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LOST IN THE WILDERNESS

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 12
Eyes of the Tiger

 

The large mountain lion was worried. Most of the fears he'd harbored against becoming a Fur had come crashing down around his fuzzy ears, breaking through months of counseling with the resident psychologist. Dante had been as healthy as anyone else he'd known at the Institute, and as far as anybody knew, the guy had never had any internal demons to plague him as Jon had.

What had gone wrong?

In an effort to burn off pent-up energy from his concerns, Jon was in the exercise room of the Felis Wing. He lay flat on his back beneath a set of barbell weights, but since his torso was longer than it used to be, his hips were hanging a little off the foot of the bench; this allowed his tail to dangle to the floor without mashing it beneath him.  His toes were flat on the carpeting for stability as he lifted and lowered the weights. It had taken him some weeks to get used to his shortened fingers after they had changed with the transformation, but he had worked out a system to get a good grip on the weight bar with his padded palms and stubby fingers.

He could bench press more, but due to his distracted thoughts, he had only put on one hundred pounds of weight with which to work out. Distraction could be potentially risky while lifting weights, so he tried to focus his attention fully upon his task.

The door to the exercise room opened and closed quietly, but he didn’t bother looking to see who it might be.  A moment later, a shapely figure stopped beside his bench with her hands behind her.

“Hi, Jon,” the spotted leopard said in a quiet voice.

He shifted only his eyes, keeping his breath measured as he lifted the weights, merely grunting a response. Jenni stood beside him but didn't meet his gaze. He noticed right away that she wasn't wearing her furman robe top, but that was nothing unusual as she and the resident vixens habitually had gone without them since their fur had grown thick enough to keep things covered; they wore them even less often in the days since they had returned from their woodland trek.

What he didn't notice right away but soon came to realize was that she wasn't wearing the shorts either. Aside of her natural fur, Jenni wore nothing at all. Although the background color of her belly was light beige contrasting with the darker gold of the rest of her, clusters of spots covered her entirely.

When the realization of her uncovered fur sank into his consciousness, he almost forgot what he was doing. Before he might hurt himself, Jon set the barbell upon the bench uprights and then used the horizontal bar to pull himself up into a sitting position.

He twitched an ear and boldly looked her up and down. “Are you reverting to your old nudist ways?” he quipped, swishing his tail unconsciously behind him.

Jenni appeared puzzled until she looked down at herself. “Oh…” she mumbled distractedly.  “I forgot my shorts…”  She leaned back against the wall with her hands behind her, making no effort to cover herself. It was pointless anyway, as the fur over her breasts and crotch was longer and thicker than the rest of her pelt so that she was more than covered against prying eyes.  The only thing she might have to remember would be to keep her thick tail down if she walked on all fours. At the moment, however, she seemed greatly preoccupied, staring across the room at a colorful National Geographic art print of the Lechuguilla Caverns that Dr. Aristotle had given Dante months earlier.

“Are you okay?” Jon asked with a frown.

The leopard turned to look at him and her eyes were rimmed with moisture.  “I'm worried about Dante,” she simply stated, not taking her eyes off the art print, remembering that day she found out he'd never actually been in the cave he'd boasted about.

“If anyone can pull through this,” Jon said in a quiet voice, “it's him. He's irritating sometimes, but Dante has such a relaxed and free mind that it shouldn't take long for his psyche to patch things up between his dual natures.”

“They said he has an inner demon. What if it's too strong?” she replied in a whisper.

Despite that she and Dante had been claiming their relationship was nothing more than purely physical, Jon knew the emotion behind Jenni's words belied stronger feelings.

“He'll be okay,” he tried to reassure her, not at all feeling as confident as he sounded. Turning a human into a genetically enhanced hybrid of man and animal had its share of dangers. Whether or not his nightmares of them were valid, Jon sincerely hoped they were blowing the situation out of proportion.

When Jenni looked at him with a haunted expression, he knew what he needed to do. He stood up and simply opened his arms.  A soft cry escaped her lips as the leopard woman jumped into his embrace, the tears coming freely now.  

*** 

Dante opened his eyes, his breathing calm and shallow. He was lying on his right side, facing a pale blue curtain of some sort. There was a soft beeping from somewhere behind him and the air smelled strongly of antiseptic. He lay there for several moments, simply staring at the curtain in wonder that someone had redecorated his room without asking; he would have chosen dark green.

