I Was Alpha. I Was Big-Cat. Wanted to Eat Gator

I woke to the taste of blood in my mouth, hot, spicy blood. My heart thumped once, sounding wrong, sounding mushy. My vision cleared to see Leo over me, his black eyes fierce, his wrist slashed and bleeding. Into my mouth.

"Vous devez boire, mon amour. Boire, et vivre."

I had no idea what that meant, but I swallowed. Heat slammed through me. My heart beat again, sounding strange, broken. But its movement sent that heat into my veins, into my arteries. I took a breath and could hear the wheeze of blood in my lungs. I drank. My heart beat again. And again. And picked up speed. I dropped inside my own mind, into the dark, into the cavernlike place where I took my spirit journeys. It was . . . different.

And I drank.

The small dark cloud in my soul, the place where Leo had bound me, took strength from the blood. It rose from its place in my mind, as if alive. As if scenting.

My heart beat. I breathed. The black form of the binding seemed to breathe too. It solidified, smelling of old papyrus, black pepper, and metal. In the deeps of my mind, I reached out and touched the black form. It was frozen iron, so cold my fingers burned. It was solid. This is not good, I thought. It opened its eyes and stared at me. This thing was Leo.

I leaped back, away. Landing on the far side of the cavern of my mind.

From the binding, a black chain slithered across the floor of my soul, reaching for me. The links sounded like scales.

We are not prey! Beast thought at me. She smashed into me, through my mind, through my heart and lungs, and into my cells. Her pelt ground against me as if she rolled around inside my skin. Her claws pierced through my fingertips. "No!" In the real world, I pushed Leo's wrist away. I caught sight of my hand. Golden-furred fingers, plump, with knobby knuckles and extruded claws at the tips.

I rolled away, landing on the floor of Gregoire's limo. I fell into the gray place of the change. "No, no, no, no, no - "

The iron chain snapped hard, the sound echoing.

Far into the change, Beast did . . . something. The chain warmed. Silvered. And I was lost.

* * *

I pawed away from Leo and Bruiser and Rick. Clawed at them, at the leather of the car. I leaped. Twisted in midair, kicking free of Jane clothes. Landed. Looked back and met Rick's eyes. His were golden green. Big-cat eyes. I snarled at him. At the woman beside him, her eyes wide. Not-human woman named Soul. Rick's Soul.

I growled at Bruiser, his mouth open in shock. Hissed at Leo, who was staring, his fangs down. Good strong predator. Would take him as mate one day. To show my interest, I swiped at him, drawing blood. Then thrust from them, spiraling in midair, claws out. Landed in brush. Raced into night.

Hunger tore at me. Side ached, place where Rick gun bit me. Place that nearly killed me/us. Raced along bayou, scattering geese. Caught one. Crushed neck with snap of jaws. Dropped it. Caught another. Crushed neck. Leaped out over water, thick tail spiraling, front claws reaching. Caught neck of flying goose and broke it with single sling of big-cat claws. Landed in muddy water. Paddled in circle and swam to shore, carrying goose in killing teeth. Have three geese. I hunger! Will eat.

I dropped goose and shook pelt, slinging water. Settled to muddy bank and tore into dead bird. Good greasy bird, crunching bones, swallowing feathers and ugly webbed feet. Ate entire bird and bit into goose two. Ate it all. And goose three. Lay on muddy bank, panting. Belly full. Chest aching.

I yawned and licked bloody jaws and thought about Jane. She was not awake, but slept in mind. Thought about binding of Leo. It slept too, black form curled in corner of Jane spirit. The form looked like monkey. Monkey-cat. Ugly thing. Had metal chain that trailed across floor to Jane, asleep on floor of den place in mind. But chain to Jane was broken. Chain was lying on the floor of mind-den, not touching Jane. Chain also trailed across floor to Beast.

I snarled. Saw cuff on back leg. Sniffed at cuff. Ugly silver metal. Ugly smell of Leo and shackling. I growled. I had tried to stop binding during shift to Big-Cat. Used angel Hayyel power, but was not angel. Was big-cat. But did not work like I expected. Needed to think about cuff. Needed to think about binding. Long thoughts. Jane thoughts. Could not understand metal-cuff-binding in spirit den. Not now.

