What the hammer? and what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
-The Tyger by William Blake.
For the rest of that morning, Ashley lay in her tent, eyes closed, smiling dreamily at nothing in particular. From time to time she would take a deep breath and catch the scent of earth and ash that still lingered in the air even after Leandra had departed, and would flush at the memory of the dark womans searing kiss. Ashley wondered idly where Grady and the others had gotten to, but she felt no urge to go looking for them. Right now, she was happy just to let her thoughts drift lazily by, and enjoy the knowledge that her attraction to Leandra was fully reciprocated.
Of course, there were now about a thousand and one new complications that would have to be dealt with sooner or later complications that went far beyond those of a normal romantic relationship. A part of Ashleys mind wanted to address these problems right away, but she ignored it for the time being and focused instead on the warm tingles that still traced around her lips. There would be time enough later to discuss practical realities with Leandra time enough to figure out what this all meant and where it might go from here. Certainly, Ashley thought, from the ardor in the dark womans kiss earlier, Leandra was interested in taking this attraction a whole lot further. She smiled. And thats just fine with me.
It was late afternoon by the time Grady and the others returned to camp, and Ashley startled out of her dreamy state as soon as she heard their voices approaching. She knew her partner would probably be pissed at her for spending the night out with Leandra, but it took several seconds for her to shift mental gears. Frankly, she wasnt in the mood to deal with Grady. She just wanted to rest and remember her morning with the darkly enchanting tiger-woman. However, when she heard her name being called and the sound of footsteps nearing the tent, Ash sighed and gave a mental shrug. It was time to do some explaining.
"Ashley? Are you in there?"
"Yeah Grady." Ashley got up and opened the tent flap, stepping out into the pre-dusk and facing her partner with a neutral expression. "Something you wanted?"
Grady visibly collected himself, obviously realizing that blowing his stack wasnt going to get him anywhere. After so many years of working with Ashley, he knew her well enough to understand when to back off about something and he could see the blonde photographer was starting to get defensive over his continued disapproval of her friendship with Leandra.
Folding his hands across his chest, Grady cocked his head to the side and said quietly, "I just wanted to make sure you were okay. You didnt come back last night."
Ashley shrugged. "Yeah, I stayed out with Leandra. She hurt herself and I didnt want to leave her alone out there."
"Oh." A pause. "Is she alright?"
A faint smile curled the corners of Ashleys lips. "Shes fine. Thank you for asking."
Grady returned the smile a little more fully. Glancing down, he noticed a dark stain of crimson and pointed to Ashleys ankle. "What happened here?"
"Huh?" Ash glanced down and noticed that the cut on her calf had bled freely. "Oh I kinda tripped on some loose stones coming back here, thats all. I hadnt even noticed it."
"Yeah, well, a cut like that could turn septic if you dont treat it properly especially out here."
"I know. Ill take care of it." Ashley studied Grady a moment in silence before she said quietly, "Listen Im sorry about running off like that and not telling you about it. Its just Leandra wanted to show me something secret, and it couldnt wait till dawn, so "
Grady nodded. "Figured it was something like that."
"I wanted to wake you up, but she didnt want you trying to follow or anything. Given your recent behavior, I think she was justified with her concern."
"Uh huh." Grady pursed his lips. "Well I hope whatever it was she wanted to show you was worth the worry you cost me."
Ash grinned more fully and cast her eyes at the ground for a second, remembering her wonderful encounter with Shar-Ranjana. "It was believe me."
"You going out with her again tomorrow?"
It was only with an effort that Ashley avoided blushing at the thought of what tomorrow might bring, but she managed a fairly indifferent nod. "I guess so."
The tall man grunted softly. "Well be careful, huh? I dont want to be explaining to the boss-man why I let you get yourself killed out here, okay?"
"And make sure you get some disinfectant on that cut. You dont want lockjaw or gangrene or anything like that."
"I will." Ash hesitated a moment, then stood on tip-toes to deliver a soft kiss on Gradys stubble-covered cheek. She grinned at the raised eyebrow that her gesture caused, and shrugged. "Thank you for caring."
"Hey," Grady laughed, "if I dont look after you, who will?"
Ash mock-punched her partner, but chuckled too. "Give me a minute to get this thing cleaned up and Ill give you a hand with dinner."
Ashley turned back into the tent, hearing Grady return to the others by the dead campfire. Sitting on her sleeping bag, Ash rummaged around in her backpack till her fingers located the small but well-stocked first-aid kit within. With a cotton swab, the blonde photographer gently cleaned the small cut on her shin before applying a healthy coating of disinfectant. After covering the entire wound with an adhesive bandage, Ashley joined her friends outside, nodding to a glowering Tarun and receiving curious expressions of interest from Grace and Simon.
Over a rather unimaginative dinner of stewed meat and vegetables, Ashley listened quietly to the others as they talked about their day. Simon made polite inquires about talking to Leandra regarding help finding more tigers, but Ashleys evasive responses were enough to tell him not to get his hopes up. It seemed the two scientists were having a rather disappointing time of it, their efforts to monitor the tiger population yielding only minimal success. Still, Ashley knew she could never talk about Shar-Ranjana no matter how much it would mean to Simon and his assistant. She recognized a sacred trust when she saw it.
Even as she listened to the conversations of her friends, Ashleys mind was still preoccupied by the earlier events of that day. For the most part, the young blonde was content to sit silently in the flickering light of the fire, smiling a wondering, quiet smile and shivering a little at the remembered passion of Leandras embrace. When everyone had finished their dinner, Ashley offered her services as dishwasher and, with help from Grace, took the small pile of plates and cutlery over to the bucket of water near the perimeter of the camp. She didnt notice the curious and slightly amused smile on Graces face as the scientist followed behind her.
Dipping each plate into the water quickly, Ashley and Grace worked together in silence, the taller brunette flicking occasional glances at the blonde photographers obvious preoccupation. Drying the dishes on a rag, Grace raised an eyebrow at her companion. "Ashley?"
An uncertain pause. "I dont want you to think Im being nosey or anything, and I know we dont really know one another that well, but "
Clear emerald eyes flicked up curiously. "No, thats okay. Whats on your mind."
"Welll " Grace bit her lower lip. "I was just wanting to make sure everything was okay with you. I mean, with you and Leandra."
Ashley sat up a little straighter. "Okay? What do you mean? Why wouldnt it be?"
Grace hesitated again, clearly not wanting to overstep her boundaries. "Well, youve been really distracted all afternoon is all, and youve been wearing that goofy smile since you got back." She shrugged and glanced away. "Plus, I saw the handprints on your butt. It doesnt take much guess-work to figure out who put them there."
Ashley blushed, her eyes widening as she quickly brushed her hands on the back of her shorts. Sure enough, she felt the dried dust-marks from where Leandra had gripped her and pulled her tighter into their embrace. "I-I We didnt do-"
Grace held up her hands. "Im not judging you or anything like that," she said quickly. "Youre a big girl, and its none of my business. But I just wanted to make sure youre not being forced into anything, thats all."
Ashley regarded the other woman carefully a moment, but found only a genuine concern in her open face. She smiled. "Well, I appreciate that Grace. Really I do. But I can assure you, Leandra isnt forcing me into anything at all."
Grace nodded. "I didnt really think she was but its always good to check."
"Thank you." Ash nodded back towards the campfire, where the three men were still talking and laughing. "You think they noticed?"
"I doubt it."
"Good." Ashley didnt think that Grady would be thrilled to hear about her more personal interest in the tiger woman. "You wont tell them, will you?"
"Of course not. Its not my business." Grace reached for another dish and wiped it with the rag. "You and Leandra have been spending a lot of time together," she observed casually. "I guess youve gotten to know her pretty well, huh?"
Ashley shrugged. "Yeah, I have." She finished washing the last plate, but made no move to return to the others. It felt good to talk about Leandra with someone else, to express her thoughts to another person who wouldnt be judgmental. Growing up, Ashley had always appreciated having a sister around to share things with, but it was something she missed a lot when her work took her overseas. This whole experience was very new to the young blonde, and her thoughts were running helter-skelter through her head in an exciting, confused jumble. Although shed only known Grace a short while, she rather liked the quiet, introspective zoologist, and decided a little girl-talk wouldnt hurt. "Its surprising, really," she said softly. "Leandras not the sort of woman I ever pictured myself being attracted too."
"Hmm." Grace stopped drying the plates and gave Ashley her full attention.
"But shes gentle, and caring, and I feel so safe when Im with her." Ashley sighed, blowing her feathered bangs from her eyes. "All she has to do is look at me sometimes, and my legs go all rubbery. Its stupid to get involved with her, I know, but I dont care."
"Is this the first time youve been attracted to another woman?" Grace asked interestedly.
"Attracted, no. But its the first time I ever acted on it." Ashley smiled sheepishly. "Believe it or not, Im not really good at this sort of thing. My relationships tend to run cold pretty quick." She looked off into the jungle, her eyes dreamy. "But its not like that with Leandra. We went for a swim this morning, and one thing kind of led to another. One minute I was thinking about kissing her and then POW! I was."
Grace smiled. "It sounds pretty intense."
"It is. Everything about Leandra is intense. And I want more time with her time to give this thing the chance it deserves." Ashley sighed. "I dont know what Ill do when we have to leave. Im trying not to think too much about it right now."
Grace reached out and offered the photographer a shy pat of consolation. "She sounds very special to you. To hear Grady talk about her, youd think she was the devil or something."
Ash laughed shortly. "Well, she has a pretty savage side to her personality too. Living out here as a predator for so long, I guess thats understandable." Emerald eyes took on a conspiratorial glint. "But to tell the truth, I think thats part of what I find so attractive about her. Shes so animal so unrestrained and primal. Its not something I thought I liked, but " she grinned, "in Leandra, I think its sexy as hell."
Grace smirked. "And from the position of those handprints, Id say she thinks the same about you."
A flush of crimson spread over Ashleys face as she nodded. "Seems that way, yeah." She picked up the dried dishes and cutlery and cradled them in her arms. "I guess well be talking more about it when I see her tomorrow, but right now, I just want to enjoy this feeling without thinking about the complications." A sudden gust of wind and a distant clap of thunder heralded the coming of a storm, and the two women exchanged glances.
"I hope things work out," Grace said gently.
Ashley nodded. "Me too." Standing, she offered a sincere smile. "And thanks. For offering a friendly ear."
"Hey, I know what its like being a woman in a male-dominated environment," Grace laughed shyly. "Sometimes its nice to have another woman around to talk with."
A flash of lightening illuminated the distant mountains, and a call from Grady got the two women moving back to the ring of tents. Depositing the dishes inside a small knapsack, Ashley said her good-nights and retreated to her tent just as the first fat drops of rain began falling from the sky.
