’s pretty impressive,” the older blonde remarked as she sat beside her sister and watched Casey lead the tall dark woman away. “Casey’s a hard sell, but your jungle lover has her hooked completely.”

Ashley smiled. “Yeah, they’ve been getting along really well.”

“To tell the truth, I was a little worried when Case started acting so different; the whole no shoes thing, climbing around outside getting blisters and cuts on her feet.” Evelyn sighed. “And every second word out of her mouth was ‘Leandra said this’ or ‘Leandra said that’. I’ve never seen her take to someone so readily.”

“Leandra’s a good role-model,” Ashley instantly reassured, always ready to defend her partner. “She may be…unorthodox, but she’s got a strong sense of responsibility, especially when it comes to family.”

“I know, I can see that now.” Evelyn patted her sister on the arm. “Casey’s been reading a lot lately…about tigers, and India, and all sorts of things. She found a documentary on the tigers and forced me and Jason to sit down and watch it with her.” She smiled a fond, motherly smile. “This last year, with her studies getting more serious, we’ve had a concern about where Casey was heading in life. She seemed so…shiftless.”

“I thought she wanted to get into graphic design.”

“Eh.” Eve grimaced. “She gave up on that a week or so after you left. Now, she’s been talking about doing some animal studies and maybe looking at a future in welfare or something. I don’t know how permanent her interest is, but at least she’s giving it serious thought. That’s a good start…and I’m sure a lot of it has to do with the time she’s been spending with your new friend.”

Ashley grinned. “That’s Leandra for you; she can be charming as hell when she wants to be.”

“Uh huh, I see that.” Eve’s eyes narrowed as she leaned forward. “Afterall, she managed to charm her way past that chastity belt you’ve been wearing for two years now, didn’t she?”

Ashley’s eyes shot open. “Evelyn!”

“What? It’s the truth!” The older blonde smirked unrepentantly. “You haven’t had a date since the Dark Ages, Ash. I thought you were heading into the land of spinsterhood. Leandra deserves a medal for getting you back in the game!”

“I wasn’t…! She didn’t have to…! What.!?” Ashley spluttered for a few moments incoherently while her sister just grinned at her. Then, face coloring already, she took a deep breath and glared at Eve. “I had my priorities,” she stated primly.

“Yep. Priorities that changed quick smart as soon as something interesting caught your eye.” Eve laughed at her sister’s blush, and shook her head. “I’m sorry, Ash, it’s just hard not to tease. I mean…you can’t bring home Lady Tarzan and expect nothing from me.” She sat back in her seat and regarded Ashley more earnestly. “Seriously, I’m happy for you sis. The last few years, it just seemed like you’d stopped looking for someone to share things with. I didn’t want you to have to go through life all alone.” She smiled. “I guess it just took you a while to figure out what you were looking for, huh?”

Ashley considered, wondering if she were being led onto a path of more teasing. Seeing only sincerity in Evelyn’s face, however, she nodded with a shy smile. “I guess so,” she said quietly, before adding with a chuckle, “Who could have guessed that what I was looking for would be hiding in the middle of the Indian jungle!?”

Evelyn laughed. “I guess you never could do anything the easy way, huh sis?”

“Nope.”

The two laughed together for a few moments more, before Eve quieted and studied her sister with a sly curiosity. “So, seriously…what’s it like with her?”

Ashley blinked innocently. “What’s what like?”

“You know..?” Eve waggled her eyebrows suggestively.

Ashley’s eyes widened as she interpreted her sister’s meaning, and her face burned instantly scarlet. “Oh.”

Eve grinned. “I bet she’s an animal, right?”

Ashley tilted her head and assumed an air of modesty that was ruined only by her blush. “I’m not telling you anything.”

“Oh, come on! Your first foray into the world of sapphic delights, and you’re not going to give me any details? That’s not fair, Ash! I’ve been a married mother for eighteen years – the least you can do is give me a few little stories.”

“If you want dirty stories, you can find them somewhere else,” Ashley said stoically. “How Leandra and I express our love is none of your business.”

