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Table

of Contents
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen
Chapter Eighteen
Chapter Nineteen
Epilogue
Book 1: Shifter s Heart
Book 2: Shifter s Love
Book 3: Shifter s Hope
Book 4: Shifter s Rose
Exclusive Book Just For You!
Chapter One: The Whip
Chapter Two: The Pleasure of a Blade
Chapter Three: Rebels and Ladies
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A Shift in Power
Wolves Untamed | Book 1

Erin D. Andrews


Contents

A Shift in Power

Extras

The Hills Box Set (1-4)


Exclusive Prequel for You
A Shift in Power
Chapter One

Hey, Blondie!"

Pearce Edley poked his curly head into Sid's cubicle, and Sid rolled

her blue eyes. By the time she'd felt comfortable enough at Meier and

Jones Talent Agency to call Pearce on his occasional creepiness, 'Blondie'

had become such a facet of their friendship that Sid couldn't bring

herself to ask him to stop.

"Where's the fire, Pearce?" she asked, taking in his widened eyes

and slightly panting breath.


"In Meier's office, if you don't get there in about twelve shakes of a

lamb's tail."

Under other circumstances Sid would call him on his tragically

mixed metaphor, but given that he'd just said she was wanted in a

Partner's office, she didn't think now was the time.

"Shit, what happened?" she asked, immediately on her feet,

snagging her phone from her desk and pausing just long enough to

check her reflection in her laptop screen and make sure she was

presentable.
"You haven't heard about Fitz?" Pearce called after her as she

breezed by him. Pearce turned toward her and followed her down

hallway that led to the elevators.

"Fitz Walker?"

Pearce managed to catch up by jogging a little, Sid's long strides

giving her an advantage.

"You know another Fitz?" Pearce raised an eyebrow.

Fitz Walker was the agency's hottest commodity right now. He'd

made his way up through soap operas and quirky TV shows with Meier
and Jones, and in the past three years, his career had skyrocketed. He'd

just wrapped principal shooting on the last of the Razors Edge trilogy,

and he was scheduled to start PR on his upcoming release Storm's Fury

any day now.

He was generally handled by people way above Sid's pay grade as a

Junior Agent.

"I haven't heard anything," she admitted, jamming her thumb

repeatedly against the elevator button as though it might magically

make the creaking, ancient elevator move faster. I mean, action isnt
really my genre.

"Jesus, Blondie, it's been all over the papers. The Alpha fight? In

New York?"

"Yeah, I heard about that," Sid said, impatiently squeezing through

the elevator doors before they were quite all the way open. "What does

that have to do with...oh....

"Yeah. Oh," Pearce agreed.

She'd known that Fitz's family were big shots in the shifter world in

New York, but she hadn't connected the story about rival Alphas killing
each other in an Alpha fight, to Fitz's family.

"Oh, god. Cal Walker...he's Fitz's dad."

"Was his dad, yeah."

Sid couldn't help feeling sympathy for Fitz in that moment, even if,

in general, she thought the stars they worked with were spoiled rotten.

Fitz especially, having grown up in a wealthy family in Brooklyn, had

been offered the best of both human and shifter worlds.

She knew shifters lived with the reality of death more than most

humans did. They treated death very differently. They took time to
honor the dead, but it wasnt all about grief. It was also about

establishing order. If someone died, the pack hierarchy shifted to

accommodate the loss. Packs were run like empires, and an empire

didnt end because they lost a leader. Fitz was not only dealing with the

loss of his father but also with the disorder of his pack.

"Poor Fitz," she breathed as the elevator door opened onto the top

floor of the office building Meier and Jones occupied three floors of.

Pearce nodded his head.

"What does Meier want me for anyway?" she asked Pearce as she
hurried down the hall to the office at the far end. "I don't work on Fitz

Walker's case."

Pearce shrugged awkwardly. It was a gesture Sid knew well. It

meant he had something to say, but he knew it was going to sound bad.

She stopped and turned to face him, her posture making it clear that she

could take whatever he was going to say.

He was just an inch or two shorter than she was, with a head full of

dark curls and vibrant, green eyes. At first she hadnt been sure about

Pearce. Most of what came out of his mouth was completely uncivilized,
but his eyes were kind, like he had no idea what he was saying or doing

was so offensive. The longer she knew Pearce, the more she realized that

he just needed someone to call him on his shit. They had a bit of a silent

barter, though maybe Pearce was unaware of this. Sid kept Pearce in

line, and he became her priceless resource at Meier and Jones.

"Pearce," Sid prodded. "Why does Meier want to see me?"

"Come on, Blondie," Pearce mumbled. "Don't make me say it." Sid

could hear the drawn out syllables of awkwardness in Pearces California

tenor and see that he was already poised for an apology before he had
even told her whatever it was he was keeping in.

Sid took a couple of steps closer to Pearce. "Say what?" She was

quiet, but her eyes met his in a way it was clear that he wasnt going to

squirm his way out of telling her. She didnt want to go into that office

unprepared for whatever was going to come. Junior agents didnt often

get invited to a Partners office.

"Ugh." Pearce threw up his hands in defeat. "It's because you're hot,

Sidney."

Sid opened her mouth to respond, but nothing came out, so she
closed it again. "Well," she managed after a moment. "At least you had

the grace to use my name when you said that."

A frown tugged at her lips, but she took a moment to rub the

tension from her cheeks and then continued down the hall. It wouldn't

be the first time her sun-kissed, California appearance had given her an

advantage, and it wouldn't be the last. She may not like it, and it was

absolutely unfair, but that was how the industry worked, and she'd long

since given up being offended by it.

Taking a deep breath in front of the broad, oak doors that led to
Jacob Meier's inner sanctum, Sid glanced back over her shoulder at

Pearce. "Wish me luck," she said, and she swung open the doors.

***

"Okay, but did he actually say, 'I will fire you if you fail'?"

Sid raised her head from her arms to blink at Pearce. "His words

were, and I quote, 'Carlin, sooner or later, we're gonna have to throw you

into the fire. Get Walker back where he belongs by the end of the week,

or you can pack up your desk.'" She scrunched up her eyebrows and

dropped her voice a couple of octaves to mimic the partners smoke-torn


voice.

It didn't have quite the same effect without Jacob Meier sitting in

front of you, waving his smoldering cigar to punctuate each sentence,

but Sid thought she managed to convey the mood pretty well.

"Cripes," Pearce said, reaching over her to snag a mini candy bar

from the bowl Sid kept at her desk. "Sounds like you best get to work,

Blondie." Pearce stood up while reaching for one more tiny chocolate,

and winked at her.

He disappeared, and Sid let herself grumble into her desk until
Pearce returned with a mug of coffee and one of the raspberry muffins

Sid liked from the break room. What are you waiting for? Keep your

job.

"Right, okay." Sid lifted her head from her hands and shook her

head. "Hand me a hair tie. I got this." She swooped her golden waves up

into a neat ponytail and took off her black blazer, revealing a cobalt-blue

blouse set against a black pencil skirt. Sidney was nothing if not

ambitious. She had worked hard to get into this business which took

very few women seriously. She knew she had gotten some of the way
because she was pretty, but she also knew that she had the goods to back

up that advantage. She wasnt going to waste this opportunity, even if it

was given to her for all the wrong reasons.

For the next hour, she read up on everything she could find on the

fight that had led to Cal Walker's death, including any record of tensions

between the Williamsburg Pack, that Walker was the Alpha for, and the

Height's pack, where his rival Frankie Cardoza had held the Alpha

position. It was a fascinating and twisted history of second-hand stories

and rumors, mostly.


One thing was certain. Cal and Cardoza had agreed to participate in

a duel. During the duel, Cardoza had torn out Cal's throat, and Cardoza

had died in mysterious circumstances moments later. The Height's pack

were being tight-lipped with any information related to his death.

Sid reached back to tighten her ponytail, then rubbed her temples.

Shifter politics were always complicated, but these packs had both been

in power for nearly a hundred years, and they had history with each

other stretching back centuries before that.

This was going to be a delicate matter. Especially since Meier had


sent in Fitz's primary agent, Max Jameson, before talking to Sid.

Jameson had tried to treat it like he would if a human client's father

died. He'd sent flowers and typically platitude-ridden condolences, and

he was shocked that he hadn't heard from Fitz.

Sid wasnt. Jesus. Dont these people ever research their clients?

Sidney thought, disgusted at what seemed obvious to her. Fitz probably

thought the agency was coddling him. Death was ever-present in the

violent, tumultuous world of the shifters. They didn't have time to dance

around it. Most of them saw it as a profoundly human weakness to weep


over the dead.

No wonder they'd called her in. She didnt know if what Pearce had

said was true, but even if Meier had given her this job for superficial

reasons, she was almost definitely the right woman for it. Sid hadn't

been able to bring much to the agency in terms of impressive credentials

or connections, but she did bring a degree in shifter psychology. Since

the shifter community had outed itself in the sixties, more and more of

them were being employed in entertainment, and a degree like that was

a big get for most agencies.


It made sense, when you thought about it. Shifters had the grace of

their animal and the good looks to match. Since coming to L.A., Sid

wasn't sure she'd ever met a shifter, who wasn't phenomenally beautiful.

Even in Oklahoma all of the shifters she had seen were striking. Mostly

in that part of the country though, shifters still kept to themselves, and

since she'd really only known one shifter there, it didn't quite count.

She took a deep breath, bringing her thoughts back on track. One

thing she had learned growing up in Oklahoma was that folks didnt

always know how to see a shifter as both its animal and as an individual
with a personality and soul. They tended to see only one or the other, or

to view the animal as stronger, as in control. Sids mama used to say that

shifters had the devil in em, like theyd made some kind of demonic

pact for their gifts. Sid took a deep breath and pushed back the bad

memories. Keep your job. She mimicked Pearces words back to herself

and let the breath out.

Sid closed the file she'd been given on communications with Fitz.

She was clearly going to have to start from scratch.

Picking up her phone, she added Fitz to her contacts and then dialed
his number. It went to voicemail, which she'd expected. When it beeped

for her to speak, she said, "Hello, Mr. Walker. I'm Sid Carlin, Junior

Agent with Meier and Jones. I just wanted to speak with you about your

upcoming schedule and how we should shift that to accommodate your

time in New York."

She paused a moment. It was crisp and businesslike, and no doubt

Fitz would appreciate that under the circumstances, but Sid felt like she

couldn't hang up without at least acknowledging his loss.

Clearing her throat, she added, "I'm sorry about your father. I've
read good things about him. You should be proud."

It didn't feel like enough, but she didn't know what else to say, so

she hung up, hoping it would do for now.


Chapter Two

Your chest is vibrating again.

Fitz Walker reached for his phone in his vest pocket to deny the call,

glancing over to his right where his little sister, Caroline, sat across from

him on the limos bench seat. Tall, slender, and statuesque, stunning in

her black Vera Wang, set off against her vividly red hair, Caroline looked

every inch the wealthy and influential New Yorker on her way to a high

class memorial service for one of New Yorks elite.

Only the faint redness in her eyes hinted at the fact that the elite in
question was her father. Shes okay, he told himself. Carolines going to

be okay. Hed told himself that a lot in the days since hed gotten a call

from their mother telling him that his father had been killed.

Who keeps blowing up your phone, anyway? she asked, leaning

across the seat to get a look.

Fitz tucked it away quickly. No one important. Hed hardly even

looked at the screen this time. He already knew what it said. After the

third call, hed put her in his contacts as Sid Carlin, Junior Agent at

Meier and Jones. She was the unlucky newbie the agency that
represented Fitz had assigned to wrangle him while he was in New York,

and every one of her voicemails started with that introduction.

Hed talk to her eventually. He just wanted to have the chance to say

goodbye to his dad before he had to start thinking about his career again.

Is this no one important pretty? Caroline asked, settling back

against the seat. She had a hint of her familiar smirk tugging at the

corner of her mouth, and Fitz told himself again, Shes okay. Shes going

to be okay.

I dont know. Ive never actually met her. Probably not, though. It
had been his experience that most of the junior agents at Meier and

Jones were short, homely, and unbearably bubbly. Sid Carlin, Junior

Agent was sure to be all three.

And why is Miss No One blowing up your phone on your way to

your dads memorial?

Maybe because Ive been ignoring her calls for three days? Fitz

offered. The calls had started just before hed boarded the plane in L.A.,

and they hadnt let up since.

Thats cold, Fitz, Caroline said, glancing out the window as the
limo eased through Grand Army Plaza on its way to the cathedral. She

was quiet for a moment. Somber. But then she turned back to him, that

mischievous glint in her eye. That little-sister smirk. You should just

man up and tell her youre not interested.

But I might be interested, Fitz answered returning her earlier

smirk. It had been a grim couple of days. Seeing his baby sister smile

again was worth the effort of teasing when he was not in the mood to

tease.

"Well, in that case...." Caroline's hand whipped out to snatch Fitz's


phone from his hand, and he glanced up with a grumpy--if half-hearted--

grumble.

"Hmm, Sid Carlin, Junior Agent at Meier and Jones," she said,

looking up with a smirk. "Sounds promising. What's she been texting

you about?"

Caroline started scrolling through the messages, and Fitz rolled his

eyes. "Nothing. Just my agents bothering me."

"I see...." Clearing her throat, Caroline began a dramatic reading.

"'Mr. Walker, if you're still breathing, please get back to me.' 'If you're
not still breathing, I hear smelling salts help with that.' 'Or ask a

stranger for the Heimlich.'" Caroline grinned, her sharp canines catching

the light. "I think I like this Junior Agent lady."

"Okay, okay, give it back," Fitz said, reaching for his phone.

Caroline just laughed. "Oh, no. There's so much more. 'Mr. Walker.

It is with profound sadness that I am forced to conclude that you have

been taken from this life far before your time. I am sure your many,

adoring fans will be heartbroken to hear of your untimely demise. I hope

they find your corpse before your looks are irreparably damaged. I
imagine People will want to do a spread.' Okay." Caroline looked up,

really smiling for the first time since Fitz had come home. "How the hell

did you not respond to that?"

"I just don't want to deal with it right now."

"Deal with what? A little text flirting would do you good. I mean,

come on." She looked back to the phone, "'A legend in his own lifetime,

Fitz Walker left the world before we'd had enough of him. He brought a

charisma to the screen rarely seen in a man so allergic to shirts....'"

Fitz couldn't help smirking. He'd liked that bit too.


"Seriously, Fitz. Hit that."

"I'm not hitting anything that works at Meier and Jones," Fitz

answered, reaching for his phone again. Caroline held it just out of

reach.

"Fine. If you won't respond, I will."

Fitz made a show of protesting, but really, he was just glad to see

Caroline looking like herself again, animated, full of life. "What are you

texting her?" he asked.

"Nothing scandalous, don't worry." Caroline typed a bit longer then


handed the phone back.

Fitz looked down and read, "'Rumors of my death have been greatly

exaggerated'? Clever. She'll be helpless against my nineteenth-century

literary references."

"Bet she smiles when she reads it."

"I suppose, we'll never know."

Caroline was quiet as they approached the church. "Seriously,

though, Fitzy," she said, her voice strangely serious. "Don't blow this one

off. She'll disappear like the others, and I like her."


Nonsense, Fitz said as their limo pulled up in front of the church.

No woman can resist Fitz Walker. Didnt you know Im a movie star?

Ill movie your star, mister. Caroline poked Fitz in the ribs. She

was smiling, even if it only lasted a second, and Fitz counted that a win.

I hope you arent planning to go Hollywood on us. Not now. Caroline

raised an eyebrow.

No, Fitz agreed, opening his door and ducking his head against the

quick-burst flash of cameras that greeted him. Not now.

***
To her credit, Sid Carlin, Junior Agent at Meier and Jones didnt try

to contact Fitz during the funeral. About an hour into the reception,

though, Fitz got another text: How do I know youre not a zombie?

If one more person tells me it was a beautiful ceremony, Ill throw

my wine in their face, Caroline said, sidling up to Fitz near the edge of

the outdoor reception area.

Throw the glass too, Fitz suggested, tucking his phone away,

trying to hide a smile. It makes a stronger point.

Even better, drink the wine, then throw the glass. Fitz looked over
his shoulder to see his cousin, Alex, approaching, holding his own glass.

He gave them both a tentative smile. Id say Im sorry for your loss, but

I borrowed this shirt, and Im afraid it will be ruined.

Caroline lifted her glass in his direction. You get a pass. Youre

family.

Glad to hear it, Alex said with a faint chuckle before taking a good,

long drink.

Fitz was tempted to join him, but he didnt want to end up drunk

and see his picture all over the tabloids tomorrow. He also wasnt sure
he wanted to end up drunk in front of Alex. When Fitz had gone to L.A.

to pursue acting, Alex had become the favorite son of the pack. Fitzs dad

had started bringing him in on the business side of things, having Alex

help, where Fitz once would have. It wasnt jealousy, exactly, that Fitz

felt, but Alex was a reminder that Fitz was The Disappointment.

Its good to see you back, Fitz, Alex said to him. Though...well, the

circumstances could be better.

You think? Fitz said, a little sharper than hed meant to. It wasnt

as though he didnt know the family felt like hed been distancing
himself lately. It wasnt intentional, but work was busy right now. Hed

just wrapped shooting on the last film of an action/adventure trilogy

hed been working on for two years, and he was about to start into the

PR stage for his upcoming release: Storms Fury.

Yeah, Alex said, frowning. Sorry. I guess this isnt the time.

Its really not, Fitz said, meaning it to be sharp this time, as he

took a step toward Alex, straightening to his full six and a half feet. A

growl was building in his throat when Caroline stepped forward.

Okay, easy, boys, she said, positioning herself between them.


Now is not the time to hash it out old school.

Fitz took a deep breath, the air filled up his rib cage broadening him

to his full size and untwisting him out of the overburdened posture he

had found himself in since hearing about his dad. Something about

talking with Alex had brought out all of his fight and competition. And

he was about to suggest to Caroline that she may want to get out of the

way while he taught this puppy a lesson in respect for the dead, when his

phone vibrated again. Caroline gave him a pointed look. Answer it, her

voice was insistent. She took his phone out of the black Burberry suit
coat pocket where it vibrated and handed it to him. Go on.

Rather than waste his breath arguing and embarrass his mother by

getting into a fight at his dads funeral, Fitz nodded and pulled out the

phone.

Sid Carlin, Junior Agent at Meier and Jones? Today is your lucky

day.


Chapter Three

When Fitz Walker actually answered his phone, Sid was so

surprised she didnt have an immediate response. His voice sounded

heated, she knew she had been calling him near constantly since he left

LA, and she hoped he wasnt upset with her. But this was her job.

Mr. Walker, she finally said, defaulting to the introduction shed

left in his voicemail going on twenty times in the last three days. Im

Sid Carlin, Fitz continued for her. Junior Agent at Meier and

Jones. Yeah, I got that much. And they assigned you to make sure I
come straight home and get started on the PR circuit or Ill be in breach

of contract.

Er, yes. Something like that. She sighed. This was not going at all

as shed planned. Shed really been hoping she could leave a voicemail.

She had one all planned out.

See, heres the thing, Sid Carlin, Junior Agent. Im literally standing

at my dads memorial service looking at a headline in the New York

Times about how my pack is ready to fall apart any moment because my

daddid I mention my dad?died without an obvious replacement


trained and ready. He gave a dramatic sigh, and Sid rolled her eyes, glad

he couldnt see her sitting at her desk with the same headline on the

screen in front of her. Id like to tell you Ill be on the next flight home,

but that doesnt really seem likely.

No, but if you could just.

Listen, I really appreciate you getting me out of an awkward

conversation just now, and for making my sister laugh. He trailed off,

and Sid racked her brain for what he could possibly mean by that.

Thank you, he said after a moment, a note of seriousness in his voice


she hadnt been expecting. And Im sure Ill meet you in person at some

point.

The line went dead.

Sid stared at her phone in disbelief. Three days of trying to get a

hold of this guy, and he hangs up on her after fifteen seconds. Shed

known this wasnt an easy assignment. It was a trial by fire. If she

survived and succeeded, her career was made. If she failed?

Out on my ass with the rest of the trash, as Grandma used to say.

But that was not happening. She was going to get Fitz Walker back
to L.A. if it killed her.

With new determination, Sid stood up from her desk and wove her

way through the maze of cubicles to Pearces cube. Pearce was leaning

back in his chair with his feet up on his desk, headphones making an

attempt at controlling his wild tangle of curls. When he saw her, he took

the headphones off and grinned but left his feet where they were.

Whats good with you, Blondie? Did you get the Big Bad Wolf back to

Grandmas House?

That doesnt even make sense, Pearce, Sid responded, but she
couldnt help smiling a little. Pearce was one of the few things that made

her days here at Meier and Jones bearable. And no. He barely said three

words to me.

Times ticking, Blondie. When are you gonna pull out that Mid-

West magic and get the job done?

Shh. Sid looked around, just in case anyone might have heard.

You know we dont talk about the M-W at work.

He shrugged an apology, People will find out where youre from

eventually, you know. Its endearing.


No. Its just something people can use against me. If Im from the

Midfrom there, then Im...a rube.

You know what might make people think youre a rube, Blondie?

Pearce asked, picking up a pen from his desk and twirling it between his

long fingers.

Whats that?

Saying the word rube.

Sid gave a sigh that conveyed more frustration than she actually felt.

Anyway, back to the point. Im not sure where to go from here. Fitz
wont answer my calls, and when he does, he just hangs up on me.

Well, if he wont answer your calls, youll have to do something he

cant ignore, Pearce suggested. You gotta show em you arent going to

disappear. Our clients are used to ignoring problems until they go away.

They can afford to. Make sure he knows youre not one of those kind of

problems.

Her phone buzzed in her hand. It was a text from Fitz, just about the

last thing shed expected: Better come bring me back to life.

A smile slid onto Sids face. Oh, I know just what kind of problem
he needs, she said with a sharp nod. Sid knew how the world worked.

She had learned from a young age. She knew how to get herself noticed.

At 510 with thick, golden-blonde hair, Sid had been standing out her

whole life. It was sort of a relief to blend into the background of tall,

leggy blondes in the movie business, even if most of them were working

the other side of the camera. Meier might have told her that shed been

assigned this job because of her degree, but Pearces words from before

stuck in her head.

Shed learned to deal with sleazy actors in L.A. She could handle one
more. You think the agency will reimburse travel?

If it gets them their meal ticket back? Theyll reimburse whatever

you like.

Perfect.

She pivoted on her six-inch heel, already pulling her phone out to

check for flights as she headed back to her desk.

Where you going, Blondie? Pearce called after her.

She turned back to him with a grin. If you wanna get the Big Bad

Wolf, what do you give him?


Pearces face twisted in confusion. He was usually the one making

mixed metaphors. I dont know, Blondie. What do you give him?

With a shrug, Sid tossed her hair back over her shoulder.

Goldilocks, of course.


Chapter Four

Ugh, Caroline groaned as she padded into the dining room dressed

in a fluffy bathrobe, her hair a mess. Coffee. Wheres the damn coffee?

Fitz looked up from his paper with a smirk. The same place its

been every morning of your life?

Carolines only answer was a raised middle finger over her shoulder

as she filled an enormous mug with coffee, then heaped sugar into it.

Fitz bit back a laugh and turned his attention back to the paper.

Someone whod been at the funeral had clearly seen him ditch Alex for a
phone call and decided that meant he and Alex were fighting over

control of the pack.

As if on cue, Fitzs phone vibrated on the table next to his coffee. So

far, his morning had been punctuated with that buzz. He glanced down,

read the text, and fired off a response, hoping his actions were hidden

enough by the paper that Caroline wouldnt be suspicious.

Sid Carlin, Junior Agent at Meier and Jones:

But if youre already rotting, it would hardly be worth the effort.

Fitz:
Ive got all the important parts still.

It was a struggle not to smirk, but he couldnt bear to admit to

Caroline that shed been right. Harmless flirtation with someone who

worked at his agency was a good distraction to everything else going on

at home.

When he put the paper down with a sigh, Caroline was watching

him over the rim of her mug, green eyes sharp and clear. She was trying

to figure something out, he knew. He just wasnt sure what.

Well? she eventually said.


Well what? he asked, picking up his own coffee and inhaling

slowly. One thing to be said about New York over L.A.: the coffee here

was far better.

Sid Carlin, Junior Agent at Meier and Jones:

Your tail hasnt fallen off?

Fitz:

My tail is just fine.

Is it true? Are you going to challenge Alex?

He glanced up at her with a frown. Why?


Caroline shrugged, picking up a piece of danish and gesturing with

it. Because youre the heir. The pack is yours, Fitz. You know that. And

Alex...Alex isnt ready.

You think I am? Dads been grooming Alex for years now. Ive

been whoring myself to Hollywood.

Sid Carlin, Junior Agent at Meier and Jones:

Hows your ass?

Fitz:

Come see it for yourself.


He was starting to get into the flirting. Enough so that he missed

Carolines comment the first time around.

You know Dad didnt mean that, Caroline said with a wave of

pastry. Anyway, dad was grooming him to do the business. Hes not

prepared for whats about to happen.

What? Whats about to happen? There were rumors, even in L.A.

of rising tensions between some of the burrough packs, but so far no one

had briefed him on it. Fitz was glad in some ways. It meant hed had

some time to adjust to the idea of his dad being gone. Still, all the
hinting around the subject was driving him crazy.

The Heights Packs been nosing at war for months now. Dad and

Frankie Cardoza were going to settle it, but.

A growl rose in Fitzs throat, and he could feel his wolf perking up.

But Cardoza ripped his throat out before anything could be settled.

It was a fair fight, Caroline argued. Theyd agreed to call it at first

blood dropped.

Fitz nodded shortly. First blood dropped was standard for Alpha

battles. As soon as someone was wounded enough to drip blood to floor,


the fight was called, the matter settled. And Cardoza picked the jugular

for his first attack? I knew they were rough in the Heights, but I didnt

think they were bloodthirsty.

Bloodthirsty and traitorous, came a voice from the doorway, and

Fitz turned to see Alex there. Theyre claiming your father cheated

somehow, used magic to send Cardoza into a frenzy and then stop his

heart.

Cardoza died from brain trauma, Fitz argued, pulling himself to

his feet.
The Cardozas are saying he was already dead when his head hit the

pillar. They have witnesses who swear his body was limp.

Bullshit! Fitz strode over to Alex. Fitz knew that Alex wasnt the

one making these accusations, but his wolf didnt care. It wanted

someone to pay for that lie.

Hey! Alex said, drawing himself up as well. He was as tall as Fitz

and just as broad. Their wolves were equally matched as well. Dont

defend him to me! You think I believe those lies? I know what kind of a

man he was. Hell, he practically raised me himself! He was growling,


and Fitz felt his wolf trying to respond with matching aggression, while

he struggled to rein it in.

Boys!

Darby Walker had the voice of a true Alpha. It cut across the room

and froze both men. Fitz looked to the door and saw his mother standing

there. She wore a simple, silk robe over her pajamas, but she held

herself like a queen, tall and regal. Her dark hair fell in thick waves

around her shoulders, only just beginning to be touched by grey.

She raised her chin slightly. Cal did not hold this pack together for
thirty years just to have the two of you squabbling over his memory like

pigeons over bread crumbs.

Sorry, Fitz muttered. Even his wolf was cowed by his mothers

authority in her own home.

Its good to see you, Alex, Darby said, crossing to greet Alex with a

kiss on each cheek. Would you like some breakfast?

No, maam, Alex answered, and Fitz hated him a little for being so

polite, so put together. I just came to get Fitz, actually.

Me? Fitz asked, sure he must have heard that wrong. What do
you need me for?

The pack elders are meeting to discuss what to do about the

Heights. They want you to be there.

Why? Fitz asked again. I mean...I havent been here. I dont know

the details.

Why indeed? Alex asked dryly, but he shrugged as well. Youre

Cals son. Until a formal decision is made otherwise, the pack is yours.

You hoping for that decision to be made? Fitz kept his voice calm,

but there was steel in it until he heard a warning growl from his mother.
When is the meeting?

Im on my way now. Alex said. As soon as youre ready. He

glanced down at Fitzs clothes, and Fitz realized he was still in his own

pajamas.

He picked up his now-cold coffee and finished it off. Give me five

minutes. Ill meet you outside.

Just as he dropped his phone into his pocket, it buzzed once more.

Sid Carlin, Junior Agent at Meier and Jones:

Dont mind if I do.


***

The meeting was all the things that Fitz had hated about being the

Alphas son. It began with a reading of the minutes of the last meeting

and then ran through all of the business as usual bullshit. Theyd been

there twenty minutes before anyone even brought up the Heights Pack.

Its a ridiculous rumor, said Chuck Gerstman, whose family had

moved to Brooklyn at the beginning of the twentieth century and quickly

established themselves as the best brewers in Brooklyn, if not New York.

No one is taking them seriously. Theyre just angry because Cardoza


died trying to turn first blood dropped into sudden death.

Its a question of honor, argued Jacob Mendoza, from a long line

of Mendozas whod served as foremen on any pack construction since

the 1950s. To even suggest Cal would resort to something

like...magic, he spat out the word like it burned his tongue to say it.

Fitz couldnt blame him. Shifters and magic did not mix well, and any

witch offering a shifter magic was sure to want something for it.

Something big.

All right, all right, said Alex, frowning down at the table, an air of
authority in his voice. Fitz realized that Alex ran these meetings as

though he were the Alpha. He wondered how often Alex had sat in for

his father with the pack elders. They all looked to him like he had the

right to make a decision about this. Alex, though, was looking straight at

Fitz. What do you think?

Me? Fitz asked, feeling like hed been caught daydreaming in class

and couldnt answer the teachers question.

The pack is yours, Alex said. Fitz wished he could see past the

mask of perfection Alex always seemed to have in place, so he could


figure out what Alexs game was here.

Fitz cleared his throat, sitting up a little straighter. I think, he

began, not sure where to go from there. I think Gerstmans right, he

said after a moment. No ones taking this seriously. Not yet. If we act

now, we lend credence to the rumor.

Gerstman smiled, and those whod sided with him silently

congratulated themselves. Mendoza opened his mouth to speak, but Fitz

cut him off. I also think Mendozas right. The Heights Pack are staining

my fathers name. We cant let that stand.


Like you didnt let it stand when they ran in our territory last

month? Fitz looked around the table to see who had spoken. His eyes

landed on Bill Lakey. Lakey owned a small investment firm in

Manhattan. About ten years ago, hed challenged Cal for the position of

Alpha and been sent away with his tail between his legs. Hed

maintained his position with the pack elders, but there had always been

tension between him and Cal.

You got something to say, Lakey? Fitz asked. Around the table, the

tension rose almost physically.


Yeah. I wanna know how Brad Pitt here thinks he can come in to

this meeting and make any kind of decision about the pack he

abandoned.

Fitz was on his feet in an instant, and he would have been diving

across the table for Lakeys throat if not for the firm hand of Mendoza

on his elbow.

Calm down! Alex was saying, in a voice eerily similar to Fitzs

fathers.

Fitz and Lakey faced off across the table. Slowly, without breaking
eye contact, Fitz sat, leaving it for Lakey to do the same.

When everyone had finally calmed down and seated themselves,

Fitz spoke again. Its clear we have some...disagreement over how to

handle the matter. Give me three days. Ill have an answer then. He

stood again, and the others stood as well. Now, unless anyone else has

commentary, he deliberately did not look at Lakey as he spoke, I think

Ill call this meeting closed.

No one argued, and Fitz walked straight out the door of the

conference room and straight into a tall, blonde, cursing ray of sunshine.


Chapter Five

It had taken Sid three cab rides, eight phone calls, four bribes, and

one fake phone number to track Fitz Walker down. And that was before

she had to sweet talk her way past the secretary in the pack office and

eventually resort to a diversion while she snuck into the back when the

secretary wasnt looking.

Her heels clacked on the linoleum as she crossed toward the

conference room. She intended to wait outside until the meeting was

finished and then corner Fitz before he had the chance to flee. Instead,
just as she was about to stop, the door swung open, and Fitz Walker

nearly bowled her off her feet.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Sid yelled as she lost her balance only to

be caught up in Fitz Walkers arms.

His thick, strong arms. Arms that were connected to his

impressively large chest. A chest Sid was currently held against.

Wrong three times, Fitz said with a grin, and Sid realized that he

was holding her up by his hands on her ass. A flood of warmth hit her

cheeks, and she used his chest as leverage to right herself. A bit of space
was all she needed. If only she could tell that to her suddenly pulsing

clit.

Fitz Walker, she answered, taking a step back and holding out her

hand. Im Sid

Sid Carlin, Junior Agent, Meier and Jones, Fitz said, with a faint

smirk. I thought you were checking on my ass. He looked over his

shoulder into the conference room, where a number of men were

gathering their things. This isnt really a good time, Junior.

He stepped around her and headed for the lobby, but she was not
about to give up so easily. Not even when the rest of what she assumed

were the pack elders started to file out of the room behind her.

Fitz Walker, she said again, jogging a little to catch up with him. I

just need to get your approval on a couple things. I promise it wont take

much time.

What things? He wasnt stopping, but at least he was

acknowledging her. He kept his pace, and Sid did her best to match it,

but she had to pause to take off her heels and then jog after him again.

Just a couple of interviews and appearances. Its really basic stuff.


Ill deal with it when I get back.

He had to stop when he got to the elevators, and Sid skidded to a

stop next to him, trying not to think of how firm his bicep was when she

had to grab hold of it to keep her balance, her shoes dangling

precariously from the fingers of her other hand. This was not the time to

be focusing on his body. And the incredible things it could do with

mine...dammit. No.

She swallowed. No, theyre New York interviews. Here, she pulled

out her phone, screen showing the schedule shed put together for him
between L.A. and New York, Ill send this to you.

His phone buzzed a moment later, and he pulled it out of his shirt

pocket. Youre lucky Im still carrying this thing, Junior, he said as he

opened her message. After the eighth message, I almost chucked it and

changed my number. You called me at my fathers memorial.

I did not, Sid argued, following him into the elevator when it

arrived. I called you just before and just after.

I was still at the reception.

How was I to know your reception would last three hours? Sid
took a deep breath. This was not going to work if she antagonized him.

Im sorry, she said after a pause. I should have respected that time.

Damn right you should have. He turned to the phone, glancing

over the schedule, and Sid reminded herself that it was also not going to

work if she paid too much attention to the way Fitz had positioned

himself right next to her, despite the size of the elevator.

This isnt just a couple interviews, Junior, Fitz said, and he

seemed to be even closer. This is the rest of my week.

No, not at all! If youll take a look, Ive only scheduled you for one
event per day. The rest of your time is yours. Getting that schedule to

work out so well had been a miracle. She never would have made it if

The Late Show hadnt had a cancellation. See? Hmm, except

tomorrow.

She stepped closer to show him on his phone, and she was all too

aware of the heat of his solid chest at her back. Im not agreeing to

this, he said, his lips just next to her ear.

I think you are, she argued, turning to face him, putting enough

distance between them to clear her head.


And what makes you think that, Junior? The elevator dinged, and

Sid knew she had just a few seconds before it opened and he was gone.

She swallowed. It was a long shot, but it was the best leverage she

had. Because you owe me for making your sister laugh.

She wasnt sure it would be enough incentive, but he smirked as he

stepped back out of the elevator, looking thoughtful, though he never

slowed down. Sid was right on his heels. It was pouring rain, and she

was still carrying her shoes, but this was worth it. Her job was worth it.

Just give me tonight, she said.


They both stepped outside, onto the small area of sidewalk that was

covered, rain splashing at Sids bare feet. Fitz glanced down the street

then looked back at her. Oh, Junior, he murmured, taking a step

forward, pressing her back against the door. You dont know how much

Id like to take you up on that.

Her shoes were still in the hand she held pressed against his chest,

and she sucked in a quick gasp as she felt herself getting wet. This was

ridiculous. She should not be responding like this.

But Fitzs body was pressed against hers, and she could feel the heat
of his erection at her belly. Why cant you? she asked, no longer sure if

she was answering his innuendo or not.

Well, you see. He pressed closer, his thigh easing between her

legs, rubbing against her suddenly aching sex. Ive got this shockingly

sexy Junior Agent breathing down my neck about an interview Im

supposed to do.

Her hips seemed to roll of their own volition, shamelessly humping

Fitzs tree trunk of a thigh. And will you? Do the interview?

He bent his head, nosing his way up her throat, scenting her,
pausing with his lips at her ear. Send a car at 5, he said, and then he

turned his head and caught her lips in a rough kiss, plundering her

mouth with his tongue. She pushed up into it, acting entirely on instinct

and the way her nipples tightened when his teeth caught on her lip.

Before she had the chance to properly get into it, he was gone. A

rush of cold ran over her, and she opened her eyes to see Fitz Walker

climbing into the back of a black sedan and riding away.


Chapter Six

Sid could hear him fuming from down the hall, and she noted with

some satisfaction the PAs scurrying away from the green room. Fitz was

angry, and he had every right to be. That didnt change the fact that it

was Sids job to calm him down, it just made him easier to sympathize

with.

She paused outside the green room, listening for a moment.

Nothing breakable was being thrown, and he seemed to be leaving the

furniture alone. That was a positive sign. Bracing herself with a deep
breath, Sid gave a quick knock and stepped right in.

Well, she said, pulling out her smart phone, so shed be armed

with the upcoming schedule, I thought that went rather well.

Before she could even look up from her phone, Fitz had crossed the

room and pinned her against the door. She gasped in surprise as a thrill

of fear shot through her, followed almost immediately by a rush of

arousal. It wasnt that long ago that Fitz had her pinned against another

door, and the memory of how hed kissed her then had her wet all over

again.
Is that a joke? He asked about my pack!

He brought his face to within inches of hers, growling out his

response. Sid knew the last thing she wanted to do was show fear in this

situation. In fact, the last thing she felt was fear. Way down the list from

desire and need.

She pulled herself up to her full height. With her heels, she was

nearly as tall as he was, and she tilted her chin up to make up for the last

few inches. Yes, and Im terribly sorry for that. The agency will sue, of

course, and we wont be booking with his show again.


She didnt have authorization for that, of course, but she didnt

imagine it would be all that hard to get. Everyone knew Fitzs rider said

no questions about his pack. It was practically the only thing he

wouldnt talk about.

For a moment, she held his gaze, feeling almost defiant. Then he

growled again, and she turned her head, hardly knowing why. Fitz

responded instantly, burying his nose in her throat and inhaling deeply,

sending shivers across her skin as she sucked in a quick breath. Her

hands came up to brace against his chest, and that was definitely a
mistake. His pecs were rock hard under her fingers, and so broad they

made her hands look tiny.

Is there...um...anything else you were upset about? she managed,

her voice coming out far more breathless than she would have liked.

Plenty, Junior, Fitz answered, his voice rumbling through her.

You got time to hear about it all?

It was hard to even form the words for an answer with his faint

stubble catching on her collarbone, but Sid swallowed and managed to

keep her voice fairly steady when she replied. Ive got all the time you
need, Fitz.

She hadnt meant it to come out flirtatiously, but with her hands on

his marble-esque chest and his breath panting hot against her throat,

she thought she could be excused for letting her professional demeanor

slip just a little.

"God, I wish that was true...."

True or not, Fitz nipped at her throat, just over her pulse, and Sid

acted on instinct, her phone clattering to the floor as she curled her arms

around his shoulders, fingernails scraping lightly over the back of his
neck. Fitz wasted no time, flicking open buttons on her shirt so quickly

Sid thought for sure she had lost several.

A moment later, he'd shoved her shirt from her shoulders, and she

let go of him just long enough to let it drop to the floor before she was

clinging to him again, feeling an almost desperate need to have her body

pressed against his. Her breath caught when he dipped his head further,

his mouth finding her nipple through the silk of her bra.

She was all too aware that the green room was not soundproof, and

she bit back her moan as Fitz's teeth caught her nipple, sending
goosebumps cascading over her skin.

"Fitz," she breathed, and he growled in response, pulling up her

pencil skirt as well as he could manage, and getting visibly frustrated

when it was too tight to slide up over her hips.

Before Sid could even think about finding the zipper, Fitz had his

hand sliding up her thigh, under her skirt, fingers finding the dampness

between her legs. She whimpered and pushed into his touch, fingers

tangling in his brunette hair, twisting and gripping.

A small voice of protest in her mind said that this was not at all
professional, but her clit throbbed with desire, and Fitz's fingers plunged

into her easily enough that she'd be embarrassed if she couldn't also feel

just how hard his cock was, pressed against her hip. Hot and pulsing.

Her breath caught in her throat when Fitz twisted his hand, his

thumb seeking out her clit, stroking decisively over it, making her

shudder and throw back her head, groaning loudly enough she knew

they could hear her in the hall and she just didn't care. It had been far

too long since she'd let herself go like this, given in to pleasure.

Fitz straightened enough to catch her lips again, fingers and thumb
moving relentlessly into and over her. He broke the kiss to rumble,

"Come on, Junior. Let go."

Her back arched sharply, and she cried out involuntarily as her body

shuddered, pulsing around his fingers until she was entirely spent,

collapsing against Fitz's chest. Fingers still inside her, he steadied her

with his free arm and lowered them both to the floor.

Sid was still struggling to catch her breath. She wanted to say

something. She'd just let a client finger her, make her come, in a green

room, for fucks sake.


But Fitz was nuzzling at her throat, and she still felt his erection,

hot and insistent, trapped between them.

"Can I...?" she began, pressing a palm flat against the front of his

trousers.

He groaned and gave a breathless laugh. "Fuck, Junior. You really

do know how to handle me, huh?"

"Not yet," Sid teased, grinning up at him. "But I'm hoping to find

out."


Chapter Seven

You promised him wed sue?

Its clearly a breach of contract, Pearce. We threaten to sue, they

settle out of court, everyones happy. Sid switched to speaker and set

her phone on the hotel room desk, wriggling her laptop from her purse.

Better hope Jones buys it. You are on thin ice already. The Late

Show bought you some time, but if he misses even one event this week

you are out on your ass.


He wont. Hes already agreed to the morning show. Ill get him

there. Settling in at the desk, Sid opened her browser and ran a search

for Fitz Walker Williamsburg Pack. Something was bothering Fitz, and

she needed to figure out what it was or shed never get him back to L.A.

Just be careful with him, Blondie. I dont want to see you get hurt.

Sid flushed at the memory of how very not careful shed been just a

few hours ago in the green room. What do you mean? He growls a good

game, but hes harmless.

Hes a shifter, and you are exactly his type. Guys like him...they run
hot and cold. And sometimes their hot is worse than their cold.

Youre mixing metaphors again, Pearce. A headline popped up on

her screen: Williamsburg Pack Unable to Name Alpha, Pack in Turmoil.

Yeah, well, metaphor or not, dont you go mixing with him. Pearce

was quiet a moment, but Sid wasnt sure she had a response to that.

After a pause, Pearce said, Look, Ive met the guy. Hes charming. Hes

fun. Hell show you a good time. Thats fine. Just dont get too involved.

His kind dont take well to humans pushing in."

Sid frowned at her computer and said, "What do you mean, 'his
kind?'" She wouldn't have pegged Pearce for a bigot. Not when some of

their biggest clients were shifters. "Are you talking shifters or actors or

just Fitz Walker?"

"Don't get tetchy just because you let him taste your sweet, corn-

fed, cherry pie."

The article on the screen in front of her kept Sid from paying close

enough attention to be offended. She snorted, instead. "As always, you'd

be crude if you could keep a metaphor straight for more than three

words at a time."
"I'm not crude," he scoffed. "I'm lovably risque."

"You're in need of a good screw."

"Sidney Jane Carlin! Have you been drinking?"

She glanced at the bottle of wine she only barely remembered

opening. "A little. And my middle name is not Jane. Keep trying."

"I got Oklahoma out of you eventually. I'll get this too."

"Don't be creepy, Pearce."

"Sorry, sorry, you're right. That was super creepy. Which is a sign it's

time for all good Pearces to head home to their lonely, little apartments."
Not for the first time, Sid wished she knew someone she could set

Pearce up with. She was about forty percent sure he was gay, but she

couldn't figure out how to ask.

"Better a lonely, little apartment than a lonely, little hotel room."

"Sorry, Blondie. New York not as glamorous as you'd hoped?"

"The only person I know here is pretty sure I'm trying to manipulate

him, so...no. It's not really living up to expectations."

"Cheer up, Blondie. You've never met a problem you couldn't butt

your head against until it cracked."


The problem or my head? Sid asked dryly.

Both, usually.

Sid laughed, taking a sip of wine. "Thanks, Pearce. I'll let you get

home to that little apartment. Take care."

"You too, Blondie," Pearce answered, and the line went dead.

Pearce hadn't said anything that Sid hadn't already thought herself,

but hearing it from someone else made it a little more real. She was

straddling a line with Fitz, and it could either make her career or destroy

her life. It might not be that all shifters were dangerous, but Fitz Walker
certainly was. The way he'd gone from practically throwing her out of the

green room to making her knees give out with passion in the blink of an

eye had left Sid's head spinning.

It had been a long time since her head had spun like that.

But she couldn't afford this kind of thinking. Fitz Walker was her

business, not her boyfriend. If she couldn't get him in line, and soon, she

could say goodbye to any future with Meier and Jones.

Armed with new determination, Sid picked up her phone and sent a

quick text to Fitz.


Sid:

Sending a car for you at five. Don't be late.

For just a moment, her thumb hesitated over the emoji keyboard,

then she firmly shook her head and sent it as it was.

Business, not boyfriend.


Chapter Eight

He had to admit, the morning show had gone better. True to her

word, Sid had intimidated the hosts into agreeing not to talk about the

pack. Fitz was pretty sure he'd heard her implying they had no respect

for a grieving man's memory of his honorable father.

It worked, anyway, so whatever she'd said, he was glad for it.

It had meant he could spend the interview making strawberry

cheesecake bites with Martha Stewart, instead of trying not to shift mid-

answer and tear the host's throat out.


Sid was waiting for him in the green room, holding her phone in

front of her like a shield. He could hardly blame her. Their last debrief

had ended with them both panting and unsatisfied, and she'd been all

business since then.

"Well, that was a marked improvement from yesterday," she said,

tapping something into her phone. Fuck, she probably didn't even realize

she was throwing out pheromones like she was. Fitz was sure she was

thinking of last night. He couldn't blame her. He hadn't stopped thinking

about it for a second.


He could smell her on his fingers all night, and even this morning,

when he'd pulled on his jacket, he'd caught a whiff of her body wash,

cherry blossom and...something else. Jasmine?

And now she was standing across the room looking like she

expected him to jump her any second, and she couldn't decide if she was

happy or scared about that.

"Wouldnt take much for that to be true." he finally answered,

shrugging off his sport coat and tossing it over the arm of the couch.

"What's next on the master plan?"


He glanced around the room until he finally spotted the coffee. Five

AM calls were not unusual for him, but he could not get through the day

that followed without caffeine. Not when he'd been up all night

replaying the sound of Sid's voice breaking in pleasure over and over in

his mind until he and his wolf would recognize it anywhere.

Before he could reach the coffee pot, Sid was pressing a to-go cup

into his hand. It was from a shop down the street from the studio that

boasted some sort of secret to roasting better coffee than the five other

artisan roasters on the block. He took a sip.


Okay, it was good.

"You have a photo shoot for GQ at the Cloisters in an hour, and then

the day is yours."

"Is that why you had my coffee ready? I'm scheduled to be in some

hairdresser's torture chair in an hour?"

"I tried to get you a masseuse but apparently the designer wants

your muscles tense. Something about the line of the jacket."

It was hard to get a read on her, but there was a twinkle in her blue

eyes that made Fitz think she was making fun of him a little.
He liked it.

So much that as she made her way out of the room and clacking

down the hallway, Fitz's attention got caught on the sway of her hips,

her ass pert and round under another tight, pencil skirt that Fitz wanted

to claw wide open.

"Are you coming, Mr. Walker?" Sid said, tossing her thick, golden

hair over her shoulder as she smirked at him.

"Just about," Fitz rumbled, and he caught the first hint of a blush on

her cheeks as she turned away.


This morning might be worth a trip to the torture chair after all.

***

"It's a GQ spread sponsored by SYC," Sid was saying, juggling her

own coffee with her phone and the newspaper she'd picked up outside

the studio.

SYC was Shifter Youth Care, one of Fitz's pet charities. He didn't like

doing photo shoots, mostly because he knew he'd hear about it from his

family and friends in New York. They'd see him on the cover of GQ in a

few weeks, and Fitz would get a phone call teasing him about his pretty
eyes or whether he'd been working out.

The rare exception came when one of his charities was running a

campaign. SYC had contacted Fitz shortly after his first film, asking him

if he'd be a spokesperson for their organization, and Fitz had been

donating time for ad campaigns ever since. This one hadn't been on his

schedule a week ago, so Sid must have set it up since Fitz got to New

York.

God, she was smart and beautiful. He really didn't stand a chance.

"Right, so...I'll be doing the suit and tie thing? Or is it a naked and
oily shoot?"

Sid squirmed, and Fitz smirked, all too pleased with himself.

"Both, actually. The suit first, then outside in boxers."

"Sure. Makes sense. I'm outside at the Cloisters in my boxers all the

time."

Sid glanced up from her phone. She'd pulled her hair back almost as

soon as they got into the car, and Fitz wanted to tug it out of its ponytail.

"Don't blame me," she said. "I certainly didn't set the theme."

There was a shift in her voice, something promising in the


undertone, and Fitz leaned toward her a little, close enough to smell that

cherry blossom and jasmine again. "What would you have done, then? If

you were directing this shoot?"

She tilted her head, regarding him carefully. She wasn't so much

checking him out as she was scrutinizing everything about him. It drove

Fitz's wolf crazy. It made Fitz want to see how he stacked up.

"Hmm, I think I'd go with...the religious angle."

"Isn't that a little obvious, considering the setting?" She didn't seem

like the type to go for obvious.


"Maybe? But not considering the subject. Everyone in Hollywood

has seen you with your shirt off. That's no surprise. Anyway...," she gave

him a long, slow once over that was much more appreciative, "it would

be a commentary on the cult of celebrity. You are our priest, but you are

also our Adam."

"Adam, hmm?" He chuckled, feeling back on familiar ground here.

"Naked in the garden?"

"With a tempting serpent." Her words were brazen, but her cheeks

flushed bright red.


"I thought I was the forbidden fruit." He shifted closer, looming

over her a bit, his voice pitched low.

"No, you're the serpent," she said again, her voice matching his. She

blinked, looking up at him through thick eyelashes. "The fruit is

knowledge, just like in the story."

"Carnal knowledge?"

Her hand came up to rest on his chest, and he couldn't help bending

low to breathe in her scent. "No, you give that away too easily," Sid

answered, laughing breathlessly. "The temptation is...you."


Lifting her chin, she met his gaze, one hand coming up to trace her

fingertips along his jawline, making him shudder. "Who really knows

you, Fitz?"

He turned his head, looking out the window, away from Sid's eyes,

and the way she seemed to be looking for so much more than the answer

to a simple question like that.

"The city knows me," he finally answered, but he couldn't look at

her again.

***
The shoot wasnt a breeze, but it was predictable. This sort of thing

always exhausted Fitz. But he spent the whole shoot thinking about

Sidneys face as she teased him, and her determination as she coaxed

him toward the next event.

By the time he'd made it out of makeup and wardrobe and back into

the car, Fitz was so exhausted he nearly fell asleep before he got home.

He couldn't help wishing Sid were with him. She'd keep him laughing or

thinking.

Or not thinking, even better. He could feel his cock twitch at the
very thought of her legs wrapped around him.

She'd left before the shoot, telling him she knew what he needed

and that she'd pick him up at eight. He almost didn't care what she had

planned, so long as he got to spend an evening being distracted by her

laugh or her eyes or that perfect ass....

The car pulled up outside his family's home, and he thanked the

driver before getting out.

If he was honest with himself, he wanted to be with Sid because it

meant he didn't have to be with his family. He loved them, especially


Caroline, but it had been too long since he'd gotten caught up in pack

politics. He'd forgotten how dangerous it was, how it melted into every

aspect of his life, stained it all.

He wondered when he'd started thinking of it as a stain.

When he opened the door, he heard his mother's voice calling down

the hall. "That's him now, I'm sure, Alex. Fitz! Is that you?"

And Alex was here. Of course. He admired his cousin, but Alex was a

big part of why this pack business was so overwhelming. Fitz's dad had

made no secret of the fact that he was grooming Alex to take over, just as
Fitz had made no secret of the fact that he wasn't looking to be Alpha.

It was just a decision he'd expected to be able to put off a little

longer.

"I'm here, Mom," he answered, glancing wistfully at the staircase

that led up to his bedroom. Family came first.

A moment later, Alex came out of the front room. "Fitz," he said.

"I'm glad I didn't miss you."

"Alex." As annoyed as he was to see his cousin, Fitz did his best not

to let it show. It was hardly Alex's fault that Fitz felt like the pack would
all rather see Alex at the head than him.

"Well?" Alex said, stopping right in front of Fitz as Caroline and

Fitz's mother stepped into the hallway behind Alex.

"Well what?" Fitz asked.

"Have you decided if you're sticking around this time?"

That made Fitz draw up short, his shoulders tensing. "What do you

mean?"

Alex waved a folded newspaper at Fitz, gesturing to a quote that had

been circled. It was from his interview last night. "Read it," Alex
demanded. "Out loud."

Caroline strode over to him, snatching the paper before Fitz could

take it. Family's always complicated, Walker said when asked about

the political turmoil brewing between his pack and the Heights Pack of

the Bronx. When you add in teeth and claws, it doesn't get any simpler.

And how does Mr. Walker picture his role in the pack restructuring that

must be coming in the wake of both Alpha's deaths? I've tried to stay

out of politics since I moved to L.A. I don't see that changing.

Caroline looked up from the newspaper with a frown, and for the
first time in years, she looked her age, just barely twenty-one, still in

school, still growing up. Fitz wondered if she really would be okay after

all.

"So?" Alex asked. "Are you going to keep staying out of politics or

are you going to step up and be an Alpha?"

Fitz wasn't watching Alex, though. He was watching Caroline.

"Complicated," she said with a twisted sort of smile. "I guess that's a

very diplomatic way of saying, 'more trouble than they're worth.'"

"What? Caroline, no!" Fitz protested, taking a step toward Caroline.


She stepped back. "No, that's...look, he wasn't supposed to ask about the

pack. It's in my rider."

"Sounds like your rider is just as full of shit as you are," Alex

snarled. Fitz was in his space in a moment, toe to toe, eye to eye,

growling in warning.

"I will give you one chance to get out of my house before I spill your

blood on this floor," Fitz said, his wolf straining for a fight, for the

release they'd both been denied these past few days.

Alex, amazingly, took a step back. He gave Fitz one last look then
nodded to Caroline and Darby before walking, amazingly calmly, to the

front door. Before he left, he turned back to look at Fitz. "You're gonna

have to choose sooner or later. Do you want to be a celebrity, or do you

want to be an Alpha? The pack won't wait forever."


Chapter Nine

When Sid had first moved to L.A., on an academic scholarship to

UCLA, she'd been determined to throw herself into the L.A. lifestyle.

She'd highlighted her Mid-West, wheat-blond hair, gotten her eyebrows

plucked, and learned to surf. She took to it surprisingly easily, all things

considered. She'd even surfed competitively in college. She'd done well,

but not well enough to make a living. Talent agent hadn't ever been her

dream, but she was good at it, and she enjoyed it more than she'd

expected to.
About three months into her time at UCLA, she'd become incredibly

homesick. Her roommate had taken her out for Sonic tater tots and

limeade, and then they'd watched Oklahoma! because Sid had never

seen it.

It wasn't the same as going home, but it had helped her a little,

helped ease the transition. She'd needed one Oklahoma night to decide

that L.A. was it for her, just where she needed to be.

When Fitz said that only the city understood him, Sid could relate to

that feeling, like you didn't truly belong where you were living. Going
home was a temptation it had taken her a long time to overcome, and

she didn't want Fitz falling into it, feeling like he didnt really belong in

L.A.

Maybe this wouldn't cure things for Fitz, but she was at least hoping

it would clear his head for a night, get New York out of his system. With

the interview and the photo shoot having gone so well, Sid had a little

slack from work, but she still needed to get him back to L.A. before the

week was out. Meier had made it clear that this was her last chance.

As the car pulled up outside the Walker home, Sid swallowed,


hoping this plan would work. She wasn't sure where to go next if it

didn't.

She had just gotten out of the car when Fitz came out the door. She

lost her footing a little when she saw him, heat pooling in her belly,

wetness somewhere just below. He was dressed in charcoal grey trousers

that fit his slim hips perfectly and hugged the curve of his ass. His shirt

was a pale green sweater that struggled to accommodate the breadth of

his shoulders and chest. Sid's fingers itched to slide up under it, feel the

heat of his skin. Over his arm, hed draped a brown, leather jacket.
When he saw her, he let out a low whistle, and she felt her cheeks

flushing. "If I didn't know better, Junior, I'd say this was a date," he said.

"At least, I hope you dress like that for dates."

Sid glanced down at her dress, a simple, blue sheath dress that

accentuated her long legs and the flare of her hips. "I dress like this for a

night out," she said, opting for the vaguest response. When she'd been

getting ready, she'd certainly had that flutter of nerves so familiar from a

first date, but she'd deliberately chosen this dress, rather than a more

form-fitting option so that Fitz wouldn't get the wrong idea. The last
thing she wanted was for him to feel like she was using sex to get him to

agree to go back.

"Well, if you ever need an escort for a night out, I'm happy to

oblige." He offered her his arm for the short walk back to the car, and Sid

ducked her head, suddenly embarrassed.

"Do you think I need an escort?"

"I think every man who sees you is gonna want a taste, and I want

to make sure they don't get the chance."

His voice was low and gruff, and it sent a throbbing heat flooding
through her body, settling between her thighs. She couldn't even manage

an answer until he was holding the door open for her. "And what if I

want to give a taste?"

She turned her face to look up at him, and his fingers trailed from

her elbow slowly down to the small of her back. He was close enough

that she felt the heat of his body through the thin material of her dress

and it made her shiver, nipples tightening. "Then I wanna be first in

line."

Her mouth was still dry when he rounded the car to get in the other
side.

"Where we headed, Junior?" he asked. There was at least a foot

between them on the seat, but Sid felt like his hand was still on her, still

spreading heat through her body.

"I thought...it's silly really, but I thought maybe you could use a

New York night. You've been so busy with work and family, you haven't

really had a chance to enjoy the city."

He held her gaze for a long moment, as though he were assessing

her, trying to figure her out. It made her squirm, until he turned slightly,
his knee falling against hers. She held herself still then, not wanting to

dislodge the strangely erotic touch. "You gave me a date with the city,"

he said, laughing softly. Sid felt the brush of his fingertips on her knee

and swallowed.

"Something like that. Like I said, it's totally silly."

His knuckles curled under her chin to tilt her head up, and he

leaned in, breathing hot against her lips. "It's totally lovely, Junior."

There wasn't time for more than a quick gasp before the car pulled

up in front of their first destination.


"Damn," Fitz murmured, leaning back slightly. "Next time, we

should drive to Jersey."

***

Dinner was exquisite, of course. Sid had clearly done her research. It

was a quintessentially New York restaurant: hip and down-to-earth at

the same time, right on the edge of food trends and executing them

perfectly.

It was exactly what someone from L.A. wanted in a trip to New York.

Fitz was impressed, but he wasn't sure it was doing what she'd
wanted it to. If anything, this just made him want to do New York his

way, to go back to when he'd been young and out of the public eye, and

he didn't have to expect a paparazzi attack at any given moment.

And Sid....

Sid was exactly the distraction he'd needed. When they'd finished

dinner, she'd told him they had one more stop for the night. A few

minutes later, the car pulled to a stop outside the Empire State Building.

"You're kidding," Fitz said with a laugh as they got out of the car.

"I'm not," she answered with a grin. "You said during the morning
show you'd never been to the top, and I thought...well fuck. Let's get him

there."

"You want me to do the most touristy thing in New York City."

"I do," she said, holding out a hand to him.

How could he turn that down?

Her fingers were cool against his palm, and he found the difference

appealing. Shifters always ran hot. It was good to feel something new,

someone new touching him.

It was good to feel Sid touching him. Her hand so casually holding
his. Like it was normal. Like he was any other guy.

They rode the elevator up with a couple from Wisconsin who

recognized Fitz from his last film and asked for a photograph. Sid took it

graciously, and wished them a good trip without an ounce of irony.

"How do you do that?" Fitz asked as Sid led him over to a less

crowded area of the observation deck.

"Do what?"

"Just...talk to people like that."

"Hmm...." She turned to look out at the city. "I guess I just open my
mouth and try not to sound a fool. How do you do it?"

"I don't. Not if I'm not being paid."

"How come? People love you, Fitz. You charm the pants off

everyone you meet."

"You're still wearing yours," he pointed out. "At least I think so." He

tried not to think about what she might have under her dress, but not

too hard.

"I am," she answered, laughing, her cheeks pink in the wind at the

top of the building.


Fitz shrugged, moving closer, tucking a strand of hair behind her

ear, out of the wind. "It just seems to be so easy for you. When I talk to

people...." He shook his head. It wasn't something he'd ever said out

loud. "I just get nervous."

Sid shivered. "What do you have to be nervous about, Fitz Walker?"

"That," he said, shrugging off his jacket and laying it across her

shoulders.

"Me shivering?"

"No, being Fitz Walker."


Her head tilted, and she moved a little closer to him, he shifted to

block the wind from her. "I guess that's a lot to live up to, isn't it? I'd

never thought of that."

"It's not exactly a problem you need to worry about, Junior," he said,

rolling his eyes at himself. His problems were his own, and nowhere

near as bad as most people's. He didn't need Sid worrying about him.

"Still," she said, taking a step closer, her hands on his chest again,

just where he could feel his heart beating against her palm. "People

expect a lot from their celebrities."


"And their Alphas."

"That too," Sid granted. Her hand reached up to cup his cheek, cold

against his skin, and she laughed quietly. "You're always so warm. Is that

a shifter thing?"

He leaned into the touch, letting his eyes close. "You've never been

with a shifter before?"

"No."

Her one-word answer shot straight to his groin. No other shifter had

ever had her. His wolf took that as little less than an outright invitation
to claim her, and Fitz was struggling to tamp that instinct down. Still, his

hands moved to her hips and he pulled her tight against him, letting her

feel the heat of his erection, pressed against her.

"Oh, Junior," he growled. "The things I want to do to you...."

"Fitz!" Her cheeks flamed, but she leaned into him, fingers curling

into the front of his sweater. "We're in public."

"And that is the only reason I'm not inside you right now," he

answered, bending to kiss her.

She gasped against his mouth, parting her lips for him as he swept
his tongue out, tasting her, trying to satisfy the wolf in him, put off what

it clearly thought was an inevitable claiming. Just as Sid leaned up into

the kiss, her nails muted scratching on his chest drawing a low growl

from Fitz, he heard the all-too familiar click-flash of a camera, and

pulled away.

Sid leaned her forehead against his, her breath huffing out against

his swollen lips. "You're still Fitz Walker, huh?" she whispered.

"Everywhere I go."

He took her hand again and led her back to the elevator, cameras
clicking in their wake.

***

Sid had offered to take him home first, but Fitz insisted on not only

accompanying her to her hotel but also walking her to her room. At first,

Sid had protested, not wanting to end up on the tabloid front page in the

morning after that kiss on the Empire State Building.

But it was hard to say no when it meant she'd get another few

minutes with Fitz. He'd opened up to her earlier, about living up to

people's expectations. No wonder he was having a hard time. Half the


articles she found about his pack talked about his cousin Alex and how it

seemed likely most of the elders would support Alex's bid to be Alpha if

he made it formally. She couldn't imagine how that must feel for Fitz,

knowing his father had given up on him, chosen someone else to

become Alpha.

She wondered if Fitz were constantly comparing himself to Alex,

and she wished she knew how to tell Fitz he was better than anyone else,

that he'd be an amazing Alpha.

If only that wouldn't cost her, her job.


The elevator ride up had been quiet, and as they stood outside her

hotel room, Sid fumbled for something intelligent to say as she pulled

her key card from her purse, but all she came up with was, "I'm sorry

about this whole...New York night thing. It was silly."

"It wasn't silly." Fitz's voice did that rumbling thing that vibrated

through her whole body, and she found herself stepping a little closer,

arching toward Fitz when he settled his hands at her hips.

"It was...touristy and stupid," she argued, and he tugged her closer,

her hips settling against his in a way that made it almost impossible to
focus on the words coming out of his perfect lips.

"It was New York," he said, his lips inches from hers. "It just wasn't

my New York."

Sid swallowed. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew she

should not be doing this. She'd been trying to keep this professional.

"What's your New York?" she asked.

"I'll show you tomorrow," he said, and then he was kissing her

again, and all other thoughts fled her mind as she leaned into it, letting

him press her back against the door. What was with Fitz Walker and
doors? She'd spent more time pinned between Fitz and a door than

anywhere else on this trip.

It was just difficult to mind when his hands were sliding down her

thighs to the hem of her skirt and tugging it upward.

"Fitz!" she gasped, eyes flicking down the hallway. "Someone could

see!"

His lips dragged up her throat. "Let them," he growled, and all her

objections melted away.

"Let them," she echoed, suddenly wanting everyone to see, everyone


to know that Fitz Walker was claiming her. She was his. Nothing else

mattered. Not L.A., not Meier and Jones, not anything. Not if she could

be Fitz's.

"I need to taste you," Fitz rumbled, pushing her skirt up to her hips,

his hand sneaking between her thighs, rubbing the damp material of her

panties up against her now-throbbing clit. Her fingers tangled in his

hair, key card falling to the floor with a clatter, and she let her head fall

back against the door.

"Yes," she whispered, reaching down to help him as he tugged her


panties down her legs, letting them pool on the floor around her ankles.

And then he was on his knees, nudging her leg up over his shoulder.

Her fingers stayed in his hair, gripping tightly. She was afraid if she let

go, she might just float away. He gave one more growl, reverberating

against her inner thigh, and then the heat of his tongue slid between her

folds, and she was lost, biting her lip to keep from groaning too loudly.

One of his hands slid up her thigh, curling around her hip briefly

before his fingers slid between her thighs, easing into her, first one, then

two, curling with each stroke, making her whimper. His other hand
made its way up her dress to palm at the swell of her breast. Her nipples

were tight and sensitive, and Fitz's strong fingers teased them through

the fabric of her dress, sending waves of heat through her that settled

right where his fingers entered her.

She thought of his words at the observation deck, about how he

would have been inside her. A brief picture flashed through her mind of

Fitz taking her, fucking her, claiming her, in front of all those people.

Throwing caution to the wind to make her his own.

It was too much, and she was groaning his name as her hips rolled
forward, grinding into his eager tongue.

Before she even had the chance to offer anything in return, she

heard the sound of a door opening down the hall, and her face flamed

with embarrassment.

Fitz, though, just slowly tugged her panties back up her legs, settled

them in place, then smoothed her skirt back down over them. He picked

up her key card and slid it into the lock behind her, opening the door

with a quiet 'snick.' She could feel the hot hardness of his cock pulsing

against her belly as he leaned in, catching her earlobe in his teeth, and
whispered, "I'll send a car at six. Don't be late."


Chapter Ten

"Someone was out late last night...."

Caroline's voice sing-songed up the stairs to Fitz.

"No teasing before coffee," Fitz grumbled, and Caroline held up a

steaming mug.

"Would I be so cruel?"

"You don't want me to answer that."

Caroline smirked at him, trailing after him to the dining room,


where he snagged a pastry and dropped into a chair.

Because Caroline was watching him so intently, he took his time

adding sugar to his coffee, stirring slowly, and looking around for the

newspaper.

"Well?" Caroline finally asked.

"Well what?"

She rolled her eyes. "You got into a car with a hot, leggy blond I'm

assuming is Miss Junior Agent last night. You didn't get home until late,

and you immediately took a shower."


"All true," Fitz agreed. Caroline stole his pastry and pouted.

"Fine. Don't tell me. I'll just have to steal your phone again and get

the details straight from her."

"And how do you suppose you're going to do that?" Fitz asked with a

smirk. It felt good to talk to Caroline about Sid, even if it was only

teasing. It made whatever was happening between him and the Junior

Agent that much more real.

"I'll figure something out." Caroline said with a shrug, and Fitz only

just saved his phone from her quick-swipe hand.


"You always do, dear." Fitz turned to see his mother coming into the

room. He'd been so focused on how Caroline was doing, that he hadn't

taken the time to really look at his mom. She still held herself straight

and tall, but Fitz thought he could see something tired about her

demeanor. He felt guilty for having been gone, for contributing to the

tension in the pack.

"Good morning, Mother," Fitz said, standing to greet her with a kiss

on the cheek.

"Good morning, Fitz," she answered. "Bring your coffee into the
drawing room, will you? We should talk."

Caroline shot him a look. 'We should talk' was always how their

mother started important conversations. Generally conversations they'd

rather not have. At least they had been when Fitz was younger. Since

he'd left home, more than once he'd wished for the chance to sit down

and have a hard conversation with Darby.

"Good luck," Caroline whispered to him as he tucked his phone into

his pajama pants pocket and picked up his mug to follow Darby into the

drawing room.
Darby let him settle into a chair and take a sip of coffee before she

took a seat across from him. She'd always had the ability to look at Fitz

like she could see straight through him, but today she looked like she

was trying to take his measurements. He sat up a little straighter.

"So," Darby began. "Are you staying or not?"

Right to the point. Something Fitz missed about people in L.A.

"I haven't decided yet."

Darby clucked, shaking her head. "Fitzpatrick Calvin Walker, I am

surprised at you."
Fitz laughed into his mug. "I doubt that, Mother."

"Very well, then, I'm disappointed," she amended. "I would have

thought you'd take this more seriously."

"Seriously enough not to rush into a decision?" he asked. He knew it

was bullshit, though. He was procrastinating, simple as that.

Darby sat back a little, sipping at a cup of tea she'd had waiting on

the side table next to her chair. "Fitz, darling, do you know why I

encouraged you to go to L.A. to pursue acting?"

"Because you thought I'd be good at it?" It had been a subject of


contention with his parents. His father hadn't approved of him going so

far away, but his mother had told him to go.

"Because I hoped you'd become a face and a name that people loved.

I thought you'd learn about humanity better than you could ever hope to

here."

"Humanity?" It had been Fitz's experience that most shifters didn't

want to learn any more about humanity than they had to.

"Yes, humanity. We're too used to being insular, Fitz. Even since we

came out of the shadows, we've kept ourselves apart. We can't afford to
do that any longer."

Fitz shook his head. He'd never heard a shifter talking like that

before, but he could easily see the wisdom of it. If working in L.A. had

taught him anything, it was that humanity, as a whole, was still afraid of

them. Half his co-stars had looked at him like he might snap at any

moment. At least once.

The front door opened, and Fitz glanced to the hallway in time to

see Alex rounding the corner.

Fitz stood, braced for a fight.


"Ah," Alex said, stopping, holding up his hands. Fitz noted that Alex

didn't bare his throat as a sign of submission. His wolf growled at that,

seeing it as a challenge. Fitz understood, though. Why should Alex treat

him like an Alpha when he didn't act like one?

"I'm glad you're still here, actually," Alex said. "I...wanted to

apologize."

Fitz waved a hand. "Don't. I deserved it. You were right."

"I know I was right," Alex argued. "But I shouldn't have...confronted

you like that. I let my temper get the best of me."


Fitz nodded. He'd been there often enough himself.

Darby cleared her throat, then stood, setting her tea aside. "I think

you boys have a lot to talk about. I'll leave you to it."

Alex turned to Fitz with a pained smile. "I guess we do, huh?"

"Do we?" Fitz chuckled, but it was strained. He wanted to tell Alex

the pack was his that he'd go back to L.A. and back to acting and get out

of their hair. He just couldn't bring himself to say it. As stupid as it was,

Fitz felt like he'd be betraying his father if he did that. Proving once and

for all that he did nothing but disappoint.


Alex shrugged, moving to perch on the edge of a couch cushion.

"Look, I meant what I said before. The pack is yours if you want it. I...

Well, hell. I'll take it if I have to, but...." He trailed off, and Fitz watched

him carefully. Alex wasn't cocky like a lot of shifters, but Fitz had never

seen him this uncertain before.

Alex stood and walked across the room, then turned and walked

back. Fitz waited.

"The truth is, I'm scared, Fitz. I'm not ready to be an Alpha. I'm not

ready to lead the pack."


A snorted laugh burst from Fitz, and he shook his head. "You're

kidding, right? If you're not ready, what chance do I have?"

Alex shook his head. "You don't get it. You were born ready. Just say

the word, and all the elders will follow you. Even Lakey! Me...I'm lucky if

I have half their support. I'm not...strong enough to bring them all

together."

"Nobody's strong enough for that," Fitz argued.

"You are. Even your dad saw that."

Fitz shook his head, picking up his coffee mug and turning to go
back to the dining room. "The only thing my dad saw in me was failure."

"That's not true."

Fitz looked over at Alex. "What makes you think that?"

"He told me. He told me that the pack would be just fine if you'd

come home. He said all it needed was a reminder that Walkers put pack

first."

Fitz huffed a laugh. "Yeah, that sounds about like Dad."

Alex moved to follow Fitz to the dining room, pausing to clap a hand

on his shoulder. "He never gave up on you, Fitz."


Alex passed him and disappeared into the dining room. Fitz stood a

moment in the hall, wondering if Alex were telling him the truth or just

trying to convince him to stay like everybody else.

From down the hall, he heard his mother's voice calling, "Fitz?

What's this Caroline's telling me about a Junior Agent?"


Chapter Eleven

Fitz had managed to wriggle out of explaining too much to his

mother about Sid, but Caroline was much more tenacious. When Fitz

showered in the middle of the afternoon, he came back to his room to

find his sister lounging on his bed, flipping through a script he was

reading over.

"Can I help you?" he asked from the door, arms crossed over his

chest. He knew she'd chosen this moment specifically because he'd be

wearing only a towel, leaving him somewhat vulnerable. Shifters were


often naked around each other, but it was a deliberate thing. Fitz didn't

like being caught off guard like that.

"Just wondering what kind of hot date you've got going on tonight,"

Caroline said idly, not glancing up from the script.

"What makes you think I've got a date of any kind?" Fitz asked,

crossing the room to his walk-in closet, so he could dress privately.

"You're taking a shower in the middle of the afternoon," Caroline

pointed out. "And, if I'm not mistaken, you actually used after shave. So

unless you're off to another press appearance, I'm gonna stick with the
date hypothesis."

Fitz sighed as he pulled on his jeans. It wasn't that he didn't want to

tell Carolineafter all, this had all started because she'd texted Sidbut

he wasn't sure what to say. Caroline had clearly only intended for him to

flirt a little, escape from the chaos going on in his head. What was

happening with Sid was much more than that. He couldn't say yet how

much more, but he knew it was definitely more.

"So what if I do have a date?" he said, shooting for nonchalance.

"Don't get so defensive, Fitzy," Caroline called through the closet


door as Fitz found a clean t-shirt and pulled it over his head. "I'm just

curious. Call it sisterly concern."

She paused, and then, her voice brimming with contained

amusement, said, "Wait. It's not Junior Agent, is it?"

Fitz groaned softly. Caroline would never let him forget this. Never.

Clearing his throat, he stepped back into the room. "It just so

happens that my date works at a talent agency, yes. But it's not a date.

I'm just showing her some of New York."

"Where are you taking her?" Caroline asked, pretending to be casual


about it.

"Dinner and a show."

"Dinner where?"

"Alfie's."

Caroline's lips curled up into a slow smile, but all she said was,

"Hmm."

"Hmm?" Fitz repeated, flopping himself onto the bed next to her,

both of their feet dangling off the side.

"Oh, nothing," Caroline said.


"Hmm is never nothing with you, sister dearest," Fitz pointed out.

"It's just...Alfie's. Isn't it a bit soon for that?"

"What do you mean? It's pizza."

"It's not just pizza, Fitzy." Caroline nudged him with her elbow.

"Why do you say that?"

"Because Alfie's is YOURS. That's your New York. You only share

that with women when you're ready to get serious."

Fitz thought about that for a moment. It was true he didn't usually

take dates to Alfie's. He could only think of one other time, and Caroline
was right. He'd been ready to get serious with Rory, but she wasn't ready

to get serious with him.

That wasn't why he'd chosen it for tonight, though. At least not

consciously. "I wanted to show her what New York was really like," he

protested. "She thinks it's about the Empire State Building."

"And you're gonna show her it's really about the garlic knots?"

He shrugged. "I'm gonna show her it's really about the people."

"Atta boy," Fitzy," Caroline said with a smile, pulling herself upright.

"What does that mean?" Fitz asked, utterly perplexed by his sister.
Caroline just smiled and stood and headed for the door. "I'm sure

you'll figure it out sooner or later. Tell Sid Carlin, Junior Agent, I said hi,

will you?"

She grinned and blew him a kiss and disappeared.

Fitz lay on his bed a moment longer, enjoying the exuberant

wriggling of his wolf and telling himself it had everything to do with

garlic knots and nothing to do with the cherry blossom scent of Sid

Carlin, Junior Agent's hair.

***
At precisely six, there was a knock on Sid's door.

She let out a relieved breath. This was the first day since coming to

New York that she hadn't seen Fitz all day. She'd been half afraid that he

would forget about their date.

If it was a date.

After her behavior in the hallway last night, she really hoped it was

a date.

She took a final glance in the mirror, giving her hair a quick tease

with her fingers and applying a little lip gloss before opening the door.
"Damn, Junior," Fitz said, looking her over so slowly, she felt the

blush spreading up her body from her toes in the wake of his gaze.

She hadn't been sure what he had planned, so she'd opted for a

floral-print skater skirt and a light, cashmere sweater. She'd worried it

wasn't glamorous enough for New York, but from the way Fitz was

looking at her like he wanted to lick her straight up, she didn't think that

was going to be a problem.

"I'm glad you approve," she teased, twirling once, gratified by a soft

growl from Fitz as he reached out to take hold of her hips, tugging her
close and giving her a kiss that had her wishing they could just stay in

and forget all the rest.

"I more than approve," he said, letting her step back long enough to

get a look at him. He was in jeans that accentuated his narrow hips and

strong thighs. The Yankee t-shirt he wore had sleeves that ended mid-

bicep, accentuating his famously strong arms. Sid let her fingers wander

a little, pleased to find she couldn't even get her hand halfway around.

"So," Sid said, forcing herself to pull away before she suggested

coming in for a drink. "What are you going to show me today?"


"Today, Junior, you get to meet the real New York."

He offered his arm, and she took it with a smile, marveling at how

at ease he seemed, how comfortable with himself. She couldn't imagine

what stresses he must be under with his family, his pack, but here he

was, like nothing was wrong.

She wanted to think that was her influence. She worried it was just

Fitz avoiding the issue, like Pearce had said. Movie stars were used to

ignoring problems until they disappeared.

Still, with the solid heat of his arm under her hand, it was hard to let
herself worry about anything outside this moment.

Fitz had the driver take them on a winding tour through Brooklyn

until he pulled up outside a row of rundown shops about a half mile

from the Walker family home.

"This," Fitz said expansively, gesturing to a tiny, neon sign that read

'Alfie's,' "is the best pizza in New York, and I will fight any man, who

says differently."

"What about any woman?" Sid teased, laughing and shaking her

head. Of course he'd take her out for pizza. She'd been in L.A. too long.
This was his Sonic tots and limeade.

"Well, if any woman disagreed, I'd just have to convince her

otherwise." He flashed her a grin and pushed open the door.

"Ay! Fitzy!" The greeting was shouted across the crowded dining

space inside a cramped, little pizza parlor that smelled like garlic and

tomato sauce.

"Alfie!" Fitz answered, tugging Sid along as he crossed the room to

greet the man Sid assumed was the owner with an enormous hug. "It's

been too long, my friend."


Alfie came up to Fitz's shoulder, and his grease-stained, white t-

shirt stretched across his belly. His hair was still dark, but it was

thinning on top, and Sid guessed he was probably in is mid-fifties. "Way

too long. What, you got to L.A. and you forgot where you came from,

Fitzy? We're not good enough for you, huh?"