* * *
The rain pelted down from the heavy clouds above, drenching the jungle in a sudden downpour and carving small, muddy rivers through the undergrowth. The night was dark, moon and stars alike hidden by the obstructing clouds. Still, the heat remained, turning the air in Leandras cave into a sultry sauna. The striped woman looked out over her hunting grounds from the mouth of the cave, her eyes taking it all in with quiet satisfaction.
This was the perfect time to hunt, Leandra knew. The rain was an effective dampener for both sound and scent, and the animals would all be sheltering under trees, not searching for potential hunters in the impenetrable dark. But Leandra didnt feel like hunting tonight. The memory of Ashleys hands as they traced striped patterns over her flesh still burned in the dark womans mind. The heat of her lips the taste of her tongue
Leandra smiled in the darkness. No. There would be no hunting this night.
She kissed me.
She kissed me!
Leandra hadnt anticipated this development, hadnt hoped to dream that her attraction to the younger blonde might be reciprocated. And she certainly hadnt counted on Ashley making the first move. But she had. And now things had changed forever.
New and wonderful feelings were currently running through Leandras senses, thoughts and emotions that shed not experienced in many years or at all. For four years, this jungle had been both home and prison for the dark woman. She had struggled against it, had loved and hated it, and in the end, had come to learn a great deal about herself because of it. The jungle was a harsh instructor, and her lessons were sometimes painful but now, for the first time in those four years, Leandras eyes looked beyond the endless ocean of grasslands and forests, and saw again the world shed left behind.
And for the first time in those four years, she saw a future that did not involve this savage world of predator and prey.
A future that involved Ashley.
"Ashley." Leandra whispered the name softly, smiling at how the simple word affected her. Painted fingers rose to trace painted lips, recalling the kiss and wanting desperately to relive it. Leandra wondered what Ashley was thinking about right now. How did she feel about all this? Her desires were obvious to Leandra from the way shed responded that morning but Leandra had never cared for anyone the way she cared now for the petite blonde. Always before, she had pursued, conquered, and then abandoned her lovers. She didnt want something so transient and insubstantial with Ashley. She wanted a relationship. Something that could comfort her and embrace her could heal the old wounds which still pained her. Leandra was entering a new world, she knew and a part of her felt as naked and vulnerable as when shed first returned here after her encounter with Shar-Tushar.
Watching the rain fall, sniffing the air that was thick with moisture and the scent of wet rebirth, Leandra sat silently and waited for the morrow. Things would be clearer in the light, she thought and she could see Ashley once more.
Somehow, Leandra knew, this was right. As strong as her fears were, these new desires and emotions were stronger still and when all was said and done, Leandra knew she had no choice but to put her faith in them, and in the woman who was at the heart of their creation.
* * *
Bright and early the next morning, Ashley woke after a pleasantly restless sleep to find the day dawning humid and misty after the passage of the storm last night. The campsite was a muddy quagmire, pools of water settling into shallow depressions everywhere. The jungle dripped and flowed, and Ashley was instantly damp with sweat. Still, nothing could dispel the spirit of good humor that infected the young blonde. By the time her companions emerged grumpily from their tents, Ashley had already coaxed a small campfire to life from the few pieces of dry wood that had escaped the rain, boiled water for coffee, and prepared a simple but sustaining breakfast from their dwindling supplies. But with her anticipation of the coming day running feverishly high, there was barely time for the group to offer their thanks before Ashley said her good-byes and headed off towards the river, eager to meet with Leandra.
Wandering along the waters edge, Ashley looked around for the tiger-woman but found no sign of her. After a half-hour, she was starting to worry that Leandra might not show. But when she reached the small waterfall that shed explored that first day in the jungle, Ashley felt her concerns fly away instantly when she spied the familiar striped figure sitting cat-like on a rocky overhang, head bent slightly into the breeze. Her lips spread into a helpless smile as she approached, and Leandra sensed her presence and turned to face her.
"Hey." Ashley almost bounced her way to the dark woman, grinning like an idiot at the smile Leandra graced her with. She came to a stop a few feet from her tall friend, suddenly feeling a little awkward. Knawing her lower lip, she shuffled uncertainly, trying to think of something appropriate to say. "Some storm last night, huh?"
Leandra grinned, stepped forward, and pulled the shorter woman into a possessive embrace. Ducking her head, she quickly claimed Ashleys lips with a hungry kiss, dueling slowly with a soft tongue when the photographer parted her lips and invited her in.
After several seconds of seductive exploration, Leandra broke the kiss and smiled down at the dazed look in Ashleys eyes. The blonde licked her lips and grinned, pleasantly surprised. "What was that for?"
Leandra shrugged. "You just looked like that was the kind of good-morning you were hoping for, but you werent certain you were going to get it," she explained simply, running her hands down the crease of the smaller womans back. "You never have to worry about that Ashley. Ill never stop wanting to kiss you like that."
Ashleys grin nearly swallowed her ears, so wide did it grow. "Really?"
"Really," Leandra promised, sealing her words with another long kiss.
Ashley sighed as she wrapped her arms around Leandra and laid her head on her breast. Feeling the solid, powerful body pulled tight against her own felt so right, so perfect to her. But she knew there were issues that needed addressing before they could continue. "I guess we should talk, huh?"
Leandra nodded, running her fingers through silken blonde hair before she reluctantly withdrew. "Yeah we probably should." Taking the younger womans hand in her own noticing without meaning to the way Ashleys soft, pink skin contrasted so sharply against her own callused, painted hand Leandra led the way over to the edge of the overhang and helped the photographer settle herself on a dry rock. Sitting beside her, Leandra smiled a little nervously at her friend.
"This is kinda awkward, isnt it?"
Ashley nodded. "Yeah, it is." She took a deep breath. "I was up half the night, listening to the storm and thinking about you. And about how much youve come to mean to me."
Leandra squeezed Ashleys hand gently. "You mean a lot to me, too."
"I think I made a list of about a hundred different reasons why this is stupid," Ashley admitted. "I know we should just put a stop to it before it goes any further, before we both get hurt " She smiled at the sudden guarded, fearful expression that washed over Leandras expressive face. "But I dont care about any of that," she instantly continued. "I really like you, Leandra. More than I can remember liking anyone in my whole life. And I dont want to run away from this just because it seems like a bad idea, or because it seems too risky. This is all kinda new for me and I dont really know what your thoughts are but "
"I want to keep going," Leandra said quickly almost desperately. Emerald eyes caught and held her in a powerful spell, and she swallowed hard. "I-Ive never met anyone like you Ashley. Ive never felt anything like how I feel around you. Its pretty new for me, too, but I dont want to stop."
Ash nodded. "I should warn you now," she said, "Ive got a terrible track record with relationships. They never seem to last more than a month or two."
Leandra grinned. "Thats okay. Ive never really had a relationship at least not one that lasted longer than the next morning."
Ashley smiled fractionally, then glanced away shyly, frowning. "Ive never actually " She paused. "With a woman, I mean "
Cobalt eyes widened for a heartbeat, surprised, but Leandras grip on the younger blondes hand didnt falter. "Are you...okay about this then?" she asked softly. "I mean that Im a woman?"
Ashley looked up. "Of course. Ive always known there was some level of interest there, I just didnt expect it to happen quite like this, thats all. I mean, its unexpected." She hesitated. "I take it youve been with other women before."
Leandra nodded. "It always felt better for me more comfortable." Her eyes darkened for a moment, remembering with regret the women shed used and then tossed aside without a care. "I want you to understand," she said earnestly, "Im not taking this lightly Ashley. Youre not just some casual plaything for me. I dont want to treat you the way Ive treated others in my life. I care too much for you."
Tears pricked at the corners of Ashleys verdant eyes at the sincerity in Leandras words. "I feel the same way."
There was more to be said; both of them knew it, but neither wanted to broach the subject of Ashleys rapidly-approaching departure, nor the matter of Leandras unorthodox life-style. It was enough for now that they were together and committed to pursuing whatever bond was drawing them closer together.
"So " Ashley raised an eyebrow at the dark woman. "Where do we go from here?"
Leandra shrugged. "Where would you like to go from here?"
"Wellll " The blonde blushed and glanced away to the river. "I thought the kissing was a really good place to start."
Leandra grinned fully, her eyes dancing playfully. "Did you now?"
"Uh huh." Ashley leaned forward, tilting her head to the side and accepting the dark womans lips with a happy little mew of pleasure. Strong arms wound their way around her body, and she quickly responded in kind, shuddering at the sensation of Leandras heated body pressing so close against her own. Future concerns were set aside without hesitation, and in some remote part of her brain, Ashley realized one of the simple truths about this primal world that had been the dark womans home for so long.
In the jungle, life was only ever a single moment.
And if that moment was right then nothing else mattered.
* * *
They spent the long day together in pleasant companionship, neither of them caring about the few showers that rained down from time to time, or about the steamy heat. Leandra took the young photographer out to a remote part of the Park and, from the safety of the branches of a towering tree, showed her where a young male leopard made his home. Ashley smiled with delight at every new secret Leandra revealed to her, enjoying more than ever the way the dark woman invited her into her world, and so willingly shared these everyday miracles with her. Their day was interspersed with frequent make-out sessions, and by the time the sun started coloring the edges of the horizon with painted tones of purple and crimson, Ashleys face was streaked with patches of dusty paint from kissing Leandra so much.
Only when dusk had given over to dark did they part ways. Leandra led the way with familiar ease back to Ashleys camp, then stood uncertainly beside the younger woman.
"You could always stay the night with me, you know," she suggested in a throaty, hopeful whisper.
Ashley smiled and ran her fingers over the dark womans chiseled jaw fondly. "Id like that," she said earnestly. "But I should really go back. I know Grady worries about me and Ive barely spent any time with the others lately." She chuckled shortly. "As tempting as the alternatives are and believe me-" Her voice dropped several octaves and her emerald eyes darkened "-Im finding them veeery tempting indeed right now I have to put in a little work-time."
Leandra lowered her head in acceptance. "I understand."
Standing on tip-toes, Ashley gave the striped woman a final kiss, then accepted a little help cleaning the marks from her face. "Ill see you tomorrow, okay?"
They parted with many backward glances, and even after the young blonde was out of sight, Leandra stood staring after her for many long moments a part of her wanting desperately to follow. Sighing, she circled the camp instead and climbed stealthily into one of the giant trees just outside the perimeter, where she settled down on a comfortable limb. From her lofty perch, Leandra watched Ashley join her companions for dinner, a slight, longing smile curving her lips. She stayed in the tree, watching and thinking about how her life was changing, until the moon hung high in the night sky. Then, knowing she would need sleep for the day ahead, Leandra leapt silently to the ground and returned to her cave thinking for the first time in a long time just how lonely her home seemed.
