Shift by Legion

Shift - Legion

Moving as silently as he could, Blair stepped over the high threshold of the main cabin exit, shutting the door, but leaving a ribbon of fabric between the latch and the frame to keep it from locking behind him. It was an old trick, leftover from childhood, and which he would have thought the captain of the Cascade would have taken steps to prevent on his ship. But then, Blair mused, why would anyone making a long voyage up or down any of New Home's four rivers want to be beyond the shelter of their ship's decks and cabins after sunset? Aside from the Scouts that served both as the ships' defense and ambassadors, most humans preferred not to risk a chance meeting with the Pard natives during the night. Not even the Scouts could predict whether such an encounter would result in a celebration or a battle.

For Blair that danger wasn't as important as what he wanted to accomplish, not that he was immune to the effects. His heart was already thudding fast and hard against his ribs with the peculiar mix of excitement and fear that he remembered from his solitary forays into the night as a child. Rubbing sweat-damp palms down muscular thighs, he took a deep, silent breath to steady himself, and crept to the very edge of the pilots' cabin, ink-stained fingers sliding along the ebony wood of the fortified shutters sealing the ports until morning.

His eyes adjusted quickly to the nearly complete dark provided not only by the hour, but by the shadowed refuge of the rock shelf the Cascade was anchored under as well. Only one of the three moons had risen as yet; little Gimel, which reflected barely enough sunlight, even when full, to be seen against the crowded backdrop of brilliant stars. According to what he'd heard during dinner at the Captain's table, the Pard and their human Scouts would ford the river here on their way to festival when the much larger Bella rose. Without Changer eyes to help him pick his way through the gloom, though, he had given himself extra time to find his way.

His plan to watch them from a distance had been born of insatiable curiosity about the native species and their human go-betweens and the unexpected opportunity to satisfy it. Now that he was out, though, with soft breezes lifting his shoulder-length curls, tugging at his leggings and breach cloth, flirting with his skin through the sheer black fabric of his shirt, he was glad for entirely different reasons. The breeze was perfumed with a thousand intoxicating scents his nose struggled to identify, none of them human-made thanks to how far up river they were from the nearest settlement. Even the sounds of shore and water conspired to tease and amuse, with the rhythmic lap, lap, lap of the river against the hull of the boat and the rocky escarpment reminding him of some obscure dance music.

The childish excitement that had held his heart moved lower, much lower, spreading into his belly like wine, and he gave a single, delicious shiver before leaving the tenuous sanctuary of the wheelhouse for the gangway. Custom decreed that it always be available for the local Pard tribe's use, even though it was common knowledge that the heavy, muscular beings avoided deep or wide running water whenever possible. Tonight it was going to be put to a much better use than a promise of hospitality, Blair thought, at least as far as he was concerned, and he ran down it as sure-footed as any Changer in beast form.

Once on solid ground, he looked in both directions for any signs of the natives, but saw only sandstone and obsidian without so much as fledgling taproot trees to relieve the barren expanse of the rock shelf. Bella was a blazing promise of light on the horizon, almost obscuring her dimmer sister Alla's full face as she rose clear of the bank of clouds cloaking the distant mountain peaks, telling Blair that he had timed his arrival perfectly. A clear, dry, three-moon night was a rare sight, and it stirred him deeply, in ways he had not foreseen when planning his one-man expedition.

All he had really been thinking of then was how badly he'd always wanted to observe the Scouts in person, to see how they interacted with both species. Anthropology might not be an acceptable profession here the way it was on Earth, and the possibility of creating a new field of zeno-anthropology was virtually non-existent thanks to the Treaty, but that didn't mean he couldn't pursue his own interests in his own time. Despite what his colleagues back at First Fall University might have to say about his meticulous collection of notes and stories about the Pard and the Scouts, he was sure that the knowledge would be valuable someday.

For the moment, though, he was content to stay where he was and wait for them to cross the natural stone bridge downstream of the Cascade, watching the world fill with silver brilliance and slightly swaying with the passing fancy of the wind as it caressed him. His skin was cool and hot by turns, feeling strangely tight and too sensitive in delicate places, and without thinking he began to idly feather his fingertips over his throat and upper chest as if to satisfy a need for a more persistent touch. His thumb wandered over his lower lip, and he caught it in his teeth, biting at the fleshy ball of it until it hurt.

The shock of pain sent a sharp tug of pleasure all through him, adding to the sudden, jagged rise of emotion. Exhilaration was there, but under that was a bewildering mix of fear, anticipation, confusion, and lust. Almost, almost he wanted to be back on board the steam ship, safe in his stateroom, or talking with one of the other passengers, or even reading one of the books he'd acquired at their last stop.

Then the wind shifted, drifted, shifted again, bringing a hint of some incredibly enticing scent that tickled his nose, and a rush of recklessness set aside anything but the whims of the moment. Suddenly waiting for the Pard was no longer important, and, just as he had when he was young, he shouted gleefully and ran through the moonlight, not caring where he went or if he was safe. In a way, it was like being little again, sneaking out of the house after the adults had gone to bed, imitating the barely acquainted youngsters of the latest settlement who were doing the same thing, all of them snickering and joyous in their mischief.

But this time there were no living walls to protect him from the dangers native to New Home; no unseen but suspected adult changers carefully watching over the welfare of the children. There was only himself, the drugging moonlight, and a heady rise of elation that made his feet light and his body vibrate. He came to a small ridge that was the last bastion of rock before riverbank gave way to wilderness, lightly leaped to a hassock-shaped boulder at the very peak of it, and twirled on one foot, arms wide. Spinning, deliberately not choosing a focal point so he would get dizzy, Blair whooped in sheer delight, forgetting why he was out, why he shouldn't stray too far from the river, forgetting everything but the wildness heating his blood.