Heard vampires in distance. Pulled away from mind-den, away from dark place in thoughts. Looked-listened-scented at world outside mind-den. Vampires and werewolf were hunting Beast. I stood and stretched body, pulling at muscles and sinews. Stretched hard along spine and chest. Chest should not still hurt. Needed more shifting.

Would think about chain. Later.

I was alpha. I was big-cat. Wanted to eat gator. Wanted to hunt.

Looked out into darkness of night. Was near tree where Beast had ambush-hunted and killed human and big vampire. Could smell dead human and dead big prey on cool wind. Dead and dead again. Did not understand twice-dead things. Did not understand things that were alive and dead. Like Bitsa. Like vampires.

Could smell vampires on wind, hear vampires. Vampires were hunting Beast. Wanted to go far away from hunters. Wanted to think. I huffed and padded into dark.

At road, I climbed tree and lay on limb hanging over road. Jumped from limb over road to top of small truck and set claws to metal. Holding on. Truck was like bison, big and fast and stupid. But truck had no blood and bones. Truck was alive and not alive, like vampires were alive and not alive. Did not understand truck or vampires. But truck was moving toward city lights, toward place of Jane-den. Stupid truck turned away soon, and Beast jumped down to ground. Prowled on before finding other truck heading toward Jane-den. Changed trucks three more times. Less than five. Was good number.

In French Quarter, truck stopped at place of sleeping and eating. Hotel, Jane called it. Jumped from back of truck to street and padded into shadows. I moved through French Quarter place smelling of many more than five humans and man-food and man-spices and gasoline and many more than five vampires. Went to Katie's place. Place where enemy of Jane had hunted Katie and taken Katie.

Could smell Katie and Derek and other humans inside. Derek had hunted Katie and brought her back to her den. Derek was good hunter. Wondered if Derek and Katie were mated now. Katie needed strong mate. But smelled blood. Much blood. Katie was wounded and drinking from more-than-five humans. Heard sound of pain from Katie-den.

I chuffed. Did not like smell of human blood. Did not like taste of human flesh. Remembered taste from fight. Jane was right. Should never eat humans. Did not understand vampires - good hunters who ate humans. I turned and trotted into night.

* * *

I woke in a stinking alley behind a restaurant, lying on the pavement. Next to a wino so drunk he smelled like a brewery. I crawled to my feet and met his eyes.

"You're naked, you know."

"I noticed."

"I got a blanket I'll sell you."

"It isn't like I have any money on me."

His eyes gleamed and he showed me broken, brown teeth as he looked me over.

I chuckled softly. "How about this? You loan me your blanket, and I'll come back with fifty dollars and a brand-new blanket."

He thought about that for a good half minute while I shivered. "And a pillow. And a waterproof tent. A tiny one I can drape over things when it rains."

I was standing buck naked in an alley at dawn, bargaining with a wino for his flea-infested blanket. Which was stupid on so many levels. "Whatever it takes to get me the blanket." The wino scratched himself and I didn't look at where or at the sight of his black fingernails.


"How about I give you a hundred and let you live?" a soft voice said.

I froze. Rick. Who had just shot me. I turned my body at an angle, making a narrower target. But his hands were empty. His white wolf sat at his side, panting.

Rick saw my reaction and he opened his mouth, breathing in. He went dead-still for a moment, not breathing now, not doing anything, reading me like a cat might. His voice went dead, no tonal shifts or flex. "You think I shot you? You think I shot you?" he exploded. "I've been hunting you all night. Thinking that he had killed you, that you shifted too late and only Beast was left." Rick ripped his coat off and threw it at me. I caught it, something heavy banging into my kneecap. "There is a nine-mil in the right pocket. Take it and shoot me, you crazy bitch."

I held the coat in front of me, one hand gripping the pocket that held the gun. I could feel it, warm from his body heat, and it did feel like a nine-mil. I held the coat in front of me like a shield, but of course if he had another gun and really wanted me dead, now was the time to fire. He didn't.

"You told me you had orders to shoot me if I killed a human. I killed a human. Your hand came up. I was shot. Soooo."

Rick's face twisted with some emotion I couldn't name. "You really think I shot you." He lowered his lids and dropped his head to keep me from seeing what might be on his face. "You killed him in self-defense, not a blood-magic spell or a killing frenzy." When I didn't say anything, he added, "I'm a cop. I'm trained to notice little things like that."

"Who shot me?"