"Not at all," Fitz argued, letting his hand settle on the small of Sid's

back. "You're way too good for me, you know that. So good, I had to

bring the most beautiful woman in California here just to taste your

garlic knots."
Alfie turned his smile to Sid. "You hear this guy? Sweet talker, huh?

You be careful around him. Pretty girl like you? He's too much of a

sweet talker for you."

"Alfie," Fitz said, relaxed and happy in a way Sid had never seen

him. "This is Sid Carlin. Sid, this is Alfie Matarazzi. He makes the best

garlic knots you will ever taste, and his pizzas are out of this world."

"It's good to meet you, Mr. Matarazzi," Sid said, offering her hand.

"What am I, the mayor?" Alfie said, pulling her into a hug instead.

"You're Fitz's friend, you're my friend. Now sit down, you kids. I'm gonna
bring you something special."

Fitz took her to a little table near the back.

"Alfie, huh?"

"Friend of the family," Fitz said. "My dad did him a favor back in the

80s. He's been looking out for the Walkers ever since."

"Since the 80s?" It hadn't been until the Civil Rights Act of 1995

that the shifter community had really started to come out of the violent

response to their existence becoming public knowledge. To have stood

up for a shifter family in the 80s took a lot of courage.


"Yeah," Fitz said, nodding. He looked at her with a new respect,

something Sid noticed shifters often did when she showed she had even

a small idea of what their history looked like. "It cost him some

business, but he never shied away from welcoming us here."

"That's amazing. That says a lot about your dad."

"It says a lot about Alfie too," Fitz said, looking over to where Alfie

was tossing the dough for their pizza. He looked back to Sid a moment

later. "Thank you. That's...thank you."

Sid followed his gaze, watching Alfie a moment, wondering how


often Fitz had spent time here as a kid, watching that dough being tossed

over and over again. "You're welcome," she said when she pulled her

attention back to Fitz. "But I mean it. Your dad was the kinda guy people

stuck their necks out for. New York or not, that means something."

Fitz chortled. "In L.A. that usually means they think you'll make

them some money."

"I wasn't talking about L.A." Her cheeks flushed, but she thought

about what Pearce had said about her getting this assignment again. She

wanted to give Fitz something. Something to prove she wasn't just here
because she was pretty, because she could tempt him back to L.A. She

wanted to prove this meant more to her than that.

Maybe even more than her job.

"What were you talking about, then, Junior? San Diego?"

Sid looked away, blushing. "Oklahoma."

When Fitz didn't answer right away, Sid was almost too scared to

look at him. She knew what Oklahoma meant to shifters. Most humans

had already forgotten, but the shifters weren't about to.

In the late sixties, shortly after the shifters announced their


presence to the world, a group of humans in Oklahoma, certain that the

family of shifters living in their town were stealing local cattle to eat

when they shifted, sneaked into the family home one night and

slaughtered them all, torching the property.

Instead of bringing them to justice, the Oklahoma Supreme Court

had ruled that shifters, not being human, were not protected by the

Constitution or any other law of the land. It set off a string of violent

attacks against shifters, especially in rural communities, and even today

it was a pretty good standard for how Okies felt about shifters.
Sid finally managed to meet Fitz's eyes, and when she did, her blush

deepened.

"Jesus, Junior," he said. "How the hell did you come out of a place

like that?"

She took a deep breath and straightened in her seat, looking Fitz in

the eye. "When I was sixteen, my best friend was a girl named Carrie

Anne. We were inseparable. We did everything together. You know how

teenagers are. At the beginning of junior year, someone posted a picture

of a wolf to the school intranet under Carrie Anne's profile. A week later,
she was dead."

Fitz reached across the table to take her hand, and Sid gripped his

tightly. "The police said it was suicide."

"But you don't believe that," Fitz prompted.

"You don't get road rash all down one side of your body from

hanging yourself."

Before Fitz could say anything, Alfie was back with two bottles of

beer and a basket of garlic knots.

"You eat as much as you like," he said to Sid. "God knows this one
will." With a grin, he pointed to Fitz. "And I'll get you both breath mints

when you leave. They're delicious, but they ruin a date."

***

After dinner, Fitz pulled a worn baseball cap from his jacket pocket

and pulled it low over his brow.

"Going incognito?" Sid asked as they strolled down the sidewalk,

stopping occasionally to look at storefront displays.

"I like to keep a low profile when I can. Especially when I'm visiting

friends. They don't need to be ambushed by cameras just because they


put up with my sorry ass."

"Are we meeting more of your friends?"

Alfie had been wonderful. He'd kept them entertained with

anecdotes from Fitz's childhood, and by the time they'd left, he was

practically offering his services as a minister if they ever got married. Sid

was utterly charmed and a little overwhelmed.

"Yeah, sort of," Fitz answered, taking her hand and pulling her down

a side street that led to an old, brick building with Christmas lights

strung around the front door and down the railings to either side of the
wide steps.

A sign in front read: Prospect Park Playhouse presents Footloose, in

partnership with the Brooklyn Youth Theatre's spring workshop series.

"Are we going to see a play?" Sid asked. "I haven't been to a play

since...well, pretty much since I moved to California."

"That is a crying shame," Fitz answered, shaking his head. "It's also

one of things New York definitely does better than L.A."

"If you say so," Sid teased, but she was curious now, curious about

this local theatre company and why Fitz would bring her here
specifically.

"We're a little late," Fitz said when they got to the lobby. "So, we're

going to sneak in the back."

He led her up a twisting set of stairs to an unoccupied box that Sid

suspected didn't usually get filled. It had a perfect view of the stage, just

to stage right, but Sid found herself more interested in watching the

audience. There were a mixture of shifters and humans, wealthy and

poor, a variety of colors and backgrounds.

"Don't tell me you grew up here too," she said to Fitz, but he held a
finger to his lips and gestured up to the house lights that were being

dimmed.

"We'll talk after," she promised him, and he grinned, shifting in his

seat, so she could settle against his side, his arm around her shoulders.

They would talk after, certainly, Sid just wasn't sure what they'd talk

about.

***

"Fitz! You made it!"

A gangly, teenage boy with limbs too long for his frame bounded up
to Fitz after the show, and Fitz pulled him into a hug.

"Told you I'd be here, didn't I?" Fitz said. "You were great! Where'd

you learn to dance like that?"

"Il Maestro, of course." The boy nodded to a distinguished

gentleman holding court in one corner of the lobby.

"Ah, of course," Fitz said, then he turned to Sid with a smile.

"Danny, this is Sid Carlin. She's from L.A. Sid, this is Danny Feldman.

He's the next big thing to come out of Brooklyn public schools."

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Danny," Sid said, offering him her
hand. She could tell when he took it that he was a shifter. He hadn't yet

hit the point in his puberty where he'd start filling out, but Sid could

already see that he'd rival Fitz in size when he finally did.

"You too, Sid!" He was blushing a little, but it was clear to see his

focus was all on Fitz. "Are you coming to the after party?"

"I wish I could, Danny," Fitz said. "Maybe next time I'm in town."

"Oh," Danny answered, clearly disappointed. "Cool, yeah." Someone

across the room called Danny's name, and he excused himself.

"We can stay for the party, if you'd like," Sid offered.
Fitz shook his head. "They don't really want me there. Some old guy

hanging out with the cool kids?"

Sid laughed. "You're Fitz Walker. When have you ever not been a

cool kid?"

Fitz nodded to a spot across the room where a group of about five

shifters had gathered and were giving Fitz the stink eye. "You'd be

surprised, Junior. Come on. Let's meet the rest of the gang."

***

While Sid was being charmed by a group of middle-school girls


showing her how to do the signature, Footloose dance, Fitz went to the

refreshment table to get them both a drink. When he got there, Arthur

Cook and Felipe Diaz were hovering around the cookies. Cook and Diaz

were pack elders, but they tended to side with Lakey on most subjects,

including how well-suited Fitz was for the role of Alpha.

They'd also both had daughters in the play, and Fitz was trying not

to let pack politics ruin the evening. "Arthur," he said, nodding in

greeting. "Felipe. Your girls were both great tonight."

There was a tense silence in response until Cook said, "It's good to
see you haven't abandoned the pack entirely."

"No," said Diaz. "He had to come back to see who he can get to

follow him to New York. Leave the pack like a coward."

Fitz's grip on the plastic water bottle he'd picked up tightened, and

the thin plastic creaked ominously in his hand. "The pack I was raised in

taught me that every wolf has to make his own path. I'm not asking

anybody to follow me." He raised his gaze to meet first Cook's eyes then

Diaz's. "And, I wouldn't dream of forcing anyone to stay."

He turned on his heel, then, heading back to Sid, determined not to


let the anger he felt building, the restlessness of his wolf, get in the way

of Sid's evening, even if it ended up ruining his.

He found her teaching a line dance to several of the cast. She was

laughing, her golden hair catching the light that reflected off the lobby's

chandeliers. She looked like she belonged, or at least like she COULD

belong. He glanced back over his shoulder to see Cook and Diaz

huddling together, no doubt talking about him, wishing he would just

pack up and head back to L.A.

Was that what he wanted? If he went back, he could easily have Sid.
If he stayed, what were the chances she'd stay with him? What if he

stayed and she went back? Could he handle the distance? Already he

found himself thinking about her all the time. What would he do if he

couldn't touch her again for weeks at a time? Months?

He shook his head. This was not the time to dwell on those

possibilities. He had Sid now. He could touch her now.

It was just hard to admit that it wasn't only his wolf who didn't

think that was enough.

***
For the past hour, Fitz had taken Sid around the room, introducing

her mostly to teenagers or college-age kids. They all knew Fitz, and he

greeted them all by name. Gradually it came out that Fitz had gotten his

start in the program, and he still came back to mentor occasionally.

"Not as often as we'd like, of course," said the man Danny had called

Il Maestro, a tall, Italian man with salt-and-pepper hair and a neatly

trimmed goatee. "But the students dote on him whenever he comes."

"I can see that," Sid said, watching Fitz performing an improvised

dance routine with the two teens who'd played the leads.
"This happens every time," Il Maestro said. "They can't get enough

of him. I told him if he could just convince the city to give us a multi-

million dollar grant, we'd pay him a salary to work at the foundation."

"There's never money for the arts," Fitz said, returning from his

dance party with a grin. "Besides, you'd get sick of me soon enough."

"You keep telling yourself that, Fitz," Il Maestro said before ducking

back into the crowd.

Sid looked from Fitz to the dissipating crowd in the lobby. "I see

what you mean, now," she said. "About the city knowing you. These
people...they're part of you. You're part of them."

"Oh, Junior," Fitz said. "I wish it was that simple."

He gave her a faint smile and tugged at her hand. "Come on. Let's

get out of here."

***

When Fitz walked her up to her hotel room, Sid was determined not

to let him leave her in the hallway again. She was pretty sure the guy

who'd been coming out of his room last night when Fitz left had guessed

what they were up to. He kept giving Sid strange, knowing looks, and she
really didn't want him to get a repeat performance.

Fitz, though, had been quiet since the theatre. It made Sid nervous.

She knew better than to push him on it, but she wanted to know what

was going on in his head, why he'd drawn back into himself. Clearly it

had something to do with the theatre program and something to do with

those shifters in the lobby, but he hadn't said what.

They got to her door, and she held her keycard firmly in her hand.

"Do you want to come in?" she asked, suddenly nervous that he'd

refuse.
"You know," Fitz said, leaning in, not quite pinning her against the

door but close. Sid would talk to him about his tendency to back her

against a door, but she really couldn't bring herself to mind, not when

she could smell the spicy undertones of his deodorant and feel the huff

of his breath against her cheek. "My mother thinks you're trying to

seduce me to get me back to L.A."

Sid laughed a stuttering laugh. "Would that work? Because I will

seduce the hell out of you if...."

She never got to finish that sentence. Fitz pulled her into a kiss,
neatly plucking the card from her fingers to reach behind Sid and open

the door.

A rush of heat flowed through Sid, and she slid her arms around

Fitz's shoulders as he dipped to lift her off her feet, one arm snug under

her ass.

Fitz carried her into the room, kicking the door shut behind him. Sid

took just enough time to toe off her shoes before wrapping her legs

around Fitz's waist. She may have come closer to his height than a lot of

women, but being held by Fitz still made Sid feel small.
He carried her like she weighed nothing at all, and when they

stumbled into the bed, he practically threw her onto it, his eyes dark

with desire, and a low growl in his throat.

A second later, he was on top of her, bracing himself on his

forearms as he looked down at her, just for a moment, before catching

her lips again in a searing kiss.

Sid's breath was coming almost too fast, and the heat from his body

against hers made her feel desperate to get out of her clothes. Fitz was

on the same page, it seemed, as he pushed her sweater up, broad palms
cupping her breasts, kneading them, fingers teasing over her nipples

until she was arching into each touch.

"Fitz," she gasped as a coolness spread over her skin when he sat up

to yank off his shirt and tug at hers until, between the two of them, they

managed to get it off and tossed aside.

Sid wasn't sure she could wait to feel his hands again. Her clit was

pulsing at the memory, and her panties were nearly soaked. Fitz inhaled

deeply through his nose and then gripped her skirt, pulling it hard down

her legs. He didn't even bother trying with her underwear, just tore them
in half like they were made of tissue paper.

Sid's eyes were wide as she watched him, not in fear but in arousal.

She had nothing to fear from Fitz, and she knew it.

When he bent to kiss her again, she wrapped her arms and legs

around him, pushing her hips up until she felt the heat of his erection

under the rough drag of denim between her legs.

"Fuck, Sid," Fitz growled, yanking open his jeans and shoving them

down, finally freeing his thick cock.

"Please," Sid murmured, pulling him closer, gasping into his mouth
when she felt the pressure of his erection just at her entrance, teasing

her, making her whimper. "Come on, Fitz. Do it. Fuck me. Take me...."

Fitz lifted his head, cupping her face in both hands, and held her

gaze with his as he rocked forward, pushing into her with one, long,

smooth thrust that took her breath away. Sid pressed her forehead

against his, keeping her eyes on his as long as she could manage.

Up until now, she'd tried to tell herself that this thing with Fitz was

a harmless flirtation, something they could both enjoy while they were

in New York, something that would never last the week.


But Fitz moved in her like he belonged there, like he'd finally found

his home. His lips caught hers here and there, the brush of tongue, the

catch of teeth. Sid could almost believe they were breathing each other's

breath.

As he thrust, Fitz whispered her name and a dozen other things Sid

couldn't make out over the sound of their bodies rocking together. He

shifted, pulling her legs higher up around his hips, reaching a hand

between them, fingers unerringly finding her clit and teasing it for only a

moment before rubbing her with an almost instinctive precision that


soon had her shaking under his touch.

"Fitz," she breathed. "Fuck, Fitz!"

"That's it, baby. That's it, Sid," Fitz gasped, lifting his head to watch

her face as she broke apart under him, finally letting herself cry out

loudly as she came, gripping his cock tightly inside her. Her climax

rolled through her, but Fitz didn't allow her time to recover before he

was pulling out, easing her onto her hands and knees, tugging her hips

up as she lowered her shoulders.

"Christ almighty, Sid," Fitz muttered. "You're perfect."


She looked back over her shoulder at him, and he bent over her,

kissing her roughly, teeth tugging at her lips. She felt the teasing stretch

of him at her entrance for just a moment before he thrust in again,

pushing the air from her lungs.

His fingers dug into her hips and he let himself go, pushing into her

harder and deeper, burying his face in her shoulder. His teeth dug into

her skin, just at the base of her throat, and Sid tilted her head, offering

her submission without a second thought.

She felt a second climax building, and Fitz's body seemed to be


tuned right to hers. He bit again at her throat, holding her skin between

his teeth, sucking until Sid thought she could feel the bruise forming;

Fitz's mark on her body.

His hand came around from her hip to find her clit, but even before

he touched it, she was coming again, Fitz's name on her lips.

She heard the echo of one single word as Fitz spilled himself into

her.

"Mine."


Chapter Twelve

Fitz could still smell Sid on him as he stalked the hallway of the

studio, where he was set to film an interview this morning. It wasn't

anything as intense as perfume, just the subtle, fruity undertone of her

body wash. Every once in a while, Fitz would turn a particular way, and it

would waft up to his nose. It made him close his eyes a moment, lost in

the memory of the sound of his name on Sid's lips as she came.

Somewhere in the middle of his daydream, his shoulder contacted

something hard, and Fitz opened his eyes to see one of the cameramen
scowling at him.

"Watch it, Walker," he said, and Fitz held up both hands,

determined not to fuck up this appearance with more stories of his

backstage temper.

"Sorry," Fitz said. "I should have been watching where I was going."

"Yeah, you should've," the manFitz sniffed the air. Not a man. A

shifter. "Good advice to keep in mind other places too, yeah?"

He pushed past Fitz, then, deliberately swinging his equipment bag

so that it struck Fitz's shoulder again. As he passed, Fitz saw the words
emblazoned across the back of the cameraman's jacket. "Semper

Excelsius." Always higher. The motto of the Heights Pack of the Bronx.

Frankie Cardoza's pack.

Before Fitz had a chance to go after the other shifter, Sid was at his

side.

"There you are! You're on in five. And you need to run through

makeup once more before you go on. Your nose has gone shiny."

Sid was more than enough distraction to get his mind off the

cameraman. Grinning, Fitz ducked his head to press his nose to Sid's
throat. "Hmm...wonder how that happened, Junior."

He was rewarded with a pink flush that crept up her throat when

she cleared it. "Not here, Fitz! Go to makeup!"

His laugh echoed down the hallway as he trotted away.

***

When Fitz returned to the green room after the interview, it was a

growl, not a laugh that was stuck in his throat. He shut the door behind

him hard enough to make a satisfying slam, and he jumped when he

heard a surprised yelp behind him and turned to see Sid standing there
with her hand over her heart.

Fuck, he could come back to that picture every day and never get

tired of it. Her hair was down around her face, and the top few buttons

of her blouse were undone, just enough to tease a little at the cleavage

between her rounded breasts.

It was almost enough to make him forget that he was angry.

"She tried, at least," Sid said when she'd recovered, taking a step

toward Fitz.

"That was trying?"


It wasn't that the hostess had actually asked about his pack, but

she'd asked broader questions about pack politics and how they

interacted with national and city politics now that shifters were out in

the open. It didn't break his rider, but only just.

"I think so," Sid offered. "Everyone wants to know where you fall,

Fitz, if you're going to stick around or go back to acting."

"Everyone wants to pick where I fall, you mean," Fitz said, growling

softly, his shoulders tensing. "Everyone has their own ideas of where I

ought to land."
"I don't think that's" Sid began, but Fitz cut her off.

"Even you, Junior. You want me back in L.A. Back with Meier and

Jones, bringing them fame and new talent and let's not forget that

handsome, little commission."

He expected her to fight back, to argue with him. Instead, she was

silent, her face frozen as she looked him over.

When she did speak, her voice had gone back to the all-business

tone she'd used when they'd first met. "It's true," she said. "I do want

you to go back to L.A. But not so that Meier and Jones can make a buck."
"Oh, sure," Fitz said, rolling his eyes. "You just want what's best for

me."

"I'm not an angel, Fitz. It has nothing to do with what's best for you

either."

Fitz took another step forward, crowding into her space, his arms

crossed over his chest. "So what's your motivation, then?"

Sid straightened up, but she'd taken off her shoes in the green room,

so even at her full height, Fitz towered over her. Still, she tilted her chin

up and said calmly, "If I can't convince you to come back to L.A. by the
end of the week, I lose my job."

Fitz went silent this time, his smug response stuck, caught just

before it darted out and ruined everything. Sid's job was in his hands.

Her life was in his hands, and she'd just offered that to him, trusted him

with that.

"Why didn't you say something sooner?" he asked, the anger

seeping from his shoulders as he tucked a strand of her hair behind her

ear.

Sid dropped her head. "Because...that's not on you. You should make
your decision based on what's best for your life, not what's best for

mine."

He crooked his fingers under her chin to pull her gaze back to his.

"What if I want to make it based on what's best for ours?"

Even hearing himself say those words made his heart beat faster,

and he kissed Sid mostly so that he didn't have to think about whether

or not he really meant them. (And whether or not Sid felt the same way.)

Sid must have been on the same page, though, because she threw

her arms around his neck, climbing him like a tree, long legs wrapped
around his trunk. She'd worn a fuller skirt today, and it allowed him so

much more freedom than those tight, little numbers she usually favored.

Trusting her to hold on to him, he navigated them around to the

couch, dropping onto it and causing Sid to buck against him, groaning

into his lips.

She was already pawing at his belt, fumbling it open, and he slid his

hands up under her skirt to find her panties. With a determined growl,

he yanked hard, ripping the seams apart.

"Hey!" Sid said, pausing mid-unzip to swat at his chest. "Those


things are expensive!"

Fitz grabbed hold of her hips, pulling her firmly against him, letting

her feel his hard length as she rolled forward, her head falling back to

expose her throat. It was too much temptation for Fitz, and he arched

up, pausing just to rumble into her skin, "I'll buy you all the sexy panties

you want, Junior," before closing his lips over her racing pulse and

sucking hard, feeling her blood rise to the skin, warming under his

mouth.

He couldn't bite her. It wasn't safe. Humans only survived a shifter


bite forty percent of the time, and those were odds Fitz wasn't about to

play. Not with Sid.

But it was hard to push aside the wolf in him howling to claim his

mate properly. This would have to do for now.

Somehow, Sid managed to finish opening Fitz's trousers, and Fitz

hissed in pleasure when his throbbing cock was exposed to the cool air

of the green room.

"You know," he said, holding onto Sid's hips to lift her slightly,

letting the tip of his erection tease through her folds until he heard that
telltale hitch in her breath. "I've always wanted to have sex in a green

room."

Sid laughed, a sound that morphed into a groan when Fitz pushed

his hips up a little bit, letting her feel the stretch of his crown at her

entrance. "Are you just using me to fulfill a fantasy?" she teased.

Fitz leaned back to look at her, face flushed, blue eyes bright and

wide, lips parted. Her face was at odds with the way she was still

completely clothed, sweater in place, skirt hiding anything happening

below her waist.


Fitz grinned, leaning up to brush his lips over the bruise that was

already forming at the base of her throat. "You are the fantasy, Junior,"

he murmured, and then he pulled her down onto him, around him, and

he felt her whole body shudder as her wet heat enveloped him.

"Fuck, Fitz," Sid breathed, and she caught his face in both hands,

kissing him deeply. Fitz let her taste him, explore him with her tongue,

until he couldn't wait any longer, and then he pushed back, claiming her

mouth as he was claiming the rest of her body. He couldn't bite her, not

properly, but he could make sure she felt him tomorrow, felt every
touch, every kiss, and every thrust.

As he pulled back from the kiss, she caught his lip in her teeth and

tugged sharply. It struck something in Fitz, and he began to thrust

harder up into her, pulling her down to meet him. Her voice rose, and

Fitz knew the crew could hear him, even that jackass from the Heights.

Fuck if he was going to let some Bronx bastard stop him from

wringing every drop of pleasure out of his mate.

Sid's thighs began to shake, and Fitz pulled back to watch her face,

eager to see her lose control, to memorize the sounds she made when
she couldn't hold them back. Reaching between them, his thumb easily

found her swollen clit, and it took hardly more than a touch for Sid to be

crying out, her whole body arching as she came, pulsing around him.

A moment later, and he was shifting them both, laying her on her

back on the couch as he drove into her, losing himself in her tight, wet

heat, until he brought his lips, once again, to the bruise on her throat,

biting down, almost enough to break the skin, as he spilled himself into

her, into his mate.

***
Tucked against Fitz's broad chest on top of the leather couch in the

green room with Fitz growing soft inside her, Sid took in a deep breath.

Even she could tell the room reeked of sex. She wondered idly who had

to clean the green room.

Fitz's warm hand was settled at the base of her spine, and he

stroked his fingers up under her sweater just a bit. Sid stretched under

his touch, feeling the released tension pleasantly wriggling up her spine

until it reached the aching heat at the base of her throat.

She smiled a little, and said, "You bit me."


Fitz chuckled. "Only a little," he answered. "I didn't break the skin."

"What would happen if you had?" she asked, propping herself up on

one elbow to look at him.

Fitz shrugged, looking away. "In my human form? It's a crap shoot.

You've got about even odds on living as a human, living as a shifter,

and...dying."

"I'd heard that," Sid said with a frown, pushing herself up until she

was straddling Fitz's hips, looking down on him. "They used to say in

Oklahoma that...that a shifter bite was toxic to humans." She didn't


always take those things as truth. They said a lot of things in Oklahoma,

especially when it came to shifters. Sid had heard any number of colorful

things said about shifters and, more pertinently, about humans who had

sex with them.

Nodding, she continued the line of questioning. "What about your

wolf form? What if you bit me as a wolf?"

Fitz shifted as though he were uncomfortable. "Your odds of

surviving at all drop to twenty percent."

Twenty percent. Not a certainty, but not great odds. "But if I lived?"
"You'd be a shifter," Fitz admitted. "I'm not going to bite you,

Sidney."

"Okay," Sid answered. Until Fitz had started talking about 'our life,'

Sid hadn't even considered the possibility, but now that it was out there,

well...what did a life together look like if Sid remained human? How

much of Fitz's life would she be unable to understand, unable to even

participate in?

Fitz's phone rang before she could pursue that line any further, and

Fitz stretched over to the coffee table to answer it. "Hello?"


Sid pulled herself to her feet. Her ruined underwear dropped to the

floor and she picked them up, meaning to wave them playfully at Fitz,

but when she looked over to him, he was frowning, brow furrowed. He

stood and quickly fastened his trousers.

"I'll be there in five," he said. "Tell Darby I'm on my way."

"What is it?" Sid asked as soon as he ended the call.

"It's Caroline," Fitz answered, his voice darkened into a growl. "She's

been kidnapped."


Chapter Thirteen

Darby Walker paced up and down the length of the Walker family's

formal drawing room. Sid watched her, nearly in awe. She and Fitz had

come straight from the studio, and Fitz had left Sid there, making her

promise not to leave and to listen to his mother for her own safety. Then

he and Alex had bolted out the door, shifting mid-stride. Sid had her first

glimpse of Fitz's wolf for only a few seconds before he disappeared

around the corner, a flash of warm, brown fur and surprisingly large

teeth.
Since then, she and Darby had been eyeing each other warily from

across the room while Darby wore a rut in the rug.

Finally, Sid couldn't take it any longer. She sprang to her feet. "Do

you want tea? Why don't I make us some tea?"

Darby paused in her pacing. "My daughter has been taken, most

likely by the same pack whose Alpha recently murdered my husband.

What good do you suppose tea will do?"

Sid swallowed. The perspective was a little overwhelming. "Well,"

she said, struggling to keep her voice, "it will give me something to do
with my hands, and it will give us an excuse to be civil to each other.

Grandma always said, 'Tea ain't about the drinkin' of it. It's about what

leaks out around the edges once everybody's warmed up.'"

Darby snorted something suspiciously like a laugh. "Very well," she

said, nodding toward the kitchen. "I trust you can navigate around sharp

objects and hot stoves without supervision?"

Biting back a snarky response, Sid nodded, heading for the kitchen.

One other good thing about making tea: it gave her an excuse to be away

from Darby for ten minutes. She'd known already that Darby didn't trust
her, that she thought Sid was seducing Fitz only to get him back to L.A.

Sid was determined to prove Darby wrong, but she didn't have any idea

where to start.

Somehow, with Fitz and Alex out risking their lives, and Caroline

who knew where, Sid didn't think this was the time to butter up the

potential in-laws.

Instead, she turned her focus to the familiar ritual of making tea. As

she'd suspected, the Walker's had an elegant, bone china tea set,

complete with a matching tray, and Sid let herself take comfort in the
task of boiling the water, brewing the tea, and setting the tray with a

packet of cookies she'd found in a cupboard. Once everything was in

place, Sid took a deep breath and headed back out to the drawing room.

Darby was no longer pacing. She'd seated herself elegantly on the

edge of an overstuffed chair, legs crossed in a way that somehow showed

off their length and made Darby seem intimidating.

Clearing her throat, Sid strode to the side table next to Darby's seat

and set down the tea tray. She was used to dealing with intimidating, and

she knew the best strategy was generally to exude as much confidence as
possible.

"Milk and sugar?" she asked, pouring tea into two cups.

"Just sugar, thank you," Darby said, watching Sid pour in a way that

made Sid feel like she was auditioning for a role of some sort, being

scrutinized at every turn. "One lump."

Sid added the sugar and gave it a quick stir, laying a cookie on the

saucer before handing the tea to Darby and fixing her own cup.

Darby was silent until Sid had finished and taken a seat on the chair

opposite.
"So," Darby said. "You have a grandmother. That's something, I

suppose. Any other family?"

Sid frowned into her tea. She hadn't really been prepared to meet

the Walkers today, and certainly not under these circumstances. Still,

she knew how important Fitz's family was to him, so she was

determined to make a good impression.

"No ma'am. None to speak of."

"Come now, you didn't just appear on the firehouse steps one

morning. You must have come from someone."


Sid sipped her tea. She didn't often talk about her family.

"I have family, of course," she said eventually. "I don't associate

with them."

Darby arched an eyebrow. "Oh? And why is that?"

Because they told me my best friend deserved to be road-hauled,

she thought, but she kept her mouth shut and took another sip of tea to

calm herself before answering.

"Because they fall victim to the prejudices of their ancestors," she

said finally, leveling an even look at Darby. "And I have no room for that
kind of bigotry in my life."

Darby took a drink of her tea, but Sid would almost swear she was

masking a smile.

"And why are you so determined to get my son to abandon his pack?

Are you afraid he'llwhat was it? Fall victim to the prejudices of his

ancestors?" Her voice was calm, but Sid heard the steel behind it.

"Honestly?" Sid said. She'd confessed it to Fitz. It hardly seemed

important to hide it from his mother. "I'll lose my job if he stays in New

York."
"Ah," Darby answered, leaning back a little in her chair. "Well, that's

easy enough to understand, and even easier to deal with." She waved a

hand dismissively. "Setting that aside for now, what about Fitz. Do you

think it would be better for him to be in L.A. or is this purely a selfish

move on your part?"

Sid's jaw clenched. It was harder than she'd imagined it would be to

keep her temper around this woman. The only thing allowing her to

keep it together was the knowledge that Darby just wanted what was

best for Fitz, the same as Sid.


"I think it's no secret that the sort of work Fitz excels at is more

prevalent in L.A.," she said after a moment's thought.

"Action films, you mean," Darby said with a nod. "Shadow's Blood

or whatever the new one is called."

"Shadow's Fury," Sid corrected automatically.

Darby smiled, mocking. "Yes, that's the one. Tell me, Sidney, have

you ever seen Fitz act?"

"I watched Death in Doubles in college. Everyone did."

Darby waved again, impatient. "No, no. Not that sort of thing. I
mean really acting. Have you ever seen him sink his teeth into a part?"

Darby's eyes flicked to Sid's throat, and Sid felt a flush rising in her

cheeks. She'd tried to hide the bruise with a vivid, blue scarf, but she

knew it must be peeking out with the way Darby's gaze settled there.

"I...no, I suppose I haven't," she said.

"It's really something," Darby said, getting to her feet and crossing

to the mahogany bar that dominated one end of the room. She pulled

out two glasses and a bottle of scotch, pouring two fingers of amber

liquid into each tumbler. "If you can find it, somewhere there exists the
film of his college production of A Streetcar Named Desire. That was

when I knew he had a real gift, that it was something to be encouraged."

Sid moved to join her at the bar, taking one of the glasses. "He said

that once. That you helped him become an actor, encouraged him to go

to L.A."

"Yes, well," Darby said. "We've seen how well that went. Another

few years, and he'd have outgrown the action scene on his own, but

now...there isn't time. His family needs him here." She lifted her glass

thoughtfully. "I know this won't mean anything to you, but his pack
needs him here."

Sid took a sip of the scotch, letting it burn its way slowly down her

throat. She thought of Carrie Anne and her family, how the pack had

reacted to her death. She wondered if it would have been different if

they'd had a strong Alpha leading them rather than a ragtag group of

elders.

"It means something," she said. "Maybe not as much as it means to

you, but it does mean something."

Darby watched her warily, then nodded. "You're fucking him."


It wasn't a question, just a blas statement of fact. It still had Sid

sputtering into her whisky. "I beg your pardon?"

"Oh, dear. You're one of those tender-hearted souls, who has to say

'making love' aren't you?"

"No, just...." She laughed. The intellectual knowledge that shifters

were much more open about sex than humans did not prepare her for

the reality of hearing Fitz's mother say that. "I didn't expect you to come

right out with it."

Darby laughed and carried her scotch back over to her chair. Sid
noticed it was positioned so she could see the sidewalk approaching the

house. "You came into my house covered in the scent of Fitz and sex. If

you'd wanted it kept secret, you could have at least showered."

Sid's ears burned red-hot with embarrassment, but she managed a

laugh anyway. "Touch. I'll remember that in the future."

"Have you fucked a shifter before?" Darby asked, her head tilted

curiously, as though she'd just asked if it were Sid's first time in New

York.

"I...no. Not before Fitz."


Darby nodded crisply. "Shifters...we tend to lead so much with our

bodies that our hearts get tangled up in things before we even notice."

"I'm not sure I understand." Sid thought of Fitz, of how he'd been

thinking about their life together.

"The more you fuck Fitz, the harder he'll fall for you," Darby said

brusquely. "He can't help it. His wolf will want to protect you, mark

you." Her eyes flicked to Sid's throat again. "He won't be thinking

straight around you."

"Isn't that how falling in love works?" Sid asked. "It's just a mutual
obsession. I imagine nobody's thinking straight in the beginning of a

relationship."

"Yes, but most people's partners aren't trying to convince them to

make a major life decision," Darby pointed out. "The more you sleep

with Fitz, the more he'll want to be with you. You'll be like an addiction

to him. Until, if you ask him to go back with you, he'll say yes without a

second thought just to ensure his next hit."

Sid thought of the way Fitz touched her, the way he couldn't seem to

keep his hands off her. She thought of the way he'd claimed her, called
her 'mine,' left his mark on her skin. It was a little too close to what

Darby was describing.

On the other hand, Sid felt that way herself. When Fitz was near,

she wanted to be touching him. When he'd bitten her, she'd felt the pain

of it mixing so intricately with her pleasure that she couldn't separate

the two.

"I'm not asking you to leave him," Darby continued. "Just think

about staying out of his bed."



Chapter Fourteen

Fitz's wolf was single-minded as he bounded through the streets of

Brooklyn. Caroline had been taken only a block from their home, which

meant two things. First, the Heights pack was getting too cocky, if they

thought they could steal Caroline Walker right under her family's noses.

Second, having been taken right under her family's noses, Caroline's

scent was easy to pick up, though it was difficult to follow.

They'd taken her in a vehicle of some sort. A van, according to what

Fitz had been told in the few minutes he'd taken to check in with his
mother. He and Alex had sprinted out the door so quickly, Darby was

still yelling instructions to them as they went.

Fitz hadn't even taken the time to say goodbye properly to Sid. She

was human. She wouldn't be prepared for his death the way a shifter

would. Even as he leapt through the fire escapes dotting a narrow alley,

he was regretting that.

He heard Alex yipping behind him and skidded around to see the

silver-tipped auburn fur of Alex's wolf rounding a corner Fitz had run

right past.
He growled at himself as he quickened his pace. He'd been so

obsessed with Sid, he'd forgotten why he was here in the first place.

Caroline.

Nose to the wind, he caught her scent once more, closing in on

Alex's heels and then leaping past him. Any other run through the city,

and they'd be more cautious, stay out of sight. Even with the ostensible

peace between humans and shifters, it wasn't good to aggravate the

tension that still existed. Seeing two full-grown shifters sprinting

through Williamsburg on a Tuesday afternoon could still be traumatic


enough to turn someone against shifters for life.

Today, though, none of that mattered. Fitz and Alex darted their way

across a busy street, ricocheting off cars and street lamps alike.

A howl from behind let Fitz know that Alex was close behind and

that they both knew they were coming to the end of the trail. The van's

scent turned off the main road up a winding driveway to a huge, old

house, set back conspicuously far from the street. It was as if its builders

knew that it was destined for nefarious deeds.

Fitz and Alex both slowed as they approached the drive. Surely
whoever had taken Caroline wouldn't be stupid enough to think no one

would find them. They were wary, even though Fitz's wolf was anxious

to jump into the fight.

To his left, Fitz heard a soft howl, and a moment later another wolf

drew up at his side. Broad but short, grey fur mottled with white.

Mendoza. With the backup Fitz and Alex had been too impatient to wait

for. Three more joined them, and Fitz threw back his head, floating a

howl of warning through the forest.

Even if the Heights had an army hidden behind the innocuous


facade of the house, Fitz knew his packmates. They'd give as good as

they got and better. No one was going down without taking at least two

with them.

He howled again, and the sound was echoed by Alex, then Mendoza.

Fitz took the lead, but they chased after each other, nipping at each

other's heels, each wolf anxious to get into the fight.

The front door opened as they approached and a man stepped out,

tall, pale, and naked. He whistled and two wolves appeared at his sides,

stepping out onto the porch. The man grinned. His teeth were sharpened
to points, and as he leapt from the porch, his body twisted, shifting

seamlessly before his feet hit the ground.

Fitz was impatient. He didn't have time to waste with these betas.

He needed to find Caroline. Mendoza snapped his jaws at Fitz's ear to get

his attention and then howled, jerking his head toward the side of the

house.

Fitz barked for Alex to follow but was off running without a

backward glance. He sprinted around the side of the house and skidded

to a stop when he saw a set of stairs leading up to an apartment over the


garage. Two enormous wolves, one white, one grey, stood sentry at the

top.

With an anticipatory growl, Fitz bared his teeth. Caroline's scent

was strongest here, and these wolves would pay for what they'd done to

his sister.

Before he could lunge at the white wolf, though, Alex was leaping

over his head, colliding with the white wolf mid-air, teeth snapping at

his throat.

The two went crashing from the stairs, splintering the rail as they
fell. Fitz bounded up, diving as the grey wolf leapt. He twisted as he

dove, bringing his hind legs up to catch the grey wolf's underbelly, razor

sharp claws tearing through soft flesh.

Fitz didn't stay to see what became of his opponent. He was already

leaping through the open door.

The sight that greeted him brought him up short. Caroline was

sitting on a worn, faded couch, naked, delicate silver chains coiled

around her neck, her wrists, and her ankles. The sharp scent of searing

flesh hung in the air, and Fitz snarled. Three wolves stood between him
and his sister. One of them was small, barely more than a pup. Fitz

turned his attention to the other two.

The larger one, brown and scarred, stepped forward, hackles raised,

snarling as he and Fitz circled each other.

"Rip out his throat, Fitzy," Caroline said, her voice calm but deadly.

"Do it for Dad."

It was more encouragement than he needed to lunge for the wolf. It

was quick for its size, but Fitz was younger. He could wear the brown

wolf out if he needed to. They came at each other in a snarling fury of
fur and teeth and claws. The wolf's hind legs caught Fitz in the chest,

raking across his rib cage, but Fitz pressed on, Caroline's calm

encouragements keeping his mind on the fight.

Fitz wanted to take at least one of them alive, question them, and

find out who was behind the plan, so he could take his revenge. It didn't

need to be this one, though, and it soon became apparent the brown wolf

was determined to go down fighting. It was panting, its hulking form

heaving with each intake of breath. Its moves were slowing as well, and

when Fitz feinted right, he found his opportunity. Feint right, lunge left.
The brown wolfs claws skittered on the floor as he struggled to change

direction mid-dodge.

Too late. Fitz's jaws clamped down on the wolf's throat, and a

moment later, its pained yowl was abruptly cut short.

When Fitz lifted his head, he saw Alex easily dispatching the other

grown wolf, tossing its limp body to the side like a rag doll. That was fine

as well. They could bring the pup for questioning. He was too young to

be responsible for this anyway.

Alex clearly didn't feel the same. As soon as he'd tossed the other
body to the side, he leapt for the pup, which was cowering in the corner,

whimpering. Something was wrong. Alex would never have gone after a

pup. He was lost to the fight, filled with nothing but rage and aggression.

Unchecked, a rage like this could make a wolf kill his own pack.

Fitz leapt for Alex as Alex pounced on the pup, intersecting his

pounce, ramming into Alexs chest. Catching Alex off-guard was the only

chance he'd have to take the rogue wolf down. Fitz tackled Alex into the

wall, plaster cracking. He lay the bulk of his weight across Alex's

shoulders and held Alex's throat in his teeth. It was a warning, and Fitz
wouldn't bite unless he absolutely had to, but if Alex couldn't accept his

dominance, there was only one way this fight could go.

The wolf under Fitz snarled and wriggled, but only for a few

moments. Alex went limp with a shuddering breath, and Fitz held him

there only a moment more before releasing him.

Stepping back, he raised his head and listened for sounds of fighting

from the main house. He could hear a scuffle or two, but it seemed the

fight was mostly over. Lifting his head, he loosed a long, ululating howl

of victory, and a few seconds later he heard the response from Mendoza.
Satisfied, Fitz turned his attention to the room. Alex lay panting

next to him, ears down in shame. The pup had moved from the corner

and was now leaning hard into Caroline's side as she attempted to

soothe it without letting her chains touch it.

The sight of the chains brought Fitz to his senses, and he took a

long, slow inhale and let himself shift on the exhale, breathing out the

wolf, breathing in the man. There was a sound of cracking bone and

stretching skin, and then Fitz was on two legs and crossing the room to

his sister.
"What did these fuckers do to you?" he asked as she held up her

hands for him to remove the silver. Her face was calm, but she had to be

in so much pain. Depending on how long the chains had been there, it

was possible the scars would never heal.

"Nothing more than this," she said, and he heard a faint quaver, the

only concession to her pain. As Fitz reached for the chain, she cautioned,

"Cover your hands with something!"

"No time," Fitz argued, gingerly gripping one end of chain between

his fingertips. It sizzled on his skin, and he gritted his teeth against it as
he slowly unwound the torturous links from Caroline's hands. He let her

take care of the chain at her throat, while he unbound her ankles.

When the chains lay in a steaming pile on the floor, Caroline let out

a shaking breath. The pup at her side had begun to lap at the red marks

on her wrists. Caroline hissed but didn't push it away.

"Friend of yours?"

"He's twelve, Fitzy," she said, already moving to position her body

between Fitz and the pup.

"He'll be treated accordingly," Fitz answered. "Come on. Let's get


you some clothes and you can tell Mom he followed you home and ask

to keep him."


Chapter Fifteen

It seemed to Sid like half the Williamsburg pack must have been

gathered in the Walkers' home once Fitz and Alex had returned with a

trembling Carolinestill holding herself tall and straightand a

frightened pup who still hadn't shifted back to human form.

It was clear from the tension between Fitz and Alex that something

had happened between them, but everyone was too focused on Caroline

to pay them much attention. That was fine by Sid, except that it meant

nobody was at all concerned about the deep-red stain on the front of the
shirt Fitz had picked up at the house Caroline was being kept in.

When he'd finally gotten back, Fitz had greeted Sid with an

enormous hug and a kiss that said he either didn't realize his mother

was standing two feet away or he simply didn't care.

Since then, he'd been passed from one pack elder to another to

discuss the incident and arrange a meeting for first thing the next

morning, after they'd had a chance to question the pup.

By the time Sid had a moment with him again, it had been almost

an hour.
"Let me look at that," she said, touching his chest lightly.

"It's fine," Fitz answered, but he didn't pull away from her touch.

His arms curled around her waist, pulling her in close. Sid rested her

cheek against his shoulder.

"Let me look, though," she protested. He seemed exhausted, and Sid

hoped he didn't have to stay here discussing pack business all night.

"Are you trying to get me naked, Junior?" He nosed at her hair, his

hand sliding down from her back to her ass, and she laughed, though she

heard Darby in the back of her mind, urging her to stay out of Fitz's bed.
"I'm trying to make sure you're not going to bleed out," she said,

lifting her head to look at him closely.

His eyes were tired, and his face was smudged with dirt and blood,

but she didn't see any cuts. "I'm not going to bleed out," he assured her.

"But if you really want a closer look, I think we can sneak out now."

Grinning, he leaned in closer, waggling his eyebrows. "Wanna see my

teenaged bedroom?"

Sid laughed. Clearly he wasn't too injured for innuendo. That had to

be a good sign. "Yes, please," she said. "I'd like the full, VIP tour."
"You will not be disappointed," Fitz promised. He took Sid's hand

and, after stopping to make sure Caroline was all right, led her up the

ornate staircase at the back of the main hall.

A giggle bubbled up in Sid's throat, and Fitz gave her a sideways

glance. "Something funny?"

"I was just thinking of how many teen girls would die shrieking if

they could be in my shoes right now."

"Shriek all you want, Junior," Fitz teased, tugging her through the

second door on the left. "Just don't die on me."


"Wouldn't dream of it," Sid said. She took a step back, even though

everything in her screamed at her to stay as close as possible, touch as

much of Fitz as possible. The bruise on her neck throbbed just being so

close to him.

Instead, she turned to look at the room, Darby's words bouncing

around in her head.

"Well?" Fitz asked, sliding his arms around her from behind. Sid's

breath caught, and she leaned back into the solid warmth of his frame

without thought.
"It's..." She swallowed. Fitz dipped his head, nuzzling along her

shoulder. "It's way nicer than my teenaged bedroom," she managed,

looking around the space for something to comment on. It was a large

room, dominated by a king-sized, four-poster bed in a dark wood. Cherry

or mahogany. The quilt on the bed was an intricate, twisting design of

interlocking rings in blues and bronzes, quilted over with a pattern like a

wolf, howling at the moon.

Before Sid could even open her mouth to mention it, Fitz tugged

away the scarf she'd wound around her neck. "Ah, there it is," he
rumbled, pressing his nose firmly against the bruise, sending an aching

want spiraling through Sid. "Mine," he said, a growl vibrating in his

chest.

Sid's knees threatened to give out, and she spun around to face Fitz.

She wanted to peel away his clothing, check every inch of his body, then,

when she was certain he was uninjured, tumble into bed and spend the

rest of the night with Fitz inside her.

Instead, she swallowed, holding a hand up to stop Fitz as he moved

closer again. "Wait, Fitz. We...we need to talk."


"Talk?" he asked, tilting his head to one side. "I thought you wanted

to check on this?" In one, fluid motion, Fitz stripped off his shirt,

revealing his broad chest, dark hair scattered across it, tempting Sid to

grip it between her fingers.

She took a deep breath and a step back. "I do. I...I will. But...I think

maybe we should...slow things down."

That brought Fitz up short, and he let the shirt drop heavily to the

floor. "Oh?"

"Yes," Sid said, taking another step back, just to be safe. "I...we're
moving very fast and the sex...."

"What's wrong with the sex?" His voice was low, dark, reminding

Sid of everything about the sex that was so, so right.

"Nothing. Nothing's wrong with it. It's just...." She forced her gaze

up to Fitz's face from where it had gotten lost following the path of dark

hair that disappeared under the waistband of Fitz's jeans. "It's been so

intense, and...I'm worried about how...."

She was rambling. She knew it. And Fitz was looking at her like she

better get to her point soon or he was going to be on top of her anyway,
which, pleasant as it sounded, would not help her cause at all.

Taking in a slow breath, Sid closed her eyes and blurted out, "I'm

worried you're going to let this influence your decision about L.A."

Sid jumped slightly when Fitz's wide, warm palm settled at the

small of her back, no other parts of their bodies touching. Her eyes

fluttered open to see Fitz standing inches away, and when she tilted her

head up, his lips were almost touching hers.

"You've been talking to my mother," he said, lips quirked upward in

amusement.
"She's not wrong," Sid protested.

With a sigh, Fitz stepped back, his hand dropping. Sid felt the loss of

heat immediately, almost painfully. "So...what? No sex until I decide?"

"I...I think that would be for the best." She desperately wanted to

take it back. To tell Fitz that it was fine, that nothing so incredibly good

could possibly be wrong, but that wouldn't be fair. Not to Fitz.

Fitz gave a low growl of frustration, but he took another step back.

There was a long, awkward moment, where they both stood just

looking at each other. The longing in the room was so strong Sid could
feel it like a magnetic force, drawing her back to Fitz.

"Should I go?" she asked eventually. "I should go."

Fitz's jaw was clenched, but he didn't seem angry. Just determined.

"I don't wanna send you away, but if you stay, I can't promise we won't

end up in bed."

Her breath trembling slightly, Sid nodded. "Okay." She took another

step back, then felt something break inside her and all but flung herself

back into Fitz's arms, leaning up on her toes to kiss him.

Fitz held her fiercely, arms crushingly tight around her, pressing
their bodies so close together Sid couldn't be certain where hers ended

and Fitz's began. Fitz growled into the kiss, catching her lip between his

teeth. Sid felt his cock, hot and hard against her hip, and her throat

throbbed in response.

She yanked herself away with a pained whimper and deliberately

didn't look at Fitz as she bent to pick up her scarf and wind it around her

throat.

"Wait," Fitz said, stepping up behind her again, close enough to feel

the heat of his body but not touching anywhere. He took hold of her
scarf gently and tugged it down, leaving her throat exposed. "For me," he

said. "Wear my mark proudly."

Sid felt a flush creeping up her body, her cheeks warm at the

thought even as a heat pooled between her legs. Her hand fluttered up to

touch the bruise, skin warm to the touch.

"Mine," Fitz whispered behind her, breath hot against her ear.

Squeezing her eyes shut, she took first one step away, and then

another, afraid to look back in case her resolve melted.

Still, when she reached the top of the stairs, she whispered, "Yours."
She couldn't be certain Fitz heard, but there was a low, shivery howl

behind her, and Sid smiled to herself as she descended the stairs.


Chapter Sixteen

"You slept with him."

Even from three thousand miles away, Pearce managed to convey

the depths to which he was unimpressed.

"I didn't say that," Sid protested.

"You didn't have to, Blondie. When you left L.A., you were chomping

at the bit, ready to rein in this shifter, bring him to heel, and get him

back to Kansas. Now you're giving me this bullshit about wanting to find
a middle ground? If you didn't sleep with him, you're being

blackmailed." There was a brief pause, and then Pearce continued. "Oh,

Jesus. He's not blackmailing you for sleeping with him, is he?"

"What? No," Sid said, putting the phone to speaker and dropping it

onto the hotel bed. She wished she'd put out the Do Not Disturb sign so

she could at least be in a bed that smelled like Fitz tonight.

Unfortunately, her phone bounced softly on crisp, white, newly

laundered bedding. "He's not blackmailing me, and I'm not sleeping with

him!" It was, after all, technically true.


"Didn't say you were sleeping with him. Said you slept with him."

Damn Pearce and his contradictory ear for verbal detail.

"That's neither here nor there, Pearce," Sid said after a guilty

silence. "The point is...," she trailed off, distracted, as she slipped out of

her shoes, wiggling her toes against the hotel's oddly cozy carpet. "The

point is," she tried again, "he deserves to live his life. His family needs

him. His pack needs him. Can't you understand that?"

Pearce scoffed. "Me, Blondie? I don't have family. I just sprouted

one day in a field of daisies."


"Let me guess," Sid teased, stretching up onto her toes. She hadn't

realized how tense she'd been all day. "You were adopted by wolves."

"Nope. Hedgehogs." Sid snorted a soft laugh, while Pearce guffawed

at his own joke.

"Of course," Sid said, shaking her head as she went to the little

teapot on her desk to brew some water for tea, then changed her mind

halfway there and rummaged in the tiny wet bar for an interesting bottle

or two. "Anyway. You get it, right? Why he can't go straight back?"

"I get it, Blondie," Pearce assured her. "But Meier? Meier will not
get it at all, and unfortunately for you? He's in charge of you staying or

going. Not me."

"Yeah," Sid muttered, frowning as she cracked open a tiny bottle of

merlot and poured it into a tiny, plastic cup. "Still, there's gotta be a way

I can buy him some more time, don't you think?"

"It's your funeral." Pearce sighed, and Sid heard a voice calling to

him in the background. "I'll be right there, sweetheart," he called back.

"Look," he said to Sid. "The way I see it, you're better off promising him

a quick return to L.A. to do one interview, maybe two, before he takes


some time off in New York to be with his family."

"You think the agency would go for that?"

"Hell, no," Pearce said. "But once he's here, he's Meier's problem,

not yours."

"You want me to lie to him?"

"I want you to promise something you might not be able to deliver

on. Come on, Blondie. We're agents. We do it all the time."

Sid heard the muffled voice again. "Who is that?" she asked. "I'm

not keeping you from a hot date, am I?"


"Nope. Just a hedgehog with an obsessive need to hear Goodnight,

Moon exactly seven times before she'll go to sleep."

Sid laughed, finishing her tiny bottle and idly browsing for another.

She was on the company's dime, after all. "Okay, okay. I'll let you go. Tell

the hedgehog that Little Blue Truck is good enough to only need one

reading."

"I'll do that, Blondie. Good luck."

"Thanks, Pearce," Sid called in the direction of her phone, though

she heard the shriek of a little girl laughing before the call ended, so she
doubted Pearce heard. She took a brief moment to wonder if the

hedgehog were Pearce's daughter or his niece, but then her aching

shoulders brought her back to the present moment.

Her body ached, and the bruise on her throat pulsed hot. She

brought a hand up to touch it, felt her skin warm beneath her fingers.

Her cheeks had flamed red as she left the Walkers' house, but she'd held

her head high. A few of the shifters had looked at her as if they noticed,

but the only people whose gaze she met were Darbywho gave her a

firm, approving nodand Carolinewho mouthed a quick, 'Thank you,'


that Sid couldn't quite interpret.

It had been a rush of exhilaration. Sid hardly considered herself a

prude, but to walk around with such an obvious hickey, to wear it like a

point of pride...that was something foreign to her, and she had to wonder

how the shifters looked at it. On the one hand, the practice was quite

common and indicated a strengthening bond between mates. On the

other hand, no shifter would carry a bruise long enough to display it so

boldly.

It had made Sid feel her own strength even as she acknowledged
how weak she was in comparison to these incredible creatures.

Her fingers lingered at her throat until she picked her phone up off

the bed and snatched another merlot on her way to the spacious

bathroom. It was one of those hotels that left little baskets full of bath

products for their guests. Sid had been used to the tiny, hotel bottles and

sample-sized soaps from hotels for most of her life. The first time she'd

traveled for work and been put up in a hotel like this, she'd thought it

must be the five-star treatment Meier and Jones gave their clients.

Now she had to laugh to remember the first time she'd seen a
client's accommodations and realized her little bottle of lotion was

nothing special.

Tonight, though, it was more than enough. Sid rifled through the

offerings until she found a cellophane wrapped bath bomb. Holding it to

her nose, she inhaled the soothing scent of lavender. Perfect.

She started the bath running. It wasn't the Jacuzzi tubs the clients

got, but it was big enough for even Sid to lay down fully in, and deep

enough to fully submerge herself. After the water had run for a while,

Sid dropped the ball in and watched it fizzle out around the tub.
Setting her phone on the vanity, Sid undressed slowly. Peeling off

her sweater and tossing it to the side. She took a moment to look at

herself in the mirror. Even in her short time in New York, her skin had

begun to pale. She was already looking less like the blonde, bronzed

SoCal beauty she'd so prided herself on being since leaving Oklahoma.

She could barely see the tan lines left from her last trip to the beach, and

she discovered she couldn't remember when she'd been surfing last.

"I guess L.A. didn't turn out like we thought for either of us, huh,

Fitz," she whispered to her reflection, fingers probing the still-tender


bruise, the faint ache bringing her right back to that moment, Fitz

spilling into her as he marked her body. The sensation pulsed out from

her throat, tightening her nipples as it went and settling low in her belly,

coiled heat, waiting to be released.

A thought occurred to her. What if sex with a shifter was just as

addictive as sex for a shifter? She hadn't wanted someone this

badly...well, ever. There had been a few boyfriends in college, but Sid's

life had been mostly focused on career since leaving home. There'd

hardly been time for romance.


This thing with Fitz had happened so suddenly, so intensely. Maybe

a break would be good for both of them.

Still, as she slowly stripped off the rest of her clothes, stopping the

water before climbing into the steaming, fizzling bath, she felt that pulse

of ache for Fitz's touch through her whole body.

She reached for the little bottle of wine and twisted off the top,

sipping it slowly, letting the heat from the water and the scent from the

bath bomb ease into her tense muscles. After a couple sips, she was

feeling a bit tipsy, and she reached for her phone, curious to see if Fitz
had texted.

He hadn't, but just as she opened her messages one came in.

Fitz:

Can we discuss this arrangement in more detail?

Sid grinned, a ridiculous flutter in her stomach. When was the last

time a man had made her stomach flutter?

Sid:

Are you not satisfied with the terms?

Fitz:
I just want some clarification of scope.

There was something just a little naughty in discussing their sex life

like this, like it was a contract Sid was negotiating for him.

Sid:

What are you concerned about covering?

Fitz:

Is written communication included in the ban?

A shiver ran through Sid. It wasn't as though she weren't familiar

with sexting. She'd even tried it with a boyfriend or two in college. She
just had never seen the appeal until now.

Sid:

Can you give me an example of a communique you're worried

might be prohibited?

There was a long pause, and then the texts came fast and furious.

Fitz:

I want to tell you that your scarf

smells like you when you're turned on.

And I want to tell you


that it's wrapped around my

hand right now.

and my hand is on my crotch

and I'm so goddamn hard all I want is to bury myself in you for

fucking ever and screw until neither of us can move and fall asleep

inside you and wake up and start all over again

Somewhere in the middle of the storm of texts, Sid had let her free

hand begin to wander, fingers stroking up her belly to drag across the

swell of her breast.


Sid:

I think the terms regarding written communication are vague

enough to allow it.

Fitz:

In that case

I also want to tell you that

I'm in my bed

and I'm almost naked

Sid:
Almost?

She pondered telling him she was in the bath, but Fitz seemed

content to take the reins on this, and Sid was perfectly happy to let him.

At least this time.

Fitz:

I'm still in my

boxers

wishing they were the ones

you rubbed yourself all over this morning.


Sid:

Show me

The words were typed and sent before she had a chance to doubt

them, and a moment later, her phone dinged. She opened it to find a

picture of Fitz from the neck down, his broad chest cleaned of any sign

of his fight that afternoon. Again, her eyes followed the trail of dark hair

to where it disappeared into his boxers.

This time, though, she let her gaze travel lower, to where her bright

blue scarf was wrapped around his hand like a bandage. His hand that
was clearly resting on top of a bulge Sid only believed wasn't false

advertising because she'd seen the real thing.

Fitz:

More?

Sid bit her lip. She wasn't in his bed. Not really. And if she couldn't

touch Fitz, at least she should be allowed to see him, right?

Sid:

Yes, please

Another picture, this time with his boxers pushed down, the blue of
her scarf coiled around his thick shaft.

Fitz:

More?

She hardly knew what more there was. Her free hand froze over her

chest, torn between reaching between her legs to tease her throbbing clit

and sliding up her throat to press against that deliciously aching bruise.

Sid:

More.

There was no response at first. Then Sid's phone began to ring. It


was Fitz. She wasn't sure where this fell in terms of tempting, addictive

shifter sex, but she answered without hesitation.

Fitz spoke before she could get a word out. "Don't say anything." His

voice was low, seductive. "I just thought, if this is going through my

head anyway, and it's my head we're trying to keep clear, there's no

reason to keep you out of the fun."

Sid started to answer, but as soon as she inhaled, Fitz stopped her.

"Shh, Junior. You just listen. If you feel like making noises later, I'll

understand."
She had to bite her lip to keep from answering again.

"Good girl," Fitz said, and she felt a thrill of pleasure at the praise.

"Put me on speaker so you have both hands free."

Sid felt her cheeks warm and was glad he couldn't see her hand

trembling as she obeyed. Both hands available now, she settled further

into the bath, the water lapping against the sides.

"Are you taking a bath, Junior? No, don't answer," Fitz said, his

voice right in her ear from where her phone lay. "I can hear it. Let's start

there, then. You in the bath, naked and wet." She heard a low growl that
coincided with the first brush of her fingertips against her aching clit,

and she sucked in a sharp breath.

Fitz gave a low chuckle. "Naked and wet," he repeated. "And I find

you there. Naked and wet and touching yourself, putting on a goddamn

show for me. Damn, Junior, you got me hard as a rock."

She wanted to tell him the feeling was mutual, but she bit her lip

again, letting out a low moan as she flicked her fingertip across the

pulsing bud between her legs.

"That's it. That's my girl," Fitz murmured. She could almost feel his
breath on the back of her neck. "You're in the bath, your hand between

your legs, my mark...fuck, my mark on your throat."

Her free hand wandered up to touch the mark, feeling it sore and

tender under her touch.

"And you look so perfect like that. So goddamn, fucking sexy. I want

to touch you so bad, but I'm gonna be good. I'm gonna stay here with my

dick in my hand, just watching my beautiful goddess touch herself, tease

her perfect body, thinking about me, thinking about my hand."

Sid let out a soft whimper, fingers seeking lower, pushing into her
slick canal, her thumb rubbing against her clit.

"Mm, you are, aren't you, Junior? Thinking about my hand. My

hand on your clit and my cock just teasing, just pushing against you. Are

you thinking about my hand, baby?"

Sid whimpered again, trusting him to take it as a yes.

"Good girl," he breathed again. There was a shift in the sound, like

he was moving the phone, and then Sid heard something like the drag of

fabric, of silk, over skin, slowly at first, then gradually faster. It took her

only a moment to realize what she was hearing, and when she did, she
groaned, delving her fingers deeply, curling and stroking.

"You hear that?" Fitz asked. "That's you, Junior. That's your scarf.

Fuck, it smells like you, and it's got me so fucking hard, Sid...Sidney...."

All she could do was whimper again, arching her hips up under the

water as she began to rub in earnest, pushing herself closer and closer to

the edge.

"You gonna do it, baby? You gonna come with me? Thinking about

me. Come with me, Sid." Fitz's voice was breathless, and Sid could hear

the fabric now above the sound of his low voice. "Come with me, Sid," he
panted again. "Sid...Sid...Sidney!"

He groaned so deeply, Sid felt it vibrating against the porcelain tub,

and the sound of it cascaded through her, pushing her to a gasped,

trembling climax.

For a long moment, Sid just lay, catching her breath. She didn't

know if the game was over yet, and she was reluctant to break the

moment created by the comfortable silence between them.

Before she could make up her mind, she heard Fitz, his voice

rumbling but steady. "Goddamn, I love you, Sid Carlin."


She sucked in a breath, but the call ended before she could answer.


Chapter Seventeen

Sid had only just gotten herself out of the bath when she heard a

sharp rapping on her hotel room door. She tugged on a comfortable pair

of pajama bottoms and a tank top and wrapped the hotel bathrobe

around her.

The second round of knocking was louder, and Sid grumbled, Im

coming, Im coming. Jeez.

When she opened the door to find Caroline Walker standing there

in a black sweater and floor-length palazzo pants, a red scarf wound


around her neck, Sid couldnt quite find an immediate greeting.

Especially when she glanced down to see the adolescent pup that had

been following Caroline at the Walkers all evening, sitting next to her,

pressed tightly to her leg.

Caroline didn't seem to mind. She held up a home-burned disk and

grinned, "Movie night?"

Sid stepped back to let her in, the pup trotting at Caroline's heels.

She couldn't help pulling her robe more tightly around her, cheeks

flushing as she thought of what she'd just been doing in the bath. Oh
god. What if Caroline could smell it on her, like Darby had?

Turning to shut the door, Sid bit her lip. She was being ridiculous.

Fitz hadn't even actually been here. She still shivered at the memory of

his voice in her ear.

"Gross," Caroline said, and Sid turned to see her wrinkling her nose

in distaste.

"I'm sorry?"

"Just...please don't lust after my brother while I'm actually in the

room? I can smell it, and it's seriously unappetizing."


"Yeah," Sid said, wishing her ears didn't feel so hot. "Sorry about

that. I just"

Caroline held up a hand to stop her. "I really don't want to know."

She strode into the main room and tossed the disk onto the couch.

"Are you hungry?" she asked after Sid had followed her in, a bit in

awe of Caroline's apparent ease in someone else's space. "Because

Marley and me could eat a horse right about now."

"Marley?" Sid asked, already rummaging in the desk drawer for a

room service menu.


Caroline shrugged and pulled her phone from her pocket. "We

haven't yet progressed to verbal introductions, so I'm having to make it

up as I go. He likes Marley better than he liked Benji."

The pup yipped and gave a thoroughly unintimidating growl. Sid

stifled a laugh.

"Are we having a K-9 pals movie night, then?" Sid asked, finally

holding up the menu in triumph. "Ah ha!"

"No, something much better," Caroline answered. "And put that

thing away. This is New York. There are always better options."
"Don't tell me Alfie's delivers."

Caroline grinned. "I knew he liked you."

"Fitz?" Sid's cheeks colored again, thinking of Fitz's last words to

her.

"If he took you to Alfie's, he must really be serious."

"Garlic knots mean he's serious?"

"Depends," Caroline said, flipping through an app on her phone.

"Did he kiss you after?"

Sid couldn't help laughing. Relaxing a bit after that. "Not directly,
no," she admitted, dropping into a chair diagonal from Caroline.

"But he did kiss you," Caroline grinned. "Just so you know, I am

rooting for you, Sid Carlin, Junior Agent at Meier and Jones."

Sid groaned, rubbing a hand over her face and pulling up her legs. It

felt a little like they were having a sleepover. Sharing secrets now.

Would they be braiding each other's hair by the end of the night?

"He told you about that?"

"Honey, who do you think sent you that first text?"

Sid's mouth fell open in shock, and she blinked at Caroline.


"You...you flirted with me!" she sputtered, and Caroline laughed, tucking

her phone away and getting up.

"I did! It was fun, and Fitz needed something to push him. He gets

too much in his head. I thought a little workplace fling might help him

relax a little."

"A fling?" Sid sat up straighter. She'd been through this with Darby

already. She wasn't sure she had the energy to do it again.

Caroline waved a dismissive hand and began to rummage through

the wet bar offerings, selecting a bottle here and there and mixing them
in a plastic cup. "Don't get your panties in a twist. I didn't know he'd

claim you so quickly, but I'm not sad he did."

Sid's hand moved self-consciously to the fading bruise at her throat.

"I'm not sure your mother shares that sentiment."

"Don't be so sure. Hey, will you get some ice? We'll have Thai food

in about an hour, so I figured cocktails first."

Sid dutifully took the ice bucket and headed down the hall. She saw

her neighbor from the night Fitz had her against the door, and when his

eyes flicked to the base of her throat, Sid straightened her spine and
looked at him head on, feeling a swelling of pride in the mark for the

first time.

The fact that Fitz's sister, who must be traumatized from today's

events, had come to Sid when she needed a safe space to escape from her

chaotic house, meant the world to Sid. It made her believe she might

really be able to do this, even as a human.

When she came back with the ice, she saw Caroline laying down a

bowl of water for the pup. "No fun stuff for you, Rin Tin Tin. Not till you

can run with the big dogs."


The pup gave a little grumbling complaint but set on the water

nonetheless.

"Ooh, ice!" Caroline said when she straightened. "Thanks! Now I

can properly intoxicate you before I interrogate the future mother of my

nieces and nephews."

It only took Sid a beat this time to catch up. "Oh, is she staying in

this hotel too?"

Caroline grinned, pouring her concoction into a glass full of ice and

straining it back out again into two plastic cups. "I like you, Hollywood.
You've got quite the mouth."

"So I've been told," Sid said, taking the glass and curling up in her

chair again. "So, what are we watching this evening?" she asked, nodding

to the disk that was still lying on the couch.

"Streetcar," Caroline said, picking it up to twirl it between her long,

elegant fingers before taking it to the room's TV setup. "You up for it?"

"That's not..." Sid began, remembering her talk with Darby.

"The one and only," Caroline said. "My mom doesn't know I have a

copy or she'd force a viewing onto all our houseguests."


"Yeah, she seemed to think it was really impressive," Sid said, not

sure how much of that was a mother's love and how much was an

honest assessment of Fitz's talent.

"She's not wrong," Caroline affirmed. She started the disk playing

and settled herself onto the couch. The pup settled himself across her

ankles, and Sid noticed she winced a little. "Fitz could have had a stage

career with just about no limits if he'd stayed in New York."

"But your mom wanted him to go to L.A.? Why?"

Caroline shrugged, sipping at her cocktail. Sid took a sip as well,


trying not to make a face. It was stronger than she'd expected. Good, but

definitely strong. "I never asked. My guess is that she has some sort of

lesson she wants him to learn or something she thinks will be an

advantage to the pack."

Sid nodded. "She's very dedicated to the pack."

"We all are," Caroline said, giving Sid a hard look. "It's in the blood

of the Walker family going back generations."

"Does Fitz feel that way too?"

Caroline absently let her fingers stroke through the pup's fur.
"Fitz...he has a hard time with knowing what he wants. He'd do anything

for the pack. He just doesn't believe we need him to. He thinks there

must be someone better."

"Alex," Sid said. Fitz hadn't said anything to her directly, but she'd

been reading up on it since she got to New York.

"Right now, yes," Caroline answered. "But really, just whomever it

seems like Dad liked at the moment."

"Do you think Alex would make a good Alpha?" It was something

Sid had been wondering since she'd first read about Fitz's cousin.
"I think he and Fitz would be amazing Alphas. I'm worried neither

of them will take it."

"What happens if they refuse?"

Caroline frowned and glanced down at the pup. It was only then that

Sid remembered that he was from the rival pack, the Heights. They

shouldn't discuss pack business in front of him.

"Sorry," Sid said. "I know this is a pack matter. I shouldn't butt in."

"You'll have to butt in if you're going to be with Fitz. They'll want to

shut you out, buthuman or notif you're with Fitz, you're pack."
Sid looked Caroline over closely, trying to determine how seriously

she meant that. Shifters were tight, insular. Allowing a human in on

pack matters was nearly unheard of. Granted, Sid had never heard of an

Alpha taking a human as a mate. She had no idea where she'd fit into

pack politics.

"Still," she said carefully, glancing to the pup.

Caroline shook her head. "He's fine. If the elders call for a vote and

Fitz and Alex are nominated? One of them will be Alpha. My guess is

whoever doesn't withdraw quickly enough."


"You don't really think that, do you? That Fitz would withdraw?"

"I don't know," Caroline said. She ran her fingers through her thick,

red hair distractedly. "I don't want to think he would. Regardless. Once

their nominations are accepted, the elders will vote between them.

Whoever wins is Alpha, whether they want it or not."

Sid nodded. It was an uncommon practice among shifters, but it

wasn't completely unheard of. The Williamsburg pack seemed to hold to

a slightly more archaic version of a common shifter voting practice.

"Anyway," Caroline said, nodding to the screen where the opening


credits had just finished rolling. "Grab some tissues and get ready for the

waterworks. Everybody cries the first time they watch this one."

Sid settled back into the chair to watch, but her mind was only half

on the screen.

***

"Why on earth did your mother send him to L.A.?" Sid asked over

curry panang a couple hours later.

"Right?" Caroline asked. "Everyone was confused when he left. My

dad was pissed. Even Alex couldn't figure it out. I'm sure she had a
reason, she always does. I just can't work out what it could be."

Sid thought back to the performance she'd just seen. Fitz had been

heartbreaking and a little terrifying. He'd brought a depth and

vulnerability to the part that Sid had never seen from his work before.

She wondered if anyone else at Meier and Jones even knew that Fitz had

this kind of talent in him.

An idea struck Sid then, and she sat straight up, gesticulating with

her third cocktail of the night. "Fuck," she muttered. "I wish I had more

contacts in New York."


"Why?" Caroline asked, sitting up herself in response.

"Because if I could just...." Frowning, she pulled out her phone,

flipping wildly through the contacts. "If I could give him the option, you

know? If I found a way for him to work but stay in New York. Then he

could make the choice for himself, you know? It wouldn't have to be

pack or acting."

"I like the way you think," Caroline said, a sharp smile on her face.

She'd unwound the scarf from her throat at some point during the film,

and Sid had done her best not to stare at the delicate, coiled scars around
her neck. They looked like tribal markings of some sort. Sid thought they

made Caroline look even more fierce, but it was clear Caroline wasn't

comfortable with them yet, so Sid kept the thought to herself.

"I just don't know the industry here like I do in L.A." She wasn't

high enough at the agency to have worked bicoastal contracts yet, so the

only names she knew were only useful on the West Coast."

"You're in luck," Caroline said, her hand darting out lightning-fast to

snatch Sid's phone from her fingertips. "I know a guy who knows a guy."

"Oh?" Sid asked, tipsy and amused. She was glad Caroline liked her,
especially glad Caroline was not nearly as scary as her mother.

"Here," she said, handing the phone back. Sid looked down to see

the name 'Jason Goetz' next to a New York number. "Call him tomorrow.

Tell him you got his number from Chase."

"Chase?" Sid asked, raising her eyebrows.

"A school friend," Caroline said flatly. "Jason's cousin."

"Ah." For a moment, Sid felt envious of Caroline. She'd grown up

with a contact list agents would kill for. Networking for her was as easy

as going to a weekend party. "And what makes you think


this...Jason...would be good for Fitz?"

"Apparently he has this weird theory," she said, rolling her eyes.

"He's incredibly obsessed with New York. Lived here his whole life,

never been farther than Boston. He hasn't left the state in ten years. He

believes that any film can be shot in New York."

"Any film?"

"Any film. Set in Antarctica? He'll make it happen."

Sid laughed. It was a little crazy, but when she thought about Fitz

with those kids at the theatre, she wondered if it might also be a little
perfect.

"Best part is," Caroline continued, "he loves hiring shifters. Plus,

he's got the funds, but his studio isn't pulling in the recognition yet."

Nodding, Sid grinned. "So Fitz could bring him the star power he

needs to build hype."

"Exactly," Caroline answered. She pulled herself to her feet, and Sid

was impressed she could manage to stand after as much of Sid's bar as

she'd decimated. "You think you can take it from here?"

"I think I can," Sid acknowledged, already making notes about how
to set up a meeting, what to ask about when she called. "Thank you.

Really. This is amazing."

"Don't thank me," Caroline said. She waited for Sid to look at her

before continuing. "Just make sure Fitzy chooses whatever is going to be

best for him. He'd be an incredible Alpha, but the pack will survive if he

goes back."

She bent to pick up the pup, who had fallen asleep on the couch. "I

think you're going to be good for him, Sid Carlin, Junior Agent," she said,

winding her scarf around her neck with the hand not occupied with
supporting a sleeping wolf-pup.

"I hope so," Sid said, smiling as she held the door for Caroline.

She watched Caroline go down the hall and disappear around the

corner at the elevators.

The door closed with a quiet click, and Sid pressed her forehead

against it.

"I really, really hope so."



Chapter Eighteen

Fitz was on edge all morning.

Last night on the phone with Sid had been hotter than he'd ever

thought phone sex could be, but there was this ache in his chest from

not seeing her, not holding her. His wolf paced restlessly, and Fitz wasn't

doing much better.

He'd said aloud what he'd been thinking for some time now, and

like a coward, he'd hung up before Sid could reply. As a result, he was

torn between needing to see Sid again and not wanting to hear her
response.

He'd checked on Caroline first thing, but she was already up and

gone for a run, determined to show she was not afraid. The pup that had

been plastered to her side was finally sleeping, in her room, and strict

instructions had been left not to disturb him without her permission.

They hadn't gotten anything from him last night, not even a name or a

family they could contact. Caroline had said to leave it to her, and Fitz

would allow that for another day, but they couldn't keep a rogue kid

from another pack indefinitely. Not when tensions were already running
so high.

With a frown, Fitz checked his watch and put down his newspaper.

He didn't want to leave before Caroline got back, but he needed to make

it to the meeting at pack offices, and he was running out of time.

The front door opened, and Fitz put down his newspaper, scenting

the air to identify who it was.

Caroline.

Good. So long as she was safe, he could concentrate on pack

business without worrying about her. His thoughts about Sid, he'd have
to control on his own.

He pulled himself to his feet and moved to greet her in the hall.

"You were up early," he noted. "Antsy?"

She shrugged, and he looked her over. She was covered nearly head

to toe. Black, long-sleeved hoodie, zipped all the way to the top, and

ankle-length running leggings that disappeared into the tops of her

sneakers. Even her sleeves allowed her to tuck her hands inside, thumb

peeking through a hole at the seam. "I always run in the morning."

Fitz nodded. He could respect the need to affirm that things would
continue as they had been, that she wasn't scared to return to her life.

"Good for you," he said, and when she unzipped her hoodie, he

couldn't stop the way his eyes flicked to the angry red scars coiling

delicately around her slender throat.

She met his eyes, her gaze hard. "For what? Continuing?"

"Yes," he answered simply. He reached for her hand and sighed

when she pulled back from his touch. "Look. I'm proud of you. That's all.

Go upstairs and shower. Your pup's going to be awake soon."

She looked like she wanted to say more, but, in the end, she just
nodded shortly and skirted around him to make for the stairs. Fitz

watched her go with a frown, wondering if her emotional scars would

heal before or after her physical ones did.

***

The atmosphere around the conference table was tense. Fitz could

smell it in the air. An overabundance of testosterone and adrenaline. It

was a dangerous mix.

"The Heights blatantly attacked Caroline Walker in pack territory,"

Mendoza was saying. "If we don't respond, we will lose our status. We
might as well just sign over our authority now. An attack like this cannot

stand!"

"We don't know it was sanctioned by the pack," Gerstman argued.

"If they turn out to have been rogues, we'll be starting a war over

nothing."

"Nothing?" Fitz's voice cut through the undercurrent of chatter in

the room. "My sister, the daughter of your late Alpha, was kidnapped

and tortured, and you think that's nothing to start a war over?"

Gerstman stood his ground. "I think if we're gonna claim justice
here, we better be damn sure we've got the right wolves."

Despite the simmering rage he felt when he thought of what had

been done to Caroline, Fitz had to agree. If this had indeed been

sanctioned by the Heights, it meant war, and it was a war he'd gladly

fight.

If it hadn't? An attack on the Heights could destroy their pack just

as easily as an appearance of weakness.

Emmanuel Wright cleared his throat, and Fitz turned his attention

to the man. Emmanuel had been a close friend of Cal Walker, and Fitz
had learned to appreciate his wisdom over the years.

When the room was quiet again, Emmanuel spoke. "The situation is

clearly a precarious one. A wrong move in either direction could be

disastrous. What we need to make a decision here is the voice of an

Alpha." His gaze fell heavily on Fitz, and Fitz looked away.

"Are you calling for a formal vote?" Mendoza asked.

Silence fell thick and heavy across the room until Emmanuel

answered. "I am." He rose, then, looking around the table. "We have

given Cal the respect he deserves. We have considered both his wishes
and what is best for the pack. Whether silently or out loud, we have all

begun to think about who should lead. I hereby petition that we begin

the process of selecting our next Alpha."

Murmurs rippled around the table. Fitz had known that a formal

vote would eventually be called for, but he had hoped it would be a

month or so. In a time of more stability, they may have let the opening

stay as long as three months, but Emmanuel was right. They couldn't

stand leaderless now.

"Very well," Mendoza said, pulling out the heavy, leather-bound


book that held the record of the pack's leadership changes for centuries

back. "A call has been made to hold a formal vote. Are there any

objections?"

No one spoke.

"Who are the nominees?" Mendoza asked, pen held poised above

the yellowed paper.

Emmanuel said, "I nominate Fitzpatrick Calvin Walker, son of

Calvin Patrick Walker, who led our pack faithfully for two decades." A

murmured chorus of 'seconds' echoed the statement.


The sound of a scraping chair brought Fitz's attention to the other

side of the table, where Lakey was standing. "I nominate Alexander

Stephen Walker, nephew to Calvin Patrick Walker. Alexander is Calvin's

heir in more ways than not."

An equal number of 'seconds' followed, and Mendoza scratched both

of their names into the record. "Are there any others?"

Fitz glanced across the table to Alex, but Alex was looking down at

his hands, folded in front of him.

"Very well," Mendoza said. "We will deliberate overnight and hold a
vote in the morning. As a reminder, neither candidate is to campaign on

their own behalf, but elders are free to discuss the options among

themselves." He pounded his palm flat against the table, and the elders

rose, already dispersing.