He thought he should get up and go see if anyone had started breakfast yet, but the white tiger closed his eyes instead. Something felt out of place and it wasn't just the curtain, but he couldn't place what it might be.  The soft beeping behind him lulled him gently back to sleep and he allowed himself to drift off without resistance.  

*** 

When he opened his eyes again, Dante raised a hand to his face, but instead of fingers touching his forehead, he felt a rough cloth surface brush his nose. He strained his eyes trying to identify the grey covering over his hand, but he remained puzzled.  Am I wearing mittens?

He had difficulty focusing his eyes and he could feel a headache coming on from the effort, so he exhaled hard in frustration and closed his eyes again. The ear he wasn't lying on twitched at the sound of movement roused from his breath and then there was someone at his side.

“C'mon, Dante, wakey-wakey.”

The tiger looked up into the smiling green eyes of Marcy and he grinned back at her even if she wasn't fully in focus. The older woman's platinum hair fell around her shoulders as she bent over him and studied his eyes for clarity.

“Hi Mom,” he said in a quiet whisper. “Do I really have to go to school today?”

Marcy grinned and put a hand on his cheek. “No son, you're going to stay in bed today. No getting up to play either.”  Dante smiled at the light banter and closed his eyes again.  “How do you feel?” the nurse asked.

The feline thought about it for a moment. “M'mouth is dry,” he muttered. “Gotta headache too.”

“Anything else?”

“Feels like I have something stuck up my nose. My sides ache… vision is blurred. Did someone beat me up? I don' remember.”

“You have an oxygen tube in your nose,” Marcy replied, holding the straw from a water bottle up to his mouth, “but no one beat you up.”

Dante took a couple of tentative sips, but he found that was all he wanted. “Thank you,” he said, his voice a little clearer. He looked at her again, though still having trouble focusing his eyes. “What happened to me?”

“You collapsed out by the lake two days ago.”

“Two days?” he echoed. “I've been out that long?”

Marcy frowned, wondering how much to tell him. “You've been… awake a lot of the time,” she replied after a moment, “but I don't think you were the one who was seeing us.”

“Huh?”

“Professor Flynn thinks your tiger was trying to take control.”

Dante stared at her for a long minute. “My tiger…? I thought I was the tiger… or am I now sharing my skull with a tiger's brain?”

Marcy shook her head and absently brushed her bangs across her forehead. “I was being philosophical.  It's nothing more than your feline instincts, but your subconscious is feeding on them.”

“They must be awfully tasty.  What was my tiger doing while I was out of it, embezzling my bank account to buy stock in Tender Moisties? Those things are good, by the way.”

The nurse chuckled. “I don't know about that, but Angelina believes there's been an internal struggle between the human and the tiger inside your subconscious; it was causing a chemical imbalance in your brain and nervous system.”

Dante thought about that for a moment. “Does this happen to all Furs, or am I special?”

“It's not common, but it's happened before to those who haven't fully accepted their new species duality.”

“But… I have accepted my tiger!” Dante croaked. “I like being a Fur!”

Marcy smiled. “Everybody knows that, and you don't know how much it pleases the lot of us that you do, but…” —she tapped his forehead lightly— “something up here doesn't fully agree with you.”

The feline humanoid fell silent, frowning deeply.  He struggled to sit up and Marcy gave him a hand. She raised the head of the hospital bed and fluffed up his pillow for him. Dante settled back and then looked at her with sad blue eyes.

“It's not fair,” he muttered. “Jon hates being a cat, but he's not in here, is he?”

“No, he's not in here, but he's very worried about you.”

“Why?”

“He once told me you were like a little brother.”

“An annoying little brother,” Dante corrected with an amused snort. “I mean, why isn't he in here instead of me?  He hates all this.”

“He and Angelina both seem to believe that he's finally accepted his fate. He's adjusted well over the past months and seems stable.”

“Yet I'm the one in a hospital wearing mittens.”  He held up both hands, and then looked down at his feet where he saw a matching pair of curious socks. “What are these for anyway?”

“Your claws are formidable weapons when you're angry,” Marcy told him dryly. “We thought it best to cover them up so you don't hurt anyone else.”

“Anyone else?” Dante repeated with a lump in his throat. “I hope I didn't kill anyone…”

“No, but Jeff will have some scars to remember his Residency here at the Institute.”

“The next time you see him, will you give him my apologies?” the feline asked quietly. “I wasn't in my right mind.”

