Authors: Mary Calmes
In October, right before Halloween, Delphine mated with Markel Kovac, who had at one time been the sheseru of the now-defunct tribe of Menhit. He had once been to Domin what Yuri was to Logan. The ceremony was beautiful, the feast lasted three days, and as a gift, Logan knocked out two walls on the second floor toward the back to give the newlyweds what amounted to an enormous studio apartment within the house. They loved it, the privacy of being alone with the closeness of family. Panthers needed the community of others like them. Solitary was not the way for us to live.
When Crane and I had been traveling for years, just the two of us, from place to place, the reason had been me. As a reah, I had been much sought after, but once I turned a semel down, when they realized they were not my mate, things normally turned ugly. They wanted to keep me. I wanted to leave. More than once I had been in a fight for my life with someone who felt, in the frenzy of the moment, that they loved me. The process was too hard to keep repeating, so Crane and I had steered clear of all werepanthers, and normally, as soon as we became aware of any, we were gone. Everything had changed, though, the night I met Logan Church. His need had never been his alone. As soon as I saw him, it had been mine as well.
After we rang in the New Year earlier in the month, I had finally cornered Koren about what had happened. He didn’t look happy to me, and Domin didn’t appear any better. Why the forced separation?
I was stunned as I stood there and finally heard Koren’s confession. He loved Domin; he just wasn’t sure that he was ready to give up the idea of a female mate and children born without a surrogate in the mix somewhere, and while the idea of having a mate at all was appealing, so was not having one and being free, especially as the growth of his real estate business took him to different cities and time zones.
He wasn’t ready to settle down. Or more importantly, he was too scared to make a commitment and have it be the wrong one. He was not prepared to say, in front of everyone, that this one person was his life and that it was forever. Logan had been ready from the moment he laid eyes on me; Delphine had decided that Markel was the one; but not Koren. There could be someone better out there, and the promise called to him, the lure of what could be just around the corner. And, as I suspected, the turning point had been when Peter Church returned from Sobek. He had come into the house and admitted to Koren that when he found out that his second-born son was gay, he had been devastated. It had been hard for him to have his first-born take a male mate and when he found out that Koren would as well, or was thinking about it, he was overwhelmed. He wanted grandchildren, wanted to ensure his lineage, and even though he had claimed to be keeping an open mind, the reality had been painful for him.
In Sobek he had gone to the priest to make sure that Logan was forced to take a yareah and procreate. But before Logan could even inform me of his father’s ultimatum and adamantly assure me that he would never, ever have children with anyone but a surrogate, I had given him the news that I had asked his sister for the gift of life. Together, Delphine and I would make the next semel of the tribe of Mafdet. As patriarch of the Church clan, Peter was guardian of the line until he died and so had been well within his rights to talk to the priest. But the news that I had asked Delphine to be my yareah, to help me, as a barren reah, to reproduce, had basically just made the man’s year. The second he got home, he shared his overwhelming happiness with his second-born.
What Koren heard was:
you can be whatever you want to be now…. I don’t care
Logan will carry on the Church bloodline with his reah; I don’t care what you do or with whom
. At which point Koren realized that what he wanted was his father’s blessing and understanding, wanted his life to be as he had thought it would be growing up. He wanted exactly what his parents had, and that picture did not include another man. It especially did not include Domin Thorne.
Or maybe it did.
Koren was, again, for the millionth time, on the fence.
He couldn’t say he wanted Domin, but he didn’t want anyone else to have him, either. He loved him, and dear God in heaven, he wanted to sleep with him, but the rest… the rest was tricky.
I had not even been able to look at him. After our talk, I put distance and, normally, Yuri between us. No one talked to me without Yuri allowing them to, so since I didn’t want to see Koren, I simply didn’t.
“He’s an idiot,” Logan had told me as we stood together on the balcony watching Domin move out. Even though Koren was not around much, it was still his home first, and so our maahes had chosen to buy a loft in King’s Beach, just down the hill from us. He was only a twenty-minute drive away, but still, it was distance that Logan didn’t care for.