Fitz kept his seat. Before Caroline's kidnapping, he'd been just about

set to tell Sid to book them a flight back to California, but now, with that

call for justice unanswered, Fitz was conflicted.

Alex stayed seated as well, and gradually the room emptied around

them. Fitz looked at his cousin, realizing he hadn't spoken with Alex
since the fight.

Without looking up, Alex said, "I'm going to withdraw my name."

"What?" Fitz asked. "Why?" If anyone other than Fitz were to lead

the pack, it would have to be Alex. Anyone else stepping up would break

the pack into factions, heading for an internal war they couldn't afford

right now. If Alex stepped down, Fitz would have no choice.

Alex raised his head. His eyes were red, and for the first time, Fitz

noticed Alex hadn't shaved. A thick, red beard was beginning to show on

his jaw. "You saw me, Fitz. I...I nearly killed that kid."
"You were caught up in the battle," Fitz said. "It happens to the best

of us." It was why they hunted in packs. So if the bloodlust took over,

there would be someone to stop a rogue wolf.

"It's not the first time," Alex admitted. "I...I nearly killed Nate

Jeffries at the last full moon."

"Alex," Fitz began, not sure where to go from there. Alex had always

been so logical, so calm and reasoned. Fitz relied on him so much for

that. It was why he'd always been better at the business side of the pack

than Fitz was. "You're a good man. You're a good shifter. You'd make an
amazing Alpha."

"I wouldn't," Alex insisted, rising to his feet. "I wouldn't. I'd lose

control at the wrong time and destroy us all."

Fitz frowned, staying in his chair. He thought of Sid, of her life and

her job back in L.A. If Sid refused to move to New York, could he do it? If

it came down to leading the pack and losing Sid or keeping Sid and

leaving the pack to its fate, could he make the right choice?

"What did my dad have to say about it?" Fitz asked. Cal must have

known, after all. If Alex had broken before, Cal would have been
watching him.

"He didn't know," Alex admitted. "I kept it from him. I...I couldn't

tell him this, but I'm telling you. I'm scared, Fitz. I'm fucking terrified

that I'll lose it again and kill someone...someone I care about."

"Alex," Fitz started to protest, finally standing.

"No, don't, Fitz!" Alex barked. "Don't do that. Don't...don't try to

pacify me. Why don't you just take it? Alpha, I mean. It's there for you to

have. Not a single elder would oppose you if I weren't in the running."

"It's not as easy as that," Fitz said, hating himself for not being able
to make it that easy.

"Yes, it is. I'll break it down for you." Alex began to gather up his

notes from the meeting, tucking them into a folder and slowly making

his way toward the door. "Fame or family?"

Fitz crossed the room, frustration and anger building in his chest.

"If you think I wouldn't choose my family over my career every fucking

time, you are delusional."

Alex drew himself up, stepping closer, nose to nose with Fitz. "Prove

it. Accept my withdrawal, formally, before the vote. Be an Alpha, Fitz.


Make Cal proud."

That struck a little too close to the wound Fitz had been licking

since he got to New York. He set his palm flat against Alex's chest and

shoved. "Don't you ever fucking tell me how to make my dad proud!"

Alex growled low in his throat, but Fitz ignored him, stalking out of

the conference room and striding out of the office, past the slack-jawed

spectators who'd no doubt been attempting to listen to their

conversation through the sound-proof conference room doors.

Fitz didn't stop until the front door deposited him on the sidewalk
directly in front of a leggy blonde who lost her balance and nearly fell

into him.

"Whoa, dj vu," Sid said, but Fitz didn't let her get any further

before taking hold of her waist and pulling her in for a fierce kiss, fueled

by the heat of anger that had only been stoked by the events of this

morning.

When he finally let her pull back, Sid was grinning up at him,

leaning into his embrace. "Well, good morning to you too, sailor."

"Can we get out of here, Junior?" he asked, taking hold of her elbow
and steering her down the street.

"Absolutely," she agreed, her heels clip-clopping down the sidewalk

next to him as he hurried away from the pack offices. "Is something

wrong, Fitz?"

Once they were around the corner, he slowed a little, and turned to

her, feeling something in his chest loosen at the concern in her clear

blue eyes. "Seems like everything, Junior, but seeing you is a start at

setting things right."

"I'm glad," she said, smiling and reaching up to brush her thumb
gently over his brow, smoothing its furrows. "And I think I may have

something that will help with the rest."

"Oh?" He tugged her down the street a little further to where his car

was parked.

"You up for one more work-related visit before the deadline?"

Fitz groaned. "I was kind of hoping we could release a little tension

before doing anything drastic."

"Do you trust me?" Sid asked, and Fitz knew he was absolutely

going to do whatever she asked.


"Always, Junior. My life's in your hands."


Chapter Nineteen

Sid sat in the waiting room chair, a stuffed, leather monstrosity that

looked immensely comfortable and turned out to mostly be confining.

Sid was perched on the very edge of the cushion, her foot tapping, the

sound echoing back from the vaulted ceiling.

She glanced to the hallway Fitz had disappeared down an hour ago.

It wasn't that she didn't think he could nail this, but she was

uncomfortable not being in on the details. Fitz had told her that if she

wanted him to make these decisions without undue influence from his
desire for her, she couldn't be in there, as he put it, "not when I know

what's under that turtleneck you're hiding behind."

Tugging at the restricting material, she felt the tenderness of her

bruise, muted more now, though still a dark purple.

For the fifth time in as many minutes, Sid pulled out her phone to

check the time and saw there was a text from Pearce.

Pearce:

Spill it, Blondie. Rumor is Walker's doing a runner.

Her heart leapt to her throat.


Sid:

Then you know more than me.

She wondered what rumor had gotten back to Meier and Jones so

quickly. Surely no one in the meeting was leaking information before

the meeting was actually over. Sid looked up and saw the receptionist, a

bored-looking college-age young man who was more focused on his

phone than on the ringing switchboard in front of him. She suspected

she'd found the source of the rumor.

Pearce:
Don't lie to me. It's bad for my heart.

Sid:

You'll be the first person I tell if I've lost this one.

Pearce:

You'd better have some quick-talking answers when you get back.

Meier is seething.

Seething. Great. Her whole career, hell, her whole life hinged on

what was happening in that meeting, and she was stuck out here,

waiting.
Just as she was about to give in and text Fitz for some news, any

news, she heard a door open down the hall and the sound of jovial

voices, laughter.

A moment later, Fitz rounded a corner into sight, his face lit up with

the smile that had earned him the cover of more than one magazine.

"Ah, there she is," Fitz said, spotting Sid as she extricated herself

from the chair. "Sid, come here and meet Jason."

Smoothing her skirt, Sid approached. Fitz was talking to a short man

with a neat, black goatee. He was probably in his early thirties, and he
offered Sid his hand in a firm shake. "Sid, is it? Jason Goetz. Good to

meet you."

"Good to meet you to. We spoke on the phone briefly," Sid managed,

just before Fitz cut in with, "Sid's my agent."

"Oh?" Jason asked, turning from Sid to Fitz and back again. "I

thought you were with Meier and Jones."

Fitz shrugged. "We're in negotiations."

It was the first Sid had heard of it, but she ran with it anyway. "We

should have something amenable to all parties worked out within the
week."

It was a flat-out lie. She couldn't imagine the agency's lawyers

deciding on a brunch spot in only a week.

"Hmm, well, don't take too long on it. I've got a part in mind for you,

and we're hoping to start shooting end of the month. You think you can

have the details ironed out by then?"

"Of course," Sid said. "Let me leave you my card, and I'll keep you

updated on the process." She quickly rummaged in her phone case for

one of her personal cards, rather than the chintzy junior agent card
Meier and Jones had issued her.

"Sid Carlin," Jason said, taking a long look at her card. "Ms. Carlin, I

look forward to working with you. Now take this handsome face out of

my sight before I scratch it to bits out of sheer jealousy."

"Thank you, Mr. Goetz," Sid said, but Jason waved a hand.

"Call me Jason. Mr. Goetz is my father and a clich."

He spun away then, and Fitz flashed her a bright grin. He began to

speak but she held up a hand, tossing a quick glance at the receptionist

who was now leaning in their direction.


She took his arm and tugged him to the elevator, waiting until the

door shut to finally say, "Well?"

"Well," Fitz said, taking a deep breath. "Jason thinks his studio has a

number of projects that could work for what I'm looking for. He says

they'll probably be cameos at first, but once I've earned my chops, he

thinks my name will be enough to keep me in work."

Sid let out a breath she'd been holding longer than she realized. "Oh,

thank god."

Even with Darby and Carolines assurances that Goetz would be


interested, Sid hadnt been sure. Shed found a couple backups just in

case, but none of them would be as good for Fitzs career or as perfect

for his talent as Goetz.

She wouldn't have given up if it had been a dead-end, but it helped

to have a bite on the first cast.

Fitz was looking at her funny when the elevator dinged and the

doors opened.

"What?" she asked, stepping out into the building's parking garage.

"Why did you set up this meeting?"


"I wanted to give you options." She headed for Fitz's car, only

pausing once she realized he wasn't following her.

He stood several feet back, just looking at her, still with that odd

expression on his face. "What?" she asked again. "Why do you keep

looking at me like that?" Nerves knotted her stomach.

"What about you, Sid? You got options?"

Sid swallowed.

He loves me, she thought. He loves me. So, why am I so scared?

"I was sort of hoping to cast my lot in with you."


Fitz strode slowly to her, stopping in front of Sid. "You sure about

that? My lot's kinda rocky."

"What?" Sid said, lifting her face to him. "You think a girl from

Oklahoma's scared of a gravel lot?"

Fitz grinned, bending to press a kiss just above the neck of her

sweater. "Sid Carlin, Junior Agent at Meier and Jones, I don't believe

you're scared of anything."

Sid's breath caught, and she laughed, sliding her arms around his

shoulders. "I have a feeling Sid Carlin is no longer any kind of agent at
Meier and Jones."

"How do you feel about that, Junior?" His nose was still pressed to

her throat, and Sid found it difficult to think of how she felt about

anything but that.

"Suits me just fine."

Fitz lifted his head, then, catching her lip in his teeth sharply before

kissing her, fierce and hard, lifting her from her feet to rush them both

to the car.

Sid groaned, her legs wrapping around him. Still not in his bed, but
she felt like she had to ask.

"Wait," she gasped, breaking the kiss just as he got her to the car,

pressing her back against it as he fumbled for the keys in his pocket.

"Does this mean you've decided? Are you staying here?"

"That depends," he said, finally yanking the door open. "Will you

stay with me?"

Sid's laugh rushed out of her in a huff when he dropped her onto

the back seat, holding himself above her with a grin. "I will," Sid said,

and Fitz was back on her in a heartbeat, his hands yanking at her clothes
as they struggled in the tight space of the sedan's back seat. Fitz shut the

door, and somehow they both managed to get out of their clothes,

though Sid's underwear were still around her ankles.

She straddled Fitz's lap, holding his face in her hands, so she could

look into his eyes as she settled back, easing his thick length into her

with a sigh of relief. It had only been a day, but she'd somehow felt like

she would never again feel Fitz inside her, filling her up and driving her

to new heights of pleasure.

Fitz growled as he slid into her wetness, and Sid nipped at his lower
lip, sucking in a sharp breath as he lunged up to meet her kiss, pulling

her down to sheath himself completely, their combined moans tangling

in each other in the confined space of the car.

"Fitz...," Sid breathed against his lips, barely trusting herself to move

so much as to roll her hips, shifting in Fitz's lap, the change in angle

making her cry out softly.

"Sidney, Sidney," Fitz echoed, his hands settling at her hips to ease

her into a rhythm with him, slow, deep rolls punctuated by short, hard

thrusts, until Sid was squirming in his lap, clinging to his shoulders,
nails digging into his skin, leaving small, white crescents in their wake.

As she let her head fall back, arching toward his thrusts, Fitz bent to

catch her nipple in his mouth, caressing it with his tongue before

nipping, sending shivers of pain and pleasure through Sid's body. She

knew they were making too much noise, knew the car must be rocking

obscenely. A part of her even thought she should care about that, but she

couldn't. Not when Fitz's hand moved between her legs to find the sweet,

little bundle of nerves that sparked arousal through her. Not when he

released her aching nipple only to close his teeth over the still-tender
bruise.

Fitz moved faster, deeper, urging her on, his voice gruff with

pleasure. "That's it, Junior. Come on, baby. Fuck, Sidney...Sidney...I love

you."

Sid's orgasm crashed over her, sparking behind her closed eyelids.

Her sex gripped him tightly as her body rocked through the pleasure,

calling out his name. Fitz groaned as well, thrusting into her deeper,

faster, until he was coming too, a broken howl on his lips.

Tucking her head into the crook of Fitz's neck, Sid panted slowly,
feeling Fitz's breath, hot then cool against her sweat-glistening skin.

When she finally caught her breath, Sid laughed, and Fitz pressed a

kiss to her temple. "What is it, Junior?"

"Nothing," she said, shaking her head. "Just...I'm in love with Fitz

Walker, and I can't decide if that makes me a teenage girl or a fairytale

princess"

"I don't know what it makes you," Fitz answered with a grin,

twisting to look at her face. "But I'm pretty sure it makes me the

luckiest, damn bastard in New York right now."


"Yeah," Sid said, pressing her forehead to Fitz's. "Yeah, that sounds

just about right."


Epilogue

Some of the tension from the day before had eased up, but the

atmosphere around the conference table was still volatile. One wrong

word spoken, and the pack could be at each other's throats.

The announcement of the formal vote had raced through the pack

like wildfire. Only the elders were allowed to vote, but even on only a

day's notice, a good third of the pack was in attendance. Fitz looked up to

the audience in the observation deck and saw Sid, seated on a bench next

to Caroline. Darby was seated with the elders wives, and Fitz was
grateful Caroline wouldn't be left alone during that. Much as he knew

Caroline would hate him worrying about her, he couldn't help it. He was

hoping she'd find a friend in Sid, who didn't look at her as Cal Walker's

daughter but took her at her own merits.

And he was hoping Caroline could help Sid some with learning how

to cope with life in the pack.

Mendoza sat at the head of the table, the ledger open in front of

him. Fitz looked across the table to Alex and nodded. Alex's shoulders

relaxed visibly.
"In the custom of the elders," Mendoza began, "I call to order this

election for the position of Alpha of the Williamsburg pack of Brooklyn,

New York City, New York. Both Alexander Stephen Walker and

Fitzpatrick Calvin Walker have been nominated for the position. Do

either of the nominees have anything to say before the vote is cast?"

Alex cleared his throat and stood. "I have something to say," he said.

"I request to have my name withdrawn from the vote."

The table erupted in protest, and Mendoza banged his hand on the

table for order. "Silence! Silence! We will have order in this chamber!"
A reluctant peace settled in the room.

"Now. Alexander has requested that his name be withdrawn. Fitz, do

you accept his withdrawal?"

To Fitz's knowledge, no one had ever refused a concession. Still,

when he said, "I do," another wave of protest flowed across the table.

Mendoza banged on the table again. "If we cannot keep peace at this

table, I will have the observers removed." This last was accompanied by

a glare toward the observation deck. The grumbles slowly petered out,

and Mendoza spoke again. "As it is too late in the process to declare Fitz
the de facto victor, Alex, would you care to petition for his votes?"

Fitz looked around the table. He wondered what this all looked like

to Sid. Shifter volatility mixed with parliamentary procedure. Not many

packs held to the formality anymore, but it made Fitz feel hopeful about

the future of his pack, of his family.

He looked up at Sid, and she leaned forward, mouthing, "I love you."

Alex cleared his throat, drawing Fitz's attention back to the vote. "I

would. I petition my supporters to give their votes to Fitzpatrick Walker.

He is the rightful Alpha, and it would be an honor to follow him."


Fitz looked around the table and saw that, while most of the elders

looked satisfied with Alex's statement, a few of them were scowling.

Lakey of course, but also Cook and Diaz along with a couple others.

It could still be a close vote.

Mendoza nodded and stood, gesturing to a small, ancient, wooden

cask, set on a stand at one end of the conference room. "You each have

two stones in front of you. A red stone indicates a vote for Alex; a black

stone indicates a vote for Fitz. Once all the votes are tallied, we will

announce the new Alpha. Gentlemen." With this, he picked up his two
stones and walked to the cask. There was a thunking sound as one stone

hit the bottom.

One by one, the elders filed through, carrying two stones to the

cask, bringing only one back. Most of the men kept their remaining

stone hidden, tucking it into a pocket, but Lakey and then Diaz made a

show of laying their black stones on the table in front of them when they

returned to their seats. It earned a low murmur of comment from the

observers.

When all the votes had been cast, Mendoza stood again and
returned to the cask. He picked it up and brought it to the table. Opening

the lid, he reached into the cask and pulled out a red stone. "One for

Alex," he began, pulling the stones out one by one and announcing each

vote.

It was close. At one point, Alex was ahead by three, but Fitz caught

up again quickly.

The count was sixteen for Fitz and fifteen for Alex when Mendoza

reached into the cask one last time and withdrew a red stone.

Silence slithered across the room and up into the gallery as the
implication slowly sunk in.

Mendoza cleared his throat and looked from Alex to Fitz.

"Gentlemen," he said, his voice remarkably calm. "It appears we have a

tie."

***THE END***


The Hills Box Set (1-4)

Erin D. Andrews & Sarah J. Stone


Book 1: Shifters Heart

Chapter 1

The Hills. A beautiful, shifter-only community for you and your

family. A place to feel safe. A place to grow. The Hills is a new

development that the city of Fort Bachmann offers, built by the goodwill

of our volunteers, our leaders, and shifter friends. Reserve your place

today and enjoy life more starting right now.

Grey watched the commercial with wide, eight-year-old eyes. He

loved the female narrators sweet, encouraging voice and the images that
moved across the screen as she said the words safe, grow, goodwill. His

favorite image was that of President Bachmann hard at work at a

construction site, surrounded by beautiful green landscape.

Bachmanns sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, and he had on a

hard hat. He pointed to the horizon as if commanding the sun to rise,

and the sun complied, pouring over the nearby mountain range and onto

a completed housing development. The houses were small but colorful

and cozy, and surrounded by pink and yellow flowers. Grey couldnt wait

to go there.
He glanced over at the packed suitcases that he and his parents had

stacked near the doorway of their small apartment in the bad part of

town. They had a few boxes full of cooking supplies and a few, yellowing

books, but nothing else. They had no bedsheets, no extra furniture, and

Grey had no toys. He imagined their new house would be magnificent,

with soft beds big enough for a whole family to snuggle up in and a

glorious TV mounted on the wall so they could see all the presidents

shows and announcements. And maybe, just maybe, there would be a

kitchen full of food and a closet with toys in it. Anything seemed

possible in The Hills.


A knock at the door took him out of his reverie, and his mom, Avey

Wiseman, called out from her bedroom where she was cleaning.

Sweetie, get that, would you?

Sure, mom. Out of habit, Grey went up on his tiptoes and looked

through the peephole. It was two police officers with massive guns,

padded vests, and helmets with plastic visors over their faces. Grey

jerked back from the peephole and ran back to his mother.

Mom! Mom! Its two policemen! They have guns!

What? His mothers mouth fell open in shock. She put down the
rag she was using on the floor, and Grey sat next to it in the empty room,

hugging his knees to his chest. He knew that policemen were mean and

angry, and he was scared that he had somehow inspired them to come to

his home. Did they know all the bad things he thought? Had his teacher

told them about the other day when hed accidentally shifted? Tears

came to his eyes as he pressed his face down onto his crossed arms and

prayed they would just leave.

As Avey walked up to the door, it rattled with the force of the

officer banging on it as hard as he could. Open up! We are here on


behalf of the office of Human-Shifter Relations. I demand you open this

door!

Im coming, Avey called, but she forced herself to stop, take a

breath, and then continue forward with a smile on her face. She opened

the door gently, but kept the chain on. Looking out through the opening,

she smiled at the two armed policemen outside her door.

Why hello, officers. To what do I owe the pleasure?

Mrs. Wiseman, I insist you open this door. We are here to escort

you and your family to the new compound.


Escort us? Avey tilted her head in genuine confusion. But, weve

got it all arranged. A friend is loaning us a car later this afternoon. Well

have it once my husband gets home. We dont need an escort.

We have to ensure that your transition is as peaceful as possible.

Please collect your things.

Avey set her jaw and then immediately forced herself to smile

again. Well, its very nice of you to offer to take us, but as I said, were

waiting for my husband. He works as a messenger for the government

offices, you know.


The first officer took a step forward, but the second stopped him

with a hand to the chest. Which offices?

Why, the presidents office. You boys must have seen him. Floyd

Wiseman? In his eagle form, hes just enormous he won the award for

Fastest Messenger just last month. Hes got a lovely golden sheen to his

feathers and very keen sight. Hes got a couple of big meetings today and

wont be home for another hour or so. Would you mind coming back?

The two officers glanced at one another, then the first clicked the

communicator on his vest. Nancy, come in.


A voice crackled out at him while Avey maintained a sweet smile.

Behind her, Grey got up his nerve and slowly crept back into the kitchen,

where he stood behind his mother and tried to see the policemen over

her shoulder, but they were blocked from sight.

Present. What is your situation? Nancys voice crackled and

sounded supremely bored.

I need a check on Floyd Wiseman. Can you let me know where

hes employed?

One moment. Everyone in the kitchen held their breath. Grey


made a little step to the right, but his movement made the floor creak

and he froze in place. Over his mothers shoulder, he saw the angry eyes

of a policeman look at him through plastic. He gulped and stood up

straight.

Officer, you there?

Im here. You find anything?

Floyd Wiseman works directly with President Bachmann as a

personal messenger. Will there be anything else?

Avey tried not to be smug as the police officers face went from
angry red to deathly pale. No, thanks. Take care, Nancy.

Over and out.

Once the advantage had shifted, the police officers found

themselves unable to find any more words. They glanced at one another

as Avey did her best not to give them a smug grin, as badly as she wanted

to.

You say you have yourselves all arranged? The first cop suddenly

looked sweaty and immature as he shifted his weight from side to side.

Yes, of course. Were happy to check in with you once we arrive.


Avey took a moment to reach behind her back and give the OK sign to

Grey. He let himself breathe and went back to the TV. The Presidents

History was about to be on, and he didnt want to miss it.

Very well, Mrs. Wiseman. Well see each other at The Hills. The

two officers nodded respectfully at Avey and moved to the stairwell to

leave. She waited until she was sure they were gone, then closed and

slammed all eight of her locks. Grey listened to each one of them thunk

closed and then watched his mother rest her forehead on the door. She

looked like a statue they had in the nearby park for the mortals a
solitary woman with her eyes closed. Perhaps that statue was meant to

remind children that mothers get tired, too.

Mama?

She turned back and looked at him with a pale, shocked face. The

moment she looked at Grey, she quickly relaxed her face and smiled at

him.

Are you hungry, Little Bird?

Grey was starving, but he shook his head no. He already knew

there was no food in the house. His mother seemed a bit uncertain what
to do next. She smoothed down the front of her dress and adjusted the

curls that brushed her face. She started to walk away from the door, then

stopped and walked over to a kitchen chair and sat down.

Without being asked, Grey brought her the nuts and bolts that

were on top of one of the boxes they had packed that morning. Here,

Mama Bird. He held out the old box, and she turned to him and smiled.

Oh, my Little Bird! She reached down to hug him and kiss his

cheeks. You are the best. She dumped out the bolts and then the nuts

on the table and patted the chair next to her. Want to do it with me?
He nodded and climbed into the chair next to her. Together, they

inspected each bolt; they checked the thickness of the spiral, the size and

the age, then looked for the matching nut. Once theyd found a match,

they placed the nut on top and turned it slowly and carefully. His mother

could always spin a nut just right; her little octagon never went on at a

wonky angle or got stuck the way Greys would. His little fingers

struggled with the rusty parts, and his mother would put her hands on

top of his and help him screw the parts down.

Dont rush, Little Bird. Gentle turns. She undid yet another
wrong angle and handed the two separated pieces back to her son. He

stuck his tongue out and tried again, copying his mothers light touch at

the top that seemed to get the nuts to turn just right.

Soon the two of them had several fat, rusty bolts with a nut all the

way at the top. Grey was truly fascinated with this odd habit of his

mothers; she could spend hours putting these parts together and taking

them apart. As they completed the little metal puzzles, the finished

pieces spread across the table like odd, spiral bugs with fat, round heads.

Grey loved this process, loved the shift in his mothers demeanor
whenever she held and inspected the old, rust-covered parts. Her face

relaxed and her eyebrows unknotted. Her smile returned, and Grey

could see a rush of youth and beauty return to his mothers face.

The two of them were making the parts walk and talk around the

table like tiny people when Greys father walked in. When he opened the

door, he filled the frame; he was over six feet tall with massive

shoulders, long, thin legs and a hardened, grizzled face that made most

other men think twice before saying a harsh word against him.

Grey quickly dropped his pieces and slid off his chair so that he
could run to his father. Floyd Wiseman worked long hours as a

messenger and rarely was home while the sun was still up, so it was a

treat to see him in the daytime. Floyd lifted his son up to his face and

then in for a big hug, complete with Greys legs wrapped around his

fathers waist.

Hello, Floyd, Avey greeted him, accepting a little kiss on her

cheek.

The man froze and looked down at his wife. Uh-oh. Floyd? Did

something happen?
The police came to the door and talked to Mama. Greys father

snapped his head around to look at his little boy, then back to Avey.

The police?

Little Bird, Avey said to her son, I want you to go and check your

room. Make sure you didnt forget anything, okay?

Okay. Grey hopped down from his father and ran off to his

bedroom to look around the already bare space. He was certain there

was nothing there, but he got on all fours and crawled around, sniffing

the corners of the tiny room and narrowing his eyes like an earthbound
shifter. Caught up in his game, he got on his back and rolled side to side

with his arms up and hands flopped down like paws.

Meow, meow, meow. He laughed at his own little joke and then

went out to share it with his parents, but he stopped when he saw them.

His mother was sobbing into his fathers chest as his big, strong dad

stroked her hair and kissed the top of her head.

Grey swallowed hard and walked up to them, gently touching his

mothers hand. She pulled him in closer to her and cried even harder,

and listening to her made her sons eyes well up. Why was his mother
crying?

Later, the three of them were in the car and on their way, but Grey

was suddenly very uncertain about where the road was taking them. He

wanted to sit backwards and watch the buildings shrink away, but his

mother had insisted he buckle up and keep his eyes forward.

You want to see where were going, dont you? shed asked as she

locked him in place with the old, stiff belt.

Yes, Mama Bird. The strap going across his body was wide, heavy,
and unforgiving as he wiggled underneath it. Why did grown-ups like

these things?

As they drove away from the city, the people in the car fell quiet

and focused on the wide, unmarked landscape in front of them. Every

once in a while, they would pass an old sign that Greys father would

read to them. Some of them had the names of old places: Spearfish,

Deadwood, Sturgis. Grey explained to all of them that the land used to

be made up of many cities, back when this was called America. They

tried to pay attention, but any history beyond the presidents stories
bored everyone except Floyd, who finally let it go. After the dull history

lesson, there was a tense and terrible silence.

All around them was dry, exposed land. The grass got shorter and

drier until there was only dirt all around them. Avey began biting her

nails, and Floyd reached across to the passenger seat to silently remind

her not to with a gentle touch of her hand. From the backseat, Grey saw

his mother quickly grab his fathers hand for a squeeze and then let it go.

Every few miles, a white, unmarked van would pass them going far

too fast. Every time it happened, the family in the car would hold their
breath until the van veered around the next corner and disappeared.

They all seemed to be going in the same direction as the Wisemans, but

they couldnt be sure.

The day grew darker and darker, and soon the sky was painted in

several pink and orange hues as the sun went down. Greys head nodded,

and his eyelids got heavier and heavier. He didnt want to miss his

chance to see The Hills, but he was so sleepy. Maybe he could close his

eyes for just a moment

When he opened them, the sky was dark and he was still in the car.
He looked to the front seat, but his parents werent there. He could see

some grown-ups standing in a big group and was fairly certain he saw

his fathers head above the crowd. He unbuckled and climbed into the

front seat away from all the boxes and bundles and then out the

passenger door.

As he walked up, he could hear gasps and groans. The grown-ups

werent happy. He looked around for some more kids and found a group

of airborne and earthbound shifter children crouching down and playing

with some sticks, drawing designs in the hard, dry dirt. He wandered
over a little confused; why were the airbornes sitting with this other

group of kids?

Grey rubbed his eyes and approached them hesitantly, certain the

earthbound shifters would shift and attack him before he got a word out.

His parents used a word to describe them that gave him chills down his

spine. The word was unpredictable.

He got a little closer and saw the young, uncomfortable group a bit

better. One was an earthbound girl with her dark hair in pigtails and

dressed in a pink, faded T-shirt, shorts, and pink tennis shoes. Next to
her was a scowling little boy an airborne shifter in a ripped shirt and

old parachute pants held on to his skinny waist with the help of safety

pins on each of his hips. Then, Grey noticed an odd girl just off by

herselfno, it was a boy. No, he was right the first time a girl. He

shook his head and looked again and realized he couldnt quite tell what

gender this shifter had. She was earthbound, but her animal side had an

unfamiliar scent and her dark, liquid eyes watched Grey so closely that

he was unable to return her gaze. He shuddered with a new

understanding of why earthbounds and airbornes were normally kept

apart.
Another big groan from the adults made him turn around. They

were all gathered around a policeman standing on something tall who

was saying something that made everyone angry. He turned back to the

kids.

Hi, he attempted, Im Grey. What game are you playing?

Its not a game, the girl with the dark eyes responded, never

blinking. Were just drawing with some sticks we found.

There arent any more sticks, so you cant draw with us. That was

the skinny boy. Grey swallowed and told himself to be brave.


Thats okay, he said, trying to be casual. I can watch you guys

draw. He stepped forward but the skinny boy scoffed at him as soon as

he moved.

Way to go, nerd! You stepped all over my drawing. Here! He

threw his stick at Greys shins and stood to leave. Just take it.

Grey waited to see if anyone else was upset, but the other kids

didnt look that interested. He gingerly picked the stick up and joined the

two girls still scratching away. He drew a circle and then three lines

inside of it.
Hey, he attempted again, do you know where the houses are? I

cant see any.

There arent any.

Grey waited for the girl in pink to laugh or say something like, Got

ya! but she seemed serious. He tried again.

But, the commercial

It was a trick, the dark-eyed girl volunteered. They made us

think this would be a nice place so we would all come out here. But

theres nothing. Just a bunch of dirt. Resigned to their fate, the two
kept poking at the ground, burrowing little holes in the dry ground and

arranging small rocks. Grey sat down on the ground, not caring if he got

dirty. Surely, there was some mistake; the government wouldnt ask

them to live outside.

My names Tina. The girl in pink traced the shape of his hand in

the ground. Shes Larissa. The boy who got mad at you is Black Feather.

Hes an airborne, like you.

Youre an earthbound shifter? Grey asked the question in a

whisper.
Tina nodded. Im a wolf.

Grey waited to see if Larissa would offer any information about

herself, but she remained silent. Grey wanted to ask, but instead he just

stared. Finally, she threw her stick down and glared at him.

What?

Um, are you, uh, a wolf? Like Tina?

No. Unwilling to volunteer anything else, she brushed the dirt

from her hands and walked off. Grey felt tears well up in his eyes;

everyone was so angry and sad. He tried hard to push his tears down, but
Tina saw his screwed-up face and put her stick down to move close to

him and give him a hug.

Dont cry. It will be okay.

We dont have a home, he said, putting his face down onto his

knees. I thought this would be a nice place.

Me too. The two sat like that, Grey weeping softly as Tina

squeezed him in for a tight hug. He wished she had a tissue like his

mother always did, but he didnt say anything. Hey, Tina said, poking

him in the rib, I think your mom and dad are coming over here.
Grey quickly wiped his face on his knees and looked up to see his

parents storming over, both glowering.

Come with us, Grey. His father held out his hand, and Grey

jumped up to go without saying goodbye to Tina. When he turned back

to see if she was still sitting and drawing, she was gone.

Grey, Avey and Floyd walked together to a small square of land

where Greys mother made him a little nest of blankets and boxes. His

father built a fire in the center and volunteered to keep watch all night.

What are you going to watch, Papa Bird?


His dad started at the question, then smiled at his son. Im going

to watch all these beautiful stars we can see now that were out of the

city. You know, I studied the stars when I was younger. I love outer

space and all its stories. Ill teach you about the stars one day.

You will? Wow, Grey yawned. His mother rubbed his back, and

he curled up in her lap and fell deep asleep, oblivious to the petrifying

fear his parents felt that night. He wouldnt feel it himself for several

more years.
Chapter 2

The next few days were odd ones for Tina. Her mother was having

long, hushed talks with other grown up wolf-shifters and kept looking

around at the people nearby with wide eyes and hands clutching at the

purse she never put down. After their first night, her mother explained

to Tina that she had to find someone who knew how to build a house.

I can build you a house, Mama. Tina pointed to a little lean-to

she had fashioned out of a stick and a leaf against a nearby boulder.

See? I know how to build lots of things.


Oh. Her mother stared at the little structure and then at Tina

with that strange look she got sometimes. Tina knew it was silly, but

every once in a while, she wondered if her mother was scared of her.

Thats very good, darling. Very, very good. I like it.

Her mother smiled at her in that weird, big smile that she used

sometimes, and Tinas shoulders fell. She knew what that meant. Ill go

find some other kids to play with. Sighing, she trudged away,

unappreciated yet again.

There were lots of kids in The Hills, but many of them were too
frightened to make friends. They had all grown up around other shifters

who were just like them if not from the same territory, at least the

same species. A lot of them were airbornes who cowered behind their

parents legs when Tina waved and smiled at them. She didnt mind; she

thought it was kind of funny that the other kids were scared of her. She

wasnt scary.

After shed walked quite a ways away, she came upon Grey running

with scraps of wood and putting them in a pile. He had scratches all over

his arms, but he didnt stop; he ran as fast as he could to the nearby
supply trucks, picked up what he could carry and then ran back,

pumping his short legs and breathing big, heavy breaths.

Hi, Grey.

When he heard his name, he looked back and stopped as soon as

he recognized Tina. Oh, hi. He set his pile down, but that turned out to

be a mistake. Other kids ran over and took all the pieces as fast as they

could, zipping away as fast as they could.

Hey! Hey, thats ours. We need it. Stop! He stomped his foot and

yelled after the other young scrap-collectors who were too busy running
away to worry about a young shifters rage. Frustrated, he walked back to

the truck and Tina followed, determined to help out.

The two of them fell on the scrap pile, collecting any piece they

could into their arms, and Tina prided herself on finding a big, wavy

piece of metal that she was sure her mother would like. She piled her

goods on top of it and then dragged it behind her all the way back to her

mother.

Bye, Grey, she called out as she left, but the little boy wouldnt be

deterred this time. He put all his focus and energy into his delivery as
Tina watched and then shrugged, walking back.

She had to stop a few times to scare off a few other kids who tried

to steal her loot. She gave them a quick snarl and they froze, not wanting

to get gobbled up by a wolf-girl. She rolled her eyes at them as they

shrieked and ran away. Was she living with a big bunch of scaredy-cats?

Tina hummed a little tune to herself as she walked through the

little bumps that gave The Hills encampment its name. What a joke

these were barely even bumps. Not only were there no homes here, it

was flat! Adults were incredibly weird.


The shifters were silently organizing themselves into the kind of

shifters they were. First, there were the airborne shifters. They took the

area right by the western boundary. This was the highest part of the

land, although it was only slightly higher. It had more boulders and even

some short, scraggly trees, but otherwise was unremarkable. There was a

small, nondescript border after the final airborne family, then

earthbound shifters started with the bears.

Tina knew a few bear shifters before the big move. They were

incredibly quiet and calm. Nothing got them upset. She had once asked
her mother why they never seemed to get upset, and her mother had

simply shrugged and said, Well, if you knew you could get ten times

bigger and gobble up anyone you wanted, nothing would worry you,

either.

The bear families had the nicest fireplaces and some had even

created scrappy rock structures reminiscent of caves. Tina stopped to

admire an especially big one, and an older boy of about fifteen came

around the corner and looked at her calmly.

Hi. She stood on her toes to try and look into his new home.
Nice cave.

Its not a real cave. We made it last night while everyone was

sleeping. My parents are resting. The boy had big, sleepy eyes, broad

shoulders, and he slumped forward a bit as if he were eternally relaxed.

Wow. I really like it. Im Tina.

Im Sam. Sam Digger. He turned his head slowly and looked over

his shoulder into the blackness of the cave. I would say come in, but if

you wake my parents up, theyll eat you. They should wake up in a

couple days.
Thats okay. I have to go help my mom. Were over with the

wolves. Over Sams shoulder, she saw Larissa walking with her mother

towards the scrap pile. Hey, she said to Sam, do you know that girl?

Larissa?

He turned to stare directly at the girl and regarded her for a long

time. No, sorry. What is she?

I dont know. Her family is here from Madagascar. Theyre not

lemurs or anything like that. Shes an animal Ive never heard of.

Sometimes she looks like a boy.


That got a slight reaction from Sam. His eyebrows raised slightly,

and he turned back to Tina a bit faster. Whoa. Ive never met a shifter

like that.

Behind them, Larissa walked across the landscape with her

mother, found some ugly, grey wooden boards that she eagerly collected

up and then moved on to the piles of metal rebar and gears. Tina

watched for a moment, waiting to see if Larissa would turn into a boy

again, but the girl stayed consistently female.

I better get back to my mom. Bye Sam.


Bye, Tina.

The girl walked on through the bear settlement, which wasnt too

big. Next were the cats cougars, jaguars, a few cheetahs. All of them

were on high alert as Tina walked through, and her friendly wave and big

smile seemed to make them more suspicious than anything else. They

all narrowed their eyes at her and lowered their chins down to follow her

with an intense gaze. At the edge of the cat settlement, she saw Larissa

and her mother and stopped a moment to see what they were building.

Rather than make a house, Larissas family was making a series of


platforms with rebar legs and flat, wooden tops. The wood was

splintering, and the rebar was difficult to work with, but Larissas father

seemed to be an expert.

He was a massive, muscular black man with a big welding mask on

his head that made him look half-machine and half-human. He had

pulled off his shift, and his big shoulders were like slabs of onyx. The

sight of him welding and the stream of sparks flying from his welding

tool and his wide, strong stance enchanted Tina. She stood and watched

him with her mouth open without even realizing she was staring.
What are you doing?

Tina spun around and found a quiet, big-eyed Larissa staring at

her. Her heart had tried to jump out of her chest with the surprise of

Larissas voice, but as soon as she saw who it was she took a deep breath

and pressed her hand to her chest.

Whoa. Larissa, you scared me.

Larissa didnt respond, but she gave a little half-smile, highly

amused that she was so frightening. You should be scared of us. Were

predators to everyone, even wolves.


What?

Nothing. She turned and looked at her father who stopped

welding for a moment and lifted his mask to reveal an animated face

with a big, friendly smile. For a moment, Tina was even more confused.

This friendly man was Larissas father?

Tonga eto ny zanako vavy, he called, making a scooping motion

with his hand through the air. Larissa quietly walked over, and Tina

followed, anxious to see this shifter up close.

Wow! She took in his stature and his huge, open structure with
big, admiring eyes. Look at this! And what language is that? And how do

you know how to build so well?

He let out a big, deep laugh and tousled Tinas already messy hair.

That is a language called Malagasy, little wolf. All fossa shifters speak

it.

Fossa shifters She thought hard, but couldnt recall ever

hearing about this mammal. She turned to Larissa. Whats a fossa?

Nothing. Larissa walked off to get another round of scrap and left

Tina there with a man who she didnt know. Not that she minded. She
tried again, facing the father.

Whats a fossa? Ive never heard of that animal before.

The fossa is the hunter of the world. We can eat lots of different

animals: frogs, rabbits, little wolves Tina sucked in a frightened

breath, but he winked and laughed at her. Dont worry, baby cub. We

wont eat you. Were building a tall shelter so that we can see non-shifter

animals for our food and so that we can protect the camp. No one is a

better hunter than a fossa.

I bet I am. She lifted her chin and stood tall.


Look how tall you are! I am certain you are a fine hunter, zaniko

vavy.

The odd phrase made Tina tilt her head in confusion. What does

that mean?

It means my little sister. And you can call me Andry or zoky lahy.

It means big brother.

Tina clapped her hands in excitement. Ive always wanted a

brother. I mean, a zoo-key lah-hee. Hey, can you come with me? My

mom needs some help.


A moment later, Tina came over the boundary where the wolves

had gathered and saw her mother standing and talking with a group of

women. Her mother turned to see her and went stark white. Tina waved

to show that everything was okay, but it didnt seem to help. Her mother

ran over as if she was hurt and grabbed her hand.

Hi mama. This is Andry.

Her mother stood slowly and then raised her head almost all the

way back to take in Andry as he smiled and extended his hand.

Good morning. Your lovely daughter tells me you are looking for
some help building your house.

Tina smiled at her mother, but her mother just squeezed her hand

tightly and swallowed hard. The little girl waited for her mother to be

happy for the help, but something seemed wrong. After a moment, her

mother cleared her throat and spoke.

Hello. Im Faye. Nice to meet you. I, uh, I dont know anything

about building a house. We need something cool and that doesnt stand

out too much. Theres just two of us, so...

Of course, Andry offered, something modest. Not too showy.


Sounds perfect. Let me take a look at the materials you have here, and

well see what we can do.

Oh, I dont know. Tina watched her mother look around as if she

were searching for someone to help her, but everyone was busy with

projects of their own. She looked down at Tina and the pile of scrap

metal she was guarding. With a big sigh, Faye nodded.

Yes, please. Please help us get this place together.

For the rest of the day, Tina had a great time. She and Andry sorted

through the junk, and he got busy building an arched framework for
their new home. He sent her on endless errands to the scrap pile and she

shot through the camp, now familiar with all the little paths in the

community. On one trip, she caught sight of Larissa watching her and

got a chill down her back, but she shook it off and continued her errand.

She was excited to see her new home.

She came back to find Andry lifting his weird, square facemask and

talking to some of the other wolf shifters and smiled at him. She knew

everyone would like him. She turned to see that their new place was

looking good a slapped together metal shell in a kind of cave shape, a


cheap version of stone and mountain. Tina liked it; it looked fun and

crazy. She ran inside to look up into what seemed like an endless arch

and was thrilled to feel a rush of cool breeze come from an opening in

the very top. In the back were cozy, dark corners, perfect for sleeping in.

The front was broad and clear with plenty of room for a fire pit.

She ran back out and looked for her mother. She saw her standing

alone and staring at their new home the same way she used to look at a

messy kitchen or Tinas unmade bed. Curious, Tina walked up to her.

Whats wrong, Mama?


Her mother put her hand on Tinas head, but it didnt feel nice. It

felt like a toy hand was on her head, not her mothers caressing touch.

Mommys just tired, sweetheart. The move was a little more than

I was ready for.

I made lots of friends today. Did you?

No, baby. I didnt make any friends.

Perplexed, Tina looked up at her mother, squinting against the

bright glow of the sunset over the dry land. Can I go and play with my

friend Grey? Hes an airborne on the other side of The Hills.


Sweetheart, you should play with earthbounds. You know that.

Tina sighed. Grown-ups never understood anything. Mama, she

whined, pulling on her mothers hand, it doesnt matter anymore.

She yanked her hand away and ran towards Greys house, leaving

her mother behind.


Chapter 3

Harper Bachmann, daughter of President Bachmann, smiled up at

her father as he smiled and waved to the photographers and journalists

in front of him. All of them fired questions at him, and each question

was about The Hills.

Where did you find the money to fund this project?

Thats the best part, President Rhett Bachmann said, his voice

pouring down onto the heads of the audience like thick, dark honey. We

found an unused, unclaimed piece of land just perfect for a little


development. We want our shifter community to be safe and have a

place to hunt without being a threat to nearby humans. When my Chief

of Staff proposed this location to me, I fell in love right away. Its a

gorgeous expanse of green, with sources of fresh water, plenty of

wildlife, and just begging for someone to come and live there. The

crowd murmured appreciatively, and the cameras snapped away. Right

on cue, President Bachmann smiled down at his adorable daughter, and

the two crinkled their noses at one another as everyone in the room

ahead and chuckled at the sight.


Under the table, Harper swung her seven-year-old legs back forth,

kicking her black, shiny shoes against the metal legs of the folding chair

that she sat in. Her brown hair was looking extra shiny in all the lights,

and she was glad she had worn her new, red velvet headband with a

flower on the side to go with her red dress. Making sure to smile, she

folded her little, manicured hands on the table and looked around the

room so that everyone could see the dimple on the right side of her face

just like her fathers helpers had encouraged her to do. She was short for

her age, so any time she had to attend a public announcement she had to

sit on a special cushion that lifted her up a bit. The cushion was a secret;
the helpers had explained to her that she couldnt ever talk about it. She

had yet to tell anyone.

A rough-looking journalist in an old, brown coat covered in stains

stood up and raised his pen. Bachmann nodded at him. Yes?

President Bachmann, when will the press be invited out to The

Hills?

I dont know if thats the best idea, the president chuckled. As

we all know, shifters are a highly unpredictable, very violent bunch and

are more than happy to kill and eat a human. Weve separated this
population for a reason, Mr

Mr. Nissy, Independent Press. What do you have to say about the

allegations that this beautiful location is, in reality, nothing more than

desert with no plumbing, electricity, or access to clean water?

The room went quieted as everyone waited for the president to

respond. A man in a dark suit leaned down to the president and

whispered something in his ear. The president smiled a nodded up to

him. The suited man lifted his chin to the back of the room.

Now, why would I do that, Mr. Nissy? That simply wouldnt make
any sense. I dont want them somewhere desolate. That would drive

them into the city to hunt an illegal act if there ever was one.

As Mr. Nissy listened to the presidents response and quickly took

notes, two security guards came up behind him and took hold of his

arms. The reporter dropped his pencil to the floor.

Now, the president continued, I have always been a huge

supporter of The Independent Press. Its very important to have an

unaffiliated source of media available for the everyday consumer. As he

spoke, the two guards escorted the reporter out of the room while the
other journalists watched. Why, its the cornerstone of free speech. In

fact, he continued as all the other reporters turned to him and

continued taking notes and snapping pictures, I encourage all of my

constituents to pick up a copy of The Independent Press first thing

tomorrow. I will be reading the front page with everyone else. I just

cannot wait to see what my favorite publication will have to say about

this historic day.

Harper reached down and pressed her hand into the secret

cushion, adjusting her weight. She was sweaty, and her dress was stuck
to her legs.

Excuse me, everyone, but the duties of fatherhood call. My young

one requires a snack and a nap, and I think I do as well. Everyone

laughed, and Harper slumped down onto the table at the mention of her

afternoon bedtime.

Daddy, Im not tired. Im bored!

Me too, he whispered, giving her a wink. To the crowd, he said,

If you will all excuse us, we have to wrap this up for the day.

The press gave their usual round of applause as he walked out of


the room. Harper turned to wave goodbye to them and got a new round

of ohhs and aahs. She spun back around and looked up at her father.

Daddy, she said, how come everybody likes you so much?

He looked down at her and gave her a sad smile. Well, I dont

know if everybody likes me. But, he sighed, lifting her into her spot in

their big, gleaming car, the ones who do like that I help people. Thats

Daddys job helping the people. He closed the door and then walked

around to the other side and climbed in.

I think one day you may have to take over as president. Would you
like that, darling?

I dont want to be president, she said, tapping her toes together

in the air above the floor of the car. Presidents have to work a lot. I

want to play all day.

Alright then, Rhett said, scrunching his nose up and touching the

tip of it to his daughters nose. You will be a professional fun-haver.

Youll help everyone by making them play.

She giggled at how weird her fathers face looked so close to hers;

his eyes looked more like one giant eye, and his face seemed to spread
out into the car. His moustache tickled her, and she snuggled into the

corner of the seat. Stop! Daddy, your moustache.

Oh, are you ticklish? He reached out and tickled the sides of her

ribs until she giggled even more. Harper closed her eyes and felt the car

careening around the corner and her nerves jump around under her

skin. She smelled her fathers cologne and listened to him laugh with

her. She was deliriously happy; she couldnt even remember the last

time shed been sad.

The next few weeks were normal ones for Harper. She attended her
classes in her small schoolroom with her private tutor and learned how

to subtract from numbers as big as thirty or forty, read about sleeping

princesses who were woken by a handsome hero, and painted pictures of

suns and mountains to carry across the palace to her fathers offices. On

her own side, she minded her manners and went to bed without

complaint. She saw her father every evening and every morning, made

sure to listen to everything he said, and kept a big smile on her face. She

didnt want to give anyone any cause to cancel her Big Day.

The Big Day was a day that Harper had come to love. It was a day
when everyone who worked for her father was invited to bring their

children to the presidential palace and work on their training. Harper

lived for the Big Day, it was the only time that she was surrounded by

other young girls and boys and was allowed to speak with anyone she

wished. For Harper, it was heaven on earth.

The night before, she laid out a pretty blue dress with the help of

her nanny who insisted she would need white tights and a white

headband to go with it. Harper clapped her hands at the sight of her

clothes all arranged on her big, soft chair.


It will look so nice! Thank you, Carol Anne.

Youre so welcome, my sweetheart. Carol Anne quickly shifted

into a cat and jumped onto Harpers lap. Harper picked up a brush and

stroked Carol Annes back. She loved to brush her nanny.

Carol Anne, she said, wagging her finger and talking as if she

were the adult in the room, your hair is just an absolute mess. I need to

get you all pretty. She focused on Carol Annes ears and then her

whiskers, finally touching up the tip of the cats long, waving tail. There.

Now you look presentable.


Harpers wristband let out a small beep to let her know it was eight

oclock, and Carol Anne quickly jumped down and shifted back into

human form.

Oh, my goodness! The time went so quickly. Come on, lets go see

your father.

Harper jumped down from the bed with a squeal. Daddy! Daddys

home! She ran through the spacious hall to her fathers rooms, and the

security guards quickly opened them up for her. She ran in and saw

President Bachmann already kneeling down with open arms. She picked
up speed and jumped right into his embrace.

I missed you, Daddy!

I missed you, my perfect little pumpkin. What did you do today?

Harper quickly recounted her day as she was lifted up and out of

the room in her fathers arms. Together, they moved into the dining

room and took their seats on either side of the tables corner. A huge

meal was laid out for them with three servants waiting on them.

Oh my goodness. You had quite a day!

I really did. Did you have fun today, Daddy?


Well, the president considered the question as he put his napkin

on his lap, actually, I had kind of a sad day. You see, darling, some bad

people are telling lies about your father and just wont stop. I dont know

what to do.

You should tell the truth, Harper offered, shoving a big bite of

chicken into her mouth. The truth is always best.

Her father tickled her under the chin and laughed a little. You are

going to make one fine president once youre grown up.

But I dont want to be president. I told you. She speared a roasted


potato, splitting it down the middle.

I know you did, her father said, stopping her hand before she

could put another enormous bite in her mouth. Goodness, you must be

growing even bigger. Your appetite is mind-blowing. He gestured to a

waiter who helped Harper cut her food into manageable bites.

Thank you, Niles, she said politely, before going back to

devouring her delicious meal. Her father watched her a moment and

then gave her a big, warm smile.

I hope you change your mind about running this country, my


darling. You know, I got this job from my father who was made

president by my grandmother, the founder of our state. You come from a

long line of leaders and thinkers. I would be so proud to see you behind

my desk.

You will, Daddy. Im coming to work with you tomorrow.

Everyone in the room laughed a little and the president moved in

for a hug with his daughter. Silly me. I almost forgot about the Big Day.

Are you excited?

She nodded and wiped her milk moustache away with dainty
touches of a napkin to her face. I already laid out a dress and

everything.

Oh, perfect. I cannot wait to have you walk into Headquarters

with me. Everyone just loves to see you.

Harper crossed her eyes and slumped forward. Do they like to see

me like this?

Her father stroked his chin and nodded slowly. You know, I think

this could be your new look. The two of them burst out laughing and

went on eating and talking as the staff stood and watched the president
and his only living relative put away enough food for a whole family.

The next morning, Harper pulled up to Headquarters with her

father in the big, silver car he always rode in. As they stepped out,

Harper was thrilled to see that each security guard had a younger,

smaller version of themselves holding their hands or standing by with

their earpieces in. The doorman was there with his daughter in a

matching red coat with gold trim, and the receptionist had her son right

next to her, stapling papers and answering the phone. Harper wanted to

meet all of them, but there were just too many. She waved and smiled,
and they all waved back.

Her heart fluttered in her chest at the sight of them all around her.

Other kids! Kids who got to go to a real school and ride on busses and go

to the public park. She could hardly believe they were real.

She and her father went with his staff and their children to the big

couches in his office for the morning coffee. There, everyone

complimented him on all the decisions he had made the day before,

laughed at his jokes, and put a stack of papers in front of him. Harper

listened to everything they had to say as she sipped her chocolate milk
and looked around the room.

In one corner was a boy whose hair was very carefully combed

down on top of his head, and dressed in a white shirt and tan pants that

looked odd in a way that Harper couldnt quite figure out. She looked to

her father to ask him, but he was busy laughing with all of his office

people, so she put down her milk and slid off the couch to talk to him.

Hi.

The little boys eyes went wide and he was sweating. He nodded

and then stammered out. H-hi. Hi. Youre the presidents daughter. Hi.
Yeah, I am. Who are you?

Im Grey. Thats my dad. He pointed to the man standing nice

and tall in the corner. Harper knew that the man had an important job,

but she had never seen him do it. The man didnt smile or wave when

Harper waved at him. Rather, he kept his eyes on the president and his

meeting as if he were a little bit nervous. The girl shrugged and went

back to her new friend.

What job are you learning today?

Grey puffed out his skinny chest and grinned. Im learning how to
be a messenger like my dad. He already let me take one message all by

myself.

A messenger?

Yeah. I can fly in my eagle form. It helps a lot of people. I fly really

fast. Grey spread his arms out and ran around in a little circle and

Harper quickly jumped in and ran around with him. She heard her father

say her name, but she didnt stop. She was dizzy with the centrifugal

force and the glee of the moment and wanted the moment to last. Her

father said her name a couple more times, each time getting a little
louder. Before she knew he was standing over her, he lifted her into the

air and scared her silent.

Harper Bachmann, he said, holding her right at his eye line, this

is not how we behave at Headquarters. Apologize to my staff for your

behavior right now.

Tears welled in Harpers eyes. She loved playing, but it always

seemed to get her in trouble. She took in a big, shuddery breath, and

then said, Sorry, everybody.

Everyone gave her a sympathetic face and mumbled their


forgiveness, assuring her it was fine, but all of that somehow made the

moment worse. Her father pulled her in for a hug and addressed the

room.

Excuse us, everyone. I think all of this was a bit more than young

Harper was ready for. Excuse me, Floyd?

The tall man in the corner came to life just as Harper turned her

teary face towards him. He gave her a warm smile and walked over. Yes,

Mr. President?

I know youre very busy, but seeing as we have two little ones who
really should get to know one another, Im curious if perhaps I could

persuade you to take them out into the garden so that they could get

some of this energy out? Who knows, he added, giving the room a wink,

maybe theyll be best friends.

Another big laugh followed Grey and Harper out of the room as

Floyd escorted them out the back, and the adults all congratulated the

president on another joke well-told. Harper glanced back at her laughing

father as the door closed, then shrugged and ran to lead the way out to

the garden, daring Grey to try and run as fast as her to the other side of
the garden.
Chapter 4

That first play date between Harper and Grey became the first of

many. Floyd was invited to bring in his son about once a week, and Grey

was then driven off to a private park where Harper would be waiting

with her band of security guards. Together they would play one of

several games: President and Messenger, War, or Funeral.

Harper loved to see Grey shift and carry her messages off to

different security guards. They would read her notes with serious faces

and then compose a response and give it to him to fly back to her. Even
though she was only a few feet away, she still laughed and clapped any

time she got a note. Grey was always breathing heavily after a few

minutes of President and Messenger. That would be when he would

suggest they play Funeral.

Funeral was Greys chance to lay down and close his eyes. Harper

liked to stand over him and say lovely things about how brave he had

been, how nice he was, and how his favorite kind of sandwich was

bologna. He always had to fight hard not to smile when they had one of

these play sessions. It was always fun to hear a presidents daughter say
nice things about you.

The two of them only played War on odd days. Grey was always

taken by surprise when Harper wanted to play it; she was normally very

happy and sweet, but every once in a while, she would narrow her eyes

and say, Lets have a war.

That was Greys cue to run as she chased him around the park with

a stick or a handful of rocks, yelling, You dirty shifter! Stay away from

us! Get back to your Hills!

Grey had to act extra scared and surrender as quickly as possible,


swearing that the humans could have whatever they wanted. She would

laugh triumphantly up to the sky and put one little, black shoe on his

back as he kneeled on the ground.

Humans win again! Her declaration would echo around the

empty park, and Grey would secretly roll his eyes. He knew the real story

of the war, and he knew it hadnt gone that way. His parents had been

very clear with him never correct Harper even when shes wrong.

One day, after a round of War and Messenger, the two of them

settled into a game of Funeral. Grey lay down on the cool grass and
closed his eyes as Harper cleared her throat and pretended to cry.

Dear friends, she began, today we are sad. Very, very sad. Today,

Grey is dead.

Grey nestled into the grass and relished the moment. He waited,

eyes still closed, for her to continue, but all he heard was movement.

After some quick footsteps, the park went quiet. Was this some new

surprise from the security guards? He waited for a long moment,

keeping his eyes closed so the game could continue, but the grass got too

cold. He listened hard to try and determine what was happening, but
again, nothing happened.

He couldnt take it anymore and opened his eyes. Hey, whats

he sat straight up. All around him were trees and blades of dead grass,

but no people. Everyone was gone.

Greys breath came fast and hard; his heart beat far too fast. He

kept trying to make sense of what had happened he had been left in

the park, while Harper had been whisked away. Not a single adult was

there. He didnt even know how far away his home was.

As a shifter, Grey could have changed form and gone off to The
Hills, but as a person he knew something was very wrong and that the

wrong move could make it worse. He jumped up and ran to the edge of

the park to see if any adults were nearby, but the only people he saw

seemed to be running away from him. One man jogged by with a

shocked, pale face and flashed by Grey.

Hi. Sir, please but he was gone. Grey looked around, but no one

else was nearby. He swallowed hard and started running in the same

direction he had seen the last adult go and followed the road to see

where it led.
The park was just down the road from a row of stores and a big

community screen. Grey saw a group of people standing around the

towering structure with moving pictures. He listened to the booming

voices coming from the speakers and veered towards them. As soon as

he reached the spot, he was surrounded by others who were also

running and trying to find help and found himself pinned in by his arms

and legs. He tried to wiggle out of the tiny space, but he couldnt move.

Above his head, mouths were gasping and jaws were dropping.

Around him, hands were reaching for one another and squeezing so hard
that their knuckles turned bright white. The bodies around him crushed

in even closer until he was finding it hard to breathe. He moved back

little by little until he was just one step away from the back of the crowd.

He ducked down and out and gasped for breath as even more people ran

to join the others.

Grey looked around and saw a nearby abandoned building with a

high tower of crumbling rooms. He ran over to it and hid in a corner,

shifting to his bird form. As an animal, Grey was an American kestrel, a

small breed of eagle with soft grey wings and a white crest on his head
with black flecks all over his body. He could fly around without

attracting much attention as his size was very modest; every time hed

played President and Messenger with Harper shed been able to hold

him against her chest as she read her notes. He hopped out to the edge

of the building and then took flight.

As a bird, Grey was able to flit around the crowd and take in the

scene in its entirety. He flew in a circular motion, passing in front of the

screen in five-second intervals. As he did, he saw videos of people

covered in bloody marks, buildings on fire, and babies crying. A voice


boomed from the speakers and reached him each time he passed the

screen.

This horrible attackvictims are claiming that shifters are to

blamefire, blood, and tears. Grey was so shocked by the claim that

any shifter could do such a thing that he flew too low and smacked into a

mans ear. The force made him dizzy, and his wings flapped at an angle,

making it easy for a nearby hand to grab and hold him.

What is this? The voice belonged to a large pair of angry eyes

glaring right at him with fire deep inside the black pupils. I think this
bird is a shifter.

Grey quickly let out a series of little bird peeps just as his parents

had taught him to do anytime he was caught in animal form, but the

squeaky sounds coming out of him just made everyone lean in closer

and screw up their eyes even more as the hand holding him squeezed a

little tighter.

Kill it, one voice said. No reason to risk it. None of us will say

anything. Mumbles of approval went around the crowd as Greys tiny

heartbeat doubled in speed. The hand began to crush in on him and it


got harder to breathe.

Im dying, Grey thought. Today is the day I die. He shook in the

mans hand and turned his head from side to side, peeping as quickly

and as pathetically as he could. The crowd gathered in a bit tighter,

anxious to watch the little bird be crushed to death.

Please! The cry came from him against his will. Im Harpers

friend!

The sound of a human voice coming from a bird shocked the man

holding him so much that the big, strong hand released him with a loud
Oh! Wasting no time, Grey quickly flapped in the air and slipped

through the hands reaching for him in the air. He sped away, flapping

his wings hard and breathing fast. He had to get home.

As a bird, Greys honing skills came to the fore and he could

navigate through the crumbling buildings, over the square and rectangle

roofs, and out to The Hills. Even from a distance, he could see the mob

making its way to the settlement.

From his point of view, the crowd looked like a long, stretched out

caterpillar in blue jeans and dark jackets crawling out onto the dirt. Grey
extended his wings and tilted to the side, swooping down and out to get a

closer look.

Through his sharp, eagle eyes he could see angry, clenched faces

focused on the space in front of them. Each pair of hands seemed to hold

a long, heavy object slamming into rough, mean hands. Grey went up

again and aimed toward his house, desperate to find his parents, but saw

right away that someone else had beaten him to it.

A small crowd stood outside the door of his familys shack and

seemed to be observing. He perched on the roof of the house across


from theirs and hopped side to side in a panic. The men at the door were

big; they wore welder uniforms and each had a long, hooked piece of

metal in his hands. Grey had always liked the welders. They had cool

masks and made the sparks fly with their special tools, but that wasnt

their plan today. They wanted to tear everything apart and leave it all in

pieces.

For a long moment, nothing happened. The men in the doorway

seemed to be yelling orders to the inside of the house. Were his parents

in there?
Grey felt his heart thumping in his little bird chest. He wanted to

fly in and help, but he also knew that if he did hed be caught and killed.

It would be much harder to get away if he got cornered in the house. He

forced himself to calm down and breathe. Then, his breath was taken

from him again.

Two men emerged from the house, bent over from the waist. On

the ground, they were dragging his mother.

Shes a shifter! Get her!

The flashing metal pieces were raised and then thrown down with
a loud, hard thud. His mothers screams went all the way up to the sky.

He could hear cracks and thwaps as she begged for mercy. The men gave

her none, but rather kept hitting and yelling, saying something about

how she deserved this, she needed it. Soon, his mother wasnt yelling

anymore.

The horrible beating stopped and the men stood around, their

heads and eyes down on the ground where her unmoving body lay. They

mumbled a few words and one kicked her with his boot. Grey waited for

his mother to say something, to cry anything but she made no noise.
Slowly, the men moved away and left her bloody, broken body on

the ground. They walked off without looking back, instead raising their

weapons and yelling out to others nearby. They were about to cross the

boundary into the earthbound side, but a big, strange cat crossed their

path. One of the men jumped back in fear, but the cat didnt attack,

holding them at the boundary as one earthbound family after another

ran as fast as they could to get away.

With the attackers distracted and the others on their way to safety,

Grey flew down to his mothers head. Her hair was sticky with blood and
her jaw was broken and lopsided. He settled into the space between her

ear and her shoulder, nestling down onto her flowing, brown hair and

put his beak near her ear.

Mama Bird, he whispered. Mama Bird, Im here. Wake up. Wake

up, Mama Bird. Wake up. Please. Please, Mama Bird His tiny eyes

welled with tears almost too big for them to cry, and he rested his little

feathered head against his cold, dying mother. The air grew cold and he

wanted to find his father, but he didnt move. He felt paralyzed by the

stiff and silent body beside him. He stayed there, nestled in her brown
hair until dawn, whispering his love to his mother and begging her to

return.

Grey woke to find himself in his own bed and in human form. His

father, who must have found him, was there beside him with his head in

his hands. His skin was ashen, and when he looked up, Grey could see

the dark circles under Floyds eyes. The two looked at one another and

reached out to hold the other by the arm. They clutched each other and

cried softly. Neither said a word.


A few weeks later, Grey learned what had happened. Some human

children had been attacked just over the border of The Hills and were in

the hospital with broken bones and huge gashes on their faces. The

police found what looked like claw marks and paw prints all around the

house where the kids had been beaten. Each child swore it was an

animal that had appeared from nowhere and come at them, but none of

them seemed sure what kind of creature it had been.

Their friends and neighbors had waited for the police to make an

arrest, but because the children couldnt name the animals they swore
had instigated the whole problem, none of the law enforcers were sure

of where to start. So, they just left the victims on their own. That was

when they decided to go and get the shifters themselves.

None of the news services or papers offered an explanation for the

massive fires and videos of desperate mobs they had shown that day.

Their silence made Greys heart change; it began to develop a hard,

dense shell. These grown-ups were lying just like the president had lied

about their new home. He didnt know how they had done it, but

somehow they had made the humans kill his mother. He made a fist and
felt his fingernails press into his palm like teeth biting into skin. He

didnt know any shifters who attacked human children. Everyone he

knew in The Hills were far too frightened of humans to do anything like

that. And yet, the humans didnt seem scared of them at all.

Grey listened on several occasions while his own father tried to

speak to the police about the death of Avey, his mother. They made

notes and nodded their heads, but Greys father was always angry about

it. He told Grey the police didnt care about them and were just as

uneducated as the others. Grey didnt understand his mother had been
killed. Someone needed to go to jail. He offered to help, but that just

made his father sad.

Several weeks went by and things calmed down. The families came

back little by little and moved back into their homes. Grey didnt know

where they had been hiding, but he knew that there was a secret place

only shifters knew about. He didnt ask any questions because he

wanted to show he could be trusted.

His father spent more and more time at home, saying the president

didnt need him so much anymore. Grey asked what had happened and
got a comment about the government feeling guilty and hush money,

but he wasnt sure what any of it meant. He decided to look for Harper

and ask her himself.

He didnt have to look far; he took to the skies and saw Harper and

her father at a big event. An old building called a shopping mall had been

repaired and would be available to the people of the city. They had put a

big, red ribbon across the door, and the president had a huge pair of

scissors in his hands. Grey flew to the top of a lamppost and perched

there to watch.
I hereby proclaim, President Bachmann said in his sweet,

dripping voice, this former shopping mall open and available to the

public. Now remember, he added, first one to a space gets to claim it.

On your mark, get set, go!

The giant scissors flashed, and the ribbon fell open just in time for

the crowd to crush themselves through the giant doorway. Bachmann

held Harper back so that no one would run her over, and the two of

them watched excitedly as the mortals fought for a space. Grey decided it

was a good time to make his move.


He swooped down and over to the president and his daughter,

flitting around for a moment to get Harpers attention. She saw him and

just watched him for a moment, then her eyes lit up with a moment of

recognition.

Grey! Oh, Daddy, its my friend Grey. Can I play with him for a

moment, please?

Where, darling? This little American kestrel? Why, look at him!

The president presented his arm, and Grey landed on it as calmly as he

could, though inside he was shaking. Bachmanns big, dark eyes drifted
down to Greys level and his heavy, syrupy voice boomed through the

air.

What are you doing here, little bird?

Mr. President, he responded, Im Grey Wiseman, Floyd

Wisemans son. I came to ask if um, if Grey tried to continue, but all

he could see was the mental image of his father sitting at home on the

little messy nest they had made, sitting without Greys mother, not

eating and not moving. The president did that to him. This man, he

thought to himself. Then, the image left him, and Grey suddenly
understood something: the president had the money and the power to

change lives. No matter what happened, Grey had to find a way to work

with the power above his head. Just like his father.

I came to ask if I could work for you.

The president raised his eyebrows in an impressed expression.

Well, well. An in-person application from the loyal Wiseman family. I

am impressed. Turn into your human form, boy.

Grey flitted down and then grew to what felt like an enormous

stature after embodying such a small shape for the morning. He stood
up tall and proud to face the president who looked him up and down.

I am sorry to tell you, he began, that your father has been let go.

With a substantial severance package, I may add. However, the

president put his hand on his daughters head, my daughter would

simply adore a messenger. She talks about all the days the two of you

spent in the park, playing together. Perhaps you could be messenger to

the First Daughter. Ill pay you an entry wage. What do you say?

Grey had no idea what a severance or a wage was, or why Harper

had any need for a messenger, but he kept a serious expression on his
face so that the president wouldnt change his mind.

Thank you, Mr. President. It would be an honor. The man and

the boy shook hands, then Harper squealed and threw her arms around

her friends neck.

Oh, yay! She gave him a squeeze, and Grey was surprised at how

soft and nice-smelling Harpers clothes were. She seemed to be made of

soft and luxurious materials that had been scented with flowers. Now

we can play every day right in the palace. Were going to have so much

fun!
Greys stomach gave a big twist, but he kept his brave face on. Im

a man now, he thought to himself, and men have to do scary things.


Chapter 5

Tina blinked her eyes open and immediately regretted it. The light

hit her retinas with a vengeance, and she groaned with the pain of the

morning all around her. Why did everything have to start so early and be

so cold?

She staggered out to the little communal shower stall and stripped.

It didnt take long; her clothes were getting smaller and smaller each day

thanks to the new tax. She tried not to look at the tatters hanging in

front of her on the door as she reached up to tip down her bucket.
A wave of icy-cold water crashed down on top of her head, and she

let out a big Whoo! She shook her long, fringed hair and grabbed for

the giant slice of soap that always sat on the edge of the stall. That day, it

was gone.

Hey neighbors, she called out, whos got the soap? Some of us

are dirty over here.

Not much I can do about that, Black Feathers voice called back.

But if you want to bathe, I could pass you this chunk.

Yes, please. Tina wrapped her arms around herself and shivered
as the cold air hit her wet skin.

Whatll you give me for it? Black Feathers voice had taken on a

teasing tone. He loved to torment her, especially at the showers.

My undying adoration.

Come on, Black Feather said, holding up a nice, blue piece of

soap straight out of the stall, you can do better than that.

Black, Tina pleaded. Come on. Give a girl a break. I dont know

what you want.

How about an invite to the party on Friday?


Tina froze. The Cave Fest was invite only, no guests. The wolf

shifters took that party very seriously and would never have her back if

they knew she had purposely invited an airborne. But, she couldnt see

the harm in Black Feather showing up on his own. Maybe if she just

pretended to be as shocked as everyone else, she could pull it off.

You wont bring anyone?

No one.

And you wont tell anyone I gave you the location?

Of course not. Black Feather stood on his tiptoes so that he could


flash his big, warm smile in Tinas direction. She looked at his handsome

face and melted, but just a little.

Fine. Ill pass you the details in school. But you have to memorize

them and then destroy the evidence. I mean it.

Yes! He tossed the blue soap in the air, and Tina leapt up and

caught it expertly. She soaped up as fast as she could, scrubbing her

scalp with the big, cologne-scented cleaner, then gave herself another

round with the bucket. She quickly toweled off and dressed, but Black

Feather took his time, letting her go out first.


As Tina left, she glanced back at the showers. She didnt see any

soap in any of the stalls. Black must have really wanted an invite. What

did he care about their party, anyway? Since when did an airborne want

to be underground? She shook her head and hoped he would forget

about it, then went off to get breakfast.

It had taken a few months for any enterprising shifters to create

some kind of business in the settlement, but once things calmed down

and got into a rhythm, several of the shifter women had gotten together

and made a little food stand. It wasnt much to look at. It had corrugated
metal walls that looked ready to topple at any moment, and the menu

was spray-painted on one side, but none of that mattered. What got

everyone excited about the place was the food.

Tinas mom, Faye Traxon, oversaw the fry station. She cooked up

rat, snake, and mouse better than anyone. The trick, she had told Tina

once, was to skin the animal with the help of both boiling and cold

water. That preserved the integrity of the flesh while taking away the fur

or the scales. She walked up, smelling the hot, boiling oil that Larrisas

mom got for free from her job. The women always started the day by
frying onions whole; it made the whole settlement smell good and all

the shifters hungry.

Tina peeked into the busy kitchen and blew a kiss to her mother.

She gave a distracted Hi, Honey, then went back to her fryer. She had

to catch her goods at just the right moment or they would go from

tender to tough, and she detested putting bad meat in front of a

customer.

Teenage Tina took a plastic stool and looked around, making sure

to sit so the sun hit her hair. She wanted it to dry before she went to
school. It was there that Grey found her and gave her his sad, world-

weary smile.

Tina, good morning. May I join you?

Oh, my God. Just sit down. You are too formal for this world. No

one can handle it. She crossed her legs and looked away to see who else

was around. She waved at some school friends, and Grey quickly

checked to see whom she was greeting.

Hey, I know those guys. Earthbounds. Theyre forming a team,

right?
Yeah. Soccer, I think. I suppose its easy enough to set up. And

just about anybody can play it. I mean, not me, but you know, most

people.

Tina, Im sure if you really tried you could do it.

She rolled her eyes. Thanks, Dad. She turned and faced Grey

head-on, taking him in.

Little Grey had grown up, but far too fast. His face was always

stern and set, and he rarely broke out in laughter. He had dirty,

dishwater blond hair and big, powerful arms and shoulders from all the
flying he did. His legs were strong as well, but his lower limbs didnt

even begin to compare to those on the top half of his body. He was tall

and imposing, but no one took him seriously because he carried himself

in such a grave manner. He was only sixteen but looked ready to be a

grandfather.

You really should quit working for the First Daughter, Tina told

him. That job is aging you more than you realize.

I cant quit, he responded, pausing for Larissas mom to put some

fried mice down in front of him. Im locked in for life. Besides, we need
the money.

Tina raised her fried snake to her mouth and blew on the hot food.

No one needs money that badly. And dont kid yourself; everyone

knows your dad is hiding money. You two arent broke.

Thats his money to do with as he sees fit.

Okay, stop. Save the legalese for your next hot date.

Ha. They fell silent as they ate, avoiding eye contact with one

another. The two of them had always had a little bit of an attraction to

one another, but after an intensely awkward date, they decided to keep
things platonic. Every once in a while, though, the old spark reared up

and threatened to burst into the flames of young love, but so far it had

never followed through. Tina sincerely hoped it never would; she wasnt

quite ready for a serious love affair.

To get her mind off her past with Grey, Tina took in the young boys

around her, gathering to eat breakfast. She smiled at Sam Digger, the

bear shifter, and he wiggled his eyebrows at her. She giggled and tried to

copy the gesture, but was unsuccessful. Sam shook his head,

disappointed. Couldnt she mock someone properly? His disapproving


face was even funnier, and she laughed again.

Over by the water pump was Black Feather, her tormentor from

earlier that day. Black had grown up intensely handsome with his sharp,

glinting eyes and intense stare that he balanced out with a big, friendly

laugh that burst out of him at the slightest provocation. With his

feathery black hair and sharp jawline, he had plenty of airbornes and

earthbounds all over him, but he didnt seem interested in anyone in

particular. He caught Tina staring and gave her a little wink, reminding

her of their deal. She sighed and turned away.


Boyfriend hunting?

What? Greys question had shocked her to the point of dropping

her snake into the dirt. She picked it up and shook the dirt off, brushing

the sides to save as much as she could.

Sorry about that, Grey said, didnt mean to make you lose your

breakfast. He held out a hand. Give it to me, and Ill buy you another.

No, she shook her head and bit into the dirty food, thats okay. I

dont want to waste it. Mom wouldnt like that.

Thats sweet of you, Grey said, not bothering to insist. Life on the
settlement had taught them all to value every tiny bite of food. He

politely covered up a burp, excused himself and stood to go. He had

work.

Tina checked the shadows on the ground and saw that it would be

time for school soon. She forced herself to swallow the last bite of gritty,

dirt-covered snake and then pulled out her comb. She stood and looked

into one of the many broken mirrors on the far wall of the restaurants

patio and combed her hair back into a long, wavy ponytail. Her mother

had been lucky enough to find a good quality hair band during a junk
run with her friends and brought it home for her. It was one of Tinas

three possessions.

The hair band was her favorite as it was a gift from her mother,

and it gave her a sense of pride. Having her long tresses under control

and out of her face made getting through her day much easier. She didnt

care what the gossipers had to say about how shed gotten it; she knew

the real story.

Two more treasures lived in a secret little box that Tina kept buried

in the dirt under her bed. They were a fake crystal a prism was the
actual word and a short book. Books had gone away shortly after the

Bachmanns came to power. They had graciously offered to read all of the

old books and teach their contents to the people, but they must have

forgotten. Very few humans or shifters had any idea how to read and

hadnt since her mother was a little girl.

Tina ran her fingers through her hair one last time and stood to

brush herself off. She was embarrassed about the gaping holes in her

clothing, but she could see other young girls whose new breasts were

barely covered. The clothing tax would have them all naked soon, and
then what? Would the president ask for their skin?

The possibility was a little too attainable for Tina, and she shivered

in the hot sun. She told herself to focus on the moment and the task at

hand, just like her mom always told her when she got frightened. She

took her plate back to the kitchen and walked off to school.

School for shifters was tricky. First of all, it was just an empty

room. Students all sat on the floor and faced the center of the room.

Each day featured a lecture, and today would be no different; Sam

Diggers father Graham was telling them about hibernation.


Tina walked over with the other students, smiling at her friends

and giving a quick hug to Larissa. Larissa was feeling friendly that day;

always a nice turn of events. She was normally very stand-offish and had

a permanent snarl on her face for no particular reason. Larissa claimed

that she simply felt uncomfortable around others, but Tina knew shed

never gotten over the day her fathers legs were taken from him.

Andry, the big, smiling Malagasy shifter who had kindly built so

many houses, had been one of the first victims of the attack ten years

before. He tried to face his attackers in fossa form, but they had
possessed some kind of collar attached to a rod. They backed him into a

small space, got the collar on his neck and broke all of his legs.

His injuries were so intense that he couldnt shift until they

healed. Two of his legs set properly, but the other never quite recovered.

Doctor Whispen, their local healer, did everything she could, and

Andrys family used every purring technique available to them, but poor

Andry never walked again. Now he used a wheelchair he welded himself

and sat on small, withered-up limbs that had once been tall, strong legs.

Larissa spent her days avoiding home. Tina was sure she blamed herself,
but today she seemed to have given herself a pardon. They chatted on

the way in the door, their arms around one anothers shoulders.

They packed into the metal structure that served as their

schoolroom, sat cross-legged on the floor, and faced Graham. He smiled

and nodded at everyone as they filed in, blinking his big, sleepy eyes at

them. Bear shifters were almost never in a hurry, and Tina had a feeling

todays lesson would be a long one.

Black Feather settled in next to Tina and elbowed her in the ribs.

Ow! She rubbed her side and kept her gaze forward. What is
with you today?

Just in a good mood. He gave a lighter, friendlier tap on the

shoulder, but she just rolled her eyes and scooted away from him. She

was getting fed up with this good mood. She slipped a folded note into

his shorts pocket with as little movement as possible, praying that would

shut him up.

Good morning, my young ones, Graham began. Today, I am

going to talk to all of you about hibernation, why I do it, how it helps me

to survive, and what bear shifters need from our non-hibernating


community in order to stay safe.

As Graham spoke, he turned in a slow circle, taking in the whole

crowd of students. He rolled his words around in his mouth as if they

were pieces of bones, and he wanted to take his time tasting them before

slowly pulling them out. His heavy and wide human body seemed to give

him away; everything about him from his brown, bushy hair to his full

beard and big arms gave away his other shape. He was a brown bear

and a force to be reckoned with when threatened. He had been one of

the few shifters to fight back during the attack so many years ago.
Who here is airborne? Okay, I see some hands up. Wonderful.

Those of you with your hands down, Im assuming some of you

hibernate as well, yes? Great. What are some things our bodies do before

a hibernation begins?