Eve snorted. “Don’t be such a prude, Ash,” she taunted, knowing how much her younger sister hated that word, or any insinuation that she was some kind strait-laced stick-in-the-mud. “You know you want to tell me about her…I can see it on your face. Come on…tell me all about it and make us both feel better.”

“Uh uh. No way.”

For about ten minutes, Ashley modesty kept her tongue from giving up any details of the intimacies she’d shared with Leandra, but eventually, Eve managed to badger her into letting go a few small confessions. By the time the dark woman returned from the house, the two women were giggling in a decidedly suspicious manner. Though she made no comment, it didn’t take much for Leandra to deduce the topic of their conversation from the murderous look Ashley shot her sister when Eve opened her mouth to say something.

Before they left, the young photographer made sure to ask Casey’s father if he would be able to set aside some time in his work to see her. Leandra’s shoulder wound was still a constant source of pain for her, and Ashley was eager to find out if something could be done to repair the damage. Jason was happy to set up an appointment, despite his busy schedule, and promised to call and arrange something for later the next week.

It was well after ten o’clock by the time Ashley decided she wanted to take Leandra home, and the two said their good-byes to everyone. Ashley was feeling a little tipsy from the few drinks she’d had, but was quite alright to drive. From the hooded, hungry look she cast Leandra as they got in the car, the dark woman realized her young lover was – unsurprisingly – in an amorous mood. She grinned, feeling her stomach flutter with the first stirrings of desire.

“So,” Ash said as she drove them slowly back along the winding road towards home, “I think that went fairly well.”

“Yeah, it did. Your parents didn’t seem too stand-offish.” Leandra sighed, then gave her lover a knowing smirk. “I don’t know what you said to your mom, but whatever it was, it worked wonders. She was almost being nice to me at the end there.”

Ash grinned. “You noticed that, huh?”

“Oh, very little escapes my watchful eyes,” Leandra’s eyes glittered playfully. She reached over and ran a single finger lightly over Ashley’s thigh, her ears detecting the sudden hitch in the young blonde’s breathing. “For example, I saw the way you and your sister were whispering together like a couple of schoolgirls…and the way you shut-up as soon as I appeared.”

Ashley flushed a little. “So?”

“What were you talking about?”

“Nothing.”

“Uh huh.” Ashley tone was thoroughly unconvincing, but Leandra just gave her a loving smile. “Did you reassure her that I’m the best lover you’ve ever had in your life?”

Ashley almost missed a corner as she felt the heat of Leandra’s finger trace closer to the apex of her thighs. “Leandra!” She threw a glare at the dark woman. “You’re gonna make me have an accident!”

Leandra pouted – an expression that seemed oddly adorable as it contrasted with the predatory gleam in her eyes – but kindly took her hand back. “I’m sorry.” She paused, adopting a meek, submissive tone. Blue eyes batted hopefully at Ashley. “I’ll behave if I can have a reward when we get back home.”

Ashley’s focus was becoming distracted as Leandra’s uncharacteristic behavior started having an interesting effect on her libido. She glanced at the dark woman curiously, uncertain where her lover was going with this line of action, but the alcohol she’d had made her more than willing to play along. “What kind of reward were you hoping for?” she asked coyly.

Leandra grinned, her teeth flashing in the lights of a passing car. “Oh, I’m sure you’ll think of something appropriate. You have a very creative mind.”

Ashley’s smile turned roguish as a few decidedly X-rated images burned their way across her imagination. It took a conscious effort for her not to put her foot down harder on the accelerator as the need to get home became suddenly more urgent. The sound of Leandra’s purring reached her ears, and she flashed her lover a hungry glance. “I have a few ideas…if you’re up for it…?”

Leandra’s eyes narrowed. “Always.”

***

The next morning, Leandra lay in bed beside a still sleeping Ashley, watching shafts of sunlight slowly crawl across the room through the gaps in the vertical blinds. Outside, the birds had started their morning chorus in earnest, and Leandra smiled at the lively sounds. The sensation of Ashley’s naked body pressed against her own was softly pleasant, and when she breathed deeply Leandra could still catch the lingering scent of their love-making from the previous night.