Before the sun had even risen the next morning, Ashley was awake in her bed-roll, urging the dawn on anxiously as she lay in the warm darkness. Deciding the day was never going to move along quickly enough for her liking, the young woman shuffled off her sleeping bag and ventured outside. Again, she prepared a campfire and sipped a steaming cup of coffee while eating the leftovers from last night, greeted her companions cheerfully, then left before they could convince her to spend the day in the hide with them. Down along the river Ashley wandered, every pore of her open and alert to Leandras presence.
So focused were her thoughts on the enigmatic jungle woman that when a large hand grabbed her from behind and clamped firmly over her mouth, pulling her back against a muscular body, Ashley didnt struggle for a long moment, figuring Leandra had surprised her. But when she heard the unfamiliar jangle of steel against leather, and caught the scent of unfamiliar sweat, her verdant eyes widened. Something cold and sharp pressed against her throat, and stale breath tickled the fine hairs behind her ears.
"Just behave yourself girly," said a soft, lethal voice, "and I might let you live through this."
The momentary shock vanished, replaced instantly with anger. Ashley was small, and lightweight, but she was far from weak, and she didnt roll over easily. Going limp in her captors arms, pretending to be paralyzed with fear, Ashley let the man support her fully, forcing him to relax his grip on the knife held to her throat. As soon as she felt the steel edge waver, Ashley lifted her right foot and drove it with all her strength down and into the mans unprotected shin-bone. The poacher grunted in surprise and pain, his hold loosening. Ashley capitalized instantly by twisting slightly and nailing an elbow into his side. She was about to go for the groin a strike which might have ensured her escape when the poacher recovered from his surprise, spinning her around and landing a dizzying backhand across her face. Ashleys vision went white, stars flashing before her eyes, and she gasped when a fist punched her in the stomach, knocking the breath from her lungs.
The poacher grabbed her again, the knife digging painfully into her throat in a silent but clear threat of what would happen if she struggled further. "Feisty little thing, aint ya," the man grunted. "But Ill let that one go. Any more though, and that tiger-freak bitch will be following a blood-trail to your body. Understand?"
Ashley gasped for air, her face feeling numb from the blow. But she managed a weak nod.
"Good." The knife retreated, dragging down her body to the edge of her tank-top. Ashley tensed as the cool steel edge ran along her belly, but the poacher didnt cut her. Instead, he swiftly sliced a thin strip from the material. Holding up the scrap, he nodded, pleased.
"What do you want with me?" Ashley asked quietly. "My friends will know Im gone. Theyll call the rangers."
"Maybe." The poacher began walking Ashley back into the jungle. "But those idiots couldnt find me if they tried. And right now, Im only interested in one particular friend you have. I think shell be pretty desperate to get you back, too."
Ashley tensed. "You mean.."
"Thats right. That tiger-freak has been making a nuisance of herself for far too long now. Its time she was put down. Permanently."
Ashley snorted defiantly. "What makes you think you can take her? Shes been hunting poachers like you for years now."
"True." The poacher tangled his fingers in Ashleys hair and pulled it sharply, wrenching an involuntary cry from the young woman. "But I have the advantage now." He leaned closer, and Ashley recoiled in disgust. "Were going cat-hunting," he whispered, "and Ive got a feeling youre the perfect little mouse to use as bait."
Using her hair as a grip, the poacher pushed Ashley in front of him and forced their way deeper into the jungle. Wincing in pain, Ashley said a silent prayer to any deities who cared to listen, asking them to keep Leandra safe.
* * *
Leandra grew concerned after waiting by the river almost an hour for Ashley to join her, but without result. Confused, she stealthily made her way back to her friends camp, thinking perhaps something had delayed the young woman, but there was no sign of trouble or concern among the others. A feeling of disquiet ran like a chill up her spine. Something was wrong.
"Where is she?"
Returning to the forest and the river, Leandra searched for tracks and found them fresh and clear in the mud left by the recent rainfall. However, her eyes widened when she found a second set of footprints over the top of those made by Ashley signs of heavy army boots, large enough to fit a man. Leandra lifted her head and sniffed. The air still carried the scent of danger and steel.
Leandra followed the tracks swiftly, her entire posture and demeanor changing instantly to that of the jungle predator, and it took her only a few moments to find further evidence that something terrible was happening. Stabbed into the trunk of one of the forest trees by a slender hunting dagger was a torn scrap of cloth. Snatching the material down, Leandra brought it to her nose and breathed in the familiar scent of the photographer. A low rumble burred deep in the striped womans chest as Leandra realized what had happened.
The poacher had discerned a weakness, and was now intent on exploiting it by using Ashley to lure her into the open.
For a moment, pure rage filled the dark womans senses, making her want to just charge in and slash the man who had dared to threaten Ashley to pieces. But Leandra hadnt survived so long out here without learning the merits of patience. She took a calming breath and focused her energy into a tight, controlled ball, thinking carefully how to best execute an effective rescue. Tigers hunted their prey with stealth and cunning; if they charged too soon, their quarry would bolt, too late, and they might miss their opportunity. Leandra had spent days and weeks watching and learning from the great jungle cats. Four years had taught her control, infinite patience.
Eyes as cold as chips of glacier ice narrowed, and the dark striped form melted away swiftly into the forest undergrowth, moving with honed stealth along the trail left by the poacher and his captive.
The tracks were easy to follow; evidently, the poacher wanted Leandra to come to him and to know that he had the young photographer. Leandra moved cautiously, not wanting to stumble into an ambush and ruin any chance of rescuing Ashley. When the trail turned back towards the river, it became clear to the striped woman what her adversary was thinking. As the trees thinned and gave way to the stony ground that preceded the waters edge, Leandra saw she had judged correctly. Crouching down in the shadows, her body held tense against the soaked earth, she studied the man standing a hundred feet away on the same rocky outcropping she herself had sat by just yesterday.
The man stood, alert and watchful, his rifle held in the crook of his arm, ready to use. His other hand was wrapped tightly in the long blonde hair of the woman beside him, and from the slight wince that pulled at Ashleys pretty face now and again, it was clear to Leandra he wasnt being gentle. The poacher held Ashley at arms length, facing the edge of the precipice. His intent was easily deduced; if Leandra attempted any kind of frontal assault, he had only to give the young photographer a quick shove, and she would fall into the rocky waters below.
Swiftly, Leandra assessed the situation, studying the surrounding jungle to determine how she might use the natural environment to her advantage. She instantly rejected a direct confrontation; the poacher would have all the time in the world to take aim with his rifle and shoot her down, no matter how fast she ran or how well she dodged. The ground between Leandra and the man was open, completely bereft of any kind of cover. Stealth would avail her little, which was obviously why he had chosen this place. Undeterred, Leandra shifted her attention to the precipice itself, and smiled as a plan formed in her mind.
The edge of the drop was sheer, but below, the jungle encroached right down to the waters edge. Leandra moved wraithlike along the edge of the tree-line, circling her quarrys position till she came to the base of the cliff. Looking up, she was pleased to note that the rock wall before her provided numerous cracks and outcroppings that would make acceptable handholds. The poacher was paying no attention to what lay behind him, obviously considering the cliff unclimbable. Leandra realized this was the other reason he had chosen this particular location to set himself up; he figured to force a frontal assault by reducing the range of direction from which she could attack.
Leandra grinned ferally. He was underestimating her abilities again and she intended to take advantage of that mistake.
Slowly, wary of any sound or scent that might signal shed been mistaken in her assumptions, Leandra crept from the jungle cover and slipped into the knee-deep waters. The sound of the nearby waterfall effectively masked any sound, and she reached for the first hand-hold. Tugging a few times to ensure the rock wasnt loose, Leandra hoisted herself upwards, testing for and finding a solid foothold before reaching for another grip higher up.
The climb was difficult, but not near as impossible as the poacher had guessed. Leandras fingers were toughened from years of constant struggling against her home, but they were aching by the time she neared the top of the precipice. Thick vines twisted across the rock-face here and there, at times providing a helpful hand-hold, but more often proving an obstacle to her ascent. Spray from the fall made sections of the rock slippery with green moss, making it difficult to find purchase. Still, Leandra kept her mind focused on the task at hand, determined not to let Ashley be harmed because of her.
When she drew closer to the top of the precipice, Leandra found she could make out words from above, and she smiled when she heard the angry tone Ashley was using.
Above the river, unaware of the striped figure steadily drawing nearer, Ashley glared at the man pulling her hair. "Youre a dead man, you know," she said coldly. "Ive seen what she does to guys like you its not pretty."
The poacher just smiled and gave her hair an extra twist. "I respect her abilities, girly, and Im not taking any chances this time." He surveyed the broad stretch of open rock that lay before him barren and devoid of shelter. "If she wants you back, shell have to give herself up sooner or later."
Ash snorted derisively and pulled at the hand that gripped her not because she hoped to escape, but just to demonstrate her defiance. She was conscious of the drop behind her, already having judged her chances of surviving a fall as about fifty-fifty. If she hit a submerged rock, it was all over, but if she was lucky enough to land in a deeper patch of water, shed almost certainly be okay. Still, she wasnt too keen on testing the odds just yet. "What even makes you think shell care that youve got me?"
"I saw the way she reacted the last time you were in danger," he said confidently, glancing at her smugly. "She dropped everything and ran to protect you. Ive seen hunting dogs do that to protect their masters its the same thing. Shes got an animals loyalty, and Im gonna use it to put her down."
Ashley couldnt help but smile inwardly at that assessment, knowing it to be true. She will protect me, she thought. Just like when Grady grabbed me. Shes loyal and defensive and shell save me even it means risking her own life to do it.
"Why?" she demanded out loud. "What do you care about her? Why not just leave her alone?"
Again, he eyed her smugly. "I think you know why. Its the same reason youre out here in this god-forsaken Park." He glanced pointedly to the camera still strapped about Ashleys neck. "White gold. Were both here to shoot it just in slightly different ways." He leaned closer. "Believe it or not, were a lot alike, you and I. The only difference is, you carry a camera, and I carry a gun."
"Were nothing alike!" Ashley spat. "And you can forget about the white tiger; it doesnt exist!"
Ashley grinned triumphantly, pleased at the sudden change in her captors attitude. "Thats right. Its just some bullshit rumor! A tourist got a look at Leandra, and thought she was a white tiger." She laughed at his angry surprise, not caring that his hand gripped tighter at her hair. If she was going to die, the least she could do was protect Shar-Ranjana. "Even if you kill Leandra, youll be walking out of here empty-handed and probably with every ranger in the Park hot on your trail."The poachers eyes widened a moment in frustration, his mind clearly processing this information and judging whether it was the truth. However, the frustration faded as he latched onto something more interesting. "Leandra? Thats her name, is it? Leandra?"