“He knows that, but I will tell him.  Now, do you feel up to talking with Angelina?  The Professor wanted to speak with you when you were cognizant again.”

Dante ducked his head with a deep frown.  “I… don't like shrinks,” he replied.

Marcy tilted her head slightly. “Oh? What do you have against them?”

The tiger didn't say anything for a long moment, but he finally sighed and closed his eyes. “I was quite a troublemaker as a kid,” he admitted, “and my folks sent me to several shrinks for about three years before they divorced. They… played mind games with me, Marcy, and I think I was messed up more afterward than I was before I went to them.”  He looked at the nurse and shrugged his shoulders. “I'm probably still messed up – probably why my inner tiger is rebelling.”

He closed his eyes and put his covered hands up to his face. The nurse looked down at her clipboard to give him a moment, thinking he might be shedding a few tears, but when she looked back at him, he grimaced as if in pain.

“Dante, are you okay?”

“No, I'm not,” the monochrome feline mumbled. “My headache is getting worse.”

“Let me get something for you.  I'll be right back.”

“Thank you.”

As soon as she'd disappeared through the curtains surrounding his little domain, Dante found the controls to his bed and lowered the head so that it was level again. He turned over onto his left side so that he was no longer on top of his tail and heaved a heavy sigh.

A moment later, the curtain rustled and someone peered in at him. Dante sniffed the air, but didn't turn toward his visitor.

“Hi, Erin,” he said without looking.

The diminutive vixen took that as an invitation and stepped all the way into the room. “Hi, Dante,” her pixie-like voice replied. “How are you feeling?”

“I have scrambled eggs for brains and I feel like I've been in a losing fight with myself. I'm also nursing a mighty migraine. How about you?”

Erin limped around the side of the bed he was facing, using a metal cane to walk with. She gave him a smile and then sat down on a small folding visitor chair beside him.

“I'm getting around a little,” she told him. “I'm out on a mandatory walk I have to do three times a day and thought I would look in on you.”

Dante's head was throbbing, but he gave her a small smile.  “I'm glad you did. You'd better not let the Amaranths see you limping, though.”

The fennec vixen looked at him in puzzlement. “Why's that?”

“Those two wolves might think you're wounded prey and try to take you down for dinner.”  Despite the headache, there was a sparkle in his eyes at his joke.

“I will remember that,” she remarked with a frown.

“Oops…” he muttered, immediately remembering the coyotes who had tried to take her as their dinner.  “Oh, I'm sorry, Erin! I forgot!”

“It's okay,” she told him with a crooked smile. “I got the joke.” 

He nodded, closed his eyes for a moment and then opened them again to peer over at her.  He started panting, and while she was looking at him, his eyes grew wide and the pupils began to dilate to large black spots. Before she could say anything, he gripped the edge of the bed with a mitten-covered hand.

“Why is your face changing?” Dante asked in a strained voice.

Erin clutched her cane with one hand and immediately put the other up to her cheek.  The fur felt normal and the skin beneath was warm, so she moved her fingers over her forehead. “What's wrong?” she asked in confusion.

Dante stared at her with bulging eyes and he began to pant. “Why are you doing that?” he asked in growing agitation. “Why would you want to?”

Erin was growing alarmed. Her face felt no different to her, so she jumped up and limped out of the room to find a mirror. She passed Marcy going out, but didn't speak to her.

When the nurse entered through the curtain with a small pill and plastic cup of water, she saw the tiger sitting up on his haunches though weaving back and forth, the tip of his tail twitching vigorously.  He pawed at the air with his right hand as if he was trying to bat something from the air and his mouth was open in chuffed panting. Marcy set her items on a nearby roller stool and then rushed to his side.

“Dante!” she said in a quiet but stern tone. The feline turned his head toward the sound of her voice, but there was no color in his eyes; the pupils were completely dilated.

Help me,” he mewed in a kitten-like manner.

Marcy took his hands in her own in an effort to give him comfort, but his reaction was unexpected. He issued a feline hiss with all his teeth bared and he tried to take a swipe at her. The nurse stumbled back to get out of his reach, his gloved paws barely missing her nose. The force of his strike moved the air at her cheek, blowing her bangs up on her forehead. He lost his balance from the action and fell back on the bed with an indignant shriek. In fury, he latched onto one of the Kevlar mittens with his teeth, worrying fiercely at the ties that held them in place and for a moment it looked as if he might succeed.

