"I'll do that." Riley's voice sounded from behind her. Then he put his hand on her shoulder.
The electricity generated by that simple contact continued to rock through her, even as she whacked off his hand. "No touching." The cat swiped at her, wanting more, but she gritted her teeth and held on, knowing if she didn't set the ground rules now, Riley would push and push until something snapped. The man did obsession better than several of the leopards she knew.
"Give me the clothes." His anger was quiet, a gathering storm beneath the smooth surface he showed to the world.
Figuring he'd had an unwelcome surprise in her refusal to allow skin privileges, she thrust her things into his hands - "Fine, knock yourself out" - and shifted. Agony and ecstasy, pure pleasure and excruciating pain. All over in an instant.
Riley knelt down, clasping the fur at the back of her neck. "You're f**king bruised all down your back. Why the hell didn't you tell me it hurt?"
Because it didn't at the time, genius. Snapping her teeth at him, she pulled away and headed toward the lynx. She was aware of Riley falling slightly behind as he took care of caching her clothes, and then his scent faded altogether. Which reminded her. The girl would hardly appreciate sensing Riley in her fur. She paused to roll around in some fresh leaves, crushing them to overlay his scent with the mingled echoes of the forest.
That done, she made her way very, very carefully to the little grove that appeared to be the end of the scent trail.
The wild lynx saw her first. They greeted her with soft growls and went about their business when she made no "go away" sounds. Willow was sitting in the middle of a group of lynx cubs. Except she was bigger, her eyes different, unique. The way she held herself, the way she smelled, it all marked her as changeling. Walking over, Mercy batted away the other cubs, careful not to do harm.
They padded off, though an impish few tried to nip at her legs. One growl and they scattered. Willow didn't move. That alone set her apart. Instead of challenging the girl, Mercy sat down beside her, crowding her against a tree. Willow's little frame was cool against Mercy's side, her heartbeat not as ragged as it should've been.
The poor cub was in shock.
Mercy just sat there, let Willow know she was safe, protected by someone bigger and stronger who wouldn't hurt her. It took time but that shocky little body eventually relaxed a fraction. Then another. She felt the girl snuggle into her and breathed a sigh of relief - if Willow recognized and saw comfort in her, then she wasn't beyond saving.
Half an hour later, Mercy decided it was time for the next step. Getting up, she turned and nipped at Willow's ear. The lynx cub made a startled sound and scrambled up on all four feet, eyes wide. Holding that wary gaze, Mercy shifted.
Willow was still in lynx form when Mercy hunkered back down, her hair cascading over her shoulders. Damn, she'd forgotten to take out the hair tie. Not only that, the concealer was gone. Everything disintegrated during the shift. Even tattoos had to be done with special ink that bonded to their cells in some weird way she didn't particularly want to explore - it was enough that the two she bore didn't have to be redone after each shift.
"Hey, baby." She stroked her hand over Willow's head, flattening those adorable tufted ears.
The girl butted up against her but resisted shifting.
"I know you're scared," she said, kneeling so she could pull Willow into her lap. "But I'm here now and I won't let anyone hurt you."
The girl lay motionless against her heartbeat.
Mercy's throat threatened to close at the vulnerability of the child in her arms. "Come on, Willow. I need to know who hurt you so I can help." Strokes through baby-soft fur, kisses on a cold little nose. "You're safe." She put all her dominance into her voice. It was considerable. She was one of the highest-ranking members of either DarkRiver or SnowDancer. For this lynx girl, that made her commands close to impossible to disobey. "Shift."
And Willow did.
Mercy didn't move a muscle as the cub disappeared into the magic of the shift, the sparkles of color bright and joyful. An instant later, a little girl scrambled off her lap, crouching down opposite her. Her eyes were huge with hurt. "They took Nash."
"Your brother?" Nash, she knew, was a student at MIT but he had visiting privileges to DarkRiver land.
A swift nod. "They came and they hurt Mommy and Daddy and they took him." Willow swallowed hard, and it was clear she was trying desperately not to cry. "My mommy and daddy wouldn't wake up."
"Willow, sweetheart." She stroked a hand over the girl's ash blonde hair, careful with touch now. Changelings were funny about some things. And while the cub may have had no problem with cuddling, a little girl wouldn't allow total famil ial skin privileges to someone who was almost a stranger. "I'm going to call a friend now. He's a wolf."
Willow stared at her, hurt and terror momentarily trumped by astonishment. "A wolf?"
"Yeah." She shrugged. "I know. But he doesn't bite" - lie - "so don't worry."
Willow didn't look particularly convinced, but she stayed in position as Mercy whistled. Riley appeared within a minute - with her clothes, boots, and phone. Grateful, she got dressed. When Riley shrugged off his T-shirt and offered it to Willow, the lynx hesitated.
"Don't worry," Mercy said, unable to stop staring at the claw marks on his back, "wolf germs wash off real easy." Damn, she'd scratched him hard. It made her cheeks burn to realize how far gone she'd been.
Willow took the T-shirt after a few more seconds and pulled it on. It covered pretty much everything. And they might be changeling, but sometimes, with strangers, they were human, too. The girl stood up and met Riley's gaze, showing a courage that made Mercy's cat growl in silent approval. "Thank you."