Ashleys smile faltered uncertainly, and she wished she hadnt let that slip. For some reason, just sharing Leandras name with this man seemed like a betrayal of trust. Her lips tightened stubbornly, but her captor yanked hard on her hair, his eyes threatening worse. Ashley gasped in pain, clawing futilely at the hand that gripped her. "Yes."
"Leandra?" The poacher looked back towards the jungle, his eyes lost in thought. "Leandra Thornton?"
Before Ashley even had time to think about refusing to answer, a striped form leapt from nowhere and crouched a split second on the very edge of precipice. The poacher sensed the movement and swung around, rifle spinning, but Leandra darted forward with the speed of a panther, grabbing the barrel and yanking it skyward. There was a sudden flash as the striped woman lashed out with her free hand, punching the rifle from the mans grip and tossing it over the cliff. At almost precisely the same instant, Leandra twisted to the side and landed a vicious kick to her adversaries ribcage, forcing his grip on Ashley to go limp and giving her the opportunity to pull the younger woman behind her and out of harms way.
The poacher recovered quickly, however, pulling a second knife from his side and holding it forth. Leandra displayed her bone claws, their edges rough but wickedly sharp. The two hunters squared off while Ashley retreated a few paces from the edge of the precipice, not wanting to be a distraction for Leandra, but needing to stay close in case she could help.
Leandra studied the man before her more carefully. "You know who I am, huh?" She smirked. "Id thought most people would have forgotten by now."
"Not likely," the man returned. "I used to hear stories about you all the time. In fact I was looking forward to meeting you but then you went and pulled a Houdini, disappearing off the face of the earth." He waved the knife to warn her back, studying her with greater interest now. "Everyone always wondered what happened to you."
"Well now you know." Leandra paced along the edge of the cliff, balancing gracefully without a thought to the drop behind her.
"Im surprised no-one managed to put it together," the poacher continued. "You vanish, and then a year later the Indian Menace suddenly starts picking us off one by one. Kind of a coincidence, dont you think."
Ice blue eyes narrowed. "I just gave everyone what they deserved," she said softly, a low growl rumbling deep in her chest. "But you have me at a disadvantage. You know who I am, but " She raised a dark brow curiously.
The poacher smiled thinly. "My name is Corbin. Jack Corbin."
Leandra burrowed through the names that had lain for so long, unused, in the deepest parts of her memory, and after a moment she found the right one. She nodded. "I know that name," she said softly. "Youre the man who led the expedition into Garamba Park about six years ago the one that almost wiped out the white rhinos there." The man bowed slightly in acknowledgement. Leandras growl grew louder. "Youre a butcher," she stated coldly.
"No moreso than you were," Jack sneered.
"Perhaps." Leandra knew she couldnt refute her own actions but her determination to repent was renewed. "But now I hunt the hunters. And you know what?" She grinned, showing sharp canines. "Im better at this than I ever was at poaching."
The steel blade flickered in the suns feeble rays. "Well see."
The two circled one another, eyes locked together, watching for signs of weakness or intent. Jack feinted high with his knife, drawing Leandra forward before aiming a strike at her right shoulder. Leandra had anticipated that her opponent would try to hit her there, knowing it could earn him a swift victory, and she easily twisted to the side, dodging back then leaping forward, her claws snapping out in twin arcs. Jack retreated momentarily before pushing in again, slashing repeatedly to keep Leandra from making a move and forcing the dark woman to fall back to the very edge of the cliff face. The striped woman was unbothered by her precarious position, pacing along the precipice with the agility of a tight-rope walker. Jack snarled and pressed the attack, trying to force her over, but Leandra ducked and rolled out of the way, skillfully avoiding the silver flash of steel.
On the sidelines, Ashley watched breathlessly as Leandra fought against the poacher. Looking around for a weapon of some sort, she quickly spied a short length of branch lying among the stones and grabbed it up, knowing that if Leandra were struck down, she would have to carry the fight herself. Studying the two wary combatants, Ashley immediately saw that Leandra was a lot swifter and more agile than her enemy, and probably matched the burly poacher in terms of strength and endurance. Still, Jack Corbin had only to land a single hit to the weakened muscles in Leandras shoulder, and victory would most likely be his. Ashley knew the odds were uncertain, and she waited to defend her friend should she be needed.
Jack was breathing hard after only a few minutes fighting, but he was pleased to note that the tiger-woman was panting slightly too. The jungle humidity sapped the strength quickly, and Jack knew it was best to finish this thing quickly. He hadnt wanted to take the formidable woman on in hand-to-hand combat, but again his plans had been disrupted. Knowing he needed to neutralize Leandras advantage of speed, Jack rushed the dark-haired woman and grappled for her arms. Leandra snarled as she saw what he intended, but couldnt move aside in time to avoid being pinned against the drop behind her. Jack grabbed each of her hands just behind the wrist and tried to push her backwards, but Leandra refused to back down. Bone claws racked against the poachers arms, but Jack ignored the pain, sensing victory. With every muscle in his forearms and neck straining to press his momentary advantage, Jack edged their way closer to the edge of the precipice. Leandra, growling determinedly, fought to hold her ground.
"I may not get my white tiger," Jack grunted, "but at least Ill be able to say I killed the Indian Menace."
Leandra hissed, baring pearly-white teeth, the muscles in her shoulder burning as they absorbed ever more strain. "Better men than you have thought the same thing," she snarled.
Watching the two as they wrestled for control, Ashley wondered if this was the right time to jump in. Jack was focused entirely on his struggle; she could sneak up behind him and club his on the back of the head easily. But just as she started creeping forward to help her friend, Leandra made her move.
The end was, as it usually is, almost blindingly fast. Leandra twisted her arm and managed to slip free from the poachers grasp, if only for a moment. But a moment was all she needed. With a primal roar of triumph, the striped woman lashed out with her claws, raking them in a savage uppercut across Jack Corbins face. Shocked, Jack lost his control. Moving quickly before he could recover, Leandra spun them both around, then used her shoulder to deliver a hard push to Jacks chest. The poacher swore furiously for a second, his anger making him slow to realize that his feet were half-hanging over a long drop. He wavered a moment on the edge, still gripping Leandra with one hand then, with a strangled cry, he fell
Refusing to release his solid hold on Leandras wrist.
"NO!" Time seemed to slow to a crawl as Ashley watched, horrified, as Jack used his last strength to drag Leandra over the edge after him. She saw the surprised look that flashed through the dark womans cobalt eyes saw a momentary panic and concern. Her legs froze, ignoring for a heartbeat any orders to move forward. By the time Ashley had rushed to help, Leandra had fallen without a sound, disappearing over the ledge.
"NO LEANDRA!!" Ashley dashed to the edge of the cliff, tears already streaming down her face. For a moment, the fear was overwhelming, and she couldnt even process the terrible events. This couldnt happen! Not now not ever! Ashley threw herself down on the rocky ground and peered into the churning waters below. Through her blurred vision, she saw no sign of either Jack or Leandra, and a sob wrenched from the back of her throat as she felt a burning pain fill her heart. The crushing reality of the situation broke over her, the hope that this was all some terrible nightmare vanishing, and Ashley shook her head in denial. "No Please no."
In that moment, the jungle seemed silent for the first time since shed arrived.
Then, like a miracle, a familiar raspy voice called up from below. "Ashley?"
Emerald eyes widened instantly, tears forgotten. "Leandra?"
A barely audible grunt. "Can you give me a hand? Ive hurt my leg."
Ashley gave a half-sob, half-cry noise and rushed to look over the edge again. There, dangling from one of the thick vines that wrapped across the cliff-face, was Leandra. Sweaty, her face creased into a grimace of pain but alive!
"H-hang on Leandra! Ill get something to throw down!" Ashley scrambled away quickly, wiping her face and feeling a sense of such relief flood through her body that it made her physically weak. Looking around in a daze, the young photographers eyes latched onto a thick, rope-like vine hanging not far away, and she quickly grabbed it up, tearing it free from its roots with desperate strength. Dragging the length back with her to the edge, she tossed one end down to where Leandra hung, then grabbed the other and planted her feet firmly. "Can you climb up?"
A pause. "Yeah I think so. You got the other end?"
"I got it."
Ashley braced herself as the vine suddenly pulled at her, and she redoubled her efforts to hold on as she took the weight from Leandras body. After several agonizing minutes, a painted, slightly bloody hand appeared over the edge of the crag, searching for a hold. Ashley immediately grabbed for it and helped the dark woman up to safety, struggling when the heavier woman almost pulled her over. As soon as she was certain Leandra was out of harms way, Ashley threw her arms around the striped woman and clutched her desperately close.
"I thought you were gone!" she cried. "I thought "
"Shhh. Its okay. Im fine now." Fingers combed reassuringly through her tangled hair, and Ashley pressed herself harder still against Leandra, shaking with the strength of her relief. It was several moments before she managed to regain her composure enough to draw away and look up into soft, sapphire eyes.
"Dont you ever scare me like that again, you hear me?" she said hoarsely.
Leandra smiled and wiped away the tear marks with the back of her hand. "I promise." The two sat quietly, just soaking in the presence of one another, before Leandra winced and shifted her position. "I think we should get back to the cave," she observed, looking down at her left thigh. "I got banged up a bit when I grabbed the vine."
Ashley snuffled and followed the dark womans eyes, gasping when she saw the wicked gash on Leandras leg. "Oh my God!" She reached out to help, but withdrew when Leandra flinched. "Youre right Leandra that needs a bandage."
"And probably a few stitches, too." Leandra frowned. "I have everything I need in my supplies. Can you help me up?"
"Of course." Ashley got to her feet and helped Leandra stand. The dark woman limped quite severely, blood flowing sluggishly down her leg from the wound, and Ashley didnt even ask if she could help. She simply grabbed the dark womans arm and wrapped it around her neck, supporting some of her weight as they began making their way slowly back towards Leandras home.
Leandra smiled quietly, and accepted the assistance without comment.
* * *
Some distance downstream, a trembling hand emerged from the swift-flowing river and grabbed for a half-submerged log that had fallen into the water. Gasping for breath, Jack pulled himself more fully onto the lifeline, his body aching and weak. His right leg was broken; he could feel the splintered bones grinding against each other, bringing flashing stars to his vision. He suspected at least two ribs were cracked; his breathing came in harsh and painful gasps. Blood still flowed from the deep gashes scored across his face by the tiger-womans claws, running into his eyes and matting his dripping hair. Still, he managed to haul his body free from the chill, mountain-fed waters before collapsing on the muddy bank. Broken. Bleeding.
Jack had been a hunter all his life. He was a shrewd and ruthless businessman and though it didnt happen often, he knew when he was beaten. This hunt was worthless now. He was in no condition to carry the fight any further, and wouldnt be for some time. It was going to be a struggle just to make it out of the jungle in one piece, especially if he didnt find safe ground before the night-hunters detected his presence.