“Emergency in C7!” Marcy screamed as loudly as she could. “Emergency in C7!  I need help!”

Dante twisted his flexible torso, desperate to find something to hold onto. Unable to remove the mittens, he grasped the cushion of his bed with both hands and pulled himself over onto his side, his feral gaze never leaving the fear-stricken eyes of his prey.

Before he could leap from the bed, however, two orderlies burst into the room followed by a third. The first two approached Dante cautiously, holding up a sturdy net between them. The third man pulled Marcy back out of the way to safety and then he stepped forward with a handheld tranquilizer gun.

Dante crouched on the bed, his head down and shoulders bunched up as he prepared to launch himself at the men who had intruded upon him. He growled and hissed at them, causing the orderlies to hoist the net a little higher. It was doubtful either one of them would be able to hold up the Felis tiger's weight if he pounced, but the third man wasn't going to give him the chance.

Before Dante could leap, the man fired the pneumatic gun at the tiger's shoulder. The feline jerked from the sharp stab and he paused to swipe at the red-feathered dart protruding from his fur. He knocked it loose with a yowl, but when he turned back to his attackers, the Fur's eyes rolled up in his head and he dropped hard on the bed from the fast-acting drug. The two men with the net rushed forward to toss it over him, but Dante toppled off the bed onto the beige tile floor with a heavy thud.

The men approached him cautiously, but the tiger merely lay on the floor panting heavily. He opened his eyes again and they were still widely dilated, but he didn't appear to see anyone this time.

One of the orderlies tentatively tapped him with the toe of his shoe, but there was no retaliation. The sedative had done its work well enough for them to handle him now. They set the net aside and then gathered around him, the one with the tranq gun joining them.

“Okay, all together now,” he said.  The men slipped their hands underneath the Fur and then they lifted him up off the ground. Fortunately for them, the feline was not as heavy as a full grown pure tiger.  They side-walked him back to the bed and then stretched him out on the cushion. Once they got him situated, they worked quickly to strap Dante's hands and feet to the bed. His hybrid physiology would throw off the effects of the drug before long and already he seemed to be struggling to clear his head, chuffing clipped snorts.

The orderlies finished just in time. The anthro tiger raised his head off the bed and he began thrashing against the straps.  Felines are flexible, and despite the straps that held each of his limbs in individual restraints, he writhed around and managed to slip his broad head beneath his left arm with a maddened growl.

The men held the net ready again in case he broke free while the third man rushed out to the supply cabinet to load up his tranq gun with another round. He nearly knocked Marcy over in his rush to get it, and she stumbled backward off balance.

Dr. Aristotle had just arrived behind her and caught her before she could fall, but his catch was more instinct because his attention was not on her but on the scene through the curtains of the ICU cubicle.

Dante squirmed around more, trying desperately to get free, but he only managed to wedge his head and throat further beneath his strapped arm.

Across the nurse's monitoring station out of the way, Erin clutched at the countertop before her and watched in horror as the enraged tiger began to choke beneath his own arm.

The orderly with the tranquilizer gun returned and took careful aim at the feline furman.  

*** 

Kristen sat in front of the large video screen in the Felis Wing, but the unit was dark. Instead of watching mindless network streams, she sat on the carpeted floor with her back to the screen, a book on her PBJ in her lap resting against upright knees. She had been staring at the same two screens for the past half hour without actually reading them, unable to focus on the botanical collection of flora found on the other worlds where furmankind had settled. Like her housemates, she couldn't seem to give her full attention to anything.

A sound to her left drew her attention. Jenni closed the door to the exercise room behind her and then rushed to her room on all fours. Kristen's eyes narrowed, noting immediately that the leopard female was dressed only in her fur – and she knew that Jon had been in the exercise room for the past hour. It didn't matter that Jenni was sobbing as she ran; Kristen could only focus on the thought that she'd been naked behind closed doors with the other mountain lion.

A moment later, Jon emerged from the room and turned immediately toward the linen closet. He grabbed a powder blue towel, shook it out and then draped it across his shoulders. When he turned around, he spotted Kristen's sharp gaze upon him, her eyes reflecting the sunlight streaming in through the overhead skylight. The look she gave him was anything but cordial.

Sighing inwardly to himself, he turned toward the restroom to clean up. Whatever the other feline was thinking about him with such a glare, he had no wish to find out.

