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. "Its not even three oclock!" she exclaimed, annoyed at the interruption of her sleep.
"Shhh!" Leandra covered the young womans mouth quickly, her eyes darting around conspiratorially. "Be quiet! Youll wake the others."
"So?" Noticing the strange look in her friends 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."
Leandra shook her head. "I cant say. You just have to trust me please?"
Ashley studied the tension in Leandras dimly visible features, her natural curiosity helplessly piqued by this mysterious visit. "You cant say where were going?"
Again, Leandra shook her head. "We need to hurry."
"It cant wait till morning?"
"No. Please I promise, if you just come with me now, itll be worth it for you."
Ashley pushed her disheveled hair from her face. "How long will we be gone?"
"Ill have to tell Grady. Hell be worried."
"No!" Leandra firmly shook her head. "The others cant know where were 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, hell come looking for me with Tarun. Can I at least leave a note?"
Leandra considered, then nodded. "Fine. But be quick. Ill 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 Ashleys 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. "Its okay. But promise me that any photos you take stay private. You wont 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. "Its 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 wasnt 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, Im 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 theyd 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 wasnt 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. "Dont run away. Dont make any threatening gestures or sharp movements. Youll be safe with me just as long as you dont 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 Ashleys 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 Leandras 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 Ashleys 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 couldnt recall a time when shed 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. Mankinds 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 couldnt 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 Ashleys 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 didnt think shed 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.
"Dont look her in the eyes," she ordered quietly. "Shell 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 womans scent. A low, rumbling growl that no longer seemed threatening emanated from deep in the tigers chest. Leandra crawled forward slowly, dipping her head and exposing her neck. To Ashleys astonishment, the tigeress responded by nuzzling her, butting their heads together in the same way her nieces 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 Ashleys 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 shed 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, thats 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 didnt correct you."
Ashley considered that, still enthralled by the magnificent creature sitting not more than fifteen feet from her. "Shes beautiful."
"Yes, she is." Leandra regarded Shar-Ranjana with a look that was affectionate yet sorrowful. "Ive 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. "Theyre both dead," she whispered. "So is her brother."
"Oh." From the look of regret and sorrow on Leandras 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-Ranjanas father must have been to Leandra. "Im 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."
Leandras smile turned into a grin. "Oh, this is only half the surprise," she said.
"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 didnt offer protest when they started chewing on her arms.
"Theyre 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 womans face touched the dark woman deeply, and she purred with content as she settled herself against Shar-Ranjanas 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 Leandras 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 cant believe this." She cuddled with one of the young cubs, stroking its orange fur curiously. "Why arent 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 shes found either by the rangers, or the poachers shell be taken from the jungle and kept in a cage. Or worse, shell 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 didnt 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 youre right. Theyd want to put her in a zoo or something."
Leandra nodded. "Thats not where Shar-Ranjana belongs. Shes a wild animal the jungle is her home."
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 mothers 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 Leandras ice-blue eyes looking back at her with deep intensity. "Thank you," she said softly. "I really dont know what to say, but " She smiled and reached out to pat the dark womans arm. "That was very special Leandra."
Leandras 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. "Im 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 cant believe I got that close to a white tiger!" Ashley exclaimed, still wearing the same grin shed sported all day since theyd left the clearing. "I mean, thats got to be some kind of record or something, right? How many people in history do you think could honestly say theyve 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 didnt 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 Leandras 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 womans 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 shed feared the consequences of rejection feared she might loose something she couldnt 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, Im kinda hungry." Ashleys voice penetrated Leandras troubled thoughts. "I dont suppose youd 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 Leandras 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. Im 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.
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 hadnt 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.
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. Im 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. Shed 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 didnt 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 Leandras 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 mans 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 didnt hesitate. No testing jabs or feints she lashed out with savage strength and raw fury. The poachers 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 enemys 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 didnt back away, every line of her body radiating anger and lethal intent. Another successful attack drew a neat set of bloody lines across the mans 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 Leandras 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 Leandras 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. Leandras eyes were squeezed shut, involuntary tears escaping and running down her face. "Leandra? Whats 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 youll just let me look-"
"DONT TOUCH ME!"