Far too soon he was too lightheaded to stay on his feet, and with a last-second burst of sanity, threw himself off his improvised dance floor and into a thicket of leaves. The lush foliage cushioned his fall, and he landed with his long shirt tangled around his midriff, breach cloth askew. Face turned up to the silver-filled sky, Blair reached his arms up as if to embrace the power pouring into him, but they were not long enough, not strong enough. Frustrated, he strained against the barrier of skin and bone holding him back, and to his amazement, felt an answer from within his limbs.

Flesh flexed, beginning to give way to something that lay just under the muscles, or perhaps inside them, where it had resided all along, waiting for the call of yearning and moonlight. Change, the last fragments of his rational mind whispered to him. You're becoming a beast - wolf or bear or perhaps big cat. Finally. After all these years, left behind by so many playmates, friends, colleagues who knew their other form, for good or ill, while you wondered why you never felt the pull of moonlight, or a stirring of otherness caused by anger or fear.

Blair curled in on himself in a surge of pure, unadulterated terror, face down, knees tucked under his chest. To change for the first time as an adult and so far from help of any kind was very nearly a death sentence. He could become lost in his animal form, lost to his intellect, a beast in truth, living in the moment and ignorant of all he had been. Or he could, half-sane with desperate hunger caused by the super-accelerated growth of cells, attack and hurt, even kill another human being, or be killed himself in self-defense.

Desperately he searched for something to obscure the fey energy gathering within him, something real and solid that he could hold in his hands with all his will. Providence provided a gentle lick to the dimple in his bottom, and he spun to face whoever had touched him, defensively scuttling backwards on his hands and feet. He backed into the rock hammock he had been dancing on only a few heartbeats before, shaking his head furiously to clear it. After a moment his vision sharpened, already adapted to the silver velvet light with its pools of silken black shadow, and a portion of the latter resolved into black jaguar, sitting tall on its haunches and regarding him with compassionate, human eyes of blue.

Gasping, Blair wrapped his arms around his folded-up legs, heels digging into his bottom, protecting his underbelly. He stared back at the Changer over his knees, for a shapeshifter it had to be, though he'd never heard of a panther shifter before. Most likely he was one of the Scouts onboard the Cascade or perhaps one working with the Pard tribes holding Festival tonight. No one else would be out on a night like this, so far from civilization. Nor was there any doubt as to the gender of the big cat; the rosy tip of his penis peeked from its protective sheath.

The Changer lay on his belly, paws stretched out in front of him, to give the impression of harmlessness, and inched forward, purring roughly. Blair was willing to swear the buzz of sound caressed him from head to toe, and the accumulated power in him harmonized with it to make him weak with desire. Sex, he abruptly remembered, was one way to abort a change; another way to use the energy burning through him.

His dick thought that was a very appealing idea, firming up and lazily growing to full length. The same fragrance from earlier found its way to him, and, with Change still simmering along his nerves, instinct told him it was from this male - mate calling to mate. It hit his libido hard, and Blair licked his lips, studying the panther with a new perspective.

Raising his head, the panther ostentatiously sniffed and his purring picked up pace as he caught the scent of Blair's arousal. He was close enough to be able to gently butt his head into Blair's biceps and strop his chin over Blair's shoulder, the dense fur a sensual delight. Hesitantly, Blair unwound enough to run shaking fingers over the immense flank. As a man, the shifter had to be tall and buff; over six feet; as a panther he looked wickedly dangerous with his long claws and sharp teeth.

It was off-putting enough that Blair didn't respond when the Scout nuzzled at his curls, and he hid his face in his arms, peeking to see what the panther would do next. Apparently understanding what held Blair back, the big cat stretched massively, fur fading as the nano-virus that had exiled a tiny portion of Earth's populace to New Home consumed the material to rebuild a man. The plush gave way to fair, smooth skin; the spine lengthened as legs elongated. Claws were replaced with elegantly long fingers. Only the blue eyes stayed the same, though the pupil rounded to human norm.

"Beautiful," Blair breathed to himself. He admired the strong, aristocratic features, the lack of scarring on them telling him that this Scout was the rarest of rare - A River Scout, answering to all Pard Tribes, not just the one closest to his home.

"Thank you, Wildling," the Scout growled, voice still more animal than human as he knelt beside him. "The word fits you better, though. I'm Jim." He nosed gingerly at Blair's ear, scenting him. "Do you want a Guardian for your change? Or a diversion from it? Or both, if that's what you'd like. Your wildness called me to you; calls to me still. I will honor your first time, I swear."

The powerful oath - one that would make the Scout an outcast from both Pard and Man if broken - reassured Blair as nothing else could. Neither of them would speak of this night, even to each other, unless Blair gave permission. If he wanted, he could act as if he'd never left the Cascade; or that all that happened when he did was an uneventful stroll. He didn't even have to acknowledge that he'd ever met the Scout before.

That, Blair thought dazedly, Would be a crime. Who wouldn't want to know this magnificent man? My wildness called him, brought him to me? Maybe his called to me, as well. Maybe that's why, after all this time, the change is on me. Because I've finally found someone strong enough, safe enough, to trust with it?

His logic was shaky, he knew; askew somehow, but thinking at all was becoming more and more difficult. Moonlight, which should be as cool as it looked, was melting him, and a panther was tasting the pool of Blairness with dainty, rough-tongue laps along his jaw. Without thinking he finger-walked his shirt up, undoing buttons as he went, baring his body from the top of his leggings to his throat.