Kristen stared after him for a moment longer and then looked back down at her book. Realizing that she would accomplish nothing, she tapped the screen to set a bookmark and then closed the covers.

Marcy came in through the front door and up the entry hall just as the mountain lioness got to her feet, and when the platinum haired nurse saw her, she walked toward her with a dour expression on her face.

“Kristen, do you know where Jon and Jenni are?” she asked. “I need to see you all together.”

A cold chill went down the botanist's spine at her tone. “Jenni's in her room and Jon's in the shower.”

“I'll get Jenni,” the nurse replied, promptly heading for the bedrooms. “You get Jon, please.” Marcy didn't hear the derisive snort in response.

The female cougar went unwilling into the restroom and then directly to the shower stall where water was running.  Without preamble, she whipped the curtain back and Jon looked over his shoulder at her in astonishment.  Without looking at anything but his eyes, Kristen snarled and told him, “Marcy wants to see all of us right now, at this moment.”

She then turned her back on him and left the room quickly, leaving Jon stunned at her attitude.  With a deep frown, he rinsed off the shampoo he'd just applied to his fur and then grabbed his towel from the hook outside the stall.

A moment later, he stepped out of the restroom with the towel around his waist. He'd not had time to step into the full-body dryer and had done nothing more than pat down his fur, so he dripped on the carpet walking across the saloon to the pit where the others were gathered. Jenni sat on one of the curved couches, Kristen sat across from her on the other couch and Marcy stood beside the pile of pillows in the middle of the small arena, all three of them watching as the male approached.

“Sorry,” he said with a lopsided smile. “I was indisposed.”

“Have a seat, Jon,” Marcy said quietly.  She frowned at the amount of water he trailed behind them, but she had wanted to see them all right away and she had been informed that he'd been in the shower. She knew he would not actually sit on the furniture dripping wet even before he moved to a set of three steps leading down into the pit and sat down on the top step. Once she had everyone's attention, she put her hands into the pants pockets of the light pink scrubs she wore.

“I don't know how to tell you this in any other way but outright,” she began, “but we've lost Dante.”

“Lost?” Kristen echoed.

“Did he sneak out?” Jon asked. “I can be dressed in a moment if you need us to help look for him.”

Marcy shook her head. “No, Jon.  Dante… has died.”

Stunned silence.  Then, “W-when… h-how?” from Jenni, her voice cracking with emotion.

“About thirty minutes ago,” the nurse replied quietly. “He seemed to have made it through the worst of it during the night and woke up cognizant this morning, but then he had a relapse while Erin visited with him. The feline instincts of his psyche took over again and didn't let go this time.  He became an enraged animal and had to be tranquilized before destroying the ICU.”

“Was it the tranquilizer?” Jon wanted to know, his voice hollow from shock and suspicion. He'd heard of animals dying from tranquilizer over-dosage before.

Marcy shook her head. “No, the tranq only subdued him for a couple minutes. He shook it off quicker than I've ever seen and it only made him madder. The orderlies were able to strap him to the bed before it wore off, though, but when it did, he struggled hard against the straps.” 

She looked down at her feet, moisture reflecting from her eyes. “Trying to get out of the restraints, he got his neck underneath an arm and couldn't get it out. He panicked when he started choking, and just as the orderly was about to shoot him with another dart, he…. uhm, he…”  She swallowed with difficulty and closed her eyes.

“What happened?” Kristen demanded with a squeak, not sure she really wanted to know.

“He broke his neck… struggling to get free.”

Like an animal in a hunter's trap, Jon thought to himself sadly.

Jenni threw herself face down upon the couch, her shoulders shaking with sobs. Kristen crossed the pit quickly and put her arms across the leopard female's shoulders, tears of her own dampening her facial fur. Jon started to move forward too until he remembered how wet his fur was. Marcy looked over at him in sympathy and then joined the furry women. She was no stranger to seeing some of the Furs that came through her Wing going through difficulties, and yes, even the occasional death, but like everyone else, she had become fond of the white tiger furman. She could still hear the sharp snap of bone in her mind and it made her cringe just to remember it.

Unable to help, Jon got up and returned to the restroom. He would work on the wet carpet later, but a hot shower might help take the edge off the news they'd just received. He stopped by the linen closet for another towel and then went back to his shower stall to start over.

As the water sputtered to life, Jon thrust the tawny fur of his head beneath the spray and held it there.  Despite that he had often considered Dante to be a jerk, or at the least an annoyance, he had gotten used to his presence and the man's death affected him more than he might have originally thought.