Tina did her best to listen to Graham, but it was hard with Black

Feather constantly glancing over at her. The guy was driving her

completely insane. She wanted to turn to him and scream, What!? but

she held back. She knew a scene would be exactly what he wanted. She

kept her gaze forward and saw Sam Digger, Grahams son, listening
attentively to his father.

Those of you who take to the air, Graham continued, may not

understand that you are an important part of our hibernation. As we rest

deep in our hovels, you are keeping watch from above. You have the

distinct advantage of being able to intercept any attackers long before

they reach us. Now, we havent had an attack for a long time, but keep in

mind that the humans moved us here for a reason. And that reason is

To trap us!

No, to protect us.


Thats a joke.

Youre a joke! One young wolf shifters shoved another, and the

two broke into a tussle. The others around them scattered backwards,

giving them a bit of space to fight it out, but Graham decided class was

not going to go in that direction. Not while he was in charge.

Graham opened his mouth and let out a massive, air shattering

bear roar, and everyone froze. Their bones shook under their skin as

Graham gently separated the young wolves and put one back in his seat

and sitting the other in a corner. Now, he said, taking back his space in
the center, lets all collect ourselves and focus. The point I was trying to

make is that the humans put us where we are so that they will always

know where we are. Period. The goal is not to trap or protect us. It is to

keep tabs on us.

My children, you are a new breed. You are the marriage of human

and animal, earth and sky. The one good thing that has come from this

massive relocation is that it has integrated our different communities.

Before this, I never spoke to any airbornes. Now I do it every day. I was

sure that we had nothing in common, sure that I was better than any
little bird who flitted around in the sky.

This got a little chuckle from the kids. They always marveled at the

idea of shifters being enemies with others just like them. The old

divisions were long gone, and it was hard to believe these antiquated

rules ever existed in the shifter society.

It sounds funny, youre right, Graham said, a little smile on his

wide face, but thats how I was raised. And right now, the humans

around us are being raised to think of us as something different,

something strange that theyll never be friends with. And its going to
take a long time for that to change. So, in the meantime, we need each

other. I need all of you, and we must take care of those around us. I

dont care how tough of a wolf or how speedy a flyer you are; you need

those around you.

He paused to let all of this sink in, and the students all glanced at

one another. Tentatively, Tina raised her hand.

Miss Traxon? Whats on your mind?

What if, um, well She bit her lip, debating whether or not to

continue. She took a deep breath and went for it. What if we meet a
human who we can be friends with? Would it be dangerous to, you

know, spend time together? If we just like, I dont know, like having fun

and hanging out?

The whole room went quiet. Tinas heart pounded, and she stared

at the floor. What had she done? She swallowed hard and tried to do a

casual look around the room, but her eyes went straight back to her feet.

Tina, Graham said softly, do you have a human friend?

She closed her eyes and let out a long breath. I dont know. I think

so, but she knows what I am and, well, shes kind of famous, and if
people found out, you know, it could be weird and maybe her family

would be upset, or stuff could get bad.

She desperately tried to get her breath under control, but it kept

coming in gulps and gasps. Why was she so stupid? She genuinely

couldnt figure herself out. Graham knelt in front of her and put a finger

under her chin.

Youre right, Tina, he told her in his warmest, softest voice. Stuff

could get bad. But then, he shrugged and smiled at her, it could be the

beginning of something great.


She smiled and nodded, wiping away the few stray tears that had

snuck out of the corner of her eyes. Yeah, she said, sniffling, maybe it

could. He patted her shoulder and stood to go back to his spot in the

center and addressed the crowd.

Alright, time for some science. Everybody grab a stick and form

groups of four or five, whatever works.

The class separated into groups and began scratching little

anatomy drawings into the dirt and symbols they used to help them

memorize different facts. Tina managed to gather a group around her


before Black could attach himself to her, and she breathed a sigh of

relief. Larissa hovered near the door and, once the teacher wasnt

looking, slipped out. Not long after she was gone, Graham was asking

around if anyone knew what had happened, but he just got the usual

shrugs. Larissa did what Larissa wanted, and they all knew better than to

pry into her secrets.

Tina threw herself into the lesson of the day and did her best to

commit the anatomy of a bear to memory. To help them, Graham shifted

into his bear shape and stood in the center of the room. He would have
walked around to show them how his muscles worked, but they were

packed in far too tight. Some of the little ones came up to touch his fur

and nose, and he gave them a good-natured growl. They let out little

shrieks of joy, and Tina smiled when she heard them. She wished she

could go up and pet Graham without feeling like a total creep, but she let

go of the notion. Her days of being fascinated by animals were long

gone.

As the sun reached its peak in the sky, the lesson came to an end,

and the students started to wander out of the schoolroom. The space
heated up quickly, and they all knew it; the smart ones sat by the door

and worked quickly so that they could be excused to their homes before

they started cooking in the hot air.

Tina let her sweat drip onto the dusty ground as she stared at the

drawing. What she wouldnt have given for a little scrap of paper. Could

she draw the same thing onto a page of her book? It would ruin it, but at

least she would have a document she could read and understand. She

sighed, and her breath came out much hotter than it should have.

Startled, she snapped her head up and looked around. Everyone else had
taken off, all headed home for some lunch and a midday nap. Even

Graham was lingering in the doorway, once again in his human form.

She stood, brushed her legs off, and walked out. Thanks, Graham.

I loved it.

Youre welcome, little wolf. He smiled and then gave her a wink.

And say hi to your friend for me.

She nervously nodded and walked away, but the comment had a

deep hold on her. She really shouldnt have said anything, but it was out

now. She felt like the others hadnt freaked out too much, but then
again, Graham had been there. She was on her own for the rest of the

day.

Tina took an alternate route home, avoiding the food shack, the

square in the center of the community, and the well. That was where

everyone would be hanging out, and she didnt need to hear their

whispers or see their darting looks. She ducked around the backs of the

houses near the fence that circled their settlement. Well, most of it. Just

like the reading, the fence installment hadnt quite come to fruition, but

the shifters respected the border anyway. No one wanted to be accused


of being a troublemaker.

By the time she was halfway home, her shoulders had relaxed and

she was no longer glancing back to where shed been. Sure that she was

in the clear, she sang a little song to herself and skipped along. The

summer had been a pleasant one; the water had been consistent, her

mothers business was doing well, and school had been interesting every

day. She had no real reason for concern.

A soft, orange stone on the ground caught her attention. She

leaned down to pick it up and saw that it was an agate the creamy
caramel rock that looked beautiful once it was polished. She stood and

held it up to the light to look for the little, nearly transparent spot, but a

soft, coco-colored face blocked the suns rays.

Hi, Tina.

She sighed and flopped her arm down. Hi, Larissa. You got

anything for me?

Maybe. Larissa looked down and then squatted just over the

ground. She looked down at the dirt for a long time and finally Tina

joined her in the shade. The two sat quietly for a moment while Tina
waited for Larissa to speak. Her odd friend liked to mentally piece

together her words long before speaking. She was incredibly smart, but

her intelligence came with the price of time and patience.

I like Graham. Hes a good teacher.

Whyd you leave, then? Tina picked up a stick and tried her best

to draw out the anatomy of a bears organs, but she was already

forgetting some of what shed learned.

I already have the anatomy of bears memorized. Larissa gently

took the stick from Tinas hand and deftly finished the illustration. Tina
watched with wide eyes; Larissas talents never failed to impress. She

could not only recite incredibly long histories from memory, but she

could draw, make up songs, and even build a little. If she werent a

shifter, she would have been very famous.

Tina waited while Larissa finished her lovely portrait of the inside

of a bear, then asked, Have you heard from her?

Yeah. I got a note today.

Tina waited for more information, but Larissa wasnt offering. She

looked over at her friend and saw that she was glaring at the drawing
now. Tinas eyes drifted down to the sketch and saw that Larissa was

stabbing the picture with the stick. She rammed it so hard that the stick

began to bend and then break. Tina reached over and placed her hand on

top of her friends to calm her down.

Easy. Dont hurt yourself. The two girls leaned their heads

together, and Tina patted her friends head. Larissa had lovely, wavy

black hair that fell to the middle of her back. She occasionally put it up

in braids, but she usually let it flow down. Tina loved Larissas hair; it

was glossy and full, not like Tinas limp, brown hair that slumped down
on her shoulders.

Hows your dad?

The same, Larissa spat. Except sicker. No doctor will see him.

She stared up into the sky. Humans always fight unfairly, she

continued. Im sure that collar they used had some kind of electric

current or something in it. My father had never been trapped before, not

even by the best human hunters in Madagascar. No way could some

idiot humans from the city got the best of him.

Tina rubbed her back. I know, La. Its awful. She didnt know
what else to say, so she fell quiet. Finally, she added, If you need

anything

We dont need anything from you or your family. We take care of

ourselves.

Tina sighed, already knowing shed done something wrong, but she

wasnt sure how to make it right. What did a friend with a broken father

need to hear? Larissa in particular seemed to have very specific

expectations for the consolation she received. Not that she ever shared

them with anyone.


Larissa stopped and looked at Tina before she went. She says that

shell see you on Friday. Shes putting together a disguise. Be ready to

meet her by the boulders near the grove.

Thanks. I mean it. She hoped Larissa heard her, but the girl was

walking away before the last word had left Tinas lips. She looked down

in the dirt. There, the drawing of the bear was full of tiny divots. The

stick was standing straight up from its target the bears eye.
Chapter 6

Harper snuggled down into her bed where she had hidden the

thermometer. She prayed her plan would work she was dying to get

out of the palace. It had been months since shed been out on the

streets, and she still thought about her last night out constantly. Life

away from her father and his politics seemed to be the only life worth

living, and she would not let it slip away.

There was a knock on the door, and she knew it was her father. She

pulled out the dummy thermometer quickly and put it in her mouth.
Tum in! she called and put on her most pathetic face. President

Bachmanns head poked through the door, and he raised his eyebrows.

Oh, darling girl. You do not look well. He crossed the room and

pulled the thermometer out of her mouth. You are ill, my little one.

Youre far too warm. He put his soft, aging hand on her forehead, and

Harper smiled despite herself. Her father could be so kind with her; she

wished he would show this side of himself to all those photographers.

I hate to miss the banquet, Dad, she said as she yawned and

snuggled down into the covers. Its always so nice.


Well, her father sighed, I suppose we can have it without you.

But Victory Day wont be the same without you. Who will cut the cake?

Dad, youll be fine. She laid onto the pillow and made sure to trail

off as she spoke. Go have funbanquetyou look so She rounded off

the performance with a little snore, and her father seemed to buy it. He

leaned forward to put a little kiss on her cheek and then paused a

moment just above her. Would he stay? She kept her breathing even and

prayed her banging pulse would help convince him that her body was

weak with germs. After an agonizing wait, he finally slipped out of her
room, clicking the light off as he went.

Harper visualized her fathers movements as she lay in her bed,

heart still slamming into her breastbone. She could see him in her

minds eye chatting with her personal guard, whispering that she was ill

and that they should hold their guard but let her sleep. Then, his own

assistant would come up, put his cufflinks into his white cuffs and give

him a few compliments on his appearance. He would crack a joke, and

everyone within a few feet would laugh and then walk with him to the

ballroom.
That night, all of the presidents staff, a visiting dignitary from a

new territory beyond the city, and all of their friends and protectors were

celebrating the night the humans supposedly defeated the shifter army.

The story went that the humans set out poisoned raw meat, and the

crafty, evil shifters ate it and perished in animal form, supposedly dying

a terrible death. Harper knew it was nonsense, but every year she played

along as if she had no idea what had really taken place, cutting the cake

and passing it to her fathers cronies as she played dumb. But not this

year; she was out of there.


As quietly and slowly as she could, she slid out of bed and laid on

the floor. From there, she reached under her bed and felt around for the

wig she had stashed. One great advantage to being the presidents

daughter was that she could request literally anything and no one

hesitated to bring it to her. So, when she asked for a long, black, curly-

haired wig several months beforehand, no one even hesitated. It was on

her desk an hour later.

She wiggled into her wig and then crawled over to her closet.

There, she had some civilian clothes folded up and hidden under a loose
board. She slipped into them in the closet without a sound, then moved

the loose board aside once more. Underneath was a key that her friends

outside the palace had illegally copied for her a favor that had cost her

dearly and opened exactly the door she needed.

For her safety, a small, secret door had been added to Harpers

room back when the palace was built. It opened into an unguarded

tunnel that led down to a secret garage where an old, beat-up car that no

one would ever give a second glance to, was housed. The idea was that

Harper and a guard could escape through this little secret hatch should
the palace ever be under siege and drive off unnoticed. The president

and his guards had no idea that she knew how to drive or that she had a

map of the city (a real map, not the fake one that was distributed to

civilians). Again, these were skills and resources shed had to beg for,

borrow, and steal to obtain, but she needed them. Even the cheap

clothes she had on were dearer to her than any of her jewels or designer

clothing.

Dressed in her discount clothing and with her wig firmly on,

Harper stopped a moment to take in her room. She looked at her huge,
four-poster bed covered in plush blankets and a silk duvet, and honestly

considered crawling back in and just calling it a night. She glanced

around at all the little accessories that covered her room that were

meant to keep her innocent and maintain the illusion that she was still

Daddys little princess the vase full of wands topped with sparkly stars,

the closet full of ball gowns she rarely wore, the vanity table packed full

of makeup and jewelry. She stepped into her basic black flats and ducked

through the door before she had another moment to consider passing up

the night and quietly latched it behind her.


A few minutes later, she was in the car and coasting down the

tunnel that led out to the road. She couldnt be sure that the guards

would be gone, but she hoped they would. The giant ball meant all

guards had to be available and on point, so the two that usually kept an

eye on the secret exit would most likely be in a different position. She

crossed her fingers and pressed the garage door opener that tilted the

door up. Sure enough, no guards.

She wasnt quite home-free. She had to get out the back entrance

to the presidents compound. She had a lie wrapped up and ready to go:
she was a kitchen staff worker with a personal emergency. She didnt

care if she would be replaced; she needed to get home to her mother.

Harper just hoped that if she was rude enough the guard would wave her

through. Her hands gripped the wheel, and she could feel how much she

was sweating. The giant wig was not helping.

The gatehouse was just ahead, and two very bored-looking guards

motioned for her to stop. She braked and rolled down the old window to

address them.

Hi Brad. Hi Steve. Look, I gotta go. Family stuff.


The two of them peered at her and then stepped back. Sure, this

woman looked familiar, but they couldnt quite remember from where.

What department are you again? Steve leaned back and narrowed

his eyes. Jog my memory.

Im the dishwasher in the kitchen. Harper said it just like shed

practiced: bored and annoyed with an eye-roll. Shed had a few drama

lessons and had really enjoyed them. She just prayed they would buy it.

Theyll let you go for this, Brad offered, leaning down. You know

youll never get another job.


Well, my mom might be dying and, I just I cant She

hiccupped out a little cry and waved her hands in a dont-look-at-me

gesture. The guys instantly softened and told her to go on. They opened

the gate, and she went through with a quick wave goodbye. She was free.

As soon as the palace was behind her, she sped up as she wound

through the mountain range that separated her from the world. Her

window was still down, and she propped an elbow on it as she swerved

around the curves of the mountains. She had read somewhere that at

one point these mountains had been covered in trees and wildlife. She
always wondered if any of those birds or deer had actually been shifters

living right next to the rulers giant palace. Life in the woods sounded

like heaven on earth.

As she drove down the road, the cars communication system

beeped to life. A voice whispered through the static-filled connection,

and Brads voice was suddenly with her in the front seat.

Harper, I know its you. Come on, youve had your fun. Come

back.

She knew it would be a few minutes before they could get


motorcycles to follow her, but just to be sure, she pulled off to the side

and around the back of a boulder, then clicked off the radio. She didnt

know if it had a homing device, but she guessed no one had bothered. It

had been decades since the president had been attacked or even

threatened. The good President Bachmann had seen to that, terrifying

everyone and everything until any hint of rebellion was stopped long

before it reached his property.

Harper sat in the cool air of the car and listened. The boulder was

larger than her car, but an enterprising guard would have been able to
find her. She closed her eyes and took a long, deep breath, then heard

the motorcycles on the road. She pulled off her wig and slid down in her

seat. Please dont let them find me. Please.

The thrumming motors stalled next to her on the road, and she

could hear two voices speaking loudly to one another. They were

agreeing to split up one would head back to keep an eye on the

boundary and the other would go into the city and see if there was any

kind of party or event that had tempted the First Daughter. They zoomed

off to their respective zones, and Harper smiled to herself; God bless the
ignorance of her fathers house.

When she couldnt hear the motorcycles any longer, she started

the car up and drove off, taking the little dirt road she knew was a

shortcut to The Hills.

The secret little pathway was a rarely-travelled passageway out of

the mountains and down onto the Open Zone where no one lived. She

would be exposed for the ten minutes it would take to drive across it, but

she couldnt risk going through the city. Now that one guard was looking

for her, others would follow right behind him as the hours of no First
Daughter being at home ticked by. No, it would have to be the Open

Zone and the possibility of being seen.

Just as the rocky trail ended, she parked the car to put on her wig

and take a look at herself in the little mirror that came down from the

ceiling. She always marveled at these little details; she didnt need an

expensive mirror to see herself with because she could just look in this

little car mirror. It didnt matter that her shoes were only worth a few

Bachmanns, they covered her feet just as well as a pair worth millions.

Her father had always given the impression that a life of anything less
than extreme wealth was hardly worth living, but Harper saw no

problem with a simpler approach. The wealthier people who lived above

the city always seemed very on edge. Their lives appeared exhausting

and, as far as Harper could tell, very boring. They were so bored they had

an inescapable need to invent new mythologies to tell themselves and

create villains to fear. She detested them.

She looked at the Open Zone and squeezed the steering wheel,

turning her hands in an attempt to wipe the sweat from her palms and

calm down. This empty stretch of road was always thrilling in the light of
day, but at night it was desolate and terrifying. Not even a boulder was

there to bear witness to anything that happened along this piece of road.

Her foot gently pressed the pedal and she eased out onto the road.

No sign of the guards on their bikes, no flashing lights, no team of law

enforcers to drag her back up the mountain. Despite the wide-open

landscape, she decided not to risk it and pushed her foot flat on the gas

pedal and tore down the road.

The sound of the engine gunning and revving in the clunker car

drowned out everything else, and Harper knew anyone nearby would
hear it, but it was the only way to cut down on time on this odd stretch

of road. She pressed her lips together and pushed even harder on the

pedal, revving the engine further. Soon, she could see the shelter of the

grove that marked the edge of The Hills. The small, shrubby trees grew

from the horizon as she approached, and her heart started to sing out a

little. She was going to make it! She was almost there!

Just as the end was in sight, the car let out a loud cough like a

gunshot, and the vehicle began to slow down.

No! No, no, no! Come on; you can do it. Despite her lecture, the
car died little by little until it was dead and smoking in the road. She

slammed the steering wheel with her hand and then grabbed it and

made a great effort at ripping it off the car. The wheel held, but the

engine coughed and belched to death and sent a smoke signal of her

location straight up into the sky. The sound of sirens in the distance

spurred her into action; she grabbed her bag and flew out of the car,

running down the road as fast as she could. She held her wig in one hand

and her cheap purse with a little cash in the other as she sprinted down

the street, heading straight for the trees.


A moment later, she was perched in the crotch of a tree and

gasping for breath. She watched through the branches as a whole brigade

of guards and law enforcers surrounded the abandoned car and stood

talking to one another. Harper didnt move; she knew one little rustle in

the branches would be the end of everything shed be monitored non-

stop the rest of her life. She swallowed and adjusted her grip on the

branches. Her fingers were already cramping, and her legs were falling

asleep in the deep squat position, but she didnt dare to stand. A guard

walked toward the trees.


He looked into the grove with a flashlight, shining it into the leaves

of several different trees. Harper Bachmann, he said firmly, we are

here to help you. You are on the boundary of the shifter settlement.

Please come out so that we can get you home safely. His beam of light

continued across the trees, pausing inside the shadows of each one. Im

sure you just want to be safe in your bed right now. Come with me, and

Ill make sure the president goes easy on you. I promise. Again, the

light traveled, and the beam was heading straight for Harpers head.

She ducked down and squeezed her eyes shut, briefly hoping the
light would miss her, but suddenly it clicked off. From the road came the

sound of her pursuer laughing with another guard or enforcer. They

seemed to both be in on some wonderful joke. She listened as hard as

she could, but she only picked up snippets of what they were saying as

the motors started up again and motorcycles began pulling back out into

the road.

Let the old man sweatbigger budget for thiskeep the search

going, even if you find her! She crinkled up her perfectly-plucked

eyebrows. They didnt want to find her? She considered this as she lay in
her tree, resting her head on her hand. Was her disappearance giving the

guards an advantage? Surely her father would terrorize them, but then

again, shed just given them an excuse to be away from the palace

constantly. Perhaps they felt as trapped as she did as each day rolled by.

Long after the sound of the motors died off and drifted away, she

slid down the tree and then collapsed to the ground on numb legs. She

stretched them out in front of her as she sat in the dirt and fallen leaves,

shook them out, and waited for them to regain feeling. Sitting in the dirt

and feeling the cool earth around her brought back a lot of memories.
For a moment, she could almost hear Greys voice crying out, You win!

Humans win! as they played war. She shook her head; shed learned the

real story of the war when she dug up the old book collection in the

basement. Reading about how the humans used animal-specific diseases

to reduce the number of the shifter population, how they got the

different species to fight one another, and gave preference to one group

at some moments then other groups would get the preference at other

times, causing them to not trust each other. The shifters were quickly at

one anothers throats, while the humans stayed safe at home. And

leading it all was her grandmother, the first President Bachmann with
her father as a young boy, right by her side.

She stood and brushed herself off, hoping she didnt look too

messy for the party. She looked back at the dead car in the empty road

for a moment, then shook her head and turned away. Harper Bachmann,

First Daughter and most powerful woman in all that remained of the

human race, sincerely wished to have a whole new life one where no

one would care about titles or money, and she could just exist as part of

a group all day long. She turned and walked into the grove towards the

big boulders that stood as tall as the trees, hoping Tina would be there.
She walked quietly between the giant rocks, pulled on her wig, and

leaned against a boulder to wait. Somewhere in the distance, she could

hear drums beating and the distinct sound of people having an amazing

time. As much as she wanted to go and find the party on her own, she

knew shed never get there without Tina. Entrances to shifter parties

were always impossible to find, and Harper knew shed end up

wandering around all night by herself if she tried.

A cold, terrifying prickle went up the back of her neck. She looked

up, not daring to breathe. There, on the boulder above her, was a huge
female wolf.

Tina?

The wolf jumped down and faced her. It stepped forward and

sniffed her hand. Harper swallowed and told herself not to be afraid, but

her heart wouldnt listen. It slammed against her ribs in a futile attempt

to escape. The First Daughter closed her eyes and prayed the wolf would

kill her quickly.

Hey, Harper.

Harper opened her eyes to see Tina standing there in front of her
with a big grin on her face. Oh! You scared me on purpose.

Hey, youre the one who insists on hanging out with shifters. She

leaned in a little and touched her friends arm. Dont you know were

twisted? Tinas eyebrows wiggled up and down, and both girls burst out

giggling. Harper felt her shoulder muscles relax a little for the first time

all night.

Its great to see you!

Good to see you. Ready to party?

Oh, so ready. Tina put her arm around Harpers shoulders and
led her over to a path that led through a broken part of the fence. The

path went straight up and then curved around to an unseen patch in the

landscape shrouded by shadows. While the shifters were all forced to

live in this odd little settlement, they were also well-versed in its hiding

places should the need to escape ever arise again.

Awesome! Theres some live music happening tonight. The band

just got together a few months ago, but theyre pretty decent. Theyre

called Shredded Corpse, but dont let the name fool you. Theyre not too

intense.
Shredded Corpse. Oh, my goodness. Harper shook her head as

they veered with the path and lost herself in the moment, laughing with

her friend on the way to the party. For the first time in months, she

wasnt worried at all about her father, the government, or anything to do

with running the country.

Suddenly, Tina stopped and dropped to the ground. She slapped the

dirt with her hand, but found only solid earth. She moved a bit further

down, still slapping, then stopped and put her ear close to the ground.

Satisfied, she sat up, kneeling, and felt around the dirt with her fingers.
Harper couldnt see anything to grab onto, but without a word, Tina

suddenly seemed to be lifting the earth.

It was a false piece of landscape that lay on top of an entrance that

led to a booming, pulsing party complete with flashing lights and

screaming laughter. Tina smiled up at Harper over her shoulder.

Alright, this is it.


Chapter 7

Grey sat on his bed yet again, home on a Friday night. In his hands,

he held a chunk of wood and a small knife, gently shaving away the solid

wood, curl by curl. His goal was to carve a harpy eagle, a gorgeous bird

with feathers that fanned as it spread its wings and long, curved talons.

His problem was that he just wasnt interested; carving had always been

his fathers passion. Grey had only taken it up because his dad insisted,

but he found it extremely tedious. It took days to get anything that even

resembled the basic shape of the subject, and even then, one wrong
move meant the artist had to start all over again.

He looked at his father holding his own block of rough, freshly

scavenged wood and saw the peace in his face. The tedium of the task

seemed to be exactly what spoke to his dad. It was an excuse to sit and

say nothing for hours, to hold a piece of nature in his hands, and an

opportunity to focus all his energy into a small whittling knife and the

grain of the wood. Grey sighed and tried again, picturing a gorgeous

harpy eagle in his mind. They flew in straight, perfect lines and skimmed

water expertly, plucking a big, tasty fish from a lake or a river gracefully
and carrying it away.

With this image in his mind, he looked at his wood again and saw

wood. He shook his head and put his feeble attempt at art down on his

shaky little table by his bed. Daddy Bird, he said, I think I need to go

for a quick walk. Clear my head.

Hm.

Will you be alright? You need anything?

Mm.

Grey gave up and walked out the door. Whatever. For the millionth
time, he thought to himself, I should just leave him. Strike out on my

own and see the world. He wouldnt even notice. He walked off,

enjoying the fantasy of discovering the unknown world around the city,

finding other lost creatures and creating a community of his own one

that would never stay in one place for too long. No politicians, no media,

no settlements. Just the big blue sky and endless horizons.

The fantasy always gave him a pang in his ribs. As much as he

loved daydreaming about the possibilities outside the city, he knew what

he was really dreaming of: a life without his dad. He wandered over to
the fence border, past the little shacks that stayed open late selling this

and that, whatever junk they could steal from the edges of the city. He

nodded to some friends but didnt slow down. His feet carried him up

and over to the edge of the settlement and then higher, into the larger,

steeper hills that surrounded all the shifters and supposedly kept them

safe.

Deep in this part of the landscape was the place Grey knew he

needed. His private space. As he walked, he considered shifting and

flying up, but he knew that any transformation outside the settlement
would be seen as an act of rebellion. Not that anyone was watching. Law

enforcers had become lazier by the day, all of them confident that the

massive relocation of the shifters had successfully broken their spirits.

He came up to his little hiding place. It was a little nok hidden in

the curves of the land. A small, bent tree marked the spot, bowing to him

as he approached. He walked up and smelled its bark, then looked up

into its branches. He always held out hope that one day he would see a

little nest in there, but it had yet to happen.

The ground around the tree had something that he had never seen
anywhere else. It was a soft, feathery plant that opened like fingers

coming from a palm and spread out low. He touched it and marveled at

how similar the little green leaves felt to a babys hair or the tiny plumes

on a young wing. He leaned down to smell it, putting his nose deep into

the center of the biggest one.

The tickly plant was cool and soft. He wondered what on Earth it

could be, if maybe there had been more of it before the war. He sat down

on top of his little patch of green and looked up into the sky, hoping the

night above him might have something to offer. The red moon stared
back down at him, not revealing anything.

Grey relaxed and leaned back against the tree, closing his eyes. His

spine vibrated in a steady pulse as he sat there. What was that? It wasnt

an earthquake; the ground wasnt swaying. This was something else.

In the back of his mind, he felt the tickle of a memory, then

slapped his forehead as it came to him. The party! He had completely

forgotten. Hed been dismissed from work that day as everyone was

preparing for the banquet and didnt need the usual messages. He was so

tired that hed fallen dead asleep as soon as he got home, and by the
time he woke up he had forgotten everything about his social life. He felt

the ground and felt the little blades of green carry the vibrations of the

party up into his hand.

Its underground, he thought. Looking around, he tried to see a

little bit of light leaking from a cave or rock, but there was nothing.

Hmm

Grey stood and walked forward a little, then changed his mind and

went back to the other side of the tree, but that wasnt right either. He

turned left and kept walking, and felt the vibrations grow stronger.
Confident in his choice, he continued in that direction. He wasnt

usually a fan of parties, but he wanted to attend this one and just forget

his life for an hour or so. He hoped there would be some bottles there;

those were his favorite.

After wandering the big hills for a while, Grey knew he was close

but just couldnt seem to find an entrance. Finally, he sat on a flat rock

and waited. If this was near the party, someone would wander in or out.

Because the get-together wasnt for the airbornes, Grey couldnt just ask

someone. Only the earthbounds, the organizers of the event, would have
the details, and they would be closely guarded. Despite the fact that

everyone got along, earthbounds still had their traditions. Sure,

airbornes went to their parties anyway and they all had fun, but the idea

was no flyers. Grey didnt know why.

He sat in the cool night air for a long time, wondering if maybe he

had made a mistake. Just as he was about to give up and go home, a

piece of the ground lifted and two young, female wolf shifters climbed

up out of the ground.

Are you sure?


Yes! I have to go right now.

But how do you know youre in heat?

I just know, okay? Dont I reek?

Not really. I mean, you smell different, but its not bad. I think it

will be okay.

Oh my goodness! I cant believe you. Here I am, surrounded by

males and in total heat, and my so-called best friend cant be bothered.

You just want to stay and flirt with that flyer. Hes not even handsome!

No, come on. Ill walk home with you. Dont worry. Ill make sure
no guys bother you.

Dont do me any favors!

The two friends argued and wandered off, but their tiff had helped

Grey immensely. They had forgotten to seal the entrance behind them,

and now Grey could see perfectly how to get past the hard earth and

descend into the fun.

The entrance was a long, narrow tunnel that Grey had to squeeze

his big shoulders through at first. The lower he went, the bigger the

tunnel became, and soon he could walk upright through rock cavern. He
was going into an underground cave.

All around him, spires of pristine, cream-colored rock stabbed

down from the ceiling and rose up from the floor, piercing the air from

every angle. He reached out to touch a big one that was near a bend in

the path but stopped himself. Up close, it was clear how fragile these

gorgeous structures were, and he didnt want to be responsible for them

crumbling to the earth.

Now he was able to hear the shrieks and laughter of the people in

full party mode. The lights of the gathering were flickering against the
walls, and he moved towards them. Soon, he could see the little flames

set into carved niches in the sides of the cave. Each was on a homemade

candle with several little wicks poking out of their cylinder shapes so

that they would burn all night. Most shifters considered the puddle of

wax after a candle was done burning the sign of a party ending, so the

business of slow-burning accessories was a big and booming one.

He moved forward toward the music. It had a familiar sound, like

bubbles popping or rain falling. The crowd was visible now, and all of

them were dancing to the poppy, fun beat of the music.


Earthbounds loved to dance. They normally leapt up from the

ground with an arched back, then landed and threw their heads back

with an enthusiasm that always astounded Grey. He was no dancer

himself, but he loved to be around this kind of energy after a long time

at home. His house was so full of negative energy, as if no one knew

what fun or dancing could be. This was like being in another reality.

A few friends recognized him and did a double-take at the sight of

him.

Hey, flyer!
Flyer on the floor! Someone throw him out!

Who told? I swear, nobody in this dang community can keep a

secret.

Grey laughed off the comments and gave out a few hugs. While he

knew they would like to think that they had their own secret sect, he

also knew no one was actually angry that he was present. After some

more ribbing, everyone went back to dancing and drinking.

Bottles! Grey tapped his friend Sam on the back. Hey, Sam.

Where can I get a bottle?


Right this way.

His friend steered him away from the dance floor and over toward

a little side room in the cave. There, two wolf shifters a male and a

female had set up a little shop of sorts. They stood in the front of a

pyramid of boxes, guarding their precious structure.

Sir. Madame, Sam said, patting Grey on the back, I was hoping

you could get my friend, Grey, here something to drink.

The female put her hands on her hips and sized Grey up a moment.

What do you have for it?


If youre looking for Bachmanns, I dont have any. My dad keeps

all our money and never lets me touch it.

The two wolves smiled at one another. The male stepped forward.

Who said anything about Bachmanns? No one here has any. No, we

want something thats valuable to you.

The two looked at Grey hopefully. He made a show of patting his

pockets and wiggling his toes as if something might fall from his shorts

or bare feet. Sorry guys. Just my presence.

Dont you work for the First Daughter? The female shifter
stepped closer to him and ran her fingers through his soft, feathery hair.

Thats you, right?

He swallowed hard. This was the most attention a young woman

had ever given him. Um, yeah. Yes, thats me. Why?

She laughed softly. Ill give you one of our best bottles, she

gestured towards the tall, brown bottles that Grey knew had alcohol in

them, if you just share a secret about the first daughter with me.

A secret?

Come on, she picked up a hand of his and compared it to hers,


palm to palm. Grey was suddenly sweating very hard. You must know

something.

I guess I know something random about her.

Oh, goodie. The male wolf was already over the whole interaction

and just waiting for it to be over. Spit it out.

Grey cleared his throat. Well, he said, looking deep into the

female wolfs soft eyes, she really likes wigs.

Suddenly, his hand was dropped as if it had something smelly on it.

What? All the softness was gone from the females face. Wigs? Who
cares about that?

I told you it was random. Grey looked back and forth at the two

investigators. Neither looked pleased. So, he tried, giving her a goofy

smile, can I get a bottle?

The female sighed and gestured to the male. He can have a brown

one.

What? Why? That was the worst secret weve heard all night.

Yeah, she consented, but then gave Grey a secret little wink, but

he held his end of the deal. She handed him the brown bottle and used
a second one to open the little spiked, metal circle at the top of it,

releasing a little shush of air. Wigs, she repeated, shaking her head.

That is kind of weird.

Chuckling, she left Grey to stand with Sam and try the liquid inside

his prize. He tasted it and smiled; it was what the humans called beer,

and it was his favorite. He smiled at Sam who just rolled his eyes to the

ceiling of the cave.

Alright, you big dork. Lets get back.

The party was a good one. Most of the teenagers and not-quite-
teenagers from the community were there, all of them happy and

dancing. Grey drank and danced himself, though he was a bit awkward

on the dance floor. Earthbounds loved to dance, but airbornes struggled

with finding the beat of a song. He had heard once that the lack of

connection came from spending so much time in the sky, even though

Grey felt he was barely allowed to flap his wings. Whatever the reason,

he just went ahead and let his limbs dangle in all the wrong directions as

he flopped along to the music.

A band called Shredded Corpse was playing, and they were


outstanding. The group had constructed a massive sculpture of metal,

wood, and glass to play with long, carved sticks that curved up at the end

or simply slap with their hands. One member simply shifted into a mole

form and jumped from one metal trash can lid to another in perfect

rhythm with the band, flying between each circle and banging into them

like a flash of light.

Tina appeared at the entrance with a second girl that Grey didnt

know, but he could see right away that something was different about

her. She had all of her clothing intact while everyone else was wearing
shirts and shorts that had big pieces cut out of them. Also, her hair was

big and curly and in an old style like one of their parents would wear. No

one had such tall, poufy hair anymore. He wondered for a moment if she

was Tinas mother, but quickly saw that she was too young. Who was

this girl?

He made his way across the dance floor, trying to get to the two

girls as they greeted and hugged several friends. He kept getting pushed

off the path by different dancers who either didnt see him or just didnt

care. One girl smashed into him so hard that he tumbled to the ground
and nearly spilled his drink.

Hey!

Hi, Grey. It was Larissa. She stood over him, legs open and a foot

on each side, not seeming to care how incredibly sexual the pose was.

What are you doing on the floor?

You shoved me. Hard. He held a hand up to her. Come on, help

me up.

She cocked her head at him. Why? Instead of taking his hand,

she sat down on the rock floor herself, crossing her legs and studying
him a little more closely. You look comfortable down here.

All around them the dancers seemed to form a fence of dancing

legs. She reached out and touched his face. You must have gotten some

beer from Link and Haddie. Youre nice and warm.

Grey suddenly balked at the warm expression on Larissas face.

Are you flirting with me? he asked. She just threw her head back and

laughed.

Me? Flirting? I dont even know how. She stood and finally

pulled him up. I mean, if I were flirting and I wasnt there wouldnt
be any doubt. She turned away and gave him a very coquettish glance

over her shoulder. Bye, Grey. She moved through the crowd and

disappeared. Grey just shook his head; that girl had always confounded

him, but tonight more than ever.

Sam found him there, not moving and not drinking. Hey, man.

You alright?

He shook the moment with Larissa from his head and shrugged. I

guess. I just had a really weird talk with that Larissa girl. The fossa

shifter.
Oh, I know who she is, Sam said, his shoulders shaking in his

silent laugh. We all do. Shes a littlewhats the nice way to say it

different?

Different. Sure. Hey, whos that girl with Tina?

Sam shrugged. She must be new around here. No one seems to

know. Weird hair though, right?

Very weird. Grey looked around for the poufy hair again, but it

had either ducked out of sight or left. He shrugged and went back to

dancing. I love this band, he called over the music as a new song
started.

Theyre great! Thats my brother in the center. The little one.

Grey turned to see a short, young kid who did look a lot like Sam. Poor

guy. Spent his whole life in this crap settlement. I dont know if hell

ever get out. Sam took a drink of his orange and bubbly concoction,

contemplating an entire life in the settlement. Then again, will any of

us?

Grey froze. He had almost forgotten that he hadnt been born in

The Hills. He had come from somewhere else the city. Hed had a
mother. His father had a personality back then. The blood drained from

Greys face as he thought about forgetting. The time when shifters

almost integrated into everyday society had nearly left his memory along

with the belief that such a thing was possible. His knees went a little

weak underneath him.

Hey, theres Tinas friend. Lets go say hello. Sam pulled Grey

over to her before he could respond. Sams ample size made it much

easier for him to walk through the crowd, and he kept a hand on Grey,

letting him stumble behind his imposing friend. Ahead of them was the
girl with the old-fashioned hair smiling, drinking, and dancing. She had a

beer as well. Great, Grey thought to himself. We already have

something in common.

Sam planted himself in front of the young lady and held out a hand

in greeting. Hi. Im Sam. Bear shifter. I dont think weve met. He said

it all with a smile, but his direct approach still seemed to throw the poor

girl. Her eyes darted back and forth as if she were looking for something,

but then she gave up.

Hi. ImerEvelyn. Im new around here. She took Sams hand,


and he pumped it up and down, then finally pulled her in for a friendly

hug.

Great! Always nice to see a new face in these old hills. When did

your family get here?

Oh, just today. Tina was nice enough to invite me to the party.

She freed herself from Sams big hug and again looked around as if she

were trapped. You havent seen her, have you?

Grey jumped in. If I know Tina, shes out and about in the crowd,

catching up with everyone. He held out his hand as well. Im Grey, by


the way. Eagle shifter.

Hi Grey. She smiled at him shyly, and Grey felt his heart do a

little spin in his chest. She had the prettiest face, and so familiar.

Have we met before?

The question made her blanche, and she quickly spun around and

grabbed two beer bottles. Oh, who remembers? Beer?

Her two new friends quickly accepted, and Grey suddenly found

himself with a beer in each hand. Not ideal, but far from terrible. He

took a drink from one and then the other and smiled up at Evelyn in
between sips. She smiled back, but she kept looking away.

This girl is kind of weird, he thought to himself.

Finally, Tina joined them and happily took one of Greys beers off

his hands. Two is just greedy, she teased him. So, I see youve all

met.

Yeah. These two guys are so nice, Evelyn said a little too fast.

Again, Grey squinted at her. He was sure he knew her from somewhere,

but he just couldnt place her. Hey, Evelyn added, how about we all go

dance? I bet you have some great moves, Sam.


Well, I can make the floor shake if I jump high and hard enough.

He winked at Evelyn, and she hooked her arm through his.

I have to see it!

The two went off onto the floor, and right away Grey understood:

shed been acting weird with him because she liked Sam. It stung a little,

but then he shook it off. She was an odd one; Sam could date her all he

wanted. Grey turned to Tina.

So, your friend iswhats the word? Interesting.

Cut her a break, Tina said, sipping from her beer and swaying to
the music. The band was speeding up a bit and playing faster, more

intense songs. The little mole drummer flew between his metal cymbals

at top speed in bursts of movement, then ducked into a little hole in the

wall to catch his breath. Shes new around here. And like the rest of us,

shes not here by choice.

Grey nodded. I guess theres no clothing tax where she lived.

Nope. Tina closed her eyes and shook her hips to the music.

Hey, I am loving this band. Arent they great?

Amazing. Im very impressed. Grey watched the crowd move and


dance together and saw them all feeling the same joy, the same beat in

their chests. It was a beautiful sight all those bodies swaying and

breathing together. He looked out at Evelyn and saw that she was

melting right into the scenery. Her hair flew in every direction as she

threw her head around. She spun just in time to hit Black Feather right

in the face.

Hey, look! Black Feather just got the sight of what happened

next stopped Grey before he could complete another thought. There, in

front of him, he watched as two people fell in love.


First, Evelyns giant head of hair slapped Black Feather right in the

face. He never saw it coming. In fact, he appeared to be on his way to

talk to Tina the second before it happened, but the smack in the face

stopped him in his tracks. He doubled over, hand protecting his eyes,

and Evelyn went completely red. Horrified, she bent down with him, her

arm around his back and seemed to be apologizing.

As Grey watched them, they stood up together, Black still wiping

his eyes as they watered and Evelyn clasping her hands, mouthing words

like, So sorry, and Please forgive me. After a moment, Black started
smiling, and soon Evelyn was smiling with him. The two of them talked

through the end of the song, Evelyn forgetting that she had been dancing

with Sam and Black shrugging off his intended conversation with Tina.

The song ended, and the whole room went quiet for a moment.

The candles were burning lower, and the light was softening. The

band followed suit by playing a slow, gentle melody that rocked back and

forth. Black and Evelyn shyly reached for one another and started

moving together to the gentle music. Grey knew he was staring, but he

couldnt look away. Hed never watched love grow before, and here it
was springing up so quickly.

Soon, Evelyn had completely relaxed into Greys arms, her head

against his chest and his head on top of her mess of curls. Black had a

mess of a beard sprouting from his face, and it kept getting caught on

the top Evelyns crazy hairstyle, but she didnt seem to mind.

The two moved and swayed in a little circle as if they were the only

two people in the room, not seeing the people who bumped into them,

the eyes staring at them as the song ended, but they kept dancing. They

also didnt see Haddie from the bottle store walk right up and stare at
Evelyn.

Haddie waited until the wig got caught on Blacks sorry excuse for

a beard again, then stepped in and pulled her hair up.

I knew it, she cried triumphantly. This isnt a shifter. Its The

First Daughter. And this is her wig!

A huge gasp went up from the crowd as Harper, daughter of

President Bachmann, tried to grab at her fake hair. Haddie quickly threw

it to a friend who threw it to another, and soon the mass of curls was

bouncing its way through the crowd.


No, Harper tried, Im not. Im someone else. Please, just give me

back my hair.

Why? Haddie challenged her. You have such pretty, shiny hair,

Harper.

The crowd gathered around Harper. Grey joined them, hoping to

reach her, but all he could do was watch as she looked from one

astonished face to another. II didntI just wantedIm sorry, okay?

No one responded. Instead, hands reached out to touch the human

girl. Some leaned in to smell her and take in all of her bathed, well-fed
presence. Wow, someone said. Shes so soft.

Please dont eat me!

As soon as she said those words, Harper instantly saw that shed

made a mistake. All of the curious faces changed to offended, glowering

ones. One person in the crowd scoffed a quiet, Typical.

Black leaned down to reassure her. Um, we dont eat humans.

Yeah, Haddie jumped in. If you ever came down out of that

ridiculous palace, youd know that.

I did! Harper put her hand to her forehead and looked down at
the ground. I ran away from home. I just couldnt stand it anymore.

Everything in the palace is sojust, likeintense. I had to get out. And

Tina told me there was a party here and that she would get me in, so

Tina? Tina Traxon? Black looked over at Tina. You invited a

human to a shifter party?

What? Tina around the room and then gave a big eye roll. Oh,

whatever. I know half of you in here sneak out to pretend to be human

anytime something interesting is happening in the city. Now a human

wants to pretend to be one of us. Deal with it, you bunch of hypocrites.
She looked away as if none of this was any of her concern and focused

on chugging the rest of her beer in an attempt to get her own little party

going again. No luck. Once her bottle was empty, she was right back

where she started, face-to-face with a less than happy mob.

Fine. I invited her. I snuck her in. Sorry, I just liked that she

wasnt scared of us and wanted to hang out. She wants to party with us.

Its cool.

The crowd considered Tinas last comment and little shrugs and

head tilts started drifting around from one shifter to another. Black
Feather put his hands on Harpers shoulders, and she looked up at him

with big, watery eyes.

Youre not here to ambush us or spy or anything? Just hang out?

Yes, I swear! She turned to the crowd and repeated her promise.

Really, I dont want anything from anybody. I just wanted to have fun.

Tina is the most fun person I know, so I figured a shifter party in a cave

would be awesome. And it is. I mean, look around! You are all so cool.

Immediately, the crowd scoffed. Cool? A bunch of shifters? This

girl was reaching. They all relaxed and lost interest in their latest
discovery. Sam signaled to the band to strike up the music again, and

they complied with a hard, throbbing song. Everyone cheered and went

back to the dance floor. Grey overheard a quick exchange between Black

Feather and Harper, but by the time he was close enough to either of

them to actually say something, they were already kissing.

Even though he knew it was weird, he stared at them as they

exchanged a long, slow kiss. Both seemed completely enchanted by the

other. They were each lost in one another, drunk on the taste of each

other and neither even noticing Grey close by. A big lump rose in his
throat. He tried to get it down with a swig of beer, but that just made

him choke.

And then the earth shook, the ceiling cracked, and somewhere

across the room there was a terrible scream. Grey dropped his beer, and

the sound of the glass shattering on the ground was enough to

transform him and send him out of the cave, flapping his little wings as

hard and as fast as he could.

He never looked back to see what happened to Harper.


Chapter 8

Tina changed to her wolf form and dashed out of the cave as fast as

her paws could carry her. She heard screaming and crashing all around

her. The ground seemed to be melting; nothing felt solid or safe.

Everything seemed to be liquefying and crumbling all at once. The voices

behind her made her panic even more.

I cant move!

Harper! Harper? Where are you? Someone help me find her!

Tina!
She stopped right at the entrance as birds, wild cats, and fellow

wolves bounded past her. Sam flew by in human form so fast that he was

a blur. Grimacing, Tina turned back to run against the crowd and toward

Harpers voice.

Different animals and humans kept getting in her way and

screamed for her to move. Above all the shaking and chastising, she

could hear a desperate human cry coming from deeper inside the cave.

Tina ducked to the left as a spire slammed down into the ground just

beside her. She looked up to see that more were shaking loose and sped
up.

Another spire landed in front of her, then another just barely

grazed her tail. She ran in a straight shot into the party entrance and was

staggered by what she saw.

The whole cave seemed to have been turned inside out. The roof

had fallen in big pieces, and what had been a nice, wide entrance before,

was now just a small crawl space leading through the rubble. Wolf Tina

hunched low and crawled through it. There, on the other side, was

Harper lying on the ground and screaming in pain. The Earth stopped
shaking, and Tina approached her gently.

Tina ran over to her and smelled blood right away. Harper was

alive, but she was trapped. A piece of rock had fallen on top of her leg,

trapping her and breaking the bone. Her other leg was scraped up pretty

badly, but otherwise fine. Tina looked around for any kind of help, but

didnt see anyone. She licked Harpers face and quickly ran out. She

needed a bear.

As she ran, she heard Harper screaming after her. Tina started to

slow down, but the shaking started again with tiny tremors and sent her
out of the cave.

Outside, in the settlement, everyone was back home and nursing

their wounds. She knew her mother would be worried, but she didnt

know what to do. If she went home to console her mom, it would be

more time alone and injured for Harper. If she went straight there, she

could possibly save her. What she would do with the injured presidents

daughter she didnt know, but she would worry about that later.

She found Sam and quickly ran up to him. Sam! Come with me!

She didnt wait for a response as she dashed back toward the cave. She
glanced back over her shoulder to see him standing and considering, so

she ran up again and grasped his hand in her mouth to pull him along

with her.

Its her, isnt it?

Yes! Shes trapped!

Sam sighed and transformed. Together, the wolf and the bear ran

at full speed back to the cave, leaving the safety and the warmth of home

behind them.

The additional shaking had made the entrance even smaller, but
Sam made short work of the blockages, pulling rocks out of the way as if

they were weightless. Tina waited outside as he cleared a path and then

called for her to follow him.

Inside, there was now total destruction. The cave had gone from a

strong, arched structure to a messy collection of broken spires, boulders,

and a cracked floor all around her. Some of the boulders had blood

stains on them, but she couldnt smell any dead bodies. There was a

different smell in the air, but Tina couldnt place it. Shed never

encountered this scent before and didnt know what it meant. It wasnt
from the shifters, and it wasnt anything organic in any way; this smell

was something manufactured and clearly dangerous.

Slowly, the pair made their way back to where Harper was trapped.

Harper! Can you hear me?

A long silence followed the question. Finally, they heard a soft

groan in the distance.

Thats her! Sam, hurry.

Sam got the former party entrance cleared little by little, and soon

Tina was able to dart through. She ran on top of a field of broken, jagged
rocks with one giant piece of stone on top. Tina spun in every direction

as she desperately looked for Harper, but she was nowhere to be found.

Sam! Help me!

Her friend started to enter the room, then held back. Where is

she?

I dont know.

From below Tinas paws, she heard, Im here. Im underneath

you.

Quickly, Sam began moving some rocks away from the edge of the
room, but this just shifted some of the rocks around and threatened to

smash Harper as she lay pinned down under a massive slab of stone.

They froze; how would they get her out of there?

Tina, Sam said with a serious face, move out of the room.

She quickly scampered back and watched Sam as he gingerly

stepped on the rocks. Harper, he called down, can you hear me?

Yes. And I see your foot. Its right by my left hand.

Sam eased a boulder up to find a small space created by smaller

rocks holding up the larger main slab. He sighed. This was going to take
all his strength.

Harper, he said calmly, Im going to lift this big slab off of you.

Can you move at all?

No. My leg is broken.

The two shifters looked at one another would they even be able

to get her out? Tina considered running back for more help, but just as

she turned around she saw a little shadow moving. She watched as it

approached and froze as she saw the animal walking in. It was a fossa.

The fossa was almost a cat; it had the shell-shaped ears and snub
nose of a panther or leopard, but the claws on its feet were just a little

too long as the fossas movements were more liquid and less predictable

than a cat. The creature lowered its head and made eye contact with

Tina, assuring her that she was there to help, and Tina gave her a nod of

respect. The two approached one another and nuzzled for a brief

moment, then ran up to Sam.

Alright, you two, he said solemnly. Heres the plan. I lift this big

slab. The two of you get that boulder off of Harper. Shift as fast as you

can and get right under it. You dont have to lift it all the way up, just
enough to get her out. The three of us will carry her out to safety.

Ready?

The two nodded and moved back, giving Sam some space. Using all

his strength, he pushed up one edge of the slab until Harpers head was

visible underneath.

Tina and Larissa shifted quickly and jumped down to the edge of

the boulder that had broken Harpers leg. The two went into a deep

squat and counted together.

Onetwothree! The two girls were strong, but the rock didnt
budge. They looked at one another and each saw the same thing a

friend in full panic.

We have to try again, Tina insisted. Sam, dont lower that rock.

Hurry!

Okay, once more. One, two, go! Now aware of the rocks force,

the two friends doubled their efforts and desperately pushed the

boulder. It moved. Not far, but Harper was able to shift to the side just

far enough that she was able to pull hard on Tinas ankle. The leverage

gave her a few more inches, and she quickly rolled toward her friends
just as the boulder dropped out of their hands and grazed her ankle.

They helped her stand and put an arm around each of their

shoulders, then carried her out. Her leg was completely smashed and

hung limply in the air. As they moved away, Sam let the rock slab crash

into the ground. He joined them, still in bear form and very sweaty.

Put her on my back. You girls walk behind us. He lay on the

rocks, and Larissa and Tina gingerly placed Harper broken leg and all

face down on Sams back. She grabbed his fur tightly and let out a little

cry of surprise as he stood. He ambled out of the cave slowly with the
two girls close by in case Harper began to slip.

Together, they made their way out and down. Sam took slow, heavy

steps. His efforts inside the cave had left him exhausted, but, otherwise,

he was fine. The group moved along the path back home quietly, no one

wanting to say out loud what an injured First Daughter would actually

mean. They were all sure that their settlement would be crawling with

law enforcers in no time, but what could they do? If they turned Harper

in, they would all be killed for helping her get away and hiding her. If

they hid her, their homes would be ransacked, and they would be beaten
publicly and possibly jailed.

Larissa exchanged a glance with Tina, then quickly shifted and ran

off. The group stopped a moment to watch her as she tore off and into

the dawn.

Wheres she going?

Tina shrugged. I couldnt tell you. But you know how secretive she

can be. Its usually better not to ask.

Sam nodded and continued. Are we going to your house? The

palace? Help me out here.


Please dont take me to the palace. Both Sam and Tina looked at

Harper, who they realized was crying into Sams fur. Hell kill me. I

mean, hell actually kill me. If he ever finds out where I was and why

Tina reached out to Harpers hand and held it for a moment. Dont

worry, Harper. Well keep you safe.

We? Sam looked at her and shook his head. Sorry, Tina, but

youre on your own from here on out. I cant be harboring a presidents

daughter. Im all my father has left. If I get thrown in a labor camp or a

jail, hell fall apart.


Tina did a double-take at her friend. Your dad? What are you

talking about? Your dad is young and strong. He has a job. Hes one of

the toughest shifters I know.

Sam clucked and sighed as he studied the ground. You dont know

the whole story, Tina. He adjusted his shoulders, and a floppy Harper

flowed with the movement. Look, Ill take her to your house, but on the

condition that you dont name me if you get caught. Alright?

Harper turned her head to look at Tina with a tear-stained face.

Tina raised her eyebrows at her friend are we doing this? The human
of the trio considered the idea, then nodded her head. Yes.

Okay, Sam. Lets get to my place. Then you can forget all about

this night.

Deal. He wandered to the edge of the settlement and looked in

both directions. The party the night before had the younger shifters in

bed with hangovers. Parents were probably gathered at a random house,

possibly Tinas, but they had to risk it. The three quietly walked along

the edge of the settlement, winding their way between the spaces of the

structures, pausing every three of four houses to listen for other shifters.
No sign of anyone. They were just a few minutes away from Tinas place,

when they came upon Larissa back in human form.

Hi.

In true Larissa style, she was waiting in the shadows, not moving.

Even as she spoke, she stayed camouflaged by darkness. She stepped

forward, sweaty and tired-looking. She glanced up at Harper.

Hows our patient?

Broken. Tina reached up and took Harpers hand. Harper didnt

return the gesture; shed passed out from the pain. We have to get her
inside.

Sam looked at Larissa. He leaned forward and smelled her with his

big, wet nose. Where did you go?

To make sure no one comes here to look for Harper. Im not

watching shifters get beaten up again. She stopped there, seeing no

reason to explain further. She stepped in front of the group to lead the

way, looking back over her shoulder. Its fine. Just forget it and follow

me. Sam exchanged a glance with Tina, exasperating Larissa even more.

Come on. Lets go!


They all followed her, no questions asked, and ducked into Tinas

house. There, her mother was fast asleep. Larissa helped Tina slide

Harper off of Sams back and into Tinas bed.

Where will you sleep? Larissa looked all around the house her

father had helped Tina and her mother build so many years ago. It was

big and well-made, but contained almost no furniture.

Im comfortable on the floor. Dont worry. She picked up an old

blanket and spread it on the floor. Sam shifted back into human form

and shook his boy head at them.


You girls are insane. You should take her home.

She cant go home, Tina hissed. You heard her. Her father is

crazy. Hell literally murder her.

Sam looked at Harper with her dirty hair and skin, blood-stained

clothes, and pale face. Despite it all, she still looked like a royal

compared to the rest of them. No father would ever kill his own

daughter. Not even Bachmann is that evil.

Yes, he is. Tinas head whipped around to look at Larissa, and

Sams eyes went wide with anger. He took a shuddering breath, made a
fist, and then put it down.

Fine. He looked at each of them and turned to go. At the door, he

stopped to turn back around and said, I dont know anything about this,

got it? I dont know you two, I have no idea shes here. I wasnt at any

party. If you say anything different, well He gritted his teeth and

stormed out.

Tina watched him go, while Larissa sat quietly on the bed with

Harper. Whats it like in the palace?

What? I mean, what do you want to know?


Larissa shrugged and smiled as if she were having a great time.

What do you do all day?

I dont know, Harper looked at her smashed leg and started to cry

silently. Through the tears, she whispered, I cant talk right now, okay?

Oh, your leg? Dont worry. Larissa stood and shifted again and

walked up to Harpers face. Harper reached out to touch her head, and

Tina watched in a state of shock as Larissa allowed herself to be petted

on the head. She had never seen her friend allow anyone to touch her

before. It was one of the reasons none of the shifters trusted her.
Larissa moved down to Harpers leg and gently pressed her wide,

flat nose to the top of the broken bone. She breathed evenly and let out a

low, steady purr. Harper tensed up at the beginning of the purring,

yanking her blanket up to her chest as if for protection. After a few

minutes, she relaxed and even laid back a bit on the old, foam mattress

Tina used as a pillow. Harpers eyes closed, and soon she was asleep.

Allowing herself to breathe a moment, Tina arranged a little pile of

foam scraps into a makeshift bed and pillow. She quietly slipped one of

her mothers homemade rag blankets off the bed and threw it over her
little nest and let out a big yawn.

Hey, doc, she whispered to Larissa, I gotta sleep. You can stay

here if you want.

The fossa didnt respond, just focused on her task. Purring was a

favorite medicine in The Hills; the vibrations sped up the healing

process and helped ease the pain of anyone who was injured or ill. Tina

had been the recipient of many purrings, but she rarely got injured or

was sick anymore. She laid down on her messy pile of a bed and rested

her head on the lumpy pillow.


As she lay on the floor, she took in the scene of her shifter friend

helping her human friend. From her point of view, the fossa and the

First Daughter were sideways. Harper slept, while Larissa focused with

her eyes closed. The purring was so powerful that it floated across the

room to Tina and vibrated inside her head. She imagined Harpers bones

gently fusing back together. Would she be able to walk after this

accident? Surely, the president would spare no expense to help his

daughter get well once they got her back to him.

Of course, she had no idea how to do such a thing. Tina drifted off
to sleep with heavy eyelids shutting out the world. It was already almost

dawn, the light was grey and ominous, and the air smelled like smoke.

When Tina woke, she was greeted with the sight of Harper chatting

with her mother. Tina shot up out of bed, making both of them jump.

Mom! What, ah, whats going on? What are you two talking

about?

Honey, her mom smiled, why didnt you tell me about your

friend Evelyn? Shes lovely.


Tina paused. Was her mother so unfamiliar with the presidential

family that she didnt recognize Harper? She watched her mom closely;

she appeared to be sincere. Slowly, Tina nodded.

Yeah, Evies the best. Did she tell you about her leg?

Harper jumped in. Yup, that earthquake got me good. Lucky for

me, Larissa was able to help out. Thanks so much for breakfast, Ms.

Traxson.

You can call me Faye, she corrected her as she gave Harpers face

a motherly pat. Well, girls, she sighed, Im afraid duty calls. I have to
get to my little fry stand. Will you girls be alright on your own?

They both smiled and nodded. Faye stood and stretched, then put

her hands on the ground and stretched her spine up to the sky. Whoo.

Not as limber as I used to be. Ah, well. She stood and waved to her

daughter and guest. See you later.

See you.

Have a good day, Mom.

Both girls sat silently and waited until Faye was completely out of

sight. Then Tina jumped up and ran over to Harpers bed. Okay, fill me
in. What story did you give her?

Same one you told the guys last night. Im new, no one knows me,

and my name is Evelyn. I kept it vague.

Okay, Tina nodded, okay. We just have to get you well. Hows

your leg?

Harper threw the blanket off of her and Tina gasped in shock.

What had been a crushed, useless limb the night before, had been

upgraded to a swollen, bruised leg. It wasnt completely healed, but the

progress was undeniable.


I had no idea purring was so effective.

Its an old cure that shifters have used for a long time, Tina said,

leaning down to smell Harpers leg. Her friend raised her eyebrows as

Tina sniffed her. What are you doing?

Checking for infection. If you have one, youll lose this leg

entirely.

The thought of an amputation made Harper turn as pale as the

sheets beneath her. Do you think it will have to come off?

Tina took one last, long sniff. I dont smell anything odd.
Infections are usually easy to spot. She stood and gave Harper a tired

smile. I hate to do this to you, but I have school today.

Harper cocked her head. You go to school?

Yeah, every day. You didnt know shifters were educated?

The First Daughter blinked at her friend, her mouth open as she

processed this new information. You know, I guess I just assumed you

werent. Is that horrible of me?

Tina got very quiet. The myths around shifters were a topic the two

friends didnt normally broach, but Tina suddenly wanted to know all
about the human view. What else do humans believe about us?

Harper bit her lip. I dont want to say.

Come on. Im just curious.

She paused a moment, then offered, They think youre savages.

That you have no order to your life. Like, you all hulk around, grunting.

That sort of thing.

How could anyone say that? There are shifters that work in the

palace!

Harper shrugged. Theyre rarely allowed to speak. And when they


do, its just to say, Yes, Mr. President. No one asks them about their lives

or their families. Theyre too busy gossiping about all of you.

Tina nodded. She hugged herself tightly and looked out the door.

She thought she saw someone duck out of view, but when she stood up

for a better view, there was no one. She turned back to her injured

friend.

I better go. Do your best to stay out of sight. Ill come back as

soon as class is over, and Ill bring Larissa with me.

Dont worry. Im just gonna sleep. Harper pulled the blankets up


to her neck to keep off the morning chill. I dont know how you can go

to school, she yawned. Im exhausted.

Me too.

By the time Tina was dressed, combed, and ready, Harper was fast

asleep on her bed. She looked so comfortable and peaceful that Tina had

to look away. A deep, restful sleep suddenly seemed like a very rare

commodity that the wolf shifter wouldnt see again for a long while.

In school, Tina kept an eye on the room. Several people were


missing all people who had been at the party. The absence she noticed

right away was Black Feathers, and it instantly made her uneasy. She

asked some friends if he was okay, but no one wanted to speak to her.

Great. She focused her attention forward on the teacher who was

breaking down cold-blooded amphibians and their biology for the group.

When it came to time to work in a group, she managed to squeeze

her way into one but only because they were a couple of people short.

Everyone in the group glowered at her silently as she tried to break the

tension.
So, frogs. Its nice to finally learn about my favorite snack.

Silence.

Any of you big on jumping? Its a favorite of mine. Ive been over

some pretty intense crevasses; theyre the best. Whats the furthest

youve jumped?

No response.

Fine, lets just do the assignment. She picked up a stick and

started drawing. When she looked up again, she was shocked to see that

Larissa had joined them.


Geez, girl! You gave me a heart attack.

Larissa didnt apologize, rather just smiled with her lips sealed. She

looked down at the frog drawing in the dirt.

Youve got the spleen in the wrong spot, she said, pointing to the

little oval-shaped organ. It goes under the large intestine right here.

She held her hand out for the stick, and Tina handed it over.

Hey, the guy sitting with them said with a scowl on his face. You

werent even here for the lesson. What do you know about frogs?

Larissa calmly and expertly added a perfectly drawn spleen to the


illustration. More than all of you, apparently. She sat back to admire

her work and was shocked when the boys hand shot out to erase the

perfectly done drawing.

Whatd you do that for?

He stood. I dont let freaks tell me what I know and what I dont

know. He kicked the dirt, spraying it on Tinas outfit. And I sure as

heck dont hang out with traitors. He stormed out, his younger sister

tailing behind him.

Wow, Tina said, brushing the dirt off of her clothes. Touchy.
Theyre wild boars, Larissa assured her, repairing their school

work. Boars are infamously moody. The two quickly redid the frog

anatomy and the teacher a snake shifter wandered over.

Very nice, ladies. She took in Tinas messy clothes and tsked at

her. Miss Traxon, what did you do to yourself?

The boars got angry with me and kicked some dirt my way, she

explained, but there was no anger in her voice. Im fine. Dont worry

about it.

The teachers eyes narrowed, but she moved on. Larissa shook her
head at her short-sighted friend. You tell the truth too much, little

wolf.

Like she even cares. No snake is going to stand up to two moody

boars.

You forget, Larissa said, finishing the details on the digestive

system, snakes have big teeth and plenty of venom. Dont count them

out just because they dont have legs.

The two finished their drawing and quietly left the schoolroom

before the teacher could wander back. They walked casually through the
compound despite their intense panic. Seeing the anger in the boars

faces had been a nasty call to reality. They were harboring a very

valuable human in the one place she was absolutely not allowed to be in.

Larissa touched Tinas back and said softly, Dont worry about

Bachmann. He has no idea.

No idea about what?

Both girls spun around to see Black Feather standing right behind

them with a big smile on his face.

Black Feather. What is with you snooping around lately? Youre


such a creep.

Hey, he said, feigning emotional pain, Im not snooping. Im

honestly curious.

Well, you can stay curious, Larissa informed him. I dont share

information with flyers.

Black Feather let out a little scoff and acted as nonchalant as he

could, but Tina noticed he was taking in Larissas body with fleeting

glances. Wasnt he all over Harper the night before?

Listen, Black, she said, about last night


The kidnapping? Both Tina and Black Feather turned to Larissa

in confusion.

The what?

You know, she continued with a placid face, the kidnapping of

Harper, the First Daughter. Apparently someone grabbed her and ran

out as the earthquake ended. Law enforcement is looking for her now.

Black Feather staggered a bit at the news. Oh, wow. Thats...ah

big news.

Larissa nodded. It was on the radio this morning. The whole city
is up in arms.

Tina stood with her mouth open as Larissa gave a few details about

clues that had been found in Harpers abandoned car some note that

had been found torn in half, a lost shoe, that sort of thing. Black Feather

seemed truly upset; he pressed his lips together, and his face turned an

odd shade of red as he listened.

Hey, he jumped in, I better get home. He took one final look at

Larissa, a gesture that made Tina sigh with boredom. Why were boys so

predictable? The look did nothing to wipe away his concern, so he just
turned and left. The two friends resumed their walk home.

Did you see that?

When he was looking at me? Of course I saw it.

Tina studied Larissas enigmatic face. It doesnt bother you?

Of course it does, she answered without looking at Tina. But

right now, my gorgeous figure can be a distraction that works in our

favor. If thats whats happening, I think its worth a quick discomfort.

Oh, your figure is gorgeous now?

Larissa smiled. Of course. Im the most beautiful woman in the


world. As soon as she said it, she sped off at a full sprint. Tina decided

to just let her run. From the back, she couldnt help but notice that

Larissa looked just like a young boy as she sped along the dirt-covered

landscape. She trusted her friend would be back shortly and turned into

her own front door to check on her broken friend. She hoped Harper had

gotten a nice rest and that nothing would stand in the way of getting her

home.
Chapter 9

As often happened during city emergencies, Grey was called to come

in for work early in the morning. One thing that was highly unusual

about this call was that it came from the president himself.

Grey! Grey! I need you here. Dont wait. Dont even drink a cup of

coffee. We have food in the War Room. We must find Harper!

The young messenger blinked awake and looked over at his official

walkie-talkie. It was handed down from his dad and was the only means

the palace had for getting ahold of him. He groggily reached for it and
clicked the button on the side.

Im sorry, sir, I just woke up. Did you say Harper is missing?

I dont have time to explain to you, shifter! Grey winced as the

president spat out the very word he used to describe himself, as if it were

the worst thing a creature could be. Just flap your little wings and get

here!

Right away, sir. Grey groaned and stretched. He rolled over and

saw that his father was already awake and sitting silently. His eyes

stared directly at his son.


Dad, Grey said, waving his hand in his dads face, I need my

clothes. Do you have them?

Slowly, his father nodded. Prez sounds upset.

Grey rubbed his face, hoping to wake himself up. Yeah. Yeah, he

does. Where are my pants? He stood and started walking around the

shelter as he pulled on his work shirt.

Id stay home if I were you, son.

Grey froze, his shirt tail dangling above his bare hips. What?

Why?
An angry Bachmann Floyd Wiseman shook his head back and

forth as his eyes stared into the middle distance. Id go anywhere but

there.

Suddenly overcome with concern for his father, Grey knelt down

and took his dads hand in his own. He looked into his fathers soft,

aging eyes. Dad, Im more scared of what Bachmann might do if I dont

go, so I think I had better get over there. I dont want you to worry. I can

handle him.

His father turned to his son slowly. You think you know how to
handle him, Floyd said. He touched Greys cheek. I once thought the

same thing. That was before he sent his goons to kill your mother.

Dad, I dont think that was him.

You dont know anything. Greys father gave him a hard shove,

knocking him to the ground as he stormed out of the house. A moment

later, Greys pants were flung into his face. Go to your master.

Not speaking, Grey stood and put his uniform on, then shifted and

flew away without saying goodbye. Once again, he imagined just flying

off into the unknown, leaving the community, his father, and President
Bachmann behind to wonder where he had gone. The fantasy suddenly

felt very urgent and he very nearly swept east when he was meant to go

west, but he veered off in his usual direction.

There was no escape to be had that day.

He flapped through his exhaustion, working his shoulders hard

despite the tiredness that was always deep in his shoulder blades, no

matter how deeply he slept. Up in the mountains, he could see the

palace. He was far enough away that it still looked like a little dollhouse

peppered with toy dolls in black suits. He had heard of human boys and
girls who played with a toy version of the palace. The very thought of

Bachmanns home and a tiny president at his disposal made Grey feel

both happy and extremely nervous. He didnt want those painted-on

eyes watching him as he tried to live his life beyond his job.

Grey swept over to the back security station of the palace and

flapped down to the ground where he shifted back to human form. He

ducked into the hut where he and the other shifters who worked in the

palace had to have their retinas scanned and then have their security

code temporarily tattooed on their cheeks. When he emerged, he had a


series of lines on his cheek with a row of numbers underneath. This

allowed the security guards to scan him with a little light on their

sunglasses and confirm his identity. Only shifter staff members were

required to have this monstrosity on their faces, but they did it without

complaint. Grey had even volunteered to be the first to try it when the

technology became available.

He approached the four security guards with a friendly nod and

allowed them to scan him, standing still so that his special code would

read properly. He had witnessed other shifters who had turned their
heads slightly or stepped away a bit too fast and were immediately

dismissed as imposters after their scan hadnt gone through. It always

shocked him how humans could do things in the name of safety and

security only to use it to ruin lives at every opportunity.

The guards waved Grey through the second round of checks which

included a full-body scan. He stood with his hands and feet spread so

that he made a big star shape and Val, the giant wolf shifter, smelled

each part of his body. His work clothes were so thin and worn that she

barely had to sniff him, but she gave him a thorough check all the same.
She nodded her approval to the guard at the door whose only job was to

push a button that opened a door into yet another check-in chamber.

Grey entered, and the door whooshed closed behind him.

To Greys complete shock, the president was standing in the

chamber, waiting for him.

President Bachmann. Good to see you this morning. Im so sorry

to hear about your daughter.

The president didnt respond, just shook his head and raked his

fingers through his messy hair. I am afraid I am not myself today,


young man. Not myself at all. I need you to attend a security meeting

already in progress. I will walk you in, as its humans only.

Grey didnt ask any questions, just walked behind the president as

they breezed through the last check-in. Every staff member snapped to

attention as their boss breezed past them, all of them putting their

security scanners and paperwork down to salute and stand up as straight

as possible. The president barely glanced at them. Rather, he breezed

through one doorway after another until he and Grey were walking

down a wide, clear hallway that made their footsteps echo loudly
through the air.

The two stopped at a set of wide, double doors and Bachmann

threw them open. On the other side was a group of people all dressed in

black suits and had short, sensible haircuts. Most of them were big and

hulking, with shoulder muscles that strained their jackets. Others were

slim and short, the kind of person who easily blended into a crowd and

often went unnoticed. All eyes turned to Grey and the president as they

stepped in, and Greys throat instantly closed as he faced them. There

were no other shifters in the room for him to sit with, so instead of
taking a seat, he just froze. The president impatiently snapped his

fingers and a chair was brought over for Grey. He sat in it precariously as

the president left him to move to the front of the room.

Despite his spot at the back and away from the crowd, Grey felt as

if a big, hot spotlight were shining down on him. Several humans close

by gave him several suspicious glances, but no one said anything to him.

He wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead and pressed his lips

together. He had every right to be there; the president himself had

insisted on his presence.


The president mounted the stage and stood behind his podium

where he sighed heavily. Even from his chair in the back, Grey could see

the dark circles under their fearless leaders eyes and the heaviness in

his cheeks. Rumor had it that any sitting president had access to a

special doctor who could keep him or her looking young long after their

fortieth birthday, and he had always been certain Bachmann had such a

specialist, but now he wasnt so sure. He could see each and every one of

the presidents forty-three years carved into the mans face.

Hello, everyone. Good morning.


The crowd mumbled and nodded a greeting, but no one said

anything after that. Speaking during a presidential address was

considered an unforgivable sin. Everyone folded their hands in their laps

and uncrossed their legs to show their level of attention, as their daily

televised etiquette lessons had taught them.

I called this conference, the president continued, to address the

kidnapping of my daughter, Harper Bachmann.

Every face in the crowd went slack with shock. Eyes darted around

the room, but silence reigned as everyone was sure the president would
continue any moment. None were more shocked than Grey he knew

for a fact that Harper had gone to the party last night of her own free

will. Had someone kidnapped her from the festivities? Had she died in

the earthquake? He gulped and gripped the bottom of his chair.

I can now officially call this a kidnapping as a ransom note has

been found in the car that she drove out of the compound. It is my

belief, the president stated, that she left for innocent reasons. Perhaps

she wanted to have a night of fun or just have a thrill. We cant say for

sure. All we know is that some organization is calling themselves The


Order of Camus. My research team tells me that Camus is the name of

some author or something of that nature.

He paused and looked down to consult the top of his podium.

When he lifted his face to the crowd, it was deep red, and all his features

were knotted tightly together. I am sure, he said through his rage, that

this group of good-for-nothings finds themselves very clever. I can

almost hear them laughing at their stupid, incompetent president who

cant keep track of his own daughter.

Can you hear them? Theyre mocking me right now! The crowd
responded by punching their fists into their palms, shaking their heads

in disgust and narrowing their eyes. Theyd all worked for President

Bachmann long enough to know that when he was angry, everyone

within earshot had better be angry as well.

I will not let these stains on the goodness of our community

spread and taint our population. They must be removed with the

harshest of chemicals before they become a blot on our history. Do you

understand me?

Now the crowd was stirring a little more, all hungry for a bit of
rebel blood. They mumbled to themselves while keeping their eyes

straight ahead, not wanting to miss another opportunity to be filled with

hate and rage.

Grey felt the hairs on his skin stand up and glanced over to his left.

There, a group of two men and one woman were glaring at him. One of

the men jumped to his feet.

What species of shifter are they?

Bachmann held a hand out and the man quietly sat back down. The

president looked at all of them solemnly and spoke a bit more calmly.
I am very sorry to say that this a human group we are dealing

with. He paused as the room filled with gasps of genuine shock. For the

millionth time, Grey fought the urge to roll his eyes at a human reaction.

All humans seemed to see themselves as kind, loving creatures no

matter how many of them were caught on camera brutally beating a

shifter to death. What made them think they were so innocent?

Therefore, the president said, all his anger coursing through his

arms and down into his hands as they stabbed the air with angry

gestures, I want homes searched! I want humans questioned! This


group believes and I can hardly stand this that my own daughter is a

shifter sympathizer. They are extremists who want our neighbors killed.

We all know that the separation of our two communities has been

successful, but for this Order of Camus, death is the only answer. So,

they are holding Harper prisoner, and she is counting on us. He paused

for effect, taking in the faces around the room. Every single of one of

you in this room has the chance to be her hero. Dont miss that chance.

Show me what youre made of and find Harper. Save her and bring her

home!
Every person in the room jumped to their feet and screamed their

allegiance to the Bachmann family, their dedication to helping and

saving the first daughter. Grey yelled and pumped his fist with the rest

of them, just as determined and optimistic that they could do it and

could all be heroes.

A few hours later, he wondered at himself and his ability to believe

in such a ridiculous fairy tale ending. What did he, Grey Wiseman, know

about saving anyone?

Grey spent the day working with a special task force he had been
assigned to by the Office of Shifter Coordination for the Palace of the

President, or OSCPP. OSCPP was a dingy little two-desk room where

non-human employees of the palace had to check in for paychecks, file

complaints if they werent getting along with another shifter, or, if it

came to it, get fired. Grey only saw the employees of OSCCP

occasionally, and they always struck him with their level of exhaustion

and droopy, joyless faces. He made a vow to himself on his first day in

the palace that he would never work at one of those desks.

Hello, and thank you for coming by to speak with us. The shifter
named Gus, a mole of some kind, set down a clipboard in front of the

small group. Today, you each have a special assignment. Please review

this form to see where youre placed for the day.

The group peered at the form and saw their each of their names

highlighted in a different color with an assignment, also highlighted

despite the fact that it was right next to the list of shifters, with

descriptions of different roles. One by one, each shifter wandered away

until only Grey was left.

He moved forward to look for himself on the sad, over-highlighted


form but didnt see his name.

Excuse me, he said to the mole shifter. The mole did not look up.

He was too busy clicking his computer keyboard with only one finger.

He tapped the same key several times, but said nothing.

Excuse me, Mr Grey noticed a placard on the moles desk. Mr.

Henwood? I dont seem to have an assignment for the day.

Finally, the bored mole looked up at him. He took in Greys face

and then consulted his list yet again.

Your name is?


Grey Wiseman.

Wiseman. Wiseman. The mole looked up and down the list with

his quick eyes. It appears youre not on my list.

Grey closed his eyes and told himself to stay calm. Yes, thats

what Im trying to talk to you about. Where do I go?

Once again, the mole consulted his list, then looked up at Grey. He

put the clipboard down. WisemanWhy do I know that name?

My father worked here for a long time. He was a personal

messenger for the president.


The mole nodded. And then something happened. Your mother

She passed away.

Henwood the mole turned back to his computer and seemed to

forget that Grey was there for a moment. He tapped on the keyboard

with one finger, but his free hand slid toward Greys and gave it a soft

pat. Your mother, he whispered, was a wonderful woman. Many of us

owe her our lives.

Grey stood with his mouth open for a few seconds, but before he

could form a question, Henwood perked up and spoke in a normal


volume. Grey Wiseman. Found you. Today, youre working with the

man himself. Go ahead and take this form with you. Youre free to shift

at any time today and expected in the presidents office within the next

twenty minutes.

He slid a folded piece of paper with a navy blue and white sticker

holding it closed across his desk. The circular sticker depicted a laurel

leaf and a star the presidential seal. Grey took it and tried to whisper

to Henwood, but the mole shifter held up a doughy hand.

No time for a chat, he said without looking away from his screen.
Lots to do today.

Grey nodded and slowly walked out of the office. He broke into a

run and quickly shifted after hed gathered some speed so that he could

fly into Bachmanns office as quickly as possible. He decided to ask his

father what Henwood had been talking about, but for now he needed to

work.

The sight of the presidential seal on Greys folded message made

doors fly open as he darted through the hallways. All anyone had to do to

find the president was follow the security guards. They formed a path
that led straight to him every time.

When he made it through the small, final door that led to

Bachmanns main place of work, he shifted back again before landing

and his feet were still running as he took on human form. He stumbled

up to Bachmanns enormous, reddish-brown desk and slapped the

creamy paper on it.

From OSCPP.