“Who’s an idiot? Domin for leaving, or Koren for not asking him to stay?”
“Domin for leaving,” my mate had rumbled. “If you want something, you fight for it.”
“Yeah, but Domin waited for Koren to grow some balls the first time, and now he’s right back to where he was. How many times does your brother get to use Domin’s heart for a doormat?”
“Koren will figure out what he wants.”
“And by then it will be too late,” I had said, my eyes never leaving the scene below me, watching Domin direct the movers.
“That’s awfully pessimistic of you,” he had teased me, leaning sideways to kiss my temple.
“Someone else will discover Domin Thorne,” I had told my mate very seriously. “He’s a pain in the ass, but the man is beautiful to look at and very passionate, and now, since he’s been your maahes, loyal and fair. You’ve changed him, your faith in him, your kindness, your acceptance, all of it—he’s different.”
“He’s always been that way,” Logan had told me. “He just forgot for a while.”
Domin had been a good guy? “Are we talking about the same man?”
I hadn’t wanted to argue; I knew that Logan had made all the difference to the growth of his maahes, even if he didn’t. “Koren’s a fool.”
“Why don’t you tell him that?”
I had sighed deeply before I had turned and looked at my mate. “Because no one listens to me. They’re supposed to, but they don’t. Crane left, too, and Russ…. Everybody’s leaving our home, and I hate it.”
“I’ll never leave you.”
Which was more comforting than he could have known.
“Your teeth are chattering,” Yuri told me, bringing me back to the present.
The reason being that I was cold inside and out.
“I know you. I know you’re terrified about Crane and scared that I’ll get hurt exacting the revenge you yourself want, but, Jin”—his voice cracked, lowered—“I am the sheseru of my tribe. It is no one’s place but mine.”
I leaned forward, elbows on my knees, face in my hands.
I nodded and stayed like that with him sitting silently beside me.
It was dark by the time they were ready to leave, and I was still, wondering about Crane. Was he scared? Conscious? Had he called for me when they brutalized him? Did he, at that very second, want me with him? Had he felt powerless or abandoned? Had he been raped? Everything was swirling through my head.
I was going right out of my mind, which was no good for anyone, not just me. My power, it seemed, was no longer contained in my skin or with the shift. Some of it, as I’d learned in Sobek before I was reunited with Logan, was the power of a reah, the ability to broadcast what we were feeling. Before I knew why or what, I had been able to suddenly flood a room with my pheromones and emotions. The jump in power had been a surprise, and the priest of Chae Rophon had provided the answer in a name: nekhene.
I was a nekhene cat, hawk-cat, the only one of my kind, and powerful in ways that were unknown because, as far as the priest knew, the last one before me had lived and died a thousand years ago. The power of the nekhene to transform at will, to shift from man to beast in the blink of an eye, was one thing, but the rest of it was a learning process.
The problem was that because we didn’t know, we didn’t know what to expect. So far, the only thing that Logan and I and everyone else knew for certain was that the reah in me trumped the nekhene, so my love for my mate grounded me, gave him dominion over me. But how long that would last—if it would—that, too, was unknown. As it was, unfortunately, because I was a reah but also a nekhene, when I was in pain, if you were a panther, you knew it because you felt it as sharply as if it were your own. The normal control that my family and friends and other panthers had over their own emotions and desires was stripped away, and there was only the continual assault, the constant barrage and battering, until the only refuge for the mind was the shift to animal.
Once people were panthers, there was only that consciousness. They could shift back and forth if commanded or reminded because it was simply an innate ability. A semel could order his khatyu to shift, and they would change only because they were told to. Only reahs retained the knowledge that they were humans even when they were in cat form. Semels, the strongest of all, only preserved the knowledge of their mate and nothing more once they shifted. It was frightening to think that with my pain alone, I could transform an entire room of people into panthers.