She had been awake for about an hour now, just lying silently and enjoying the peace of her surroundings. One arm was wrapped around Ashley, her fingers combing softly through the long, golden hair in a soothing pattern. After four years of waking up before dawn so she could hunt the animals as they watered at the streams, Leandra’s sleep pattern had been conditioned to allow for an early start. Now that she didn’t need to hunt for her food anymore, the dark woman spent this time in quiet reflection, just soaking in the presence of her young lover and thinking about her life…and her future.

The change of coming back to civilization meant that all the energy Leandra had once spent just trying to survive now required a new outlet. The dark woman didn’t want to become fat and lazy in this new world…and she could see that happening very easily if she didn’t find something to keep herself active. She’d never been the kind of person who could just sit around watching television and remaining indolent. Once, Leandra had invested the greater part of her energy in hunting – both for animals, and for new conquests in the bedroom. But while the idea of spending the bulk of her time ravishing Ashley senseless had its appeal, Leandra knew she was going to have to find something else to do besides being a great lover.

Ashley stirred against her, one hand reaching out and unconsciously fondling Leandra’s left breast. Leandra just smiled, feeling her lover’s breath tickle her sensitive skin. Waking with Ashley in her arms had become familiar to her by now, but she knew she’d never grow tired of it. With the instinct of a true survivor, Leandra had adjusted to her new home quickly, and now her thoughts were turning more seriously to contemplate how she should face the future.

“Are you awake?” asked a sleepy voice from against her side.

Leandra glanced down and smiled at the adorably disheveled, slightly fuzzy face of her lover. “Yeah.”

“Mmm.” Ash yawned long and hard, then, noticing where her hand was resting, she gave Leandra a final lingering caress, and removed her wandering digits to a more appropriate location on the dark woman’s abdomen. Shifting slightly on the bed, Ash molded her body more closely against Leandra’s. “You always wake up too early,” she mumbled sleepily.

“It’s hard to break old habits.” Leandra was quiet for a long moment, before she stated simply, “I need to get a job.”

Ashley’s eyes opened a little more fully now, and she studied her partner’s face curiously. “You what?”

“I need a job,” Leandra repeated clearly. “What your mom said last night was right. I need to think about what comes next.”

“O-kaaay…” Ashley sat up in bed. “But are you sure you’re ready for that? I mean, this is a big transition for you, from jungle to civilization. I don’t want you thinking you have to rush things just because my mom made you feel guilty.”

“I’m ready. I need this.” Leandra’s clear sapphire eyes regarded the photographer seriously. “I’ve been thinking about it these past few days,” she said softly. “I’ve always needed to keep myself busy…and I’ve always needed to define myself and who I am by my actions. When I was a poacher, I believed in pleasure, profit, and power. I buried myself in that world and hid from the death of my parents and the loss of my brother. I screwed people over without a care because it achieved what I wanted in life. Then when I lived in the jungle, my beliefs changed. Out there, I believed in survival, atonement, and protecting my family. Hunting the poachers gave me a new reason to live…a new set of boundaries and rules that I understood and followed. Now…” She sighed and gave an uncertain shrug. “Now, my life’s changed again, and I feel…lost. I need to figure out my place again.”

Ashley listened attentively, then nodded slowly in understanding. “Wellll…what do you believe in now?”

Leandra considered for a moment, then said quietly, “I believe in us.” Her lips curved into a sensuous smile. “In our love.”

Ash returned the smile and planted a kiss on the nearest exposed bit of Leandra’s skin she could reach. “What else?”

“I don’t know.” Leandra was silent in contemplation, before she said, “I still believe in atoning for all the things I did wrong. I want to continue the good I did in the jungle; protecting the animals I used to exploit.”

“Uh huh. Well, there are lots of organizations that do that sort of stuff. You could get in touch with them. I’m sure they can always use another willing hand.”

“Maybe.” Leandra considered this, then shook her head. “But those types of organizations are so spread out, aren’t they? I’d have to travel a lot.”