There was no white tiger. He believed the words of the blonde photographer; they rang true in his head. While he was willing to deal with the dangerous tiger-bitch if it meant there was a reward for his efforts, Jack wasnt the type to pursue a personal grudge at least not until he was fit enough to do so.
Cursing under his breath, Jack accepted defeat. It was time to leave this place before his losses grew any more dire.
* * *
Some time later, Ashley watched with a slight grimace as Leandra drew a sharp needle through her skin one final time and tugged the surgical cord tight, pulling together the ragged edges of her torn flesh. The blonde held out a small pair of scissors to the dark woman, who used them to cut the suture string after shed tied it off.
Leandra flexed her leg slowly, testing it. "Hmm." She grunted softly in satisfaction. "Seems okay."
"Itll need to be cleaned with disinfectant," Ashley pointed out, rummaging through Leandras first-aid kit till she found the appropriate bottle and a few cotton swabs. She also found a neatly-rolled bandage, and set it down in front of her. "Here stretch out your leg and Ill wrap it."
Leandra dutifully complied, closing her eyes with a contented smile as she felt the younger womans fingers gently wash away the blood and begin cleaning the wound with the antibacterial liquid. Her leg burned a little from the cut, but it wasnt too bad. Her hands were covered in numerous minor cuts and abrasions, and she ached all over from the fight but nevertheless, Leandra felt calm and sedate after the unpleasant start to the day.
Ashley glanced at dark woman seriously as she worked. "Do you think hes dead?" she asked softly.
Leandra shrugged. "I didnt see a body. Did you?"
Ashley shook her head.
"Then maybe not." Leandra sighed and shifted. "I should probably go check it out."
Ashley stayed silent, glancing up only when Leandra made no move to return to the hunt. "Do you have too?"
Leandra took a deep breath. She was sick of this game against the bothersome poacher, and furthermore, she could tell that Ashley was still shaken from her ordeal that morning. "He could do more damage if he survives." Still she didnt move, feeling Ashleys gentle eyes pleading with her to stay. "But no I dont have to go."
Ashley smiled softly. "Good," she whispered, returning to her gentle ministrations.
As she worked, Ashley let her eyes roam along the firm contours of Leandras upper thigh, and her breathing grew slightly more shallow. The hem of Leandras short tiger-fur skirt ran high up her legs, leaving a lot for the young blonde to admire as she gently cleaned the neatly-sutured cut. Without realizing it, her work slowed as her point of focus drifted to more interesting things than first-aid, and Ashley licked suddenly dry lips as her fingers roamed unconsciously over the painted flesh before her. The drama of that morning faded quickly as Ashleys blood ran feverishly through her body, and the beating of her heart intensified.
Leandra smiled when she felt the subtle change in the touches of her companion, her body awakening with the first flushes of desire. She remained absolutely still, not wanting to break Ashley from her apparent trance, and wondering how far the young woman would go before she realized what she was doing.
Ashleys fingers caressed ever higher, wandering almost to the edge of Leandras skirt before she shook herself a little and ordered herself to behave. Picking up the bandage, she began to wrap it around the dark womans leg, not noticing the amused expression on the dark womans painted face. Still, her eyes continued their explorations, and Ashley could feel the cave growing warmer by the minute.
Leandra shifted slightly, watching Ashleys eyes crawl over the length of her body. "Would you like to see more?" she asked in a throaty whisper.
"Huh?" Emerald eyes glanced up, surprised.
"Would you like to see more?" Leandra repeated. "I could take off the skirt if you want me too. You know you only have to ask."
Ashley flushed bright red, caught totally off-guard by the frank question and moreso by the heat in Leandras gaze. She lowered her eyes and quickly returned her attentions back to bandaging Leandras leg. "Um n-no, thats not necessary." Jeez Ashley! Get your head out of the gutter here!Leandra grinned. "You dont have to be embarrassed about it Ashley," she said in the same low, rumbling purr. "Its natural to get excited by the person youre attracted too. I know Id find it very arousing if you were naked." Ashleys flush grew if possible even deeper, and Leandra leaned forward a little further. "I dont mind showing you more if youd like."
Ashley was silent for several moments, struggling to rein in a libido that was awakening with a ravenous appetite for the first time in many years. Leandras husky voice was having a powerful effect on her body, and Ash wasnt certain how to respond to such an unreservedly sexual suggestion. Eventually, she glanced up at the striped face of her friend shyly. "Youre a lot different from anyone Ive ever been involved with before," she said quietly. "I just " She struggled to find the words to explain. "Its not just that youre well, you know a woman. None of the guys Ive dated have ever really been all that outgoing with this stuff. You know, kind of to the point, I guess. Youre a lot more open, then they ever were. You understand?"
Leandra considered Ashleys words carefully, then nodded sincerely. "Does it bother you?"
"Well not bother, exactly." Ashley lowered her head coyly. "Its just different for me. Im not used to it, thats all."
"Do you like it?"
Ashley thought a moment, then gave an almost imperceptible nod. "Its kinda nice, I guess."
Leandra grinned. "So would you like me to take the skirt off?"
Ashley met the seductive pull of those clear sapphire eyes that were darkening with hungry fires, and couldnt help but laugh. "Lets keep it on for now, shall we? Maintain at least a little mystery for later on."
"Mystery? Ashley, youve already seen me naked. You helped paint me or have you forgotten so quickly."
Ashley shuddered at the memory. "How could I forget," she rasped, before clearing her throat and shaking herself free of a delicious fantasy that skipped teasingly across her mind. "But, um still, I think we should save something for later on. Okay?"
Leandra studied the blonde curiously, wondering at the hint of promise in her eyes, before nodding agreeably. "Absolutely."
"Great." Ashley dropped her gaze back to the leg she was working on, finishing up with the bandage and securing the loose end with a butterfly clip. When she was done, she shyly let her hands continue wandering along the painted leg, exploring over Leandras calves down to her thickly-callused feet. Leandra made no signs of disapproval, so Ashley continued for several delicious moments in silence, the simple touches exciting her in a way shed never experienced, and starting a deep ache in the pit of her belly. It was the first time shed ever touched another woman so intimately, and thoughts of a more detailed exploration were seeming more appealing now than ever before.
For the rest of that day, Ashley stayed with Leandra in the cave, only leaving briefly to retrieve water from the nearby stream. Thankfully, Leandras supplies were sufficient to provide both women with a satisfying lunch, and Ashley filled the time by talking more about her life and family. Leandra was content to simply lie on her pallet and let the younger womans words flow over her soothingly. The cut on her leg showed no signs of retaining heat, and didnt seem likely to turn septic, but for the time being Leandra didnt feel the need to stress her injury any further. Besides, she considered with a smile, it was kind of nice to just lie back and enjoy Ashleys continued pampering.
For her part, Ashley enjoyed tending to the injured womans needs almost as much as Leandra. But although she kept up a constant rain of chatter, most of Ashleys mind was preoccupied with ponderings of a more licentious nature chiefly centered around the dark womans earlier offer. And the more Ashley considered Leandras words, the more intrigued she became by the possibilities.
She said all I have to do is ask, the young blonde considered wickedly. And she wasnt just bluffing, either. If Id said yes, shed be sitting there naked right now, letting me look at her all I want.
Ashleys mental wanderings pursued that line of thought to the next obvious point. Shed probably let me touch her if I wanted to, too.
And kiss her.
AndAll of a sudden, the fantasies and never-to-be scenarios that Ashley had only ever entertained in her own imagination took on a more serious quality. I bet shed let me do anything I wanted, Ashley considered, the very thought of how far she might take such a liberty making her shiver with arousal. Flicking glances at the striped woman lying languidly on the pallet across the cave, Ashleys eyes narrowed to predatory slits.
"The suns going down," Leandras throaty purr observed. "Itll be dark soon. Ill walk you back to your camp if you want."
The corners of Ashleys lips quirked into a seductive smile. "What if Id rather stay here tonight?" she asked softly, her voice sounding almost as husky as Leandras.
Cobalt eyes widened at the tone of Ashleys voice, and Leandra saw instantly by the hungry look in the young womans eyes just where Ashleys thoughts had taken her. Heat swept through her loins like wildfire, and she sat up a little straighter. "I-if thats what you want Id like that very much."
Ashleys smile grew wider, and she abandoned her seat by the fire to crawl closer to where Leandra lay. Her eyes scanned slowly over every inch of the dark womans frame, from the wild, unkempt hair to the elegant, chiseled features, down over planes of toned, painted muscle and golden skin. The light from the fire flickered over the tiger-womans body like a bronze caress, running primitive shadows over every intriguing dip and hollow. Leandras eyes were clear as shards of tundra ice, yet they projected a heat that struck Ashley to her core.
Ashley swallowed, for a moment unsure if she could actually ask the question she wanted. But looking at the sensuous, exotic creature lying before her, she rallied her courage. "Would you mind taking off your top?"
The dark woman was still for several heartbeats, then, without a word, she reached for the laces that held the brief scrap of tiger-fur closed over her breasts. Ashley watched, hardly breathing, as Leandra slowly pulled the cord free and shrugged the simple garment from her shoulders. The firelight washed over the dark womans naked torso, and Ashley let herself stare, her fingers twitching eagerly.
Leandra sat patiently, letting the younger woman look, feeling wetness bloom between her legs at the fixated intent in Ashleys sparkling jade eyes. "You can come closer," she invited.
Ashley didnt even hesitate, crawling forward till her knees brushed against the edges of the coarse sleeping mat. Her attention wandered constantly back and forth between Leandras exposed breasts and her flashing eyes, and she slowly leaned closer till her lips brushed against those of the striped woman. With a quiet whimper, Ashley let her tongue glide forth to stroke lightly against Leandras lips. The kiss deepened quickly, and the young blonde trembled when she felt Leandras naked breasts press against her chest. A cautious hand rose and began tracing along the dark womans collar with the lightest of touches, feeling a low, purring vibration rumble through the sensitive skin. Breaking the kiss, Ashley looked down and watched her fingers as they drew over the slightly faded stripes, shaking noticeably as they wandered closer to Leandras full breasts.
Leandras breaths were coming in ragged, shallow gasps as she fought the urge to simply throw the young blonde to the ground and ravish her senseless. In the past, she knew, she wouldnt have given a second thought to simply taking Ashley right away from the lust in those blazing emerald eyes, Leandra knew she would not be rejected. But much had changed these past four years, and Leandra was fearful of hurting her friend by moving things too fast. Just as Ashleys fingers began to descend lower over her chest, Leandra caught the photographers gaze and held it.
"Are you sure?"
Ashley sucked on her lower lip, then nodded shyly. "I want you," she breathed softly.