Ashleys hands withdrew instantly as Leandra recoiled in fear. "I wont hurt you Leandra, but I need to see whats wrong."
"No please. Just give me a minute and Ill 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 friends desire not to be touched.
Leandra shook her head. "Its nothing. He just hit me in a bad spot, thats all." She smiled shakily, the left side of her mouth already starting to swell from the kick shed received from the poacher. "I just need a few moments to rest, then well 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. Shed heard the desperate tone in her friends voice when shed 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 shes capable of?
The answer came easily to mind as she studied her recovering companion. Because I know shed never hurt me. She trusted me enough to show me Shar-Ranjana, even though shes only known me a week. She invited me into her life, spoke with me when shes stayed silent for three years Shes 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. "Lets go."
"Are you sure youre okay?" Ashley asked. She could see clearly that Leandra was still hurting. Beneath the faded paint, the photographer was certain Leandras face would be pale and drawn.
But the tall woman brushed her concern aside easily. "Ill be fine. Its happened before. Sometimes it takes a while to get better, thats all."
"Alright." Ashley watched her friend carefully as they started walking, noticing the way Leandras jaw clenched tightly and the dizzy, glazed look in her eyes. One way or another, I need to see that shoulder. Shes 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 Leandras 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. "Theres nothing you can do," she insisted. "Ill be fine if I can just rest." But her eyes betrayed her suffering and Ashleys face hardened.
"Leandra, Im not going to just sit here while youre hurting. I have to do something. That hit shouldnt 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, Leandras face said she wasnt 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 womans shoulder. Leandras face was a stony mask as she struggled to permit the inspection.
Beneath the brief clothing, Leandras 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, Leandras 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 womans 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-Ranjanas father didnt 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. "Its a long story."
Ashley recognized the signs; this wasnt 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 Leandras 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 couldnt. Turning her head, she looked into soft green eyes that were filled with compassion and sympathy. "Why wont 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 wont it stop?" she sobbed, releasing her pain for the first time since shed 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. "Its alright," she whispered gently. "Itll be okay."
Leandras 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. "Im sorry-" Fingers pressed against her lips, stopping her.
"Theres 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. "Its just " She struggled for a moment. "Sometimes I dont feel it for days, and I start to think maybe its never going to hurt again. And then, something happens like Ill 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 dont 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 couldnt go to a hospital."
Ashleys eyes narrowed. "Then its 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 youd need to go to a hospital and have surgery done."
Leandra smiled grimly. "Thats not too likely while Im living out here, is it?"
Ashley returned the smile hesitantly. "I guess not." She rubbed at the smeared stripes on the dark womans face. "Guess youre gonna need to redo your paint job, huh."
"Yeah." Leandra sighed and lay down on her pallet, relaxing and willing the pain to recede. "Ill take a bath tomorrow. Theres 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 contemplations involving her friends 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. "Ive 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. "Id wager theres a lot of people out there whod pay good money to have me put down."
"Doesnt that bother you?"
"Why should it? Im quieter, faster and deadlier than they are. Ill survive. They wont."
Ashley shook her head at Leandras simple logic. Thats how shes learned things work. Predator, prey. Shes 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, didnt 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 Leandras 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 wouldnt mind letting lick my bowl clean.
Her face instantly colored, and she was grateful Leandras 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 Leandras wonderfully-exposed form she couldnt 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 Im sure shed like that Her eyes flirted with the hem of Leandras brief skirt. Then I could slide my fingers up her thighs and around her hips then maybe down until I reach
Ashleys 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.
"Uh no, I was just " Ashley struggled to formulate coherent thought, her eyes eventually finding a lifeline. " noticing its getting near the afternoon. Gradyll probably start to get worried if Im not back by sundown, and itll take me at least two hours to make it back to camp so "
"You have to go?"
