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 Gradys 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. Shed 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 hadnt 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 couldnt 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. Leandras 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 aunts 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 Leandras expression would become even more intense and focused than usual, as though she wanted to absorb every word and description that was offered. Seeing Leandras obvious fascination with the world shed left behind, Ashley talked more and more about her life and the places shed 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 werent any closer to getting pictures of that damn cat. Let me guess youre going off with tiger-woman again today, right?"
"I told you, her name is Leandra and yes, Im spending the day with her." Ashley gave her partner a quick grin. "I dont see why youre so down in the dumps about it, Grady. For one thing, shes helping me get some unbelievable shots out there and for another, shes keeping me out of trouble, so you can get your own work done in peace without having to worry that Im 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 hed had to rescue her from a stampede in Africa because shed been too busy taking photos to get out of the way. "Leandras a wonderful person, so dont 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. "Im sorry Simon, but I dont think shed be interested," she said, watching his expression drop. "Shes just a very private person, Im afraid and I dont think she wants a lot of people all staring at her and asking lots of questions."
"But I wouldnt be invasive," Simon argued. "I-Id just like to see her, thats all."
"I know, and Ill mention it to her. If shes interested in meeting you, shell tell me when shes 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 didnt 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 Im doing? I came to see you of course."
Ashley blushed deep crimson. "You shouldnt 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.
Leandra shrugged and settled herself down on the rock more comfortably. "Thats okay. Ill just wait till youre 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! Youre embarrassed to be naked around me?"
"No, but " Ashley fidgeted with the edge of the towel uncertainly.
"You dont need to be shy Ashley," Leandra said simply. "I doubt you have anything there I dont 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. "Thats a very nice offer, but I dont think itll 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 doesnt 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 didnt seem likely to get her bath finished with if she didn't give her some privacy, Leandra sighed and turned away a little. "I wont 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 Leandras 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 didnt 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 womans presence away in her memory. She knew Ashley would be leaving sooner or later, and she didnt 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 shed 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 Ashleys 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, Im 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.
"Great, Ill 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 photographers backside before she disappeared back into the forest, enjoying the way the brief outfit displayed her slender curves. An unconscious rumble stirred in Leandras 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 hes probably the dominant tiger in this territory."
"Actually," Leandra smiled, "hes a rogue male, just passing through."
"How do you-" Ashley stopped at the knowing grin on the dark womans 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."
"Well lots of things. Like for example how well the tiger knows me what kind of mood its in. Plus, some species are more aggressive than others. And I wouldnt get within a hundred feet of a male during mating season."
Ashley absorbed this slowly. "Well, whats the closest youve ever got? Have you ever petted one like, a real wild one?"
A slightly uneasy expression tensed Leandras features for a moment and she rubbed at her right shoulder as though pained. "Lets just say Ive been closer than youd 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 doesnt wash away so easy in the rain."
Ashley studied the grainy, rough texture of the paint, running a finger along Leandras 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 shed 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 Leandras design. "Must be tough doing your back, huh?"
"It was at first," Leandra grinned, "but I got used to it. Now its 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, thats another good thing about it; if the poachers do see me, theyre usually so shocked they dont react quick enough to save themselves."
"Right." Ashleys smile faltered at the reminder that her companion was a killer. It was difficult to reconcile the memory of Leandras 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 photographers 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 womans company.
Leandra saw the fleeting look of disquiet in Ashleys 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. Leandras 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 hadnt seen before.
"It could just be the rangers-"
"No," Leandra quickly rejected. "Thats a large-caliber hunting rifle only a poacher would have use for one out here." Ice blue eyes softened with true regret. "Im sorry I have to check it out."
Ashley sighed. "I understand," she said quietly, cursing the interruption to their day.
"Theres a bend in the creek up ahead," Leandra said, equally disappointed. "If you want to, you can wait there for me and Ill be back as soon as I can."
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 womans 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 wasnt 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 Leandras 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 didnt 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, Leandras 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 Leandras 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 wasnt 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, Leandras 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.
* * *
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 couldnt find the woman once shed 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 hed 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 cant deny the evidence of my own eyes." He chuckled a little. "Not quite a ghost, however shes as much flesh and blood as you or I."
Shaun grunted, his arms folded across his chest angrily. "So why didnt you just shoot her from here?"
