I usually didn’t notice girls, so it was not surprising that Crane saw her first. Once he pointed her out, and I noticed the men trailing behind her, I agreed that it was much too late for her to be out alone. The decision quickly made, we followed the woman and the four men down the empty, windswept street. Her furtive glances over her shoulder let us know she was aware that she had company behind her, stalking her. When she sped up, so did they, and from where we were, slipping in and out of the shadows, it all played out over the course of one block, from walk to jog to run. And maybe everything was fine. Maybe she was a master at TaeKwon-Do, or maybe she knew the guys walking behind her and it was a game, some weird kinky sex thing that they had going on that my best friend and I were not privy to. The fact remained that she was out, seemingly alone, at two in the morning in a very bad part of town.
“Can I just go by myself?” I asked even though I already knew the answer. “It would be so much faster.”
Crane shook his head before he darted away from me. Having known the man since we were kids, I knew better than to try and apply logic to the situation. With his whole affinity for damsels in distress, there was no chance that he would let me go alone. All I could do was stay beside him, matching his stride as we ran.
“I wonder what she’s doing out here,” Crane mused, quickening his pace.
She was clearly demented. Two in the morning in a bad part of town all alone, the girl obviously had a death wish that I hoped she didn’t drag Crane and me into. But whatever happened, the time to turn back had passed the minute we saw she was in danger.
Taking a quick detour into an alley, we quickly stripped out of our clothes, dropping jackets, sweaters, jeans, shoes, and socks into a pile in a doorway. We both had to shed all our clothes so we could shift and be scary. The fact of the matter was that the two of us would have inspired fear in no one. At five-eleven, I was not big. I was built like a swimmer, with long, sinewy muscles over a lean frame. My friend Crane Adams, at six-one and just over two hundred pounds, was more imposing than me with his heavily muscled body, but he would not have frightened anyone either.
But everything changed once we shifted. Once we became panthers, we became the stuff of nightmares, and I went from being smaller and weaker than my friend to stronger and faster in seconds. In my panther form, I was much scarier than any other I had met.
The scream reached me, and I listened a second to make sure I knew where I was going before I took off running. It was like being shot from a gun, the burst of speed before my vision changed and my focus lowered. I went from being blind in the dark to having perfect sight in a heartbeat. My change always happened that fast. It would take Crane longer to catch up to me, his own metamorphosis coming at the cost of minutes, not seconds. I had been told many times that my transition was like watching a wave roll forward and then back to reveal a beast where a man had been. I had asked many fellow shape-shifters over the years what it felt like when they changed and heard a great many descriptions. Some spoke of rippling power sliding over their skin, heat that infused limbs, while others said it was like an adrenaline rush or a euphoric high. I had never experienced even a moment of that kind of exhilaration because my body discarded one shape for another too quickly for my brain to register. One moment I was a man, and the next I was a panther. The change was so seamless that it could not be tracked with the eye. I could have done really well in a magic show in Vegas.
Bolting across the street and down a side alley, I emerged in time to see the woman running across an empty lot with the four men behind her. I flew after her, darting toward the chain-link fence that surrounded the property, clearing the six feet easily and landing on the other side without even a temporary loss of momentum. It was like I had arrived onstage, and I waited for the response.
I expected screaming, gasps and horror, panic and fear. I got nothing. Everyone froze. Even the girl stopped running and stilled. Nobody moved, but nobody fainted. When had seeing a black panther materialize out of the night in the middle of downtown Reno ceased to be scary?
“What the fuck is this?” one of the men snickered, gesturing at me. “I thought you were alone.”
No one was scared, and worse, they knew what I was; they were not mistaking me for an animal. I felt the knowledge in the pit of my stomach like a rock. Discovery was bad for those in another’s territory without permission. I lowered my head for the coming fight.
“You think I would be out without a chaperone at this time of night?” the girl breathed out, challenging them, walking backwards, away from the men, toward me. “You better back off; this is only one of my bodyguards.”
Only at that moment did they look hesitant. Nothing else scared them except the possibility that I was the vanguard of her tribe. They all moved back, darting looks back and forth before they suddenly turned and ran. I was exhilarated for the second before I heard them calling for the others, their growls carrying in the night.
“Oh God,” she whimpered, stepping back, her hand clutching at my fur before she suddenly released me and started tearing at her clothes, stripping as fast as she could. Her eyes were huge, wild, and she was looking back across the lot as well as checking me, making sure I wasn’t going to attack her. I would have shifted and told her she had nothing to worry about; being gay, I had no interest in anything outside of protecting her, but I wanted her to change as fast as she could, and I needed her to focus, not divide her energy.
As I suspected, her shifting took several minutes. Muscle and bone reformed as her body twisted and convulsed. I could tell that it hurt, her transformation, and my guess was that she hated it. I did too, for altogether different reasons. I heard the pad of paws in snow and was relieved to see Crane racing toward me. She huddled against my side, but the reassuring bump of my nose soothed her. When Crane stopped, frozen, in front of me, she slowly peeked around my side to get a look at him.