“Perhaps…but I have to do a lot of traveling for my job. It’s not so bad.”

“Yeah, but…” Leandra gave her partner a shy smile. “I was sorta hoping that you’d let me tag along with you when you went off adventuring. I could be like an assistant, or advisor, or something. I mean, I know how to track animals, and where to find them. I think I could be a big help to you.”

Ashley’s eyes lit up, the idea sounding very appealing to her. “That’d be nice,” she whispered.

“And that way we wouldn’t have to spend so much time apart,” Leandra pointed out needlessly. “I mean, if you need some space, I’ll understand, but-”

“No,” Ash quickly interrupted, shaking her head as she hugged Leandra close. “I’d really like that. And I’m sure I can convince my boss to let me take you on…at least to see if you can do a good job.” Emerald eyes narrowed speculatively. “But you can’t just want to follow me around all the time Leandra. You need to pursue your own goals as well.”

“I know.” Leandra was silent for a few minutes. “I was a poacher for most of my life. I spent four years living with tigers and panthers in the jungle. I understand how the hunters and smugglers work; how they operate, where they go, when they go there. Surely someone can use that information.”

“I’m sure they could.” Ash studied the dark woman seriously. “But it’s up to you to make the first move, Leandra. They can’t accept your help if they don’t know you’re willing to give it.”

“So then…how do I get in touch with them?”

Ash grinned. “You’ve forgotten that we’re living in the Information Age. Communication is as easy as pressing a few keys on a computer.”

Leandra sat up a little straighter. “Oh?”

“Yeah. It shouldn’t be too tough to find a suitable organization on the internet, and you can just send them an email telling them who you are and how you can be of help to them.”

Dark brows contraction in confusion. “I-internet? Email?” Leandra shrugged, the words sounding like gibberish to her.

Ashley’s smile grew wider. “Didn’t you have a computer before you went to India?”

Leandra shook her head. “They seemed stupid. I didn’t care about typing or numbers. Aren’t they just like an overpriced calculator?”

The blonde laughed. “Not anymore. Technology has moved fast these last four years. Come on. Let’s get up, get some breakfast, and then I’ll take you an a tour of the information superhighway!” Her grin was broad as she threw off the covers. “Time to bring you up-to-date with the future, Jungle Jane.”

And so, after breakfast, Ashley took Leandra into her study and introduced her to the sleek, recently purchased computer that sat in pride-of-place on her desktop. Leandra watched, curious but wary, as Ashley switched the machine on. Even before her exile to the steamy Indian jungle, Leandra hadn’t cared much for complicated gadgets or expensive electronic conveniences, preferring to live her life in a world of flesh and blood, where she could exercise total control over her environment. Four years living with nothing more technical than a toothbrush had only served to further her estrangement from such modern appliances. So now, watching the monitor of the computer light up with a crisp, colorful illustration of an African rhino against the backdrop of the Serengeti, Leandra was understandably uncertain how this device was going to help her.

“Okay, let’s see…” Ashley fiddled with the mouse and made a few knowledgeable clicks. “We’ll just get on the net and see what we can find.” After a few moments and some strange noises – which Leandra thought sounded very much as though Ashley’s actions had killed the machine – the screen changed through a few different pictures before deciding on a final one. Ashley glanced at Leandra. “We’ll need some keywords first,” she explained patiently. “Then the computer will look for those words on the net and bring up a list of possibly useful sites. Let’s see, how about…” She began clicking away at the keyboard earnestly. “Wildlife protection organizations.”

Leandra moved closer to the mysterious computer, her curiosity piqued. Seeing her draw closer, Ashley pointed to the swivel-back chair beside her. “Sit down. It’s not going to bite you.” From the look on the dark woman’s face, it seemed she thought that was a distinct possibility. Leandra smiled a little nervously, then sat awkwardly in the offered chair.