He opened his eyes and looked down at his digitigrade feet while the water continued to drench his fur. A man? Yes, a man. Although Dante had been genetically altered, Jon realized that he didn’t consider Dante a beast who was better off dead, but rather a man who didn't deserve to die like that.

Is something like this going to happen to me too? Jon couldn't help but wonder.  He knew it was a possibility. If it happened to one, it could happen to another.

His mind still on Dante's untimely death, Jon reached for the fur shampoo to wash before he used up all the hot water in the building just standing there. He spent his shower lost in thought, and although it all began with the white tiger furman, his memories drifted back to a New Year's Eve celebration burned into his mind. 

Now that Jon had become a cougar furman himself and had mostly survived the process, his views of Parker had changed. Yes, he still hated the guy for taking Rebecca and ruining his life, but Henry was no longer just a freak cat-man to him; for the first time since the whole downward spiral had begun, Jon was having remorse for killing him.  He hadn't killed a cat.  He had murdered a man.  

*** 

The rest of that day had been a long one for them all; not just those of the Felis Wing, but just about every other Fur at the Institute felt the effects of losing yet another of them. They had all been assured by their medical personnel that losing two Furs within a year's time was not common and that they should not worry. Even though Whelan's loss was self-inflicted, it was still enough to make everyone fully aware of their own mortality.

Everyone seemed mentally exhausted by the end of the day, and even Jon abandoned his nightly exercise routine to shut out the lights and crawl into his bed. He had shed no tears for Dante, but it still felt like he had lost a friend or a younger brother. He felt mentally sapped and wanted nothing more than a dreamless night.

An hour after laying his head down upon his pillow, Jon was still awake. His mind was too active despite all efforts to calm his thoughts. Since the changes to his body, his senses had become more sensitive than they had been as a full human, so now he heard every little sound when it was still and quiet.  The old building creaked in the wind, still settling after decades, and he could hear the relays in the automatic air handling system in the darkness. He had heard Jenni's numerous quiet crying spells and even Kristen pacing the floor out in the saloon.

When the door of his room opened gently, his eyes automatically went to the entrance. He was mildly surprised that Kristen would come to him for comfort after weeks of cold silence between them, but in this instance he would offer no resistance to lending his arms for her to sleep beside him; he could do with a little comfort himself. He quietly set aside the second pillow he'd been holding up against his chest when he felt her crawl up onto his mattress.

Just as she crawled over to him, Jon's eyes widened when he recognized her scent. It was not the other cougar who'd just crawled into bed with him; it was the leopard.

“Jenni?” he whispered.

“Please forgive me,” she replied in a hoarse whisper of her own, kneeling on the mattress beside him. “I can't stand to be alone tonight.”

“I don't know if this is such a good idea,” he responded with a swallow.  He couldn't believe that she'd crawled into his bed on the same day that Dante had died.

Jenni put a finger up to his lips. “Please?” she pleaded quietly. “I only want to sleep beside someone – just like you used to do with Kristen. I don't want to be by myself.”

When it finally sunk in that she was not there to play, he willed his heart to calm down. “Okay,” he answered.

Jenni stretched out beside him and then they wrapped their arms around one another, her head resting against his chest.

She let out an exhausted sigh and then whispered, “Thank you.”  Jon didn't respond, but merely held her close and closed his eyes.  Having someone to hold when emotions were raw was often a soothing balm for the soul and it was true even for him. 

Comforted together, they were both asleep within minutes.  

*** 

Kristen lay on her stomach across the pillows in the middle of the saloon pit, her Personal Business Juxtapositioner in her hands as she read Sissy's morning daily news article. Although everyone on the compound already knew of Dante's death, the orange kitty had included a clinical report about it with a note that a memorial service would be held for him in three days to give everyone a few days to deal with their grief, just as they had done for Whelan.

The feline botanist hadn't gotten much rest during the night. She'd tossed and turned in her sleep, her emotions in turmoil not from just this, but the events of the past few months too. She'd finally gotten up before the sun had risen, showered and plopped down in the pit to wait out the clock. Their training classes had been suspended until after the memorial. It might have been difficult to concentrate on their studies with such a pall looming over them, but Kristen disagreed, thinking it would have given her something else to focus on. Instead, she had nothing but time on her hands.

