What are they doing here? I stared at the three men on my climbing wall. Two of them dangled from ropes near the top of the hundred-foot wall, swinging back and forth as they talked and pushed each other around. The third one sat on the top in my spot, staring out of the window at the first stars. My favourite. The sight calmed my mind, putting all of my problems into perspective. It was why, on any other Wednesday night, I would be the one sitting there alone, thinking about how the first half of my week went, how different males picked on me, made fun of me, or any of the myriad of other items that tormented my psyche.
The glistening sweat on his black skin gave him a silver glow from the rising moon. He looked lonely, the way I felt despite the students that surrounded my physical body daily. And my heart would have stretched out to him, wanting to comfort him, if he hadn’t been in my spot.
It wasn’t really mine, as it belonged to the gym at the Furry United Coalition Newbie Academy or FUCN’A as it was known, but two times a week without fail, I came here at this time to climb all by my lonesome. Again, not all alone since that wasn’t safe, but Gary didn’t count. As the staff member working those hours, he became my personal spotter, giving me a safe place to think and relax at the top of the wall... alone.
I smoothed back my blue-grey hair, tightening up the elastic on my ponytail. Now what was I going to do? My whole night was messed up. My carefully constructed schedule, the one that kept me calm and sane, disrupted. Sweat beaded on my forehead and underarms. My heart galloped. I wiped my palms on the soft cotton of my gym pants while the toes on my left foot tapped. Holy mice! I can’t lose it now.
A hand clamped onto my shoulder, brushing the skin my tank top left exposed. I jumped. A little shriek left my lips, causing those three faces that I hoped would ignore me to turn around.
“Sorry, Tabitha.” Gary shrugged his shoulders, giving me a wry smile. “I know you like climbing alone, but they came in to climb. Still want me to set up your ropes?”
A glance at the three men on the wall had me shaking my head. I couldn’t climb with them around. Arin, Bae, and Kasim were FUC agents, back at FUCN’A to teach advanced classes to the graduating class of agents along with some specialized courses. Thankfully, as a techie, I didn’t have them. If I had... despite my life-long dream to work for FUC, I’m not sure I would have stayed. There was just something about them that set me on edge.
Part of it could have been that I liked order and routine. When they were around, it was anything but. Disruption followed in their wake. Students forgot where they were and what they were doing—all clamouring to talk to them, making it hard for me to concentrate when I was there. Not that I was alone in that plight. With concentrating that was. No one with breasts and ovaries could when they were around, although my reasons were different from theirs. Or so I told myself.
Sure, they were tall, muscular agents, already decorated for numerous exploits even though they’d only graduated within the past decade. Names spoken in whispers by the male students who idolized them, wanting to be them. But to me they were bullies and snobs, always challenging answers, making snide comments about students behind their backs. I may not have been agent material due to my domestic cat animal, but watching and being invisible were things I excelled at. If I could have taken stealth courses, I was sure I would have rivalled the best. So I overheard many of those snide comments and their views on the other students. If there was anything I avoided at all costs it was bullies. So even if they didn’t disrupt my calm, orderly life at school, I still wouldn’t have wanted to climb in their presence.
Hefting my gym bag onto my shoulder, I smacked the rack that held all the flyers on the desk, knocking it to the floor with a loud crash. I bit her lip as my eyes slammed shut. Why, oh why do I have to be so clumsy around people? So much for a cat always landing on their feet . The last thing I wanted to do was to draw their undivided attention... again.
When, after three breaths, nothing happened, no rude comments or catcalls, my shoulders dropped in relief. Phew! It’s safe to leave. My leg hovered in the air ready to flee when I heard that deep voice that mocked me in my dreams. “What? Leaving so soon? Why did a scaredy-cat even come in here?”
“Well, they do say that cats have nine lives. Maybe she’s tired of having them?”
Each muscle in my body clenched. Words of anger rushed to the tip of my tongue, but I kept them inside, swallowing my need to defend myself. For as much as I hated to admit it, they were correct. I was a scaredy-cat when it came to confrontation or putting myself on display. Put me in front of a piece of tech like a computer screen and I came alive, but people... I preferred to be in the back.