Ashley almost nodded, but something in Leandras 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 its 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, hes got nothing to say about it. "Then Ill stay." She smiled at the look of pure delight on the dark womans 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 youd 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 hed 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 beaks 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 hed expected, somehow picking up on his presence and evading his shot with impressive agility. Jack didnt like to think hed underestimated his prey, but in this case he had to admit that hed assumed too much. The dark-haired woman was even more dangerous than hed thought, and he knew hed only escaped death with a lucky punch.
Still, all had not been in vain. Hed discovered two very important holes in the armor of his quarry. First, the strange weakness that had felled her so easily. Jack wasnt sure what was wrong with the womans 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 hadnt been expecting her appearance, and it had jeopardized his original plan thoroughly. Still, he had noted with interest the desperate tone in the dark womans 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.
"Its going to be dark soon," Leandra noted.
"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 wouldnt be a problem."
"Actually, Id rather stay here if its okay with you." Ashley didnt want to leave Leandra now. If she went back to her tent, she knew shed lie awake all night thinking of her dark-haired friend. She looked at the thin, rough pallet dubiously. "Think theres enough room on that thing for two?"
Leandras 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 Leandras flustered reaction. Maybe I could just sleep on top of you, she suggested silently. "Dont be silly Leandra. We can just snuggle up together and that way well 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 dont suppose thats a good idea without a blanket though, huh?"
Leandras 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. Whats got you so tongue-tied, Jungle Jane? "Oh well, I can manage for one night I suppose. Besides youll keep me warm, right?"
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 shed 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.
Leandras 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 dont know that Ive earned the right to leave this place yet."
Ashley considered that statement, and suddenly something clicked in her mind. "This is a punishment, isnt it?" she said, shifting around to face her friend more directly. "Youre out here because youre trying to make up for something?"
"For being a poacher?"
Silence for a moment. Then the quiet answer, "Not just for that." Leandras eyes were distant, obviously looking back at the past. "Its difficult to explain."
Ashley heard the unspoken words. Shes never had to explain it to anyone but herself. She convicted herself of whatever crime she thinks shes committed, she passed judgement, and she enforced her decision and the only one shes ever had to answer too is herself. "You dont have to tell me about it if you dont 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?"
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? Youve seen what I do how I live. Why would you want to be friends with a killer?"
Ashley cocked her head to the side. "Youre a nice person, Leandra," she said softly. "I admit, I dont really like what youre doing out here, but " she shrugged. "I can take it separate from the person you are. I think youre interesting, loyal and I dont know why, but I feel really comfortable when Im 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.
Leandras voice was filled with a childlike quality that touched Ashley deep inside. She shifted closer. "Why would you think that?"
"Because its 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 havent seen him in " She thought for a moment. " probably seven or eight years. He must think Im dead." A lone finger traced an idle pattern in the dirt. "I bet hes 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? Im 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 hed be thrilled to find out Im still alive."
Ash was silent, not knowing what to say. Leandra turned back to the darkening jungle once more, her eyes turgid with emotions shed 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 Id 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 didnt look too hard at him, so we made a good team. I learned quick, and it wasnt 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.Dd, things got strained between us. It was like I was walking forward and Id keep drawing a line in the sand for him to cross. And every time, Id promise that itd be as far as wed go; I wouldnt ask for more than this. And he followed me everytime until one day I guess he just decided hed come far enough, and couldnt 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 didnt 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." Leandras 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! Im 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 Leandras shoulder and forced her to meet her gaze. "Thats not true. You couldnt have known."