"You call him Diablo."

I let my mind wander back over the last moments of my life, putting two and two together, and hopefully reaching four. I remembered the humans guarding the remains of de Allyon's clan. The Tequila Boys. I remembered Diablo, pounding a downed vamp in the pasture after the battle, the night that Leo's clan home burned to the ground. Had he been putting on a show? Had he agreed to snitch later, in return for something? Drugs? Women? A place in a vamp's household and the increased life span that offered? Money? Money always talks, and most of the time it talks too much.

"Oh," I said. Sounding totally lame. "Crap."

Even I - with my limited social skills - knew I had hurt Rick. I could smell the anger and misery rushing through his veins. See it in his body language, in his expression, in his eyes that were fading from golden green back to black.

"You really thought I'd shoot you," he said, the sound raw.

"What about my money?" the wino asked.

Rick tossed him a handful of bills without looking, turned on his heel, and walked back down the alley. I slid into the coat, warm from his body.

"Star-crossed lovers, is what you two are," the wino said. "Or maybe he's right and you really are a crazy bitch."

"Yeah," I said, blowing out a breath. "Right now I'm going with door number two."

The wolf huffed with what sounded like disgust and showed me his teeth before turning in a sharp circle and lifting a leg on a Dumpster. He huffed again to make sure I knew he would rather be peeing on me. He dropped his leg and padded back down the alley. If a wolf could show disdain, he just had.

"Well, crap," I muttered.

* * *

The rest of my day just got worse. Bruiser needed me to find and corral the humans de Allyon's death had left running around without a master. De Allyon had used a lot of compulsion on his servants, and when that control disappeared suddenly, there were a lot of displaced, panicked humans running around, most with some version of PTSD from being in his service.

Someone had to deal with the CDC about the vamp plague. They had joined in with Leo's private lab, working on finding a true cure. Again, me, since PsyLED was a police agency, not a government health agency. Meanwhile, Rick wrapped up his case and left New Orleans without a word - Rick, his unit of nonhumans, and his Soul. I watched him drive off in a new SUV - the kind that looks like a station wagon. It had rental plates, and somehow it looked . . . domestic. I didn't let tears pool in my eyes until the rental pulled around the corner. Then I blinked them away and went back to work. What else could I do? I worked around the clock with Wrassler and Bruiser and then, all at once, it was all done. Finished. My job was done.

It was midnight, on the night of the new moon. And I was alone.

I got a job offer two weeks later. It was from the elusive Hieronymus, the Master of the City of Natchez. Seemed he had a problem with the remnants of de Allyon's ungovernable Naturaleza running amok in his city and the nearby hunting territory. He was estimating there were at least twenty vamps hunting humans, and he wanted them removed. The council of Mithrans had offered thirty thousand a head - literally - to take them down. I was thinking about it. A change of scenery sounded like a good idea, and if I took the Younger boys, it would be a good way to test out this partnership idea. Frankly, I was surprised that he'd want one of the people who had shot up his town and left it in disarray to come back, but maybe he felt I needed to clean up my own mess.

I hadn't heard from Bruiser. Hadn't heard from Rick, despite the numerous apologies I'd left on his voice mail. Either I'd hurt him so badly with my accusation and lack of trust that he'd just walked away - maybe forever - or he was already in the field again and hadn't checked voice mail. I could hope it was something simple, though the more time passed, the less likely it was a voice mail problem. I had told him I loved him and then accused him of shooting me. Go, me.

My life was sublimely uncomplicated right now. Which could be a good thing. But was probably not.

I went that night to hunt, deep in bayou country. In the middle of the shift, as the place of the change took me over, and gray light sparkled with the energies of my magics, I discovered Beast's secret. I found the chain that ran from Beast, across the floor of my soul house to the sleeping form of Leo in the corner of my mind.

As we stood in the silence of the magics of the change, both fully skinwalker and fully cat, I said, He bound you. Not me. He bound you. How . . . ? Oh, crap. It must have been because his blood was in your mouth, in my mouth when we shifted. Even caught in the magic, I felt my breath hitch. I had vampire blood in my mouth at the time of the shift into cat.

Beast was bound to Leo Pellissier. I stared at the silvered chain and cuff that encircled her foreleg.

Best huffed, amused. Leo will be good mate.

The pain of the shift slid into me. "Well, crap."

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