Gary tried to stop my escape, wanting to comfort me from the look in his eye, but that would have only made things worse. No, a hasty retreat was in order. I’d head back to my dorm room to lick my wounds, leaving the climbing wall in their capable hands. My wall was about the only thing of mine that I’d trust them with.
But as I marched toward the door, something made me glance back over my shoulder at them. A pair of black eyes locked onto mine with a laser-like focus, watching my every move, while his face remained expressionless and hard. The weight of it sent a shiver down my spine. If I’d been in my fur, it would have been standing on end. This scaredy-cat was also a smarty cat who knew how to make a strategic retreat when I felt like prey. And prey was exactly what his stare told me I was. No wonder he was one of the best at stealth.
I just had one question though: How did the objects of his attention not run away in fear the moment his gaze landed on them? Because that was what my body and mind were screaming at me to do.
“Friday night?” Gary asked as I pushed open the door.
“Yes.” If I could make it that long. Within weeks of my arrival at the academy, my schedule had become routine, allowing me to cut back on my climbing to only two to three times a week. But since their arrival, the need to climb every day had ridden me hard, forcing me to put a firm time limit on my climbing to three times during the school week and once on the weekends. Friday couldn’t come soon enough for me even if I had to climb at some ungodly hour in order to be by myself.
As the door swung shut behind me, I heard laughter, bringing a tear to my eye. Why are they always so mean to me?
The wind tugged on my shorts and backpack as I raced back to my room, trying to beat the tears without success. By the time I’d shut the door to my room behind me, my chest ached with exertion. All I wanted to do was to curl into a ball and hide away, but I couldn’t. Until my backpack, shoes, and dirty clothes were put away in their proper spots, I wouldn’t be able to rest.
But the moment everything was where it belonged, I collapsed.
“Why the fuck did you two say such shit to her?” I flexed my fingers to keep from punching my teammates Bae and Arin. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t knock the daylights out of my adoptive brother and our teammate.
They looked at me as if I had two heads. And it was no wonder. It wasn’t like me to stick up for someone else. Only the three of us and our parents mattered. No one else registered on my consciousness if it wasn’t job related. Even I was mystified as to why I said anything. It must be the boredom getting to me.
As a panther, I was used to hours spent alone, watching and waiting for my prey to lead me to the next piece of information I needed. But this... sitting on my ass, surrounded by students twenty-four seven, unable to have any peace and quiet, not doing anything to further our case, tested my patience like nothing else.
“I don’t know what crawled up your asshole, but if she wants to be part of FUC, then she needs to grow some balls, right, Arin?”
The corners of Arin’s mouth turned down, and for a moment I thought he would disagree with Bae. But true to form, at least on matters relating to women, Arin shrugged his shoulders. “Agreed. Anyone else would have walked right in and continued to climb like they’d planned.”
I understood their point of view, really I did, but maybe I wasn’t the only one who had their head up their ass. Had they not noticed how smart she was? How, despite being in the tech program, she slunk around the campus like a predator feline? Who cared if she backed away from climbing with them? I, for one, didn’t care even if my stomach had clenched in anticipation of seeing her reaction to Bae’s challenge.
It wasn’t like her refusal was unexpected. Or maybe my brothers-in-arms hadn’t noticed how the students reacted to us? Students that didn’t quiver with fear or move out of our way were too busy throwing themselves at us, trying to get in good with Team Jones, either to score a night in our beds or a spot on our team. Not one of them would have come in and climbed like they would have if my teammates and I weren’t here.
“Besides,” Bae, my brother, reasoned, “we came here to be on our own. Without students. Who cares if we ran off one student?”
Argh. I banged my head against the brick wall. Bae was right. We came to be alone, and any student who would have stayed, outside of possibly her, would have wanted to climb with us, pestering us with questions about their missions. To avoid that, we would have run off anyone. So why did I care if some poor girl’s feelings got hurt? She didn’t mean a thing to me. It wasn’t like I would spend time thinking about her silvery-blue hair or the way her tank top showcased her lush curves. Who cared if she hated us—me? Women were a means to the end for me when I could no longer abstain. Not something to be worried or thought about. Nothing good ever came from a relationship.
“Fuck it.” I jumped to my feet, adjusted the rope through my carabiner, and threw myself over the side of the walling, running down it Aussie style.