She looked up when she heard a door open and saw Jenni coming out of Jon's room. The leopard wore only a pair of furman shorts and looked as if she'd just woken up. Jon emerged behind her and then Jenni turned to give him a hug with a peck on the cheek.

“Well, that sure didn't take you long!” Kristen said bitterly.  Jon and Jenni looked over at her in surprise, but before either of them could respond, the botanist scowled and put down her PBJ. “Your lover hasn't been gone a full twenty-four hours and you've already jumped into Jon's bed at the first opportunity!”

“We didn't —”

“Jenni, don't give me that tripe!” Kristen spat hatefully, but then her eyes zeroed in on Jon's face. “…and you… you've been claiming all along that you aren't interested in anyone, but now that she's free, you've shown your true colors! I didn't sleep well last night, but I'm surprised I didn't hear you two bumping the walls with your bed!”

“Kris!” Jon exclaimed darkly, “I no more had sex with her than I did with you! She didn't want to sleep alone last night, and that's just what we did – sleep!”

“Uh, huh, right…” the lioness growled at him.  “You should have been the one to go nuts! You should have died instead of Dante!  He didn't deserve it, but you're the one reaping the rewards!”

“Kristen!” Jenni shouted loudly, her ears getting hot and her temper at such accusations fueling her own anger. “You're wrong and you know it!  Nothing happened between me and Jon. He held me for comfort all night. Nothing more!”  She stormed over to the pit and glared down at the other female. “I once accused you and Jon of doing the same thing you're accusing us of doing.  Were you guilty, or did you do nothing more than sleep together all those times as we did last night?”

Kristen jumped up and grabbed one of the floor pillows in her hands. “How dare you compare yourself to me!” she hissed in fury.  She hurled the pillow hard at Jon and then jumped up out of the pit, running for the front door on all fours without looking back.

Jon caught the pillow and watched her go, his mouth open in mute astonishment.  After the door slammed behind the female cougar, Jenni turned back toward her companion, her chest heaving from angry panting.  After a moment, she calmed down and hung her head.

“I'm sorry, Jon,” she offered. “I know things have been strained between you two and I shouldn’t have intruded. I won't do it again.”

The wide shouldered puma tossed the pillow back into the pit and then approached her. Without asking, he drew her into a warm embrace and put his chin on the top of her head.

“Don't blame yourself,” he told her quietly. “Her problem with me is me. I accused her of being cruel by taking on the face of the man I murdered and she's hated me ever since. It wouldn't have mattered if it were you, Cheryl, Jasmine or anyone else who'd slept beside me. It's not her in my bed, and that's all that matters to her. This doesn't even involve poor Dante.”

Jenni pulled back and looked up him with a haunted expression. “I still can't believe he's gone…” she murmured, wiping her eyes on the back of her hands. Then, with a hard swallow, she blinked several times and seemed to get stronger all of a sudden. “I'm not going to allow her to use him against me like that,” she said. “No matter how much her words hurt.”

She then looked up at the taller male and brushed the blonde bangs from her eyes, looking at him for a moment in interest. “Have Cheryl and Jasmine been in your bed too?”

Jon looked at her in surprise, but then he raised three fingers of his right hand beside him. “Scout's honor, I haven't.  I was just using them as an example, but it wouldn't surprise me if Kris thought I had.”

Jenni nodded and then laid her head up against his chest again. “Please don't think badly of me,” she told him, “but I liked sleeping in your arms last night.  I'm not looking for another companion, despite what she thinks, but I felt safe from my sorrow and fears for just a little while. I caused you trouble this morning, but I hope you don't mind that I needed you.”

Jon hugged her close. “We all need one another at times.  Someone once told me that hugs are important, that they contain healing for the mind and soul. Let Kris get wrongfully jealous if she wants, but I want you to know you're welcome in my arms at any time.”

Jenni was quiet for a long moment, but then she chuckled, something Jon wasn't prepared to hear. His curiosity was suddenly piqued, but before he suffered too much, the leopard female looked up at him and said, “I apologize in advance, because I never thought I would ever say this – especially to your face – but I feel safe in the arms of a killer.”

Jon frowned at her statement, but then he sighed. He couldn't deny his past, and even though he was beginning to feel remorse over what he'd done, it was part of who he was.

Jenni instantly regretted voicing that thought, but then the cougar smiled and tapped the end of her broad nose with a finger. “You're safe,” he assured her.

NEXT CHAPTER

Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.