Red Sun - Chapter Three
Check out Chapter Three!! Set to release January 11, 2022.
Ahmes didn’t know what to make of this young man and yearned to learn his story. To say he was fascinated and curious would’ve been an understatement. He’d never smelled such a peculiar scent before, on either shifter, human, or animal. It was darker, richer, and not fully human or shifter.
Ahmes flicked his tail as he gazed out of his cat’s eyes while the young man scrubbed the blood off his pale skin before yanking on his clothes. José was one of his sister’s mates, and his clowder owned the Thai restaurant. Ahmes knew his sister would demand answers when word got around but he couldn’t worry about that now.
They always kept spare clothes on hand for the occasions when a fellow shifter needed them, since only a rare few could shift while still clothed. The simple interaction with José and the utter confusion of his young companion told Ahmes that the man didn’t know what he was. He didn’t know he was a shifter.
Although Ahmes had never encountered a shifter like him before, either.
“Okay, gatto, come here,” the man said as he knelt in front of Ahmes and gently wiped off the blood that had transferred to his fur.
The kindness and obvious loneliness and distress in the young man’s pretty face were heartbreaking. He was sallow with fatigue, and his eyes showed barely contained misery. It was hard for Ahmes to remain in his cat form. He wanted to help him desperately, the nurturer inside him rising to an unbearable degree. Where was his family? Did he have any? What had happened to him that he would smell so strange? There were a few times he’d mumbled under his breath as if speaking with someone only he could see or hear. Did he have an untreated mental illness?
The fair looks of his companion put Ahmes in mind of cherubs. And yet the misery etched into his face made Ahmes think he was more like a fallen angel. A lost one.
“You can’t be a street cat,” Angel said as he sat back on his heels. He couldn’t get all the blood out of his blond hair, even with water and soap and needed a good shower to scrub himself clean. Ahmes could still smell the death surrounding him. At first, he’d been afraid, thinking he’d encountered a rogue shifter. Now he simply sensed fear and helplessness.
“You’re too well-groomed.” He scratched Ahmes’s head and that sent him purring again. “But you don’t have a collar.” He sighed. “I’d love to keep you with me or help you find your home, but I can’t do either. You’d be better off away from me.”
He grabbed the food in the containers and wolfed it down with speed that left Ahmes impressed and concerned. How often was he eating?
Angel guzzled the remaining water before tossing the bottle into the dumpster. He pulled up the hood of his hoodie, hiding the blood in his hair.
“Meow.” What would he do now?
“Go home, gatto.” Then he stood and crept toward the mouth of the alley. There was more activity on the street and sidewalk now, and one glance at Angel’s face told Ahmes he had no clue where he was going or what he was doing. The lost expression sent a pang through his heart. He had to help him. Ahmes wanted to enfold him in a hug and tell him that everything would be all right. Members of his clowder used to tease him that he was too affectionate and docile to be descended from Sekhmet, the lion goddess of Ancient Egypt, or Her other persona, the surprisingly fierce Bastet.
Angel jumped and scowled down at him. “Go away! I don’t want to hurt you!”
Then he turned and walked down the sidewalk, taking extra care to avoid touching anyone. Ahmes sniffed before trotting along behind him. He needed a plan. He needed to somehow show Angel that he was a shifter without scaring him away. Perhaps together they could find out what was wrong with him and why he smelled strange. He could’ve been an orphan and had never been told he was a shifter. That might’ve caused him to fight with his ba, or primal spirit. Imbalance was a terrible, unhealthy affliction.
He needed to follow Angel to see where he’d hole up for the night. Then hurry back to his vehicle and find him before sunrise. It would be a delicate balance between informing and reassuring. If Ahmes was good at one thing, it was finding his akh, or keeping things balanced.
Angel walked a good way down the sidewalk, passing store after store, until he stopped abruptly and stared at a small church across the street. He reached up and grabbed at something on his chest before seeming to realize he wasn’t wearing anything other than his shirt and hoodie. Fierce pain radiated across his face for a moment. Then he closed his eyes, shook his head, and turned away. It appeared to take him a lot of effort to turn his back on the church.