Without a word, Bachmann ripped it open and his eyes darted

across the page. He shook his head at the sight of the words. We cannot
seem to find anything about this Order of Camus. What a bunch of the

president pressed his lips together before continuing. Forgive me

grandmother, he said, looking to a large portrait on the wall. Almost

broke the number one rule. I am just so He looked around the room

at his attentive staff but didnt find what he was looking for. He spread

his arms in frustration and looked to the ceiling. So frustrated! I cannot

even begin to imagine what anyone would want with my one and only. I

mean, he squeezed his hand into a fist, do they know who they are

dealing with? Do they?


Again, he looked to his staff, but none of them quite knew what to

say. Each of them took a breath to speak and then said nothing once

they looked to their fearless leaders face. For the first time in his life, he

was disheveled, askew, even pinched. He had lived his entire life in a

state of constant control, but now all of that was gone; he had become a

human being and stopped being the deity that ruled the city. It floored

the room.

Clearly they dont, sir.

Every head snapped around to stare at Grey as he stood calmly in


the center of the room. The president looked at him as if hed never seen

the young shifter before in his life. He took Grey in his tall stature,

carefully combed hair and worn, yet clean and pressed black shirt and

pants.

What do you make of all this, young man?

Again, everyone watched Grey with open-mouthed stares. Grey felt

the beads of sweat on his forehead. He cleared his throat and looked into

the presidents face. It was rough and unshaven, but more than that, it

was shadowed with the pain of his missing daughter. All Grey could
think of, was the memory of Harper appearing from under a giant wig

and then being shocked by an earthquake. What had happened?

Well? The president walked up to him. I asked you a question,

shifter.

Yes, of course. Well, Grey paused to stand as straight as possible,

whomever has taken Harper, or assisted in any way, clearly has a very

skewed vision of the world. This group clearly believes theyre somehow

above you. Smarter than you. My guess is theyre young and delusional.

Bachmann nodded and rubbed his face. Young. Rebellious. Yes,


that must be what were dealing with here. Alright, little bird. He put

his hands on his hips and looked around the room. Lets see if youre on

to something. He pointed to his head of security, a big man standing at

the door. I want a rundown of all former rebel headquarters, any lesser

known destinations in and around the city. Abandoned buildings, the

new shopping mall, you name it. Dont rule out the possibility of this

group hiding in plain sight.

Yes, sir. The giant man by the door quickly stepped out, speaking

into his old, dusty walkie-talkie as he went.


Gloria, the president continued to a well-dressed older woman on

his sofa, youre up.

She clicked a pen and readied a small notebook on her lap. Go

ahead.

We need a list of any groups that have formed recently. Take a

look at any school clubs, any kind of sports organization. Heck, give me a

rundown of any groups of friends in the high school. I dont rightly care.

If they travel in tribes, I want to hear about it.

Without a word, Gloria stood and walked quickly out of the room.
The president turned back to Grey. And you, young Wiseman, he

continued, stepping closer to him and smiling just a little with just one

corner of his mouth. Im curious. Do you think you could get a

taskforce of airbornes together to take to the skies?

Greys heart instantly jumped up in his chest. It continued to jump

in measured leaps as he nodded vigorously. Sir! I mean, yes sir. Im

sure I could. Well give you an update every hour.

The president reached into his pocket and peeled several paper

Bachmanns from a huge money roll. The blue and white bills were so
new and crisp they looked as if theyd been printed just that morning.

Grey froze at the sight of them. Then, when President Bachmann held a

large amount of money out to him, he had no idea what to do.

Mr. Wiseman, the president said, shaking the money in his face.

I believe any group of flying shifters will be far more motivated if

theyre handsomely paid.

Oh. Yes, of course. Grey stepped forward and took the money

gingerly, sure the president would yank the bills from his hand at any

moment, but it never came to pass. Instead, he was allowed to fold it and
put the chunk of money in his pocket. He stood and waited for further

instructions.

What are you waiting for? Shift into a bird and flap on outta

here!

The presidents loud yell shocked Grey into bird form, and he

quickly flew out the window, hardly able to believe what was happening.
Chapter 10

From her spot in Tinas bed, Harper looked around the house for

the thousandth time. There was the door. There was the remains of their

last fire. There was the chair. And back behind her was the wall. No

clothing, no books, and no possessions.

Harper lay back on the soft, but worn out, bed and brushed the

strands of her curly wig out of her face. She was sure no one would see

her, but she felt safer with it on. As she took in her surroundings, she

wondered why shifters lived in this manner. Why had the shifter
families turned down the pre-built houses that her father and his staff

spent so much time and money building? It seemed to be a short-sighted

move. The houses they all had now were so odd and so poorly made. She

loved the wild, ramshackle style that the structures had, but she was

sincerely concerned. These houses all looked ready to tumble to the

Earth at any moment.

She heard a knock at the door and quickly feigned sleep.

Hello? Traxon family? Its tax day. A large man moved into the

house. Harper opened one eye as minimally as possible and took him in.
He filled the doorway with his shoulders alone. He peered over at her.

Tina?

Harper made a big show of waking up and then yawning. Im her

friend, Evelyn. I just moved here.

Oh, I see. Is anyone from the Traxon family here? I need to collect

their taxes today.

Dont think so.

Okay. Please let them know Ill be back.

Harper nodded sleepily and nestled back down into her soft pillow.
She kept her eyes closed until the man had moved on out of the house

and then waited about a minute. Harper opened her eyes and threw off

her blanket to check her leg. It was still very black and blue, and she was

sure she couldnt stand on it. She frowned; she had to get out of there.

That last shifter hadnt recognized her, but there was no reason to push

her luck. Eventually, she would have to get going.

She pushed herself up with her arms and swung her legs over the

edge of the bed. She tried to straighten both legs out in front of her, but

only one of them actually extended out as it should. The other just hung
limply.

Come on. Move! She willed her leg to raise, but it refused to

comply. She tried to slide forward onto her good foot and try hopping,

but just as she rose on her good leg, Tinas mother, Faye, walked in.

Oh, Evelyn, sit down darling. What on Earth are you thinking?

She ran up to Harper and gently pushed her down and turned her body

so that she was facing the room again and right back where she started.

Harper took a breath and assured herself she wouldnt have gotten

anywhere had she started hopping. She forced herself to smile and say a
thank you to Faye.

Are you hungry, darling? What do you like?

Oh, anything really. Harper racked her brain for any memory of

Tina talking about food her favorite foods, things shifters ate but she

came up empty. Her stomach was empty, but she was reluctant to

request anything that might give away her humanity.

Wonderful, Faye said. I brought you some treats from the food

stand. She turned around grabbed a paper bag, then whirled around

quickly to hand it to Harper. Eat! Eat! She pointed at the bag as she
walked around the house finding scraps of clothing. You must be

starving.

I am. Thanks, Faye.

Oh, just call me Mom. I always wanted another daughter. She

smiled over her shoulder as she worked, then turned back to her search

in any nook and cranny she could find. Let me know if its too oily or

too crunchy. Scorpion can be tricky to cook.

Scorpion? Harper gingerly opened the paper sack and looked

inside to see a big, fat, fried scorpion on a stick staring her in the face.
She looked up and saw Faye smiling down at her in anticipation.

Go on. Try it. Im dying to know if you like my cooking.

Harper pulled out the stick and flashed back to her first Victory

Day banquet when she had to eat duck for the first time and how shed

been scared to cut into the dark, oily meat. She had survived the duck,

and now she would survive fried scorpion.

She clutched the stick in her hand and smiled at Faye, then took a

big, crunchy bite out of the huge insect on the stick.

In her mouth, the cooked, solid exoskeleton broke into shards and
flew in every direction as the odd, fluffy flesh bounced around on her

tongue. The taste wasnt that different from walnuts or fried chicken,

but the texture was very insect-like. She could almost feel the legs

dancing around on her tongue.

Mmm! She forced a smile as she finished chewing and then

swallowed it down only partially chewed. Just like my mom makes.

Hey, Faye said, concern written across her forehead, now that

you mention it, we really should get word to your family that youre

hurt. They must be worried.


Oh, my brother stopped by while you were at work. They know.

Your brother? Faye tilted her head and narrowed her eyes a little.

Im sure someone in the neighborhood would have told me if a new boy

had come around my house. But no one

Hey, Mom!

Both Harper and Faye looked over to the door to see Tina blowing

through the entrance with her usual gusto. Hey, Evelyn, Tina

continued with her eyes extra wide, you wont guess what happened

today.
Oh, what? Harper was genuinely excited for some news. Looking

at the same walls all day had been wearing her down. She beamed at her

friend, only to see Tina give just a minimal head shake; she did not have

good news.

Well, Tina said, joining the other two on her bed, apparently the

presidents daughter was kidnapped last night.

Slowly, the blood slid down and away from Harpers face and then

lower as she thought of her father, of the insane efforts that were surely

in place in the name of finding her. There would be helicopters, closed


circuit cameras, random searches of different houses, different people

being locked up in secret cells. Her father would insist on more and

more of this until she was found. She had to get home. Even if he did

actually kill her, it meant saving everyone elses life.

Oh, dear, Faye said, shaking her head at her daughter. Youve

upset her terribly! Tina, talk about something else.

No! Harper grabbed Tinas arm. Tell me everything.

You sure, sweetheart? You look awful.

Oh, yeah. Its fine. Tina, what happened?


Tina gave her mom a little smile and mumbled for her not to

worry. Her mother moved back to her efforts with the clothes. The two

friends waited a beat, then put their heads together and spoke in

whispers.

Okay, remember Larissa?

Yes.

Well, apparently she planted evidence of your kidnapping in your

car. Something about a group called The Order of Camus hauling you

off. None of the humans know you were at the party.


Tina, Harper whispered urgently, you have to get me out of

here! The president will go insane until I I mean, his daughter

appears again. I mean truly, evil maniac insane!

I know. Larissas got everyone looking in the wrong direction, so I

think if we get you out of here as fast as we can and put you somewhere

that law enforcement can find you, well be okay.

Both girls paused to look up and check to make sure Faye wasnt

listening. She had wandered to the door to say hello to passing neighbors

as they returned home. She had her arms full of old clothes and seemed
entirely uninterested.

How are we going to do that? Harper flicked the blankets off her

lap and showed Tina her leg. I cant even stand!

Tina looked down on her friends leg and bit her lip. We need to

get you a healer.

I dont have any money.

No one here has any, Tina assured her. Well have to trade

something.

The two quickly exchanged glances; they each had something


precious to them. Would it be valuable to anyone else? Tina briefly

imagined giving away her precious book, while Harper thought about

surrendering her cheap, everyday shoes that she loved so much. Or

maybe her purse with the secret pockets. What else could she trade? She

had left her home with so little. Shed honestly believed she would drive

home before the sun was up, crawl into bed and insist to her helpers that

she was still sick and then sleep all day. She had planned so carefully,

and now she was stuck in a shifter compound.

As they were silently contemplating the fate of their possessions,


the two heard someone approach Faye and chat with her. They looked

up to see the same big man who had come by earlier.

Graham! Tina gave him a friendly wave but he looked away from

her after just a nod. She watched as her mother held up one piece of

clothing after another for him to inspect, but he shook his head at each.

She excused herself from Harpers bed and walked up to the door.

Whats going on, Graham?

Well, the large bear answered, blushing a little, I got a new job.

Oh?
He cleared his throat. Yes. Im working for Human-Shifter

Relations. Im here on a tax collection. As he spoke, he pulled a large,

gleaming pair of scissors from his pocket. I need a sample of your best

fabric.

Graham. You? Tina felt her heart break a little. She knew that tax

collection was one of the highest paying positions a shifter could hold,

but that was no excuse as far as she was concerned. How could one

shifter turn on his own community? It was disgusting. I thought you

were a good guy.


He kept his eyes down and held his scissors in his big, meaty

hands. Just turn around.

Tina shook her head at her one-time teacher and then slowly

turned to show him her back. This is my last shirt. Ill have to go

around topless soon.

Its this or jail. You choose, Tina.

I choose to be loyal to my community, Graham.

The bear shifter didnt respond, silently cutting a large rectangle

from the back of her shirt and leaving her back entirely exposed. Tina
felt the blades of the scissors as if they were slicing through her ribs or

her spine. Having the clothing literally taken piece by piece as she

became more and more naked was one of the worst feelings shed ever

had to bear. The worst part was that it was renewed anytime she reached

for a butchered top or sliced up pair of shorts. Soon, it would be her

underwear and bras. Then what would she do?

Youre up, Faye.

Now, Graham, Faye attempted, I can give you an entire apron.

Look at this lovely print! I barely wore it. You can see all the little
flowers and the original colors are still lovely. Surely this will cover my

tax.

Graham consulted a little handbook of material samples. The most

valuable textures were in the front and then got cheaper as the pages

progressed to the back. He compared the apron to his book, then noticed

the fabric of Fayes skirt.

Stand still, Faye.

Tinas mother froze in horror as Graham moved towards the hem

of her skirt with his big, metal tool, cutting up her leg to her hip and
then down again to make a big, obnoxious gouge in her once practical

clothing. Her muscular, dependable leg was now completely exposed up

to her underwear. Graham stood with the soft green fabric in his hands

and nodded to mother and daughter.

The state thanks you for your donation.

Go shove it up your crack, Graham. Tina got a little smack on her

arm from her mother for the profane comment, but Graham just

pretended not to hear it. Tina watched him leave, but her mother quickly

ran back in the house and grabbed some fabric to patch up the hole in
her clothing.

I can fix yours, Sweetheart, she said quickly. Just give it to me,

and Ill cover it.

Mom, its okay. Focus on your own clothing.

No, really! Ill get some of this nice yellow and Ill justIll sew it

to the back and the sides and Her mother slumped onto her bed and

let her old clothing tumble to the ground. Tina took a seat next to her

and put her arm around her mothers shoulders.

Dont worry, Mom, she said. Ill come up with something.


What can we do? Her mothers tears fell softly onto her marred

skirt. They wont stop until were walking around naked. Well die of

exposure. We wont be able to go to work anymore. Is that what they

want?

Tina let out a little snort of disgust. I dont know what any of this

is about, honestly. As far as I know, theres just piles of cloth in the

Human-Shifter Relations office. Its nonsense.

She turned to see her friend watching them with her mouth open

just a little. She had clearly seen everything, yet she seemed to be
desperately searching for an explanation for what she was witnessing.

For some reason, shifters werent allowed to have complete outfits. She

had noticed the chopped up clothing at the party but just shrugged it off

as the latest fashion. This idea of their fabric being valuable was news to

her; she didnt know of any project that used their secondhand pieces of

clothing in any way.

Harper laid back down as quietly as she could and closed her eyes.

She could feel every inch of the fabric she was wearing against her skin

and wriggled around in it uncomfortably. She knew something was very


wrong, but she couldnt explain why it was happening. Something had

gone very wrong at some point in time, and now she was seeing the

fallout, but she could not even begin to react.

She stayed in her spot, while Tina and Faye moved around her for

the next couple of hours, all of them avoiding one another and keeping

their eyes on anything that distracted from one anothers clothing. Even

the sight of the pile of blankets on top of Harper was too much for them

to bear. Harper pulled one of the thinner blankets over her face and

prayed no one would breathe a word about scissors, or cloth, or ask why
she magically possessed an unblemished outfit.

As her keepers moved around her, Harper fell asleep without really

meaning to. She had the odd experience of blinking and seeing the sky

go from a warm, lit space to a dark spot through the hole in the ceiling as

if shed travelled through time by accident. She pulled the covers of her

cot down a bit lower and sat up to see Tina and Faye working by their

fire and roasting small animals on a spit.

Hey, sleepyhead. Tina had a brave face on, but Harper could see
right away that nothing had been resolved. They were still in clothing

with large pieces missing, living in a ramshackle building, and cooking

extremely small portions of food with an intensity that spoke to their

hunger. Hungry?

Oh, Harper shrugged, ignoring the emptiness inside her stomach,

Im still full from that scorpion I had earlier. And Im pretty tired. You

two have mine.

Dont go back to sleep, Faye warned her. The healers on her

way, and she wants to talk to you.


Harper shot a look at Tina who just gave a casual shrug. They had

to get her better, and, of course, Faye was just going to worry about her

more and more the longer she took up space in the house. Harper sighed

and turned to the other side to look through her meager belongings.

The best two things she had to offer were her shoes and her purse.

Neither were worth more than a few Bachmanns, but here on the

compound almost no one wore shoes or carried purses. She hoped the

healer would like to be one of those few.

As Tina and Faye finished their food, a small, dark-haired and


dark-skinned woman appeared at the door. Hello? Did someone need a

healer?

Dr. Jade. Hello, come in. Faye rose to greet the small woman, and

the two hugged like old friends.

Harper noticed a few things about Dr. Jade from across the room.

First, she had her entire dress intact. Apparently, healers were exempt

from the fabric tax. Also, the doctor had large, cheap rings on both

hands. From where she laid in her bed, Harper was hit with a reflection

of firelight that bounced off a flat, ovular mirror that was perched on top
of her small finger. She did wear shoes, but they were mismatched,

plastic sandals that barely fit her. Harper could see Dr. Jades small toes

curling over the front edges and appeared to hold on for dear life.

Is this the patient? The doctor turned towards Harper and gave

her a smile.

Yes, this is Evelyn, Tina jumped in. Let me introduce you. She

led the doctor over as if she was a princess crossing a ballroom. Harper

sat up to greet her properly, as shed been taught, placing one hand on

the bottom and one on top of the good doctors warm hand.
So formal! I feel like a Bachmann. Dr. Jade laughed, and the two

friends quickly joined in. Harper prayed no one in the room would

notice how profusely she was sweating. Nice to meet you, Evelyn.

And you. Thank you so much for coming.

The doctor nodded and gently lifted the covers off of Harpers legs.

She shook her head at the sight of it and then lowered the covers to

consult with her patient. So, youve had one treatment already I see.

Yes. Our friend Larissa helped me out.

Oh, Larissa. Shes full of surprises. Dr. Jade reached up to feel


Harpers face and confirmed that her temperature was normal. How

have you been feeling today?

Okay. You know, stuck in bed. Bored. Im anxious to walk again.

The doctor perked up a bit. How soon would you like to be on

your feet?

Um, tomorrow morning?

That appeared to be the right answer. The doctor clapped her hands

together and then rubbed them back and forth quickly. What can we

trade tonight?
Harper motioned to the floor. I have a pair of shoes and a purse.

Right away, the doctors face fell. Im afraid I cant do it for so

little.

There was a long pause while the doctor sat quietly. Clearly, she

knew how to use a panic to her advantage, and this one must have

smacked of secret treasures. Two anxious teenagers in dire need of a

healing seemed to be a very desirable situation for a tiny doctor. With a

big sigh, Tina offered a third object.

You can take my book.


The doctor leaned down to see the tiny type on the thin pages that

Tina held open for her. She took it delicately from Tinas hands and

closed the two halves to check the cover. My, my. A book. This is worth

a lot more than one healing.

Then perhaps youll keep it in mind the next time we need you.

The group on the bed turned to see Faye still sitting by the fire. I may

be in need of a session soon.

Very well, Dr. Jade agreed, today and two more in exchange for

the book, the shoes and the purse. Thank you ladies.
Harper and Tina exchanged a look at the pronouncement of the

price. In the face of everything life on the compound presented, it felt

exorbitant. However, neither said anything to dispute it. What choice did

they have?

Dr. Jade touched Harpers leg lightly and gently ran her fingernails

down the skin so that Harper felt tingles all the way down to her toes.

Now, Evelyn, the doctor said, Im going to lay my head against you

and begin to purr. I need you to stay still. Youll feel the bone start to

stitch back together, and you may feel some odd prickles as we go, but
whatever you do, dont move your leg.

Ill hold your hand, Tina offered with a smile. And Ill pin you to

the bed if you need me to.

Thanks. The two friends clasped hands tightly, and Harper

looked to the doctor. How much time does it take?

We could be here all night. But I dont want you preoccupied with

time, dear. Everything and everyone will be here when were done.

I hope shes right, Harper thought to herself, but said nothing. She

gave a nod to signal she was ready, and Dr. Jade began.
The purrs that came from the doctor were louder than Harper had

prepared for. They filled the room with intense vibrations and shakes

that made her dizzy. The bones in her leg rattled like an old, broken

piano she had played with back when she was a child. She looked up at

the opening in the ceiling, and for a moment she believed she could see

the sun slide out of its position in the sky and jump around, but then it

seemed to go back to the original spot again.

The memories in her mind flashed forward, then back. She had a

strange vision of herself as a wildcat. Her face was still somewhat


human, but she had longer teeth, claws, and pointed ears, but the rest of

her was very human. She seemed to have a sheen of fur all over her

body, but it was the same color as her skin. She blinked and the sight of

her half-animal-half-human form vanished, but she held on to the

memory of it throughout the rest of her treatment. She needed to see

herself that way, as something magical. It made her feel safer and

stronger as every cell in her body shook nonstop.

Dr. Jades purring went on for hours. Tina stayed with Harper,

holding her hand so tightly that their hands sweated terribly, and their
fingers cramped and locked together. The bones in Harpers legs locked

together with painful cracks and jumps. Lightning shot through her body

on several occasions and she cried out, but the doctor and Tina each kept

her in place so the bone would heal properly.

Through the pain, through the screams and the crazy visions,

Harpers bone became solid, and the swelling around it dissipated little

by little. Her heart slowed and her head became still as the healing came

to an end. She felt as if she were floating down from the ceiling and back

into her whole, solid body. Her breathing came in long, slow inhalations
and the even slower, deeper exhalations. She felt as if all the air in her

body were unbottled and set free. Her lungs seemed to belong to

someone else for a moment, as if her breath were something that could

be stolen from her by anyone at any time.

A few minutes later, Harper was in a deep sleep. She could hear

voices close by and tried to open her eyes and see who it was, but she

couldnt seem to lift her eyelids. She turned to the side and marveled at

the lack of pain the turn created; her leg felt cool and strong as it always

had.
In the morning, she blinked awake and gasped in shock. There,

sitting on her bed was the boy shed met at the party the handsome

one with soft black hair and sharp, high cheekbones. He gave her a

crooked smile.

Hi, Harper, he said as his eyes bored into hers. You are in big

trouble.
Chapter 11

Tina fumed in the corner as Black Feather smiled in her direction.

He was dressed in one of his few t-shirts, and the missing sleeves belied

his recent tax payment. Of course, he was enough of a jerk that it

actually looked good on him as it highlighted his muscles. It took all of

Tinas strength not to roll her eyes.

Behind him was Harper hiding under her wig and burning red with

embarrassment as she sat on Tinas cot. The only person who was happy

to be in Tinas house that morning was the slimy boy who had
discovered their secret. He cocked his head to the side and smiled even

wider.

Now, he said, why do you two look so unhappy to see me?

Because I found Harper? It was bound to happen; everyone and their

cousin is looking for her. Grey even has a taskforce of fliers that have

taken to the skies to search for the First Daughter. Its very important

that she gets home. He paused and turned to Harper. That is, if she

wants to go.

Tina stepped forward, confused. What do you mean, if she wants


to? What choice does she have?

Maybe I could give her neck a nibble and turn her into a shifter.

Black Feather turned to Harper who reared back in disgust. What? Isnt

that why youre here? Because you wish you were one of us?

Thats not true, Harper whispered.

Then why did you risk your life for a little party? Black Feather

moved forward and sat far too close to their visitor so that she couldnt

escape his gaze. Why run away from home, defy your father, and let a

whole sector of his security guards chase you if all you wanted was to
come by and have a drink? He looked over at Tina. Maybe you should

let her live here with you. She can be our token human here on the

compound.

Stop it, Tina demanded. She just needed a break. If your life was

anything like hers, youd be a murderer by now. Her trip out of the

palace was just a little rebellion.

Black Feather turned to Harper again, but she couldnt stand it

anymore. She quickly stood up and walked away, not even limping. Tina

smiled at the sight of her friend walking perfectly, but there was no time
to enjoy it. They had to get their human home.

Look, she said to Black Feather, if youre going to bother us,

help us get her home. Do you have any actual ideas?

I dont want to help, Black Feather scoffed. Im much more

interested in turning her in. I could probably get a reward out of it.

What? No! Harper ran back to Black Feather. She grabbed his

hands and held them tightly. You cant do that. Law enforcement will

come down on the compound. Theyll blame the shifters for everything.

Your families could be killed!


Or, Black Feather interrupted, stroking her face, we could be the

saviors the good guys who found you. This could change everything.

He sidled a bit closer to her, putting an arm around her shoulders.

Maybe, he said softly, you could announce that youve fallen in love

with an airborne, and thats why you did all this. He slid his hand onto

her leg. Ill see to it you have the ride of your life.

Tina watched all of this with her mouth open in shock. She waited

for Harper to jump up and demand Black Feather leave her alone, but

Harper didnt move. She just stared at the floor as if she were
considering all of this nonsense. Harper! Tinas friend looked up at her

with big, watery eyes.

I dont know what to do, she said softly, tears falling from her

eyes. I mean, maybe if the shifters appeared to rescue me, it could, I

dont know

Tina crossed the room and shook Harpers shoulders. Dont listen

to this idiot! We dont know what anyone might do, and that includes

your father. Maybe hes right, but maybe he is wrong. What if no one

bothers asking how you ended up here, and they just set our whole
compound on fire? What if we all go to jail, you included? We have to be

careful. Youre too important for any of us to be sloppy right now.

Harper seemed to come back to reality. She looked at Black

Feather and scowled. She stood and joined Tina, forgetting the annoying

boy who wanted to scare her into dating him.

Alright, I get it. What can we do?

Tina sighed and looked at the floor. I dont know. I want to talk to

Larissa and see if she can help.

A snort came from Black Feather behind them. That weirdo?


Whats she gonna do?

Something besides try and scare us, or tell a bunch of lies to make

herself look like a hero, Tina snapped. By the way: leave. She pointed

to the door.

If I go, he retorted, I am heading straight to the nearest law

enforcement officer and telling that LEO everything. The real truth

that the presidents daughter snuck out, stole a car, was trapped by an

earthquake, and hid in a shifter house is not going to go over well.

Tina shook her head in disgust. What happened to you? Did your
mama bird drop you out of the sky when you were a baby?

He laughed. It probably happened. But it has nothing to do with

anything. I just want to see what will happen when I turn you all in.

The two girlfriends looked at one another and shook their heads in

resignation. Tina got an idea and looked over at Black Feather.

Alright, smart guy, she said, sauntering over to him. How about

this; we help you look like a hero, but you keep your mouth shut about

the truth. Harper gets home, you get the praise, and none of the shifters

go to jail.
Black Feather leaned back on his elbows, smiled up at her, and

took his time taking in her exposed skin under her minimal clothing.

Anything else?

She closed her eyes and prayed for strength. What do you want?

You know what I want.

Tina looked at him she could do worse. Black Feather had

nothing going for him in the personality department, but he looked

alright. Sure, everyone would know all the details, but hed be close by

for her to keep an eye on, while she got Harper home and made sure
nothing went awry.

Fine, she told him. You get one night.

He raised his eyebrows. One night? Not much of an offer. How

about we become a couple?

Tina, dont!

The wolf shifter looked back at her friend, who was watching all of

this in horror and chewed her bottom lip. She regarded Black Feather

again and got a spark of inspiration.

How about this, she tried. We spend one night together as a


kind of audition. If we have a good time, we enjoy ourselves, and

nothing too crazy or rude happens, well be a couple. But if you go

blabbing to your friends, ask me to do anything gross or weird, its off.

Black Feather put a hand to his chest in a fake demonstration of

his affection. I will be a complete gentleman. You wont even recognize

me.

I believe that.

Tina turned back to Harper, feeling rather accomplished, but the

sight of her friends disgust threw her. What? We need him on our side.
You heard him before hes happy to turn us in.

Harper opened her mouth to say something, then closed it before

she could do any damage. Sighing, she walked over to the fire pit and sat

on a boulder. Tina walked over and joined her. Black Feather stayed

where he was, but laid back to look up at the ceiling, so the girls couldnt

see the massive smile on his face.

The two friends kept trying to come up with a plan, some way to

get Harper home without getting herself, or anyone else, in too much

trouble, but the two were completely blocked.


Wheres Larissa? Harper asked. Tina just shrugged.

Its anyones guess. She likes to disappear. I have a theory she

knows some humans in the city that she spends time with, but I dont

really know. She picked up a little piece of coal from the fire and drew a

square on the floor. Hows your leg?

Perfect. Honestly, I cant believe just yesterday it was broken.

Yeah. Dr. Jade is the best. She stopped drawing and looked at

Harpers leg, touching it gently. What do humans do when they break a

bone?
We use these things called casts, Harper explained. Theyre stiff,

white bandages that a doctor wraps around your arm or leg, and then

you have to wait a long time for the bone to heal by itself. Sometimes it

takes a couple of months.

Sounds awful.

It is.

The two fell silent and looked around them at the empty space.

Harper pulled her ridiculous wig off and played with the curls for a

moment. From over on the bed, Black Feather sat up.


You know, he said, a cast could be used somehow.

How? Harper looked up from her messy wig. My legs not even

broken anymore.

Right, but maybe we could claim the kidnappers broke your leg

and panicked. They hid you near the compound, and thats where I

found you. He got excited and began gesturing with his hands as he

spoke. If you have a cast on your leg and look really pathetic and

injured, he continued, your father wont be angry. Hell just be glad

they didnt do anything worse. Then, Ill look like the hero, who got you
home and helped the president. You can say the kidnappers got scared

and ran off beyond the boundary when they saw the news. It could

work!

Wait, wait, Tina stopped him. Wont they be able to tell that her

leg is healthy somehow? I mean, a human doctor will check her out

eventually, right? She turned to Harper for confirmation, and her friend

nodded.

We have a special machine called an x-ray that can see through

the body, she said, thoroughly frustrated. Theyll know Im lying in a


few minutes, and then Ill be in real trouble because everyone will start

to demand to know what Im hiding. It would be a mess.

A machine that can see through the body, Black Feather said in a

snarky tone. Youre making that up.

Harper shrugged. You dont have to believe me if you dont want

to, but Im telling you; they will know. We have the best doctors

available, living at the palace. Even without a machine, Im sure theyll

be able to tell that Im fine.

Darn it. Oh well. Next plan. Tina and Harper went on scheming,
but Black Feather decided to take a nap. Tina glanced over at him as he

started snoring. My true love.

Youre not actually going through withum, you knowwith

him? Hes disgusting!

Look, Tina said, we all have to do things were not proud of

sometimes. Especially shifters. You saw Graham yesterday. Hes going

around, cutting shifters clothes off of them for no real reason. You think

he wants that job? He only took it because he has a hungry bear-shifter

son and wife to feed. The department that makes us work against each
other is the only one that pays a decent wage. Even Grey brings home

less than Graham does, Im sure.

Thats awful.

Yeah, it is. So, if I only have to have a short, awful time with that

jerk, well, Tina shrugged, I guess Ill live.

Youre so brave, Harper told her. I never want to get involved

with a boy. Ever.

What? Why not?

Because, Harper said, almost laughing at the idea, anyone who


gets anywhere near me, has to have their whole life taken away. Theyll

have to have a security detail, answer constant questions from my

father, do whatever the palace officials tells him to do. It would be

horrible.

Tina just shrugged at this description. So, get a secret boyfriend.

Ha! Yeah, like who?

Just then, the friends heard footsteps behind them. Harper quickly

reached for her wig, but it was too late. The visitor had already seen her

without it. It was Grey, another boy from the party, and this one looked
very serious at the sight of the two girls talking by an empty fire pit.

UhTina? Grey stepped a little closer You want to tell me

whats going on here?

Tina jumped up and stood in front of Harper. Hey! Whats up,

Grey? I heard you got some special job from the president himself. Well

done!

Yeah. Thanks. He stepped to the side and looked around Tinas

shoulders at the now wig-covered Harper. So, Evelyn. Or Harper. Or

whatever name youre going by these days you want to tell me what
youre doing here?

The disguised First Daughter stared straight ahead in horror.

Greys stern and unhappy face stared straight at her as she studied the

ashes and remains of the fire. She glanced over at him but still said

nothing.

Harper, he repeated, I know its you. Everyone is going insane

looking for you. Im supposed to be searching for you right now. So, can

you at least tell me how you ended up in Tinas house?

She was trapped by the earthquake and broke her leg, Black
Feather said from the other side of the room. The three turned to look

back at him, but he was still reclining on Tinas bed. Tina took her in to

take care of her. The doc came and healed Harper up. Now she needs to

get home.

The room went quiet again. Hearing her situation spoken so

plainly had an odd effect on Tina; suddenly, it didnt sound so bad.

Hadnt she just helped her friend? Shed been there when Harper needed

a night out, and then came to the rescue when she was injured. She even

brought in a doctor. Surely, any adult would agree shed done the
responsible thing at least in the end.

I screwed up, Harper said quietly. I wanted to have fun, and

instead of just being honest, I went behind my fathers back while he

was distracted by a big banquet. Then I put all of the shifters here in the

compound in a very dangerous position by attending a party I shouldnt

have even gone to. I didnt even know that earthquakes happened

around here; Id never felt one before. So, when it hit, I panicked and

didnt run like everyone else, and a rock broke my leg. Tina should have

gone for help, but I insisted she hide me. I convinced her if I went home
my father would kill me literally kill me.

Harper put her face in her hands as Tina rethought her previous

stance on their situation. Suddenly, it all seemed very extreme and

reckless. She hadnt acted responsibly at all, just done what her friend

had told her to do and nothing more. She suddenly had a stomachache.

Hey, let me go get us some food. She stood to go, but Grey

stopped her.

Here, my treat. He peeled off a 20 Bachmann for her, and she

froze at the sight of it.


Geez, moneybags! Look at you throwing your wealth around. This

will feed me for a week. She happily went out the door and left Harper

with the two other shifters without a thought. She knew Grey would

make sure everyone behaved.

She ran up to the food shack and ordered a big platter of fried

mouse and root vegetables. Larissas mom raised an eyebrow at her

when she saw the 20 Bachmann note but didnt ask any questions. She

handed Tina a massive handful of change and only then did Tina realize

she had no way to carry a bundle of coins and a big plate of food.
Umdo you have a bag or anything?

I do but it will cost you. Larissas mom stood stoically, waiting

for Tinas decision. She looked around and, seeing no alternative,

nodded in agreement.

Fine. How much?

Two Bachmanns for a small bag and five for a big one. Of course,

she leaned forward and smiled a bit, I could come along with you and

help you to carry everything. Only eight Bachmanns. Her eyebrows

jumped up and down as she said it, and her smile got a little wider. Tina
rolled her eyes.

Here. She handed over eight Bachmanns. Give me both bags and

promise me you wont say anything about all this money or the extra

food. Ill come back and give you the same tomorrow as long as you

dont tell my mom a word of this.

Larissas mom barely heard her as she scooped the change back

across the counter and into her apron pocket. She gave Tina both bags,

and the wolf quickly walked home, realizing she had just made and given

away more money than shed ever had in her whole life. Oh well.
At the fire pit, Tina found Harper flanked by Black Feather on one

side and Grey on the other. Both looked angry and ready to throw a

punch at the other, but Harper just looked miserable. All three turned as

she walked in and held up their food.

Fried mouse and roots today, she announced. They boys were

thrilled, but Harper looked resigned. Tina gave an apologetic smile to her

friend. Sorry, she said, no fancy stuff gets into the compound. You

might like this, though.

The group gathered on Tinas bed to eat off of the same plate.
Harper lit up when she saw the fried root vegetables on the paper plate.

Hey! Those are potatoes. And yams, I love yams! The shifters looked

up at her. Potatoes? Yams? The two boys looked to Tina for an

explanation, but she could only shrug. She was as clueless as they were.

Harper worked on the vegetables, while her friends feasted on fried

mouse. Grey watched Black Feather, who watched Harper, who looked at

the floor. Tina shook her head; what the heck had happened?

So, she said to the group, any new developments with the big

plan?
Grey had an idea, Harper said quietly. Tina looked over at her old

friend, but he was busy chewing. She waited, but he stayed quiet.

So? Tina looked around the group, but everyone avoided her

eyes. What? Whats your idea?

He brushed his hands off and wiped them on the paper of the bag.

I escort her to the palace and tell the guards I was able to take her home

only because I agreed to keep the kidnappers identities and location a

secret. Shell be safe and free from future harm, only if the president

agrees to let it go.


Tina took a moment to let this sink in. So, she said, wed never

see Harper again. Her father will never let her out of his sight.

Grey nodded slowly. Tina looked at Harper who was finishing the

last chunk of white root. Without looking at anyone, she said, It would

keep everyone safe. There would be no reason for anyone to come to the

compound, no searches, nothing. I would just go home, and that would

be the end of it.

What if its not? Tina turned to see Black Feather scowling at

Grey. His plan sucks. Like you said, Tina, we dont know what anyone is
going to do. We have no insurance that Bachmann will believe any of

this. Grey met Black Feathers scowl with his own as Black Feather

added, He just wants to be the hero.

Youre an idiot, Grey spat back at him.

No, you are!

The two boys reached across the space on the bed and grabbed at

one anothers shoulders. Harper jumped up to get away, but Tina went

right between them and let out a huge, deep growl. It was enough of a

warning that the boys separated, but they were far from done with one
another.

Once she had everyones attention, she spoke in her human voice.

Alright, now that were done with the pissing contest, she said, I want

Grey to go ahead with his plan.

Both Harper and Black Feather protested loudly, but Tina just held

up a hand to stop them. Grey, she continued, I think it will be to

everyones benefit if you really play up how you, a shifter and all-around

good guy, found her and brought her home. It was humans who did this,

not us. Just keep saying that. She looked at Harper and smiled a small,
sad smile. Maybe well get to see her again if were not the enemy.

Harper shuffled forward and put her hands on Tinas arms. Are

you sure?

She shook her head. Im not. I cant be sure of anything right now

except the fact that you cannot stay here. The sooner we get you back,

the better. Tina kept a brave, steady gaze on her friend, but inside she

felt herself screaming. She knew shed never see Harper again, but she

couldnt say it out loud. She had to get this girl home before anything

else happened.
Harper nodded and pulled Tina in for a hug. The two held one

another for a long time, squeezing each other close. The two young men

watched, and marveled at the ability young women had to open up to

one another so completely. Neither had ever had a friend like Tina and

Harper had in one another.


Chapter 12

Harper said goodbye to Black Feather as he fumed at Grey. The two

of them would leave through the hole in the fence in the back and walk

through the grove to the Open Zone. From there, they would walk in the

open and allow themselves to be seen. Grey and Harper agreed on the

details; they had to keep her whereabouts over the past few days a

secret, or she would be taken again. The two of them would quickly

deflect any questions in the name of her safety. She would comment on

how the only help shed received had come from a shifter, after a
horrible group of humans had taken her from her car.

So, Grey asked her as they walked away, what will you say if

someone asks about your night out? Whats your reason going to be?

Well, she sighed, I guess Ill just go with, Im a rebellious

teenager who couldnt stand another night under her fathers

supervision.

Sure, but its clear you were headed to the compound. What if

someone asks if you were on your way to a shifter friends house or

some kind of event?


Ill just say I lost control of the car and ended up on the wrong

road, she shrugged. No one knows I can drive perfectly well.

The two fell silent as they walked through the scrubby, twisted

trees of the grove. Harper looked to the sky several times but saw

nothing. She furrowed her eyebrows but didnt comment. Grey kept

moving forward, sure that an LEO would meet them around the next

corner or pull up on a motorcycle, but the landscape was silent. They

reached the Open Zone unseen and wondered at the silence around

them.
Somethings wrong, Harper commented. This place should be

crawling with LEOs.

I know. Lets walk out on the road and see if we draw anyone out.

The two wandered out onto the street and saw nothing but open,

flat land around them. There were no cars or motorcycles in sight. The

two continued, but both were extremely tense. The day was pleasant and

cool as the sun lowered, meaning they would get to the palace just

before nightfall the perfect time to be outside, but neither could enjoy

it. The silence pounded in their ears, and they wondered at their strange
surroundings; how was there no security in the Open Zone?

I wonder if theyre raiding some poor settlement in the city,

Harper wondered aloud. Maybe some innocent people are being shot in

the head right now. Thanks to me. Tears made her voice pitch higher,

and Grey quickly walked over to comfort her.

You cant think like that, he told her. Sure, you made a mistake,

but you didnt kill anyone. You didnt even write that stupid note. If you

take on the responsibility for everybodys actions, youll lose your mind.

Thats just it, she said, still blinking tears from her eyes, my
family is responsible for everything that happens. We made the city, we

made the laws, and we created the law enforcement. Its all us. I cant

ever say that something isnt my fault. Its all just an extension of me

and my family. Theres no escape.

Grey looked over at her face and remained silent. The pain he

encountered there stabbed him right through the heart.

He thought back to the president, who also had a face full of pain.

He knew both people were carrying with them the weight of

responsibility and regret, but he could already see the joy that would
cover Bachmanns face as his lost daughter ran into see him, arms wide

to hold him. Her return would set his existence back to a normal

pattern; he would go on ruling and doling out the occasional kindness,

all the while believing that life was going on as it should.

Harper wouldnt do that; Grey could see this as well. No,

something was very different for her now. She would never look out her

window to the same world after this. Now she would read newspapers

without the tunnel vision glasses that other humans seemed to wear.

She would know that no shifter ever really attacked a human. That only
humans went around killing one another. Shifters were never really

asked their opinions, given fair trials, protected, or respected. When her

father retired, he would hand the leadership of the state to her. What

kind of leader would she be?

Harper, he said to her, lets walk a bit faster. If no ones here, we

should get to where they can find us.

She nodded, and the two of them walked with fast, urgent steps. As

they neared the presidential mountain, the force of it seemed to increase

and grow with its size.


The mountain where Harpers family had their presidential palace

had Grey had learned once been filled with wildlife, covered in green

trees and sources of fresh water. According to the stories, that had been

before anyone knew what a shifter was, possibly before they existed.

Grey always found himself fascinated with the idea of a time before him,

before his type of body had come onto the earth, evolving from the

forces around it.

A lot of humans said that shifters were an insult to God, whatever

that meant. Shifters tended to stay away from any kind of church too
dangerous.

They reached the base of the mountain pathway that Harper had

taken in her stolen car and looked up.

Its pretty steep, Harper said as her eyes searched the road. Grey

looked up the hill with her. Where was everyone?

Yeah, and not too safe. Well have to work our way around and

then take the main road up. That will give us more chance of being seen,

I imagine.

The walked up along the steep path, then took the right turn that
would swing them around to the other face of the mountain.

Hey, Harper said, smiling a little, I have a question for you.

Ask away.

Would it be at all possible for you to, I dont know, fly me up to

the top of the mountain? Like, if you shift while we hold hands, will I

change at all or shrink or anything?

We could try, Grey responded, still walking and looking ahead. I

doubt it will work, but it would be nice if it were possible to shrink you

down and put you on my back.


I cant imagine, Harper said, smiling. Youre not too big as a

bird, are you?

No, Grey said, kicking a piece of petrified wood, American

kestrels arent too big. I could probably sit on your shoulder.

The two continued chatting and walking, all the while keeping

their eyes on the road. Each of them was sure that a gang of motorcycle

LEOs would round the corner at any moment, but there was still no sign

of anyone. They wondered what could have happened. Maybe some

random sighting had led them all away to some random spot in the city?
Perhaps the president was in hiding, and the whole palace was empty.

Grey looked over at Harper and saw the sunlight hitting her hair

the same way it did when they were children. He smiled at her, and she

narrowed her eyes.

What? Whats funny?

Nothing is. This is a very serious situation.

Shut up.

He tossed a little chunk of petrified wood at her. I will not. You

shut up.
She quickly grabbed the hard chunk and zinged it back at him. Her

aim was perfect, and he grabbed his arm in pain. He could tell already

that he would have a small, but deep, bruise.

Geez!

You deserved it. I mean, really? Throwing things at a presidents

daughter? She winked as she said it, then stuck her tongue out.

Yeah, Grey retorted as he laughed, so fancy.

Harper laughed to herself as she took in the empty mountain. Do

you remember, she mused, playing together in the park when we were
little? How I would pretend you had died, and then I would be the

minister at your funeral?

You were a very good minister. I always enjoyed hearing all the

nice words about myself.

She looked at him with her big, sad eyes. I meant them. You were

the only kid I ever got to play with and only because we annoyed my

father enough that he sent us away.

I was so shocked when I saw that garden, Grey remembered.

That first day? Remember?


Yeah, she nodded. Well, dont be too impressed. Most of it is

fake.

Really?

Oh, sure, she said, shrugging. I mean, theyre good fakes, and

theyre pretty, but real plants take a lot of water and a ton of care.

Besides, most people alive today have never had to take care of a living

thing. There was no one we could hire to help out.

Wow, Grey breathed. I really thought the president was the only

person left with a garden. He really fooled me.


Dads good at fooling everyone, Harper agreed as she grimaced. A

big sigh of frustration came out of her. This is insane. There should be

law enforcement on this road. Even if I wasnt missing, people should be

here. Where are they?

I can only imagine theres a massive effort to find you. Im sure

everyone got roped into that. You need a drink?

She nodded, and the two of them moved over to a boulder to sit

and rest. Grey took his canteen from his back and unscrewed the top of

the nozzle. Each took a swig and held it in their mouths as both had
been taught to do since the day they were small. All humans and shifters

had spent years hearing about the preciousness of water, no matter how

dark or brackish it was.

Thanks, she said, nodding her confirmation that she was

hydrated and feeling better. Grey swished the water around his mouth,

feeling it against the inside of his cheeks and around his teeth. He never

liked to drink directly, but rather allow the water to slip down his throat

almost by accident. It was a trick he had learned to do as a means of

making a tiny sip feel like a big gulp of liquid.


The two friends were reluctant to continue on their way, and

stayed where they were, taking in the road. Harper stared off into the

distance at all the tiny, twisted trees and up to where she knew the

palace stood, but couldnt quite see it. Grey leaned to the side to look as

well and bumped her shoulder.

Oh, sorry.

No, its okay. She smiled at him but then went back to her search.

I was just seeing if I could see my home.

Grey leaned a bit closer, placed his hand behind her back, and
propped his chin on her shoulder. Its really hidden.

Yeah, she sighed, sadly. Its designed to blend in with the

surroundings. As if everyone didnt already know where we live.

The two stayed like that for a moment, Harper looking forward and

up and Grey very close to her. He could feel the heat coming from her

body and smell the perfumed shampoo she used in her hair. A little

tendril blew up into his face with the help of a soft breeze, and he closed

his eyes as it tickled his face. He had never thought too much about

Harpers hair, but now he was consumed with it.


Do you want to be my secret boyfriend?

What? Grey straightened up and spun around to look at her.

Your secret boyfriend? What do you mean?

I mean, she said casually, do you want to be in a relationship

with me? We couldnt tell anyone, but we could, you know She

blushed and smiled. Do boyfriend and girlfriend stuff. When no ones

looking.

Harper, Grey began, but her sweet and amused expression

stopped him. He wanted to kiss and hold her very badly, but suddenly
found himself unable to speak or move. How would they hide an entire

relationship? She seemed very confident it could be done, but he was

terrified. His mothers voice echoed in his mind: Dont ever correct

Harper. Not even when shes wrong.

Yes? She tilted her head. She looked so confident that he would

say yes. People usually said yes to Harper; she didnt have much reason

to worry. What do you think? You want to?

I think I would, he answered. I just didnt know that you had

any secrets. He stepped closer to her as he said it, and she moved just a
little closer to him.

I have a lot of secrets, she said, taking another tiny step across

the space between them. Im good at keeping things close to me, hiding

them. I taught myself to drive without anyone finding me in the car.

He reached out to touch her face. Thats impressive.

Im a virgin, you know.

Grey startled a bit. What does that mean?

It means I havent had sex yet.

Oh. Grey blinked at her and thought for a moment. Is that


something humans talk about?

She nodded. Yeah, we do. She cleared her throat and looked off to

the side as she chewed her lip for a moment. I thought maybe you

wouldnt like it if I didnt have any experience.

Why does that matter? her friend asked, pulling her into his

arms. Ive never found it changes much of anything. Sex is the same if

youve had none of it or a lot of it; our bodies just come together.

She wrapped her arms around his waist. Dad always tells me its

important, being a virgin.


Grey just shrugged. Ive never heard of it before. Now close

together in one anothers arms, the two regarded each others faces

through lowered eyelids. So, Grey said, his mouth dry and his heart

pounding, are you a good kisser?

Harper nodded her head. Grey reached out and touched her lower

lip. How are my lips?

He chuckled a little. What do you mean?

Are they nice? I mean, do you want to kiss them? Grey nodded

and slowly lowered his head towards hers. She tipped her face up,
pointed her nose straight at him, and the two of them slowly, gradually

closed their eyes and parted their lips. Beneath him, Harper went up on

her toes just enough to touch her mouth to his, and Grey allowed

himself to close his eyes completely.

As soon as he relaxed, she was gone.

With just a quick little Oh! Harper was suddenly no longer in his

arms. He felt the motion as she was whisked away from him with a hard,

quick pull, but was unable to respond. Her fingers briefly grabbed his,

but she didnt get a good hold on him. By the time his eyes were open,
she was disappearing into a dark, tree-filled shadow.

Grey stood by the boulder and looked in every direction in the

quiet space around him, then screamed at the sight of her in the jaws of

a huge, hungry fossa.

The wild creature stood as tall as Grey. In its jaws was an

unconscious Harper, being held by the collar of her shirt. The sight of

the cat and Harper passed out, took his breath away and froze his feet to

the ground. The cat blinked at him once and then bounded off into the

woods and straight to the palace. Behind it, Grey stood open-mouthed as
he watched the shifter hed been so sure he knew so well go straight into

the hands of the most hated man of the entire state: President

Bachmann.

In seconds, Harper and the fossa were gone. A set of footsteps

approached Grey from behind, and he spun around to see another

shocking vision: the mole shifter from OSCPP.


Chapter 13

Harpers unexpected carrier got her to the palace very quickly and

dropped her down at the front door. The force of the fall woke her up.

The first thing she saw as her eyes blinked open was the fossas face. The

animal stared at her for a moment, then took a few steps away to walk

back and forth across the front stoop of the palace.

Something cold and wet slid down the back of Harpers neck. She

brushed the spot on her neck and found some drool had gathered and

was shocked at how thick and viscous it was. She tried to shake it from
her fingers, but it clung to her.

The fossa wandered off, its long nails scratching up the marble of

the front step of the presidential palace. Harper turned to the door and

banged on it, but no one opened it.

Hey! She banged again. Im out here with a wild shifter! Let me

in! She pounded on the door a bit more, but again, no luck. Behind her,

a dark-skinned boy no, a girl; no, definitely a young boy walked up to

her with a cocky expression. This guy had to be the shifter; his skin

smelled like fresh air and soil and smoke. Only shifters had that scent.
You! She shoved him hard and he allowed himself to be pushed

back. His full lips smiled at her, and his dark, liquid eyes twinkled a little

at the sudden show of force. The glee in his face just stoked Harpers

anger even more.

What were you thinking? I was on my way here. You didnt need

to knock me out and carry me here. What is wrong with you?

The boy laughed. You have no idea whats happening here. You

think youre just a typical rebel? You think you can just go home and

everything will go back to normal?


He leaned forward and got very close to her face, still smiling.

Everything is different now, sweet little Harper. And I intend to get

every piece of reward that I can from your return. Im not about to let

that little flier get even more out of his romance with the president. He

has to take a backseat this time.

Harper started a bit at the sound of Greys name. Wait, you know

Grey?

Of course.

And you know me?


The boy just smiled enigmatically and declined to answer. Instead,

he sat on the stoop and patted the space next to him. Come. Have a

seat.

Ill stand.

The boy shrugged and brought a knee to his chest to make himself

a bit more comfortable. So, he said, I hear youre looking for a

boyfriend. A secret boyfriend. He laughed through closed lips, and

Harper closed her eyes in complete embarrassment. She let out a long

breath, remembering the almost kiss shed received from Grey and how
wonderful it had felt.

This guy took that from me, she thought to herself. I can never

forget that. She glared at the fossa and refused to respond. He smiled

up at her as if he were at a fun show of some kind and watching the

main character sing and dance.

Your father was right, you know, he continued, about your

virginity. It is sacred, and you should treasure it. Again, Harper didnt

make a sound. In my country, the boy continued, a woman without

her purity can never be married. Shes better off being a whore or living
alone. Most of them become witches.

The word witch made Harper roll her eyes. She knew such people

only existed in her childhood stories. No one practiced any form of

magic anymore.

Dont believe me? He stood and faced her. My mother is a witch.

And a powerful one. She enchanted my father, so that he would marry

her and then conjured me up.

Unable to stand it anymore, Harper turned away from him, spitting

out the words, Youre an idiot!


He laughed at her back as she walked towards the road. Oh! She

does talk. I like your spirit, Harper. I really do.

She clenched her teeth together and walked away from the

infuriating boy, rounded a corner, and then stopped.

Her fathers cavalcade of limousines and motorcycles was coming

up the road. She stopped mid-step to see them and began waving. Hey!

She waved again. Theres a horrible shifter up here! I want him

arrested.

No one could hear her over the roar of the motorcycles, but the
LEOs in front gave her a wave. The group seemed to pick up speed just a

little, but not more than a few miles per hour as they werent allowed to

separate. She stood and waited for them and, to her dismay, was joined

by the shifter.

Be careful what version of the story you tell today, Princess

Harper, he said, glaring. Keep in mind that I know the truth. And if I

tell everyone what really happened, your secret boyfriend and all your

little shifter friends will be killed.

Harpers head snapped around to look at him, and she felt her eyes
grow wider at the sight of the boy beside her. She suddenly knew this

person it was Larissa, the one who had helped her leg heal, who had

sat on the dance floor at the party, whom everyone allowed to disappear

whenever she liked. Somehow, she had changed to a boy, but Harper

couldnt tell how.

Larissa. Its you.

The male Larissa didnt respond, just put a hand on Harpers

shoulder and stood with her as the president and his group of supporters

pulled up to where they were standing.


The LEOs, heads of security, assistants, and messengers swarmed

Harper and her captor as they stood in the street. Her fathers limousine

door opened, and he stepped out, looking absolutely awful. For the first

time in her memory, his hair was standing straight up as if it hadnt been

washed in several nights. His skin looked ashy and tired, and his

clothing was crooked and crumpled. Her father stood and took her in for

a moment as everyone between the two of them stepped aside so that he

could walk towards her.

Her father, the president, stood and regarded her for a long
moment, then staggered forward. The effort it took for him to walk

ripped her heart in half. She shot through the crowd and flew into his

arms as everyone else broke into applause. She buried herself in his thin

chest and burst into tears.

Daddy! Im so sorry, she sobbed.

Youre alive, my darling, he muttered into her ear. Now I can

come back to life as well. The two pulled back from one another and

then touched noses just like they used to when she was a little girl. The

motion was familiar and warm, but also stabbed Harper right through
the heart. She wiped the tears from her eyes and looked behind her to

see Larissa, now very female, being interviewed by several government

reporters who hung on her every word. Harper took in a frustrated

breath and then turned back to her dad.

I really dont want to talk to any reporters today, Dad.

Dont worry, my darling, he said, pulling her close to his side. He

opened the limo door. You dont have to give any interviews until youre

ready. I cant imagine what you must have endured, my sweet. He

gestured to the door, and Harper quickly slid inside the limo, and her
father followed.

The door closed, and it took her a moment to realize that two other

people were in the car with her. She gasped to see Grey and a poorly

dressed shifter employee sitting and staring at her. She turned to look at

her father who was very calmly combing his hair. Her eyes fell to the

little tray of hair products and makeup attached to the limo door. There

was the hair putty to make his strands stand up in all directions. Next to

it was the ashy-colored makeup to put shadows under his eyes. There

was the spray to make his clothing wet and wrinkly.


Harper fell back against the seat and felt the whole world fall in on

her. The limo went dark with despair as it crawled up the remainder of

the road towards the presidents garage. A huge crush of bodies walked

alongside the car so that the outside world was completely obscured.

Well, darling, President Bachmann said as he checked his

reflection in the mirror, you have had quite a time these past few days. I

hear you spent some time at the shifter commune.

She looked at her knees as her stomach tied into a giant bow that

kept getting caught against her ribs. Her lips pulled in past her teeth, and
she bit them hard in hopes of feeling something else.

Now, my informant let me know what was really going on. This

whole kidnapping fiasco is one that we are telling the public. Shifter, he

said to Grey, you will also keep up that little charade. Harper was

tricked into going to a shifter gathering, then kidnapped in protest of her

support of the shifter community. Shes the hero and the victim, nothing

else.

Dad, I was tricked. I went because

Stop right there. He set his little comb into a small, expensive
glass, and it made a sharp ping as he dropped it. He paused to take a

breath before he continued. Harper, one day, the state will be yours.

Our security is built on the separation of humans and shifters. We cant

all be friends. We cant cross borders. We cant all hold hands and swing

on the swings together. Youll understand as you get older; when people

feel safe, they need less leadership. Less leadership means ridiculous

developments like elections and uneducated citizens thinking they can

take on governance.

Harper froze; she had heard of elections in her school lessons. Her
teacher always told her that these elections had always led to horrible

developments, and that theyd been done away with to keep the people

safe. Shed believed it; shed never considered it was just a way to make

sure her father stayed important to the public. She glanced at Grey to see

if his face could give away any of his thoughts. He was casually looking

out the window; he didnt even seem to be listening to the awful things

her father was saying. Harper was on her own.

Youre disgusting.

Dont think, her father said to her, that just because youre
speaking quietly that I cant hear you, my one and only. I understand

that this all looks ugly, he said, straightening his tie, but I promise you,

Harper, the alternative is far worse. If you think this is disgusting, you

should see whats happening across the ocean. All the citizens reading,

debating in the streets, killing each other over issues that have no real

bearing on their lives. Its very sad. I dont want any of that here. He

leaned closer to Harper and grabbed her arms. And if that means

keeping a section of my population down, then I say so be it.

Dad! Youre hurting me!


Good, he replied, digging his fingernails into her arms.

Remember this pain. This is just a small taste of the pain in store for

you if you do not heed my words, little girl. He released her and sat

back against his seat just as the car pulled into the small tunnel that led

down to the palace garage. He turned to the older shifter.

Now, Gus, the president said, tucking his shirt in, I trust you

will leak the appropriate information to the press and those photos of

the raid.

The man nodded. Ill get them from Rita, sir.


Wonderful. Mr. Wiseman, the President reached across to Greys

seat and patted his knee. Good to see you. My friend Gus here will

inform you of your next move. He squeezed Greys knee harder and

leaned in close to his face. And if you decide to do anything not

approved by my office, he continued, his knuckles growing whiter by

the second, you and your father will get to spend some quality time

together in the facility under my palace.

Grey looked at the hand grabbing him and up at the presidents

wild, shining eyes as they shook in their sockets. His face went pale, and
he tried to move away, but there was nowhere to go. He tried the

limousine door, but it didnt budge. Sir, please

I take care of my prisoners myself, the president said as a

horrible, twisted smile spread across his face. Their rehabilitation is

very important to me.

Grey swallowed and gave the president a hurried, frightened nod.

I understand.

Grey! Harper stared at him with an open mouth. We could do

something great. Dont let him scare you.


I have to protect my father, Grey replied. Hes all I have.

The president sat back and smiled, patted his daughters leg, and

opened the door. You two gentlemen may leave. You have a lot of work

to do. Gus and Grey slid out of the car. Grey stole a glance back at

Harper, but then quickly moved to catch up with Gus. Harper fumed as

he left. How had she ever thought she could love such a coward?

You may be able to boss everyone else around, she said, turning

to face her father, but you cant do that to me. I dont want to be a

leader. I dont want to be like you. Youre the worst person I know.
And I am your family, he replied. Youre young, darling. Young

and rebellious, just like I was at your age. You think youre the first

Bachmann to reach out to the shifters? The first to run off with them for

a time? Im afraid none of this is new, my darling. The only Bachmann

who never spent time with a shifter was your grandmother, who

genuinely feared them. I know theyre not dangerous. I know they dont

bite. And I dont care.

What? Harper squared her shoulders at her father. You had

shifter friends?
Her father smiled a little, remembering. My mother had them

executed.

A huge, horrible gasp came from Harper, and she felt herself start

to vomit. She grabbed the door handle to calm herself down. Her father

said nothing to calm her down as he let her sit with the idea. She

collected herself as well as she could and looked up at him.

She was right to do it, my darling, he told her. A president

cannot let his emotions get in the way of his decisions. I had to learn

that. So, my friends had to go on to whatever world is next. And Harper,


he reached out for her hand, held it gently, I will happily do the same.

She shook her head, ready to vomit all over again. Just kill me,

she sobbed. I cant live like this. I wont. Dont bother killing anyone

else or imprisoning anyone else. Just let me die. Im not strong enough.

Her shoulders shook as her father watched her.

He pulled her in and kissed the top of her head. Dont be silly,

sweet girl. Youre the love of my life. Harper melted into tears and

hiccupped into her hands for several minutes as her father held her.

Shh. Shh. Well be alright. Were together again. Thats all that
matters.

But I hate you, she said, pushing the words between her cries, so

much.

Thats fine, darling. Youre a teenage girl, you can hate your

father. He chuckled a little more as she continued crying. I certainly

hated mine.

Eventually, Harpers father got her out of the car and back to her

rooms where he left her on her bed. She quickly ran to the secret door in

her closet, only to find it permanently sealed. Off to one side was a new
piece of furniture that looked oddly familiar. She approached it and sank

to her knees once she saw what it was the backseat to the car shed

stolen converted into a small couch, a photo of her at the shifter party

framed over it. Had Larissa taken that picture?

She looked at it a little closer. In the photo, she was smiling at

Black Feather, and over her shoulder, Grey was looking at her with

sadness and hope in his eyes. All around them, the party raged. Shifters

danced and bottles were held in the air, but each of them was too

wrapped up in their individual moments to see any of it.


She took the photo down and held it as she sat on the former car

seat. She leaned down to smell it, and the scent of cheap leather

transported her back to that first night when she had been free and

ready for anything. She closed her eyes, wrapped the framed picture in

her arms, and fell into a fitful sleep there on the former vehicle to what

she had hoped would be her new life.


Chapter 14

The day after Grey and Harper left for the palace, Tina woke to the

sounds of labor leaders yelling to one another. She groaned and rubbed

her eyes, sure that the adults had some big, new project. It was in the

moment when she was about to fall back asleep when she heard

someone yelling her name.

Tina Traxon! Im looking for the wolf shifter, Tina Traxon! Come

on out, little shifter. She lifted herself up on her hands and peeked out

the door to see a large, overweight man with a clipboard and yellow
plastic hat walking towards her house as her neighbors pointed him in

her direction.

Suddenly wide awake, Tina jumped out of bed and threw her

meager clothing on. There hadnt been a work directive since she was

little, but she remembered it very clearly.

The humans had marched into their house and read her parents

names aloud from a list. They were handed tools and pointed in the

direction of a building that needed fixing. They werent given any time to

find someone to take care of Tina, so she had gone with them. The
humans laughed at the sight of her standing in line with the other

workers and gave her a tiny hammer so she could bang on the wall, but

the situation had actually been very dangerous. Her mother had kept a

constant eye on her to steer her away from broken glass and rusted

nails. Tina hadnt known enough to be frightened at the time, but her

mother had been so terrified that she eventually got yelled at for not

working hard enough.

Now they were back with more lists and more names. Tina pulled a

pair of too-big mens boots the only pair she had over her bare feet.
The man stood in her doorway just as she got her hair back into a

ponytail.

Tina Traxon?

Yes, sir. What are we working on today?

The fence.

He led her to the edge of the compound. On her way, she passed

several adults who glared at the human that walked through. A little boy

ran up, kicked him in the shin, and then quickly ran off.

Oh! Youll pay for that. Dirty little shifter. The human glanced
around to see if anyone was harboring the small fugitive, but saw

nothing but silent adults. He shook his head and continued on. Thats

the problem with all of you shifters, he muttered to Tina, though he

didnt look at her. You all think violence is the only way. You cant just

talk to someone and say whats on your mind. He stopped and looked at

her with a sneer, then looked her up and down the way so many boys

were doing now that her clothes barely covered her. See, like right now.

You want me to tell you how hot you look, but you cant just ask, Hey,

how do I look? No, you have to wear these sexy clothes and trick me

into saying it.


What?

Oh, dont play dumb.

My clothes look like this because of the tax. I dont want to

Shut up and come with me. He sighed and shook his head with

all the frustration and exhaustion of a tired parent. She walked a bit

faster to stay slightly behind him. She didnt want to be next to him after

the comment about her clothing. She had no idea that was how humans

saw young female shifters.

They made it to the perimeter, and she saw a crowd of young


shifters digging small holes in a line. Off to the side, two smaller groups

were pulling down the old fence and rolling it up. Big trucks with writing

and symbols on them sat just beyond the boundary with sleepy drivers

inside.

Lets see, the man in charge said to himself as he consulted his

papers. Tina, today you are assigned to the installment team, he

pointed to a group of shifters standing just a few feet away in the shade.

Your group jumps in after weve got the old fence out and the holes

ready for the new one. Be careful, and dont get electrocuted. Or go
ahead and fry your brains out. I dont really care.

His job done, he walked over to the other side of the boundary to

point and laugh at the young shifters as they struggled with the massive

role of fence, the tools meant for digging straight down that theyd never

managed before and that twisted in their hands. Tina watched all of this

with a horrible sense of dread in her stomach.

She looked at her group and saw the young boars there. Whats

this all about? she asked.

Well, good morning to you, too, wolf. The brother boar scoffed at
her and pawed the ground with his foot. Jeez. Why is everyone in this

compound so frikkin rude?

Tina raised her hands in mock surrender. Good morning, friend.

Good to see you. Tell me, what exactly is happening today? I am

uncertain as to why we have been called to work this fine day.

The boar rolled his eyes and crossed his arms before he could bring

himself to answer. Well, wolf, were getting a new fence to make sure

none of us ever leave. This new one is able to shock and kill us if anyone

tries to climb over it or dig under it. And its twice as tall, so the humans
need our help. Obviously.

He turned away from her and left her to contemplate the massive

fence as it was driven in. The boar nudged her with his shoulder and

pointed forward in a non-verbal, Lets go. She sighed deeply to herself

before moving forward. Not only did she have to pen herself in, she had

to be nice about it.

Most of the workers were given gloves, but a few werent. Tina was

one of the shifters without gloves, so she and a few others helped to put

in the base of the fence poles as quickly as they could so the fence team
could drop the posts into their holes and get their hands off the

humming metal as fast as they could.

Hey! The boar brother had been zapped on his leg as he worked

and spun around to face the humans. Turn the dang thing off so we can

get it up. We cant do your job and die at the same time, you stupid

idiots!

The man with the paperwork walked up to the boar so that they

were nose to nose on opposite sides of the fence. Both glared at one

another for a long moment.


You think you can talk to me that way?

Well, if all youre going to do is threaten my life, I see no reason

to be polite.

Huh, the human man said to him. Thats interesting. Thats very

interesting. He signaled to his friends off to the side and they flipped a

switch to turn off the fence. The electricity switched off and everyone

felt the hairs on their arms lay back down on their skin. All of the young

shifters stopped and stepped back as they watched the human and the

boar.
The boar glared at the human and waited for him to make the next

move, but the man didnt do anything. Finally, the boar snorted and

turned to go, but found he was unable to leave.

Whats going on? He looked down and saw that the man had

pulled the tail of his shirt through the holes in the fence and tied them.

He started to untie it and the human grabbed his hands.

Hey, Helen! This kid tells me hes feeling dehydrated. Could you

douse him with some water?

Sure thing. A small woman climbed down from a truck with a


canteen and a big smile on her face. The man stepped aside so that his

friend could douse the boar in water, but he never let go of his victim. A

little water got on his gloves, and he held up a hand to make sure no

electricity flowed into the metal.

Hey, man, Im sorry. I was a jerk. I take it all back. The boar was

now dripping water. His shirt was completely wet and still knotted up in

the fence. He kept trying to untie it, and the man kept grabbing his

hands and pulling on the boars gloves to get them off, and the boar

would pull his hands back. Tina walked forward.


Please, let him go. Just send him home. The rest of us will finish

the fence.

Shut up, you whore shifter! Tina was shocked by the insult, but

she steeled herself and tried again.

You dont have to kill him. He made a mistake. He apologized.

The man glared at Tina as he held the boar. I do what I want when

Im over here on this god-forsaken compound. You got that?

She set her jaw and didnt respond. Instead, she grabbed the boar

and pulled him back hard. The man angrily gestured to his friend with
the switch, and with a loud hum the current was turned back on.

To Tinas complete horror, the current shot through the boars

body and into her hands, clamping them onto his shoulders. In her

hands, he shook and convulsed as the electricity traveled through his

wet clothes and into his body. Smoke came from his head, and his voice

boiled out of him as he was cooked from the inside out. Tina desperately

tried to pull him back to let go, to do anything but the shock traveled

to her as well, and she was at the mercy of the horrible, uncontrollable

force.
Tina felt her heart stop, and for a moment everything went black.

The next thing she knew, she was on the ground as a group of shifters

hovered over her. When her eyes opened, they all started shouting.

Shes awake! Tinas alive!

Oh, thank goodness. Oh, Tina. We were so scared.

Yes! We saved her!

She put a hand to her pounding heart in her chest. What

happened?

The boars sister, who was right at Tinas head where Tina couldnt
see her, filled in the blank. That man killed my brother. She pointed

straight ahead at the human man who was eating a sandwich just on the

other side of the fence. Between the group and the culprit was the dead,

smoking body of the boy boar.

Slowly, Tina rose to stand. Her nerves were a bit jumpy, and her

legs and arms made odd motions as she attempted to walk, but she

continued. She approached the body and looked down.

There at her feet was a shell of a creature. It had arms and legs, but

they were crumbling as if they were made of paper. The sockets where
the eyes had been were now just burnt holes staring up at the sky. The

mouth was open in shock and silently screamed up at Tina as she gazed

down.

The others joined her, the victims sister included.

What was his name? Tina asked her.

Frank. He was my twin brother. Born two minutes ahead of me.

And whats your name?

The girl looked at her with a stern, serious expression. Maya.

Maya, Tina said to her new ally, Im so sorry. I tried to save


him.

Dont. Maya turned to look at the culprits again as they raised

their thermoses in a cheer to the fence. Dont apologize for what those

cretins did. They killed him, not you. Tina looked over towards the

humans with Maya and noticed they were still moving the switch back

and forth, back and forth. Were they hoping to kill someone else?

Tina, one male flier asked, what are we going to do?

You tell me, she said, turning to the kid. Youre the one with

wings.
He smiled at her and quickly shifted. The humans immediately sat

up and paid attention.

You cant do that! Shifter! Back in your human form, now.

Despite the boss yells, the flier, now a blue jay, stayed in his animal

shape. He flapped his wings to up above the fence and then dove across

the space, flying right through the open windows of the truck.

As the humans swatted at the bird and attempted to catch it, other

fliers joined it. Eagles, herons, love birds, swallows they swarmed the

workers. Some nearby adults saw the melee and quickly joined, doing
everything they could to attack the humans in animal form.

Tina motioned to her fellow wolves and got them over to a small

opening where the new fence hadnt be set properly. They each shifted

and slipped through the slim hole, each taking a position near the

human crew until they formed a perfect circle. Tina gave a nod, and the

wolves slowly began to move in.

As a wolf, Tina felt her rage and adrenaline pump like never before.

She lowered her head and let out a long, soft growl. Her ears laid back

against her head, and her tail lowered to let her enemies know she was
aiming straight for their necks.

Wolves! We gotta get outta here! The humans scattered but

werent able to run in a straight line with the birds all over them. The

boss of the group started to get away but hadnt counted on a shoelace

one bird had picked apart. His other shoe found it and pulled, sending

him sprawling out on the ground. There, in the dirt, he came face to face

with the same snake that had taught Tina and her peers all about

amphibians.

The rattle on the snakes tail shook, and the humans face fell. No,
please. She struck and let the venom pour from her fangs and into the

bridge of his nose. She held on as he thrashed through the poison and let

herself be tossed around by his death throes. By the time he stopped, her

back was broken and the two died together.

Tina moved closer to the small woman who had doused the young

boar. She saw her approach as she took cover under a small tree. Back

off, you dirty shifter. Tina didnt listen, she just kept advancing. You

kill me and you go to jail for the rest of your life. They wont even bother

putting you to death. Theyll just let you rot in the presidents jail. Still,
Tina moved closer. The human pushed back against the ground until she

was pressed tightly up against the tree bark. She turned her face and

closed her eyes.

Oh, just get it over with.

With a loud bark, Tina leapt through the air, jaws open.
Chapter 15

Have a seat. Gus motioned to the chair in front of him, and Grey

sat. Gus looked around the office, confirmed that no one else was there,

and then stood to close the door.

The mole took a moment to click off a couple of switches, then

reached under his desk to find something. Whoa! Grey cocked his head

but didnt say anything. Careful there, boy, dont knock into that desk!

As soon as he said it, Gus, slammed against his desk as hard as he could,

then waited a moment. Finally, he sat down and folded his hands on top
of it.

Um, what are you doing?

Im afraid you bumped into my desk and broke my intercom

system, Gus said. And thats a shame, because now I have no way of

recording this conversation or letting anyone else listen in on it. Please

be more careful next time.

Understanding, Grey nodded slowly. He started to ask why the

mole wanted privacy, but something in him told him to just wait a

moment. The mole watched him for a long moment, then slowly opened
a drawer.

He rummaged around for a moment, stopped to glance around the

office yet again, and finally produced a small photo.

That, he said, sliding it across the desk, is your mother. That was

back when the first of the Bachmanns came to power.

Grey grabbed for the photo. In it, he saw his mother as a teenager,

only a bit older than he was at the moment. She had a big smile on her

face, a wrench in her hand, and was standing with several friends. Grey

looked at the faces next to her a little closer.


Wait, he said, pointing. Is that you?

Gus blushed just a little and looked down. I had a big crush on

her. Youll have to forgive me. She was something. Beautiful, smart,

caring. She helped everyone. No one more than my family.

What happened?

Well, when the original president took over the state, she ordered

that all shifters be detained. No one took animal form for almost a year

for fear that they would be arrested on sight. Now, what that president

didnt know was that she was friends with several female shifters, your
mother included.

My mom knew President Evelyn Bachmann?

Gus nodded. She knew her very well. Your mothers family had

raised her just down the street. Back then, the Bachmanns werent

nearly as wealthy as they are now. Evelyn had just loved your mother,

doted on her every moment. But as she rose to power, she turned on

shifters first, convincing the humans that we were dangerous and that

only she and her family could protect them.

What did my mother do?


She was one of the first to suggest that shifters offer to work for

humans. It was meant to be a gesture of friendship. Even as a very

young woman, she understood that it was difficult to hate the shifter

who babysat your children or helped you grow a little food. It worked. At

least, it did for a while.

My family, Gus continued, was the first to be offered a chance to

work directly with the Bachmann family. My father was so proud. He

had one of the first messenger jobs. Then this office was created, and he

was asked to run it. Now I handle everything and take care of him.
Gus smiled, but Grey had a hard time seeing any happiness in that

smile. What happened? Why did the shifters and the humans

separate?

The change got worse. The climate got hotter, the food all got

harder to grow, the water started to dry up. We went from having big,

beautiful rivers to just little trickles that threatened to disappear at any

moment. Before the big well-digging machines came around, humans

and shifters alike were reduced to drinking mud.

Despite our hard work, the shifters were made into a symbol of
negative change, a horrible future. No matter what we did, the humans

and the Bachmanns pushed us away and kept us at arms length.

President Evelyn passed a decree that any shifter could be made to work

for free at a humans command and that pay could only be earned at the

palace or from other shifters. That threw everyone into poverty. Your

family was spared as mine was, but most shifters werent so lucky.

The two new friends sat quietly for a moment, thinking about a

past that would never be fully recovered. Finally, Grey asked Why are

you telling me this?


Because, Grey said, putting his soft, fleshy hand over Greys hard

and rough one, I want you know that you come from brave and resolute

shifters. You have social change in your blood. I see the way Harper

looks at you. Be brave for her. The two of you could really do

something.

Grey sat back in his chair, exhausted. He could picture his mother

standing over him, one hand on his shoulder and smiling the way she

always had when shed needed to be brave. Gus reached under his desk

and felt around for a moment, then clicked on a switch.


Well, Grey, you have your instructions. Keep your head down, say

as little as possible, and just keep doing your job. I trust you can handle

that?

Of course. Thanks, Gus. He made sure to speak clearly and with

enthusiasm so that anyone listening would feel confident that

everything was clicking along. He stood and walked out of the office,

leaving Gus behind.

As Grey walked, he saw security guards ducking and running

through the halls. Several LEOs with massive, black guns crossed his
path. He stopped moving and listened to what they were saying, but they

spoke in so much secret code and so many acronyms that he was unable

to gather any details.

He saw a fellow flier across the hall from him started to walk

towards her, but was stopped by yet another group of gun-toting officers.

He quickly ran across before another group could appear.

Hey, he said quietly, whats going on?

She grabbed his arm. Its the compound. All the shifters who had

to work today went crazy and started attacking the humans in charge.
The president has ordered an attack.

No! He started to run after the soldiers, but the woman grabbed

him and held him with a surprising force.

You cant go, she told him. You have to stay here. Its the only

way youll survive.

But my dad!

She shook her head. Im so sorry, sweetheart. I dont know what

to tell you. She turned to watch the soldiers drive away down the

mountain, then wiped a tear from her cheek. I had better get going.
No, wait! Grey grabbed at her, but she shook him off and clicked

away on her high heels. Grey stood in the empty hallway and listened to

the sound of motors roaring down and away toward his home. He knew

he could shift and fly over to the compound, but the sight of watching

his only remaining family be killed stopped him. What could he do? If

he fought them, he would be murdered as well.

He thought of his mother and her attempts to make peace. He

thought of Harper and Gus. He looked to the exit full of security checks

and then back to the doors leading to Bachmanns offices. Im so sorry,


Dad, he thought and walked through Bachmanns massive, granite

doors.

***THE END***


Book 2: Shifters Love

Chapter One

Every morning when I put on my blue smock with the name of

my school on the breast pocket, my Nene would stop me before I walked

out the door.

God has made you brave, she would tell me, stroking my face.

He marked your face to remind you that will soar over mountains and

burn brighter than anyone else.


I would straighten my back and look into my Nenes bright eyes.

Then, she always patted my cheek, right next to that deep black, oddly-

shaped birthmark that stretched across my face in something that was

almost a star, almost a smear, and then she would give me a loving kiss

goodbye. I believed her when she said these things, and I would face the

taunting children that filled the schoolyard with a straight spine and a

sense of pride.

Larissa! Larissa! Tiny bush girl, Larissa! That was the best they

could come up with that I, their intellectual better, was one of the
pygmy people who were the first to occupy Madagascar, the country of

my childhood. I remember thinking how silly they were, as though I was

an older sister looking at my tiny siblings, but really, we were all the

same age. I never stooped to schoolyard taunts, I got my revenge in the

classroom.

To add 146 to 270, I must focus on the tens. Forty and sixty are

one hundred, the extra ten makes it one hundred ten. Now the

hundreds; one plus two is three. But, I have this extra hundred, I must

carry it over, so now I have four hundred. The ones I left down here on
the floor are still six. I have four hundred sixteen total.

In math class, my skinny, brown arm would shoot up before any

of the older children. I would proudly call out Four hundred sixteen!

and the teacher would smile his soft smile at me, while the others shot

me dirty looks. What did I care? I was the star soaring over the sea and

shining brighter than all of these limited mortals.

One evening, my math teacher, Rakoto, invited my family over

to his house for a dinner. We had pork and white beans, my favorite,

over soft, machine-sorted rice. I remember I marveled at the uniformity


of the white, perfectly steamed grains. At my house, we each had to chew

softly so that we wouldnt crack a tooth on the small stones that came

with hand-sorted rice.

I am so pleased with Larissa, Rakoto told them as they ate

silently. I am sorry we do not have an advanced class to place her in.

However, she can take her finals early and graduate ahead of her group,

if she likes. That would give her time to study with a tutor at home and

increase her chances of attending a university in France.

