Shaking her head, Cathy stood in the blazing sun of South Africa and wondered what the hell was wrong with him.
“She’s been missing since Friday and you’re not worried?”, she hissed at Damian, blinking in disbelief, “That’s three days! She’s out here, all on her own, she…”
“You don’t know that.”, he gently interrupted her, but it did nothing to calm Cathy down. Instead she threw her hands up in the air and yelled at him: “You may be used to the South African heat and the animals here in the desert, but Nikki isn’t! I’m not. I have no idea where she could be, but I do know that we’re miles away from anything even remotely close to civilisation. How could she not be in danger?!”
But he remained calm, damn him. Cathy snorted and looked around, trying desperately to catch a glimpse of her best friend, yet all she saw were the endless plains of red sand that were the Kalahari Desert, red sand interspersed with dry bushes so arid they bristled in the slightest breeze. Not even the water gurgling through the ford they were standing by helped the plants any. The scene was endless and discouraging, just like her mood. She had to find Nikki. Soon.
“Who knows what she’s going through right now?”, Cathy mumbled, tears brimming her eyes, “She could be dying out there or…”
Her voice broke as her thoughts turned to the horrid possibility that her friend might already be… no, she refused to think about that. It just could not be!
“Cathy.”, Damian softly spoke behind her and the weight of his big hand was on her shoulder, somehow it felt reassuring, then he said, “I’m sure she’s fine.”
“How can you say that?”, she sobbed, unable to stop herself, she was crazed with worry, “How can you be so calm about this?”
“I know this land.”, was all he offered as a reply and it made Cathy frown. What an odd thing to say. And in such a dire situation!
“We should never have come here.”, she mumbled, saddened.
“Yes you should.”, Damian growled at her, taking her by surprise and when she spun around, she saw… something in his eyes, they flashed with something she could not name. It was not quite anger, not quite fear. But something.
“T…then what do we do?”, she asked, paralysed with fear for her friend and a sudden disquiet looking into Damian’s hazel eyes. Had they always been this light brown? “We can’t call the police.”
“Not out here.”, Damian shook his head, “And we don’t need to.”
“How…?”, Cathy wanted to ask again, now afraid and infuriated, but a strange noise made her stop midsentence.
“What’s that sound?”, she whispered, but Damian ignored her, he was staring over her shoulder, off into the desert behind her, a pained look in his eyes. Cathy turned around, both afraid and curious, but she could not spot anything. The yellow grass, scorched by the relentless sun overhead, was swaying gently in a breeze, a few insects were buzzing, but nothing else.
“Damian, what is it?”, she turned towards him again and he blinked, as if she had interrupted his thoughts, then he looked at her and stammered, “Nothing.”
Just like that, with that one word and the one moment of hesitation before he had said it, a lump of ice formed in Cathy’s stomach.
“Oh my God.”, she muttered before she could stop herself, “Oh my God. You killed her.”
“What?”, Damian stared at her, then he violently shook his head, “No!”
“But you… this…”, Cathy stumbled over her own words, not knowing what she should do, how she could flee from a murderer in the middle of the Kalahari Desert… and what the hell was that noise?!
Horrible images flashed before her eyes, Nikki bloodied and left to rot out in the desert, eaten by all kinds of animals… had she not seen a few more carrion birds the last two days…?
Without her conscious decision, she began to run. She had no idea where, just away.
“Cathy, no!”, Damian yelled behind her, but she ignored him, ignored the man who had murdered her best friend, “Cathy!”
She could not fight the sobs, but did her best to ignore Damian behind her, his footsteps on the dry ground and, oh God, that noise. What was it?
Pushing it out of her mind she reached the jeep, Damian’s jeep, and wrenched open the door. It cost her a second to step around it and that second was all it took.
“Cathy, calm down.”, Damian hissed in her ear as he grabbed her around the waist, “Please.”
“Let go of me!”, she screeched and fought him, trying her best to wriggle out of his grasp, but he was bigger than her and stronger by far. But she was desperate. So she kicked and punched and sharp pain surged through her arm as her fist actually did connect with his face in such a fierce blow that he loosened his grip on her. Cathy fought and got free, although only for a moment.
Damian’s hand closed around her wrist like a vice and he yanked her back with such force that she lost her footing and fell. She saw the side of the jeep rushing towards her face, or rather her face rushing towards the jeep, then as her temple crashed against the hard, hot metal, nothing but darkness.
When she woke, she did so slowly, very slowly and it took her a few seconds to discern the sensations she felt. The hot sun above, the hard and almost as hot sand beneath her, a hand on her shoulder, something slightly wet and rough against her cheek and then that noise again. It was a purr, but not quite like from her own cat at home.