Ashley watched the screen intently, smiling when the search yielded success. “Okay, this looks good. We’ve got a lot of things here. Um…” She studied the names and brief descriptions carefully. “This one sounds good.” She made a little point and click, bringing up a new window with colorful animal illustrations and a whole list of directories. Gesturing Leandra closer, she smiled. “See? If you click on the thing that sounds like what you want, it’ll take you to the next page. Like here, we’ve got info on poachers and poaching control, so we just move the mouse like so…click, and…” Like magic, a new window opened, featuring text on poachers. “We use this bar here to scroll down as we read, and this button here takes us back to the last window.” Glancing up and seeing the interested look on Leandra’s face, Ash scooted her seat over a little. “Here…give it a try.”

Leandra recoiled. “Oh…I-I don’t think that’d be such a great idea.”

“Why not? You won’t break it just by touching it. Come on, just put your hand on the mouse and see.”

Leandra smiled shakily, and reached out to place her hand on the odd looking device Ashley used to control the computer – which, incidentally, neither looked or smelled like any mouse she’d ever seen. Moving it around, she found the arrow on the screen obediently followed her directions. Her smile grew broader as she managed to scroll down the page, reading the neatly printed words as she went.

“So…you have all this stuff on your computer already?”

“Not exactly,” Ashley explained, watching as her lover started to gain a better understanding of how to control the computer. “They’re on the internet. It’s like a big, electronic library that you can access over the phone-lines. People make these web-sites about stuff they like, or businesses can use it to do their things without having to travel long distances. It has a lot of uses…although some people just think of it as a global pornography source.”

Leandra flashed her a wicked grin. “Well, that’s important too.”

Ashley rolled her eyes. “Anyway, you can use it to find a group that looks like they could use your help, and you can even send them a letter instantly to introduce yourself.”

Leandra absorbed this revelation, and shook her head in wonder. “The world outside the jungle moves so fast,” she whispered almost to herself. “Four years seems like a decade.”

“Yeah, well, technology in particular has made some pretty rapid developments,” Ash agreed. “Computers go out of date in a year nowadays.”

“Mmm.” Leandra eyed the humming machine with new respect. “Could this thing be used to do banking?”

“Sure. Why?”

“Maybe I can see if I still have an active account.”

“Oh. Well, let’s see…what was the name of your bank?” Ashley gently nudged the dark woman aside and made a few clicks.

“It was a little place in Switzerland called Holmes and Grey…at least, I think so.”

Ashley typed in a search, and smiled when the name came up immediately. “Okay, this is it.” Opening the new page, she scanned the details and found a link for existing clients. When she tried to access it, however, the machine demanded account details and a personal pass-code. She glanced at Leandra. “Can you remember this stuff?”

Leandra regarded the screen with narrowed eyes, casting back in her memory for details she’d long ago abandoned. Numbers flashed through her mind, but there had been so many different combinations that it was impossible to attach a specific one to this particular account. “Here, let me try a few things.” Leandra claimed the keyboard and studied the jumble of letters and numbers. “I had a standard code back then,” she said. “I couldn’t be bothered trying to remember a lot of things, so I just used the same one for everything.” In the appropriate box, she typed a word. “ARTEMIS.”

Ashley watched Leandra key in the code using one finger, taking time to locate the correct letters. “The goddess of the hunt?”

“Yeah.” Leandra gave a self-effacing smirk. “Like I told you, I was pretty cocky.” Studying the screen again, she frowned. “The numbers could be trickier…but I’ll try a few things.” Leandra closed her eyes a moment, then typed in a series of digits and clicked okay. The computer considered the request for access, then denied it. Leandra shrugged and tried another code, with the same result. She bit her lower lip. “This could take a while.”

“That’s okay. Should I make some coffee?”

“How about orange juice?” Leandra asked hopefully.

Ashley chuckled. Since her return to civilization, it seemed Leandra had developed a strong liking for orange juice, and she guzzled it by the gallon. “Fine. Keep trying, I’ll be back in a minute.”

By the time Ashley returned with two long glasses filled with thick orange liquid, Leandra was glaring at the computer maliciously. The screen continued to smugly display the ‘Access Denied’ sign, and the dark woman had a growing sense that the machine was not only evil, but was enjoying this game altogether too much. However, that only served to focus her desire to defeat the code all the more.