France. That was a magical word to me. The promise of the


country so far away and, yet, ever-present in my daily island life. The

French had a strong hold on my island for most of my childhood, and

many of our family friends had moved there. I lived for the day I would

sip espresso and nibble on buttery bread on the balcony of my tiny

apartment in Paris. My parents both smiled and winked at me as I

swung my short legs under the table and beamed with pride at my

teachers praise. I was twelve, very small for my age, and couldnt see

that life would have anything like sadness or troubles in store for me.

Which was why it surprised me, when my parents informed me


that I would not be testing out of school. I would go through my

schooling at a normal pace, and I could forget about France.

You monsters! I railed at them and threw my expensive

notebooks out the window so that they landed near the geese we kept.

The whole family of big, white birds joined in the fight with angry honks

as I stomped my foot and loudly reminded my parents that, My teacher

said I should! He says Im the smartest!

My father got down low to the ground and looked into my eyes.

My Larissa, he told me, your teacher is not your father. And we


cannot allow you to stand out like that. If you do this, everyone in the

town will do their best to pull you back down. You know that.

I waited for more reasons as to why I was correct and they were

wrong, to come to me, but all I got were tears pricking the backs of my

eyes. I hated him for not allowing me to be special, but I loved him for

protecting me. Any other father would have slapped me and told me,

Aza melengy-lengy, but my father didnt say that. The expression,

which in English means Dont dream, was never spoken in my house.

Instead, my parents would admonish me to be careful, to watch myself. I


was so young and so foolish. How could I have known how wise they

were when I was convinced that I had all the intelligence I would ever

need?

I returned to school resigned to wallow in the mud with the

simple-minded children that I compared to the single-celled organisms

we drew in our notebooks in biology. In Madagascar, textbooks were far

too expensive and hard to come by. My school did not provide them, so

we drew illustrations, we wrote out paragraphs explaining the nuances

of the universe, and were expected to have handwriting neater than any
child could manage. Many of my classmates refused to write without a

ruler inching down the page line by line, helping them measure their

letters perfectly as they squeezed their words out and down through

their blue and black pens.

I loved school. It was easy and straightforward. We came in,

stood to greet the teacher, then took our seats and copied down

everything that our all-knowing professor wrote on the board. To finish,

we recited the lesson entirely. Easy. So, it confused me when my

classmate, Solo, couldnt seem to handle such a basic process.


Teacher, look!

The class spun around to see Solo crouched over a small fire he

had started with his notebook pages. He didnt even try to run away. He

just smiled at the professor and fell to his knees, ready for his beating.

What an idiot, I thought to myself, completely missing Solos

reasons for causing chaos in such an orderly place. Now, as an adult

looking back, its so clear to me. I wish now that I had spent every free

moment running beside him as he tore over the hills and went full speed

into the ocean. We could have screamed at the waves together. However,
once I was out of the classroom and in the complex and complicated

world, I rarely knew what to do.

Today, as an adult, I watch my new colleagues from my place

outside the shifter compound. When I see the half-animal-half-humans

laboring under the direction of the construction teams, I think of Solo

and his small fires, his willingness to take a beating. If we had all been

smart, we would have used his distraction to run outside and play while

the teacher was busy smacking his hands with a stick, but we did not

skip out or climb the nearby trees. We were good little children and
stayed in our seats.

Good little shifters are what the construction workers have on

their hands now. None of them have the courage or the creativity to start

a fire or create a distraction. Last year, a builder killed a young shifter, a

male boar I believe, and there was a short-lived rebellion. It was sparked

by Tina Traxon, the wolf I like so much, who killed the awful human

that strolled into our compound and took a life, the way only a human

can. Like so many rebellions, Tinas was quickly squashed due to lack of

organization and vision. The young fighters only felt anger, and anger
fades. It is careful planning and an eye to the future that moves a

population forward.

The compound is so different now. The president swept in after

the attempted coup and pretended to broker peace, but all he really did

was get everyone to shut up. He curried favor by building some actual

houses, but they are human houses, and many shifters found they

preferred their wilder, more animal-inspired homes. They put on a show

for the president and moved into their new dwellings, but it was forced

and fake. It made my stomach turn.


Then the new clothes came out. They were clearly stitched

together swatches from our clothing tax that we paid for with the literal

shirts on our backs and everyone ran for the pile of oddly colorful

outfits, grabbing as much as they could without even looking to see what

they had. Everyone was so tired of being exposed to the heat, to

constantly being on display that they didnt care anymore. Clothing was

clothing. When the president proudly announced that the clothing tax

was now null and void, people didnt even clap, for fear of dropping a

shirt or dress that a neighbor could grab.


Finally, a big surprise announcement. I have to admit; President

Bachmann is a showman above all else. He never misses the opportunity

to impress, and he used everyones full arms and calm demeanor to set

the stage for some horrible news.

Friends, he began, Im afraid a horrible crime has been

committed. Now, I have provided so much for all of you, so I cannot let

such an awful thing go unpunished. A price must be paid. Everyone

looked around for Tina Traxon, the wolf shifter and now murderer, and

she stepped forward bravely. Tina looked strong and beautiful in her
remaining strips of clothing, with her sculpted muscles and wild, wavy

hair. She squared her shoulders and faced the president as she awaited

her sentencing. The president took one look at her and suddenly seemed

to have a moment of inspiration. He turned to Black Feather and said,

Take him away.

Before anyone knew what was happening, Black Feather was

surrounded by law enforcers who shocked him with big, metal wands

and made him fall to his knees. They quickly had him shackled and

locked inside the presidents private car. His white, surprised face looked
out with that distinct expression of true, deep shock. His eyes met mine

for just a moment, and my heart sped up so fast that the Earth seemed

to fall away from under my feet.

Black Feathers parents ran up to Bachmann, screaming for their

sons release, but they were quickly dragged to the side and had the first

collars put around their necks. Big, gleaming necklaces that laid flat on

their collarbones were locked around their necks and activated with a

piercing, electric squeal. The two of them froze as if bombs had been

attached to them.
Now, now, Bachmann continued in his bedtime story voice,

we dont want any of that. All I want for my shifter brothers and sisters

is peace and order. Im sure you all agree that murder is illegal. While

Miss Tina Traxon here, he motioned to the shocked and awkward Tina,

may be the one who killed my worker, she is not who I choose to

punish. I want you all to know, he continued, lowering his chin down to

his chest, that when one of you breaks the law, you are all culpable. So,

if I were you Here he paused and put a hand on the shoulder of an

enforcer. I would be spending my time making sure that those around

me are being neighborly. And if theyre not, well, he gestured to the


parents of Black Feather, these lovely necklaces do many things. One of

them is an emergency communication system that will allow us to run

and help anyone who feels threatened by their fellow shifter. And you all

get one.

The law enforcers pulled more collars from their cars and moved

around the crowd, clipping the horrible jewelry on each neck. I shrank to

the back of the crowd and watched as my poor father the man who had

been doomed to roll in a wheelchair the rest of his life and my

powerless mother, by his side, were collared as well. There was a third
collar in the enforcers hand, and I knew it was for me.

That was all I needed to see. I took a note from Solo and used

the distraction to get away as fast as I could. I never looked back. I didnt

say goodbye. I just ran through the last opening in the fence and didnt

look back. No one is making me a link in their chain.

I ran far enough away that I could shift without anyone seeing and

then, in my fossa form, I sped over the ground on my long talons, my leg

muscles pumping harder and harder until I was far away from

everything.
Beyond the compound there is nothing. No rivers or lakes,

almost no small animals making their homes, no one living in old,

crumbling buildings. I used to imagine a society of free shifters out

beyond our borders, but the only thing I found out there was wind and

hard, crusted ground. The surface was a wide, angry face wrinkled with

disappointment. Those before us had a chance to care for the land, but

they rejected it and this was what they left behind a big nothing.

I collapsed down in the Nothing and caught my breath. My fossa

stomach lay on the ground and the heat rising from it relaxed all the
tense muscles inside my gut. I tried to close my eyes and breathe, but

the images of the handcuffs on Black Feathers wrists, the shiny metal

on his parents necks were all I could see. Just the memory was enough

to temporarily asphyxiate me, and I had to stop and remind myself that I

was not the one who was captured, I was not collared or cuffed. I was

free, and yet I was captured. After all, there was no going back now.

Back in Madagascar, in that small town by the sea, I once saw a

worker boat get loose from the dock and glide out into the waves. At

first, its owners tried to chase it. They swam after it, they even jumped in
other boats to try and catch it, but those unpredictable currents in the

Indian Ocean pulled it in every direction, like a mosquito flying away

from swatting hands. They needed that boat; it was valuable, and no boat

meant no seaweed to sell, but they couldnt catch it. Eventually, they had

to let it go, and we all watched as it shrank into the horizon. I often

thought that I would have liked to see that vessel after its journey all

alone. What would it look like after sailing on its own volition?

I asked my father if the sailors would accept the boat and take it

home after its return, and if they would be happy to see it. He said it all
depended on the state of it; if its hull was cracked or there was rot in the

wood, they would break it apart and use it for firewood. If it was whole

and useful, they would sail with it again.

Whole and useful. The phrase rang in my head as soon as he said

it. It came back to me, as I rolled onto my fossa back and glared at the

sun as it glared angrily back down at me. I was not whole and had not

been for a long time. And I certainly was not useful not to the

compound. I didnt even feel like a member of this strange, cobbled

together community anymore.


So, I turned my attention to the towering mountain that

protected our political leaders and would soon hide Black Feather in the

ground beneath. That mountain seemed to call my name. Maybe I

wasnt whole or useful anymore, but if that was the case, perhaps a

useless being, such as myself, could worm her way through the cracks

and between the stones that separated an innocent boy from freedom.

Why had the president wanted Black Feather? Did it matter? Did it have

something to do with his daughter, Harper? I was sure that it did.

Perhaps the fact that Black Feather was a handsome young man. Maybe

that he was cunning and knew how to get others to do his bidding, made
Bachmann grab him. Maybe the president had other plans that I couldnt

even begin to imagine.

My fossa senses kicked in, and I spotted a small, brown mouse

one hundred yards away. I slowly rose and prowled across the hard

ground, nose twitching at the scent of its little heart beating and the tiny

veins flowing with warm blood. I stopped a few feet away and lay in the

dust to wait patiently as it rose on its hind legs to smell the air, then

venture forward. I held my position and waited, but the mouse seemed

to sense me. So, I pretended to have no interest in the little thing. I


rolled onto my back as if I were full, too full to worry about such a tiny

morsel of food.

The mouse grew braver and moved closer to the patch of land,

where I appeared to be soaking in the sun and scratching my back. I

even let my eyes close to slits and my face relax into the fossa equivalent

of a smile. To my surprise, the little mouse put its tiny paws on my side

and lifted itself up to inspect me for a moment, then dropped back to the

ground.

Again, I waited, smelling the tiny thing and marveling at how it


underestimated me. When it was just a few inches away, I allowed my

full body weight to send me around, and down, and I brought all my

anger onto the little creature. It didnt even have time to let out a shriek;

it died with its mouth open just seconds before I scooped it up and

plopped it into my jaws.

The dusty mouse nourished me enough to let me go exploring a

bit further. I walked all around and headed toward some large boulders.

There, I found a small cave where I could sleep safely in either form. A

little bit of grass had sprung up in the shade, but there was no water.
Perhaps some hid under the ground, but I was too tired to dig.

I slipped into the darkness and let the cool, deep air slide over

my skin. I was suddenly so exhausted I could hardly think, and my brain

just switched off and left me alone, so that I could exist solely as a

creature of blood, skin, bone, and a never-ending heartbeat.


Chapter Two

I stayed out in the Nothing for a few weeks, acclimating myself

and hoping the law enforcers would write me off as dead. No one came

out to where I was, and no one would. It was a dangerous trek, and one

could easily become lost in the endless, flat land with nothing but the

horizon and blinding heat in every direction. I had to learn the

movements of the air and the shifts in the Earth in order to survive, and

I listened to every rock and studied every bug I came across. They had

been there much longer than I, and, surely, had more expertise than I
could ever hope to have.

I learned to stay up late into the night and use the stars in the

sky to direct me around the Nothing. While the Earth was full of secrets,

the stars revealed everything and spelled out their directions across the

sky. All I had to do was look for the warriors spear above my little home,

and I could journey, in the same direction of its flight, to the well I

found in a patch of soft ground. The water in it was surprisingly cold. A

small cluster of bright stars I named them the Children helped me

get to the ant hill where I would find the little morsels slowly making
their way home and I could eat until I was full. The stars helped me

chart out the way to the presidents mountain, the area free of snakes,

and even the way back home to the compound. Not that I was going. I

just wanted to know.

I learned to sleep during the hottest part of the day in my fossa

form. I was too scared to sleep in my human form; I would have been

more recognizable. Of course, anyone who was, even a little, educated

would spot the Malagasy fossa in the wrong part of the world and

become highly suspicious, but I doubted they would approach me. Life
in such a sparse environment was making me very agile as a hunter. I

had always loved running and climbing, but there had never been much

call for me to kill my dinner before that strange time of exile. However,

hunting suited me, and I made sure to hunt at least one thing every day,

even if it was a tiny bug slowly trundling along in the dirt.

To hunt something was to know it entirely. I could smell and

almost taste my prey from very far away. I learned not to chase, but to

observe for a long time before making any moves. I waited for the thing

I was following to make mistakes; it would get tired; it would miss the
small reserve of water; it would stay in the sun just a little too long. I

crept up softly and slowly, making sure to roll my paws along the Earth

so that I moved with it and not against it. I never ran unless the thing I

was hunting gave chase. Energy was for saving, not spending, and I kept

my budget in check.

At the end of the night, when the morning light pushed its way

up into the sky and the threat of intense heat stared me in the face, I

didnt feel fear. Instead, I would rise and stand in human form so I could

sing the traditional welcome song of Madagascar, the one I had heard
my mother sing when her sister came back to her after so many years

apart, the one we sang to the American delegation, the last people to call

themselves Americans. I raised my head and sang that melody that was

meant to be so warm and open, and yet always sounded so sad and lost.

As I sang, I walked back to my little enclave where I would spend the

daylight hours fast asleep in fossa form yet again. I was hardly ever

human in those days.

When I slept, I dreamed of Tina and my family. They were the

only ones to truly understand me, to not demand that I act like everyone
else. I would dream of the day my mother made me a gown out of the

papery papaya leaves from the tree in front of our house. I had been so

little and scrawny that the long, ovular shapes covered me completely. I

would dream of laughing with Tina and the way her face would light up

with a funny story. Tina seemed to constantly forget that she was a

prisoner and came from one of the poorest shifter families in the

compound. I always loved that about her, that she just didnt care.

And after shuffling through the familiar faces, I would dream of

Black Feather. Black Feather with his mussed hair, his piercing eyes, and
his constant smirk. Id always felt drawn to him, but nothing had ever

happened. He was too much of a jerk, too presumptuous. I hated the

way he thought every girl wanted him, and hated him even more any

time some poor female threw herself at him. Yes, he was handsome, but

there was no reason for him to be so bold about it. After all, I thought, I

was gorgeous, but I didnt go around bragging to all the average girls.

Why would I?

So, I would sleep with Black Feathers face in my mind, and then

I would see it get buried under piles of dirt and rock. Even in my sleep,
he was a prisoner locked deep inside a mountain and all I could do was

claw at the surface and scream. I had to free him, but I saw no pathway

that led to his cell. I was lost.

Because I had no road that led to him, I stayed where I was. I

hunted, I learned the stars, and I sang. When I slept, it was to explore

the mountain in my dream. I begged my subconscious for help; there

had to be some way inside that I could use, but I just couldnt see it. I

kept my eyes closed and prayed for some new nugget of truth to emerge

from the dark.


One night, in human form, I walked across the desert. I looked

up and saw the Children. They were burning so brightly, that I staggered

a bit in my steps. My stagger stubbed my toe against a small rock that I

had never noticed before. It jutted out of the ground like a knife, and I

realized I had a small river of blood coming out of my big toe. I sighed;

an injury always set me back a few days. I got angry at the rock that had

cut me so easily, and I reached down to pull it out, but it was much

bigger than I realized.

I tried to loosen it from the ground by rocking and wiggling a


little in each direction, but nothing worked. I had softened the ground a

bit, but there was no progress with the rock. It must be huge, I thought.

Leaving it behind, I went off to the water hole to wash my foot. I

bandaged my foot with some soft grass, then carefully walked back to

the rock, and sat down to contemplate it.

Pulling it up was useless. I was at an enormous disadvantage;

the rock had all this earth holding it down. So to lift it up, I had to fight

not just the rock, itself, but the Earth as well. Why was I fighting this

Earth that had taught me so much? Maybe there was something else it
wanted to show me.

I used my hands to brush away the first few centimeters of dirt

and saw that the rock spread out and down. If I wanted to lift it, I would

have to dig in the ground until I could get under the massive thing and

then lift it out of the ground. I crossed my arms and consulted the sky.

The first stars I saw were the spear in its flight, and I looked to

the target it pointed at. Could there be something useful that way? I

shifted to my fossa form and walked slowly in the direction that the

spear flew. I was hunting, but this was the first time I didnt know what I
was tracking. I had this feeling in my gut, the same feeling I would have

as a child when a distant relative was about to arrive for a visit.

Something was close, something was calling me. And I had to see what

was under that giant rock.

My father had given me odd missions back when we lived on the

shores of Tamatave, Madagascar. There, he would look out into the

horizon and say something like, There is a man in a dark hat standing

out there. He knows something that you dont know. Go find out what it

is. Then I would run out the door and go, full speed, to the man in the
black hat, yelling out Uncle! Uncle, tell me your secrets!

Of course, it was always an acquaintance of my fathers. The new

person would scoop me up and teach me something about the seashells

and the whorls the sea had formed inside them, or tell me why the

sunset painted the sky with so many colors. Sometimes, my new person

would be a storyteller and tell me about a kidnapped princess or a

beautiful warrior who saves her fathers legacy with her courage. I liked

stories about people who may or may not have existed, but what truly

captivated me was the real world and how it functioned.


That an ocean would take the time to carve out a small seashell

was fascinating to me. Or that sunlight could be bothered to refract into

purples and pinks as it faded away was something I always marveled at.

The natural world seemed to be the most unpredictable and strangest

character of them all so vicious and unforgiving one moment, and so

soft and lovely the next. I drank it up.

Father, I asked one day, have you ever been in the snow?

No, my darling, he answered me. The snows dont fall on

Earth anymore. He said this casually as if it were the most mundane


detail he could pass along, but it stopped me in my tracks. The snow no

longer fell? What was he talking about?

But Father, I insisted, my little legs struggling to keep up with

his long, strong strides as we walked, Ive seen images of snow on the

network. We learned about it in school. Isnt there snow somewhere?

What you have seen, he explained, is from the past. Before the

Earth became too warm. That was back when the oceans had fish so

large no boat could hold them, back when people had to buy special

clothing to keep out the cold. I remember being very small and having to
wear a thick sweater my mother made, so that I would not catch a chill.

Now, no one wears them. The Earth is getting hotter and hotter, so the

snow cant fall.

But, I crinkled up my little eyebrows and looked up at him with

consternation, where did the snow go? Did it find a cold place?

He reached down and stroked the black star on my face as he

always did and smiled. I dont know, darling. I only know that its not

here anymore. We humans made a mistake, and so weve lost something

very important and special to us. We cant do that again. Its important
to cherish what we have.

He reached down and took my hand to walk me over to the little

boat that he used to farm his long, shiny plants from the sea, and we sat

inside it. He used his long paddle to push us off, and we drifted and

bobbed out into the water. I watched as he checked on his plants and

harvested the longer, stronger stalks. I thought about a picture I had

seen in school of an ocean full of fish and coral. It must have been a

beautiful thing, something so beautiful that the humans around it

gobbled it up.
I thought of a video we saw of a man using explosives to kill all

the fish around him and bring them to the surface, and I remembered

how angry that video had made me. He didnt seem to realize what he

was really doing blowing up the ocean, pulverizing it so that no one

could fish in that spot again. On the screen, the man just smiled and

gave a thumbs up as if he were incredibly intelligent. I felt a slow, angry

burn in my chest at the sight of his joy. It was thoughtless people like

him who had reduced us to eating weeds from the sea. I lived right by

the ocean my whole life, and I had never tasted a single fish.
My questions about the snow inspired my father to take me to a

cold place. He carried me into a cold storage where his friend worked

with different chemicals that had to be kept at very cold temperatures. I

shivered as my father walked me to the different displays of test tubes

and beakers, and I held on to him tightly. I loved the lab, but the cold

was something I had never contended with before and it frightened me.

He, and the scientist we visited, chuckled at my fear, and she held her

hands out for me to jump into her arms. I did gladly, and she gave me

more details about the compounds she was working with to help people

stay healthy in the changing world, to create foods from new sources,
and look at chemicals differently.

I fell asleep in my fathers arms as he carried me home, my head

full of new facts but one more important than any: it was important to

change the way I looked at things as often as possible. Otherwise, I

would take things like the ocean and the weather for granted and start to

eat them up as if they would never disappear. I had to change my

perspective and keep things turning and remind myself that nothing was

permanent. Not even me.

Thinking of this as I approached my tiny water source in the


Nothing, I tried something. I stopped walking and shifted into human

form. I put my hands on the ground, kicked my feet into the air, and

stayed up on my hands. Now, I was looking backwards at where I had

come and seeing the Nothing from an odd, upside down view. The

Nothing looked very different from here. I staggered forward on my

hands a bit and forced my head forward, but that was too painful. I

turned on my hands so that I was going the other way. Walking on my

hands, I approached the water source and looked beyond it.

For the first time, I saw the rise of the ground and the shape of
it. It was like a spade an old gardening tool that my mother had used

to grow her scraggly little vegetables. She had worked with the hard

earth. How would she have gotten that rock out?

I gently kicked my legs down and stretched up to the sky,

imagining the huge rock in my hands, weightless and floating up to the

sky. If only I were a magical being, but I am a scientist. A biologist and

non-believer, despite the fact that my own body changes from human to

animal. After all, magic is just a misunderstood science. Maybe one day

rocks will drift overhead, but that night I needed to let go of my dreams
and work with facts.

I wandered back a little on my hands, a little bit on my feet

to curl up and sleep in my little hovel. I sang the welcome song

backwards, all the words in the wrong order, to let the Earth know I was

seeing it in a new way. I fell asleep with my feet up and my head down,

in hopes of changing my currents and my personal flow. And then, I

dreamed.

I floated over the shifter compound and hovered low over Tina

as she slept. Black Feather was there, free, but wandering restlessly
around the empty space. Everyone was out cold in their beds and

completely unaware of the angry, young man in their midst. He looked

up and saw me in the sky and gave me his overly-confident smirk at

first, then dropped the act.

Larissa, he called up to me, LarissaLarissa

I tried to ask him how I could come to get him, how I could

reach him through the tons and tons of earth that he was buried in, but

I couldnt speak. All I could do was listen.

The key is underneath, he continued. You have to find it. You


have to find me. Dont leave me alone. Please. The key is underneath.

With a gasp, I rushed to the surface of my consciousness and sat

up with a gasp. I was sweating terribly and felt shaky from the effort of

dreaming. I couldnt believe how desperately I needed a drink of water;

my whole body screamed for just a few drops of water. The sun was high

in the sky. It was the hottest part of the day; there was no way I could

walk all the way across to the water. Not in the burning sunlight, not

without my stars.

So, when I stood and started walking out into the scalding
daylight, I wasnt quite sure what I was doing. I moved slowly and saw

my handprints in the Nothing from the night before. The fingers of my

own hands pointed to the water, and I followed them in as straight a line

as I could. My feet dragged as I forced myself to walk. I couldnt

remember the last time I had sweated so profusely, the last time I had

burned so thoroughly under the sun. Living at night had taken away any

tolerance of the heat, and my body begged me to find some shadow or

shade. But there were no dark spaces between me and the water; I had to

brave the white-hot desert.


As I walked, I swore I could see the heat rippling the air like the

old corrugated metal roofs of my country. Sweat dripped into my eyes

and stung terribly, making me stop and bend over to blink it away as

much as I could. I straightened up only to find myself back where I

started. I walked a little faster.

The water source seemed to hover above me for hours, though it

was probably only a few minutes. I made my way to the water and

collapsed just a few feet shy of my goal. Digging my fingers into the dirt,

I crawled to the clear liquid and dunked my head into my drinking water,
completely oblivious to all the dirt and sweat I was putting into the

formerly crystal clear liquid. I lifted my head out and threw it back so

that the cool rivulets could travel down my neck and back, then went

down again to drink.

I had never been so thirsty. I was like a creature possessed; no

amount of water seemed to be enough. I kept drinking, unable to take a

break or stop myself, and soon my stomach was swelling with the excess

of water. I stopped to catch my breath and then dove in again. I did that

over and over, shocked at the burning thirst I felt in my throat. Was I
sick? I wasnt the kind of person who came down with this or that

illness. Id always been a resilient child. Perhaps I was finally

capitulating to my mortality out here in the desert.

As I thought about the possibility of having an illness, I stopped

to feel my forehead and do a mental scan of my insides. No warning

signs. I closed my eyes and listened to myself breathe; my lungs were

normal.

When I opened my eyes, I saw the water a little differently. In

front of me was the small well. Now I saw a bit more clearly where it
came from. One side of the well was a sheer plane of rock that led

sharply down into the ground, just like the one I had become so

interested in the night before. I put my hand against the rock and slid it

down until I was up to my armpit in the water. It went all the way down

to my fingertips and there, at the bottom, the rock lifted and presented a

great, cold chasm. I gaspedcould it be? Was I just on top of a great,

underground cave with its own lake?

I had heard stories of places like this great bodies of water

hiding just under the ground. I looked at the water again and desperately
tried to think of a way that I could take some air with me to the bottom,

but I had nothing. Inspired all the same, I jumped up and ran back to my

shady spot between the rocks and grabbed a white piece of dolostone

and used it to draw out a plan. Where could an outlaw like me get some

diving gear? And, was there any chance this waterway could lead me

underneath the Earth all the way to the presidents mountain? Perhaps

this was the key Black Feather told me about in my dream. There was a

chance. It was a tiny, miniscule chance, but I had to try.

I slept the rest of the day. The whole time I was asleep I had a
smile on my face.

***

That night, I started the first phase of my plan. I had to get some

kind of gear and take it back to my water hole. So, that meant I needed a

trip to the city.

I kept my human form and made myself more male. The fossa is

one of the few animals that can change genders, and luckily for me, this

ability has affected my human appearance as well. With a flat chest,


broad shoulders, and a strong jaw, I walked out of the desert and toward

the east side of the city. I didnt know what I was looking for exactly, but

I knew if I kept myself alert and aware that something would appear to

me.

I came up on the first set of buildings and was surprised to see

that they were apartments. Usually, humans dont like to live too far

apart. Maybe they were finally a little sick of one another. I walked

through the buildings as casually as I could, telling myself to be broken

and useless, someone no one wanted. A few people turned their heads to
look at me, but I just sailed by at a casual lope, and they went back to

their conversations.

Reminding myself to breathe, I continued down the street. I

thought I heard a voice that I recognized, but I shook my head no. It

couldnt be. But it was; the one and only Tina Traxon was there about

two yards ahead of me and hiding between two old buildings, no collar to

speak of and talking animatedly with a human.

How many more of these can I get? she was asking.

Hard to say, the guy responded. I have to make them myself. I


cant recruit anyone else to help. Too dangerous.

Maybe, we could work something out She moved a little

closer to him, and he pushed her away.

I dont want to get with some dirty shifter. Arent you, like, a

dog or something?

A wolf. Look, tell me what you need to make your life a little

easier, and I will do what I can.

At this point, I was a bit closer and looked over at Tina to see if

she would recognize me. It had been a while since we had seen one
another, and she didnt recognize me at first. I put my hand up with all

five fingers extended, our old greeting, and she froze. She gave me a tiny,

non-verbal no and focused on the guy in front of her.

I guess I would like to have a shifter at a party.

What? She stepped back in surprise. I thought we were dirty.

Yeah, but if word gets out I got one or two shifters into a human

party, that would be a big deal for me. Like, some real credentials.

Tina snapped her fingers as she thought of a solution. What

about a shifter band? We have a great group of musicians on the


compound. They shift as they play. Youll love them.

Oh, whoa! That would be insane. He laughed a little as he

shook his head in wonder. You shifters always surprise me. You get me

that band for the 14th of next month, and Ill de-collar five more. Deal?

Deal. Tina held her hand out to shake on it, but the guy just

looked at her hand and then moved away. She let her limb fall and

sighed. The guy shed made the deal with passed me without a second

look; I was sitting on the ground as if Id fallen asleep out in the open. I

drew no attention. After I heard his footsteps fade off into the distance, I
stood and found Tina standing just over me.

So, she said, that little half-smile-half-smirk of hers on her

face, still practicing this great vanishing act of yours.

Yes. No one is putting a collar on me. I quickly threw my arms

around her in a big hug and held her for a long time. She squeezed me

right back. It was amazing to have contact with someone else after all

that time alone in the desert. She felt like a cool drink of water after all

the heat I had withstood for hours on end. I smelled her hair and

recognized the apple-scented soap that she always used at the


compound.

Where is your collar? I asked her, pulling away. She smiled and

moved her shoulders from side to side to show me the lack of metal.

That guy I was talking to, has a device that unlocks them

without setting off any alarms. You just put it in your bed or somewhere

in your house and the government thinks youre sleeping or just

wandering around your home. Its great. The only bad thing is you cant

keep it off for more than eight hours or else they get suspicious. Of

course, now I owe a massive favor to a total jerk, but its worth it.
Everyones tired of being locked up in their own house.

Its still a shackle. The shifters should revolt. No one should put

up with any of this.

She rolled her eyes at my insolence. Larissa, you know everyone

is too scared. Bachmann has everyone under his thumb. The only people

who even consider standing up to him are the losers I dig up in the city,

and theyre all separated and, well, unpleasant. She paused and then

added, What are you doing here?

Looking for something.


She cocked her head at me. What are you looking for?

I dont know yet. So, Im looking.

She sighed and put her hands on my shoulders. Are you

hungry?

I nodded, and she turned me so that we walked further toward

the city looking for all the world like a couple on a date. We made our

way further south into the heart of the city where we could peruse the

street vendors. I could smell roasted meat and toasted breads. My

stomach rumbled so loudly that Tina and I had to suppress a giggle at


the sound. We found an outdoor collection of plastic tables and chairs

and then kept walking until we were just a few feet away and able to

duck behind a tall, crumbling building.

Ready?

Tina nodded. Ready.

I wandered out to the vendor and consulted his menu of pictures

as if I were undecided. Hey, hows it going, I said, focusing on the little

images.

Not bad. Just working. Let me know what I can get you.
Sure, just give me a second. I stroked my chin and kept my

gaze forward as a scream let loose from behind me.

Wolf! Wolf! Everyone, who was eating, suddenly sprang up

and ran away as Tina charged forward, foaming at the mouth and

growling like a wild thing. I quickly ran over to a table full of food and

grabbed everything I could as she ran off in the direction wed come, and

I took off after her. I found her on a park bench with her legs crossed

and a big smile on her face.

Hi, honey. Did you pick up dinner?


I laughed and tossed her a couple of sandwiches. Sure did. Dig

in. I sat next to her and bit into my own food. I had to force myself to

eat slowly and not make myself sick. A few people passed the abandoned

tables and saw us on the bench, but no one made the connection. Some

even did the same, helping themselves to barely touched food so as to

not see it go to waste. Another couple sat across from us and, after a

moments hesitation, we resumed our talk in a whisper.

Where have you been?

Out beyond the compound. In the desert.


Doing what?

I filled Tina in on everything I had been focused on, all the trials

and tribulations of living in the Nothing. I let her know I thought there

was a great underground body of water but I had no way of traveling it

without some kind of apparatus. I didnt even know the name of what I

needed; I just knew I couldnt do it with the air in my lungs.

She listened patiently as she chewed her food and then nodded

slowly. Okay. I think I know what youre looking for.

Whats it called?
I dont know the name, she said, cuddling up to my side to

maintain the appearance of being my girlfriend out with me for a date,

but I know where it is. Lets go for a walk.

We stood up and threw our refuse in the recycling bins. We

watched our garbage get sucked down the bin vacuum and then moved

on. She pointed me in the direction of the shopping district, and we

walked arm in arm into the heart of enemy territory. A law enforcer rode

by on his motorcycle and didnt even turn his head at the sight of us.


Chapter Three

The first time I shifted was the first time my mother slapped me.

I was fifteen, far older than most shifters who discover their abilities by

accident. I dont know what had taken me so long; perhaps it was my

devotion to my studies or my constant efforts to control the world

around me. Whatever the reason, I spent fifteen years believing that I,

and the people around me, were human.

At the time, there was a kind of witch hunt happening in

Madagascar. Humans who found an animal they believed to be a shifter


brought them to the local church to have the minister inspect it. Most of

the time, they were just normal animals; little birds, innocent lemurs, or

large, shiny bugs that had never shifted, but the priest always declared

the creature demonic or evil. And then, it was killed.

I always felt sad at the pronouncements by the priests at the

church. I somehow knew that they were wrong, but I also understood

that it was not my place to correct these loud, enthusiastic men. I

couldnt; they had devoted themselves to cultivating fear and unrest. If I

went against them, I would surely have a horrible fate myself.


One day, a farmer found an actual shifter. It was a snake he had

discovered out among the cassava, and he caught it in a bag and brought

it to the church. Just as the priest approached the bag, the snake

transformed into a young boy. He couldnt have been older than six and

had big, shining tears in his eyes. I remember the shock I felt at hearing

the story; no one I knew went anywhere near snakes. That day, I saw a

boy who could actually be one.

Through his hiccupping cries, the child explained that he hadnt

known he could be a snake. It was an accident. He didnt want to hurt


the farmer, he just found himself in need of a warm place and saw a nice

rock in the field. He was just going to lie there and wait until he changed

back, but the farmer caught him first. He explained that he was a true

believer and didnt want to be a shifter anymore, adding that he would

do whatever the priest told him to so that he could stop this horrible

thing inside him.

My son, the priest said, putting his hand on the young boys

head, there is only one way we can help you.

Please, he said, I want to be good. What must I do?


You must stand there and not move. The priest moved away

and let the angry mob of frightened people rush in on the young man

and tear him limb from limb. I watched from the edges and made sure to

keep my eyes dry. Inside, my heart was breaking, but outside I was silent

and still just like that little boy had been in his final moments of life.

So, shifting had never been something I had dealt with. I

thought it was a problem for the other people of my village, not me. Why

bother stressing over something that wasnt a part of my life? I saw no

point.
One day, I was out watching some of the other children swim. I

was reading up in the branches of a tree as they splashed and teased one

another.

Youre a shifter! Youre going to turn into a fish and bite me!

I am not! Youre the shifter. You become underpants and live

on peoples butts.

I rolled my eyes at the sound of all of this, but the eyeroll didnt

end. My pupils got stuck up at the top of my eye socket and wouldnt

come back down. Slowly, the book I had been so engrossed in slid from
my legs and fell to the grass beneath me. I tried to cry out for help, but I

had no voice. I gripped the tree and was horrified to realize I had long,

sharp claws that were digging into the bark. My vision became new and

sharper; everything around me was suddenly more dazzling and detailed,

and I could smell each individual thing around me as layers on top of

layers as opposed to one outdoor scent.

No one noticed my new shape as I stayed in the tree. In just a

moment, I was covered in fur, had long, sharp teeth for hunting and

strong, spry limbs for climbing, jumping, and running. I tried to stay
calm, but my heart was going insane. What had happened? What did this

mean? I tried to breathe, but each breath carried the scents of the small

creatures around me, and none of them smelled anything less than

mouthwatering.

Even in my animal form, I knew that I had to hide myself, to get

out of that situation as quickly as I could. I waited until the children in

the water were watching a boat pull in and waving, before I jumped from

the tree and sprinted off in the opposite direction. From behind me, I

heard a yell of Fossa! from one of the women who had come down to
wash her clothes, but I didnt stop. I just ran, and ran, and ran.

I went out into the forest near my home and climbed a mango

tree as high as I could go. Then I held myself very still and listened.

It didnt take long for several people to knock on my familys

front door and demand to see me. We believe your daughter is a fossa

shifter, one man said. My father shook his head and explained that it

was impossible; I was a teenager, after all, and shifters revealed

themselves much younger. He said I had not come home; perhaps I had

encountered a shifter. This made everyone panic and run off to arm
themselves against the phantom creature in the village.

After they were gone, my father emerged from the house again,

but he didnt seem to go anywhere. My father was a tall, muscular man

with a strong stance. Years of hard, physical labor had sculpted his

muscles into a beautiful, high-relief, each sinew a story of struggle and

victory. I watched as those muscles lengthened and changed into the

same shape mine had taken on and gasped at the sight of my father in

fossa form as well.

Once fully animal, he prowled toward my tree and smelled it.


Then he looked up and flicked his ears at me. He didnt growl or bare his

teeth, he just lay on the ground and waited for me to join him.

I climbed down carefully, keeping an eye and an ear out for my

hunters, but saw no one. When I reached the ground, he was already

changing back. I sat and watched him as he slowly rolled into a standing

posture, fully human once more. Larissa, he said in his human voice,

you must change back as well.

I closed my eyes and demanded that I take on a human shape,

but I felt nothing change. When I opened my eyes again, I was the same,
but now I could see both of my parents looking down at me. My mother

was decidedly angrier than my father.

You change back right now, you horrible girl! My father

reached out to calm her but she smacked his hand away. Do you have

any idea what youve done? Well never be able to live here again!

The sadness in my heart pushed through so powerfully that it

brought me back into a human state. I wiped the tears away and looked

at my mothers human face as she gaped at mine.

Your star, she whispered, its gone. She stepped forward to


touch my face in the place where my birthmark had been all those years,

and I felt the new, smooth skin that hand formed under her hand. She

gave me a sharp slap and knocked some more tears loose.

To my father, she said, We have to leave. Get your things.

Without a word, we followed her inside to pack a small bag each.

We left all our lovely furniture, our television, and our stereo in their

original places. My father penned a letter to whomever might find it,

explaining that he and my mother had run away to the new country to

get away from this house. It was too full of memories of their daughter,
who had, he explained in his writing, surely been the victim of a horrible

shifter. He folded the letter in half, tucked it under a paperweight, and

we were off.

My star never came back. I remember how shocking it was to

suddenly have young men smiling at me. No man had ever looked my

way before the mark disappeared. They had all seen my massive black

mark as some kind of proof that I was dirty or unlucky or some such

nonsense. I, meanwhile, had never given human attraction, or any kind

of relationship with a boy, any thought. Suddenly, the opportunity was


presenting itself left and right, and I didnt quite know what to do.

My family and I spent our entire savings on three plane tickets

to the new country. We were on the plane for over fifteen hours, and I

thought I would go completely insane, but I kept my brains in my head

and landed safely with my parents in the open field that, at the time,

served as an airport. From there, we learned of the new shifter laws and

applied for some kind of housing.

We went from a gorgeous house on the beach to a decrepit

apartment. At least they didnt hunt us down or chant for our blood. At
least we could say what we were. However, we couldnt show that we

knew how to read, and school was suddenly off-limits to me. That was

until The Hills and the new regime. As soon as I came to The State, I

knew something stunk. The overlord of a president, the bizarre living

restrictions combined with work expectations I didnt know which way

was up for a long time. My parents suffered greatly. Not only were they

shifters, they were foreign shifters, so most humans would cover their

childrens eyes at the sight of my mother and father. Even members of

the shifter community wouldnt talk to us before The Hills.


***

Hey, daydreamer, Tina said, slapping my arm, whered you

go?

I shook the memories out of my head and looked over at her

with my softest smile. Sorry, just remembering home.

The Hills? You miss it?

No. My smile fell immediately with her lack of knowledge of a

past that wasnt hers. Unfair, I know, but I couldnt seem to help myself.

Why did everyone seem to think I had just magically appeared in their
country? Even my accent didnt seem to tip anyone off.

Whats up? Tina could tell I wasnt happy and asked the

question cautiously. I relaxed and put my arm around her shoulders.

Nothing, my wolf. Just remembering things from a long time

ago. Back when I was small on the outside and too big for this world on

the inside. Did I ever tell you I used to have a black star on my face?

No. Her face lit up. Its unusual for me to share details of my

life with others, but life alone had softened me a bit. She was a rapt

audience of one while I described my former life, my enormous ego, and


my aspirations of living in the magical land of France. She didnt laugh

or roll her eyes, she just listened. Thats why I love Tina so much; she

just accepts shifters and humans as they are. She never tries to one up or

change anyone. Shes a true star.

Soon, we had walked a couple of miles and had come up behind

some odd shops and stalls. We walked through them slowly as if we

were looking for something for an educator. At one little hole-in-the-

wall spot, Tina stopped and gestured for me to follow her in.

I stepped through the crooked, rotted doorway and was hit with
the smell of dust and aging metal. All around me, packed into the walls,

hanging from the ceiling and piled in the back were all manner of

apparatuses that were all metal of some kind. I had no names for most

of the strange gadgets in front of me, but they fascinated me all the

same. Tina walked among the madness with her hands in her pockets as

if she were strolling to a neighbors house. I picked my way through

gingerly, certain the mountain of stuff would topple and crush me at any

moment.

Hi there. We looked up to see a squat human male with a kind


of lamp on his head. The light washed out the details of his face as he

shone his intense beam of light on us, but when he clicked it off, I could

see a round and friendly face. I blinked until my pupils shrank down a

bit, but it took a moment before I could see properly.

Hello. Tina extended her hand to the short male, but he didnt

accept it.

Huh. Havent seen anyone like you two in here before. He

crossed his arms and leaned back. Tina and I froze; two what? Neither of

us spoke, so we just waited to see if he would call in the law


enforcement or demand we leave. He didnt do either.

Two shifters away from The Hills. How did that happen? He

sat on a tiny stool behind what looked like a random pile of metal but

turned out to be a welded sculpture. I reached out to touch it and was

surprised at how messy his seams were. My father could have done

something truly great with all that material.

Were looking for something. Something unique. I looked up at

him, into his beady little eyes, and he started to sweat a little. I moved a

tiny step closer. Weve lost a valuable piece of jewelry down at the
bottom of a well. We need a way to get down there and take some air

with us. Can you help?

Oh, he said, hopping down, you want whats called scuba gear.

Stay here. He scuttled off into the back and left me to look at Tina with

wide, shocked eyes. Why was he helping us? She just shook her head

and shrugged. Who knew?

Our odd little friend returned with a heavy, oblong tank

connected to a kind of tube and strange piece of plastic with a rubber

strap around the back. He set them down and reached up for two odd flat
pieces of plastic that looked like big letter Vs. I reached for the supplies,

but he held them back.

Ah, ah, ah. Not so fast. Im helping you two, maybe someone

can help me.

I waited, but he didnt continue. Tina stepped forward and

leaned her torso down onto a table. What did you have in mind? she

asked, smiling a little.

Well, I think you know. How about we go in the back andwell,

you two show me how you He lowered his voice to a whisper,


Become your other selves.

I was still lost, but Tina sighed with a resignation. Youre a

watcher?

He nodded, a huge smile across his face. Right this way. He

gestured to the back and Tina gave me a look to let me know it would be

okay. Shaking my head, I picked my way through the rubble to follow

the short man and my friend to some hidden space in the back of the

shop.

As we entered, the space cleared, and I realized we were in a kind


of house. It wasnt anything impressive, just a cot, a little stove for

cooking, and a tin bathtub for bathing. The short man leaned my things

against the wall and then pulled up a strange chair that had no back to it.

After he sat down, he cranked himself up high enough that we were eye

to eye. Roll me back a little, will you?

I complied, though I still didnt know what was happening. Tina

stayed where she was in the center of the room. I stayed near the man

after I rolled him over which seemed to irritate him. Go over by her!

Do it together, he demanded.
Though I was put off by his attitude, I decided to comply and go

stand next to Tina. She tilted her head and smiled, and to my complete

shock, began to take off her shirt.

Can you put on some music?

Oh, yes, he sighed and reached out to hit play on some old

machine that I recognized from childhood. It played odd little plastic

rectangles of music, things called cassettes, and a slow, deep sound came

from its speakers. He leaned back and seemed very excited. Take your

time. I want to see every part of the transition.


Not knowing what else to do, I just started swaying with the odd

beat and following Tinas lead. Through her teeth, she whispered for me

to take off my clothes. I dont want to, I whispered back.

She did a little turn so her back was to our guy.

Dont worry, she said under her breath, he just wants to see

how our bodies shift. Hes not going to touch us.

I followed her lead again and turned with her. How do you

know?

Watchers dont like the idea of physical contact with shifters.


They just want to see how we do it. She slipped out of her skirt, and I

undid my shorts. Soon, we were both down to our underwear and

dancing around a little more freely.

I was in the spirit of things by then. It was reassuring that he

wouldnt touch me. I shimmied out of my panties and then let myself

start to change.

Normally, I shift quickly. Going from human to animal is a

painful process, but as shifters age they learn how to speed it up and

shift in just a few seconds. However, the option to slow it down is always
available. My fur sprouted all over me while I still had a mostly human

shape, then I willed my bones to change shape from the feet up, my tail

sprouting before I had to go to all fours. Next to me, Tina was doing the

same, giving herself a tail long before her other traits kicked in.

Soon, I was in full fossa form, and I realized the man was

masturbating in his chair. He was letting out long, high-pitched moans

as he begged us, Change back! Change back!

We did, transforming and rising slowly until we stood naked in

his home again. He finished just as we became completely human once


more, and as soon as he was done, he lost interest.

Alright, he sighed, clothes on and out you get. No one talks

about what happened to anyone, got it?

We dressed quickly as we assured him, Not a word. Promise.

I walked over to get my stuff and looked at it incredulously.

Um how do I..?

Im not in charge of you! Get out of my house and figure it out.

I couldnt leave fast enough. After I threw on my minimal

clothing, I grabbed my tank and the rest of my odd collection of objects


to run for the door, Tina close behind me. We ran down the street for a

few minutes and then stopped to catch our breath.

Whoa. That was close. I really thought he might call the

enforcers on us.

Me too. I bent over and put my hands on my knees while I

silently begged my heart to slow down and relax. It took a while longer,

but it finally listened. I stood to look around, wondering if wed attracted

any attention, but it looked safe enough. There were people around, but

no one was giving us any more than a glance.


How is it that no one knows what we are? I whispered to Tina.

She scoffed and patted my back.

Havent you heard? All those filthy shifters got collared. They

cant leave their compound. So, no collar means youre looking at a

human. She winked. Just like you and me, friend.

Oh, I nodded, the collars. Of course, what a relief. My

shoulders relaxed knowing that our lack of disguise was as good as any

mask. We strolled down the street a ways and were hit with a delicious,

warm and salty scent.


Mmm Whats that? I asked, craning my neck.

Lets find out, Tina said, walking faster. I grabbed her shoulder

to stop her.

We dont have any money.

Sure, we do. She pulled an old, beat-up wallet from her pocket

and smiled at me. Dont you remember? Another wink. I felt a little

sour twist in my stomach at the sight of the stolen money, but what

could I say? No one was going to pay Tina any kind of fair wage for a job;

not that anyone would hire a shifter who had openly killed a human.
And she was out among the humans to help the others back at the

compound. Could I honestly judge her? Didnt she deserve this cash

more than the pervert back at the shop?

I pushed my objections deep down into my gut and followed her

to a food stall with fried soy balls and soy sticks. We sat down to eat our

junk food and smiled at each other, knowing that no one else had any

suspicion of who we were or where we were headed. Humans are easily

misled, I thought to myself. Its a shame. Theyre so intelligent and so

stupid. As I ate, I tried to follow the conversations around me, but they
were confusing. Everyone around me seemed to be complaining about

some random slight; demanding teachers, seeing a person theyd never

seen before, parents refusing them a lock for their doors. Was a good

education, new members of a community, and caring parents so

terrible?

Tina caught my eye a couple of times and gave me the tiniest of

head shakes. Dont say anything. I kept my mouth shut except to shove

food in it. It was so long since Id eaten as a human that I was practically

high from the experience. Id forgotten how humans eat for taste and
texture; for company and sights and smells. Animals eat for the thrill,

the crush of bones, and rush of blood. Casual, human-style eating was a

nice break from my usual savagery.

We finished and put some money in the center of the table

where a small basket was waiting for the workers. I was so full I could

hardly stand, but I managed. I put my tank under my arm, and a hand

stopped me.

Hey, a mans voice said, you a diver?

Me? Um, yes. I patted my tank as if I carried around such


things all day, every day. Diver for sure. Excuse me

Your tanks empty. Youre not gonna fill it?

I froze. What did I need in my tank? I glanced at Tina for help,

and she was just as uncertain as I was, but quickly relaxed her face into a

smile. Were actually looking for someone who can fill it for us. Do you,

umcould you?

Sure. He tossed the last bite of his meal into his mouth and

then wiped the grease from his hands. Im working at the station just

there on Rand. Follow me, Ill get you some air.


Before we go, Tina interrupted, I just want to ask how much

that might cost. I need to make sure I have enough.

What do you got?

She quickly opened her wallet, and I stood over her. The pudgy

shop owner had done well for himself; he had about 500 Bachmanns in

his wallet. Tina and I glanced at each other with no idea what to say.

Well, she started, I guess I could go in for about 250

Bachmanns.

He blanched at the number. Whoa, what? This isnt diamond-


infused, luxury air. Its just the basic stuff. Its an even twenty-five.

My eyebrows flew up before I could stop them, but looking at

the guys confused face, I remembered to make them slide back down.

Of course. My friend isnt used to buying tanks of air. Shes not a diver

like me. I gestured with my hand. We would love to get over to your

station.

He shook his head at the both of us and stood to lead the way.

Couple of real professionals I got here.

The three of us walked together, Tina and I in a heightened state


of endless fear, and the man wed suddenly befriended strolling with all

his joints loose and his feet almost flopping, he was so casual. My

names Alex. Whats yours?

Im Tina. This is Larissa.

He tilted his head at us. You two together?

We shook our heads no, then looked at each other with wide and

surprised eyes. No one had ever mistaken us for a couple before. It was

thrilling. I could have maintained my male shape with Tina, but it hadnt

even occurred to me. It was more fun to be a girl with Tina and walk
through our world as females.

Tina and Alex seemed to hit it off, so I let them talk, while I

walked with the empty tank on my back. I hoped Alex wasnt another

watcher or some guy out to hurt us. I supposed if he came after me I

could shift and bite his head off, though I preferred to leave him intact. I

glanced over at my old friend and my new friend, as they giggled and

teased one another. Once again, Tina was flirting. She always had a bit of

a thing for human guys.

Here we are. He gestured to an odd, covered space. Back in the


old days, it must have been a truly great location; a place where people

could get their precious fuel and food and water without even blinking.

Now it was a place of rust and dust.

Everything big and grand was crumbling. The only part of it with

any light was a small office with a window in the door. Alex unlocked it

and clicked on a small lamp on a desk. All around were plastic bottles

filled with oddly colored liquids that I knew were different kinds of fuel.

Id heard there were groups of people trying to make fuel from all kinds

of plants, but the ground was so hard and worn out that growing any
kind of crop was near impossible. So, people like Alex just made what

they could on a small scale and stored it with crossed fingers in hopes it

would work.

Okay, he said, swinging his keys around his finger, air, air.

Where did I leave the? Here it is. He pulled a long hose forward and

reached out for my tank. I took it down from my back and handed it to

him.

So, he said, youre clearly not a diver. What do you need this

tank for?
I discovered an underground water source. I want to explore it.

I was a little surprised that I had told him anything, but, for whatever

reason, I felt I could trust him. He chuckled.

By yourself? Thats pretty dangerous. What does it lead to,

some treasure?

You could say that.

Well, he said, maintaining his squeeze on the hoses nozzle,

whatever youre looking for, I recommend you have a friend on the

surface. Underwater diving is no joke. He gestured to Tina. I dont


suppose you can go along?

She shook her head. My mom would kill me. Besides, She

bumped her shoulder into mine, this is one smart and brave lady. If

anybody can do it, its Larissa.

I blushed and looked down as they both stared at me. Why did

she have to say that?

Alright. Its full. He started to hand it back, but he could barely

lift the thing. Uff. I forgot how heavy these things are. You have a ride

home? We shook our heads again, he stood to turn off the light, and
then we walked out of his office. Ill drive you as far as the border. Then

youre on your own.

Our mouths must have dropped open perfectly with our shock.

He tilted his head toward his truck. Dont worry, he assured us, I

could care less what you are. Just be careful and uh He turned to

Tina, Come visit me sometime.

She handed him a roll of bills. Take this. I may need your help

again someday soon.

He tapped the money to his chest. At your service. The two of


them got into his trucks front seat, and I hopped in the back with my

heavy tank and other odds and ends. They could flirt all they wanted. I

wanted to visit with my friends, the stars, and ask them for some advice

on my new venture. They had a lot to say as we drove in sight of the

presidents mountain and then glided around to the Open Zone. There,

we hopped out and waved goodbye to him. As he sped off, Tina pulled

me in for a hug.

Are you sure you know what youre doing?

Not entirely, I admitted. But if things get dangerous or too out


of control, I can scrap the whole plan.

Ill come see you in a couple of weeks, Tina said. Leave me

some sort of sign so I know if you went for it or not. Okay?

Okay.

My only friend pulled me in for a tight hug, and I was reluctant

to let her go. She felt so familiar and warm. It would be so easy to just

go back, I thought. Black Feather would have no idea, and I could just

go on with my life. But I didnt go back. I looked up to see the Children

watching me and knew the desert was waiting for me. I gave Tina one
last squeeze and then pointed myself back to the familiar Nothing.


Chapter Four

After I got back and slept off my adventure with Tina, I woke to

the twilight and looked up to thank the stars for calling me home. The

Children were especially giggly that night, and I could practically hear

them singing those ridiculous songs the human children used to sing to

me when I was small. Larissa! Larissa! Tiny bush girl, Larissa! Of

course, at that moment it felt like a compliment more than anything

else.

I dragged my tank and ovular plastic out onto the sand. I knew
the tank fit on my back, but I didnt know what to do with the strange,

clear oval or the two black pieces. I picked up the clear piece and looked

through it and saw that it was a bit opaque. Then, suddenly feeling very

silly, I realized it went around my head so that I could look through the

small window. I shook my head, laughing at myself. Of course, my eyes

needed something over them so I could swim and see. I could hardly

find Black Feather without any vision.

The thought of Black Feathers name made my heart jump all

the way into the sky. As soon as I thought of him, it was if he were there
beside me and holding me as I walked across the Nothing to my little

well. I decided I would do a test swim and just look around so that I

could make a plan. In my dream, Black Feather had insisted I look

underneath; today, I would do just that.

I made it up the hill and looked up at the stars. Once I was

underground, I wouldnt be able to consult them anymore. I took a deep

breath and put my plastic eyes on, then slipped out of my clothes. I had

to keep them dry so I could warm up after I got out of the water. I looked

at my last two pieces of gear and inspected them a little more closely.
They were heavy, stiff plastic and each had an odd-shaped hole

on the narrow end. They were identical and a bit awkward. What did I do

with these things?

Curious, I stuck a big toe into one of the holes and felt how open

it was on the inside, much more so than it appeared. I wiggled my whole

foot inside and found that it fit, though the plastic sucked on it a bit. I

moved my foot up and down and almost fell on my face; having my foot

extended to such a ridiculous size made me feel as if my toes were no

longer my own. I looked down into the well and thought about how
these long, thin feet would move in water, how they could paddle and

push. I fought my way into the second one, then flopped my way up to

the well.

Sitting on the edge, I looked down into the clear water. It was

cool but not freezing cold, and it felt nice against my skin. I had never

considered swimming in my water source before that moment. It felt a

bit scandalous to jump into the same water I drank, but I supposed the

time had come.

Without any further preparations, I slipped into the water and


let myself sink down. Right away, I knew I had done something wrong. I

couldnt see at all, the space around me was completely dark, and I

couldnt breathe. If it had been possible, I would have slapped myself for

my thoughtlessness. Of course, it was dark; I was underground. What

had I expected? And where was all my air? Why wasnt I breathing with

the tank on my back? I quickly kicked my legs so that I rose to the

surface and then burst up into the night with a gasp. I needed to start

again.

I took my tank off and looked at it again. It had a long hose with
a round apparatus at the end. Also, the tank had something wrapped

around it: a black band with a small bulb. I put the round thing in front

of my eyes, but instantly saw it wasnt meant for looking through. Then I

thought about breathing, how air moves and how it might travel from a

tank to a persons lungs.

I shoved the thing in my mouth and found it fit perfectly. But I

still had no air. I looked at the tank again as I chewed on my new

mouthpiece. There was a dial with numbers and the word Pressure

stenciled onto it. The needle on the dial was pointed straight at zero. I
turned a metal valve and the needle jumped up as air hissed out of the

tank and into my mouth.

To my complete delight, once the air was flowing, a small light

glowed from the top of the tank. The black band was holding a mini light

bulb activated by the air. I quickly got everything on again and slipped

down through my little hatch in the Earth.

The second time I descended, I looked around and was shocked

at what I saw; the Earth upside down. Here, rocks hung down from the

top and soft, blue water sat low as if the sky had stepped down to take a
day off. I pointed my light in what I hoped was the direction of the large

rock Id found and saw it there. It was like a big pyramid hanging, its

peak pointing at the ground. I took note of all the things around me as

my air burst out of my mouth in big, forceful bubbles. There wasnt

much to mark my path beyond the pyramid, so I decided my second

swim would be to the point and back. With that, I rose to the surface and

spit out my mouth piece. I pulled myself up and turned the dial so the

flow of air stopped.

Regarding the tank, I had to admit to myself that it wasnt that


big. Would I be able to get very far with this limited amount of air?

Diving underground is no joke; that was what Alex had said. I hadnt

paid too much attention in the moment, but then I could see that he had

been trying to warn me. I suddenly had visions of myself as a dead body

floating around in the water beneath the Earth where no one would ever

find me, even more trapped than Black Feather.

I took off my ridiculous feet and walked back to my little hovel

in the desert. The Children watched me silently but shined brightly as I

walked. I made a little pile with my things and then got down on my
knees to have a talk with the Earth.

How can I travel beneath you without being swallowed whole?

Please, dear desert, you have been my home. Use your dust and heat to

keep me alive, I beg you. I must get to Black Feather. I must. He is lost

without me.

The Earth stared at me in my nakedness, and I picked up

handfuls of dust and poured them down on my head and over my face,

rubbing the sharp, hot dirt into my skin and then going for more. I

sacrificed my cleanliness for filth as I spread the dry earth into my face
and down my arms. Finally, I knelt down to it with my forehead on the

ground and thanked the desert for giving me a place to live, for teaching

me so much. Finally, I curled into a little ball on my side and fell into a

sleep so deep I may as well have been underwater once more.

If I dreamed that day, I cant recall the images. There were no

more visions of Black Feather calling to me, but when I woke up in the

twilight, I felt a pressing sense of urgency. Maybe I would die, but I

would die working to help someone, adventuring under the Earth and on

a mission. I couldnt conjure a more meaningful death than that.


I gathered my things and quickly walked to the waterhole. I

stripped, struggled into my floppy feet, and turned on the air for the

tank. That time, I made sure to keep the pressure very low, just enough

to get the light glowing. I slipped it on and put in my mouthpiece and

finally my plastic eyes. I didnt bother with dangling my legs in the hole,

I just said a quick goodbye to the stars and then slipped under the Earth

in a single move.

Underwater, I pointed myself toward the upside-down pyramid

and kicked. I reminded myself to move fast, but not too fast; I couldnt
get too tired. I had to be able to get back up to the surface if I didnt find

any passageway into the base of Bachmanns mountain. Right, left, right,

left I kicked steadily and sturdily, not letting myself slow down. I had

to get there, and I had to keep control.

I swam to the tip of the pyramid and stopped. I glanced behind

me and saw a soft glow coming down from where I had entered the

water. I said a quick prayer and then left that ray of hope behind me and

pointed myself toward a big column in the water that I assumed was the

base of a mountain.
When I reached it, I saw something. It was like a hatch or the

door to a safe. I did my best to keep breathing, but I was panicking. I had

been underwater too long, and my head felt as if it were being stepped

on by a massive beast. I told myself it was now or never and resigned

myself to the pain. I pulled the lever on the hatch as hard as I could. It

made a big, metallic creak and then swung open slowly. Inside, the path

was small and narrow and filled with darkness. I gulped and swam into

it.

All around me, the sides threatened to push in and trap me, but I
managed to squeak through. At one point, I felt the water fall away, and

for a moment I was in a dry tube. I quickly turned off my air and gulped

in the breeze I felt coming through my cylindrical space. A breeze! I was

almost there. I crawled forward on my hands and then heard a deafening

rush behind me. Too late. I realized the water was rushing back, and I

had just turned off my air.

With a roar, the water took over my whole body and slammed

me into all sides of the tunnel. I pinged around all different sides, and

my head took a blow from one of them. At that moment, everything


went black.

I was sure I had died. Surely the deep, black space I found myself

in was death. I could hear voices calling to me, calling me home. I turned

toward them, but they were still far away. I crawled a little closer, and

their cries became louder. Larissa! Larissa! I wanted more than

anything to join them, but a light beyond their shapes was growing and

hurting my eyes.

Wait, I called as they began to slip away. Dont go!

They rushed away from me, shrinking away from my grasp faster
than I could open my eyes, sit up, and scream.

Im alive. Im alive!

My huge, gulping breaths made quite a racket in the dark, quiet

space. I looked around and saw only black, but slowly the place took

shape.

I was underground, in some sort of stone room. It was a cave,

but a cave that had pipes running through it and some sort of doorways

lined up on either side. No, not doorways. I reached out to the nearest

one, and right before my eyes a metal bar materialized just as my hand
passed a certain point. I snatched it back before it could be trapped

between the bars, but it was close. I held it to my chest and looked

around again, this time with less shock and two eyes that could see.

Can you see me?

The voice floated over to where I was standing, but I had no idea

where it was coming from. The echoes in the cave were so cacophonous

that I couldnt get my bearings. I shook my head no, but the speaker

couldnt see me either.

Larissa? Is it you?
Yes! The answer bounced off the walls and repeated Yes! Yes,

yes, yes I had to cover my ears for a moment until it died down.

Perhaps whispering was the better option; I tried it. Yes, its me. This

time a hissy little, Smee, smee, smee snaked around the space. A

hand drifted out into the passageway in front of me, and I knew it

instantly Black Feather.

I ran up to his space and, remembering the invisible bars,

stopped just outside the boundary of his cell. I mouthed the words, Are

you okay?
He shook his head no, then looked over to the other end of the

hallway. Hide, he mouthed, and I quickly ran back to the other end

where I could stand in the shadows. Stupidly, I left my diving equipment

there on the floor, but there was no time to go back and get it.

Pressed up against a rock wall, I listened as a heavy door was

unlocked with a loud CLANG and then pushed open by at least two men.

The two grunted with the effort, telling me that the door was probably

stone like the rest of the place. They made it through and then came

down the metal stairs. The two walked lazily, took their time as they
talked, and clinked down step by step.

Im telling you, the first one said, Harper couldnt have been

the informant. Shes on total lockdown, and I have it on good authority

that shes too scared to put one toe outside the palace. No way did she

leak anything.

The other chimed in with, Yeah, but if it wasnt her, then who? I

mean, Harpers snuck out before, made friends with shifters even. It

could easily have been her. That group of wolves knew right where to go.

Howd that happen?


Well, youve got me there. Hey A pause, and my heart took

the opportunity to try and escape from my chest. Whats that?

Footsteps and the echoes of footsteps moved toward me. I

pressed my still-naked self up against the side of the rock, with my head

to one side. Pleaseplease, no God heard me and stopped the guards

about halfway down the hall where I heard a booted toe kick my air tank.

What in Bachmanns name is this?

Who knows? Stuff washes in from the underground source

sometimes. The second speaker yawned, already uninterested in my


stuff. Is it wet?

Yeah. Youre right. Must have come through the pipe. Weird.

Whats weird about it?

Not every day we get someones random stuff in the pipe. The

nearest community is the shifter compound, and they dont use our

water.

The two fell silent as I silently berated myself. How could I leave

such a huge piece of evidence out where two guards could casually come

across it? Not a smart move. A flashlight turned on, and the beam swept
the air next to my hiding place.

Anyone there? Approaching footsteps. A second beam. If

someones there, please show yourself, or well be forced to shoot.

My fear took over, and I felt a ripple go through my body. My

shoulders widened, my jaw squared, and I felt a lump plot into my

throat. Without another thought, I stepped out of my hiding place and

faced the guards with my hands curled into fists.

No ones shooting me.

Whoa! Man, what is going on? The two lowered their


flashlights and relaxed. One informed me, You are completely naked!

Yes.

You want to tell us what youre doing here?

At this moment, I played my part of Stranger in the Prison very

bravely, but all the while my heart was still certain that it wanted to fight

its way out of my chest. I begged it to be quiet, but it didnt listen. Im

testing some new technology for President Bachmann. The suit they

made me didnt fit, so I had to go like this. Sorry to surprise you.

The two looked at one another and then me, then burst out
laughing. Oh, wow! You might as well have been a ghost! They bent

over and laughed harder, slapping one another on the back. One of them

approached me and grabbed my wrist.

Hey, man, thanks. It gets so boring down here. We needed this.

Tentatively, I laughed with them, unsure if the whole act was a ruse or

sincere. The man holding my wrist gave me a little tug.

Tell us how this thing works. Hey, Tony, get this guy some

clothes.

Sure thing.
The second man, Tony, trotted up the stairs, and I was left with

the first one. Im Alan. Whats your name?

Lar-Larry. Im Larry. The two of us shook with our big, manly

hands and then walked over to the tank.

So, Alan said, tell me all about it.

I walked Alan through the basics, explaining that this was

something I myself was still mastering. The only way to really test it is

to use it. No one else was willing to go into the underground water

because, well, its dangerous. So, I went.


Wow, he breathed, shaking his head. You werent scared to

swim underground?

I was, but I was also really excited to try it, you know? Anything

could be down there. Tony appeared beside me with some random

items of clothing in a box. Oh, thanks.

No problem. These are all from former detainees, so I cant be

sure whats in there. We strip anyone who comes in as soon as they get

here, so its all fairly clean. Just a bit mildewy. He held up a few

different pieces, and I grabbed some basic pants and a t-shirt to slip into
as well as a pair of shoes that pinched a little. As strange as it felt to wear

new, mens clothing, I kept my mouth shut.

Be Larry, I told myself. They want company, be a good guest.

This could be helpful.

We made small talk, and I pretended to hear something further

down the row of cells. Hey, everything okay over there?

Yeah, dont worry, Alan told me. These cells are so efficient

theres no escaping. See that little red box on the side of that cell?

He pointed to a little apparatus attached to the wall on a nearby


cell, and I moved to take a closer look, but Alan pulled me back. Hey,

careful! If you activate that sensor the bars will lock you in. We cant let

you out. Only the presidents top guys are authorized to take someone

out, and we are not the top guys.

Not yet, Tony said, squaring his shoulders. Any day now, were

gonna get that promotion and get our own blue rings. We keep this little

jail running perfectly every day. We wont be level black for long. He

and Alan nodded at one another, clearly proud of their accomplishments.

As far as I could tell, the jail seemed to run itself. The two of them didnt
even need keys to open anyones cell. The men toyed with something on

their fingers rings. With a closer look, I saw that each had a small,

basic ring of black obsidian on his thumb.

How typical, I thought to myself. Bachmann likes to decorate

his little workers. And whats more, he wants to let his prisoners see

what looks like a clear path out and all the while remind them that

theyre trapped. Disgusting. Outwardly, I focused on thanking Alan.

That was close! Thanks. You guys are great. Next time I talk to

any of Bachmanns staff, Im going to recommend you for that


promotion.

The two of them patted me on the back and handed me back my

things. No problem. Alan looked down at my tanks dial. It was nearly

empty. I hadnt turned it off when Id washed up in the jail, and my air

was gone. Looks like you might have a problem. He put his finger on

my dials big E and said, Its empty.

Yes, I took a breath. Did he think I was an idiot? Thats part of

why Im testing it; to find out just how much air we need to go both

directions. So far, no luck. I can only make it one way. Anyone in the
palace have compressed air?

The two looked down and scratched their heads. And then kept

scratching them. In the eon it took them to think about it, I thought of

several possible people we could ask for help with such a thing, but

nothing seemed to be coming to them. I thought of Alex and asked,

Maybe a mechanic? Someone who works with the presidents cars?

Maybe, Tony said to himself, his word echoing as Abee, abee,

abee

I dont think I can walk all the way up there without an escort.
Could one of you go with me?

Again, this caused a miniature crisis. The two friends and

colleagues had to really consider my question before giving me a

tentative Yes?

Thanks, Tony. You guys really are the best. I am gonna talk the

two of you up big time. That cemented their confidence in me, and the

two of them smiled again, now clear on the plan and the rewards of its

potential success. The thought of me singing their praises to random

palace workers seemed to put them over the moon, and Tony threw an
arm around my shoulder.

Right this way, Larry. Well get you the best air there is. I

waited for him to laugh, but Tony seemed to genuinely believe that high-

quality air was an actual product. I glanced at Black Feather as we

walked out. He was on the floor of his stone cell, pretending to be asleep.

I left him behind and ascended the stairs into the lions den

President Bachmanns palace. My footsteps made a soft clang as we went

up, and I listened to it echo off the walls over and over, like a chain

rattling or cell door slamming shut.



Chapter Five

Back in Madagascar, I had been taught to avoid snakes at all

costs. If my mother and I came across one stretched out across the dirt

road to the market, she would stop and clutch her skirt closer to her

knees, eyes wide.

What is it, Mama?

Snake. A snake is in the road.

Children understand when their parents are truly frightened,

and I was no exception. A current of fear ran through my mother and


down through my tiny hand as I joined her in staring at the snake that

lazily inched its way across the road. It wasnt much of a sight a long,

skinny green thing with a small head that didnt so much as glance at us.

It flicked the air with a long, forked tongue and continued its journey

across the sunny path. We stood and waited until it had gotten out of

our way, and I remember several other women on their way to make the

days purchases had also paused at the sight of the little fellow.

We didnt see snakes too often in my town. More and more

people were buying cars those days, and the trendy way to drive at the
time was as if one had a death wish. Cars went flying through

intersections, up and down hills while those in the car laughed

deliriously. We all found ourselves walking in the dirt on the edges of

the road more and more until it became the norm.

In school, we learned that snakes sensed danger through

vibrations in the ground. I could only imagine what those wild vibrations

told those delicate, thin creatures any time they got near the road. Once

in a while, one would gather up his courage and lie in the warm, sunny

road anyway. I always admired those snakes. They sneered at the


speeding vehicles. Their total lack of armor or speed didnt deter them at

all; they simply went on with their day and if they died, well, theyd lived

a full, snakey life.

When I got a bit older, I found I was full of questions about the

flora and fauna all around us in our little town. My mother did her best

to answer all of my queries, but she finally just pointed to the little, local

library and said, Go ask all of those books the things you want to know.

My head is about to explode, girl!

So, I consulted with the pages that I found within one book after
another. I was thrilled! All of them were written in French, the language

I automatically associated with high intelligence, and many of them had

lovely illustrations of plants and animals on the outside and deep inside

them as well. The snake pictures enthralled me more than anything.

In one book, I learned that my country had many snakes all over

it, but very few that could do any harm to me. Many were simply water

or garden snakes. I studied picture after picture. Any time someone

glanced over my shoulder to see what had me so interested, they would

suck in a long draw of air and say, Snakes! So scary! I didnt mind it at
first, but after several instances of the exact same reaction, same tones,

and same timing I grew tired of it.

Theyre not poisonous, you know, I told an old man who had

come up behind my chair. He just shook his head slowly.

Many things are more dangerous than poison. He walked

away, and I rolled my eyes in annoyance. Why wasnt anyone as smart as

I was?

After several happy afternoons poring over books, I saw it. I

remember it must have happened on a holiday of some kind, as the


roads were quiet and free of deadly cars. There, right in a patch of

sunlight, lay a beautiful snake with brown skin on its back and a soft

yellow underneath. It was skinny with big, friendly eyes that looked

right at me as I walked up to it.

I stood there next to it as it crawled along, fascinated with its

length and slow, muscular undulations. I didnt move, just observed and

breathed. For a moment, the snake raised its head and looked at me, its

little, pink tongue appearing in a flash. Id learned from my studies this

meant the snake was smelling me, and I wondered what my scent told
the little beast. I hoped it could smell that I was friendly.

Suddenly, my mother materialized in front of me and gave me a

head ringing slap that shattered the moment. She pulled me away by my

arm until we were under a tree. It wasnt until we got there that I

realized half the town had been standing around watching me, their

chins on the ground. No one ever approached a snake or had even seen

someone else do it. My mother was yelling at me, but I couldnt process

her words because I was so full of shame. The stares around me seemed

to bore right into my skin. I looked down and watched my tears fall into
the dust.

Dont you know, my mother yelled, pulling my chin up with a

hard grasp, that snakes will remember you long after youre dead? Why

do you think we stay away from them? Hm? God cursed the snake for a

reason; its a messenger for the devil himself.

I remembered that snake as I stepped out of the underground

prison and into a small hallway in the presidential palace. No one gave

Tony or me a second glance, just hustled by as they stared at their papers

and spoke out loud to themselves. I desperately wanted to know why


everyone was talking to people I couldnt see, but I had to act as if Id

been in this strange place many times. I affected a cool, casual approach

and walked with Tony without looking at much of anything, a kind of

permanent shrug in my stature. Luxurious tapestries and cool, calm air

all around, who cares? Its nothing to me.

We made a sharp turn and opened one of the less ornate doors

to reveal the garden outside. There was the collection of terrifying, deep

black cars that Bachmann kept on hand at all times just in case he and

his entourage needed to all be somewhere at once and in the highest of


style. The curvy, sleek cars reminded me of womens breasts and hips

with their full curves and metal that appeared almost soft. Of course, I

knew if I touched them, they would not melt under my fingers like flesh,

but rather burn me with the heat they had collected from the sun all day.

A young man and woman worked to clean the great machines.

The man used a special jug of water to throw all over the car and then a

big, soapy thing to rub it with. He worked his hand in slow circles as if

he wanted to exfoliate it as gently as possible. He glanced up at us, and I

had to remind myself that I was Larry, a young man in need of air and
not Larissa, a girl who had always prided herself on her feminine beauty

and charms.

Hey, man. You have any compressed air? This is Larry. He

needs it for an experiment.

I raised my hand in greeting as I had seen so many young men

do. Hi.

He gave me a little chin raise and then pointed over to a pump.

As I walked over, I took stock of the many vehicles the president owned.

At least ten. And a few of them appeared as if they hadnt been driven for
quite some time. I wondered if that was simply because the presidents

crew simply had new toys to play with or if it was because these

neglected cars no longer functioned.

You like cars, Tony asked. I nodded. Yeah, these are beauties.

That one is from as far back as 2030. Can you imagine driving

something so ancient? He laughed, and his big belly shook up and

down. I shook my head to indicate that no, of course I couldnt imagine

something so outlandish. Meanwhile, all I could think was, People drive

these things? For some reason, I had always believed that the cars
somehow controlled themselves. Perhaps the idea of manipulating such

a massive beast was just a bit more than my brain could calculate.

We found the hose, and I wondered how I would ever turn it on;

there were no visible controls. Luckily, Tony walked right over to a small

switch on the wall and flipped it, making the hose shake to life as a hard

current of air poured through it. I stuffed it into my open tank and again

reminded myself to act casual. Filling up my only source of air for my

escape nothing to be nervous about.

We both stood and waited, but as we did the hairs on the back of
my neck stood up. The woman who had been washing cars had stopped

and zeroed in on me. I smiled and nodded at her, but this only made her

eyes narrow. She elbowed her male colleague and said something I

couldnt hear, but whatever it was, it encouraged him to watch me as

well. My palms became very sweaty, and holding the heavy, black hose

was a challenge, but the tank was almost full. I couldnt stop.

I looked back down at the tank. The needle slowly away from the

big E. Come on, come on. The tank grew heavier and heavier, and the

pair of watchers moved closer until finally the woman tapped me on the
shoulder.

Who are you, anyway?

I swallowed. What do you mean? Im a worker here, like you.

No, you know what I mean. She cocked her head and stepped

back with a look of disgust on her face. Why are you dressed up like a

boy?

I almost dropped everything, I almost ran, but at the end, I did

something very stupid. I stood still and let everyone stare at me.

Hey, wait, Tony jumped in, I saw this guy naked not too long
ago. How could he be a she?

The couple didnt answer, they all just turned and looked at me. I

felt the fear ripple through my body again and realized that I had slowly

been turning back to my female shape without any intention. Once Id

gotten distracted, my body had taken over and slowly begun to restore

its curves and soft lines. So slowly that I hadnt even felt it.

IuhWell, Tony, what you saw was For just a moment,

Tonyy turned to the other two, and I saw my chance. I whipped the hose

right at his face so that it smacked into him and blasted the other two
with a huge current of air. My tank clanged to the ground as I let it go,

and then I ran so fast my legs began to burn as I retraced my steps back

to the prison door.

Several employees looked up as I blew past them, but I was too

fast for them. One yelled for me to stop but I couldnt, not ever. I would

run for all eternity. I just had to get Black Feather.

I found the door and reached for it, but of course it was locked. An

employee walked up to me quickly. Hey, stop! Youre not authorized. I

saw the little blue ring on his thumb and grabbed his arm, twisted it
around and scanned it into the door.

What are you doing?

I didnt answer, I just bit his arm as hard as I could with the

teeth that were slowly elongating from my mouth. His finger broke off

and fell onto my tongue. I pushed it into my cheek and bounded through

the door and down the steps as his screams of pain faded away behind

me.

By the time I made it to the bottom of the stairs, I was sprouting

short, spiky hairs all over my body. My ears were softening and rising,
and my vision was becoming much sharper. I saw Alan in a little break

room, and he leapt up at the sight of me.

Shifter! He paused a second to see if I might cower in fear or if

someone else might come to his aid, but he was met with only silence.

He fumbled for his gun, and I ran straight for him. I didnt want to kill

him, but I had to incapacitate him so that I could get away. I jumped as

high as possible and right into his chest so that he hit the wall, arms

spread wide. I went for his hand, breaking it with my powerful jaw and

then kicking his gun away with a swipe of my paw.


You stop right there! His screams echoed around me as Air!

Air! Air! Black Feather was already standing and waiting for me. He

didnt speak, just watched.

I flung the severed finger at Black Feather with a quick head

jerk, and it flew through the air. Nothing happened. No bars. He caught

it and put it on his hand, then just strolled out as if jailbreaks were his

specialty.

Once he was out, he stopped. Larissa, he whispered. What do

we do?
I closed my eyes and told myself to shift as fast as possible. No

more taking an hour to change little by little. Mentally, I let the panic of

the situation dial up the speed and visualized myself fully female once

again. When I opened them, I looked down and saw my human body.

We swim. I grabbed his hand and ran for the pipe that led to

the underground lake. The tide was out, so we would have to crawl out

into the water.

Black Feather was strong and looked very sure of himself, so I

never asked if he could swim. I just led the way and let him follow the
moon of my round, naked butt as I lowered my shoulders to try and see

how soon we would hit water.

The bottom of the pipe was just wet at first, then a tiny rivulet of

water met our hands and knees. Soon, we were pushing against a current

of water that rose up to my thighs and almost reached my shoulders. I

called back, Well be there soon. Take big gulps. The Nothing is far

away.

Guh. Guh. What? Guh.

I didnt have time to answer. The water crashed in and knocked


us back a little, but the pipe wouldnt let us get too far. We pushed back

and found our way to the back of the big hatch I had opened earlier. It

looked closed, but once I approached, I could see that it wasnt locked. I

signaled with an arm motion to Black Feather to keep going, and

together we pushed it open.