He slid down to lie on his back, and that was all the invitation that Jim needed. With a soft murmur of approval, Jim fell on all fours over him, caging him in but so unthreateningly that all Blair felt was sheltered and protected. He rested his cheek alongside Blair's temple, the tenderness in the gesture sending a shiver all through Blair that had nothing to do with the hunger stealing all his will and wits.

With a whisper of a kiss to Blair's forehead, Jim lifted his head, his next move obvious by how he studied Blair's lips. Somehow knowing he wouldn't presume without consent, Blair whispered, "Yes."

Half expecting either a forceful claiming or hesitant exploration, Blair was startled into a throaty moan when Jim took his lips as if he were an old, dear lover who knew exactly how Blair liked to be kissed. Clearly savoring that single point of contact between them, he rhythmically plundered Blair's mouth until Blair's entire body was throbbing in time to the mating of their tongues. Astonishingly, it was almost enough by itself to bring him off, and when Jim lowered himself onto him for a moment, sighing his pleasure at the brush of skin over skin, Blair came in a series of sweet, wonderful ripples that weren't like any orgasm he'd ever had.

As if sensing his surprise in the midst of his release, Jim murmured, "The change makes it different." He scooped up a little of Blair's cream from his tummy, and showed him the dense, oily texture. "Who knows why? Maybe when Crowley invented the nano-virus for shapeshifting all those generations ago, he had some purpose in mind, but if he did, he never told anybody. It does have its benefits, though."

"Bene… oh, OH!"

Jim smoothed a palm full over Blair's cock, encouraging it to grow hard again, not that it was that soft, despite his climax. "If you have the stamina and the patience, you can stay on the verge between two legs and four all night long, using the energy for making love over and over and over…" His voice trailed off as he gathered more come and delved into the dark crevasse between Blair's legs, finding his center.

The first slick pass over it was better than any other touch there had ever been, and Blair wantonly wrapped his arms and legs around Jim to pull him into him. Chuckling wickedly, Jim withstood the assault, teasing Blair's opening and gradually readying him for what Blair kept demanding with wordless cries and mad writhing. Finally Jim put both hands under Blair's bottom and lifted as Blair lunged upwards, and they slid together as easily and perfectly as their first kiss had been.

Shouting, Blair shot again, more intensely, but still not the normal, abrupt, mind emptying blast that he was accustomed to, and he distantly admitted that he could come to appreciate this particular alteration in his physical self. To his disappointment, he felt a flood of heat in his passage, and Jim murmured his name in soul-deep relief. He never stopped his slow, easy thrusts; if anything, his cock got bigger and harder.

"Definitely could learn to love this," Blair said dreamily, smiling at Jim's answering laugh.

Rolling them so that Blair was on top, Jim whispered, "It gets better."

"Huh! How?"

Jim's hands tightened on Blair's backside, nails suddenly longer and sharper. Lush fur sprang up for an instant, then gave way to smooth satin again, but not before sweeping over Blair's skin. With a low, rumbling growl, Jim drove up into him with inhuman strength as Blair plunged down, sending a bolt of ecstasy through him that could have spun him into another climax if he hadn't been so desperate to repeat that incredible burst of sensation.

The next stroke was every bit as good, and the next, and Blair lost himself in the primal give and take of sex, not caring that they clawed and grappled at each other with hands that weren't entirely human shaped. Sounds came from their throats that were closer to howls than anything else, urging Blair toward greater and greater heights of pleasure. Even their combined scents - male musk, spilled seed, fresh lust - hammered at his need until he could bear no more.

Throwing back his head, he bayed triumphantly and came, tearing his mate's finish from him in a matching roar. Their voices rang through the moon-vivid night, echoing in chorus, almost caressing him as he collapsed onto Jim, panting, hips convulsively rocking to coax the last bit of ecstasy from both of them. Carding Blair's curls with shaky fingers, Jim held him close, dropping soft kisses where ever he could reach.

As good as it was, as much as the rational part of Blair thought that spending the rest of the night cuddling was a good idea, there was a restlessness in him that tugged and pulled, trying to send him out into the night. He fought it, not trusting an urge powerful enough to interfere with a truly sated afterglow. Finally he buried his face in Jim's neck, intending to work them both toward arousal again.

The aroma he found there went straight to his head, making him dizzy, almost drunk, just like the moonlight had earlier. Prickles chased down his spine and back up again, and he pressed harder into Jim, hanging onto him with all he had. From far, far away he heard softly spoken words, and while he couldn't find the meaning in them, the tone told him plainly that it was all right, Jim was with him, everything would be okay.

Trusting him, Blair stopped fighting and stretched into the next shiver, vaguely bemused at the weird feeling it created. Clumsily lifting himself onto his hands and knees, he shrugged, then shook his head violently, gasping for air that suddenly was too scarce. Palms on his shoulders, Jim braced him, still crooning reassurances, even as his own body writhed with the promise of change. A final shudder hit him, rolling from the top of his scalp to his toes, and he yipped in reaction, shaking all over as if to rid himself of wetness.

For a moment he stood on shaky limbs, too overwhelmed by the entire process to do anything else. A warm breeze teased along his muzzle, carrying a fresh whiff of Jim's scent, and Blair looked down at him just as he did that apparently boneless twist from his side to his feet that only felines seemed able to do. With a fond lick to one of Blair's ears, Jim rumbled an invitation, and walked a short distance away, glancing back at him to make sure he followed.

There was a playfulness in his eyes that appealed to Blair, and on increasingly steady legs, he did as Jim expected, quickly losing himself in the marvel of how fast four feet could be. And the smells! By that alone, he knew that the ship lay behind them, and to the right, though he couldn't see it at all. It was only one scent among a thousand, and why he recognized it, he didn't know, for all the others save Jim's were a mystery to him, though occasionally one would rouse an inexplicable reaction.