“Any luck?” Ashley asked, handing her lover one of the glasses.

“Mph.” Leandra growled. “I’ll get it. I just need to be patient.” She took a sip of OJ, sighing as the cool, sour juice slid down her throat and calmed her nerves. “Okay, let’s try this…” Leandra typed in another code, scowling when the computer again rejected it.

Ashley sat beside Leandra and watched as she tried again. It was three tries later that the computer considered the request gravely, then – seemingly with great reluctance – accepted the code, and brought up a new page of account information. Leandra blinked, then grinned fully. “I did it!”

“Cool.” Ashley sat up straighter and studied the details on screen. “Now what?”

“Now…I guess I click here to see a balance.” Leandra followed the link and watched as the computer pulled up a number representing the amount of money in her account. She gave her lover a crooked smile. “That should help me pay my way for a while.”

Ashley’s mouth hung open as she stared at the number. “I-is that…dollars? American dollars?”

“Yep.”

“But…you’re rich!”

“Well…” Leandra shrugged a little. “With no particular modesty, I was pretty good at what I did.”

Ashley couldn’t believe this. “Leandra, how can you…” She shook her head. “That’s millions!!”

“Looks that way.” Leandra regarded the number, her smile transforming into a sad frown. “It cost me more than it was worth,” she said quietly. “That’s blood-money, Ash. It can pay my way now, but more importantly, it can help me to make up for the things I did.” She sighed. “The next time we go into the city, I’ll see about closing the account and withdrawing the money.”

Ashley watched the various emotions flicker across her lover’s face, her heart bleeding at the pain she saw in the expressive icy eyes. She reached out a hand and petted Leandra on the shoulder. “You’re a different person now, Leandra. Just the fact that you’re willing to make some kind of reparation shows how much you’ve changed.”

Leandra smiled sadly. “Being sorry for what I did won’t bring back my parents,” she whispered. “It won’t bring back all the animals I hunted and killed, either.”

The two regarded one another for a long moment, before Ashley reached for the mouse. Clicking back through several screens, she returned to the site featuring animals and poachers. Clicking on the contact link, she brought up her email account and pressed a few keys. “Here’s the first step,” she said, turning back to Leandra. “It’s all set up. These people could use someone like you, Leandra. Just type out a letter. Tell them the truth, and they’ll understand. They can help you to make up for the things you did wrong.”

Leandra looked from the screen to her lover, and back. “It’s not easy,” she whispered. “What if they condemn me?”

“They won’t. They need all the help they can get…especially from someone like you, with so much experience.” The young blonde stood up and gave Leandra’s shoulder a comforting squeeze. “I’ll leave you alone for this…let you think about what you want to say. Give me a call when you want to send it.” Placing a soft kiss on her lover’s corded hair, Ashley turned and left Leandra in peace.

Alone, the dark woman regarded the computer monitor with trepidation. Her fingers traced along the edges of the keyboard, as a thousand memories flooded through her mind in ghostly waves. The faces of her parents and her beloved brother. Images of the carnage she had been responsible for…the tired, drawn faces of drug addicts and young kids whose lives she’d helped destroy with the narcotics she’d smuggled and sold. Haunting, pain-filled cries of the animals as she’d locked them in tiny cages for shipping all over the world. The memories rushed through her mind so fast Leandra had to close her eyes just to stop them from overwhelming her. And when she opened her eyes again, it seemed her whole life had come down to this one moment…and the emotionless, bleak screen of the monitor that sat, regarding her with sterile non-judgement.

Leandra took a deep breath, laid her hands on the keyboard, and slowly began to type.