"But theres no rush. We dont have to do anything if youre not ready." Leandra paused, seeing an uncertainty in Ashleys eyes that conflicted with the hunger. This was Ashleys first time with another woman, Leandra reminded herself. "I dont want you to regret a single moment of the time we spend together."
Ashley absorbed the gentle concern in Leandras eyes, and felt her love for the dark woman deepen impossibly further. "I could never regret anything I do with you, Leandra," she whispered. "And I want this. I want it so much "
Leandra shuddered at the young womans tone, and knew she couldnt fight the inevitable. "Me, too."
Reassured, Ashley let her fingers continue their southward journey. Her excitement grew to dizzying heights when she traced around Leandras nipples, and felt how strongly her touch was affecting the dark woman. Ashley had imagined touching another woman in this way many times but the reality was so much better than any of her fantasies had ever been. Leandras body was so soft and smooth, even covered in the thin, dusty paint, and Ashley found herself becoming lost in every new curve she discovered. She smiled shakily at the cobalt eyes that watched her, unblinking.
"Im not really sure how to do this," she admitted timidly.
Leandra smiled encouragingly. "Just follow youre instincts," she advised huskily. "Touch me the way you like to be touched."
Ashley returned her attention back to what her hands were doing, unable to stop her smile from turning rakish. That should be easy enough, she thought. Ive got a whole lot of experience in that department!
Gently at first, then with greater confidence, Ashley caressed the dark womans chest, her fingers running in long strokes over the defined ribcage, before returning to tease and torment rock-hard nipples. "Youre so soft," she murmured in awe. Listening to Leandras breathing as it went ragged, Ashley learned which areas elicited the strongest responses, and her touches grew steadily bolder. Before long, her eyes were drifting down to the brief skirt that wrapped about the tiger-womans waist, and her fingers started craving new territory to explore.
Seeing where Ashleys focus was shifting, Leandra unlaced the skirt and lifted herself off the pallet, letting the cloth slide away and exposing her completely to Ashleys enthralled gaze. The young blonde stared at the vision before her, hands trembling noticeably as they rested on Leandras abdomen. Glancing up at the dark woman, she received a nod and a reassuring smile. Taking that as permission to continue, Ashley shifted closer and let her fingers roam ever lower. She could smell the musky scent of Leandras desire and her mouth watered at the thought that she was the one to inspire such arousal. As her fingers began to move hesitantly towards Leandras pulsing center, Ashleys lips descended upon the woman lying under her, kissing her ardently and feeling the dark woman respond with equal passion. The young blonde let go her fears and caution as she fed from Leandras mouth, for the first time in her life allowing carnal desires to completely consume her. Her hunger redoubled, and she groaned excitedly as Leandras hands began to tug urgently at her own clothes. Breaking contact momentarily, Ashley stripped as quick as she could, all sense of modesty abandoned to the urgency of the moment. As soon as she was naked, her lips returned to their feast, this time seeking out Leandras throat and sucking forcefully at the thundering pulse-point.
Leandra groaned as she felt her younger lovers excitement, only able to take a moment to let her eyes wander appreciatively over Ashleys lithe figure before the blonde attacked her hungrily. A cry was torn from her throat when the young womans slender fingers grazed her center, and her hips bucked eagerly, craving more. Ashley took her time, however, her touches straying for long minutes first over sensitized inner thighs and stomach, before they returned to where Leandras need was greatest.
Ashleys lips forged a hot, wet trail down Leandras collar, then dipped quickly lower to snare each nipple in turn. The young photographer was completely caught up in the passion of the moment, more turned-on than shed ever been in her entire life. Her teeth pulled lightly at Leandras sensitized flesh, then, hearing the way the dark woman responded, bit harder. Leandra convulsed, and Ashleys fingers finally sought out liquid heat and began a slow, steady massage. She broke contact and looked down at the body writhing beneath her, breathless with desire as her fingers flowed through Leandras slick folds.
Leandra bit her lip to hold back a scream as her lover stroked her earnestly, her eyes locking for a timeless moment with the emerald gems above her. "Oh God! Harder, please! Harder!" she gasped, her hands clawing at the ground as Ashley complied, slowing only long enough to curl two fingers inwards, entering her with a single smooth stroke. Leandra whimpered, her eyes squeezing shut as pleasure zinged through her body, electrifying her blood and filling her senses with ecstasies long-forgotten.
Ashley was stunned at the heat that enveloped her fingers. Leandra felt like liquid silk, and the young woman eagerly set about satisfying her new lover. Though shed never touched another woman intimately, Ashley had a lot of experience keeping herself happy, and she applied that expertise to this new situation. From the way Leandras body pulsed around her buried digits, Ashley decided she was doing okay.
Unfortunately, four years of abstinence had taken a toll on the dark woman and all too soon the first delicious spasms of climax began to twist in Leandras belly. Though she fought against the inevitable waves, wanting to enjoy her lovers touch as long as possible, the intent look of fixed concentration Ashley wore, coupled with the addition of a third finger to the two already thrusting deeply into her core, quickly sent her hurtling over the threshold of pleasure. Leandras body stiffened, her eyes stared up blankly at Ashleys face, and she cried out loud as searing bolts of white-hot ecstasy tore through her loins and spread a quick burn through the rest of her body. Ashley continued thrusting into her clenching sex, dragging out the pleasure for as long as she could, before Leandra collapsed, gasping, back onto the sleeping pallet.
Ashley smiled as she slowly withdrew her fingers from their warm nest, feeling the last few pulses grip at her pleasantly. An expression of dazed wonder graced her features as she looked at Leandras sweat-streaked body and face, and her heart almost stopped when sated sapphire eyes turned on her with radiant joy.
"Thank you," Leandra whispered, taking some time to catch her breath after the quick but stunning orgasm. "God, that was " She grinned, shaking her head. "Incredible."
Ashleys smile turned into a full-fledged grin, her eyes positively glowing in the firelight. "Really?"
Leandra nodded sincerely. "Really."
"Huh." Ashley settled herself beside the striped form of her new lover. "I dont think Ive ever been described as incredible before," she mused aloud. "At least, not in this particular department."
Leandra matched her grin. "Well, I think youre incredible in all departments," she purred seductively, letting her eyes drink in the vision of Ashleys nakedness hungrily. "And if youll give me a minute or two to recover Ill be sure to thank you properly."
Ashley shivered at the husky promise. Propping herself up on one elbow, she continued running her eyes over Leandras powerful frame, feeling the heat radiating from her lovers body. Her fingers still glistened with the dark womans essence, and, after making sure Leandras eyes were closed, Ashley lifted them to her lips and took a guilty little lick. She smiled at the exotic flavor, finding it very much to her liking, and proceeded to quickly sample the remainder. When her fingers were clean, Ashleys eyes returned to feast upon Leandras nakedness once more.
Thinking back to all the dream-lovers that had populated her fantasies over the years, Ashley couldnt believe the characteristics that had been common to them all. What the hell was I thinking? she wondered silently. Sophisticated? Cultured? Theyve got nothing on Leandra! Simply put, the dark woman was the epitome of animal sensuality; savage nobility, coupled with primeval strength and passion, all packed into a convenient, six-foot something body that fairly reeked of carnal sexuality. Ashleys eyes glowed as the fires in them sparked once more, and her hands reached out to begin a second exploration.
Cobalt eyes flew open instantly. "Oh, no you dont!"
Ashley gave a startled yelp as powerful yet gentle fingers wrapped around her wrists and pushed her back. Leandra twisted about, quickly pinning the naked blonde to the sleeping mat and bringing their faces together. "Its my turn now," she growled, pressing her uninjured thigh against Ashleys heated center. The blonde shuddered, her eyes rolling in their sockets as Leandra began a slow grind.
Painted hands released their hold on the young womans wrists, stroking down Ashleys arms till they reached her chest. Leandra quickly brought her lovers breasts to attention, massaging the soft flesh with the palms of her hands as her fingers sought out stiffened nipples and began to pinch and roll them gently, then with greater urgency as they both grew more excited.
Lying on her back on the rough pallet, Ashley whimpered at the attentions her body was receiving. She wasnt a hundred per-cent sure what to expect from Leandra, but she was certainly enjoying the ride so far. No-one had ever touched her with this kind of almost frenzied passion and the young woman found herself getting wetter at the thought of what might lie in store for her. When Leandra kissed her ardently, she responded with fierce hunger, her tongue fighting an erotic battle for dominance against her lovers. She was quickly forced into a route, however, when one of Leandras hands quested southwards and, upon encountering the source of her need, began to play promisingly through dampened curls.
Leandra swallowed a moan when she felt just how ready her lover was for her, amazed at the river of heat that awaited her touch. Her lips abandoned those of the blonde to trail a scorching path down her slender neck, past her left shoulder, then onwards till they encountered the tempting swell of her breasts. Swiftly, the dark woman began an oral assault that soon had Ashley gasping and whimpering helplessly, the young photographer writhing under the skilled caress of teeth and tongue. But Leandra knew there were even more tempting delights to sample, and her mouth watered hungrily at the sensations her fingers were encountering below.
Giving Ashleys right nipple a final tug, Leandra looked up at the young woman breathlessly, finding emerald eyes burning with need. "Let me taste you," she gasped. "Please?"
Ashley hesitated, uncertain. "Um "
"Youll like it, I promise." Leandra licked her lips, her senses filled with the younger womans intoxicating scent. "Please Ashley?"
Ashley bit her lower lip, considering, then gave a mental shrug. What the heck you only live once. She nodded, and let her legs splay further apart. "Okay."
Leandra grinned, and swiftly began laying a wet line of kisses and licks down her lovers body, drawing ever closer to the source of Ashleys heat.
Ashley lay back and closed her eyes, focusing on the sensations generated by Leandras oral ministrations. She blushed in reflex as the dark woman settled between her legs, feeling the air caress her intimately and making her fully aware of how exposed and open she was to her lover. This was a pleasure Ashley had never experienced before; something none of her previous lovers had offered, and which shed never been able to find the courage to ask for. Still, shed often wondered how this might feel and it appeared she was about to find out.
A sudden brush of warm air flowed across her sensitized sex, and Ashley tensed, then relaxed as Leandra blew against her again. The first touch of Leandras tongue ran along the inside of her left thigh, and Ashley trembled as her core pulsed anxiously. She could feel how wet she was how ready. This kind of patient foreplay was new to her, and her hands grasped the edges of the sleeping mat tightly as she forced her body to lie still as Leandras tongue played havoc with her already over-loaded libido.