Then he stumbled into a bookstore.
Was he religious? Perhaps he used to wear a cross? That might explain his mannerisms. And maybe he thought the ba inside him wasn’t natural? By Bastet’s left paw, the imbalance in Angel was painful to witness. Why had he gone into the bookstore? Ahmes waited outside. He hoped Angel didn’t steal anything.
Several people noticed him and either pointed or approached to pet him carefully. He allowed it, his cat preening from the attention. It amused him to see Angel’s startled reaction upon seeing him when he left the store.
He gaped before his shoulders slumped and he shook his head. “Not getting rid of you, am I? Like I said before. Il gatto pazzo.”
“Mrrr.” Ahmes rubbed against his legs and Angel chuckled. It warmed Ahmes’s heart to hear the sound, despite how rusty it seemed. Angel scratched him behind the ears before picking him up. He rarely allowed himself to be manhandled but with Angel he didn’t mind. Interesting.
Angel tucked him close to his chest and rubbed his cheek against Ahmes’s head as he continued to walk down the sidewalk.
“You’re the first friend I’ve made in years,” he whispered.
“Meow.” Ahmes purred and rubbed back.
Angel sniffed. “I’m cursed, you know? I can’t go home. It won’t let me go home.”
Ahmes twisted his head around to stare at Angel’s face.
“I thought it was a demon. My dad thinks so. I don’t know anymore. Prayers and holy water don’t make it leave. It just stays put, tormenting me.”
Misery darkened his bright eyes, and Ahmes purred even louder, rubbing his head all over Angel’s face, his neck. His heart ached at Angel’s pain.
Angel carried him a little longer before setting him down. “You’re freaking heavy.”
Ahmes trotted beside him and tried not to be too disapproving when Angel searched a dumpster again. His own stomach rumbled and a faint squeaking under the bin had him slinking forward and pouncing. After they both ate a quick lunch, Angel took them to a small café and sat in one of the farthest tables from the building and other patrons. Ahmes hopped up onto the other chair, and Angel scooted his over until they were side-by-side. He scratched Ahmes’s head, much to his cat’s delight. And his own. He was beginning to enjoy Angel’s touch too much.
“I have no idea what I’m going to do,” Angel said. “The beast won’t let me go home. But I can’t live like this forever. It doesn’t even tell me what it wants me to do. It just growls and snarls. It’s so grumpy.”
That’s what happens when you haven’t found your akh, Ahmes thought. Angel’s words convinced Ahmes that he was dealing with a ka, the human spirit, and a ba, the primal spirit, that weren’t communicating. They were fighting with each other.
They were eventually shooed away by the café’s proprietor. Angel went from one eating establishment to another, and once or twice managed to either steal unattended leftovers from tables, or a couple of restaurant workers gave him scraps, which he accepted with painful humility and gratitude. As it grew darker and the businesses closed, Angel curled up on the stoop of a tax office, and Ahmes once again lay on his lap, warming him.
“I don’t remember my mamma. Not really.” Angel nuzzled Ahmes. “Snatches of words, I guess. Touches. Sometimes she’s in my dreams.” He sighed. “It was just me and my papá. He taught me everything I know. He’s so smart. I still think he’s the smartest man in the world. But even with everything he knows, he can’t figure out what’s wrong with me.”
There’s nothing wrong with you. Ahmes pressed against Angel’s chest. What is your name? I want to know your name so badly.
“I was fifteen when he locked me away. When I stopped going to school. I tried to keep in contact with my friends but they all assumed I was in Italy and.... My papá did the only thing he could. I don’t resent him for locking me up. I really don’t. The beast inside me can’t be trusted. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I’ve read a lot though. He always brought me books and movies and let me watch amazing documentaries about everything in the world.” Angel’s eyes welled with tears. “I miss him.”