“Heck yeah,” I heard Arin shout as I passed him.
Bae fist pumped the air while wearing a shit-eating grin. “That’s what I’m talking about. There’s the asshole Kasim that we know and love.”
I gave him the finger as I bounced past, drawing laughter, which lifted the weight I wore on my shoulders. This was exactly what we needed. A little laughter and some relaxation.
By the time I landed on my feet at the bottom of the wall, my heart pounded from the rush. It was almost enough to wipe the memory of the hurt on the pretty pussy’s face, but not quite.
I looked up to see Bae and Arin race down the wall.
“Race you to the top,” I shouted and began the climb again, knowing that even with my head start, I’d have to boogie if I wanted to beat Bae and his Asian black bear genes.
After an hour of climbing and racing down the wall, we called it quits. We wore a sheen of sweat and were breathing hard. Nothing like a good workout to get the blood pumping and the brain firing on all cylinders.
“I’m ready for a fruit and nut smoothie back at the den. Anyone else?”
Bae and I wrinkled our noses behind Arin’s back. Fruit was not what my body craved. Instead, it called out for a large juicy steak, nearly raw. Just cooked enough to warm the meat and leave some grill marks. Yum. But Arin loved smoothies and always tried to entice me and Bae into drinking them, telling us how good they were for our bodies. Oh, the joy of being teammates and roommates with a health nut. “Fine, but only if I can have a steak with it.”
Arin grinned and stuck out his fist. “Deal.”
The night air raised goosebumps on my skin as we meandered through the campus back to our den. The crispness of the air filled my lungs, making me feel alive. Even in my human black skin instead of my panther fur, I blended into the shadows during the day, but it was at night I excelled, putting my stealth into action.
“Any idea when the code will be broken on those files we found?” I asked Arin. While we were first and foremost FUC agents, Arin also had some computer skills, making him our de facto tech guy. FUC kept offering us a permanent one, but we declined at every turn. The three of us were a team. That was it, end of story. No one need apply.
Arin slung his arm around my shoulders. I ground my teeth but didn’t shrug him off. Even after years of knowing Arin, having someone who wasn’t of my immediate adopted family touch me still made my skin tingle and itch. A predator through and through, I preferred to be alone... or at least on the outside looking in.
“I don’t know, but I’ll bug Mr. Silva again tomorrow when I’m in the tech lab.” The disappointment and frustration in Arin’s voice only added to the antsy feeling that clawed at my veins. Our case had been stalled for too long, keeping us penned up at FUCN’A for weeks on end. I needed something to happen. A break of some sort. Not even a night-time jog through the mountains in my panther skin brought me the type of joy it used to.
“Yes, please. The wait is killing me.” Bae responded before I could, clutching his chest while staggering into Arin, pushing him into me. With catlike reflexes, I jumped, spinning out from under Arin’s arm, allowing him to stumble toward the crushed-rock pathway.
“You asshole.” Arin caught himself before he landed face first, springing up and swinging his fist toward Bae’s nose.
“Woo hoo.” I clapped my hands as I leaned up against a tree trunk. “Someone’s been working on their speed.” A better knowledge of computers than either myself or Bae wasn’t the only reason Arin tended to fall into our tech position. As a Sloth bear, speed wasn’t Arin’s usual mode of operation, although the guy could nearly keep up with me on a run when he wanted to.
Bae and Arin grappled with each other for an impromptu personal combat training session as I watched.
Rip. Clothes shredded as Bae and Arin transformed into bears, swiping at each other with their claws. Despite the fact that they were different species, in the darkness, telling them apart became difficult. Both were covered in black fur with a white marking on their chest even though only Bae carried that marking on his human form, but when you looked close, the long sloth-like muzzle of Arin was noticeable.
Arms wrapped around each other they rolled on the ground. Yup. Too much testosterone from sitting on our asses for too long. Under normal circumstances, I should have been vibrating with the urge to jump in, to show my superiority when they were both engrossed with each other, but even that fled me.
Instead I picked up the pieces of their clothing, snorting when I realized that both would be walking through the campus naked. Served the two of them right. Maybe next time, they wouldn’t let their emotions get the better of them.
But even as I took up my spot against the tree again, I couldn’t blame them.
Something needed to change.
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