The teasing licks continued for long minutes as Ashley squirmed anxiously, then suddenly they became more purposeful. Leandras lips and tongue abandoned Ashleys thighs and began a more serious exploration of her velvet folds. Ashleys hips bucked hard against the erotic assault, and she cried out when the tiger-woman lashed her hard nub repeatedly, before returning to the long, slow strokes that swiftly began to drive her insane. Her hands grabbed for Leandras hair, pulling the dark woman closer as she convulsed. "Oh, fuck!" Ashley gasped, white lights exploding behind her eyelids as the most unbelievable sensations ripped through her sex.
Leandra grinned around her feast as she brought her fingers to Ashleys entrance. "You like?"
"Yes! Gods, please Leandra dont stop!" Ashleys fingers held on desperately to Leandras dreadlocks, seeking an anchor as her body thrust forward, completely out of her control.
"Would you like more?" Leandra managed to ask as the young blonde pulled her hard into her center.
Ashley almost sobbed when she felt the firmer touch of Leandras fingers slide tauntingly against her wetness. "Yes!" Her hips surged upwards, pleading. "Urgh! Inside please Leandra! Inside now!"
The dark woman complied, pushing into Ashley slowly, delighting at the way the young womans inner muscles pulled at her welcomingly. It had been a long time since Leandra had last been with a woman, but the skills which had lain for so long unused in the back of her mind returned swiftly as she felt Ashleys thighs tense and relax against her body. It was quickly apparent to Leandra that her young lovers body was on a hair-trigger, ready to explode at any moment, so she forced herself to move slowly, wanting to drag out Ashleys pleasure as long as she could. Ashley continued to whimper and plead, obviously lost in a world of ecstasy, and Leandra smiled as she thrust slowly and deeply into the photographers depths. Everytime the dark woman sensed her lover drawing closer to the edge, she would pause in her ministrations till Ashley calmed, in this way keeping the young blonde hovering constantly at the very brink of orgasm.
Still, the patient love-making could only continue for so long before Ashleys body reached the limit of its endurance. When Leandra felt the first spasms grip at her fingers, she immediately curled her fingers inward and began to thrust harder, her lips seeking out Ashleys engorged bud and wrapping around it tightly. As her tongue lashed with the speed of a hummingbirds wings against the tiny bundle of nerve-endings, Leandra sucked relentlessly. Ashley screamed as her body stiffened, crying out words that only vaguely resembled Leandras name as the waves of her climax pounded through her sweat-slicked frame. The pleasure was more overwhelming than any shed experienced before, and Leandra refused to let it die away quickly. But eventually, the young woman collapsed weakly back to the ground, panting for breath as she pushed gently at Leandras head.
"No more," she begged. "God I couldnt take any more."
Leandra grinned, planting a final loving kiss to Ashleys sex before stretching out full-length beside her shorter companion. "Was that to your liking, my lady?" she asked impishly, her ice-blue eyes sparkling in the dying light of the ill-tended fire.
Ashley blew her damp bangs from her eyes and sighed. "Ill say." Her body was still awash with warm tingles. "That was phenomenal."
"Good." Leandra leaned down and kissed the younger woman softly on the lips, letting her taste herself briefly. "Im glad I could make you feel good."
Ash smiled, wrapping her arms around Leandra and pulling their bodies into a tight embrace. "You make me feel wonderful every moment were together," she whispered sincerely. "Thank you."
Leandra smiled in the fading light, feeling at peace and sated in a way shed never experienced before. "Thank you."
For long moments, the two lay as one in the glow of the dying fire. Ashleys eyes fluttered, then closed, and soon the young womans breathing deepened as she drifted off, exhausted. But Leandra lay awake a long time in the darkness, her eyes staring upwards at nothing, one hand playing gently through the fine pale hair of her companion and lover. The sounds from outside continued to speak their mysterious knowledge to her but Leandra felt herself distanced from that world of hunter and prey, wrapped up in a new world of peace and love shed never hoped to find.
And in that moment, Leandra knew there was no way she could ever live without these feelings could never fully return to that solitary world of the jungle predator.
* * *
It was sometime later in the night that Leandra woke from a dreamless sleep, her body slightly chilled. Her internal clock told her it was still several hours till dawn, and the night air carried a cold bite. She immediately sensed the absence of her bed-mate, and sat up slowly, stretching her injured leg stiffly as she looked around.
Ashley sat at the mouth of the cave, her head propped on her folded hands as she looked out at the forests and plains below. Shed donned her shirt and shorts to ward against the chill, but Leandras sensitive ears still detected the shiver in each breath the young woman took. Shafts of light beamed down through the thin cloud cover, illuminating Ashleys features and casting her hair into an iridescent halo. Leandra rose and padded silently over the young woman, noticing the pensive expression that marred her companions elfin features.
Green eyes that turned almost crystalline in the moonlight glanced up. Ashley smiled. "Hey."
"Of course." Ashley patted the ground next to her invitingly, and Leandra kneeled beside her. The two watched the shifting shadows of the clouds in silence, before Leandra spoke.
"You dont regret anything, do you?"
Ashley shook her head immediately. "I told you, Leandra I could never regret the time weve spent together." She paused, adding with a roguish grin, "And I could certainly never regret doing that with you."
Leandra smiled, then eyed the blonde curiously. "You just look a little sad, thats all."
"Not sad. Just thinking." Ashley sighed. "Todays going to be my last full day out here. We leave the next morning."
Now Leandra understood. She shifted on the ground, stretching her wounded leg out to relieve the pressure on the stitches. "I know."
"It seems so close. Ive been trying so hard not to think about it, you know? I dont " Ashley trailed off, unable to find the words to express her feelings for a long moment. "I didnt want to spoil what was happening between us by bringing it up, but after last night, I know I cant avoid it anymore."
Leandra nodded, understanding completely. Shed been deliberately avoiding thinking too much about Ashleys imminent departure as well and about the changes she was going to have to make if she intended to keep the young woman in her life. Glancing at Ashley quickly, Leandra found herself suddenly caught by an intensity there shed not expected.
"Ask me to stay," Ashley whispered.
"Ask me to stay, Leandra. Just ask, and Ill do it."
Leandra stared, thrown totally for a loop by Ashleys words. She shook her head. "I-I cant I mean, you cant! Ashley, you have a home, a family! You cant just-"
"I will " Ashley sat up straighter and faced the dark woman directly. "If you ask me to, I will."
"No." The young woman shook her head angrily. "I dont want to leave you, Leandra. Its not fair! I cant just walk away from this thing not now. I-" Ashley paused, lowering her face as she fought against tears of frustration. "I want to be with you. I want to wake up every morning and know youll be waking right beside me. Ive never felt this way about anyone in my whole life Leandra but I know that what we have together doesnt come along very often. And if I walk away now if I just try to forget all the time Ive shared with you I know the chances are Ill never get to feel this way again. Ever." She snuffled. "And I dont want that."
Leandra gazed into the emerald eyes of her friend and lover, seeing the unshed tears and touched deeply by Ashleys words. "I dont want to forget you either, Ashley," she whispered softly. "But I cant ask you to live in this world with me. I dont want to be the one that takes you from your family your work. I know how much you love doing what you do."
"But I love you more!"
Leandra was silent as took in Ashleys fierce words of devotion, then she smiled a little incredulous smile. "You do?"
"Yes." Ashley reached out and clasped Leandras striped hands in her own. "I love you more than anyone in the world Leandra and I cant loose you now that Ive finally found you."
That was all I needed to hear, Leandra realized, feeling any doubts about her feelings for Ashley disappear in a heartbeat. "Well " she considered quietly, " when you leave here, I could always just come along with you."
"What?" Ashley frowned, wondering if shed heard right. "Y-you mean back to the States?"
"If you wanted me to."
For a second, Ashleys mind could only scream YES!!, knowing this was what shed been dreaming of unconsciously for the past several days. But reluctantly, she forced herself to be rational. "Leandra, I-I cant ask you do that."
"Well I just cant, thats all. I mean you have friends here, too. What about Shar-Ranjana? What about the other tigers you protect?"
"Therell always be poachers, Ashley," the dark woman said quietly. "Just because I leave here doesnt mean I have to stop helping these animals. And as for Shar-Ranjana " She shrugged sadly. "Just being here doesnt mean I could save her forever. Afterall, I couldnt save her family. But shes smart. She stays hidden in the remote parts of the Park and the rangers do their job fairly well." She cocked her head to the side, then added, "Besides, if Corbin survived, hell be leaving the jungle believing that there is no white tiger thanks to you."
Ashley smiled a little. "Maybe he didnt believe me."
"He did. I could see it in his face he was angry at wasting his time on a useless hunt. If he gets out of here, the wordll spread and every poacher in the region will think the rumors are just lies. Shar-Ranjana will be as safe as she can be in this place and it wont much matter if I stay or leave."
Leandra halted any further arguments by pressing her fingers gently against the young womans lips. "I want to leave here, Ashley," she whispered with absolute certainty. "Im ready. I want to be a part of your life." Ashley stilled, seeing the conviction in Leandras expressive blue eyes. "Do you remember what you said to me about letting go of the past?" Leandra asked.
"You were right. I cant let the person I used to be stop me from becoming someone better. Im ready to face the future now as long as I do it with you by my side."
Cautious hope spread across Ashley face as she realized Leandra was serious in her intent, and her thoughts filled joyously with possible scenarios of a life with the dark woman. "Youre sure about this? What if it doesnt work out?"
"Then well deal with it when the time comes." Leandra glanced away, her eyes wandering to the jungle that had been her home for so long. "I dont have any money," she said hesitantly. "At least not with me, but-"
"Oh Leandra." Ash grinned. "That doesnt matter. You can stay with me; I have a big house with lots of space as long as you dont mind a little extra company. My niece, Casey, spends a lot of time there when Im home." She leaned forward and planted a quick kiss on the dark womans painted cheek. "I dont care how rich you are or what you do. Just as long as youre with me."
Leandra nodded. "Its not going to be easy," she warned gently. "Ive been out here a long time. My head might need some time to adjust." The dark woman studied her own striped flesh in the moonlight, embarrassed at even having to bring these points up.
But Ashley nodded in understanding. "Well take it slow," she promised. "You can have all the time you need."
Leandras eyes were shy as she glanced up through the curtain of her tangled hair. "Thank you."
Ash smiled. "I can cover your plane ticket, but I dont know about a passport or-"
"Thats okay," Leandra interrupted, already having thought ahead. "I buried all that stuff when I first came back here. It might take a while I never thought Id need it again but I think I could find it if I look."
"Really?" Ashley shook her head in wonder, excited now at the reality that she would be returning home with Leandra at her side. I cant wait to introduce her to my parents, she thought with a wry grin. Ashleys family had long ago accustomed itself to the shock of hearing about her many misadventures but the young photographer could picture their reaction when she brought home a jungle woman. "When can we get started?"
