Rebecca knew someone was following her. She could hear the muted crunch of footfalls as they chased her through the woods. She could tell it was another Kitsune and another cat as well, by the sharp tang of his scent. What she couldn't know was if he after her because of who she was or if it was because she was on his territory. Would he return her to the people she was hiding from? Was he alone? She ran harder, desperate to evade her pursuer, even though she knew she had little chance. Leaping over fallen trees and pushing through the low hanging branches of the smaller trees that hung in her way, she didn't take the time to find an easier path as she raced forward, desperate to escape.
She knew she'd been trespassing on someone else's territory, but she wasn’t planning on staying long, and had hoped she could evade notice. She’d been passing through. She could have gone around but hadn't thought anyone would come after her for such a short visit. Now, she wished she'd avoided the area to begin with.
Rebecca continued running, but she'd already begun panting. Cougars aren't built for distance running. The footsteps behind her faded and she was starting to hope she'd managed to escape. Suddenly another cougar jumped from a tree overhead and landed on top of her, knocking her to the ground. She knew from the scent that the newcomer was a male, like the cat who had chased her in his direction. She fought, trying to knock the newcomer off her so she could escape again. The cat who'd knocked her down sunk his teeth into the skin at the back of her neck and held her to the ground. He prevented her from moving but the hold didn't actually hurt.
Shit, she thought to herself. He wasn't alone. He was herding me right where he wanted me. She struggled, trying again to knock the cat holding her loose or even just get up but she couldn't gain any traction in the loose debris covering the forest floor.
The cat standing over her didn't move. He didn't try to drag her away or attack her, he just held her down while staying out of the reach of her claws. He kept her pinned for several minutes. After a while it became obvious he was waiting for something or someone. After what seemed like an eternity, Rebecca heard footsteps approaching. The stride was different. Not the cadence of a cat, it was human. Just as the person was about to step into her line of sight the footsteps stopped. Her nose told her the human that had arrived was the Kitsune who'd chased her.
"Shift," demanded a deep, rumbling voice.
Crap, they know I'm a shifter. She knew better, but had hoped they wouldn't realize it.
"We know you can. You might as well shift and make it easy on yourself."
Realizing she had no choice, Rebecca sighed, though in this form, it came out more like a snort. Carefully, slowly, she nodded, unable to do more the way she was held. The pressure on the back of her neck eased slightly, but didn't release, as if they didn't quite trust her.
Smart. Given half a chance I’d run.
She closed her eyes and concentrated. She felt her skin sting and tingle, the once familiar sensation seemed foreign after so long in this form. She waited while her muscles and bones shifted and popped under her flesh, she felt the fur receding into her skin. When she opened her eyes she was human again for the first time in months. She lay curled on her side, naked on the sticks, leaves and dry pine needles covering the uneven ground. The teeth holding her down were gone. As she'd shifted the skin he'd been holding had slipped out of his grip.
Rebecca pushed herself up slowly until she was sitting. She pulled her knees up in front of her body and wrapped her arms around them, hugging them tight against her torso as though shielding herself. She looked around, trying to assess her situation and decide what to do next. The Kitsune who'd chased her was standing to one side, human. She shyly looked up at him through her lashes. He was tall, she guessed at least six feet, with dark hair that looked like he was a couple months overdue for a haircut. He had clear green eyes that seemed to see right through her as he stood glaring down at her. His body was toned, like that of someone who either worked hard or took care of himself, probably both. She couldn't stop her gaze from dropping, taking in his narrow waist and muscular thighs. Because he was as naked as she was, she couldn't help but notice the thick shaft that hung between his legs.
She looked away, blushing at her breach of etiquette in noticing him that way. Turning her head let her see the cat who'd taken her down, the one who’d held her so the man in front of them could catch up. He was sitting calmly behind her, ready jump if she tried to run again. His tawny coat was the exact shade of the dried grasses she had run through earlier in the day. His green-gold eyes didn't seem to blink as he watched her carefully.
"Who are you?" The man in front of her wanted to know.
Rebecca hunched her shoulders up around her ears and bowed her back, as if expecting a blow, but remained silent. She was determined not to go back to her family, or the marriage they were trying to force her into.
They didn't smell like her Chanat. Maybe there weren't here to take her back. Rebecca didn't know what to do. The men her father had sent after her had found her everywhere she'd hidden in human society. She'd finally determined that if she was going to have any chance of staying free, she'd have to hide better. What better way was there to hide from people than to live wild as a natural cougar? She'd spent the last few months roaming the mountains, living off her hunting skills and finding shelter in caves and thickets. She never stayed in one place long, always afraid that they'd somehow find her, and drag her back to her father.
"You're trespassing here and as the leader of this Chanat. I need to know who you are and why you're here." He paced a small path in front of her as he spoke.
"My name is…Rachel. I'm here because I have nowhere else to go." She thought quickly, giving him a false name in case he knew her family was looking for her.
"You have no Chanat?" He knew she was lying about her name, but he ignored it. He stopped pacing and bent down until he was balancing on the balls of his feet. Sitting on his heels, he still looked down at her, thought he was much closer. He carefully ignored the fact that neither of them had any clothes on.
"I left my Chanat and I won't go back," her voice steely with determination. "If you try to send me back, I'll run." Even as she stood her ground, she wouldn't meet his eyes.
"Now, don't be hasty, kitten" His tone gentled. "If things are bad enough in your Chanat to send you running, then I've no intention of sending you back. However, this isn't really the place to discuss that. You look like you've been on the run for a while." He looked over her shoulder to the cat still sitting behind her and then back at her. "Why don't we go to my cabin, it's not too far from here, and we can see about getting you some food and clothes. Maybe a bath if you'd like," he suggested, trying to tempt her into agreeing. "Once you're comfortable, then we can talk."
Rebecca hesitated, not yet ready to trust him. She felt something, some unnamable sensation deep inside that said she could, but she was reluctant to rely on it. She'd been running for so long she was leery of trusting anyone, even herself.
"I'd like a bath and some clothes," she admitted quietly, trying not to let him see how badly she wanted them.
"My cabin's close, but it'll be easier on our feet if we go as cats. If you'll shift back, you can follow me," he said, ignoring the other cat who sat quietly, still watching her.
"All right." She shivered briefly before shifting back into her cougar form. I didn't realize how cold it is out here until I didn't have my fur keeping me warm, she thought.
The man shifted as well. He became a cougar like her, but she already knew that. She hadn't seen him as he chased her, now she could see that he was huge, at least as long as his human height, without counting his tail. His coat was a golden tawny color with very little of the darker brownish shadings. He swung his head motioning for her to follow him as he started padding in the direction he had herded in earlier.
As promised, the trip was short. They'd traveled less than a quarter of a mile when he led her into a large clearing. Situated in the center was a small house. He climbed a short set of steps onto the porch surrounding the house before shifting and opening the door for her. She didn't bother shifting before going into the house.