Tom Ryan still remembered clearly the day he'd first transformed.
He'd been seven when he'd first learned the form of his animal guide, the end of long hours of classes that bored him to tears.
At the time, he couldn't have cared less, but as he grew, he found no small measure of pride in the fact he was bound with the Caracal. The big cat's strength and prowess flowed within him.
When he joined the military, he'd been hoping to find himself, hoping to bring the big cat out.
The phrase: be careful what you wish for, had rarely been so true.
He'd been in his early-twenties and heading for a fast promotion to lieutenant. The mission was supposed to be simple, get in, get their people, get the hell out... instead he spent six days in unfriendly territory with two injured soldiers.
It was the third day, low on water and with no rations left, and Ryan had been determined to find a way out. His lieutenant was only half alive and Harper's wound was infected. They couldn't wait for rescue.
"I'm going to scout about," Ryan told them, all confidence. Harper, barely six months Ryan's junior seemed to ease under Ryan's self assured stare, but Tracker, his lieutenant, gave him a measured look through half lidded eyes and Ryan knew he wasn't buying it.
Ryan couldn't blame him, he wasn't sure he was buying it, but he had to try.
Stealth was a skill like any other and Ryan had learned his skills well, his life and others depended on it. He'd been sure he was being as silent as he could be, that no human ear could possible hear him. If he'd been thinking, he would have been less concerned with human ears.
The attack was fast, catching him off guard, the felines strength knocking him down. He caught the sight of stripes and little else before he was rolling away from the attack, bringing his gun up, but he had no chance to fire before the big male cat was on him again.
Ryan had been sure he was dead, images of the tiger's claws tearing through his jugular flashed behind his eyes. He was preparing for the pain, expecting a human scream... the roar that came from him startled him.
Instinct shocked him into action, the battle swift, two cats fierce and angry. The tiger had weight on his side, but Ryan had speed and agility. The scent of human blood filled his nostrils as the orange fur faded and a man, barely more than a boy, was left in its place.
Adrenaline was still flashing through his veins as he retook human form, and gathered what was left of his mostly destroyed clothes.
Ryan felt nauseous as he pulled on the remnants of fabric. The tiger -whoever he had been – was younger than Ryan, younger, Ryan suspected, than his own kid brother.
It had been kill or be killed, Ryan knew that. But while some small part of him was thrilled, because he had, for however brief a time, taken his animal form, something he'd hoped for since before he'd joined up, another part of him was truly terrified... He'd always been told you were still self-aware in animal form, but it didn't feel like that in the heat of the moment. And he couldn't tell how much of the kill had been conscious human thought and how much was pure animal instinct.