With a start Cathy opened her eyes… and was face to face with a lion.
A fearful yell escaped her and she scrambled to get away, get to safety.
“Cathy, calm down, please.”, Damian spoke to her and she now realised that the hand on her shoulder had been his, that he was now kneeling behind her and trying to stop her. He kept her in front of him, between him and the lioness.
“Is this how you killed her?”, Cathy sobbed, “With a lion?”
Damian merely sighed, but his grip on her remained as strong and steadfast, then he said: “You don’t understand.”
“That you killed my best friend?!”, Cathy accused him and for a moment, Damian’s hands tightened around her upper arms, sending pain through her as he spoke through gritted teeth, “I love her.”
Then his grip loosened again and he even took his hands off her, but Cathy kept staring at him, not feeling the pain or the relief of it. As he had revealed his feelings for Nikki, feelings she had not known anything about, he had nodded towards the lion. Lioness.
She had to have imagined that.
But now he was staring at the lioness, as if silently conversing with her and she started purring again, her head cocked to the side and watching first Damian, then Cathy, with a gaze… too human for an animal.
“Alright.”, Damian then mumbled towards the lioness, “This is on you, love.”
Cathy’s disbelieving gaze shifted to Damian, then back to the lion in front of her, just sitting there in the sand, purring for heaven’s sake.
“If I told you, you wouldn’t believe it.”, Damian then addressed her and Cathy whispered hoarsely, “Believe what?”
Damian chuckled sadly at this, then asked her, “Look into her eyes. Really look. Please.”
Cathy frowned, but hesitantly did as he had asked. And when she met the lioness’ gaze, she felt unease pool in her gut. Something was not right…
Startled, she scrambled back once again as she saw it. But it could not be.
“Now you know where she is.”, Damian whispered beside her, but all Cathy could do was stare at the big cat in front of her and mouth her disbelieving question, “Nikki?”
The lioness jumped to her feet and padded over to them, bumping her head against Damian’s with… affection, and he brought his hands to her neck, burying his fingers in the brown fur and leaning his forehead against hers. Their exchange spoke of love, but Cathy could not believe it.
“How?”, she mumbled, unsure what exactly she wanted to know or if she even wanted to know anything about all this.
“I don’t think you’ll believe it, but I am…”, Damian began, then stopped, looked at the lioness – Nikki, if he was to be believed – and added in a hesitant whisper, “I am a shapeshifter. Have been since I was born. I am… half lion, so to speak.”
He then laughed, tickled the lioness under her chin and said: “You were right. It is relieving to say it out loud.”
The lioness then flopped down next to him and with his hand on her neck, Damian continued: “I can control the shifting, but here, at home, in the desert, I… I just had to turn and run with the animals here. It’s my nature. Nikki found me and I was convinced she’d be afraid, but she wasn’t. She asked me if I could turn her, so… I did.”
As if in an afterthought, he added: “She’ll be able to turn back, but it takes a few days to get the hang of it.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?“, Cathy asked and it startled both Damian and the lioness – Nikki.
“Even though I’m halfway to believing your tale about were-lions…”, Cathy hissed and ignored Damian as he interjected that they were shapeshifters, “You just up and turned her? Without thought? I understand this is permanent?”
“I did…”, Damian flinched, but then said with determination, “I refused at first. But she wanted to be like me, with me. I… I love her, how could I say no if her wish was mine as well?”
“If you truly loved you, you would’ve.”, Cathy spat and Damian winced as if struck. Nikki, however, hissed at her, showing her teeth and her claws that could rip Cathy apart in mere seconds. Yet that was all she did, but Damian nevertheless did his best to restrain her.
Cathy heaved herself up to her feet and glared at Damian at her feet as she ordered: “Get me to a hotel. I’m getting outta here.”
“Cathy…”, he pleaded, but she shook her head, “No. For all I care, you killed her. Now are you going to drive me to a hotel so I can catch a flight back home or are you going to murder me out here now that I know your terrible secret?”
“Of course not!”, he quickly said and rose to his feet, slowly and clumsily like an old man burdened with pain. Even if, Cathy did not care, she just got into the jeep.
She also ignored the lioness as she too got up, but when she tried to jump onto the loading space of the jeep, she quietly said: “No.”
The lioness stopped, her body taut for the jump she never made. Instead she backed away and merely watched as Damian climbed into the driver’s seat and started the jeep.
Cathy caught a last glance at what used to be her friend in the rear-view mirror, but tried to ignore the pleading look in those brown eyes, the eyes of her friend. Damian turned the key in the ignition, the jeep roared to life as he floored it and behind them an agonised roar echoed over the plains of the desert, the roar of a lion.