A copper bright and tangy odor made his stomach grumble in sudden, nearly brutal hunger, and he whimpered, confused at the hurt in it. Jim was beside him instantly, gingerly head-butting him to keep him moving. Blair obeyed, nearly automatically, consumed as he was by his need for food.

Mercifully, just as he thought he would collapse from the pain, Jim dropped a doebunny in front of him, still bleeding from the kill. He had a split second to connect the copper smell with the blood before instinct had him gobbling up the small mammal in a few snaps and rips. Licking his chops, he looked for another, a tiny voice buried under the screeching appetite reminding him that doebunnies lived in large colonies, and they were possibly the dumbest animal on any planet to ever evolve to fur and independent locomotion.

Quickly spotting another, poking its head up out of one of the many mounds scattered around him, he leaped for it, but was no match for its reflexes. It got away, and he turned to target a different one, dropping that idea when the panther gave him another carcass to eat. A few more attempts later, he gave up trying entirely and let the panther feed him. Long before he got enough, his mate nagged him with soft bats of his paws and nips at his ruff to move on. Once he realized that the panther was hunting bigger game, he went willingly enough, distantly, dimly thinking that it was the right thing to do since over-depleting the bunny population would stress the always precariously balanced ecology.

When the panther stopped and went into stalk mode at the edge of a tiny herd of neardeer, Blair did his best to copy his actions, crouching on his belly and making himself to be still while they waited for their prey to move closer. It took a tremendous effort; every muscle twitched and trembled with the impulse to run, chase down the quarry, make it food! Finally he couldn't stand it any longer and bolted after the closest animal.

It out-ran him easily, of course, and scattered the rest of the group, forcing him to return to the panther, head hanging down guiltily. As luck would have it, though, one of the neardeer must have ran the wrong way, because the panther had it by the throat, suffocating it. Whining, both because he wanted a share and in shame for nearly ruining the hunt, Blair kept his distance until his mate looked up at him and chuffed in exasperation.

Forgiven, he bounded to the panther's side, and for a long, lovely time there was nothing but the satisfaction of filling the empty hole in his gut. When he had enough, Blair leaned into the side of the panther to absorb the generous warmth there while he finished his own meal. Content beyond all belief, he half-dozed, idly speculating on what the various aromas plying his nose could possibly be.

He would have stayed where he was until dawn, but the panther sat up on his haunches, ears flicking as he listened to something Blair couldn't hear. With a gentle head butt to Blair's flank, he got him to stand and led the way deeper into the wilderness, loping along at a leisurely speed. Running was good in and of itself, so Blair didn't mind, and before long he picked up on the faint song filtering through deepening night.

It wasn't man-made, he was sure, which meant it had to be Pard, and he ran faster toward the source, abruptly remembering why he had left the safety of the Cascade to start with. His mate kept pace with him easily while the song grew louder, literally shaking the ground under foot. The panther didn't like that. He grimaced, ears flat, and occasionally shook a paw, as if to rid it of something unpleasant sticking to it.

Concerned, Blair brushed his body along the darker, larger one, comforted when his mate paused long enough to rest his muzzle on top of Blair's head. After the many surprises of the evening, he hardly reacted when the panther gave a very human sigh of relief before rumbling his gratitude. Of what, Blair wasn't exactly sure, but they resumed their journey without any further hesitation on the panther's part.

They crested a ridge that overlooked a stand of the largest, tallest taproot trees he'd ever seen, growing apart from the rest of the forest as if they'd been deliberately planted. Studying the high, wide roots jutting above ground that gave the tree its name, Blair realized with a tiny thrill that was exactly the case. The roots had been trained to grow parallel to the natural rock layers, interwoven with each other so that they created an enclosure that he couldn't see into, but knew had to be a Pard clan gathering site - a Hearth.

Prancing from foot to foot in excitement, Blair only barely managed to rein himself in from racing toward it, earning a soft whuff of amusement from the panther. There was an air of waiting about him, as well, and Blair instinctively lifted his nose to catch the sultry breeze, sorting through the fragrances for something to explain the expectancy. He was rewarded with a flow of spicy musk from the enclosure, diffuse in some areas, thick in others, and with hints of other elements that a part of him reasoned might be gender or maybe age of the Pard he scented.

Completely caught up in his examination of smells, he leaped back with a yelp when a concentration of it suddenly appeared in front of him in the form of a male Pard. In his own way the Pard was elegant, even beautiful to look at, with a sleek face, long muzzle and sloping shoulders that flowed eloquently into short, but massive arms crossed over his upper chest, fingers hidden under the curve of thick claws. The thin mane of an adult cascaded from the bony ridge dividing the center of his skull and continued down his spine, a few of the long, black hairs lifting lazily in the faint currents of air drifting around them, emphasizing the pure white of the rest of his fur. With a boldness that was more curiosity than sense, Blair looked him over analytically, taking in the long, muscular torso, short bear-like legs, and noting the patterns dyed into his pelt, especially the wide collar around his throat.

It wasn't until the panther straddled him, using his weight to push Blair down onto his stomach that the significance of the markings hit him. The Pard had to be a He-Who-Guides-The-Hunt, the name given to top of the male hierarchy in each of the clans. A niggle of memory surfaced, and Blair dropped his chin down onto his chest. Only people of equal status were allowed to stand in the presence of a He-Who-Guides or look them in the eye until permission was granted.