Jack shook his head. "She sensed us watching and ran," he said, still marveling at the strange womans apparent hyper-awareness. "Shes quick and wary well 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 shes been living out here a while which means she must have developed a good survival instinct. More animal than human, Ill bet. Still " He offered a confidant grin. " well be the ones doing the hunting now, and while she may be fast, I doubt shell be able to dodge a bullet!"
"Thats if shes human," Shaun pointed out, still not entirely convinced. "Shes the one whats killed all the other guys. I bet they were careful, too, but it didnt do em any good, did it?"
Jack scowled. "They were taken by surprise," he said softly. "She wont 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, well 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! Shes just some whacked-out loon whos gone psycho and started killing poachers! We put her down, and then when we get out of here, everyone elsell 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 thatll make for a powerful reputation," he continued enticingly. "Well both be legends!"
Shauns eyes lit up. "Really?"
"And youre sure we can get her?"
Jack grinned. "Ive hunted everything on this planet that walks or crawls trust me Shaun, humans are a lot easier to kill than the big cats thatre out there."
Shaun considered carefully, unable to resist the tempting idea of being able to brag that hed 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.
* * *
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 Leandras striped form emerged from the forest.
"Jeez Leandra, whatd I tell you about sneaking up on me!" she scolded.
"Sorry." Leandra smiled warmly, unable to hold a repentant expression. "Ill 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."
"Well " Leandra thought back on the warning her body had given her, trying to figure out what had caused the desire to flee. "It wasnt 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 youre 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. "Cant blame me for being interested," she said quietly. "You did set up camp in my hunting ground, remember."
"I know." Ashley considered Leandras report. "Maybe the shot was just a signal or something," she suggested. "Its pretty easy to get lost out here if you dont know what youre 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 Ashleys company. Being with the young blonde made her feel more human than shed 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? Theres a nice little clearing not too far up ahead."
The two stood and continued on down the dry creek bed, Ashley starting a story of her nieces 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 friends face, and quirked an eyebrow at her curiously.
"What are you smiling about?"
"Nothing big," Leandra replied. "Theres a small herd of chitel feeding a few miles east of here in the grasslands. I found them last night, but there wasnt time to hunt, so I left it for today. I havent been bringing in much prey lately, so this is good."
"Why havent you been hunting?" Ashley asked, then suddenly realized the only possible reason. "Oh." She smiled shyly. "You know, you dont have to keep me entertained Leandra. If you need to hunt, thats fine. I dont want to be causing you problems."
"Its no problem." Leandra started guiding their footsteps along the river bank, heading east. "Id rather spend the time with you; its been a nice change for me to have another person around. But still, I could use the meat. Ive been draining my rice supplies too quickly."
"So I guess you cant do much today, huh?"
"Actually " Leandra smiled shyly at her companion, "I was going to ask if youd like to come with me. As long as you stay quiet, you shouldnt frighten them away."
Ashleys face lit up with pleasure at the invitation, delighted at the opportunity to see more of how Leandra lived out here. "Id love to come! Are you sure you dont mind?"
"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 didnt like to talk about it too much; didnt 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 didnt 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 Ashleys 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 wasnt 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, lets 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 theyre not the biggest problem. Look in the tree branches just above where theyre feeding."
Ashley looked, her eyes narrowing in confusion. "Monkeys?"
"Uh huh. They might be able to spot me easier, and if they do theyll warn the chitel. The two groups often form alliances for mutual protection it always helps to have friends out here when youre on the bottom of the food-chain."
Ashley shook her head, a little disappointed. She didnt 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 Ill help you into this tree so you can get a better view."
"Wait you mean you think you can still do this?"
"Sure. Ive 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.
"Ill 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 dont see how you can do this."
Leandras 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 shed 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, couldnt 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, Leandras 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 Leandras endurance. She was sure she couldnt 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, shes 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 Leandras thighs, arms and stomach stand out like steel cords beneath the paint, and she shook her head in amazement. Shes 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. Shes got a body to die for, and absolutely gorgeous eyes. If her hair was introduced to a brush once in a while, I bet itd look really great. And that husky, throaty voice God, if she were one of those phone-sex girls, shed make a fortune!
Ashley let her eyes roam a little more personally over Leandra, her lips pursing in serious contemplation. Plus, she added mentally, shes got that whole sexual predator thing going on even if shes not aware of it. When she purrs, or stretches herself I dont think she has any idea how hot that looks.