Leandras eyes flashed. "Dont you think I know that?" She frowned and pulled away. "For the next three years thats all I told myself! I wasnt the one who threw the firebombs. I didnt mean for them die. But it doesnt change the fact that if it werent for me, theyd still be alive! And no matter how much I told myself I didnt 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 didnt want to work for anyone but myself anymore. I set out on my own, and with the connections Id made it wasnt 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 didnt 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 wasnt 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 Id 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 didnt care. Most poachers went in groups, but I didnt 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 Id 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." Leandras face was still, but her eyes were alive with the remembered terror. A shudder ran through her body and she hugged herself tight. "Ive 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 Id 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 Leandras 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 didnt know what was happening why the tiger hadnt 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 Leandras voice changed subtly, the horror of the memories now blending to an expression of wonder. "I cant even begin to describe what happened next. Im not really sure I understand it myself. But the way he looked at me it was like he could see every sin Id ever committed, every hurt Id inflicted." Her voice became a whisper. "His eyes washed over my soul like a benediction, and suddenly all the pain Id 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 hed 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 Id ever thought to hunt him. I looked back at what my life had become and I realized that in all those years, I hadnt 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. "Id lost a lot of blood," she continued softly. "I wasnt conscious long. But just before I passed out again, something in his eyes changed. I dont know how, but something passed between us and I realized his mercy came with a price. He didnt 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. Im still not sure how I got there. The couple who lived there wouldnt tell me anything. They saw my clothes they knew what I was. But they didnt 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 Id ever done weighing me down: the death of my parents, the lives Id destroyed with the drugs and guns I smuggled and sold, the torture of all the animals Id 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 Id 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 Leandras 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 didnt. It was hard at first. Id been such a good hunter before, I thought Id 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 couldnt 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 Id 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-Ranjanas 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 couldnt grab a hairbrush?" Ashley teased, plucking at one of Leandras 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 didnt matter. I wasnt here when Shar-Tushar needed me the most. Again, I couldnt save my family."
"It wasnt your fault," Ashley instantly consoled, hearing the self-recrimination in Leandras tone. "Im 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 dont 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. Theyd killed leopards, deer, elephants and my family."
Ashley couldnt stand the look of grief on Leandras face as she recalled the slaughter of the tigers. "What did you do?"
"The only thing I could do." Leandras eyes were cold now. "I avenged their deaths."
The blonde photographer shivered at the feral gleam in Leandras eyes. She could well imagine how terrifying a thing the tiger-womans wrath would have been at that moment.
"I knew I couldnt 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 Id 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 Id been out here before you showed up. It felt like decades. I hadnt realized how much Id 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 Im 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 Leandras eyes. "Youre welcome." She reached out a hand and gently touched the dark womans shoulder. "Im glad you trusted me enough to tell me all that," she said softly. "It means a lot to me."
Leandras 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."
"I need to take a wash and redo my paint and theres still a poacher out there somewhere. Id rather be the hunter than the prey."
"Oh right." Ashley sighed and glanced at Leandras sleeping pallet. "You dont snore, do you?"
Leandra grinned. "I dont think so. Then again, its been a while since anyone slept close enough to tell me."
"Well, Im 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 Leandras shoulder made a suitable substitute, and she breathed contentedly as she shifted closer.
"Is this okay?"
Leandras 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 dont know. I havent tried for a long time. I slept with Shar-Ranjana while she was younger, but since then I should drift off though. Dont worry about it."
"Okay." Ashley yawned and closed her eyes, feeling safe and relaxed in Leandras presence. "You let me know if Im 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 Leandras body as she chuckled. "Fine." A hand reached up and stroked the young womans hair softly. "I guess it wont hurt us to sleep in."
"Good." Ashley cracked an eyelid and looked up at the dark womans face. "If I werent here, youd probably be out and about already, wouldnt you?"
"If you werent here, Id probably have been out hunting through the night, so right now Id 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, dont they?"
"Yep." Leandra shifted slightly, enjoying the weight of the smaller woman pressed against her. "Its a good way to cool down during the hotter parts of the day. Youll like this waterfall I go too; its 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 dont have any coffee by any chance, do you?"
Leandra shook her head. "Sorry."