The Pard grumbled in approval, making the soil under Blair vibrate in harmony. Surprisingly, though it shouldn't have been given who he was, the panther grumbled back conversationally, its purr a perfect medium for Pard language. The exchange went on for several minutes, and Blair did his best to memorize every nuance so that he could capture it in his notes later. His fingers were all but itching to get a pen in hand, and he couldn't help a few squirms of impatience, his tail thumping eagerly against the panther's leg.

That earned him a gentle nip, but the panther stretched up to his hind legs, forepaws on either side of the Pard's head, quietly muttering. Whatever they said had to be serious, to gauge by the wide ruffle of external ears on He-Who-Guides suddenly furling into tight knots as his gaze narrowed. The panther dropped to all fours and showed his underside in submission, though Blair could see the effort it took not to snarl and show his teeth instead.

Taking his cue from that, he rolled over as well, tongue lolling out in what he hoped would be seen as a foolish, childish attempt to appear harmless and cooperative. The display must have worked; He-Who-Guides sat down on his haunches, ear ruffles fluttering in silent laughter. The panther sat up as well, still clearly disgruntled to Blair's eye, but a short comment from the Pard changed his mood back to one of amusement, if more wry this time.

Blair stayed low, whimpering a little at his lack of understanding of the situation, killing the tiny sound instantly when He-Who-Guides stretched out on his belly, chin on crossed forearms, practically nose-to-nose with him. "I would speak with you, Wildling," he said in perfectly accented English.

Though it felt almost foreign to do so, Blair nodded his agreement.

"This Scout names you Companion and vouches for your behavior. Yet this is your first change, your first foray into our forests, away from the safety and comfort of human ships and settlements. Do you understand the consequences to this Scout if you should conduct yourself poorly in the opinion of my people?"

Wanting very much to whimper again, Blair shook his head no. Then he gave an exaggerated wiggle and head duck to remind He-Who-Guides how quickly he learned to stay low and not stare.

With another ear flutter that looked different from laughter, but still didn't seem angry, He-Who-Guides said solemnly, "You will be excused much because of your inexperience, but if any comes to harm, especially a Mother or youngling, because of you, your Scout will be the one who will be punished. Most likely he will be scarred as an exile and never allowed to leave human territory again."

Creeping backward and keening in distress, Blair denied willingness to risk a precious River Scout just to satisfy his curiosity. To have that status meant that Jim had complete, total control of his ability to change, and kept all his human faculties intact in his animal form, no matter what the danger or stress he was under. He had to have proved it to the Council of Pard Mothers, as well as Human Adjudicators Board, on more than one occasion, under very treacherous circumstances, so that both species would trust him completely to act as mediator and police officer for them. And that was just one of the necessary qualifications to be a River Scout.

The panther sat on him again, licking his ears in reassurance, purring as if he had every confidence that Blair would conduct himself properly. Obviously Jim didn't think he would be too much of a problem. Blair, on the other hand, had a long history of finding trouble in the most benign of situations, the evening he'd had so far being a very sharp case in point.

He-Who-Guides blinked slowly, which meant something, but Blair couldn't drag the correct interpretation out from under his confusion until the panther's purr deepened in timbre and picked up tempo. Smiling, the pard was smiling at him! As if in confirmation, He-Who-Guides said, "I should have known that Enquiri would not choose one unsuited for him. Your hesitation, as well as desire to protect him, is all that is required. Come!"

Heaving himself to all fours, He-Who-Guides ambled down the hill toward the Hearth, the panther pacing after him, tail sweeping slowly from side to side. He looked over his shoulder at Blair, growled impatiently, but watched until Blair was by his side again.

Forever after, despite his stubborn, almost fanatical attempt at the time to commit every moment to indelible memory, all Blair would recall of the too-short night was vivid bits and pieces - freeze frames from a video distorted by some error in the capture.

A group of very pregnant female Pard sniffed him over, voices reverberating about him in a way that seemed filled with assessment and decision, the panther on his haunches a few feet away, motionless except for the very tip of his tail which twitched and flicked. A cubling Pard climbed over him, sharp claws digging into his fur and tender skin, then tumbled off over Blair's head, ears nearly flapping with laughter as others waited their turn to investigate the new creature. Food shared, given to him in delicate four-jointed fingers uncurled from under protective claws, and getting more 'laughter' when he licked to get the lingering juice of the incredibly good flavor. Three males wrestled violently with each other as a lone female, smelling fertile and willing, watching them impassively, only to choose, not the potential winner, but the one who bowed out when the mock fight threatened to turn into the real thing.

Finally, exhausted as much by the twist his life had taken so quickly as by the late hour, Blair leaned into the side of the panther, panting out his weariness. With a nudge the panther sent him moseying back up the hill toward the river, bumping against him as if to herd him along the right path. Before long, though, the careful collisions and body length rubbing took on another meaning entirely, as the panther's natural aroma grew rich with mating pheromones.

Tired as he was, Blair responded to the rough affection and provocative scent, pouncing on the panther to tumble them both, then springing way, hindquarters up and head down in invitation to play. Pretending not to notice, the panther lay on his side and languidly groomed a paw. Blair inched closer, tail going fast and furious, tongue lolling out, but paying very, very close attention to what the panther's tail was doing. The moment it went still, he spun and ran full speed, automatically following the faint spoor left from their journey to the Hearth.

The panther caught up with him nearly instantly, of course, but Blair bounced to one side as if to change direction, and was knocked off his feet for his trouble. Before he could recover, the panther sprawled over him, kneading at Blair's back with carefully sheathed claws. It felt wonderful, as did the weight covering him, and Blair tried to maneuver under the panther to coax him into entering him. With a little murmur that wasn't quite English, but definitely wasn't an animal noise, the panther got up and strolled away, breaking into a run when Blair scrambled after him.