Green eyes rolled a little. God, Ashley, I didnt think you went in for the bad-girl type! Still, the young woman couldnt 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 does with enough power to knock the startled creature off its feet and onto its side. Even before Leandras 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.
Ashleys 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 Leandras 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 theyd never even seen it coming.
Swift, brutal, and frightfully effective Leandras hunting style was every bit as awesome a spectacle as a real tiger attack.
Still, Ashley hadnt 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, shed 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 womans painted skin shimmering under a light sweat, and her breathes coming hard almost panting. Trying to ignore the spattered blood that marked the dark womans body, and her crimson-stained hands, Ashley beamed a brilliant smile.
"That was incredible!" she said, crouching down next to her friend. "Ive 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. "Its how I was taught."
Ashley studied the slain doe, grimacing slightly at the horribly torn throat. "What now? I mean youre 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. "Ill 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 Leandras claws. "You cant 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 its gone now. I use this instead."
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 wasnt 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 doesnt go unnoticed out here for long," she explained. "In a few minutes, somethings bound to find us and we have to be gone before that happens. I dont 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 didnt have much luck catching food for myself. I um I had to scavenge what I could from the kills of others."
Ashley didnt even want to think what kinds of things Leandra must have eaten to survive. "Good thing you got better, huh?"
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 Leandras appetite was somewhat voracious, and grinned.
"You remind me of my nieces cat," she said. "Everytime you offer her food, she just cant resist, even if shes already full."
"Its 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 wont come here," Leandra said confidently. "A wolf wont get too close to a tiger or a leopard unless its 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."
Ashley watched her friend surreptitiously as she used a rag to wash away the blood from her hands, green eyes wandering along the tall womans 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.
"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? Its 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 Leandras 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 youre 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, thats my business, not yours!"
"Oh really? So youll 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 wasnt going to do any good if he got angrier. "Look, Ashley just try to remember that when youre 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 Im safe! Shed never let anything hurt me."
Grady scowled, then noticed flecks of dark crimson staining the young womans arms and clothing. He pointed. "So whats this? Blood?"
Ashley flushed a little. "Its not mine," she explained. "She took me hunting I got a little dirty, thats all."
Grady threw his hands up in disbelief. "Hunting!? Are you going to try telling me thats not potentially dangerous?"
"No," she said angrily. "But its certainly no more dangerous than any of the other things Ive done. Why is it pissing you off so much that Im spending time with this woman?"
"I just dont like you taking risks when you dont need too, thats 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. "Were here to do a job, Ashley not spend time with the locals."
"And Leandras 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 dont I mean, she uh-" She swallowed nervously. "She doesnt really like to talk about the tigers much," she said quietly. "I dont want to push her about it."
Grady slapped his thighs and sighed. "Well maybe you should," he said. "Remember, were only here for another week and a bit. Then, were flying out of here and if you havent got the pictures by then, thats it. You dont get a second chance at this sort of thing."
"I know that but Im not going to do anything to make Leandra uncomfortable."
"And thats another thing," Grady continued. "I think maybe youre getting attached to your subject. What happens when we leave? Hows Leandra going to take that?"
"She knows when Im leaving. Its good for her to have some company. Some human company."
"So youre telling me youre not getting attached?"
Ashley lowered her eyes a little, remembering the thoughts shed started having today. "Theres 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 partners 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 didnt know better, she would have suspected Grady was jealous of the time shed 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, Ashleys calves and lower back were killing her; she wasnt 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 shed 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 hadnt 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, shed 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 didnt 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 wasnt 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, Ashleys visions of the perfect woman ran along fairly simple lines. She would be of average height (being so short, Ashley didnt 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 Ive been barking up the wrong tree, Ashley thought to herself. Maybe the problem has been that Ive 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 whos 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 doesnt fit in with my perfect ideal doesnt change the fact that shes one hot lookin lady! And she has no inhibitions whatsoever thatd certainly be a change! Thus far, Ashleys 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 shed 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, Leandras 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 didnt 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 wasnt 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 didnt 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 yesterdays 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 Ashleys 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 Ashleys 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 womans 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. Leandras 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, Im not staying at the hide with Simon!" the angry blonde fumed. "Now go away! Leandra wont come if youre here."
From her hiding place, Leandra grinned. She accepts me so easily, she marveled happily. She doesnt ask questions when she knows I dont want to answer she just lets me be who I am around her.