As soon as it was open, I swam hard. Life in the desert had

taught me the importance of fast, quick movements, and I employed

them at the highest possible level. Unfortunately, behind me, I could tell

that Black Feather wasnt keeping up. As much as I didnt want to, I
paused and looked back. He was struggling against the water instead of

moving with it, and his knees and elbows were bending as he flailed,

keeping him in one place. He looked up and saw the Earth not the sky

looking down, and he panicked. Just as his eyes met mine, his face

went white and his neck turned into a limp, soft thing. His eyes no

longer looked at me; they just glassed over and closed halfway as his

body hung like a rag in the water.

I pushed through the water to get to him, my lungs already

screaming. I put my arm around his waist and was shocked at how heavy
he was. There was no choice. I had to drag his long, heavy body through

the water.

Aiming for the upside-down pyramid, I used my free arm to push

the water around me and undulated my legs open and then shut, inching

my way through the water. Just get to the peak. Get to the little triangle.

The waterhole is close by. Dont give up. I stretched my hand out as far

as I could and grabbed onto the point of the pyramid and pulled myself

forward.

Just ahead of me was the tiniest shaft of light. Perhaps I was


hallucinating from the force of the water or the stress of the situation,

but I swear I could hear the Children calling me. They sounded panicked

and frightened, or maybe they could feel my fear. I kicked, and kicked,

and kicked, all the while trying not to look at Black Feathers slack, pale

face. The light grew closer, and the Children yelled a little louder.

Larissa! Larissa! Go faster! Quickly, now!

I reached toward the light, but it couldnt help me. I had to get

up to the source on my own. There was nothing but soft earth over my

head to claw at. I moved Black Feather around to the front of me and
briefly saw his face. He looked like a sad, sick child. Dont think, I told

myself, and pushed him up to the light. As soon as his body bobbed to

the surface, I was surrounded by darkness. My heart panicked once

again, and I had to push him up, but instead he just pushed me down. I

tried over and over to get him onto the edge so that I could get out

myself, but his limp body wouldnt cooperate.

Children, I need your help, I prayed. Please, give me the

strength to get out of this water. Let me see you again. The stars must

have heard me, because a strange fire that I had never felt before
suddenly flared up and took over my muscles. I felt the star that had

once been on my skin light up in my blood, and sing through me from

my scalp to my toes. Once again, I kicked my legs and shot my arms

straight forward, and by some miracle, Black Feathers body tipped up

and over, and the light shone down once again.

My hands went up and out of the water, and then I felt dry

ground. With my very last bit of strength, I pulled my head out of the

water and gasped in the hot, fiery air, thanking the invisible stars for

every drop of it. I couldnt pull myself all the way out; I was far too tired.
Instead, I just let myself go limp and lie against the side of the

waterhole. Breath after breath rushed into my lungs, and I heard myself

take big, loud gulps of it. I didnt care. All I cared about was air, and

more air. I was in love with breathing.

Next to me, Black Feathers body laid still. I had failed. My

mission to save the innocent shifter had turned on me, and now I would

have to bury him. I would have cried, but I was too weak. I just closed

my eyes and asked him to forgive me. My efforts had all been spurred by

good intentions, but I had never even thought to bring a second source
of air, to find an alternative escape. I had been thoughtless and

rudderless, broken and useless. I let the sun beat down on me, believing

I deserved every centimeter of insane heat hitting my shoulders and

back.

I felt a little better, so I tried to get out again. I was able to push

my arms straight, but my legs were exhausted. My knees couldnt quite

get up high enough to get ahold of the surface, so I just let myself fall

forward onto Black Feathers chest. Our bodies met with a wet slap as I

landed on him. Scared to touch a dead body, I quickly pushed myself up


again, only to find that my arms were exhausted yet again, and I fell

down a second time right on top of him.

By some miracle, he coughed.

I scrambled back so that he could turn and vomit out the water

in his stomach. After he did, he gasped in the air around him, and his

body began to turn back to its original shade of tanned flesh. He had lost

some weight in prison, but no matter. He still appeared fairly strong. I

sat on the hot dirt and watched as he slowly regained his wits, felt the

ground beneath him, and then, at the last possible moment, saw me.
What did you do? he croaked.

I got you out of that horrible cage.

I know that part. What happened while we were running away?

I crawled closer and kneeled by his shoulders. You died in the

water. But the Children brought you back to me.

He turned and looked at me with a bewildered expression.

What?

Dont worry, I assured him, touching his hair. Youll learn

everything the desert has to teach you. I did, and well be safe here. At
least for a while. I looked around and saw where the wind had blown

my clothes. I stood shakily and walked over to them, stepping into my

shorts and sliding my worn out top over me. Black Feather watched

silently.

Why did you do this? What do you want?

I turned to face him. Why? Youre innocent. Bachmann cant

just go around throwing random shifters in jail. I wont allow it.

He propped himself up on his elbows. I think theres another

reason, he informed me.


Whats that?

With an insufferable smirk, he said, You did it because youre in

love with me.


Chapter Six

The first few nights with Black Feather were quiet. He had to

spend a lot of time sleeping to recover from life in the cell, as well as his

brush with death. I brought him bugs for protein and even the

occasional mouse. He sighed at the minute servings, but ate them all the

same. I mistakenly thought we might share each meal, but Id forgotten

just how much food young men could eat, particularly after they had

rejoined the land of the living.

I hunted alone those days, thinking of what I was going to do


now that Black Feather had come to live in the desert with me. We

couldnt go back to the compound; we were criminals, and we would be

subjected to the awful collars or worse. It was also very possible that the

shifter community wouldnt want us. We were dangerous, after all. I

wished I could talk to Tina. I realized I had never left her any kind of

sign. Perhaps we could see each other once more. She might have some

ideas.

I remember how much my heart ached those days. I was thrilled

to know Black Feather was out of jail and safe with me, but at the same
time, I genuinely had no idea what to do. I would have suggested that we

travel to another place, but all I saw on the horizon was more desert,

more Nothing. I prayed to the Children every night for guidance, but

they had gone silent. So, I kept my prayers in my heart and asked science

to show me the way.

After several nights of my sad ambling around in the dirt, Black

Feather began to walk with me. To my surprise, he seemed to genuinely

enjoy the vast, empty space. He would occasionally walk on his hands to

make me laugh, though I was reluctant to do so right away. He almost


always tumbled down clumsily into the dirt with a little yelp of surprise,

and his clumsiness would be the thing that brought a smile to my face.

Why dont you fly, little bird?

Because, he would answer defiantly, I already fly perfectly.

The real challenge is doing this stuff as a human.

Once, as we were walking and scanning the ground for any tasty

bugs, we came to a small patch of shade provided by a cluster of rocks.

There, between the stones was a tiny, white flower poking up and

enjoying the night air. He bent over, and I thought he might pluck it, so I
stopped him with a hand to his chest.

Dont! Let it live.

He grabbed my hand and held it close to him with that awful

smirk of his. As soon as I saw it, my anger flared up hotter than Id ever

felt before. I tugged my hand away, but he held it tighter. I wasnt going

to pull it up.

You were. Do not lie. I pulled again, and this time he let it go.

The flowers dont need your protection, he informed me.

Theyre much stronger than they look. This little soldier is growing in
this dry, rocky environment like its nothing. Shes powerful, like you.

He tried to touch my face when he said the last part, but I ducked away.

Stop that.

He did a ridiculous little bow, spreading his arms in a show of

submission. Of course, my savior. I sighed and walked away, leaving

him to laugh at my back. Why were boys so ridiculous?

The desert kept us fed, and I showed Black Feather the key stars

to look for to find his way around, but he just shook his head. I can fly,

my fossa, he reminded me. I narrowed my eyes at him.


But you dont fly. You walk around all night. So, you need to

know how to do it safely. He didnt respond, and I tilted my head as I

looked at him. Why are you reluctant to shift these days? We could use

your skills as a bird. Surely you could hunt and eat bugs more efficiently

in your animal form.

He shrugged and looked down, playing with tiny stones in the

ground. His eyes avoided mine for the rest of the night, and he wasnt

himself again until we woke up the next morning.

For fun one night, I taught him the Malagasy welcome song.
Its a two-part song, I explained, and its traditionally sung

with a part for the women and a part for the men, but I cant sing both.

The male part is too low.

Im not a singer, he said as he shrugged and looked away.

Can you speak? Can you shout? He nodded, and I continued.

Then you have control of your voice. So, you can sing. Ill teach you.

We stood watching the last of the sunset, and I moved so that I

was behind him. Sing this: eh-oooooh. He tried, but it came from the

shallowest level of his chest, so it sounded more like a complaint that a


melody. I reached around pushed on his stomach muscles just below his

navel. This is where your singing voice comes from. Open your throat

and let the sound come pouring out of you. Thats singing.

Gently, he put his hand on top of mine, and together we gave his

lower stomach a soft push. He tried again, and his voice had a much

warmer tone, but it still needed some work.

Good. That is better. I will write the words out for you in the

sand.

He held my hand for a moment, feeling the knuckles and the


back of it with his long, graceful fingers. Youre a good teacher, Larissa.

Well Suddenly, my voice failed me. I couldnt look away from

the sight of my small, dark brown hand in his tanned, elongated one.

They seemed to fit together so beautifully. I cleared my throat and

managed to force out, It is easy. You are a quick learner. I quickly

snatched my hand away before I could lose my head completely. What

was wrong with me? Why was my heart pounding so fast? Shaking my

head at my own foolishness, I wrote the words out carefully in the sand.

I found that Black Feather couldnt sing in my language for more


than a few lines without getting his tongue all twisted up, so I focused

on the first two lines, planning to add to them as time went on. After his

voice had practiced coming out properly, he was able to sing much more

sweetly. The two of us faced east and watched the first rays of the sun

stretch up into the soft blue sky. I started.

Eto ianao! Dia hiaro anao; Ianao no lanitra, namako; ry

mangatsiatsiaka, mazava fitiavana

Black Feather added his harmony to my melody, and together

our voices lifted the sun off the line of the horizon. I didnt look at him. I
just watched the sky brighten and clear slowly. It must have been my

imagination, but for some reason that day appeared more beautiful than

anything I could remember in a long, long time.

That day, while I slept, I dreamed again. In my mind, I was in a

beautiful place lush and green with waterfalls, flowers, and a nearby

ocean. It was like home, but even more lovely, with a soft, comforting

sunshine all around. I felt incredibly relaxed and happy. I was in the

shade and eating a fruit that I remembered from my childhood. The

name escaped me as I licked the juice from my hands, and the rush of
sugary goodness made me feel young and silly again.

I heard Black Feathers voice call my name, and then he was

sitting next to me. I turned to see him and there, floating and larger than

life, were his dark eyes. I could almost step into them. I didnt feel

intimidated in any way, but I did feel a strange excitement at the sight of

it. Again, he said my name, but in a soft, lust-filled whisper that made a

strange sensation rip through me.

Larissa. Larissa I reached out for him, but he wasnt there.

The beautiful place fell away, and I grappled with the darkness until I
touched something solid. Holding on tight, I felt myself dangle in the

dark and lose control of my body. My grip was sweaty and uncertain, and

soon I was slipping down, down, down until I nearly lost my hold

entirely. Just as I was about to drop into the abyss, my eyes opened.

Larissa. Black Feather was sitting and watching me with a

serious face. My hand was on his arm and clutching him tightly. I

swallowed at the sight of it and then snatched it away. Youre sweating,

he informed me. I started to sit up, but I felt horribly dizzy.

Oh no, I said, feeling my forehead. I am ill. Can you bring me


some water? He stood to fetch some without asking any questions.

What had made me so sick? I never came down with anything, even

when my friends were all coughing.

Going over the past few days, I tried to recall anything I had

eaten that was unusual or dangerous, but nothing came to mind. And

both of us had been drinking water from the same source, so I didnt see

how I could have picked up on some bacteria that he had sidestepped.

Shaking my head, I decided it was just bad luck. As I laid on the

rocks, I started to cool off. Perhaps I am not so ill. But when my only
friend in the desert returned, my heart sped up again, and I found myself

burning all over as if I were covered in flames.

I had to carry it in my shirt, so its dripping. Drink fast. He held

the bag over me and let me suck the cold water through the cloth. I was

so incredibly thirsty, but all I could think about was his bare chest next

to me. I told myself to knock it off, but it was impossible. I reached out

with my hand, and he took it and held it tight, misunderstanding me. I

didnt push it, just let him feel useful for a moment, which, if Im being

honest, he was.
Thank you. I am okay. He didnt respond, just leaned over and

wiped my face with the cool, wet cloth. The drops of water slid down my

forehead and drew a line down my nose. One made it all the way to the

tip of it and stayed there, quivering.

He let go of my hand and reached out for me. He touched my

cheek and, as his hand travelled down, his thumb grazed that stray drop

and wiped it away. Then it moved down to my lips and brushed them

gently and tentatively. I let them part slightly and gave the tip of his

thumb a soft bite, just hard enough to taste him, but not so hard that I
would draw any blood. He tasted like salt, wind, and fresh meat.

Larissa, I

Do not talk. I pulled him down on top of me and wrapped my

arms around his broad, sinewy back. I slid one hand up between his

shoulders and the other down toward the waistband of his shorts. The

two of us locked eyes. He kept his hands down on the rock below me as

if he were ready to lift himself up at any moment, like he wanted to run

away.

Touch me, I told him. Touch me without fear.


Im not afraid. Its just He lifted up slightly to scrutinize me a

bit better. Are you alright? Youre acting a little different.

Yes, I told him, I am different. For years, I knew I was waiting

for a man who was worthy of me. I did not want to make love to anyone

who was not brave, intelligent, and unique.

You think Im those things?

I shook my head no. But you will be. I see now that I am here to

help you. If you do everything I tell you, I pulled him down and stared

straight into his eyes from only a centimeter away, I will reward you.
Right here in this cave, every time we lie down to go to sleep. Will you

do that? Will you let me make you into the man I know you can be?

He hesitated, but only for a moment. Yes, he breathed, and I

smiled. Anything you say.

Good. Now take off your pants.

His kicked off the last of his clothing in a flurry of movement,

fighting them the whole time. I slipped out of my shirt and shorts easily

and stood up to face him. Following my lead, he stood as well, but with

his pants balled up in his hands.


Put those down, I said, nodding at the wad. You dont need

them. He set them aside and shyly crossed his arms over his crotch. The

sight of it almost made me laugh, but I was smart enough to stop myself.

Laughter wouldnt help matters. Now come to me, I told him, leaning

back against the rock wall behind me. My hands reached out for him,

and he gently took them and then awkwardly stepped closer.

Careful. Dont step on me.

Sorry! I didnt mean to. I mean, sorry.

You can apologize by kissing my breasts. I guided his head


down to my right breast and then leaned my head back and let my body

relax as he sucked on my nipple like an eager servant. I had never felt so

confident, so sure of what I wanted before. It was extremely arousing. I

reached down between my legs and felt that I was extremely wet, more

than I had ever been. He switched sides, and I closed my eyes, loving

the feel of him on me, of me giving up and melting against the rock as he

devoured me.

His head rose up, and I rewarded him with a kiss. Touch me, I

whispered in his ear. Touch me like you love me. He ran his hands
down my ribs and around my waist and then down to my big, round butt.

I had my mothers shape, and she had blessed me with an ample rump

that always got me a bit more attention than I would have liked, but she

assured me it was better to have some extra curves rather than not

enough.

Slap it.

He gave one cheek a light slap, and I grabbed his chin. You call

that a slap? Try again.

A second round gave me the ringing, stinging sensation I was


looking for, and I let out a strange, insane laugh. The kind mentally

insane humans make. Again. Again.

He got into the spirit and really let me have it, filling our little

enclave with delicious, sharp sounds and grabbing my cheeks in between

spankings to give me a nice squeeze. I turned around and stood with my

legs apart. A few more. I love it. You are so good at this.

He complied, but the moment passed as quickly as it had come,

and we both softened a bit and melted into one another. He slid his arms

around me and kissed my neck and then travelled down my shoulder


blades, his hands caressing my breasts. I reached down and back to feel

his hips and bring them closer to me.

Do it. Do it now.

Here?

Thats what I said. Do it! And stop being so shy. I want you to

show me what a big, strong man you are. That was all he needed to

hear. His long, hard erection slid into me from behind, and I felt myself

open for him. The pleasure was almost more than I could stand and

ripped through me from my toes to my scalp. He drove himself in deeper


and harder, not relenting for a moment. I relished the feel of his hips

pushing into me in a steady, yet somehow desperate rhythm. I leaned

back so my head was on his shoulder and just enjoyed the feel of him as

he pumped back and forth.

Im coming, he whispered.

Good. Do it. I grabbed his neck and pressed my face against his

ear. His neck felt strong and sturdy under my hand which made me very

happy. I wanted him strong.

Oh, IIoh, Larissa He jerked and shook a bit as his orgasm


overtook his body. I waited until he was done and slipped out of me

before I turned around. He had a ridiculous, cocky smile on his face and

was reaching out for me. Come here and lie down with me.

In a moment. I settled back against the rocks and reached

down to touch myself in that spot that I liked so much. I knew it was the

most sensitive part of my whole body, and anytime I bothered it I was

rewarded with a nice, warm climax. This time, however, the usual

loveliness was interrupted.

What are you doing? Black Feather, now my lover, asked me, a
horrible tone in his voice. Dont do that.

I stopped to walk over to him and put a solitary finger in his

chest. Lets get one thing straight, my little bird, I said through a set

jaw. I am in charge of how I feel, not you. If I want to pleasure myself, I

will. Understood?

He blanched for a moment, but he backed up with a quick nod

that told me he was acquiescing to me fully. Relieved, I leaned back and

enjoyed myself, felt the warm wetness between my legs, and brought

myself to a lovely, full orgasm. Afterward, I laid down in my usual spot


and took a nap. I didnt look to see what Black Feather was up to; I knew

he wouldnt wander too far.

The next few nights were frustrating. I kept trying to train Black

Feather for life in the desert, and he kept trying to interrupt me with

kisses and touches. Every few minutes, I had to swat his hand away like

an annoying mosquito.

Focus. This place wants to kill you and eat your flesh. If you can

survive the Nothing, you can survive anything.

I am focused. Im focused on you, he would say with his


crooked smile.

Stop it. Look, the beetle we were tracking slipped away from us.

Thats what focusing on love will get you.

That comment made him stop and consider me a little more

seriously. Are you in love with me, Larissa?

I froze. Was I? I had never been in love before. The only love I

had ever known was for my family, and they stopped speaking to me

long before I left the compound. I loved science and the pursuit of

knowledge, but that wasnt the same. Did I love Black Feather?
What I feel for you is something strong, but it is not the kind of

love you are talking about.

He crinkled up his nose at me and crossed his arms. Youre

spending every night with a man you dont love? You broke a man you

dont care for out of Bachmanns prison? He moved a little closer. If

this isnt love, what is it?

I dont know.

Yes, you do.

No, I mean, there is something. But, I do not have a name for it.
I am not sure what to call it.

Sounds like love to me.

For whatever reason, that made me angry. I had to push the

emotion down and rub it away from my face. Listen to me, I tried

again, we can talk about all of this when the sun comes up. We are

losing valuable time. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. Perhaps

my love has to be won. Show me you are committed to learning, and I

may begin to open my heart. But the more you frustrate me, I opened

my eyes, stepped closer to him, and bore down on him with my hard,
serious stare, the greater the chance Ill leave you out here alone. Then

well see what you focus on.

He nodded, and I saw a shift in him at that moment. After our

stand-off in the sand, he backed off with the affections and little

attempts to seduce me. He finally just let me be in charge, and I did

warm up a bit. He worked on his hunting in both human and bird form,

though he was a natural as an animal. Black Feathers parents had both

worked for the government for many years, so hunting had never been a

necessity for either. They simply took their checks home and went to the
store in the old shifter neighborhood. On the compound, they went to

the food stand three times a day. Id always seen them there when I

went to help my mom fry up the mice and serve the sage water we made

every day.

As a bird, Black Feather was a species called a red kite. He did

have some lovely, deep red feathers, but they were overpowered by the

large amount of black in his plumage. He explained to me that his family

had come to the State from another side of the ocean, like mine, and that

where he was from, there were many red kites.


My dad told me he and his friends used to have flying contests

all the time, he said one morning as he held me after our lovemaking.

They would have to perform all kinds of tricks swoop down and snag

a coin from the tall grass, fly through hoops, fly through a narrow path

between two planks of wood, all kinds of things. He loved it, but after a

while they were outlawed.

I looked at him while he was lost in his memories. He didnt

look comfortable in his mental state, but rather like a little boy

squirming in his seat. What happened?


A little girl was killed.

I sat up, shocked. What? How? By one of the red kite shifters?

He shook his head. No one was sure what happened. Something

attacked her while everyone was watching the competition. Back then,

he explained, the locals didnt mind seeing some people change into

animals. They saw it as fun, a kind of entertainment. But after someone

lost their daughter to some strange attack, everything changed.

Suddenly, we were the enemy. My dad and his friends offered to

find the killer, to bring him, or her to justice, but by then no one was
listening. All the shifters were separated out from the human

community. They were denied things like electricity and running water,

so soon they were dirty and rough-looking. My dad said he barely

recognized his hometown after just a few months of living away from

the humans.

People became meaner, shifters grew more and more scared,

everyone was angry. To his surprise, my father found himself accused of

the murder and suddenly being informed that he could leave town for

good or go to jail. My mom was pregnant with me, so he chose the


former.

I put my hand to my heart in shock. Your father?! He could

never kill someone.

Black Feather shrugged. I know that. But, for whatever reason,

people turned on him. He doesnt like to talk about it, but one night

while my mom was out, he told me some of the details. He said the girls

body had horrible claw marks going across it, and that it did appear as if

a large bird had gashed her. But the more he tried to figure out who had

done it, the more dead ends he found himself in. None of the shifters he
knew were violent or seemed to have any reason to kill a child.

The worst part, Black Feather continued as he held me closer,

was that not long after wed left, another murder, almost identical to

the first, happened just a short distance from the original. Even though

it proved my fathers innocence, he was still too scared to go home.

I shook my head. It was a human. Im positive.

He yawned. Me too. But theres no proof. And the murder was

done in such a way so that a shifter would get blamed. So, what can we

do?
I had no answer, so I fell silent. In a few minutes, Black Feather

was asleep, but I had that girls bloody body burned into my mind. Even

though I hadnt been there, I felt as if I had witnessed each step of her

demise.

In my imagination, I saw a lonely, quiet man who observed a

sweet, laughing girl as she played with her friends and ran in the grass.

Then, he tried to befriend her, but her instincts told her this was not

someone she could trust. She ran away. He became angry and began to

plot and scheme. He decided if he couldnt have her in his life, she
couldnt have a life of her own.

Maybe he did do something to her, something awful, and

became frightened she would tell someone. I could see him using a

special tool or weapon he had made himself, something in the shape of a

claw to tear her flesh open and leave her to die on the grass. Poor angel.

She never stood a chance. The violence of humans is simply too deep

and too inescapable.

I slept long after Black Feather had nodded off and woke before

the sun had finished setting. I walked out to the edge of our little stone
house and watched it go down, and saying a prayer for that little girl. I

prayed for her soul and for peace of mind for her family. Just because I

was angry, it didnt mean I had to wish anyone any violence.

After all, Im no human.


Chapter Seven

Time went on the way it does in a desert: slowly, and yet in a

blink. Soon, weeks had passed, and Black Feathers clothing had worn

down to shreds of their former selves. I no longer bothered with

anything more than my shorts. We were only out at night, anyhow; I

didnt have to worry about protecting my skin or being seen. No one had

ever found us and, as far as I could tell, no one was looking for us.

Black Feather developed as a hunter, and soon he began to

impress me with his tool-making. He made some of the tough grasses by


the waterhole into a kind of whip that flung small rocks out like deadly

bullets, making our hunts faster and saving us a lot of energy. He also

found some clay and fashioned a kind of bowl that he then fired on a

high flame one day while I slept. I expected his usual pride to greet me

when I woke up, but he must have been paying attention when I

informed him that he was not in charge. Instead of a smug grin, I was

greeted by a quiet, deep red bowl in the evening. I was so thrilled that I

brought him the first round of water. It was the first time I had ever

given a gift to someone.


One day, Black Feather turned to me and asked, What exactly

are we preparing for? Whats the point of all this training?

I think you know.

He flung a rock at a mouse but missed by just a centimeter. The

little thing scampered off as fast as it could, and he turned back to me.

Im a little frightened to say it out loud.

Youve survived living in the desert with me, I assured him.

You should not fear anything. I looked up to consult the Children.

They looked happy that night, as if they were excited and waiting to see
what we would do next. I smiled at them and then looked down to see

Black Feather smiling at me.

Were taking down the president, arent we?

I nodded. His time is over. The two of us are going to worm our

way into that castle of a mountain and tear him apart. He wont know

what hit him.

How are you going to do that? Theres no way youll be able to

get in by water again.

I dont need to, I assured him. I have your experience, and we


have contacts with people on the inside. Besides, I moved forward and

touched his shoulder, have you forgotten that you can fly?

That morning, we sang to the rising sun with a strength wed

never sung with before. As the words floated into the sky, we made eye

contact and found ourselves overcome with lust.

We went back to our cave and made love desperately, biting and

tasting one another as if we would never see one another again. We both

knew that after that day, everything would change. Everything would be

a challenge. We didnt know if our connection would be strong enough


as it was, so we deepened it by wrapping ourselves up into a single, four-

armed, four-legged beast with two heads in hopes that a combination of

us would be strong enough to fight back any opposing force. We slept

tangled up together and only separated after the sun set again. We left

our cave quietly and a bit sadly, shifting as soon as we could no longer

see it. I ran across the hot sand with my fossa heart pounding like mad,

while my red kite flew above me, flapping his wings like an guardian

angel.

The compound appeared on the horizon after we had run and


flown for most of the night. I saw the fence before I saw anything else,

and it shocked me with its height and its imposing structure. I could

sense the electricity buzzing through it long before I got close to it. My

instincts told me to stay back, and I listened. Rather than attempt to

look for an opening, I prowled the boundary between open desert and

the tall, electric wires, while Black Feather flew overhead, searching for

any kind of entrance.

As I prowled, I smelled something in the ground. The scent of a

young, female wolf rose up to my nostrils, and I pushed my big, soft


nose into the sand. My friend, Tina, had just been there, and her

footsteps led to the inside of the fence, not out. I followed her scent, and

it grew stronger toward a corner of the fence. I could tell by the smell of

her that she had crossed the line, but I couldnt see where. Everything

looked intact and dangerously charged. I moved back to assess the

situation a bit further, but saw nothing more.

Hey, I whispered. The sound came out in my deep, gravelly,

fossa voice. Black Feather! Come down here. I waited, while he circled

and then slowly flapped his big, majestic wings to lower down to the
ground.

What is it? For whatever reason, Black Feathers voice didnt

change when he was in bird form. It always made me a little jealous.

Its Tina. Shes passed by here recently, but I cant find how she

got in. Everything is locked and electrified. Do you see something I

dont?

He swiveled his head all around, inspecting the fence post and

the ground by it. Nothing looked disturbed or broken. How could a wolf

have passed by? He flew up and over to the other side, and something
caught his attention.

Hey, I found something. He hopped back, wings spread out and

curled in just a bit. He picked up a shiny object with his claw and

brought it back over and landed in a big dust cloud. What do you

think?

I sniffed it and smelled Tina, but much stronger this time. Yes,

shes used it. Okay, so I looked at the fence more closely. This piece

must fit into something or turn something off. Maybe it disconnects

something. The piece was a long rod of metal with a triangular tip. It
looked as if it could be used to get under an edge or maybe take out a

screw. But how had she used it without getting shocked?

We need Tina.

Black Feather, you cannot fly in there! Someone could turn you

in.

We looked at the fence again, the tool, and then each other. He

sighed. Ill have to risk it. Ill stay as high up as I can until I get to her

house. Then Ill get out fast. What do you think?

I think you are being very foolish. But, I closed my eyes and
resigned myself, you are also right. We need her. I think she may have a

second piece to this thing. If we just touch the fence with metal, well be

fried like a mouse.

Okay. He walked over to the side to give himself a bit of space

from the fence. He nodded to me, then spread his wings and took to the

sky. I looked around for some kind of cover, but the whole place was lit

up like crazy with security lights. I picked up the metal piece with my

mouth and carried it back the way Id come away from the glare. Once I

had procured a bit of darkness, I laid down to wait.


The wait seemed endless. In all that expanse of land and

artificial light, there was no sign of any animal, shifter, or human. It was

so quiet that the lack of sound made me shiver. Where were they? I tried

telling myself an old story to keep myself occupied, but I couldnt focus.

I remembered it was a story about two bad husbands who were

transformed into dogs, and their names had been Bow and Wow, which

is why dogs say Bow Wow! The story did nothing to console me, seeing

as it was a story about how life as an animal could not be anything but

horrible. Why did humans spread such lies?


Just as I gave up on the self-storytelling, I heard something. A

footstep and a clink. Then a quick zip, like a tight line being released. I

leapt to my feet and got into attack mode. Two voices floated across the

dark, and when I heard them, I relaxed. It was Tina and Black Feather,

both fully human and both smiling.

Its my beautiful fossa! I ran to her without hesitation,

knocking her to the ground so that I could nuzzle her with my big, furry

head. Hey! Careful. What do you think of our new fence?

What did you do, I purred to her, folding my paws on her


sternum and resting my head on them.

She put on an innocent face and put a palm to her cheek as if she

were truly clueless. Nothing. It was broken, so I fixed it. She kept her

eyes big and innocent until I busted out with a big laugh.

Tina, you are the best. I gave her a big lick. Is it safe?

Safe? She gave me a little push off of her so she could sit up.

Its never been safer!

A few moments later, we were strolling into the compound in

our human forms. I was completely naked; the last of my worn clothing
had finally given up and fallen to the ground. Black feather just had on

his shorts but looked great. His hair was messy and soft from the desert

winds, and he was in the best shape Id ever seen. Tina walked next to

me and gave me all the updates.

See, once we all got collared, Bachmann just got cocky. He

ordered the fence to be electrified, which it was, but of course the

humans asked us to do all the wiring. Well, none of them had seen me

before, and the word about the last, um, outburst was that the offender

was in jail. Thank you, Black Feather.


He gave a little bow.

Anyway, she continued, I volunteered for wiring duty, and no

one gave me a second look. I figured out a way to bypass the circuit and

just make the wires buzz as if they were dangerous. So, we have this

great fence that keeps the humans out, has signs showing that its locked

and loaded, and no one knows that it actually doesnt do anything. All

you have to do is go to the door where I picked you two up and undo a

couple of zip lines. We attached little metal bits at the end so we can just

put them right back once were inside. Thats the piece you found.
Law enforcers never come by? Black Feather looked around in

a bit of surprise at how great everything looked. There were more plants,

a few new food stalls, and it sounded like a party was happening close

by.

Why should they? Were all collared, remember? I checked

Tinas neck nothing. A couple of big cat shifters passed by and nodded

at us without any obvious fear or concern, and I saw that their necks

were naked as well.

So, you are all not wearing your collars. How strange. I cocked
an eyebrow at my friend. I wonder if someone found a way to neutralize

them.

I wouldnt know anything about it, she responded. At that

moment, we walked past a big, shiny metal sculpture made out of round,

flat pieces. The collars. Theyd been transformed into a strange, abstract

sculpture that stopped me mid-stride.

It was my father. Only he could have welded such a beautiful

piece. I stepped forward to touch it, but Tina stopped me. Weve got it

all configured so that on screen, they appear to be moving around. We


dont touch it; it might mess up a connection or a signal.

Was it? I couldnt finish the question. I was lost in the

whorls of the sculpture. Tina smiled and nodded.

This was all your dads doing. He was a truly great man.

Was?

Tinas face fell. Oh, Larissa. No one told you?

Told me what?

She took my hand and held it to her chest as she looked at me

with sad eyes. Your father, hehe passed away. He came down with an
infection, and it was just too much for him. She looked up at me and

swallowed hard. Im so sorry.

All the blood drained away from my head. How long had I been

wandering the wilderness? How many months had I been tangled up

with Black Feather like a lovesick idiot? I honestly had no idea. All I

knew was that I had missed the death of my father and left my mother

alone. I might as well have killed him myself and her as well; that was

how much damage I had done.

Sweetheart, are you all right? Tinas voice reached me, but it
sounded as if it were coming from far away. Do you need anything?

I felt as if I were back in the jail in the mountain. Tinas voice

seemed to echo off the insides of my skull. Thing...thing...thing The

ground beneath my feet rushed up to meet me, my body shifted, and

something fundamental changed inside of me. I hit the ground with a

hard thump, and everything went black.

Behind my eyelids, I went into the sky above the desert. There, I

walked among the stars. I almost tripped on the arrow that had pointed

me to water but I caught myself, then picked it up and carried it with me


on my way. I could see the Children not far off, and I wanted to visit

them.

When I approached, the stars glowed a little brighter in greeting.

I reached out to touch them and was surprised at how cold their light

felt to my soft, female hands.

Why are you so cold, my children?

They stayed silent, but a chill came over me. My astronomy

lessons came back to me, and I realized why they felt so empty and cool.

Theyve already died, I said out loud. My children died years ago.
These are just their ghosts. I reached out to the heart of the nearest

child and watched as my hand passed right through its core. As it passed

through, the stars winked out and became black pinholes in the sky one

by one. The sight of them falling into darkness made a massive,

torrential scream pour out of me and fill the night sky so completely that

I saw the moon start to shake.

Then I felt myself shake. Above me was a terrified Tina with a

crescent moon over her shoulder.

Larissa? Is it you? Whats happened?


Is it me? I sat up and realized as I moved that I felt very

different. My shoulders felt much bigger, and my normally curvaceous

hips were flat. I reached down to touch them, then froze as I got a look

at the space between my thighs. I had shifted into my male form. My

new body made me shiver a little. I didnt want to be a boy; I was home

and surrounded by friends. This was the time to be female, to be

recognized.

Its me. The boy me. I stood slowly, still spinning a little. I

switch sometimes, though its usually against my will.


Just then, Black Feather ran up with a cup of water, but it

slipped from his hand as soon as he saw me. Who are you?

Black Feather, its me. Larissa. I looked around at the small

crowd that had gathered to stand open-mouthed at the sight of my male,

naked form. Does anyone have a pair of shorts or pants? I feel very

exposed.

A couple of people ran off to their homes and left me to wait out

in the open. It would have been nice if someone had invited me to come

along with them and get me indoors, but I cannot have everything I want
in this life.

I had an extended, awkward moment of people standing and

looking at me, but not my body. Everyone kept gawking at my face. I

scowled back at them, but it did nothing to deter their saucer eyes. Tina

reached up to touch my cheek.

Larissa, she whispered, you look just like your dad.

I snapped back from her hand as if shed burned me. No.

She nodded, and I realized the rest of the group was nodding

with her. Yes, they murmured. Yes. You do. You look like your father.
Its impossible. Whenever I turn male, I just look like a boy

version of myself. I know I cant possibly look like my dad. A few of the

errand runners returned and one had a small mirror. It was the female

boar, the one whose brother was killed. She lifted it, and I saw someone

in the mirror who wasnt me. It was a man with a strong jaw and laugh

just beneath the surface of his deep black skin. A man with a soft dimple

in the side of his cheek. It was my father.

We brought you some clothes, a young girl said, holding them

out to me. I accepted and saw her gaze fall to just below my waist for a
moment. She smiled and turned away, but made sure to look over her

shoulder at me for a quick second. The look struck me as odd, but then I

realized she was flirting. Girls had never flirted with me before. It was

thrilling.

I dressed and then looked around for Tina. She had shrunk back

into the crowd. Can you take me to my mother? I asked her. She

nodded, and the two of us moved away from the frozen crowd. Even

Black Feather hung back and watched me walk away, unsure of what to

do with his now male lover.


We walked quietly across the compound to the big, twisted

structure my family and I had called home for so many years. I didnt

know what I would say to the woman who had raised me when she saw

me in my new body, but I prayed something would come to me. I took

deep, slow breaths and told myself not to make any presumptions. Let

her say what she will say. Dont get stuck in your own mind. We

reached the door and Tina knocked on the frame.

Maman Larissa? You home? I have someone who wants to see

you.
There was a long silence and then a shuffle of footsteps against

the dry ground. A figure came from the dark as if she had been hunched

in the shadows. It was my mother, but she looked very different.

When I had left her, she had had a grey streak in the front of her

hair. Now, her entire head was covered in grey and frizzy with kinky,

uneven curls that flew away from her face. I stood in the doorway to see

her, but before she reached me she stopped.

Neneko

Tsia. Tsia. She shook her head. No. No. She didnt know who I
was.

Mother, its me. Its your Larissa. I know I look different, but

Dont tell me your lies, ghost. Go back to the land of the dead.

My family has left me, and I need to be alone now.

I stepped into the darkness and motioned for Tina to stay by the

doorway. She complied and waited as I walked into the big, dark house.

The air around me was cool and empty. Dust floated through the

air in all directions. My mother sat in a chair to face the wide, open

expanse inside her own home. Above her were the individual platforms
we had used for sleeping back when I lived there, though I noticed that

now she had a human bed, and it appeared she had been using it. I

kneeled in front of her and took her hand.

Tss. Ghost, I told you to leave. This is my home, and youre not

welcome.

Mother, its me. Its your Larissa. I know I look strange, but

thats why Im here. Something has happened, and I have turned into my

father. Please, Neneko, faly, I need your help.

She leaned forward and looked deep into my eyes. I kept my eyes
wide and prayed she would see the real me deep inside my pupils. The

two of us stayed like that, locked into a mental grip and unwilling to

move for a long moment. She sucked a breath through her teeth and

then sat back.

Okay, ghost, she said finally, you may be my daughter, or you

may be a trickster. All I know is that you are not my husband. He made

every room bright and full of love. You have too much darkness in you to

be him.

Youre right, I assured her. Im not your devoted husband. I


am your daughter, but Ive been transformed into this, I gestured to my

new body. Please, I dont know whats happened. Can you help me?

She reached out to stroke my head, and I bowed it down into her

lap, feeling like a tiny girl all over again. We are fossas, my ghost friend.

And fossas are complicated creatures. Rare, dangerous, and undefined

we are legends, and we are reality.

Many times, fossas have changed from male to female and back

again. But you, she lifted my head up to look at me again, you seem to

have found some new magic in yourself. Something has allowed you to
be your father for tonight at least. Though, I should warn you, this is

most likely not a permanent change. My guess is that you will get your

old form back at some time.

I want it now.

She shook her head again and stared off into the distance. It is

not our choice how we change or who we become. These things are more

than we can manage. They are decided for us.

Tears came to my eyes at the thought of living for the next

several months or even years as a man. I didnt want this. I was still
Larissa. I couldnt take on this new shape. What can I do?

The important thing is what you do not do, she said, wiping my

tears away. You must not fight it, but rather use it. Learn from it.

Youve been given this change for a reason, just as you can be a fossa or

appear human. All of it is to serve you, and give you opportunities that

are designed specifically to teach you. Dont lose the lesson.

With that, she stood and walked to her bed, where she laid

herself down heavily and curled into a ball.

Mama? Nene? Neneko, can you hear me? Are you alright?
She didnt respond. She just let out a long, loud snore. I fought

down the rising tears and stood to go.

Tina was still in the doorway, waiting for me. When I came out,

she gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. I held her as tightly as my

new arms could hold another person and breathed in her wild, sweet

scent.

She pulled back and looked up at me. So, what can we do to take

advantage of this new state youre in?

Well, I said, I think Bachmann has been president long


enough. I say its about time his reign came to an end.

Tina smiled and nodded at that. We turned to go, and Tina

opened her mouth to say something to me, but before she could speak a

deluge of sirens filled the air. We both froze in place and slowly raised

our hands into the air as they began their usual speech.

All shifters, gather outside for an emergency meeting. All

shifters, step outside your homes, or you will be arrested. Any shifters

found without a collar will be taken in for questioning. You have three

minutes to comply.


Chapter Eight

They blew in like a storm determined to upend every skirt, turn

over every table, and send the food flying. No one had a good time when

the law enforcers were around, and we were no exception.

The fake electric fence held them up for a short while, but it

didnt take long for them to figure out that they could just cut their way

through. The revelation made them red with fury.

What did these filthy shifters do to this fence? This whole

things broken!
Hey, is that thing over there made of collars?

What the heck is going on in this compound? I thought you

guys had this under control!

We did! Everything was going so well. We havent had any

issues with any of these freaks for a long time. I assigned guard duty to

those lazy bastards over there.

Well? The whole group of enforcers fell silent as everyone

looked to one another for an explanation. No one had any, so they

turned on us.
Alright, you sorry bunch of criminals. Time to go to jail.

Everyones coming in until we sort this out.

I was one of the first to have the thin, flexible cuffs slipped

around my wrists. They were designed to get tighter the more one

struggled, so I was careful to move as little as possible. Some of the

younger, less experienced shifters fought the restraints and quickly

found themselves being squeezed to the point of the wires cutting into

their skin and their hands turning cold from a lack of circulation. Those

of us familiar with Bachmanns evil technologies were smart enough not


to correct them. Such a thing would mark us as enemies of the State.

They loaded us up and slammed the doors on us without any

cries of protest from the shifters. Something about all being arrested

together made it much less terrifying. Beyond that, I knew exactly where

we were going, and as soon as the doors were shut and we were on our

way, I informed my group about the details of the prison. They listened

and asked questions about the rings, the sensors, and the underground

lake. I answered as thoroughly as I could and made sure to remind them

that the waterway would surely be more closely guarded since my secret
mission.

Its still their water source, one older hawk told me. They can

only sit on it for so long. Besides, he added, theres always a way out of

a cage. The trick is making your jailer think youve truly acquiesced to

your imprisonment.

We all let that sink in as we bumped over the roads to the

presidents mountain. I looked around at the other faces in the car as

they all did their best not to stare at me too much. They didnt have to;

their thoughts were all painted right onto their faces.


Save us, they all thought. Save us and get us out of here.

I swallowed hard as the car careened around a corner, and we all

looked up as the sound of a large, automated door rising reverberated

through us. It stopped with a loud Ka-CHUNK, and then there was a

pause as we waited for the enforcers.

The doors of our temporary cell flew open, and we were each

pulled out and onto the floor. We had to sit there on the cold ground as

each of us was registered names, breeds, ages, school, all of it. I

decided to give a fake name as I wasnt about to explain to a bunch of


stupid enforcers that I had just become my father but normally I was a

girl, and by the way Im also the criminal who broke into this prison a

few months ago. No way, that was happening.

An enforcer crouched by me, and I made sure to look down as if

in shame.

Name?

Slo. Slo Ravanofanana.

What?

Its a traditional Malagasy name. My parents are from


Madagascar.

Sure. Okay, breed?

Lemur.

He laughed. No way! One of those little furry things that hop

sideways across the ground? Youre joking, right?

I shook my head. No, it wasnt a joke. I feigned embarrassment

and the man bought it.

Wow, he snorted, big fella like you and youre a little sideways

monkey. Never saw it coming. Alright, big guy, he laughed, patting my


back as if I were a child, this cell will be yours. He pointed to a blank

space, a basic cave with Tina and three other shifters inside. I pretended

I didnt know any of them and kept my head down as if I were truly

defeated.

As soon as I was escorted in, the bars appeared. I looked at the

guards hands no rings. I had counted on at least one of them having a

ring of some kind, but I remembered the two guards Id met before

saying they werent authorized to open cells. At that moment, I felt very

stupid and extremely headstrong for thinking a jailbreak would be a


simple stroll out of a cave. If anything, I realized, it would be twice as

hard the second time as the prison and probably the entire palace had

new, better security to prevent any future incidents.

Thinking back on my past adventures in Bachmanns palace, I

smiled a little. It had been fun biting off the finger of that human

government worker. I let out a little laugh before I realized what I was

doing. Everyone turned to stare at me incredulously. Had I gone insane?

Sorry. Sorry, everyone. The echo kicked in, saying

won...won...won. I cleared my throat and focused on the floor, trying to


look sad. It was difficult. That first night, I felt oddly thrilled to hear the

old echo. It made me think of that giant underwater lake, the desert that

kept it a secret, and the stars that mapped out the sky above the dry

ground. In an odd way, I felt very at home in that little cell.

The first night wasnt too bad. We all formed a square with our

bodies so that each person had another shifters stomach for a kind of

pillow. It wasnt perfect, but at least we got some sleep. In the dark, I

dreamed of small boats bobbing up and down on gentle waves and,

again, marveled at how safe and certain I felt.


Over the next few days, it became clear that I was the only

shifter feeling any sense of security in that place. Every morning, I woke

to the sound of a female cougar crying deep, wrenching sobs against the

bars of her cell.

My baby, she cried out over and over. Oh, my baby!

What happened to her child? I whispered to Tina.

Most of the little ones shifted and ran or flew off as soon as the

enforcers showed up. Her little girl must have done the same, but she

was pretty young. Tina shook her head. Outside the compound, it can
be very dangerous for little animals of all kinds. I just hope shes

alright.

I listened to the cries continue and then the law enforcers who

came in yelled at her. They banged on her bars and threatened to throw

her in what they called the pipe. I could only imagine that was the

name of my former escape hatch. I desperately wanted to get to it and

also to avoid it at all costs. I had barely survived the last time; I had no

reason to think a second trip would go well.

The days continued like that: crying, yelling, reflections, plans


that dissolved just as I got to the halfway point of them in my mind.

Some days, I sang with Tina. Some days we told each other stories about

our past adventures, but we only did this when the enforcers got lazy

and wandered off for a while. Maybe they went to smoke, maybe to eat,

it was hard to pay attention.

I think they have lovers waiting for them, Tina mused one day

as our jailers wandered up the stairway yet again. Why else would they

have such big smiles on their faces when they come back from being

away? No meal makes a person that happy.


Perhaps, I mused. I pulled a foot up onto my bench so that I

could put my chin on my knee. Have you been with many males, Tina?

You remember that human we met? The one who filled up your

tank? She smiled, and I quickly raised my head from my knee.

The two of you? I mean, he was nice and all, but, when? How?

She shrugged. I sent him a note attached to a little kite on a

windy day. I told him to wait for me in the open zone just after sunset

every night, and that I would come out any time I was able to get away.

It took about a week, but then we were able to meet up with each other
almost nightly.

My mouth fell open. In the open like that? You werent scared?

Well, we didnt stay there. We found a little spot under some

trees so we could be hidden. She gazed off into space as she

remembered those nights when she and her paramour were shielded by

the trees together. Her lips spread into a little smile as she thought

about him, and I gave her arm a slap.

What? Its a nice memory.

I know. I miss my nights in the desert with Black Feather.


She turned and gaped at me. You are joking! The two of you got

together? Her voice was so loud that it went bounding down the

hallway with an Ether...ether...ether? I saw a few shifters in other cells

approach their bars and lean out a little. I shook my head at her as she

slapped a hand over her mouth. She peeled it back to mouth, Sorry, to

me, and the both of us giggled silently.

Yes, the two of us got together. I had to motivate him, and it

was not easy.

Wait, she said softly, motivate him? To sleep with you?


No, dont be ridiculous, I shot back. I used sex as a reward for

things like successful hunts and him practicing his tracking skills,

bringing me water, that sort of thing. It was much harder than I

expected.

Tina did her best to suppress a laugh at the word harder, and I

slapped her again. Youre filthy, I informed her, but I was laughing.

So, she whispered, sitting closer to me, how was the sex?

It started off a little rough. You know, young men can be overly

eager. But, I shrugged, once he learned how to slow down, take his
time, it got nicer and nicer. Our last night together, the same night we

made it back home, we really got it right.

Oh yeah? She slid extra close as if we could possibly have any

secrets in that cell. Her whisper in my ear made it slightly more

believable. Tell me! I want to hear all about it.

The feel of her voice in my ear and my memory of my last night

with Black Feather made me start to blush and smile. I remembered the

taste of his sweat on his skin, the sound of the two of us grunting and

pushing together. It had been nice.


There is not much to tell, I whispered back. It was the kind of

sex two people have when they feel the world is about to end. We just

dug our fingernails into one another as hard as we could and made it last

for as many hours as possible. We wanted to run and to hide together all

at the same time. We loved each other but knew it was over. We had

nothing to lose. And the sex was I stopped and leaned back against the

rock. My heart had suddenly lost all sense of propriety and gone a bit

wild.

The sex was what? I looked over at Tina who was curled up
into a little ball with her knees against her chest. Come on, dont stop

there.

It was justsavage. Desperate. He was finally the man I wanted.

I worked so hard on shaping him, and he turned out to be, well, just the

right one for me.

As the story finished, Tina grabbed my arm. I looked to see

where the problem was, but she was just staring down at my lap.

Tina, what? What has all of your attention, my wolf?

Larissa, she said, a bit breathless, you have a huge erection


right now.

I gave her a little push away so that I could stand, and as soon as

I did I saw that she was right; I had become fully erect during my story.

Everyone in my cell noticed and started to whistle and applaud.

Not bad! Who knew? What are you going to do with that thing,

Lar? Tina quickly turned away so that she couldnt see it, and I turned

toward the bars, but that only brought attention from the others.

Whoa! Someones having a good day.

What is going on in that little cell right there?


Whatever it is, it looks like a lot more fun than the nothing

were doing in here.

Hey, I heard from the female boar, lets see it.

No, I answered. That is not happening.

Come on, Babe, she called out. Were all bored out of our

minds. Give us a little scandal. Just pull down your shorts.

Absolutely not. I turned away, but found two of my three cell

mates were on board with the ridiculous plan.

Aw, come on, Larissa, a female owl said, crossing her arms.
One of the best parts of being male is getting to show off your business.

Who knows if youll ever have another erection?

I thought about that, but couldnt quite answer. She moved

closer and then bent over and took hold of the bars.

Come on, soldier, she teased, leaning over. Her hips waved

from side to side in serpentine movements, they want a show. Lets give

them one. Dont be shy.

She unbuttoned the fly of her too-tight shorts and let them fall

to the floor where she kicked them away. Youll be doing me a favor. Its
lonely in these old, cold cells. Without quite knowing what I was doing,

I moved a bit closer to her butt cheeks as they danced in front of me. The

female owl, Clarice was her name, was a bit older than me, but not by

much. She had flirted with me a little each day, but I had never

entertained the idea of intercourse with her. However, she was attracted

to my male form and always let me know it. It was an odd thing to hear,

but I liked it all the same. Women must have said such things to my

father back when he was young and handsome. I wondered briefly what

my father would have done in this situation, but I quickly turned my

brain off as I unbuttoned my pants.


I slid myself into Clarice and felt how warm and soft she was all

around me. My eyes rolled back into my head. It felt as though her body

were hypnotizing me, begging me to take it over and not let go. My hips

pumped against her, and I felt a presence next to me. I looked over and

saw Tina leaning her head against the bars and masturbating with her

hand down her shorts. I leaned toward her, and we shared a warm, wet

kiss, while I was still inside Clarice. Tina moved a little closer to me and

watched my cock work in and out of Clarices very wet pussy, while Tina

rubbed her own and groaned loudly.


I felt something building way in the back of my skull. I let it

come forward, let it build in momentum and strength until it was right

behind my eyes and mouth. My lips parted, and the force came out as a

sharp yell and my insides exploded through me and poured out into

Clarice. She arched her back and let out a strange little cry, the soft lips

of hers that held me pulsed around my cock, and she laughed just a

little.

Oh, yes, she collapsed down a bit, let her head hang and then

slid forward and let me flop out of her. She turned and grabbed Tina, and
the two of them kissed, while Clarice helped Tina reach her own climax.

She pulled her friends hair and whispered something into her ear, while

sliding her hand down past the waistband of Tinas shorts. She bit Tinas

neck just a little, and Tina spasmed in her arms several times, her thighs

quivering a little as she came.

I just stood helplessly to the side, watching as the two girls

enjoyed each others bodies and seemed to be in on some secret I could

only hope to guess. It was as if I had never been female, never had a

vagina or a clitoris of my own. It was silly, I knew, but it really was as if I


had been born male. After my lovemaking with Clarice, I was not so

certain I wanted to be Larissa again. Perhaps I could stay as I was and

simply be Slo, but I recalled that the decision was not mine, so I just

put the thought out of my head.

By the time I pulled my pants up, the two girls had moved into a

corner for some privacy and continued petting and kissing one another. I

stayed against the bars, sweaty and out of breath. I glanced up and

looked down toward the other cages and noticed Black Feathers hands

were hanging just outside the bars of his cell. One of them waved to get
my attention. I waved back. The waving hand turned palm up and

extended up the middle finger. Then, both disappeared.

***

It was the next day that the questioning began.

Alright, Slo, the guard, a red-headed woman with a dark blue

ring on her thumb, informed me. Youre coming with me. The rest of

you just hang out, wait your turn.

The woman seemed friendly enough, but I silently reminded


myself to keep my guard up. We sat in a small room behind a door I had

not seen during my last visit to the prison. It was disguised to look just

like the rock wall that hid it and only opened with her special jewelry.

Okay, Slo, she said, gesturing to the water in front of me, just

want to ask how all these strange things happened at the compound. A

non-working fence, no one wearing their collars whats going on?

I shrugged. Im sure the others can tell you more than I can.

Once the fence stopped working, I spent more and more time beyond the

boundary.
She lifted her eyebrows and tilted her head at me. Thats against

the law, you know.

I know, I agreed. I shouldnt have done it, but I am not made

for small spaces. I needed to get out to where I could move a little more

freely.

She looked at my meager, two-page file. We dont have a lot on

you.

I feigned a casual air once again. Well, its rare anyone pays me

much attention. I think I may be a little boring.


She crossed her arms and sat back, looking me up and down.

What about the collars? How did they end up as public art?

I spread my hands to show my helplessness. What were we

supposed to do? They didnt work, they were hot and uncomfortable. My

friend is a welder and felt like doing something useful with them, so he

did. Everyone liked them much better as a statue, even the law

enforcers.

A long silence passed while she considered my words. She put

her chin on her steepled fingers and waited. I focused on the pretty
colors her hair made with its red tint pulling in the bright, yellow lights.

Just between the strands, I could make out a nice, golden hue that I

found truly beautiful.

What are you looking at?

I smiled at the question and gestured toward her curls. Your

hair, I told her. Its very pretty. Its not often I get to see red hair.

To my surprise, the compliment seemed to soften her a bit.

You, she said, blushing, are a very handsome man.

No. I smiled at her and threw out a pick-up line I recalled from
my younger days. Only one person is allowed to be truly good-looking

in this room, and you have claimed the title. There is nothing I can do

except enjoy the view. I gave her a wink.

She burst out laughing and reached out to take my hand. I held

hers as gently as I could, stroking her fingers. I think, she said, smiling

and dipping her chin down a bit, you might need another round of

questioning. Ill come find you tomorrow, and well try again.

Of course. Whatever you need.

She stood and moved over to me, then quickly straddled my lap
and gave me a big kiss. As soon as she was done, she stood and

straightened her clothes. Just a little sample. To inspire you.

I couldnt respond. My heart pounded harder than when Clarice

had bent over to turn me on and was even wilder than it had been at that

moment. Was this why my father had always been in such high spirits?

Perhaps women had jumped into his lap at every opportunity as well. It

would explain why my mother always had a sour expression on her face

during the day.

My redhead led me out and back to my cell. She didnt bother


cuffing me with anything. I couldnt get anywhere without one of those

magic rings, so there was no point. She slipped her hand into the enclave

at the side of the cell, and the bars vanished. My cell mates stepped

forward so she shoved me in quickly and then got the bars back into

their place.

Nice try, she scoffed. These cells are the latest technology and

cant be broken out of in any way. So, she shrugged and smiled a little,

enjoy your stay. She gave me a little wink and turned to the next cell.

We all stayed still and silent until she was back behind the rock
wall and couldnt hear us. Once the rocks slid shut, everyone descended

on me.

What was that? Why was she winking at you?

What did she ask?

What do they want to know?

I answered each question as well as I could, but I quickly

changed the subject. She wants us to be lovers, I explained. I think I

have a plan that can get us out of these cells.

Can you get us off the mountain? Tina asked, grabbing my


arm.

I smiled. Why should we leave? I asked her. I say we take over

the palace.

Her eyes widened and sparkled a little as they always did when

she was in the mood to make a little trouble. Well, she said, slipping an

arm around my back, what do you need to make that happen?

We all huddled together, and I started explaining different

aspects of the palace security to them and how I had attacked during my

last jailbreak. Soon, they were all nodding and smiling.


If we stuck together, we could do it. We could make the palace

ours and send the government workers far from there to fend for

themselves as we had done for so long. One by one, they broke off to

perform different tasks that I gave them. Clarice sashayed away from me

with a little hair toss. She may have felt a little jealous, but I didnt have

time to explain the lack of emotion involved in my male, sexual exploits.

She would just have to get over it.

By the time my saucy redhead had emerged, we had finished our

assorted tasks and were all stretching out for the night. We had a big day
ahead.


Chapter Nine

It didnt happen right away. I had to wait for my new lady. I was

nervous, so I exercised the way I had seen my father do it for so many

years. He would push his body up and down like a flat plank of wood on

levers until he couldnt stand it anymore, then rise up into a sitting

position from reclining on the floor, often with a twist. I did my best to

remember and, to my surprise, my cell mates joined me.

You dont have to do this, I told them, but they just ignored

me. Tina gave me a little kick.


Youre not wandering the desert anymore, she said. Youre

part of a team now.

Hearing her sentiments made me sit up and twist a little harder

and faster. I loved Tina so much.

Long after our second meal had finished, she appeared. My

redhead had changed into a stern, womans suit with a sharp-shouldered

jacket and a tight, short skirt. I made sure to give her a not-so-secret

glance from under my eyebrows as she walked up to release me.

Alright, Slo, she said angrily, were going to try this again.
And this time, she stepped as close to me as she could so that her

breath hit my face, youre going to do as youre told.

She grabbed my wrist and yanked me out. I played along and

stumbled out even though I outweighed her by about one hundred

pounds. It took all my effort not to smile. She was devoted to her new

role of mean jailer, but I was struggling with my part as chastised

prisoner. I was already looking forward to the next part of my big plan.

The bars of my cell materialized behind us, and my cell mates

barely gave them another look. Just like wed practiced.


We made it to the secret room, and the rock slid back with its

usual rumble. Inside, there was still the same table and chairs, but

suddenly it all looked very different. The whole place felt extremely

volatile and dangerous. If I made any missteps, it would be.

The redheaded guard took a seat and crossed her long legs and

then folded her arms. I think you might have contraband hidden

somewhere on you.

I instantly started to sweat. How did she know? Then I realized,

this was the game.


Perhaps. I certainly wouldnt tell you, my horrible, cruel jailer.

No, she said, adjusting her weight in her seat, you wouldnt.

You prisoners just cannot be trusted. She jabbed the air with her chin

and lowered her eyes to my waist. Strip.

I pulled up my worn out, white shirt slowly, letting her enjoy the

sight of my sculpted abdominal muscles as I went. The sweaty shirt

dropped to the floor, and I unbuttoned my fly. The pants I had on slid

down slowly on their own, but I made sure they really took their time as

I bent over far too much to get them off. My shoes had been taken from
me the first day, so I was already barefoot. When I stood, I rolled up

slowly and let her take in the view.

She shook her head with a Tsk, tsk, tsk. What have you brought

into my prison?

She stood and walked over to me, turned me around and grabbed

my cock with one hand. This looks like it could easily be used as a

deadly weapon.

Only on a woman as beautiful as yourself. I tried to turn

around, but she held me to my original position.


Stay like that, she ordered. I dont want any romance.

No romance. Sure. I waited as she undressed behind me and

then bent over the table. Get over here. Do it. No small talk and no

foreplay. She looked over her shoulder at me with a glare. Just do it

hard. Thats how I like it.

I turned around to see her pale form ready and waiting. Her legs

were much skinnier than the shifters I knew. It must have been a

specifically human trait. She had a very small butt as well, and it made

me think of my juicy, round butt that I had sported with so much pride
as a female.

Even in my male form, I still had prominent cheeks that I felt

very good about. I moved closer to her and put my hands on her hips.

Youre being too gentle, she said over her shoulder. Be

rougher.

I had no idea what she meant, but then I thought of my last

night with Black Feather. That had not been a night of gentle love-

making, but rather a round of wrestling that included penetration. I put

that memory at the forefront of my mind and tried again.


With an open palm, I gave one of her tiny butt cheeks a nice

slap. She moaned, so I gave her a few more, changing sides a few times.

Yeah, she groaned, thats what I want.

I pulled her hips back with a sharp jerk, then pushed her a bit

more forward on the table. There was no reason to do either, but it

helped fulfill her fantasy. I slid my hand between her legs and felt how

wet she was, and the sensation went through my whole body. She had

cast her spell on me, and I could only obey. My hips pushed forward, and

I entered her with one long, forceful motion.


Harder!

I slammed myself into her, and she began to laugh like a

madwoman. I didnt know why, but it made me want her more and want

to obey her more. The moment took over, and I felt some movement in

my mouth. The ring I had hidden in my cheek had slipped back toward

my throat. I coughed it up onto my tongue but it slipped out. I caught it

before it hit the table and kept it in my hand.

Still pumping into her, I leaned over and put my hand on the

table next to hers, the ring hidden underneath. I hoped and prayed this
would work. One of my knees went up on the table, and she moaned her

approval so I kept going. She stopped me with a hand. Lets get up

here, she said between gasps and motioned toward the table.

I helped her up and then kneeled behind her. Then, it happened;

she reached out and grabbed my hand with hers, and I felt it. The ring I

needed was right there on her thumb.

Making sure not to look, I gently slid the ring off of her finger.

While she had her eyes closed, I put it under my hand and slid out the

second and left it on the table as if it had fallen there. The real ring went
into my cheek where the fake one had been. Then, I focused my efforts

on the task at hand and pumped into her with such force that she nearly

fell forward several times.

Lets move to a chair, she whispered, and we got off the table.

From the top of it, the fake ring sat and watched us as we moved into

one of the hard, metal seats. I sat, and she climbed onto my lap and rode

me with a vicious, angry rhythm. Dont you dare come before me, she

whispered into my ear. I tell you when we finish.

Again, I was powerless. She both repelled me and enchanted me


with each statement she made. It was thrilling and terrifying all at once.

Somehow, just knowing how angry she would be if I didnt do as I was

told was enough to help me maintain myself and stay hard for her. She

worked herself up and down faster and faster, grunting and panting as

she went. After several minutes, she was sweating hard. She threw her

head back and let out a loud, triumphant cry.

Yes! Oh, yes! Oh, thats what I like. She went limp against me

for a moment, laughed her madwoman laugh again, and then patted my

cheek. Okay, you can come now.


With her permission, I had a huge, explosive orgasm that came

up from my toes and ripped through me. I pumped into her and then

collapsed myself. She looked into my eyes and gave me a kiss, then

something happened.

I didnt feel it at first, but I saw my reflection in her eyes. There,

in my reflection, I saw my face morphing into something else. My

redhead moved back with a pale, slack face.

What...what are you...What is this? She grabbed her clothes

and held them in front of her. Her new, false ring clattered to the floor
and she quickly picked it up.

My change happened fast. Before too long, I was female Larissa

again and stark naked in the room with my jailer who had counted on

needed, in fact for me to be male. I held up my hands in a show of

trust.

This is just something my body does sometimes. Please, dont

be scared

You are all a bunch of freaks! She shoved her ring on and

quickly stepped into her skirt and angrily buttoned up her blouse. I
cannot believe this is happening. I just needed one little thrill, just

something to get me through another night with my husband, and this is

what I get! She threw her jacket down and tried to collect herself, but

she was boiling over with rage. Im a good person, she informed me. I

nodded, hands still in the air.

Get dressed. Youre going back to your cell. I quickly moved to

get my pants and shirt, but they felt odd on top of my curves. The pants

barely went over my ample butt, and the shirt was sleeveless and let the

sides of my breasts show. My guard didnt care, she just slipped her ring
on and went to open the door.

This is it. This is my moment, I thought. However, my moment

didnt come. The door just opened the way it always did, and my heart

jumped up into my throat.

I had mixed up the rings.

She turned to me with a look of disgust and jerked her head at

the door. Well, come on. Dont just stand there, freak. We need to get

you back in your cage.

I couldnt move. I just stood silently, looked at her, looked at the


door, then before I could think about it another moment, I flung my

head to the side and spat the fake ring out at her face.

Gah! She put her hands up, and I leapt, shifted mid-air and,

using my giant fossa paws, I tackled her to the ground. She slammed

into the doorframe with a hard smack and then went limp. Maybe she

was dead, I didnt know. I just knew I had to work fast.

With my teeth, I scraped her ring from her thumb and then ran

out with it at top speed to the cell where Tina was waiting. I threw it

with a quick head jerk, but to my horror, the second ring flew out at her
as well. One bounced into a grate on the floor while the other hit the

wall behind her. She looked at me with open-mouthed shock; what had

happened?

Move! I ran down to the other end of the hallway where I

could hear guards coming in through the door. No alarms were going off

yet, and I could only pray they wouldnt. The footsteps came down, and I

crouched in the shadow just below the stairs and reminded myself that

this was the moment to be patient, not to pounce. I hunched into a ball

and listened as the steps descended.


There is no way we can take in any more shifters. Were at

capacity.

You think Bachmann cares? If he finds another one, hell insist

we lock it up. Even if its a baby.

Youre crazy. The little ones need extra care. Besides, just like

with animals, when shifters dont have their mothers, they die. Problem

solved.

Whoa, hey. Whats that?

Oh no. The two ran over to my unconscious redhead and knelt


down. One of them pressed the small button in his ear and asked for

help. He looked around and saw my eyes in the darkness.

Oh no. No, no, no He meekly tapped his friends shoulder

and swallowed. You see that?

What? What are you? He turned and saw me, and then his

knees turned to water. He kneeled on the ground and covered his face.

Please, he whimpered, please dont kill us.

I flicked my tail and focused on them with my best, most

terrifying stare. Slowly, I prowled out just enough to let the light
illuminate me a bit more. My tail snaked back and forth, and the two of

them watched it just like I wanted them to.

I saw one of them start to go for his taser, and I leapt. Using the

wall near me, I propelled myself through the air and landed on the first.

I grabbed his taser away with my mouth, while he screamed and turned

his head to one side, his high-pitched yells bouncing off the walls.

Please dont kill me! Please dont kill me!

His voice was going insane all over the walls and hurt my

sensitive ears terribly, so I zapped the side of his neck with his own
taser, and he went limp. I looked at his friend, and he reached out for his

own taser. I shook my head, and he just gently set it down and then kept

his hands in the air. I nodded slowly to let him know that, yes that was

what I wanted.

Larissa, a voice said behind me. I turned to see a group of

shifters, some in animal form and some in their human shape, standing

behind me. Wolf Tina was at the head of it and giving me her fang-filled

grin. Get their passes so we can get out.

I walked up to the first, unconscious guard and slipped his pass


out of his pocket with my teeth. No rings for these underlings. I

wondered briefly what could have come to pass with the first two jailers

I took on. They must have been released, possibly executed. This would

be the fate of these two as well. I waited to feel bad about them, but the

emotion never came. The pass slid out of his breast pocket, and I turned

to give it to a human-form shifter. Clarice walked up and took it from

me. Good fossa, she said sarcastically and winked at me. The comment

made me a little weary on the inside. I was actually nervous for her to

find out I was no longer male.


Clarice took over the lead, and we left our captors on the floor as

we headed up the spiral, metal stairs. I started to call out to stop

everyone for a moment, to warn them what would be waiting for us, but

no one seemed too concerned. Clarice just opened the door and stepped

through.

At the top, the hallway was quiet. This threw me as the memory

of my last run was full of busy workers bustling around the hallway,

talking into their communicators and avoiding one another. Where had

they all gone?


The group turned to look at me. I took a deep breath and tried to

clear my head.

Okay. Let me think. I looked up the hallway with my fossa eyes

and zeroed in on a slightly open door. There. That door cant close. Tina,

get down there and see whos behind that door. Two other wolves go

with her. Then I looked around the group, and my eyes landed on

Black Feather and two of his airborne friends a male hawk and a

female redtail. My fliers. I need you to go out a window and take stock

of the situation. Try to vary your flight as much as you can. Be careful.
They nodded and walked away, the hawk and the redtail shifting

as Black Feather went to push the window open, then joined them in the

flight outside.

Tinas growl from down the hall reached me. What did you

find?

Humans, she called back. What do we do with them?

I looked around the group. All predators, shift now. Were

taking the humans hostage, to keep us safe. They can get us into

whichever room Bachmann is hiding in. A few more animals took form
nearby; a panther, a bear, a mongoose. Together, we joined Tina and

found a group of government workers packed together in some sort of

storage space. I looked at the walls and saw several extra devices

hanging, some clipboards stacked, and some pieces of paper. I had no

idea what a group of people would need with so many extra things.

Youre coming with us, I informed them. We wont harm you

as long as you do what we say. Understand?

Before they could answer, several of the humans sniffled a bit as

tears rolled down their faces. One man close to me suddenly reeked of
urine, and when I turned my head I could see that he had wet his pants.

No one will attack you. You have my word. We want to be taken to

Bachmann. Now.

Okay, he whispered. He stood and led the group out one by

one. I took the lead, and my fellow predators surrounded them, keeping

them penned up in their space so that they couldnt disappear. As a unit,

we moved down the hallway quietly, all of us on high alert for different

reasons. I knew the presidents personal guard would descend on us as

soon as they could, I just wasnt sure which direction they would come
from.

We turned a corner and met with a fork in the hallway. Which

way? I asked the man with the wet pants. He paused, and his eyes

darted back and forth. I knew right away that he was desperately trying

to find a way out of the situation. I put a paw on his foot. Dont lie to

me, I reminded him. If I find out youve tricked me, Ill devour you in

three bites. He looked into my big, black fossa eyes and shakily nodded

yes. He would comply. Tell me now.

Left, he said, still shaking. The presidents office is that


direction. I noticed a few of the other humans let out a sigh as he said it

a sound of disappointment. He was telling the truth.

Thank you. I angled to the correct hallway. Lets go.

As we walked down the hallway, we started to encounter new

humans. I managed to get most of them away from us with a snarl and a

flash of my long incisor teeth. They threw up their hands and ran away

as fast as they could. Others froze. Soon, an alarm was sounded, and an

automated voice boomed through the air.

WARNING! WARNING! THE PALACE HAS BEEN


COMPROMISED. PLEASE EVACUATE THROUGH THE NEAREST

EXIT. WARNING! WARNING! The voice repeated itself over and over. I

looked over at Tina, who looked just as uncomfortable as I was.

We have to move faster.

She nodded and pushed the human in front of her with her

muzzle, and we got the group moving at a faster pace. Then I saw them

the men in black uniforms with the guns.

The president didnt keep a lot of security around. Usually, he

didnt need it. The population was so highly controlled and so paralyzed
with fear that state-level problems were almost non-existent. But,

Bachmann was still Bachmann, so he had a highly-specialized squad of

fighters that trained in some kind of ancient practice called Swat. They

moved like machines, emotionless and expressionless, and each one had

ways of silently communicating with all the others. Even their guns were

highly specialized and designed to shoot with just the tiniest sound so

that even as they attacked they could advance unseen and unexpected.

Everyone was afraid of the Special Forces, and, at that moment, I

understood why.
They came out, and immediately I doubted my own vision. Their

covered faces made them seem less real and therefore less threatening,

so I didnt react right away. A bullet whizzed by my head and got Clarice

in the leg. I quickly pulled down the man closest to me and raised my

paw up to show that I was ready to strike. Put your weapons down or

these humans will be mauled and killed.

They didnt listen. They simply took a synchronized step

together and continued shooting. The whole group scattered, and I

rushed the nearest shooter. His bullets are the bugs I ate in the desert, I
told myself as I dodged and rolled under the flying bits of metal. I know

their flight; I just have to be aware of what direction his hand is

pointing in. He aimed low, and I jumped high, right into his face, and

sank my teeth into his skull.

I had never killed someone before. Sure, the redhead may have

died, but that was by accident. That first man was intentional, a kill I

meant to complete and wanted to see through to the end. His skull

snapped and cracked inside my mouth, and the blood poured out. I bit

all the way through to his soft, jelly-like brain as his body fell to the
floor. By the time I lifted my head, all kinds of chaos was taking place

around me.

The other shifters had followed my lead, some to their deaths

and others to victory. Those of us who made it killed the shooters who

had been aiming at us and quickly shifted into our human forms to

shoot the guns ourselves.

I aimed my gun with straight, bare arms and squeezed the

trigger, but the gun just gave an impotent click in my hands. The man I

aimed at smiled and lifted his gun to kill me, and I saw it; he had a
special ring that activated his gun. I looked down and saw the ring I

should have thought to check for on a dead, limp hand. For a moment, I

started to lean down, then I heard the shot and went still.

My eyes squeezed shut, and I stayed halfway down and halfway

hunched. It took me a moment before I realized that I wasnt dead. Once

I did, I tentatively opened my eyes and went low on the ground. From

my crouched position, I saw a naked Tina in front of me with a gun in

her hand and a ring on her finger.

Youre okay, she told me. Grab his ring, and the gun will work.
I think these open doors as well.

Thank God, you are so intelligent. I pulled the little piece of

jewelry from his thumb and put it on my own. I held the gun pointed

down at the ground. I couldnt shift if I wanted to use the weapon, but it

would serve a purpose. I looked around the space and saw that we had

taken out all the members of the Special Forces, but they had killed

some of ours as well. Clarice was dead on the ground, as was a female

boar and a panther. We still had a decent number, but it was a blow

nonetheless.
Our captives were all gone. I imagine they scattered at the first

opportunity, and I worried that one of them had gone to help the

president.

Lets go! Bachmann must be close! Tina and I led the group,

our guns out and pointed at the ground, ready to lift and shoot at any

moment. We walked quickly and then broke into a run. A big door

loomed in front of us, and we got ready to burst through it, but suddenly

we were blocked.

Several older shifters appeared in front of us and crossed their


arms, standing their ground with wide-set legs. We slowed down and

faced them.

Get out of our way.

An older, male mole moved forward and scratched his human

chin with an extremely long claw extending from his finger. Why would

we do that?

Because, I said, President Bachmann is dying today, and

youre in my way. I wont spare you.

You know, he said, that I am personally sworn to defend and


protect the president, even if it means laying down my own life.

Why would you? Tina challenged him. Hes done nothing, but

make us his scapegoats, starve us, and imprison us.

He shrugged. What would all of you do to the humans if you

were in charge? Kill them? Imprison them?

No, I said, moving forward and towering over the mole. I stood

so that our noses were nearly touching. The humans forgot about us. I

would simply return the favor. We live how we want; they live how they

want.
Sure about that?

I nodded, and a smile broke out across as his face. No more

killing? I have your word?

You do.

Alright, then. Lets go tell Bachmann hes been dethroned.

Behind him, the doors were opened to reveal a big, ornate office

with a huge chair covered in animal skins. The space was empty. We all

paused in the doorway for a moment, then gradually trickled in one by

one. I noticed another set of doors across the room, and I asked our new
friends about them.

We dont know where anything goes, the mole explained. Our

movements within the palace are highly restricted. We can only come,

work, and leave. I imagine these doors just go to other parts of the

building.

We opened everything and found passageway after passageway.

Tina noticed a dent in the floor and moved the floor covering to reveal a

secret door below our feet. I lifted it to find a kind of tube that a grown

man could easily slide down were he to need a way out of the room. I
sighed at the sight of it, and Tina patted my shoulder.

Bachmanns a smart man. And hes been in power for a long

time. Those at the top are always planning for a possible revolt. He

probably had this put in place his first day on the job.

I stared down the black hole and felt a breeze drift up and brush

my cheek. I could have jumped down and slid after him, but it would

have been a big risk. I had no idea where it would take me, but I knew

right away that it was a mistake.

Hey, a voice called out, check this out! I turned to see Black
Feather pulling the curtains down from the window and wrapping them

around himselfwell, almost. He had stripped off his usual clothes and

laid the curtains on top of his naked body. A few of the female fliers

were gathered around him and whooping their encouragement. A bear

ambled through the room and went up to a statue of Bachmann, turned,

and used the nose of it to scratch his back. He scratched so hard that the

whole thing just toppled over, and the white, shiny sculpture hit the

ground and shattered.

Yeah!
Well done! Down with Bachmann!

Soon, the whole room was chanting the words together in a

steady rhythm. Down with Bachmann! Down with Bachmann! During

the melee, Tina and I made eye contact, and she gave me a tentative

smile. Like me, she was naked, covered in blood and brandishing a gun.

She looked terrifying until she moved forward to join the group and

pumped her right, unarmed hand in the air. Yeah! No more

Bachmanns!

A motion caught my eye, and I turned quickly to see who it was.


Without even thinking about it, I pointed my gun at the intruders. I

nearly pulled the trigger, but the greeting of the older woman stopped

me.

Hello, daughter. My mother raised one hand and put the

second on Harper Bachmanns shoulder. Harper, the first daughter,

stepped forward a little and looked around.

Could someone please tell me whats going on?


Chapter Ten

For the first few days, we were all on high-alert. Tina led a

quickly formed crew of guards to keep an eye out for any former workers

or angry humans looking to take the palace back. They saw a few people

along the perimeter of the property, but a warning shot sent them away.

Strangely, the crazy myths that Bachmann and his team had created

about us all those years were the perfect defense. No one remembered

that we had no history of attacking humans or that it wasnt true that we

enjoyed the taste of human marrow. Everyone was sure that we were
dangerous and stayed far away.

Alex, the man who had given me the air, tried to make it into the

palace, but I had to turn him away.

Im sorry, I explained, my hand on his chest, I cannot let in

anyone who is not a shifter. Maybe after some time has passed, but at

the moment, I took my hand away and hardened my heart, I must be

very careful.

Is everyone inside alright?

I nodded. The palace is packed full of food, lots of clothing,


medical supplies. We can live here a long time without any problem.

Thank you for your concern.

Were not all your enemies, he said simply. I nodded, and then

we studied each others faces for a moment. We had nothing more to

say, so he turned to go.

Harper moved into the main office with Tina, Black Feather, my

mother, and me. We all overlooked her human status because we

needed her. We knew if she was there with us, unseen and non-

communicative, the rumors would fly. We could maintain our


stronghold on the palace without any fear because no one wanted to risk

Princess Bachmann. We were thrilled to have her. She knew all the

palaces secrets, showed us how to access the basement and work the

music in the ballroom. She also got us all hooked up on the

communication system which Tina hacked into so that we could all

quickly spread news to one another as we drifted further and further

into the different wings of the palace.

One night, I was settling down into my little nest of sheets on

the floor when I looked up to see Harper with an armful of broken


pieces of wood.

In the mood for a fire?

Sure. Thanks.

She walked over to the fireplace and threw the scraps in, lit a

match and gently brought it down to the bottom of the pile, then got on

her knees to blow into the flame and help it grow. I joined her and

watched as the flames licked the wood pieces, then began to gobble them

up. What are we burning? I asked.

The frame of my fathers portrait.


I bumped into her with my shoulder. You dont mind?

She scoffed. He wasnt a parent. He was a jailer. And worse, a

liar. He raised me to be frightened of a world that held no dangers for

me. It was only when I was away from him that I felt like I could really

be myself. She turned to me and regarded me seriously. Do you ever

feel like no one sees you? Like the world keeps turning without any idea

that youre on it?

I stared at the fire and realized that was exactly how I had felt. It

was easy to leave my family when I did because I never felt like a
member of that particular group. My parents were wonderful; I loved

them, but I never wanted their life. My head nodded slowly, and I turned

to face Harper.

It is surprising to hear that we have this problem in common. I

never knew the presidents only child could fade into the background.

Oh, she insisted, believe me, it happens. Hey, she said,

glancing at the door, what is your relationship like with your mom?

It is difficult, I said, leaning against her as we sat on the floor.

I love her, but she denied me many things when I was growing up. I feel
like she had many opportunities to help me and chose to let me fall on

my face.

Maybe thats why youre so strong.

I lifted my head and regarded her with some surprise. You are

saying this was her intention?

She shrugged. Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, it did not feel like

parenting to me. It felt like anger and judgement.

Hm. She stood to move back to the center of the room as the

fire had gotten too warm. Even if she didnt mean it to happen, you are
very strong and very intelligent. Something made you that way.

We paused as my mother and Black Feather walked in. My

mother nodded at me, and I nodded back, making Harper sigh in

frustration.