Their odd game of flirting/tag went on until Blair was hard and heavy, cock hanging free of his protective sheath and drooling with precum. The panther was in the same condition, and once or twice during their brief tangles, humped at him as if he couldn't quite resist the urge to do something, but wasn't going to take what he needed just yet. What he was waiting for, Blair had no idea, which didn't stop him from enjoying their play.

Eventually they came to the river, and the panther followed along a long, narrow rock shelf fairly high above it, all seriousness now because of the path, until he came to a small cave time and weather had carved into the stone. With a pause to make sure other inhabitants hadn't invaded his den, the panther went in and threw himself down on a heavy mat of woven reeds covered with a finely tanned neardeer hide. Blair settled onto the bedding with him, eager for foreplay to be over, but uncertain how to communicate that to his mate.

A kiss or quip was his usual way of moving things along, but both were denied to him at present, creating a sullen wave of frustration that did nothing to quell his lust. The direct approach - a grope for the hardon the panther sported - seemed doable, except that pawing at it would probably hurt his mate. Licking was a better option, in fact a mouth watering one, but there was no way to reach his goal.

Annoyance growing, Blair tried imitating the great cat's kneading, which at least got him a sigh of appreciation, though his mate didn't move to make getting to the best parts easier. He leaned into the panther, but, much as he liked the weight of him, it wasn't as good as being properly naked with each other. As if reading his thoughts, the panther straightened in an odd way, fur vanishing into perfect skin, limbs smoothing into human arms and legs, back rippling as shoulders widened.

Reaching down to stroke himself, Jim leaned up on one elbow, head in palm. "That feels so good," he sighed. "But I wish it were your hands on me."

That was more than Blair could take. With a grunt of pain, he grabbled for Jim's fingers, willing that it be fingers that touched, then entwined with Jim's so that they fisted the generous cock together. The rest of him followed suit, becoming human in a hard quake of the strangest sensation Blair had ever known. He dismissed it instantly in favor of satisfying the demand for physical relief that was a strident as his need for food earlier.

Turning to his back, Jim asked, "Ride me?"

"Hard and fast?" Blair asked back, voice barely more than an articulated growl.

"Yes, God, yes. Don't worry about being careful; I can take it."

"Hope so." Blair knelt astride him, helping him aim his shaft at Blair's opening. Awkward with urgency, he brushed the ruddy crown over his pucker, sucking in a necessary breath when thick cream spurted, slicking him with Jim's heated essence. "Oh, man, no…"

"Not done…" Jim panted. "Change side effect, remember. Go a long time."

"Feels good?"

"Oh, yeah, see." Jim cupped Blair's balls, squeezing gently, and Blair moaned in delight, aware of his own dick leaking copiously. Scooping up the fluid, Jim coated his hardon, even as the head left more on Blair's entrance. Pressing down until the shaft was barely breaching him, Blair hissed in relief, fully expecting to be sore from earlier.

Interpreting the sound correctly, Jim said, "Change again."

"Minor wounds heal from it," Blair agreed absently, more concerned with positioning Jim's cock just so.

"Gifted shifter, major…damn, oh, oh, damn!"

Blair lifted up, half-insane from the rush of penetration, and slammed himself back down, taking Jim's full length in a single, bone-jarring jolt. Astonishingly, it felt even better, unheard of in his limited previous experiences, and he hurriedly did it again, becoming lost in the beautiful, powerful give and take of sex. As he had been all evening, Jim was with him every inch of the way, returning every thrust with an equally mighty lunge upwards, doing his best to fill Blair with every millimeter of his cock.

"Incredible, Chief," Jim mumbled, digging his fingers into the curls at the back of Blair's neck and lifting up enough to kiss him deeply, tongue following the rhythm of their joining.

Why that made their fucking even better, Blair didn't know and couldn't divert enough brain cells to think about. He just accepted that erotic invasion until the necessity for air made him pull away. Not put off at all, Jim latched onto one of Blair's earlobes, sucking on it as if it were a miniature dick before moving onto Blair's throat to mark it with equal ferocity. Leaving a trail of love-bites, he worked his way to Blair's nipples, pulling howls of pure pleasure from Blair as he laved and sucked at them.

It was all so impossibly, incredibly beyond good that Blair didn't want to come, didn’t want to ever end the joy and pleasure and intensity of having Jim hammering into him. He muttered fragments of words to that effect and Jim rewarded him by turning them so that he was on his back, legs over Jim's shoulders. Fists beating on the padding on them, he screamed, back bowing as he took everything his lover could give him.

Against his will, he convulsed into his finish, unable to cry out either his disappointment or astonished relief as ecstasy obliterated everything but itself. It finally faded, leaving Blair too enervated to do anything besides murmur gratitude and admiration before dropping into a dreamless sleep.

The inevitable morning mist woke Blair, finding him alone, but wrapped warm and snug in the neardeer hide. He didn't think Jim could have been gone too long; his scent, redolent with their union, was still strong, as was the imprint of his body against Blair's. Despite knowing that Jim had to leave to fulfill his promise, Blair was disappointed. A fragment of last night's wildness lived in him, permanently, he suspected, which meant he might be able to change at will now, instead of if or when the moonlight caught him off-guard.

That part called for Jim, still, and Blair feared it always would.

It was ironic, really. After a lifetime of keeping relationships light and fun, never risking allowing anyone close for fear of hurting them because he never felt anything besides respect and perhaps fondness, Blair found himself captured by a man who he might well never see again. Or politely refuse to acknowledge him, if they should meet.