***

Some time latter, the following message was zooming along the electronic super-highway; a simple request for compassion, and for the chance to put right a great many wrongs:

To Whom It May Concern,

My name is Leandra Thornton. I’m not sure if that name means anything to you, but at one point in my life, I was well-known as a smuggler, poacher, and dealer. I was one of the people you are trying so hard to exterminate…and I was one of the worst of my kind in the world. I slaughtered entire herds of endangered animals for profit and pleasure. I was responsible for trafficking shipments of rare wildlife to other countries under torturous conditions. And I helped refine the art of smuggling butchered animal parts so that the black market trade could continue despite the laws that would otherwise have been effective in their efforts to restrict it. I am not telling you this to boast, but simply to make you understand…both who I was, and what I can offer you now.

About four years ago, something happened that changed my life, and forced me to understand the terrible creature I had become. I was saved – to my way of thinking – by the very animals I would have hunted and killed without mercy. I will not relate the details of this transformation to you now. Suffice to say that I was given a second chance. A chance to make up for the damage I had been responsible for inflicting.

You have heard, perhaps, of the so-called ‘Indian Menace;’ a malicious spirit in the Indian forests that has become much feared by the poachers who have tried to operate there. Fear was the only tactic I had at that point, and the only way I could see to protect my new animal friends. Now, however, the ‘Indian Menace’ has left the jungle. I cannot return to that world, and so I must find other ways to atone for my crimes. To that end, I write this letter to you, hoping that you will be able to see past the creature I once was, and help me continue my path to redemption.

I have a great many skills at my disposal…skills which I have no doubt would be of great service to your mission. Not only do I understand the methods and means of the poachers you are trying to stop, but I also understand the ways of the animal world. The jungle was my home for four long years, and the animals I lived with were my only family. If you would accept them, I know my talents and resources could be a powerful weapon in your war against the men who are destroying the natural world.

This technology is new to me, but I assume you are able to send a reply over the computer. Therefore, I anxiously await a response…and I hope it will be one of positive nature.

Sincerely, Leandra Thornton.

***

When Ashley poked her head into the study an hour later, she couldn’t help but grin at what she saw. Leandra was perched on the swivel-chair with her legs tucked under her, one hand on the mouse and the other resting beside the keyboard. The monitor displayed a detailed, intricate map on which dozens of small figures raced around. The computer speakers relayed sounds of battle and cries of victory. Stepping into the room and circling her lover, Ashley’s grin grew wider at the expression of fixed intent Leandra wore – an expression reminiscent of the hunter face she’d worn in the jungle.

“Hey you.” Ash raised an eyebrow when Leandra glanced up from her game. “I thought you were writing a letter.”

“I did.” Leandra turned back to the screen. “I did what the machine told me to do, and I sent it. It wasn’t so hard. Then I was looking through these disk things and found this game…”

“Uh huh. ‘Warcraft,’ right? That’s Casey’s.” Ashley stepped closer and watched the miniature soldiers launch another attack. She was impressed Leandra had figured out how to make the game work; afterall, the CD stereo had completely confounded her initially. “Fun?”

“Yep. These orc thingy’s are stupid. I’ve almost taken them down.” The exultant gleam in Leandra’s burning eyes was indication enough that she was completely involved in the game.

Ash shook her head. “You should be careful,” she advised. “These games can be addictive.” She paused when her warning elicited no response. “Did the letter turn out okay?”

Leandra’s hand stilled on the mouse a moment, then she shrugged. “I think so. Guess now I just have to wait and see.”

“Uh huh.” Ashley was silent in thought for a while, considering. “You know,” she said at last, “we could use the internet for other things, too. I know we haven’t talked about it yet, but…there’s a chance we could look for the whereabouts of your brother.”

This time, Leandra pressed a button on the keyboard and paused the game. Turning, she gave her young lover her full attention, her expression frighteningly vulnerable. “I-is that something you…think I should do?”

“I don’t know, Leandra, but I do think it’s something you should consider.” Ashley paused. “It’s been a long time. Maybe…maybe he’s thought things through. Maybe he’s forgiven you…and wants to have his sister back. Is it fair to let him go on thinking you’re dead?”

“Is it fair to cut those old wounds again?” Leandra sighed and looked away. “I don’t know if I could handle his rejection again.”

“At least you could show him you’re trying to make things right…and that you’re sorry for what happened.”