Unfortunately, the tall man with dark-brown hair didnt back down. "Then maybe I should just stay with you," he snapped, folding his arms over his chest. "You shouldnt be going off like this with that woman!"
Leandra growled, not liking this man at all.
"I can do what I want, Grady! Its none of your business!"
"It is when youre 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!"
Ashleys face was flushed with anger. "I am NOT going to use Leandra just to get a few photos!" she shouted. "Shes 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! Its what were paying him for, isnt 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.
Leandras 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. "Its okay, he wasnt 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 Gradys 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 dont 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. "Im 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 were 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 didnt need to frighten him like that," she rebuked the dark woman gently, her laughing eyes revealing that she wasnt 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."
"Gradys a little frustrated," Ashley explained. Normally, she didnt like other people butting in and trying to fight her battles for her, but for some reason Leandras swift defense of the perceived attack didnt annoy her at all. In fact, it felt kind of nice. "Im not sure why, but hes got a bug up his arse about me spending so much time with you."
Leandra shuffled her feet a little uncomfortably. "I dont want to be causing you problems," she said quietly. "You know, if you have a job to do-"
"Hey " Ashley took the dark womans arms and shook her head. "Im doing my job just fine. Believe me Leandra, youre not hindering my work at all."
Leandra nodded her shy acceptance. "Okay then." She smiled sheepishly. "I guess hes not gonna like me any more for attacking him like that, huh?"
Ashley snorted. "I dont care what Grady thinks. He should know better by now than to try and push me around like that. If you hadnt put him in his place, Id 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 didnt even really think about it," she admitted after a moment of thought. "I just didnt like seeing him get rough with you. I mean youre my friend, so "
"I understand." Ashley studied her companion curiously. "Guess youre a little territorial, huh?" she joked.
Leandra took the question seriously, however, and nodded a fraction. "I guess so. I dont like it when " She hesitated, her expression troubled. "I dont like it when someone tries to hurt my friends."
Ashley smiled, a pleasant tingle running through her body. "Well, I dont mind if youre a bit overprotective," she smiled. "Its not something I usually like, but Im willing to make an exception for you." She chuckled, and added, "Just as long as you dont get it into your head to start marking your territory."
Leandra couldnt help herself, and laughed too. "I promise Ill resist the urge, no matter how tempting it might be."
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 shed 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 havent told him there is no white tiger," she admitted. "I think itd probably just make him angrier now, so "
"Hmm." The dark woman was silent, considering. "It meant a lot to you, didnt it?" she probed gently.
"What? Seeing the cat? Well, sure I mean, its 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 thats a pretty dangerous job."
"I know." Ashley laughed a little. "But its no more dangerous than the other assignments Ive had."
"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 youre used to taking risks?"
"Sure. Its 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. Ive been bitten three times by snakes, at least a dozen times by spiders, and I cant 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, Im too busy taking pictures to worry about the danger until its too late. I get scared afterwards."
"So tigers are just another routine job for you, I suppose."
"Well yeah, I guess." Ashley considered. "Its my first time here, of course and a white tigers pretty unusual."
"You werent 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 Im glad I did. Maybe thats part of the reason why Gradys upset he didnt really want to come here, but I charmed him into it, and now all Im doing is spending time with you."
"You have a boss back home?"
"Will you get in trouble when you return empty-handed?"
Ash grinned. "What empty-handed?" She gestured towards the elephants. "Thanks to you, Ive got some of the best stuff Ive 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 wont yell at me too much, or I might take my talent elsewhere."
"Mmm." Leandra absorbed that, pleased that her friend wasnt 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 Im 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 Id 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 Id be now if things had worked out differently."
Ashley heard the sudden change in the dark womans tone, and wondered nervously what she should say. Leandra hadnt really spoken of her life before she came here, only alluding to the fact that shed 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 arent perfect its a part of being human."
"Maybe." Leandra felt tears burn in her eyes as faces from her past rose in her memory. "But that doesnt 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 youve 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 couldnt face the pain of dealing with the consequences?"
Ashley was silent, not expecting such a question. She could see a naked vulnerability in Leandras 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 cant say that I have." Her eyes flickered over Leandras face, seeing a slight trembling in the dark womans body. She moved a little closer, wanting to offer some kind of comfort. "Whatever happened, Leandra," she said softly, "its in the past. You shouldnt 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 doesnt change who you are today."