It was becoming harder for Ahmes to stay calm while listening to the story of Angel’s life. It was also difficult not to be furious at his father for locking him away, no matter how nice the prison. Though he couldn’t overlook the necessity if the father didn’t know what he was dealing with.
They both jerked and Ahmes blinked at a man and woman who stared at his young companion with compassion.
“You look a little cold there,” the woman said, her voice soft.
Angel tensed and squeezed him just a little tighter than necessary.
“There’s a shelter not far from here,” the man said, his tone also soft and low.
“Th-thanks but I’m better here.”
“They have food and warm blankets,” the woman said, tone becoming more insistent.
“I’m sure they do. But for everyone’s sake, I’m better here.”
“No one will hurt you.” The man stepped closer.
“Don’t!” Angel snapped and jumped to his feet. “Don’t touch me!” He started to tremble and the pungent scent of sweat filled the air. Ahmes was half dropped and half jumped out of his companion’s arms.
“Anita, call an ambulance!” the man said as he reached for Angel when he doubled over. Anita yanked out her phone, and the instant the man grabbed Angel’s arm, everything went wrong.
Ahmes scrambled away with a hiss as his companion flung the man off his feet, causing him to slam into Anita. The sounds of bones popping and muscles rending echoed across the empty streets. Fabric tore as the young man morphed into a strange, horrific beast unlike any shifter Ahmes had ever encountered or even heard about.
He grew several feet, both taller and wider, and his limbs lengthened, becoming leaner, but his hands and feet expanded with razor-sharp claws. He was supposed to be a wolf of some kind, but more like the Hollywood version of a werewolf. Tall, jagged ears, sharp, hellish eyes, and a long muzzle filled with serrated teeth made Ahmes’s stomach pitch. It was all he could do to keep his cat in place, to stay and watch. Instinct screamed at him to run, but horror kept him rooted.
The fur that sprouted all over his body was darker in shade than the pale blond in his ka form. And while his eyes had once been a cheerful blue, now they were like a storm with a dark, sinister light unlike the usual shifter glow.
The beast crouched and snarled, his short tail set straight and stiff. He approached the two humans who were just now untangling their bodies and sitting up on the pavement.
I have to do something!
The wolf threw back his head and let out a sharp, piercing howl that people miles away would’ve heard. Then he growled again and stalked the terrified humans.
Anita screamed. Her male companion gaped and scrambled backward; his face sheet-white.
Ahmes reached deep for courage he didn’t know he possessed, sent a prayer to both Sekhmet and Bastet, and streaked forward to get between the wolf and his prey. Without hesitation, he lashed out and smacked that large, vicious muzzle with his paw. He hissed, his fur standing on end, his tail high and stiff. He growled and wondered if this would be his last night alive.
Then something astonishing happened.
The wolf whined and bowed his head, his ears and tail drooping. He was ten times bigger than Ahmes, yet he lowered his chest to the ground and appeared submissive.
Ahmes growled again and stepped forward. The wolf backed away, still lowered to the ground. He whined again. Ahmes swung his head around at the two humans who were in shock, and hissed at them. That caught Anita’s attention, and he hissed once more. She swallowed hard and staggered to her feet before grabbing her companion’s arm.
Once he gained his feet, they backed away slowly. Ahmes turned back to the wolf to find that he was tracking their movements, his teeth bared once more, his claws flexing over the pavement.
The wolf jerked his attention back to Ahmes. They stayed like that, gazes locked, until the humans could no longer be heard. Then the wolf started wagging his tail and his ears perked. He gave a high-pitched yip before beginning to dance on all fours around Ahmes.
He wanted to play?
Too stunned by the entire situation to think harder about the implications, Ahmes playfully smacked the wolf on the nose again, adding a little chirp to goad him. The wolf appeared exhilarated and bounded away before coming back.
Determined to keep the creature’s attention, Ahmes danced around him, trying to keep the wolf from encountering anyone else. The wolf must’ve recognized him to be so playful. Or perhaps he simply didn’t like humans? He might’ve seen them as a threat. Ahmes should think about that later.