Refusing to get maudlin about it, he gingerly sat up, not surprised that his opening felt like a raw wound. And that he was ravenously hungry. The thought made his stomach growl, and his nose tersely pointed out that he smelled something good and food-like, had since he woke, now if he'd just pay attention to that little fact. Looking where the scent was strongest, he found a waxed envelope filled with trail mix sitting on top of his deck shoes and folded clothes.

Jim again, he thought happily, and dug into the mix of dried fruits, roasted seeds, and nuts, relishing the salts and oils rolling over his tongue. There were bits of honey and yogurt nuggets, as well, and Blair gobbled handful after handful as he dressed, glad for both the nutrition the mix promised, as well as the energy. Providing this went well above the call of duty to a bewildered and out of control shifter during his first time, and Blair slowed in his chewing because he had to smile.

Maybe his wildness called to Jim still.

Mulling that over, he left the little cave, looking down the river to spot the Cascade, less than five hundred yards away. The den's convenient location relative to the ship gave him hope, and he sauntered toward it, trying to give the impression he was coming back from an early-morning walk, as he had several times before during the voyage. Though the ship's stacks were puffing steam, her deck was mostly empty, with the crew most likely below having breakfast while waiting for the mist to clear enough to sail.

His nonchalance must have worked. Captain Banks waved at him distractedly, not breaking off the conversation he was having with someone out of Blair's sight.

Unabashedly eavesdropping, Blair drew closer, for no good reason except that his feet wanted to go that way.

"...so the Mothers won't track the lost changers or hold them captive for us, but won't stop us from looking for them, either?" Captain Banks said.

"As long as we're clearly on the trail of one, we can go anywhere in their territory. They sympathize fully with all those missing people, trapped in their animal forms, but feel that they would do more harm than good to their psyches if they tried to intervene."

Blair's heart leaped, slamming into his chest as if to escape. That was Jim's voice!

"Hell, we don't know that we won't be doing them damage ourselves!" Banks said. "I've heard more than one person say it might be better to let the forest take them rather than hold them captive in hopes that they might be brought back to their human form, somehow."

Banks half-turned toward Blair, to include him in the conversation. "Dr. Sandburg, this is our ship's Scout, Jim Ellison. Jim, that's one reason why our good Dr. Sandburg is taking this trip up river and back down again with us. He's been sent by the University to gather a consensus on what the most humane treatment for the lost shifters is, and study successful settlements with the aim of creating guidelines for new ones in hopes of never repeating the disaster at Frontsville."

Stepping out of the lee of the pilot's cabin, Jim nodded at Blair in a stranger's friendly greeting. Hair lightly ruffled, his belt and pouches slung over his shoulder like a bandolier, he was dressed very similarly to Blair - breech cloth, hip-high leggings, and long, light gauzy tunic. Only his showed signs of wear and use, as if he'd had a long, hard night in human form.

Returning the gesture, Blair said "I didn't know the Cascade berthed a River Scout."

"She's the best ship and crew on the water," Jim said mildly, as if the comment was a self-evident truth. "Any clue yet why Frontsville went so wrong?"

"Charisma isn't very well understood by anyone, especially the kind that can convince normally sensible people that a very aberrant or idiosyncratic theory is inarguable doctrine to be taken on faith." Blair waved his hands to encompass the entire world of New Home. "There's no denying it's powerful. After all, we're all here because five generations ago Ian Crowley convinced his fellow ecoterrorists that hunters wouldn't attack animals that might really be humans in animal form because murder has much more serious consequences than poaching. Just our bad luck the nano-virus he created got far enough out of hand that it spread beyond his cadre."

Arms crossed over his chest, eyes on the deck of the ship, Jim said, "Which makes it even more baffling that the people of Frontsville would suddenly decide Changers were abominations who should never be allowed to return to their human form, torturing their entire population to force all who could to change. Technically, all Changers are Crowley's victims."

"The Adjudicators haven't had any luck on getting to the source of that particularly nasty mindset, which has been cropping up here and there," Banks said in disgust. He would have added something else, but a hold door slammed open, and a male voice called to him urgently. Swearing under his breath, Banks marched off to find out what was so important, giving Blair a friendly clap on the shoulder in farewell as he went.

The impact from it along with the sudden stench carried on the wind, was enough to nearly buckle Blair's knees, and he stumbled toward the side, gagging on the food he'd recently eaten. Jim was beside him in a flash, palm under elbow in support. Digging into a pouch, he pulled out a small wax vial, broke it open, and dabbed the contents on Blair's upper lip, right under his nose. Instantly the stink was drowned out by a lighter, lemony fragrance, and Blair's gorge settled, letting him breathe normally.

"Thanks." Another blast of foulness hit, and Blair winced. "What is that?"

"Breakfast. Look, Chief," Jim said urgently, "By law you have to register with First Fall Admin that you can shift and what form you wear, but if you want to keep it to yourself otherwise, you're going to have to hide the side-effects better. Watch how much you eat and how fast; don't nap to catch up on missed sleep unless you've got a good excuse. Looks like your sense of smell is going to be hyper after your change, not unusual, especially for a wolf, so you'll need to prepare to deal with it."

"All shifters have one or two enhanced senses for a few days after they go four-legged," Blair said to point out he'd studied the consequences even if he'd never done it himself before. "Except for sentinels, who have five enhanced senses, regardless of their beast form."

"Sentinels?" Jim asked, his tone so odd that Blair slanted a look up at him, dismayed to see how blank his expression was, though his support never wavered.

Not knowing what else to do, Blair launched into one of his mini-lectures. "People who, during the earlier stages of man's development, evolved sensory advantages to protect and provide for their tribes. Humanity brought the genome for sentinels with it from Earth. Apparently the virus is very fond of it for some reason, so there was an extremely disproportionate number of them in the exiles' populace. In fact, the first Scout to the Pard was a sentinel."