But pain was not the only reason people shifted. There was passion as well, lust, and desire. Apparently my scent, when I was throbbing with my nekhene power, was intoxicating, and there was no way to tell what the trigger would be or to gauge my response. It terrified Logan. The priest, who was continuing to dig but finding scarce little in the way of information on nekhene cats, said that the most important thing we could do now, from what he had read, was to show the nekhene the bond between myself and my semel.
The only reason I had been able to contain myself at the morgue and not let my power run out of me was Logan. If he was there, right there with me, hands on my skin, the nekhene was contained. The reah that I was first was Logan’s mate, so the nekhene responded to the familiarity of the bond. But if he was not close enough to touch me, kiss me, maul me, the wild creature that my body housed got restless when it was hurt or frightened or threatened.
The priest had told me before I left Sobek that some of the ancient texts spoke of the nekhene as not a kind of cat at all but instead as an inherited power. But I knew the truth; it was simply a mutation of speed and size. And yet, in all shifts I had ever seen before mine, basic composition did not change, only musculature shifted. But now, for me, I morphed into something else altogether. It made sense, then, that the nekhene was power and not simply biology. And yet how could that be? Shifting wasn’t magic, so nekhene power had to be the same, something that could be explained logically.
I told myself about logic and reason and science every single day, and every single day it made less sense. My skin, sometimes, was all that kept me from flying into a million pieces.
And when I didn’t feel like me, I lost myself just a little.
“Please, Jin,” I heard Yuri whisper from where he sat beside me. “Please try and breathe. Please calm down.”
I had trouble focusing past whatever it was that had coaxed the nekhene power from me.
My name, yelled, finally brought me from my thoughts at the same time I realized that my heart was pounding in my ears and I was breathless.
“You’re making me sick,” Mikhail growled from across the room. “Please, Jin, please breathe.”
I got up and walked to the picture window and stood there, my forehead pressed to the cold glass.
“What’s going—oh,” Delphine gasped behind me. “I think I’m gonna shift.”
There was shuffling in the room. I heard the front door lock open, the door hitting the wall with a bang, and then Yuri’s roar for his semel.
There were others close by; I was aware of them, but my eyes were closed as the ache swelled inside, got bigger and suffocating, and the pain overtook me.
“What’s—Jin,” I heard Logan say my name, felt him closing on me.
“Logan,” Taj said from somewhere close. “Do something. I feel like I’m going to claw my way out of my own skin.”
“I—” Mikhail gagged. “I’m going to shift right here. I can feel it.”
“Logan,” Yuri panted, and I could hear his fist slowly pounding on the wall. “Please, I can’t… I’m gonna shift too.”
When I felt Logan’s hand in my hair, I tried to lean away, but he was stronger and so grabbed me and held tight, not allowing any movement.
“Stop,” he ordered sharply. “You think if I touch you, you’re gonna break. You won’t.”
I didn’t turn to look at him.
He yanked hard, cocking my head back at the same time his other hand wrapped around my throat. His mouth was at my ear. “You will submit to me because I’m stronger than you.”
I took a deep, shuddering breath and felt something deep inside deciding. I could even imagine the gentle swish of a cat’s tail like a pendulum, thinking… thinking….
“You’re mine, and all your pain is mine too. Trust me with it, my reah.”
But how could I? He was leaving me, and I needed to reach Crane.
“Stop,” he ordered me.
I tried to pull free of his hold.
There was a growl from his throat before he bent my head forward, moving my hair, baring my shoulder, and he buried his fangs in the curve of my neck.
I jolted under him, and a sob rose from my chest.
He was stronger, I was weaker, and I calmed because he had reaffirmed my place at his side, in my tribe, so that my world settled and I could breathe.
We stayed frozen there together, and after long minutes, he gently withdrew his teeth. He licked at the spilled blood, at the wound he had made, and kissed and suckled at my skin.
“Mine,” he told me as he rubbed his chin over me, his cheek, marking me with his scent, putting it all over me. “You’re mine.”
I twisted around and buried my face in his chest. His arms wrapped me up, and he tucked my head under his chin. I was shaking hard, clutching at him, holding on for dear life.