"Mmm, thats 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 havent 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 didnt 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 shed never experienced before. It was refreshing in a strange way, and the young photographer found it easy to respond in kind. "Its been a while for me, too," she admitted quietly. "My job isnt exactly conducive to building a relationship, so " She trailed off, before grinning wickedly. "It didnt 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, thats enough sleep time. We need to get moving."
Ashley grumbled, but followed her tall companions 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 youre so open about everything else? Ash grinned as she started building a small fire, wanting very much to read more into her friends 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 Leandras 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 shed stuck with it.
Thirty feet high, the waterfall wasnt 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. "Its beautiful."
"Yes, it is." Leandra was pleased with her friends response. "And its 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. "Thats the stuff I use to mix my paint. Come, Ill 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 couldnt 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 Leandras 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.
Shes not shy, Ill give her that. Ashley wished she had that kind of boldness and lack of inhibition. Although she didnt 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 didnt bring a suit," she explained diffidently.
Leandra laughed. "I didnt say anything." Diving under the water, the naked woman wet her tangled hair and threw it back over her shoulder. "But you really shouldnt be shy. I mean, its just me here, right?"
"I know, but "
Leandra grinned. "You have a nice body Ashley youre fit, healthy. You shouldnt by afraid to show that off."
"Hey, its not like Im 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 Leandras assessment. She thinks Im attractive! Thats 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 couldnt 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 youd be more tanned," she offered thoughtfully. "You know, to go with the dark hair and all."
Leandra chuckled. "Thats what I get for being nocturnal I guess."
"Its 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 dont even notice those things anymore. To tell the truth, its 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. "Its 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 shed 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 Leandras 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 tigers 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 womans 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 friends 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-Tushars claws. With infinite care, the blonde photographer drew a thick, tapering line along Leandras lower ribcage. Smiling at the approving grunt from her companion, she proceeded to fill in more stripes in a deliberate pattern until Leandras back was correctly covered. Lost in her work, Ashley continued down till her finger was tracing tantalizingly close to Leandras 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 Leandras 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 Leandras 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 womans cheeks, Ashley was conscious of those intense eyes watching her with an unblinking gaze. Her own eyes skipped constantly to Leandras full lips, and she felt the strong pull of this womans 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.
Leandras 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 shed done.
"Oh God!" A hand clapped over her mouth. "I-I-Im 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 Leandras 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 didnt mean to I mean, I shouldnt have done " Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes. Ashley stood helplessly for several seconds by the waters 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 peoples 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. "Im such an idiot!" Just when Leandra had been opening up just as theyd started to share more and more shed gone and ruined everything by giving in to her baser desires. "Shell probably never want to talk to me again!" Ashleys mind, lost in confusion and self-recrimination, didnt 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 Leandras shocked expression was burned in her memory, and in Ashleys 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 didnt 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 shed 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 Leandras gaze for more than a moment.
"Its not fair that you can do that," she said quietly, irrationally annoyed at the tall womans 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. Cant you just leave me alone? Im sorry, alright. I got carried away and I shouldnt have. You obviously didnt like it, so theres nothing more to talk abo- Mmph!"
Leandras lips silenced her, descending with passion and force. Ashley resisted for a brief moment, but her legs gave out when Leandras 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 Leandras 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 Ashleys face told the dark woman she had made her point.
"You took me by surprise," she whispered huskily into the blondes neck. "Im sorry I didnt have time to respond but Im not going to let you think for a moment that I didnt want you to do that. Or that I didnt enjoy it very much."
Ashley nearly swooned. "Y-you really mean that?" she asked. "Youre 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 weve both got a lot of thinking to do," she whispered, removing her hands reluctantly from Ashleys backside. "Ill give you some time, okay?"
Ashley nodded dazedly. "Uh huh."
"Come find me tomorrow; well talk then." Leandra placed a last, almost chaste kiss on Ashleys 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.
Continued in Part 4.
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