I saw him shudder, and had I been human, I would have yelled at both of them. They were having a tender moment when we should have been running. But between waiting through her change and not wanting to leave without him, the time for flight had passed. It was too late; there were cats pouring over the chain-link fence to come and attack the three of us. We had to stand and fight instead of running for safety. Feeling a bump on my shoulder, I turned and saw Crane staring at me, waiting for what I would do. The female panther was holding out for me as well, her desire for my protection overwhelming her instinctive urge to run. They were both scared, and when I bolted forward, they followed right behind me.
Huge, razor-sharp claws came at my face, but I easily avoided the attack. Every cat I had ever met moved in slow motion in comparison to me, so I was able to veer out of the way without even being touched. The body that leaped at me I knocked aside with my lowered head, more bull than panther. I saw gleaming fangs and batted the face away, running over the fallen animal under me. I plowed through the pack, only vaguely aware of anything but getting my charges out of there. There were six or seven of them in all, huge male panthers all trying to prevent our escape, but they came at me one at a time instead of working together to stop us. One at a time, my odds were better, and the glimmer of hope grew as both the female and Crane followed me precisely, intuitively knowing that we could not be separated.
Another of the panthers charged forward, and I leaped over him, landing briefly on his back before pushing back off. He crumpled under me, and the force of my jump sent him tumbling. As I turned to run, the female was suddenly grabbed and pulled away. I whirled around to face her attacker, who stood, frozen, over her, staring at me. His teeth were bared, his lips drawn back over long, sharp, dagger-like fangs and blackened gums. He could easily dip his head and inflict damage to her, so, hoping to intimidate him, I lifted myself up, lengthened my neck, and took in a deep breath, letting the growl gather in my throat. I knew what I looked like, as though I myself were a fragment of the night. As a black panther, I was different from the golden cat standing before me, and he had probably not seen one like me before. I was rare, more so than he could imagine. When his scent changed, I was relieved. I could smell the fear.
I watched in amazement as he froze and was still as only an animal can be. When I dropped my head, my body bristling, he took the slightest step back. Pressing my advantage, I lifted my head and snarled loudly. He shuddered. My show of speed and strength had frightened him into waiting for what I was going to do next, made him apprehensive. When he took another step back, his teeth out of range of the female, I leaped forward, landing directly over her, and stood there, letting them all see me. My stance said that she was mine and that I had claimed her. If the leader wanted her, he would need to challenge for her, and that fight would be one-on-one. I knew the odds were in my favor in that instance.
When the leader of the pack did nothing, I was surprised. His hesitancy led me to believe that he would sink to the ground before me, roll to his back and bare his throat. By the code we all lived by, he needed to make his show of submission, so I was stunned when he turned and ran, the others following.
Left alone in the now-silent lot with the female, confused by their retreat, I was startled for a second by her movement under me. She rose with great effort, running her head up under my chin. When I gently enclosed her nape in my jaws, I heard her deep purr of contentment before she trembled.
Lifting slowly and gently, I had her on her feet and used my body to brace her. When the male panther had grabbed her, he had thrown her down hard, so she leaned heavily on me as we began to walk. Crane stood beside her on the other side, and we braced her up between us. Seconds later, I heard the others and finally understood the real cause of the retreat. The lead male had known the cavalry was coming and, not knowing how much time he had left, he had decided to run. I wasn’t as scary as I thought.
The female’s call was short, a brief cry to let her tribe know where she was and that she was well. I tensed and felt her teeth gently close on my shoulder to hold me there. Turning, I rubbed my chin over the top of her head before I nudged her, shifting her off-balance and away from me. I leaped away before she could regain her hold. She took a step forward, but I was already beyond her reach. They were close now, her tribe, her family, and she was safe. I growled at Crane, and after seconds of indecision, he bolted after me. I twisted around and ran back the way I had come. I heard her calling in short, loud bursts, the sound no longer of pain but of loss. I ran on, feeling my friend beside me, clearing the fence for the second time that night, across the road in a blur. Our clothes were where we had left them, and we were changed minutes later, having pulled and yanked on clothes now cold and damp.
“Why are we running?” he asked me, visibly confused.
“How can you ask that?” I snapped at him. “We have no idea whose territory we’re in, and we just got in a fight with God knows who. We need to get the hell outta here and back home fast.”
“We saved that girl.”
“Yeah, but who did we save?”
He had no idea why I was worried. The fact that we had just had an encounter with a tribe of panthers, and that sooner or later they were going to come looking for us, was not a concern for him. It had been the right thing to do, saving the girl, so he was certain that everything would work out. But I was a realist. I was worried about repercussions like who would come knocking on our door. The grateful tribe of the female panther we had saved? Or the very pissed-off tribe that we had driven off? Either way, it was bad. I did not want to be involved, and, more importantly, I didn’t want to be called before the semel, the leader, of their tribe or my own.
“What’s really going on?”
He knew me, knew I was worried for a reason; he just had no idea what it was.
I ran a hand through my hair. “Let’s just go home, all right?”
“You’re bein’ all weird,” he commented, but he followed me when I started walking back in the direction of downtown.
I was going to make a comment when he was suddenly illuminated by headlights. As it turned out, the opportunity to slip away into the night was not going to be an option.