Leandra grinned. "In the morning. We can go take a quick bath, then Ill start putting my things together and saying my good-byes. If you can arrange the rest Ill be ready to leave by tomorrow."
"Excellent." She chuckled aloud, then threw her arms around Leandra neck and hugged her tightly. "I cant believe this! I mean I wasnt even willing to hope youd want to come with me, but " Her grin was impossibly wide. "This is going to be so perfect, Leandra, I promise. You and me together."
Leandra purred at the very thought. "Forever."
"Forever." Ashley pulled away from the embrace and kissed the other woman ardently. "I cant wait."
"Mmm." Leandra was silent for a long moment, feeling the warmth of the younger womans body against her own. "Ashley?"
Leandras eyes darkened. "Have you ever wondered whats it like to make love under a waterfall."
The shiver that ran through Ashleys slender frame had nothing to do with the chill, pre-dawn air. "Um well, n-not really."
Leandras voice dropped to a throaty rumble. "Would you like to find out?"
Green eyes darkened instantly. "Are you offering to show me?"
"I most certainly am."
Ash grinned. "Its still dark outside," she observed coyly.
"Well I guess well have to keep ourselves busy till the sun comes up." Leandra rose with feline grace and offered her hand to the young blonde. "Wont we?"
Ashley quickly accepted the dark womans hand, stripping off her clothes as Leandra led the way back to the sleeping mat.
* * *
Ashley faced her incredulous partner without flinching, having prepared herself for this little speech earlier. She and Leandra had parted after an extremely satisfying morning spent, for the most part, under and around the dark womans private waterfall, engaging in long sessions of love-making which only left the young photographer wanting more. When their passions had been sated if only for the moment Ashley had returned to her own camp so she could prepare for their departure the following day. Leandra had promised earnestly that she would be here early the next morning, ready to leave. Ashley didnt know for sure what preparations the jungle woman was making, but she respected that they needed to be made alone. For now, the young photographer had to deal with other issues.
"I told you Grady, Leandras coming with us," she repeated calmly, keeping her voice level and even. "Whats so difficult to understand?"
"Ashley " Gradys jaw worked, but for a moment couldnt decide which words to form first. "Are you insane!? I mean why would you even You cant just " He shook his head, turning red as he tried to form a coherent sentence together.
Ashley watched her vexed partner with a faintly amused smile. "I can. I have. Its all taken care of. Shell be here in the morning."
"Will she talk with us?" Simon, standing to one side and obviously nervous about interrupting, couldn't help but step forward as he listened. "It wouldnt have to be much, just a few little pieces of information, you know? Anything that might help us."
Ashley smiled at the pleasant, balding man reassuringly. "Im sure shell be happy to answer a few questions just as long as youre nice about it."
Simon quickly nodded his head vigorously. "O-of course! I wouldnt dream of being intrusive."
"Just remember, shed not used to being around people, okay? Shell probably be a bit edgy till she gets the hang of social interaction again."
"Edgy?" Grady gestured wildly with his arms. "This woman is a KILLER Ashley, or have you conveniently forgotten about that fact? How do you know she wont snap and try to kill us all?" He glanced over to Tarun, but the Indian guide held up his hands, unwilling to get involved.
"Leandras perfectly safe," Ashley insisted. "Shes a little rough around the edges, but shes very gentle at heart."
"This is crazy!" Grady continued to fume. "Why on earth would you want to drag her back with us? This is so unlike you, Ashley." He paused when that comment earned him a very amused raised eyebrow. "Okay, scratch that. This is exactly like you. But its still stupid."
"Whats so stupid about it, Grady?" Ashley planted her hands on her hips sternly. "The fact that Leandra wants to rejoin a society she hasnt seen in four years, or that Im willing to help her?" Emerald eyes hardened. "Tell me, Mister Judgmental, what do you think I should do? Turn my back on her? Just leave her out here so she can go insane?"
Grady studied his feet, then shook his head. "Thats not what Im saying-"
"No! I just think youre rushing into things, thats all. I mean, youve known the woman less than a fortnight, for Gods sake!"
"I know enough about her to realize that Leandras a wonderful, loving and gentle person," Ashley stated firmly. "Im not just going to abandon her now. She deserves the chance to live a normal life."
"Okay, well think about that for a moment here. Wheres she going to stay when we get back to the States? How will she survive?"
"Simple. Shell stay with me, and Ill support her till she gets her feet back."
"Its my decision Grady, not yours." Ashley took two steps closer to her partner, her posture tense. "Leandras going to be a part of my life from now on. Youd better get used to that fact quickly, or Im afraid we wont be able to work together in the future. And I dont want that."
"I cant believe this, Ash!" Grady could see from the unwavering gaze the young woman fixed him with that she was serious. "How can you Wait a minute." Suddenly, something clicked in Gradys mind. His eyes narrowed. "A part of your life? What exactly do you mean by that?"
Ashleys eyes didnt waver for a moment. "I mean Leandra and I are going to be together a lot from now on," she said softly. "Youre a smart man, Grady. You figure it out."
There was a long period of awkward silence. On the sidelines, Simon twisted his hands nervously as he watched the drama being played out before him, then quickly retreated behind his assistant. Grace looked on with a smile. Tarun, reading the young blondes posture and feeling the waves of tension rolling off of her, just rolled his eyes and hoped Grady had the good sense not to choke on his own foot.
Grady stared at the diminutive blonde, his brain struggling to process this latest detail. "So you and her are "
Ashley nodded. "Is that a problem?"
"Well um, n-no, its not a problem, I just " Grady cleared his throat and looked away, clearly not knowing how to take this. "I-I didnt know you " He waved his hand.
"Neither did I."
Grady considered. "So this explains a lot, I guess. At least I know now why youre spending so many nights out with her-"
Ashley flushed a little angrily at her partners tone. "What we do together is none of your business," she stated. "And the fact remains that when we leave here, were taking her with us. She had a few things to do before we go saying good-byes and getting her stuff together but she promised to be here in the morning."
Grady nodded, still stunned by Ashleys sudden coming out. "What about a ticket?"
Ashley smiled faintly. "Well have time to get an extra for her. Dont worry about anything, Ill cover her fare." She paused, eyeing the taller man sternly. "You dont have to like this, Grady," she said, "but if you really are my friend, youll at least make an effort to be civil to her. Okay?"
Again, Grady nodded. "Fine."
"Good. Now, if youll excuse me," Ashley glanced at the others each in turn, "I have some things of my own to get straightened out before we head off. Give a yell when dinners ready." And so saying, the young photographer marched purposefully towards her own tent.
Simon and Grace watched her leave, then exchanged glances. Simon shrugged. "I wonder "
Grace raised an eyebrow. "About what?"
"Well about who exactly a woman living out here all alone would have to say goodbye too."
* * *
In a remote part of the Park, far from the trails and tracks left by the rangers and tourists, Leandra stood before a neat row of three tall stones that lay half-buried in the earth. At her side, sitting sedately like a giant ivory statue, Shar-Ranjana watched the dark woman with primitive understanding. Here, and nowhere else in the jungle, the animals were silent. Here, and nowhere else, sound seemed out of place. Even the trees were reluctant to disturb the tranquility, and they made only hushed murmurs in even the strongest winds.
Leandra smiled down at the great white tigeress, tears already pricking at the corners of her eyes. Shar-Ranjana nuzzled her hip affectionately, sniffing with distaste at the unfamiliar scents that clung to the dark woman. Gone were the intricate pattern of stripes that had covered Leandras powerful frame. Gone were the tiger-fur top and skirt. In their place, Leandra wore a green, sleeveless shirt, and loose cotton trousers cinched at the waist with a simple leather belt. Her feet were still bare; shed tried to wear boots, but found them restrictive and uncomfortable. The clothes felt strange against her body, yet at the same time, seemed familiar. Shed taken them from a poacher more than a year ago, stashing them with her supplies to be used as rags. Never had she thought to actually have need of wearing them.
But then again, shed never thought to leave this place.
Facing the three stones, Leandra sighed and reached out, running her hand along each cool surface in turn. Remembered images of Shar-Tushar, his mate and his son flashed before her eyes and with them, memories of the night shed brought their bodies here to bury. The night shed lost her family all over again. Feelings of grief, regret, and longing washed over Leandra, but where the anger had always been, there was now only a sense of peace calm. And she knew her decision was right.
"I thought this place would be my home forever," she said softly. "I thought Id live out here till the jungle killed me." Her eyes went to the largest of the three stones, and she smiled sadly. "I thought that was the reason you let me live, all those years ago. So that I could pay for the lives Id destroyed by giving up my own. But I was wrong, wasnt I? You let me live so I could learn from what Id been. So that I could forgive myself and find my place in the world again." Her smile grew wistful. "Well it took a while but I did it."
Leandra felt Shar-Ranjana nudge her again, and she petted the great cat fondly. "I think you would have liked Ashley," she continued. "Shes gentle, and kind, and beautiful. And she loves me." Leandra shook her head in wonder. "I dont know why, or how but I can see it in her eyes and feel it in her touch. And I know that I want to be near that forever."
The tears were falling freely now, blurring her vision. Leandra snuffled and wiped her nose. "Ill never forget you," she promised hoarsely. "And Ill never forget the debt I owe. But there are other ways for me to make up for what I was ways that still let me be a part of Ashleys life. But I promise, youll always be a part of me forever."
From the pocket of the shirt, Leandra produced a short length of plaited hair, tied at both ends with strong leather twine. One third of the plait was dark and thick, taken from one of her own slender dreadlocks. Another was made from Ashleys fine, silken pale tresses. And the third was a marriage of the two, twisted together to form a single strand. Laying a soft kiss on the token, Leandra placed it solemnly on the ground before the stone marker.
"Ill come back someday," Leandra whispered, her throat closing over the words as she choked back a sob. "This isnt really goodbye. But I have to go and I wont be around so much anymore, so youll have to watch over Shar-Ranjana for me." One hand buried in the thick fur of the tigress, clutching with desperate strength. Shar-Ranjana, seeming to understand the needs of her companion, accepted the rough treatment without issue. Leandra lowered her head a moment, letting her wild mass of tangled hair cover her face as she composed herself. Taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly, she looked up through her dreadlocks at the stone.
"I know Ive said it a thousand times before," she whispered, "and I know you understand. But I need to say it one last time. Im sorry." Bitter tears streamed from ice-blue eyes, and Leandras jaw trembled. "Im sorry I couldnt protect you when it mattered the most. Im sorry you had to die." She lowered her head again, listening to the strange silence and feeling the spirit of the great white cat sooth her grief with his presence.
For a long time, Leandra knelt before the three graves in silence, unmoving, feeling the warmth of Shar-Ranjana beside her. Then, standing, she turned and walked away.
Leaving behind the heart of one life, to begin another.
Continued in Part 5.
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