"You dont know what youre 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 youd have met me back then, you wouldnt 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 dont care what you were like before you came here, Leandra," she whispered. "Thats not who you are now. If it were, do you think Id be here with you now? That Id 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 Leandras face. "Whatever you were in the past when I look at you now, I see a good person, Leandra. A person Ive grown to like very much in only a few short days."
"Still, nothing. Im sure youve done things you regret things that you wish you could take back but you cant 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 couldnt 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 Leandras past, she restrained her desires, knowing the questions would do more harm than good. So she had accepted the dark womans 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 friends melancholy spirit. While she was concerned for Leandra, the young blonde couldnt 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 cant 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 " Ashleys 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, Ill be visiting one of those leather-fetish bars and buying myself a leash!" she snorted not quite able to convince herself that she wouldnt mind trying a few new things if Leandra would show her the ropes.
Still, for all its impracticality, Ashley couldnt help but be a little amused at herself. It had been a long time since shed felt this way about someone, and it was kind of nice to finally have such a strong focus for her more licentious thoughts. Leandras 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 shed 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, Id forgotten what it feels like to have a serious crush," she thought aloud. "I just hope she doesnt catch on I dont wanna scare her off now that shes opening up."
If she were being honest with herself, Ashley didnt thing Leandra was the sort of person who would be offended by another woman being attracted to her. From what shed learned of the dark womans personality, Leandra didnt 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, didnt seem important to her. Still, Ashley didnt want to rock the boat.
Besides, she thought, I wouldnt even know how to tell her I like her. I mean, that I really like her. I cant just come right out and say it. Ive never had the guts to say it to a man before, so I sure as hell wouldnt be able to say it to a woman!
Ashley paused, going over her mental ramblings. "What am I doing!? I cant believe Im actually trying to justify this thing, let alone that Im wondering how to tell her Ive got the hots for her! Thats 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 thats 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 Gradys somewhat cautious expression with a neutral face. He was alone. The tall man settled himself on the log-seat opposite her.
Ashley regarded him coolly. "If youre 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 shes of any danger."
Grady sighed and ran his fingers through his neatly-cropped hair. "I know," he said softly. "And Im sorry I lost my cool this morning I didnt mean to grab you like that."
"Youre just lucky Leandra was there," the blonde said with a slight smile. "If she hadnt jumped in like that, youd 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 shes just as you described her right down to the growling and snarling."
"Shes nice once you get to know her." Ashley stopped her careful work and set her equipment aside. "I dont understand what you have against her."
Grady frowned. "Shes an unnecessary distraction, and a killer," he said. "Nothing you can say in her defense can change that fact. And having met her, Im sorry Ash, but I like her even less."
Ashleys expression hardened a fraction. "Shes still my friend, and I do like her. So just accept it."
"I know," Grady said, holding his hands up peacefully. "Youve made it quite clear youre going to go your own way on this, regardless of how I feel, so " He sighed. "I may not like it, but Im not going to argue with you anymore. All I ask is that you be careful."
Ashleys face softened. "I will. Besides, were only here for another week or so, and then well be on a plane heading back home."
"Without the pictures we came here for," Grady pointed out, ignoring his partners 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, Ill 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. "Howve 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 couldnt 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 shed 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 wasnt 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, shed 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 shed left behind. Now, things were changing.
The young woman had come along and shattered the perfect isolation of Leandras 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. Ive been out here for FOUR YEARS! I gave up EVERYTHING my money, the comforts of my life even my humanity. Isnt 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 didnt 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 shed 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 wouldnt betray me. If I show her, shell understand how important it is that it remain a secret.
But why take the risk? You cant be sure.
It would mean a lot to her. It would show her how much I trust and care for her.
This isnt about caring. Youre not thinking with your head, thats the problem.
Come on! Four years of celibacy after a lifetime of debauchery, and now some cute little blonde comes along and youve got an itch you want her to scratch!
Leandra blushed a little. Its not like that.
No. I like her. Shes not like any of the others I care about her.
So youre willing to betray your most sacred trust? Why?
Leandras lips quirked. "It would make her happy," she whispered aloud. "Id do anything to make her smile and this means a lot to her."
It puts her in danger.
"Ill keep her safe."
Even if you show her, it doesnt mean shell 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 couldnt see. "I dont care," she said softly. "I want to show her and Im 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.
Continued in Part 3.
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