He darted past the wolf, forcing him to scramble over the pavement to keep up with him, yipping and barking with mad delight.
When would the human side come back? He would have to wait and see.
“I’ve been trying to reach you all afternoon.”
Ahmes sighed. He kept the phone to his ear as he bent down to check, once again, on Angel. He’d fallen asleep in his ba form after a couple of hours of playing and then had shifted back to his ka form. Ahmes managed to lead them to the deserted parking lot where he’d parked his car, so he didn’t have to carry Angel too far. He’d wrapped him up in a blanket and placed him in the backseat. Then he’d managed to find an all-night chain store nearby to purchase some clothing for him.
“A situation came up that needed my attention. I didn’t have my phone with me.”
Sanura, his sister, sighed loudly. “It’s always a ‘situation’ with you. Just be grateful it’s me calling and not Mom or Dad.”
He grimaced. “I’ll agree to that. Seems they’re taking their won’t-talk-to-you-until-you-come-to-your-senses stance seriously this time.”
Sanura laughed. “For right now. We’ll see how long it lasts.”
Ahmes closed his eyes and leaned back against the driver’s door. He missed his sister’s laugh despite leaving his clowder only two days ago.
Silence fell between them before Sanura broke it. “You’re not coming back, are you?”
Ahmes blew out a breath. “No. I told you that I wasn’t, and I was dead serious. Mom and Dad can bitch and moan and gripe all they want. They can forgive me or condemn me as they please. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m done playing their game and pretending to be something I’m not.”
“I hear you, bro. I get it.”
The tension in his shoulders eased. “I know you do. You always got me.”
“Just don’t even think of losing my number, got it?”
“Never. Promise.” He’d sooner die than lose contact with his sister. His best friend.
“Good. Now, what situation did you find yourself in?”
He hummed slightly, wondering what he should say. What he could say.
“Let me save you some time,” Sanura said. “José told me something real interesting this morning when he started his shift.”
“It’s delicate, Sanura. I’m not joking. The young man I’m with needs help and since I don’t currently have any responsibilities, I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t assist him.”
“At a guess, maybe between seventeen and twenty-five.”
“All right. I’ll give you some time. But don’t think I’m letting you off the hook. I’m getting the whole story out of you eventually.”
He smiled at her attempt at intimidation. “I hear you. Appreciate it.”
“Just don’t put yourself in danger, stupid.”
He snorted. Then he thought of the ba that Angel had transformed into and the submissiveness it showed toward him. Ahmes hoped it would help earn Angel’s trust.
“You got enough money?”
“You know I do. Don’t worry about me.”
“Fat chance of that. Take care of yourself.”
“You as well.”
“I’ll need it. Mom’s been dropping not-too-subtle hints about wanting grandkids. I’m holding her off for as long as I can.”
“Then I wish you all the luck of Bastet and stubbornness of Sekhmet.”
“Same to you.”
They hung up and Ahmes stared into the dark, contemplating his next moves. His sister had devoted mates, a woman and a man, both cat shifters. He was thrilled for her and relished her boundless happiness at the arrangement. Unfortunately, once she’d found her mates three years ago, their parents had started a rather relentless campaign to get him paired as well. Sure, he wouldn’t have minded a mate, a little romance. The problem was that no matter how many times he told them that he was asexual, they kept saying he owed them grandkids. And adoption wasn’t an acceptable compromise for them. He adored children and wouldn’t have minded raising some of his own but where was he going to find a like-minded mate who would agree to a sexless union?
He was also forty-one, a fact his parents never stopped reminding him about. He was getting older, still single, and was an embarrassment to them. So, he’d finally had enough, packed up his essentials, sold his tech business, and hit the road. Thankfully, he’d lived with his sister so he didn’t have any real estate to sell.
He didn’t have a plan or a direction. He’d thought a road trip would help clear his mind. And now….
Ahmes bent again and stared at the sleeping angel. Perhaps this was his goddesses’ doing. He was grateful to Them if it was. Angel needed him, and perhaps, in some ways, he needed Angel as well.