"Why haven't I ever heard of them, then?"

Shrugging, Blair said, "Because there haven't been any since. Why? Good question. Add it to the very long list of ones that have come up since mankind arrived here, including why the birthrate so dangerously low? Information about them is in the colony's permanent computer files, buried under a ton of stuff. I only knew to look, though, because one of my ancestors was partnered with a sentinel, and I inherited the few journals he was able to bring with him."

Without intending to, Blair let his enthusiasm for the subject filter into his voice. "From what I got from those, I think all sentinels are supposed to have a companion of some sort to watch over them while they're watching over their community. See, sentinels can over-focus on one sense, going into a disassociative state where all mental activity is devoted to that sense, leaving him vulnerable, so they need a partner to safeguard them. Not to mention that every sentinel's ability to process and respond to sensory stimulus is as individual as fingerprints. One sentinel might not have any trouble with, say, topical allergic responses where another may break out with contact to any substance he or she had not been exposed to previously. That's where their guide comes in; to handle the needs of the sentinel so he can concentrate on his primary duty, the welfare of the community."

"Disassociative," Jim said slowly.

"My ancestor called it the 'zone-out' factor. He made it sound like being a sentinel was difficult most of the time, if not out-and-out horrible." Blair laughed uneasily, Jim's intent study of him abruptly sending frissons along his nerves. He tapped the end of his nose. "Guess I never understood that until now. I have no idea how I'm going to manage to eat when everything smells so bad."

"A changer's hyper senses fade quickly. Wouldn't a sentinel's?" Jim scrubbed a hand over his head. "Maybe even go away permanently, if he stayed two-legged long enough?"

An idea percolated through Blair's confusion at Jim's persistent questioning and unexpected interest in the topic. In his mind's eye he saw the panther lifting his head to listen long before Blair, whose wolf hearing should have been as acute, could pick up on anything; saw him shaking his paws, irritated with the vibrations from the Pard song. Though Jim had to have been on his way to the Festival, he had found Blair, upriver and upwind of the Hearth.

Leaning into Jim's space, hand flat on his chest, Blair murmured, "They're a natural part of you; more natural than the shifter virus. If you're having trouble with them, it's only because there was no one to teach you how to understand them, use them."

Blessedly Jim didn't pretend he didn't know what conclusion Blair had leaped to, or deny it. "Now I know why the Pard always seemed know more about what's been happening to me than I did. Their oral history probably includes a complete run-down on the abilities of Michael Manymoons and the other early Scouts."

Eagerly, trying not push, Blair said, "That makes sense. I've often speculated that at least some of the Scouts had the senses, but chalked them up to shifting or spending so much time in the wild. Did the Pard ever hint they knew you were special, or did one ever offer to work with you as a partner?"

Fingers massaging the tender flesh on the inside of Blair's sending tingles through him despite the cloth between them, Jim leaned down and rested his forehead against Blair's. "Incacha - He-Who-Guides-the-Hunt for the Cha Clan - took me as an apprentice scout when I was young, and always told me that I'd eventually find a Companion who would make life better. At first I thought he was talking about a having a lady friend, but later, after I'd been bedded a few times, I realized that wasn't what he meant at all. Unless there was a lot more to sec than physical relief."

"You, ah, think that you, I mean, maybe I…" Blair forced himself to stop babbling and swallowed hard. "Last night you told the Pard that I was your Companion."

"Things have been rough lately," Jim admitted reluctantly. "All the senses are spiking and behaving so erratically I've endangered myself and everyone counting on me - one reason I've been staying away from the Cascade." His eyelids drifted down, pleasure stealing over his features. "Until I caught sight of the most beautiful, captivating, fey wildling running recklessly through the forest. It was like seeing color after a lifetime of stumbling through shadows. Everything, and I do mean everything, in me just, I don't know, slotted into place, working the way it was supposed to. I was serious when I said you called to me."

Knotting his fingers into the fabric under them, Blair said, "Maybe... maybe you to me, as well. I've never given myself so freely before. I've always held back, on one level or another, not willing to expose too much underbelly, if you know what I mean."

"I've been called an expert at it, unfortunately." Jim shifted so that they were standing closer, clearly scenting Blair along the hairline and enjoying what he found.

Despite how sated he'd felt when he woke, Blair felt a sharp clench of desire. Trying not to get distracted, he asked, "So what now?"

As if on cue, Banks bellowed from the hatch door, "Ellison, is this mist going to lift some time today or not?"

With a clear show of unwillingness, Jim stepped away. "Twenty or thirty minutes, sir," he shouted back.

To Blair he said softly, "Now we go back to work. After that..." He straightened and hitched his belt higher on his shoulder. "We've got a lot to figure out. For instance, the Pard will expect to see you with me the next time I join them. I don't know about ship business, though."

"Well, for the time being, at least, we're working on the same problem, just coming at it from different directions," Blair pointed out happily. "It's a good start, one we can build on."

Nudging him in the direction of the galley, Jim smiled. "That we can, Chief. Ready to try breakfast?"

"Chief?" Blair asked, doing his best to visualize the smells coming his way shrinking into nothingness before they hit.

"Term of endearment from Earth, though I've only heard scouts use it," Jim said absently, obviously making his own attempt to subdue his sense of smell. "It's someone closer than a casual friend or buddy."

Delighted that Jim had been including him as one of his own, however subconsciously, Blair let himself be guided by the palm in the small of his back toward the start of what looked to be a very unexpected and interesting future.

finis

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