“Maybe.” Leandra was still for a long moment, then she turned back to the computer and started the game up. Ashley took that as a sign the conversation was over, and didn’t press any further.

“You’ll think about it,” she said softly, then gave her attention back to the game Leandra was winning with brutal, cunning tactics.

***

The next night, Leandra lay on the couch, her head resting in Ashley’s lap while she watched the television through slitted, feline eyes. Casey sat Indian-style nearby, her interest focused more intently on the documentary she’d recorded and brought over for Leandra and Ashley to watch. Ashley was stroking Leandra’s hair softly, just enjoying the feel of her lover’s dreadlocks under her fingers. She could feel the soft burr of the dark woman’s purring echo through her loins, and couldn’t repress the thought of just how erotic the sensation was.

Casey rolled her eyes and glared at her aunt’s lover. “God Leandra, can’t you keep that noise down? You sound like a fighter jet!”

“She can’t help it,” Ashley defended. “It’s instinctive for her.”

Leandra just stretched herself out more fully across the photographer’s lap, and made a conscious effort to tone down the rumbling coming from her chest. This mollified Casey, who turned her attention back to the images on the television screen.

Ashley smiled as she felt the vibrations ease. Leaning down, she whispered softly in Leandra’s ear. “You sound like you’re in a good mood.”

Leandra glanced lazily up at the blonde woman. “Do I?”

“Yes.”

“Well maybe that’s because of all the attention I’m getting right now.”

Ashley grinned, and ran her fingers through the dark cords of hair that lay across her lap. She was silent for a few minutes, before she whispered, “This is really working out, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is.” Leandra turned a little and gazed lovingly at her partner. “Better than I thought it would, actually.”

“Mmm.” Ashley hesitated. “Did you really have a lot of doubts? You know, about us being able to make this thing work?”

“I knew there were going to be problems,” Leandra acknowledged quietly. “I wasn’t sure how much of my humanity had been lost out there. But if you’re asking did I doubt our love?” She smiled teasingly. “I wouldn’t have come back with you if I did.”

Ashley smiled, then leaned down and kissed Leandra on the forehead. “Thank you.”

“Welcome.” Leandra fixed her sleepy eyes back on the screen before her.

Things were really coming together. Leandra could feel herself changing in subtle ways. The edgy instincts that had developed after so long in the jungle were still strong, and she knew they would be a part of her nature forever now, but she was finding it easier to deal with them than she’d expected. Of course, the true challenges had yet to be faced. Leandra hadn’t really ventured into social situations yet…and there were still issues that she knew would have to be confronted at some point in the future. Her brother…the animal rights groups…and of course, the suggestion Ashley had made that the torn ligaments and muscles in her shoulder from Shar-Tushar’s bite could perhaps be repaired with surgery. Leandra had no misconceptions of how difficult things could become down the track…but she had accepted this place as her home now, and she had a new family to love and care for.

After four years in the jungle…Leandra felt like she had finally come home.

For several long minutes, the only sound to fill the room was the voice of the narrator on the television. Still, Leandra’s contentment with her new life couldn’t stay silent forever. Soon enough, Casey threw a cushion at the dark woman, complaining noisily about the volume of her purring.

Smiling, Leandra again made an effort to be quiet, and snuggled deeper into Ashley’s lap.

THE END.

AUTHORS NOTES: I would like to take this opportunity to encourage all readers to spend a single moment contemplating that most simple, yet terrible word: ‘extinction’. There are thousands of species of animals worldwide that mankind has almost destroyed, through hunting, poaching, pollution, and deforestation. Every day, the world looses another part of its wondrous diversity. If the trend continues, the only creatures that will inhabit this planet will be those that are able to exist in a jungle of concrete and steel. Try to imagine a world in the future where we will have to explain to our children that our greed and ignorance cost us these irreplaceable treasures like the Bengal Tiger. Extinction is forever…and no money in the world will bring back those animals we destroy in the name of progress or profit. Many organizations are trying to save endangered species, and I would encourage everyone to take a look at their web-sites.

Thank you for reading,

Amber.

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