Maman Larissa, she said, we were just talking about child

and parent relationships.

Oh? My mother shuffled over slowly. She gently set herself

down on the big, white couch with a loud groan and then settled back.

That sounds like a very dangerous conversation to have.


It is. But it is important. I stood. Mother, I asked, did you

raise me the way you did to make me strong?

To my surprise, a labored laugh came out of her. Make you

strong? No one can do this. A woman is either strong, or she is not. No

one can do anything about it. If she is weak, you have to find a partner

who can support her. If she is strong, the best thing you can do is get out

of her way.

Did you do this? I asked, suddenly nervous. Get out of my

way?
She narrowed her eyes at me. Leaning forward a little, she

answered, No one is perfect, my daughter.

No. I suppose not. I turned away from her and sat down by

Harper. Black Feather looked around the room with a confused face and

then just shrugged it off and sat on the other side of me. He tried to hold

my hand, but I took it away.

There was an uncomfortable silence, then my mother broke it.

My daughter, she said, how about you sing something for us? You

always had a wonderful singing voice.


I cannot sing for you, Mother. I am sorry.

Hey, Black Feather jumped in, come on. Lets sing the song

you taught me.

That is a song of welcome, not goodbyes, I informed him and

stood to leave the room.

I walked out neither angry nor happy. However, I was

frightened. The thing that scared me was the lack of emotion that I

experienced. It was not the calm sense of peace that I felt out in the

desert; it was as if my connections between my nerves and my brain had


been severed. I could not be certain if it was my grand victory that had

caused my sudden stoppage or if it was something that was changing

inside of me. I seemed unable to love those days, and I suddenly had so

many reasons to love.

The outside of the palace was a continuous balcony that wrapped

around the building in all directions. I strolled along this outdoor path

on my own and looked up to see the Children glowing gently down on

me. I stopped and waved to them.

Hello my children, I called. They glowed a little brighter, and I


smiled. I miss you. I closed my eyes and imagined them giggling in the

sky. I laughed along with them for a moment, happy that they were

there with me, even if they were ghosts of stars from the past. I still

needed them.

Hi.

I jumped a mile and opened my eyes to see Black Feather

watching me. Oh. Hello.

He snorted at me. Dont sound so disappointed. We used to be

lovers, you know.


Of course, I know.

Well He set his jaw and spread his arms in frustration. I

came to check on you, okay? I wanted to make sure you were alright.

That is very nice of you, I said. I stepped a little closer to him

and put a hand on his shoulder. I did not mean to be rude. My

apologies.

He picked my hand up and held it in his own. Dont worry. You

can be rude if you need to. Just dont expect me to be kind to you forever

if you keep it up.


I smiled. You are kind, little bird. Thank you. For your

kindness.

He nodded. Can I walk with you?

We turned and walked further along. As we went, we looked in

the windows of the palace. In each room was another shifter family.

Unlike the compound, here the furniture was soft and plush, everything

was indoors, and electricity and water just flowed. We didnt have to beg

for it or steal it; it simply functioned.

Do you think they will ever want to live outdoors again, I asked
him, now that they have had a taste of indoor life?

He nodded. Theyre all still shifters. I dont think you need to

worry.

We continued and went all the way to the other side of the

palace where there were fewer families. They were the nocturnal shifters

the bats, a family of lorises, and a lonely aye-aye. We waved to them,

and they responded by turning off their lights, a very friendly hello in

the nocturnal world. It was not them hiding, it was a kind of invitation

come into the darkness with me.


Larissa, Black Feather said, I have been meaning to ask you

about something.

Yes, please, I regarded the sky as I replied, but he pulled my

chin down to make me look him in the eye.

You said in the desert that what you felt for me was something

significant, but it wasnt love. You said you didnt have a name for it.

My formerly numb heart started to beat again. It went so fast it

almost hurt. I remember. A big lurch took place in my stomach. Black

Feather put his hands on either side of my face.


I was wondering, he whispered, if there was anyone else you

had this emotion for. Anyone who youre training? Teaching? He

stepped a little closer and added, loving, maybe?

I shook my head as I began to tremble all over. No. Theres no

one else. My voice was a very soft whisper, but he heard it. He nodded

and pulled me in toward his chest.

I have a lot of room in my heart for you, he mumbled, stroking

my hair. I know you dont like romance, but I was thinking, with all

these changes, maybe you could do with a partner.


I dont want a partner, I told him. He pushed me away from

him just far enough that he could look into my eyes.

Tell me what you want.

I touched his cheek with my hand, and he pulled me in close

again. Is it okay if I dont know what I want? Not yet, I mean?

He nodded and tipped my face up to kiss me. We pushed

together with our familiar ferocity and held each other tight.

Ill help you figure it out, he told me. Whatever it is that you

have inside of you. You dont have to go through it alone. Not anymore.
We kissed again, more softly the second time, and I could a soft,

distant singing. I didnt know who it was, but in my mind, it was the

Children looking down and celebrating the fact that my heart was awake

and feeling all that it could feel once again.

***THE END***


Book 3: Shifters Hope

Chapter One

The flames that chewed through my bed and all my clothes, also

ate up the last photo I had of Boris. It was from our first home. The two

of us were playing in the forest. We werent allowed in the playground

with the humans, so our mom would take us to the woods and say, No

humans here! Go climb the trees and dig in the ground. Come home

after youve had an adventure.

I always loved how she would do that, take a place made for shifters
and turn it into something special. As if our place in the world wasnt

slowly closing in on us. As if we were safe and happy, free from the

threat of humans everywhere.

Boris was wonderful at finding some made-up little treasure. He

would hold up a long stick and cry out, Ive found the lost wand of the

old wizards! Then we would spend the rest of the afternoon casting

spells on one another, pretending to be frozen in place and hiding from

the imaginary enemy, completely forgetting about the real one.

That first home was my favorite. I probably only feel that way
because I was so small at the time. I remember the cheap, formica,

kitchen table; the old, ratty couch, where we would fall asleep watching

the same three movies every Sunday; the little patch of grass in the

front. We felt like royalty in that house. Most of the shifters we knew

lived in dilapidated apartments where neighbors could do something

called keep an eye on their, supposedly, wild neighbors. That phrase

always evoked bizarre images for me a single eyeball resting on top of

a persons head and looking in all directions to see what he or she was

actually up to all day.


I dont remember how my parents got that little place with the grass

and the forest within walking distance. That was back when there was

something of a forest. It was all little scrubby trees and brown grass, but

we loved it all the same. It must have been a beautiful forest back when

a lot more people were around. I once heard that there were even groups

of humans dedicated to caring for the trees and the animals. It must

have been a beautiful time.

We were forced to move several times. I only cried the first time

when I had to say goodbye to that soft, beautiful land where I had played
for so many hours. Boris jabbed me in the arm when my tears fell.

Dont be sad. Theyre watching you.

Who? I sniffed.

Them. I looked to see a group of tall men in black vests and shiny

black helmets. Why would they be watching me? One of them had some

kind of black object in his hand. It wasnt until later that I would learn

those black instruments were designed to shock shifters into behaving. I

would be tased many times throughout my life, and every time it took

me by surprise just how much it hurt.


Our second home was one of those old apartments with no sunlight,

voices coming through the walls, and brown water flowing through the

faucets. Our dad was handy back in those daysback before he got sick.

One day, I came home from scavenging and found him lying on his back

under the sink, whistling while he worked on the pipes.

Hi, princess!

Hi. I kneeled on the floor next to him, then lowered myself all the

way down to see what he was doing. Why are you under the sink,

Daddy?
Im making the brown water go away, he responded, then reached

out to give my ponytail a light tug. He always did that, and it always

made me feel special.

Dad kept his word. The water ran clear. Then he fixed the bed I slept

on so that it wouldnt be at an angle, and he made the TV work so we

could watch the Bachmann stories and histories. I sincerely believed

that my father was invincible and always would be. What proof did I

have otherwise?

There was no playing at the apartment. We had to scavenge to help


our parents pay the bills. We tried going to school, but we were quickly

expelled. I remember that hurt more than anything. Why are teachers

allowed to forbid children from attending class? Who made that

decision? I came home with a face covered in tears that my mother

quickly wiped away.

Who needs school? She took my hand and led me out to the

street. You see all those pieces of metal?

I nodded.

Well, those are worth money. From now on, you have a job. Collect
those bits of metal and bring them home to me. Then well go and get

some money. She smiled and scrunched down to put my face in her

hands. Youre strong enough to make your own way in this world. You

remember that.

I guess I really had some amazing parents. They had nothing, but

we were never hungry, never felt left out or pushed aside, and they

always took the time to play with us and laugh with us. I really miss

them.

The burned photo is hot in my hand. I dont know why that


surprised me, but it did. Of course, a burned photograph would be hot;

what kind of idiot was I, anyway? I watched as the little orange sparks

continued to singe the edges little by little and mistakenly waved it in

the air in hopes of putting them out. Of course, it backfired, (again, I

must be some sort of simpleton), and the sparks grew into flames in no

time. I dropped it on the pavement and stepped on it, but that only

served to make the photo fall apart under my foot. My last photo. Way to

go, Emily. Way to go.

Tina, the wolf that killed Boris murderer, came over to see what
happened, but as soon as she saw the photo bits, she just shook her head

sadly. As if this had anything to do with her. As if it were her brother

who had died.

Im so sorry, Emily.

What are you sorry about? I wrapped the blanket I had saved

around me a little tighter. You already took care of his killer. You and I

are square.

No, thats not what I meant

Whatever. I turned away and waited for her to leave, hating myself
every moment until she finally walked away. I wish I could tell her how

much she meant to me, that she made the world better, that a part of my

brother lived in her, and that she was amazing. But I couldnt say those

things without crying, and I would be damned if I would cry in front of

Tina or anyone. No one got to witness my tears. I made sure of that.

The rest of the night went by slowly. The other shifters ran for water

down in the former prison (now home to the bats), and then ran it up

with the help of the wildcats and their insanely strong legs. The flames

only lapped up one corner of the palace, but it just happened to be my


corner.

We have to find out what started this fire.

We know what started this fire. Some human who fancies himself

a hero.

It wasnt a human. It was one of the wolf pups. They love to play

with fire.

What are you talking about? Wolves hate fire!

It went like that for hours. I didnt say anything; I just sat on the

little wall that bordered the patio outside my room. I never thought I
would live in a palace. I never thought a palace could be so full of

loneliness.

It wasnt a bad deal, really. Wed kicked the president and his crew

out a few months before and, to our surprise, they still hadnt attempted

to take it back. I dont know where they went, but I was sure that they

had gone somewhere far from us. Somewhere with another palace, with

more people to frighten and rule over.

All the humans were sure that we would put them into some kind of

cage, feed off of them, and terrorize them at every opportunity. They
seemed genuinely surprised when we didnt even glance at them. We

were all done with humans of the State. Who cared about them? They

were a bunch of petty cowards. I didnt want to waste my time hanging

out with humans, much less digest them. Too gritty.

Just kidding, Ive never eaten a human. Ive never even met a shifter

who tried it. Were all grossed out by the idea. Its just a scary story the

people tell each other, and we dont do much to correct them.

Sometimes, it helps to be the boogieman.

The fire was put out, and people calmed down. I looked at the tall,
burned pieces of lumber that had been my room and vaguely wondered

where I would live. The other shifters who had lost their quarters were

all chatting good-naturedly with those around themwolves with

wolves, eagles with eagles. I sat and listened to it all, hoping some

unknown voice would speak up and say, Emily! Come bunk with us. We

boars have to stick together. Of course, there were no other boars. Boar

shifters are few and far between, and we often have to make do for

ourselves.

That night was the first time I saw just how on my own I actually
was. First, I visited the bears in the west half of the palace. They had

made themselves at home in the cavernous library and were stretched

out in front of a warm fire (yikes), and were using piles of books for

pillows and armrests.

Um, hey. I, uh, kind of need a new place to stay.

One of the male bears yawned, and a huge, booming bear voice

came out of his human throat. Oh. Was your room damaged by the

fire?

I took a little step closer. No, it was completely burned up. I dont
have anything left. I was hoping, since were all earthbound shifters and,

you know, friends and everything, maybe I could just grab a corner in

the back or I waited for someone to interrupt me, but all I got in

return was a loud snore. My shoulders fell in disappointment. Well,

bears were too sleepy for me. I need some shifters with a bit of spirit,

anyway.

I moved on to the wolves. Fellow earthbounds, energy galore, and I

already had Tina as a friend. Surely, she would say something on my

behalf.
I knocked on a bedroom door, and the whole room exploded into a

chorus of excited cries.

Hey! Hey, theres someone here!

Did one of you invite someone? Who could it be?

Open it! Open the door!

I half expected a crowd of little puppies to greet me once the big,

white entrance swung open, but all I saw were young, lithe, female

wolves. I scanned the room for Tina, but there was no sign of her.

Hi. Hey. I smiled, but the expression felt weird, so I attempted a


casual lean.

Hi. One of the younger wolves stepped forward and copied my

lean with a wink to her friends. So, whats up?

Actually, my room burned down in the fire. I was wondering if you

had any extra beds here, or maybe just a spare couch or something

This set off a fit of giggles among the young girls, several of whom

started bouncing on one of the giant, silky soft beds. Gosh, my guard

said, feigning concentration, I dont think so. Miriam?

Yes?
Do we have any space for any boars in here?

The girl, Miriam, gave an exaggerated sigh and shrugged as big as

she could, arms spread out. For boars? Nope. Dont think so. Try the

prison downstairs. Its pretty roomy. This made all of them giggle and

got me to spin around on my heel.

The prison, I said to myself. Right. Like Im going there.

After a few hours of polite nos, I-dont-think-sos, and pitying

head shakes, I headed for what used to be the most secure entrance of

the palace. Its many locks and the big scanner for security rings were all
broken, and the door opened easily, but I still felt like I was descending

into a place I shouldnt have gone at all.

I walked down the metal steps and listened to the ring under my

sneakers. I took a deep breath. Dont get emotional. Just ask politely

and let them say no. Then just go sleep in the street or something.

Smiling again, this time in genuine hope, I approached an older woman

who I hoped was the mom of the family.

Hi, I said, Im Emily.

Well, hello! Yup, she was a mom all right. Only mothers were this
good with unexpected visitors. We normally dont get many visitors

down here, but this has been the place to be all night. Did you hear there

was a fire earlier?

Yeah, I said, smiling with relief to hear a friendly voice, thats

actually why Im here. See, it was my room that burned down. I really

need to find a new place to live. Just temporarily.

She leaned forward and inspected me a moment. Arent you a

boar?

I am.
Surely, you dont want to be down here with us, sweetheart. she

gestured to her young sons behind her. They were chasing each other

around the prison space, ducking in and out of prison cells and

screaming for mercy to one another. Weve got two crazy boys down in

this space that are nocturnal to boot. And youll need your sleep. We

dont even have any real furniture down here, seeing as we prefer to

sleep in animal form hanging from the ceiling. Maybe you should try the

bears. The library is nice.

At the mention of the bears, I felt the tears push their way out of my
eyes. I did try the bears, I said as my tears quickly became full-on sobs.

They didnt want to hear anything I had to say. I tried the wolves. I tried

all the airbornes. I even talked to some amphibians. No one wants me.

This is the only place I hadnt been yet, and nowand now

She stopped me with a big hug, rocking me back and forth. Hey,

hey now. No more tears. Its all going to be all right. The female bat

bent down and wiped my face with her skirt. We would be thrilled to

have you. Absolutely delighted.

Th-thanks. Thank you. I hiccupped the last of my sobs down and


took some big, shuddery breaths. My face was covered in tears and snot,

but there was nothing to wipe it with. The mother saw me looking

around and quickly offered a small towel from the dress of her pocket.

Here you are. She refused it when I tried to give it back. No, no,

dear. Thats yours. A lady should always have a hanky on her. Theyre

good luck. She changed the mood with a clap of her hands and then

looked around the prison. All right, lets get everyone introduced. Come

with me. Boys! She waved over her sons, Boys, I want you to meet our

guest.
The two froze mid-chase and turned to us. They raised their

eyebrows and tilted their heads, but didnt come any closer.

Nathaniel, Thomasget over here. Im not asking. All the spunk

gone out of them, the two walked over reluctantly. They approached me

with big, tired sighs.

Nice to meet you, they intoned almost simultaneously, and

politely gave me their limp handshakes.

All right, I got down and squinted at them, who is who? Which

one of you is Nathaniel, and which one is Thomas?


Im Nathaniel. Im the older one. He stretched up a little taller. He

was just barely bigger than his brother, but his shoulders were a touch

broader, and his Adams apple was just a bit more pronounced. He was

still a skinny little boy, but it was clear that he had the confidence that

came with knowing he was bigger and would always be just a bit older.

Nice to meet you, older one. Im Emily.

Nathaniel smiled at me, then suddenly turned his head in suspicion.

Are you a babysitter?

No. Im a homeless lady. I have nowhere to live, so I wanted to


come and ask If I could stay with you and your brother.

Are you going to sleep on the ceiling with us? Thomas squeaky

voice caught me off-guard. His eyes were big and round, like little lakes,

and I could see myself in their placid waters.

I sleep on the floor. I cant hang upside down like you.

He barely listened. Instead, he grabbed my hand and pulled me over

to a corner of the prison and pointed up. See that? Thats where I sleep.

I did all of those drawings by myself. And those are the comics that me

and Nate found in a big, old house.


Nate and I, his mother corrected him. She had followed us over,

and I noticed she was carrying a pillow. Thomas sighed and let his head

loll back with the exhaustion of having a mother. And I think I forgot to

mention, my name is Mildred, she said, smiling. I smiled back and

really meant it that time. It was nice to feel genuinely happy.

The comics Thomas had pointed out were suspended from the

ceiling on a cord that went in four directions, helping them hang

perfectly horizontal way above the ground. I pointed up. You say you

found those in a house?


He nodded. Yeah! One of the empty ones.

All the presidents friends ran away when we came here, Nate

explained. Theyre all such chickens.

Nathaniel, have some compassion, his mother chided. Their

whole world turned upside down, and they panicked. Its perfectly

natural. Now, Emily, she said, getting back to business, it turns out we

do have a little bed down here. It was tucked into one of the offices. We

can set it up in your own little corner or clean out an office for you so

you can have some privacy. Im assuming you sleep all night?
More or less. I accepted the pillow from her. Im up pretty late,

and then I sleep a few hours. Ive always been a little too twitchy to pull

off a whole night. Thanks.

I walked to the office packed full of debris and set down my stuff.

How would Boris tackle all this?

It was so easy to picture him standing there with me, jabbing me in

the ribs before running up to the first broken chair in the lower left-

hand corner to move it aside. Start low and work your way up, he

would have said.


Placing my new pillow on the floor, I did just that. The pieces were

less intimidating once I had a plan of attack. The boys ran over and

helped me. No, I explained, they could not make a tunnel. No, they were

not allowed in my room. No, I did not read comics. No, I couldnt fly.

Their questions were endless, but I didnt mind. I loved how quickly

they talked and how much they wanted to know. The constant

conversation certainly made the work go faster.

Soon, we had the whole office cleaned out and the small bed moved

in. The room had its own lights, and I found an old, thick curtain to put
over the window to block out the prison lights.

Lets do an experiment, I said to my little, adopted brothers. You

two go outside and sing a song. Ill close the door and see if I can hear

you. Okay?

Okay!

Ill sing it super loud!

They ran out, and I closed the door. To my shock, I could barely

hear them as they screeched a song about frogs on a log. I opened it and

smiled.
Just as I suspected not a word. This room is sound proof.

They scooted in and shooed me out so that they could hear the lack

of sound for themselves. I stood outside the uncovered window and

started to sing.

Oh, I wish I was in the forest,

Where mother would take me to play.

I wish I could climb in the trees,

And escape from school today


They yelled through the door in muffled voices, Cant hear you!

Sing louder! I just mouthed the words as if I were actually screaming

them near the window, and their eyes went even bigger. Whoa! We

cant hear anything.

They opened the door, and I kept up the silent act. They both

gasped.

Oh, my gosh! Emily, we still cant hear you. What happened?

I burst out laughing, and they laughed with me. Over their
shoulders, I saw their mother smiling at me, and I beamed back at her.

This was exactly what I needed.

Thats how I moved in with the bat family. The father, Ted, came

down later after I was asleep but stayed up until I was awake to

introduce himself. Great to have you here, kid. You need anything

anything at allyou just tell ole Ted. Got that?

Yes. Thank you so much.

He went to bed after that, and I walked up and out to start my day. I

knew where a little, hardly-used bathroom was, and I headed that


direction in hopes of taking a shower.

The next few days were basically like the first. My two, adopted

brothers had thousands of questions for me and could hardly stand to

listen as I answered because it meant they had to wait to ask the next

one. Mildred fussed over me, and Ted checked in on me once a day.

Need anything, kiddo?

No. Dont worry.

He surprised me one day. I came down to go to join the family for a

dinner of grubs and saw that he had installed some shelves in my little
room. For your things.

I shrugged. I dont have any things.

He opened his mouth to reply but had no words. Instead, he just

gave me his little smile. Well, all right then. Just the shelves.

He and Mildred must have asked around to find out what had

happened and then organized some people, because the next day, Tina

came to see me with a pile of clothes folded between her arms.

We know you lost your stuff in the fire, she said, holding it all out

to me, so we wanted you to have these. You cant wear the same clothes
every day. Youll stink.

It hurt to take them, but I had no choice. The last thing I wanted

was charity, but what else could I do? I quickly put them all up on my

shelves and then offered to show Tina around the prison.

Yeah. I never get a chance to come down here. Lets see the place.

I was sure the boys would dance around us or at least pelt us with

questions as soon as they saw Tina, but to my surprise, they grew shy

and slunk off to a corner.

Whats wrong with you two? They didnt answer. I looked at Tina
and saw it immediately: they were intimidated by how gorgeous she was.

She gave them a smile and little finger wave, and that sent them up to

the top of the stairs so they could peer down at us from their perch. She

laughed.

Boys, she lamented with an eye roll. We giggled about it together,

and I gave her the grand tour of the cells and former offices, all of which

had been cleaned out by the boys and me. They had insisted they needed

a clubhouse for boys only and that their father needed a studio, though I

never saw Ted do anything creative. Tina was pleasantly impressed with
all of it and said so.

This is nice! She plopped down on my little bed and looked around

my personal little space. I mean it. You have so much privacy. Thats in

short supply around here.

It is nice. And I like sharing it all with a family. Even a nocturnal

one.

Hey, Tina touched my arm, and I did a double take, then told

myself to calm down, were all going to check out some of the nearby

abandoned houses in the morning. Want to come? I went on my own


last week, and it was amazing. You should join us.

Okay. Should I just meet you upstairs?

Come to the front entrance just after nine. Were forming a search

party. She waggled her eyebrows up and down to show me just how

serious she was, and I laughed.

Well, I cant say no to a search party. It simply cant be done. She

giggled with me that time.

Great. I better go and get some sleep. See you in the morning. She

strutted out and made sure to blow the boys a kiss. They froze as the
invisible gesture flew through the air, uncertain whether or not it had hit

its intended targets. Tinas friendly giggle echoed behind her as she left

the former jail.

That night, I had dream after dream about Boris. I saw him so

clearly it was maddening. He was so close that I could almost touch him.

I desperately wanted to feel my hand gripping his arm the way I used to

whenever I was frightened. He would let me squeeze my way straight

through his arm, cutting off the circulation and practically snapping the

bone if I needed to whatever it took to make me feel safe.


Sis, he said through his boar face, look at me. Look at me.

Im looking. What do you want to show me? He gestured down to

his body which was still human, then his boar head let out a horrible

squeal. It was the same scream he had let out just before he died that

awful day.

Boris! I cried out the name as I sat up in the dark. For a moment, I

was sure he was there in the room with me, but when I reached out for

him, there was only air in front of me.

Morning snuck up on me, and I nearly missed the meet-up. I pulled


on one of my new shirts and pants as fast as I could and ran up to join

the group.

Hey, Emily, Black Feather smiled at me from the front of the little

congress. You made it. I think you were the last one we were waiting

for. Yes? Okay. Great. Were headed to the eastern region where there

are some houses that we believe have been abandoned. Remember,

were checking to see if the plumbing is on, if the electricity works, any

packaged food left behind. We got it?

Everyone nodded and smiled at each other. I felt myself getting in


on the anticipation. It sounded like a great adventure, exploring an old

mansion and looking for valuables. My shoulders bumped into Tina, and

she bumped me back.

All right, were headed out. Feel free to shift.

The group of humans on the inside of the house quickly turned to

flapping birds and bounding wolves and wildcats as we exited the

building. I happily ran full speed in boar form, crashing through the

small plants that were gradually reclaiming the land around the palace.

Soon, the whole mountain would be green and full of shifters. I couldnt
wait.

I followed my friends by their scents. All of them had strong,

specific smells, so tracking individuals was no problem. I barely had to

open my eyes, the trail was so clear. Together, we bounded up and over

to one side of the mountain range. We would normally be on the lookout

for humans, but that day, we felt safe and ready for anything. Any person

who came upon us would have been greatly outnumbered.

When I reached the house, I kept my animal form. A few other

shifters went back into human shape, and I let them have a look first.
When no shrieks or gunshots rang out, I ventured in.

My hooves sank into the carpet below them by about half an inch. It

was that soft. I looked up and saw that the ceiling above me arched into

a spacious, cavernous shape and was decorated with a mural of flying

human babies. I snorted and moved on, anxious to see what else the

place had in store.

Ahead of me, other shifters went into bathrooms and the kitchen,

bedrooms, and any room with books in it. None of us could read, but we

loved books all the same. Sometimes, they had great pictures in them or
some random note would fall from the pages. I wanted a book like that.

I walked for a few minutes in and out of rooms, then I found a big,

pink bedroom.

The bed had giant posts that pointed up to the ceiling until they

almost scraped it. Beautiful, white cloth hung between each post,

making it look light and airy. There were huge teddy bears on the floor

that sat and watched me as I shifted back to human shape so I could

reach higher. There was a collection of books on top of a shelf that I

wanted.
They were small books with hard covers. They showed towns, other

palaces, other times. I took a big pile of them, thinking Nate and Tom

would want to see them as well. One book fell on the floor and opened

near my feet.

I looked down and dropped everything. One of the hard books

slammed down on my big toe, but I hardly noticed. The picture that had

appeared to me in the book was the exact image of my brother, Boris.

There, on the page was his crooked smile, his messy brown hair, and

his soft eyes. I could practically hear his voice rising from the paper
when I looked at it. My brothermy brother, Boris. My fingers touched

the page, and for a moment, it felt warm, like skin.

I closed it and hugged my treasure to my chest. I walked out with

the other books in my arms, but the one with my brothers face was

hidden in my jacket, zipped up right next to my chest so that I could

keep him right next to me. I didnt want anything to happen to him a

second time.


Chapter Two

Back in my room, I put my book in a little place of honor under my

pillow. I marked the page that had the character who looked like Boris,

but I didnt really need to. The pages opened right to him, so I could

stroke his soft, paper face and whisper to him every night. Some nights, I

saw him blink or start to smile at me, but others, he was still and frozen

in the picture.

I miss you, Boris. So much. This place is so lonely without you.

The picture would never respond, but it never interrupted me, either.
The whole experience made me desperate to read the thing, but no

one I knew had ever learned. The only creatures left who could actually

read a book were the wealthiest of humans, and they were all in hiding.

Even the people living in the city had no idea where they had gone (at

least according to some of the braver shifters who wandered off the

mountain from time to time). I was inclined to believe the stories, for if

I had been filthy rich during the takeover, I would have grabbed my

diamonds and run.

I went on a few more expeditions into the big, expensive houses,


and I was always shocked by how uncomfortable they made us as a

group. We were used to caves, ramshackle buildings with dirt floors, or

sitting around a campfire outside. Being surrounded by long drapes that

piled on the floor or stared at by old portraits unnerved us all. We would

get in and then get out and go back to our friendly, noisy palace that was

looking more and more like an animal dwelling every day.

My little prison office stayed the same. The lights were a little too

bright; the cot was small, but comfortable; my clothes stayed folded on

the shelves. One day, there was nothing to do and no one who felt like
talking, so I organized them all according to category then threw them

off to do it again but by color. Now, they were all mixed up again, which

was fine by me.

I saw Tina more than most other shifters. Tina was infamous for

being able to talk with anyone, spend time with any animal, hang out at

any party. She invited me into the city once, but I got nervous.

What do you say to them? The humans, I mean?

Well, I dont say too much. She stretched her long, flexible arms

and arched her straight back until it popped a little. Humans really like
to talk about themselves. More than anything, they like you if you do a

lot of listening.

She went off by herself or with a few other females in tow. The new

thing was to have a human boyfriend down in the city instead of dating

one of the shifters on the mountain. I dont know if that bothered the

guys or not, but I imagine it must have. Here they had one amazing

ability after another, and yet the girls wanted regular, single-form

humans. Oh, well.

One night, I reached under my pillow and let out a loud scream.
Oh, no!

I ran to the door and threw it open, and stormed straight to the

corner where I knew Nate and Tom liked to hang out.

All right, you two, I pointed straight up as my voice rang up into

the ceiling, I know you have it. Throw it down.

Silence. The two pretended they couldnt hear me over their comics.

I mean it! This is not funny. That book is very special to me, and I need

it.

What book? Nate waved a comic book about a man in a bat


costume at me. This book?

You know the one I mean! The one with the boy in it.

Ew. A girl reading books about boys, Tom jumped in. I pressed my

teeth together and stared up at him. Traitor.

Tom, come on. Were friends. Friends dont take each others

things. Just give it back.

Whats going on?

I looked over to see Meredith wiping her hands and waited for her

to join us. When she made it to the spot next to me, I pointed up to her
sons. Meredith, Im sorry, but theyve taken my book. I only have one,

and theyve got it up there somewhere. I need it back.

She put her hands on her hips and looked straight up. Boys, down.

Now. And bring your book collection with you. Well settle this right

now.

The boys sighed and lowered the rope that held their tiny library

down through its pulley. Then, they shifted and flapped down to the

floor. They didnt shift back when they arrived, knowing they were cuter

as bats.
All right now, Meredith untied the knot at the top of the

collection, lets have a look.

One by one, Meredith and I went through each of the books. It was

one comic after another. Some starred scantily-clad women, others had

bad men with evil faces laughing like maniacs, but none of them were

hiding my story.

Its not here. I shook my head and piled the comics back up on top

of one another. I dont know what happened. Ive always kept it in the

same place.
Meredith was not convinced. She put her hands on her hips and

looked down at her offspring. Anything you boys want to tell us? Hmm?

Maybe a little confession? Something you want to get off your chest?

The boys, in human form by that point, shook their heads as

innocently as they could manage. Gosh, no. We dont know what

happened.

Their mother patted me on the shoulder. Im going to keep looking

around the basement. You go check your room one more time.

Something tells me that someone is hiding it from us. She raised her
eyebrows in warning at her boys, who kept their faces sweet and blank.

However, when I turned away from them, I could have sworn I saw

them share a smile as if theyd just won a huge victory.

Of course, the more we looked, the more frustrated we became until

we finally just gave up. I trudged up to walk through the palace and find

something to distract me. Luckily, I bumped into Tina who had just

come back from another house.

Hey, come check out this great stuff! She led me to her quarters,

which were way in the back by Grey and Larissa and Black Feather. None
of them lived with their family members anymore, and I didnt ask why.

They each holed up in their own little spaces but kept a close eye on one

another all the same.

She dumped her treasures out on her bed, and we went through

them.

Look at these jewels, she breathed, sliding a bracelet of white,

round, and smooth stones onto her wrist. Why do humans wear these?

Does it make them feel beautiful?

No, just special. Its like, I have this, but you dont. Little kids do
the same thing. I reached over for a little, black rectangle, and to my

surprise, it came to life in my hand.

What would you like me to do?

The robotic voice made Tina and I stare at it for a long time. What

do we say? I whispered to her. She shook her head slowly.

The phone interrupted. Sorry, I didnt hear that. What would you

like me to do?

Can you play some music? I grabbed Tinas arm as soon as she

said it. What if this was a trap? She shrugged me off.


Yes. I have over a million playlists. What would you like to hear?

Uh She looked at me, and I knew right away what we needed.

We want to hear some funk music by the Big Man. His first

album.

To our shock, a clear, booming sound came from the thing. The

horns, the soaring voice of Big Man, the strong, deep sounds that backed

him up all took over the room. Tina and I jumped up and started

dancing.

Wow!
This is amazing! We have to see what else it can do.

We asked the rectangle all kinds of questions. Where were the rich

people? How long would they be gone? Where was President

Bachmann? What happened to his daughter? It couldnt tell us. It

started to tell us the history of the Bachmanns, and we quickly told it to

stop. Wed had enough of that most of our lives.

Can you read something for me? I asked it.

Yes, it answered. Just place me in front of the text you would like

me to read.
I grabbed it and jumped up. When I made it to the little plaque in

the hallway, I held up the phone. Here. Read this.

In case of an emergency, it began, do not use the elevator. Take

the stairs. Using the elevator during a fire or earthquake I stared as it

turned each indecipherable squiggle into an actual word. I waved Tina

over.

This thing is amazing! We can finally find out what all those books

say in the library.

If the bears dont burn them all first, she added. What should we
read first?

I know! I grabbed her arm and tugged her toward the hallway. My

little snot-nosed brothers took my stuff. We can use this to get it back.

She gave me an odd expression, but then she just shrugged and

followed me out. I couldnt wait to see their little faces when I told them

they were finally going to read exactly what their books said.

When we found them, they were right where Id suspected, hanging

from the bars on their patch of ceiling, reading comics upside down.

Hey guys, I called up. Remember my friend Tina?


We heard them whispering frantically. She waved and arched back

to see them. I just crossed my arms and waited.

Hey, Tina said to me, didnt you say you had a new book?

Well, I did. I let out an exaggerated sigh. Its lost. And its such a

shame, seeing as I have this new thing that knows how to read. I could

have heard the whole story, but now I cant do anything.

Wait, you have a way to read? Tom immediately flew down and

shifted back to boy form as soon as he touched the floor. Can you tell us

this story? He held out his favorite book of pictures. It had the man in
the bat costume spreading his cloak over most of the cover as all the bad

men ran from him at top speed, straight toward the edge of the picture.

Well, maybe. Tina cocked her head. Im not very excited to help

any mean boys who took my friends story.

Nate joined us with a book of his own. Well He paused, thinking

hard. I mean, Im not saying we took it, but maybemaybe we saw it

somewhere.

Oh?

Yeah. We were playing over there, he gestured toward an empty


cell, and we saw something. We thought Emily just put it there. For

fun.

Tina nodded as if she agreed. Sure. Sounds fun.

I suppose we could go and take a look, I offered. The boys nodded

and tore off, their feet pounding in a crazy rhythm as they careened

down the hall. Tina and I followed, and soon we could hear the boys

yelling that they had found it and we could have it.

The cell had a loose stone in the wall that Thomas jiggled loose for

me. Look, Emily! He reached in and pulled my book out, making a


loud, ripping sound.

Its rightoh. Oh, no. Thomas big, sweet eyes filled with tears as

he looked up at me. Im sorry! I didnt mean to. Nate said if we hid your

book

Shut up, booger face! Nates own face was red with

embarrassment as he stared at my books torn cover. He quickly grabbed

it from his brother and put it back in its hiding place. Its fine. Dont

worry about it. He shifted and returned to the ceiling, leaving his little

brother behind as he sat and cried on the floor.


Seeing how distraught the whole thing had made Thomas, I walked

over and gently put a hand on his back as I sat down next to him. Can

you tell me what this is about? Why did you take that?

Thomas dragged an arm across his face to wipe away the snot and

the tears. Its because you dont play with us as much as you did before,

and every day, you want to look at the pictures in this book, but you

wont show them to us, and you got us in trouble that one time, and we

just want you to be nice, but sometimes youre not nice, and we dont

like it, so we took it because its not fair!


Tina had to suppress a smile at just how cute all of this was, and I

pulled Thomas in for a hug. Im sorry, big guy.

The hug just made him cry harder, and I rocked him back and forth.

Tina got the book out for me and inspected the damage. Its just the

cover, she said, her little frown on her face telling me she could

probably fix it. The rest of it is fine. She picked up Thomas book and

let out a long whistle.

Hey, she sat down with us, this looks pretty cool. Can I see if this

little thing can read it?


Thomas turned to her and regarded her in a bit of surprise. Um,

yeah. Okay. He sniffled one last time, and I cleaned his face with the

hankie Meredith had given me when I moved in. She was right, they

were handy.

We asked the thing to read for us and got a surprise. I have an

audio file of this story. Would you like to hear the official recording?

Shocked, we answered yes, and then listened as dark, suspenseful

music filled the cell. The characters came to life with unique voices,

speaking the dialogues, and the fight scenes were full of the sounds of
fists hitting flesh and valuables falling and breaking. It was phenomenal.

At the end of the story, we all breathed out a big sigh of relief

together. What an amazing thing we had! Nate had snuck up behind us

to listen in and, even though he hadnt seen the pictures as hed listened,

we could see he was just as excited as we were.

Wow, he whispered. Can we do another one?

Tina paused for a second. Well, I think we should do one with

some other people invited to join us. What do you think?

She laid out her plans for a story night in the palace, and the boys
jumped up and down clapping with excitement. Well invite every

species. How would that be?

Yes! Oh, yes please! More stories! The boys got so worked up they

started running up and down the hallways and chanting Store-ees!

Store-ees!

I watched them and then looked down at my torn property. Tina

gave me a sad little smile. Im so sorry about that, hon. Im sure we can

fix it.

A sigh snuck out of me, and I shook my head. Its not easy living
with little ones, you know? Theyre so, so emotional and resilient and

different and difficult. I never quite know what to do.

Its normal. Tina sat next to me, and we flipped through the pages

together. Shall we hear this one?

Not yet. I closed the book and held it to me. Right now, I have my

own version of this book. Im not quite ready to hear the reality of it.

She nodded as if she understood and then stood to go.

I better go figure out how this thing works. I want to keep it

functioning.
Cool. Ill see you later.

She left, and I went back to my room where I sat for a long time.

The boys knocked on my door to come in, but I told them my stomach

was hurting. They didnt mope for too long; they were still riding high

from their experience earlier that evening. I laid down and tried to sleep,

but I was wide awake.

After a while, I wandered out and bumped into Ted.

Hey! Good to see you, kiddo. He put his hands on my arms and

beamed down at me as if my presence truly had made his day. I smiled


back.

Hi, Ted.

Do you have a moment? He glanced over at his family who were

all preoccupied. Just have something I want to show you.

We walked up and out of the palace and into the dark forest. Of

course, Ted had no problem seeing in the dark, but I had to go by scent.

We crashed through the now taller shrubs all around the palace and

worked our way to the west side of the building, then continued on down

a mountain trail until we reached an odd little triangle-shaped structure


just barely shorter than Ted.

I made you this.

He gestured to it, and I gasped, seeing it a bit more clearly. It was

my own little house, a secret space just big enough for one. It looked

cozy and warm inside and would have a beautiful view of the sunrise

once morning rolled around. I was stunned.

Ted! I love it! I ran inside and quickly ducked down, realizing just

how small it was. Once I sat, I felt protected and safe. He walked over

and showed me how to close it up.


Now this door, he demonstrated, swinging it shut, locks from the

inside so you dont have to have anyone in here that you dont want.

And, he winked, you can put anything valuable or special out here so

that no little hands get ahold of it.

I crawled out and threw my arms around him in a big hug. Oh, this

is just, I mean, I cant believe...Oh, wow. Wow. Thank you. I stepped

back from him and looked at the little shack again. Ive never had

anything that was all mine before. Youre the best!

Come up here any time you need some space. Youre becoming a
young woman. You need somewhere for yourself.

We hugged again, and I wiped my tears away. I quickly put my book

inside on one of the little shelves at the top and then sat on the floor.

Im going to hang out here for a little bit if thats okay.

Of course. Enjoy. He gave me his little Ted smile and then walked

back, leaving me in the dark.

A lot of animals would get jumpy in the forest at night, but not me.

Boris had taught me everything I needed to know to get through a long

night in the wilderness, and being there just reminded me of him. It was
too dark to see my book anymore, and I reminded myself to get a

flashlight to bring out there for next time. I curled up on the floor and

stared out into the little plants that were growing densely together.

My eyes closed, and I had just edged into a dream when a new

presence made me sit up and take notice.

Whos there?

You tell me. It was Black Feather, and he was headed straight for

me. What is this?

I groaned out loud. None of your business. Just leave.


He ignored me, of course. Tromping up, he approached my little

structure and let out a grunt of approval. Hm. Good construction, sound

design. Did the bat family make this for you?

For me. Yes. Goodbye. I started to close the door, but he stopped

me with his toe.

I dont think thats very nice. He squatted down and gave me his

infamous, sexy smile that usually made all the girls giggle. It did nothing

for me. I think you should share this place with me.

No way. I tried to close the door again, but he was too strong for
me and held it open.

I need a little hiding place, too. You can take it some days, and Ill

take it on others. It will be fine.

No. I stood up and out of my little shanty and faced him, arms

crossed and anger at full tilt. This place was a gift to me. Its mine. You

cant just demand it like that, jerk!

He smirked, undeterred. All right then, he said, still smiling. How

about a deal?

My eyes narrowed. What kind of deal?


I will leave you alone and not mention this little castle of yours to

anyone. If, he paused again for another round of smirking, you kiss

me. Right now.

Knock it off. Youre with Larissa.

Larissas not here. He reached out to touch me, but I ducked away.

He scowled. Whats your problem? Youve already got this cool place.

You cant give me one kiss?

I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth. Why did boys have to be like

this? Before I could change my mind, I reached out and grabbed the back
of his head and pulled him in for a big, wet kiss.

It was awfulstiff, slobbery, and weird tasting. I shoved him away

after a few seconds and quickly wiped my mouth.

Ugh! Youre not much of a kisser, are you? He was wiping his

mouth as well, which bothered me more than I would have liked.

Then why are you kissing her?

We both jumped at the sound of Larissas voice. We spun around to

see her standing, head cocked as if she were listening to something very

insightful and a long, sharp spear in her hand. She walked up to Black
Feather, who was breathing fast and looked genuinely scared.

Larissa, I

She interrupted him with a slap across the face. He went red and

then shifted and flew away. She and I held a stare for a few seconds, but

she just shook her head at me and then headed home, walking as a

human. A big, relieved sigh came out of me once they were both gone,

and I collapsed back on the ground, unsure what had happened and very

hopeful that, whatever it had been, it was the last time it would ever

occur.


Chapter Three

Once Black Feathers saliva was in my mouth, I couldnt stay in my

little space. I had to get out. But I didnt want to go to my room in the

basement, either. I stood up and looked around the wild space around

me. Just beyond our mountain was the Open Zone, or at least what used

to be the Open Zone. I could see lights flickering under the cloth of tents

standing out there, and even the headlights of a few cars. Without quite

knowing what I was doing, I started walking to the other side of the

mountain to where I knew I would find a road. Once I was on it, I


followed its zig-zag path down and out into a space I had never been

beforeon the edge of human territory.

I stood right there, right on the border and watched them for a

while. They werent all humans; I smelled a few of the lesser animals. A

few rats, some moles was that one a snail? I couldnt quite tell. The

only thing that was completely clear was that everyone was there

together; no separation was visible. Taking a big breath, I stepped

forward and into the zone, into a new place. The first loud laugh I heard

as I walked the straight path through all of those strangers made me


jump, but then I realized the laugh wasnt meant for me.

Breathe. Just keep breathing, I admonished myself. My feet

slowed down just a little bit more than normal so that I could seem

casual. Not that anyone was even taking note of me. They just went

about their night, sitting around campfires and cooking food on sticks as

they regaled one another with conversation.

As I left the Open Zone, I came to an all-too familiar sight: the old

compound. Looking at it that night, I genuinely wondered if someone

had gone inside for the sole purpose of tearing it apart. No, it had always
looked that way. I simply hadnt seen it with this new vision. By then, I

was accustomed to being comfortable, being able to get out of the sun,

having food whenever I was hungry. The intensity of true poverty was

beyond me by then, and facing it, I hardly recognized the life I had lived

for so long.

That old, slanted shack over there had been my home. That was

where I would hear Boris yell for me to wake up every morning.

Come on, dummy! We have school. I cant let you get any dumber.

Mom and Dad would die if they knew how ignorant you got.
Me? The smell coming off your skin would be enough to make

them roll over in their graves. Your horrible grammar would kill them

all over again.

We always made horrible jokes about the deaths of our parents. It

was the only way we had to deal with our loss. It wasnt easy parenting

ourselves from the age of fourteen, but somehow, we had made it. I

always gave our sick sense of humor a lot of credit. If we had just sat

around and cried, we never would have made it through the day.

The part of the fence where Boris died was exactly the way I
remembered it. No one had touched it, not even the humans. I walked

up to it and heard the buzz of electricity, but I had a hard time believing

the thing was still electrified. To be safe, I threw a little stick at the wires

and, to my complete shock, they zapped the piece of wood to a black

crisp. My heart pounded at the sound and the sight of the burnt twig.

The fence wasnt just working; it was more dangerous than ever. I

skirted around the edge and continued on my way to the city, completely

uncertain what dangers would find me there.

The edge of the city was quiet, but I wasnt prepared for how quickly
the density of bodies increased as I moved further in. I started to see

inside peoples apartments. Each little apartment on top of each store or

building had at least five humans inside. What did they eat? Where did

they go during the day? And why didnt they want to live in the big,

empty houses up on the mountain? I wondered all of this only to shrug

it all off. I had tried to understand humans my whole life, and it had

gotten me nowhere.

I found myself in a kind of market, but instead of clothes or tools, it

was all various kinds of food. I saw odd concoctions Id never eaten, and
I stopped to watch a few of them being made.

Fruit pies! Real fruit grown in my own greenhouse. Get your fruit!

I looked at the people eating and saw their eyebrows fly up at the taste in

their mouths. I had never had anything called fruit before and wanted

to try one, but my pockets were empty. I wandered up to one vendor and

asked if I could have just a taste.

You can, for half a Bachmann.

Sorry, I gave what I hoped was a cute smile with a head tilt. Im

all out. Its just that Ive never tried


Keep movin, sweetheart. Im here for the ones whove got some

money to throw my way. He pointed to a pile of garbage. Thats all

free.

Thanks. My eyes rolled all the way around as I walked away.

Humans. How did they ever make friends or have fun? They were so

so.

Hey, watch it! My musings had driven me straight into the

shoulder of a tall, angry man. I immediately put my hands up to show

that I was harmless, just like Boris had always taught me to do.
Sorry about that. Didnt see you. Again, I kept a big smile on my

face, and this time, it did seem to soften my enemy a bit.

Well, be careful. He rubbed his shoulder and jerked his head at

the oncoming crowd. Anyone else would skin you alive for that.

Thanks. For the advice, I mean. Ill be careful. So, humans

couldnt smell me coming. That was something I would have to keep in

mind as I moved around. Shifters almost never ran into one another as

our scents worked as a kind of automatic brake-inducer. As soon as I

smelled someone, I slowed down or stopped. Humans, it would seem,


didnt function that way.

I watched the guy I had run into walk away from the street and into

a doorway. He laughed with the guard and strolled in through a curtain

that was pulled aside. I could hear whooping and the sounds of a good

time inside, so I followed.

Hey, the guard said, hand up to stop me, where do you think

youre going?

Just wanted to join the party.

He peered a little closer at me. You a shifter, little girl?


I shrugged innocently. Sorry. Just a regular human like yourself.

Yeah. Sure. He peeked through the curtain and looked around,

then turned back to me. All right, you can go in. See what we do here

and, well, who knows? You could be on that stage one day.

The statement was a weird one, but I didnt ask what he meant. I

just figured he was an odd guy and went in. It was a club with several

small stages with tables and chairs around them. A band was playing in

the center of the floor so the sound of the music could fill the whole

space, but no one was watching the band. Every person in the place
mostly men, some adult women, but none of them my agewere all

fixed on a nearby performer.

My jaw hit the ground when I saw them. They were shifters dancing

on the stages, and every few minutes, they would shift into their animal

shape. Then, the tempo or key of the music would change, and they

would shift back, the audience gasping and sighing with each transition.

I fell into a chair behind me out of sheer shock. The shifters were all

females that I recognized, but I couldnt name them. One of them was a

young, female wolf that had kept me out of the big, sumptuous bedroom
the night of the fire. Allison. That was her name. If she recognized me,

she didnt show it.

In human form, each of the dancers was completely nude, but that

was clearly not the draw. It was the change, the transition that had the

human audience so excited. The music went faster, and they began to

change one by one, a ripple of transformation that whipped around the

room. The people watching all loved this and clapped loudly throughout

the end of the song, until soon, they were all out of their chairs and

throwing Bachmanns onto the stages. The performers collected the


money on their hands and knees, each one doing their best not to look at

the people who had thrown it.

What are you drinkin?

Sorry? I started and stared at the waitress who had addressed me.

She was in her human form, but a black cats tail was swaying behind

her lithe figure.

What can I get you, hon?

Um, I dont know. I looked at my hands, slightly worried they had

turned to hooves while I wasnt looking. They hadnt. I dont really


know what this place is.

She tucked her tray under her arm and looked me over. Youre a

boar, right?

My cheeks burned with questions. Id always been raised to never

discuss life as a shifter in the presence of humans. Never, ever. This

night was a never-ending challenge.

Its okay, she said, tilting her head a bit. These folks? Theyre

your biggest fans. They wont let anything happen to you. She put her

tray back up. Ill bring you a Chocolate Storm. You look like you need
one.

I started to protest, but she put up a hand. Its on me. One shifter

to another. With a quick wink, she turned and left.

There was a pause in the show, and the bands singer stepped

forward. Ladies and gentlemen, shifters and watchers, please help me

welcome the lovely, the magical, Blue Boa.

A burst of excited applause filled the air, and everyone turned to the

stage just behind me. The light was shining on the curtain in a perfect

circle, and I saw a delicate, pale hand reach through the opening and
lightly set down its fingers one by one as the first words of the song rang

out.

Come to my island,

My love

Several of the next verses were drowned out by the raucous cries of

the audience. Clearly, this was who everyone wanted to see. When I saw

the mysterious singer come out, I instantly understood why.


She was a boa constrictor. She stepped out in human form, wearing

very little. She had some kind of bra over her chest, but it appeared stuck

to her skin in little cups that glittered and sparkled in fake, blue jewels.

Her hair was black and wavy, pinned back on one side by a blue

accessory that matched her breasts. Her skirt was barely on; it was

basically a slit that traveled all the way up her legs to her hips, which she

swayed seductively as the song continued.

Come help me bring in that tide,


I need you by my side.

We can dance under the palms and the stars

Slowly, effortlessly, her body transformed from her feet up until

almost all of her body was a long, strong serpent. Only her breasts,

shoulders, arms, and head were still human as she slid down and out

onto the main floor.

To my horror, she wrapped herself right around me.

Hi there, she hissed in my ear, her tail squeezing my middle. Her


hand stroked my terrified face, and then she uncoiled and moved on,

leaving me gasping for breath. My waitress friend appeared and gave me

a dark-brown concoction in a tall glass.

I see you met Blue.

Yeah. I did. I was shaking by the time I reached for my drink. My

waitress put a hand on my shoulder.

Dont let her get to you. Shes really just a big nerd. This whole act,

its just thatan act. I promise if you met her backstage, youd be very

underwhelmed.
I didnt answer, just sipped my thick, slushy, chocolate drink. She

smiled and walked off, and I watched her go as I tried to imagine Blue

saying anything that wasnt elegant or glamorous. A dork? Sure. She

looked real dorky wrapping herself around the shoulders of the guy in

the corner.

From my seat, I watched the performance and kept wondering who

that person could be, the one she was singing to. Didnt I know him?

Possibly. I took in the rest of the crowd and realized no one was paying

any attention to me, not even the security guards. Blue was that
mesmerizing. She was gradually returning to her fully-human self and

looked even lovelier as she walked on her long legs, taking slow,

seductive steps so that everyone could see just how lovely those legs

really were.

I was wondering if I could ever have legs like that when I suddenly

realized who the man wasBachmann! President Bachmann was on the

other side of the room. He was dressed differently, just a t-shirt and

some dark pants, and hed grown out a beard, but it was him.

My drink suddenly came back up, and I desperately looked around


for a place to spit it up. Nothing. The nearest exit was Blues stage, and

she was just about to step back up to it. I got ready to make a lot of

people angry and bolted straight for it. To my shock, she quickly shifted

and caught me in her coils before I could get away.

Well, well, she intoned, flicking her little snake tongue out at my

face in her amusement, it looks like I caught a stray.

Please, Blue, I whispered, I need to get out of here.

Whats that, little kitten? She pretended she was listening to a

juicy secret, while the audience chuckled. Oh, you want to go and play
with me? Through her smile, she pushed out the words say yes.

Oh. Yes. Please. This got us more laughs, and she set me free and

shifted back in one swift, smooth motion.

Pardon me, fellas. I have to go and see this through. She took my

hand and led me through the curtain. Once we were on the other side, I

let out a big breath.

We have to get out of here. Bachmann is out there!

Oh, Rhett? Was that what had you so freaked out? Blue pulled on

a white, fluffy robe and unpinned her hair. You dont need to worry
about him. His days in politics are behind him.

The sound of her nonchalance was more than I could deal with at

the moment. I grabbed her shoulders and tried again. No, you dont

understand. Hes a Bachmann. He comes from a family of tyrants.

People like that dont just let go of what they have. Hes evil. Hell

always be evil.

She patted my cheek. Honey, Rhett Bachmann is in here almost

every night drooling over the shifter girls like everyone else. Im telling

you, she took my hand and led me to a hallway, youve got it wrong.
Now, she opened a door, and we stepped into her dressing room, who

are you?

Oh, sorry. Im Emily. Its my first time in the city.

Youre joking! She sat down and brushed her hair out. I grew up

here. My family and I passed for human for decades. When watcher

clubs started popping up, I was a headliner almost immediately. I never

wanted to live on some smelly, old compound. That comment made me

look down at my second-hand clothes and dirty nails. Couldnt say I

blamed her.
Oh, I didnt mean for that to come out so terribly. Dont listen to

me, Emily. I put my foot in my mouth all the time. She put her brush

down and reached for some clothes folded up on a chair. She didnt

bother asking me to turn around or anything; she just took off her skirt

and weird boob stickers and then slipped into some torn jeans and a

blouse. Hey, Im starving. Shall we see if we can find something to eat?

I know a guy who can make us fried mouse.

I was hungry. I nodded, and she flashed me a big smile. Great. We

can take the back door. No politicians, I promise. We laughed and


headed out, friends already. That was what I loved the most about being

a shifter, no one was a stranger. Unless they were human. Humans

never felt familiar to me in any way.

We found the food vendor shed promised and settled into plastic

chairs for our food. The mouse was good, and I munched through one a

little too fast. I wanted a second but was embarrassed to ask. Luckily,

Blue saw the hunger in my eyes and ordered two more after our first

round.

Dont worry, she said before I could say no, thank you. They pay
me well at the club, and I get extra little gifts from my fans all the time. I

havent paid for anything in weeks.

Wow. Must be nice.

What do you do? To keep yourself alive, I mean. Does anyone take

care of you?

I nodded as I stuffed my face. I used to live with my brother, but he

was killed. Now I bunk with a family of bats in the old prison under

Bachmanns old palace.

No. Way. She put her cheek on her hand so that she could stare at
me properly. You live with bats? A whole family?

Yup. Now its like I have two new brothers. They got under my skin

earlier today, and thats why I came out.

She sat back in utter shock. I cannot believe how thoroughly

interesting you are.

Me?

Yes! Of course, you. Youre easily the most interesting creature Ive

spoken with in days. The human guys I talk to only want to talk about

my show or my shifting, and thats all fine. But none of them have
anything to tell me. They think I want to hear about their new devices

theyve invented or how big their apartments are, but thats all just stuff.

I like real stories about real lives, you know?

I do. I think thats why I like my bat family so much. They dont

ever talk about things. Well, the kids do, but theyre just kids.

She asked me more about myself, about Boris and what he had been

like. I told her everything. It all came pouring out of me. It felt great to

open up to someone. So, when a giant, male human came over with two

of his friends and suddenly sat down, I was doubly annoyed. Who
invited these jerks?

Hi, girls. The leader of the little pack leaned forward, while his

friends stood behind him, big smiles on their faces. Who let you out so

late at night?

Boys, Blue interjected, were flattered, but we need you to leave.

What will you do if we dont?

Well I know what shell do, I piped up. Shell wrap her coils

around you until she crushes your lungs. And then, I put my head down

for a moment and then looked up with big, gleaming tusks jutting out of
my face, Ill gore you in the stomach and let you watch your intestines

come flying out of your body.

Gah! The guy leaped back and out of his chair, knocking one of his

friends backward in the processnot that he noticed. Theyre a couple

of shifter freaks!

The people around us all turned to look, and Blue and I were

instantly in the center of a spectacle. She reached out and touched my

shoulder, a warning. I remembered what Boris had taught me: stand

back to back. Four eyes are better than two. I stepped around and felt the
back of my shoulders touch Blues tiny frame.

The humans around us started to move in.

What did you do with our president?

Why are you out here acting like us? What gives you the right?

Go back to your compound where you belong. Stop making

trouble.

Our giant, male humanthe same who had sat down uninvitedsaw

a window. I just wanted to say hello! They threatened me. This one said

she wanted to kill me.


Thats not what happened. I stood my ground, tusks still extended

and still wet with drool. You know it isnt.

His innocent act would not end. He was determined to play the

victim. A hand to his chest, he acted as if he were unable to breathe and

sat down in a chair, as if suddenly feeling faint. I fought hard not to roll

my eyes.

Maybe these shifters need a taste of their own medicine, one of

his friends suggested. All around us, people started nodding.

Maybe they do.


I feel like Im up to giving a couple lessons.

Fists hit palms, and necks cracked. This crowd was ready for some

serious violence. Behind me, Blue tensed, and I started to tremble. We

could hold our own with a few guys, but an angry mob was more than we

could manage.

Stop! A new guy, one I hadnt noticed before, ran up and put

himself between us and the crowd. Lets just all calm down.

Get outta here, gas boy. No one wants you here.

No one wants any bloodshed either, Luis. He glanced back at us.


Youve thoroughly terrified them. Well done. Lets all just take a deep

breath and move on with our evening, hmm?

There was a pause as everyone considered the possibility of not

killing us. For a moment, it seemed to appeal to them, but then the big

guy called out again.

Youre going to let them threaten me like that? And were not

supposed to do anything? This rallied the crowd back to his side with

calls of Yeah! Thats right! and on, and on. Did humans ever let

anything go?
Give me a break, Roland. Our bodyguard shook his head. Youre

three times their size. Even if they were expert fighters, youd still be

able to throw them across the street.

Big guy didnt quite know what to do with the compliment. It put

him off his game, and all he could get out was a, Well, wellyou can

never be too safe with these shifters. Anything could happen!

Our protector stood firm, feet wide and hands balled into fists. I

know whats going to happen tonight. You are walking that way, and my

friends and I are headed the other way. Were going to leave each other
alone. Got it?

Rolands eyes narrowed into annoyed little slits, and he scoffed.

Whatever. I got somewhere to be.

Im sure youre very busy, I retorted, and I was quickly pulled

away by the new human that was now, apparently, in charge of Blue and

me.

All right, quit while youre ahead. Come on, Ive got bottles at my

station. Blue followed him without another thought, but I was angry.

Who was this guy? Why were we trusting a human after one had almost
gotten us ripped apart in the street? But there seemed to be no answers

to my questions at the moment, so I just followed Blue and our new

friend down the street. We walked silently down the quiet path and

headed toward a small, well-lit building. I looked at his face and

wondered at what I saw there. He wasnt afraid, but he wasnt confident.

Hes alone, I thought. Just like me.


Chapter Four

We went to what I guess was a gas station. I had never seen where

gas came from before. I hadnt even thought about what made a car run

or a great engine spit out smoke. Alex opened a door, and we stepped

into what, I realized, had once been a store but was now his home and

workshop.

Sorry about the mess. Ill bring the bottles out. Theres some chairs

just there. Make yourselves at home.

Blue was used to humans and had no qualms about plopping down
in a chair to check her nails. Meanwhile, I was biting mine. What did

this guy want with us? Why had he brought us here? I glanced around

and saw potential weapons everywhere; great big pieces of metal, huge,

heavy tools, and nets hanging from the ceiling. He was out for shifter

stew, I was positive.

Sit down, Emily. Were fine.

How do you know? Awkwardly, I perched on the edge of a chair. It

felt hard and smelled old like musty clothes. He could be out for our

heads!
Ive seen him around, she shrugged. Hes just a mechanic. A fix-it

guy. Humans come here when they need some little piece of metal fixed.

Relax.

Sitting back in my chair, I looked around the room again. This time,

I didnt see weapons, or at least I tried not to see them. Instead, I tried to

see it through the lens of work. It certainly helped. Sure, he could still

kill us, but at least I wouldnt die alone. I had Blue with me.

Here we are, he said, coming back in with handfuls of clanking

bottles. One for you, he handed me a tall brown one, one for our star,
Blue got a tall, green one, and one for me. His had a strange, black

liquid in it I had never seen before. Cheers!

We clinked bottles and each tried our own. Mine was the bitter,

brown stuff that I knew had alcohol in it.

Oh! Try mine. Its sweet and full of bubbles. Blue and I switched,

and Alex chuckled at our big, surprised eyes.

That stuff is called champagne. It used to be what people used to

celebrate special occasions. I figured two new friendships is more than

enough cause for celebration.


Blue gave him a shy smile and wiggled provocatively in her seat.

Why, thank you. Im happy to be your friend.

Oh great. I was going to have to watch while the two of them fell in

love. I sighed and went back to my drink.

Hows yours? He leaned toward me and looked at me with big,

clear, hazel eyes. His messy hair fell over one of them, but it did nothing

to detract from his sweet face. Why couldnt I get a guy like this one?

Blue probably had men falling all over themselves just to get close to

her.
I like this stuff. Its a little bitter but in a nice way. I took another

drink and held it out for him to try it, but he shook his head.

Not much of a sweet tooth, Im sorry to say. He held up his dark

liquid. This is as sweet as it gets. Im hooked on the stuff.

What is it? Blue reached out for it and looked at the red paper

glued to the glass. Its nice. I like the picture.

I dont know what this is. I dont suppose either of you read?

We shook our heads sadly. I almost mentioned that I had an odd,

little device back at my house that could read anything for us, but it
wasnt exactly mine, so I kept quiet. Tina might not be okay with me

offering the reading thing around to perfect strangers.

Oh, well. It will just have to remain a mystery, I guess. He went

back to his bottle and stared off at nothing. I smiled over at Blue who

raised her eyebrows at me. She had some devious plan and was eager to

put it to work.

So. Alex. She set her bottle down on the floor and draped herself

over one side of the chair with a beautiful, snake-like gesture. You out

here all alone?


I am. He smiled at her and then just stared at his bottle again.

Blue shot me a look. What was this about? I shrugged. Maybe he had

bad vision?

That must be, she reached for his leg, so hard.

It can be, he nodded, missing the innuendo. I dont mind too

much. My work keeps me occupied. To our shock, he turned to me.

What about you, um, Emily, right?

Right. Well, Ive kind of been adopted by a family. Theyre shifters.

We live in an old prison.


A what? He moved forward and looked at me with a bright light in

his eyes. Are you being serious?

Sure. My shoulders shrugged casually, and I went back to my

bottle. Well, my own place was burned down in a fire, so they wanted to

help me out. Im extremely grateful. I have two little boys in my new

place, Tom and Nate. Theyre great but, you know, kids can be a

handful.

Oh, sure. I let a little beggar kid live here with me for a few days.

He was super fun, but man, I had to really watch him! He got into
everything. One day, his mom showed up and just walked out the door

with him. I miss him, but I dont miss the mayhem.

I know exactly what you mean. We laughed, and I caught him

watching my face as I broke out into a happy expression. Then I caught

Blue eyeing us. She didnt say anything, but she didnt have to; with one

glance, she let me know that she wasnt going to pursue this guy.

Hey, I tried, did you know that Blue is a professional singer?

I did know that, he said as if he knew a million performers. Ive

actually caught your show a few times. Youre a snake, right?


Blues eyebrows raised in a haughty expression of disapproval.

Snake? No, darling. Im a boa constrictor. And my embrace is deadly.

She wiggled her toes up onto his leg as she said it, and he jumped back a

bit. We laughed at him, and he blushed a little as he calmed down.

The night went on. We drank a little and laughed a lot. To my

surprise, Blue finished the entire bottle of champagne and set it down

with a victorious bang. Thats that. She slapped her hands on her legs

and stood to go. Well, Im off.

Should I go with you? I started to stand, but she gave me a tiny,


almost imperceptible head shake.

Dont worry, darling! I have a shortcut to my house from here. And

anyone who messes with me will regret it. I insist you stay here and

impose on our friend Alex. She shook a finger at me. Get into lots of

trouble. Promise?

I pulled her into a hug. All right, fine. If you insist. She giggled and

pulled back from me. Then, to my complete shock, she grabbed my face

and kissed me on the lips.

It wasnt a quick peck. No, it was a full-on, real kiss. She even closed
her eyes and moaned just a touch while I kept my eyes open and fell

silent from the surprise of it all. She let me go and gave me a wink.

Well, all right then. Bye.

Yeah. See you. I stood and watched her go. Alex was too floored to

get to his feet. He could only manage a little wave as she stepped out the

metal door.

What was that about? He looked at me, but I could only shake my

head. Are you two together?

I literally just met her tonight. I reached up to touch my lips,


which were buzzing a bit from their latest adventure. Thats the second

surprise kiss Ive had tonight.

What was the first?

I told him what happened with Black Feather, and he was instantly

angry about it. What a jerk, he said, spitting out the words. His

eyebrows went into a deep scowl. What makes him think he can just

demand you do that for him? Who does he think he is?

My anger didnt meet his at all. I had been around shifter guys long

enough that I had come to expect weird moments like that. When
youre a shifter, I explained, you have two sexualities happening at

once: human and animal. And, unfortunately, none of us really know

how to manage either side. Male humans have a strong drive, but so do

females. Then you mix in animal instinct, and well, youve got a bit of a

mess on your hands. Things get out of hand sometimes.

Out of hand? He went a bit red from emotion and balled up his

hand into a fist and pounded the arm of his chair. What does that mean,

out of hand? Have you ever been forced to do something?

No, I assured him, its not like that.


Then whats it like? His voice was louder, sharper.

Hey, I retorted, just calm down, okay? You dont understand.

Things are different when youre part animal.

All right then, educate me. He glared and worked his jaw back and

forth as he studied my face. What exactly is so different? Because it

sounds to me like the guys in your community can just do whatever they

want.

Dont be ridiculous. No female bear or eagle is going to let some

guy tell her what to do.


I should hope not.

We settled into an uncomfortable silence and tried not to look at

each other. I finished what was left of my bottle and then set it down.

Look, Ill just leave. Sorry I bothered you or whatever.

He stood and grabbed my elbow. Emily, dont ever let someone

force another kiss on you.

I dont need any life advice from you, okay? I started to turn away,

but he didnt let me go. Hey! I said I was leaving.

Im worried about you.


Why? Im nobody.

Dont say that! His grip on my elbow got tighter.

My breathing grew faster, and my teeth clenched. Well, I am. I

have no family, no life. Ill never have a job or anything. I cant get

married or even go on a date. Im just a thing that takes up space. So

so

So, what?

I looked at him and saw myself in his big, soft eyes fringed by long,

dark lashes and heard myself go on. So, if some guy sees me for a
minute, just acknowledges that I exist, then maybe it isnt so terrible if

he wants to force his lips on mine. Even if its gross. Even if I hate it. At

least Im being seen.

Emily, you deserve better than that.

Right.

You do. You should have real love in your life.

Tears welled up in my eyes, and I looked down. They fell perfectly

through the air, not touching anything until they splashed on the floor.

Stop.
Stop what? His hand moved up my arm and held it gently.

This! Stop making me feel so much.

His fingers lifted my chin. Maybe its not such a bad thing. Feeling.

Anything is better than being numb. His foot stepped toward me, and

his arms went around me. My body responded immediately. I pulled him

in, tilted my head, and let my lips meet his in a warm, soft kiss.

With one touch, he erased my memories of Black Feather and Blue

completely. There was only the two of us in the world, and that was all I

wanted.
We kissed for a long time, but it felt like only a few seconds. As soon

as we stopped, we just started again. I had an urgency in my body that I

hadnt felt for a long time. I needed to grab him, taste him, squeeze him.

All of himI needed all of him.

Lets go lie down. His words made the air around me shift to the

left. Sex. He was asking for sex.

I dont know.

We parted, and he tilted his head to mine, touching my forehead

with his. What dont you know?


Oh, great. A challenge. What didnt I know? Where to start? I didnt

know the first thing about sex. I had never seen a man naked and

couldnt begin to guess what it would be like. Would I even like it? I

crossed my arms over my chest and started to breathe a little faster.

Im just not sure, okay? Can I just feel doubt? Do you mind? Oh,

Id done it now. Hell be furious.

The fury I was sure hed throw at me never came. Instead, he

laughed.

Of course. I was just trying to be sexy. Ill stop. He pulled me in


for a hug, but I kept my arms around myself for a moment. I wasnt sure

how I felt about being with him. Sure, he was gorgeous, but he was also

human. What would it mean to let him have sex with me?

Do you always get so nervous with guys?

I stared at him and slowly realized what was happeninghe didnt

see it. He had no idea. I turned and gave him an apologetic smile. Im a

virgin. Ive never...like, never even come close.

Oh yeah? To my surprise, he wasnt all that surprised. Rather, he

took the news by sitting down and then patting his leg for me to cuddle
up on his lap. I relaxed and sat on his thighs, leaned my head against his

chest, and let him play with my hair. Sorry. I didnt know. It doesnt

matter. Being a virgin. Its how everyone starts out. It took me a long

time to even want to have sex.

Mm? I was so relaxed. Each drag of his fingers through my hair

seemed to melt me just a little more.

Sure. All the guys I grew up with, they started young. They werent

even in their twenties by the time they got girlfriends and started

bragging. Meanwhile, I was in my dads shop, playing with little gear sets
and my tools. I would say it was cute, but really, it was just a way to hide.

I was too shy.

You? I sat up a little bit and smiled at him. You stood up to a

bully and rescued two girls in the process. Is that shy?

Was. I was shy. I got braver as I got older. Satisfied, I leaned

against him again. A big, happy sigh came out of me but morphed into a

yawn.

Ahh. Sorry. I guess Id better get back. I stood up and stretched,

while Alex stared up at me. My arms flopped down and made a big
slapping sound as my hands hit my hips. Its pretty late.

It is. He reached for my hand and toyed with my fingers. Why

dont you sleep here? You can go back in the morning. It will be safer.

This idea was ludicrous, of course. I couldnt spend the night at

some random guys house. Never. I opened my mouth to tell him so and

found that I had no voice. I tried againnope. Still not there. Finally, I

just surrendered mentally. This gave my throat and mouth the ability to

speak once again, and I said, Sure.

His bed was a metal cot covered in old sheets that were paper thin.
The room was small and dark with only one opening in the ceiling. I

liked it, and I could see a few stars if I stared hard enough. I squinted up

through the space as I lay on his little nest of pillows and sheets and

found I was very comfortable.

How is it?

Great. Where are you gonna sleep?

Ha ha. He sat down to take off his shoes. I had seen pictures of

that style in old magazines and books. They had a special name. They

were held on by long strings that crisscrossed in the front. He had to


untie the bow at the top to get them off. I watched, and he bumped a

shoulder into me playfully.

You like my sneakers?

Your what?

My sneakers. He held one up. I got them at an abandoned store

back when I used to travel a lot. Before I got the station. Theyre great. I

held one for a little while and felt its weight in my hand. It felt sturdy

and safe. Safer than my flat, open shoes anyway.

Theyre nice, I said and then lay back.


You gonna sleep in your clothes? As he asked, he pulled his t-shirt

up and over his head, revealing his gorgeous torso. It was carved of pure

muscle like a lot of the shifter guys I knew. Even some girls. The poor

life tends to make a creature lean. I couldnt answer his questions; I was

too distracted.

Suit yourself, he said after a long silence, and slid his pants off.

Underneath, he had black shorts that were tight against him. I couldnt

help but notice how great his butt looked in those tiny things.

Okay. I mean, I will. Im fine. He joined me on the cot and pressed


his back against my chest and stomach, sandwiching me between him

and the wall. I would have complained if his back wasnt so well-shaped

and strong. I put my head between his shoulders and fell into a deep,

dreamless sleep.

The next morning, he kissed me goodbye as the sun came up.

I dont want to go.

I know, Em. Em! He already had a special name for me. But Im

sure your family is worried about you. Dont want them to panic.

Our hands squeezed one another as I rocked side to side on my feet.


Can I see you again?

Of course. Come see me tomorrow night. Right here. I close up

around eight.

All right then. I stepped forward to give him a kiss, and he grabbed

my back to hold me there against his lips. I breathed him in. He smelled

like salt and the desert air. His lips tasted like the sweetest water the

Earth had ever known. We finished and laughed at ourselves for a

moment.

See you tomorrow, Alex.


See you.

The walk home was like nothing I had ever experienced. The sun

was brighter, and the air was softer than it had ever been. Every car horn

and loud argument sounded gentle and far away. Even the grey stones in

the ground glittered in a new way. All I could think was, Someone likes

me. Someone sees me and wants me around. Someone who isnt family

or a classmate or anything. Finally. Its happened.

The moment I walked into the prison, the spell was broken.

Mom! Nates voice slapped me right in the face with its force.
Shes here. She came back.

Oh, my goodness! Meredith ran up to me and flung her arms

around me. We were worried sick. Black Feather said something about

you never coming back again. Did you two have a fight?

He said that? I rolled my eyes. You have nothing to worry about.

Hes embarrassed because he tricked me into kissing him.

Bleh! Gross! Tom and Nate rolled their eyes and made retching

noises at the mention of kissing. Girls are so weird.

Boys arent much better, I retorted. Kneeling, I held my arms out


to them. Can I have a hug?

They ran up and gave me tight, exuberant hugs. The force of it made

me lean back a little bit, and I nearly fell.

Dont flatten her, boys. Shes had a long night. You hungry, dear?

We let each other go, and the boys told me about all the wonderful

food they had had that morning. We had these things called pancakes!

Theyre circles!

What?

Meredith explained that some of the shifters had been walking


around with the reading device and finding all different texts for it to

decipher. One of them picked up a box full of white powder and found

some writing on the side. Turned out, it was a lesson in how to make a

kind of bread called pancakes.

Emily, you have to try them, Nate said. His eyes bulged out of his

head while talked about their taste. His mother just shook her head.

I dont think its got a single drop of anything useful. When I was

little, she said, sitting on my bed and letting the boys crawl all over her,

we had a lot of overweight humans around. Im willing to bet they ate


pancakes every day.

Wow.

Sounds great.

She put her face in her hand. Boys, Im trying to tell you why this is

a bad idea. Her head shook with the exhaustion of it all, and she

reached a hand out to me. Were so glad youre all right, hon.

Actually, I said, blushing, Im better than all right. I think I might

have a boyfriend.

The phrase sent my brothers screaming out the door. They kept
screaming all the way down the aisle between cells and didnt stop until

they shifted to go and hang from their spots on the ceiling. When they

finally fell silent, Meredith gave me an interested look.

You met someone?

I told her everything. She listened without making any comments

until I got to the end, then patted my hand. Well, she said as she stood

to move on, I know youre not going to listen to this, but I want to say it

now.

I grabbed her hand tightly. What?


Hes human.

I let the hand go. Meredith! I know hes human. You dont have to

tell me that.

Well, apparently, she continued as she moved toward the door, I

do need to tell you something else.

She fell silent as she worried a lip between her teeth. Then she said

over her shoulder, This relationship youve formed is a very bad thing.


Chapter Five

The next few weeks were the best of my life. I went to see Alex

almost every day. We kissed, we snuggled, and we talked. Everything he

said was fascinating; everything he liked, I liked. He introduced me to

fruit. He explained that a long time ago, back when his dad was around,

fruit had come in lots of different varieties. Humans and animals could

get big, small, purple, red anything. Now, there was only one kind.

Its a hybrid of four different fruits that they grow in greenhouses.

It takes just a little water, and its ready in a few weeks. Thats why
everyones eating it; its easy to grow. He handed me a purple, bumpy

thing that felt heavy and juicy in my hands. Here. Try it.

I smelled it and smiled. Mm! It smells so nice.

Thats because its sweet. Take a bite.

My teeth went right through the skin, and the juice ran down my

chin and onto my neck. It was like fresh water, but better. Nothing in a

bottle had ever tasted like this. I had to close my eyes while I chewed it

was so good.

Like it?
I nodded, and he laughed at me as he wiped the juice off of my face.

You look like a little kid.

My tongue licked my lips, and the sight of it made him kiss me

again. He grabbed the fruit out of my hand, held it over us and squeezed

so the juice ran down our faces as we kissed and bit each others lips. My

shirt sopped up most of it, so I pulled it off without even realizing I had.

The air in the station was warm against my bare skin, but it was scalding

hot once he touched me.

Wow. His eyes stayed on my breasts for a while. He reached for


them gingerly. I grabbed his hand and put it right on top.

You like it?

Yeah, he breathed. He started kissing my neck and my shoulders.

He even bit into my collar bone for a moment, which I loved.

Alex

Mm-hmm?

I want to make love to you.

He stopped and looked up. He was already breathing heavy. You

do?
I nodded and stepped back from him. He stood and watched as I slid

my shorts and panties down to the floor and kicked them aside. We

looked at one anotherhim dressed, and me in the nudeuntil we both

started to get truly excited.

Come here. Come hold me. He complied and wrapped his arms

around me gently. I felt so safe there in his embrace. I slid my hands up

under his shirt until he lifted his arms so that I could pull it off.

He got naked as fast as he could and then walked me over to a little

counter. Sit up here.


No.

His eyebrows went up. Had I changed my mind? I pushed him aside

gently, and then leaned over the counter so my butt stuck out toward

him. I want it like this.

Oh, Em, he groaned. He walked up to me and felt my butt cheeks

with his hand, then gave me a little slap. Okay. Okay, lets do it here.

Like this.

He positioned himself behind me, and I laid my head on my arm,

looking to the side. I felt him slide in gently, and I gasped a little.
His hands grabbed my hips. You okay?

Yes. I feel you.

Does it feel good?

Yes. No. Wait. My breath was caught, so I forced myself to breathe

and then relaxed the muscles in my legs. Once I let myself go, I could

feel the friction we created between the two of us, and I started to move

into it, rocking back and forth. Yes. I like it. That feels really good.

He moved himself in and out of me slowly, letting me feel all of him

press into and against me. His torso laid on my back, and I grabbed for
his hands. Our fingers interlaced together as he pumped his hips more

and more. I loved it so much I thought I might faint.

Oh, Alex. Its wonderful! I think I might die.

He kissed me and said something about not worrying, he would die

with me. He started to move faster, and I liked that even more. But I was

about to die; I felt it. Something was overcoming me, and I couldnt stop

it. Alex made deep, choking sounds, and I was sure he was about to

perish as well. What could I do? I had no idea it felt so good to be faced

with death. He slapped my ass and slammed into my hips as a big, deep
cry came out of him. I felt it come right through me like a sunburst, a

knife bursting out of my chest.

Ah! Ah! Im dying! Im going to die! Alex, help me! But he was in

worse shape than me. His hard cock was throbbing inside me, and I felt

something come out of him. Was it blood? Was it the last little piece of

his life?

Youre okay. Youre okay. He pulled me into his arms as he gasped

for breath. Its supposed to feel like that. Youre not dying.

I shook in his arms. He was covered in sweat and felt as weak as I


was. He kissed my head and stroked my hair.

I didnt want to scare you. Im sorry.

It was so wonderful. You didnt scare me. The feeling did. I looked

up at him. I really thought that was the end. I had no idea sex was so

so.

He laughed at me and pulled me back into his arms. Yeah. It is.

After Id had a taste of sex, I found I was ravenous for it night and

day. I could hardly wait until the sun went down before I nearly sprinted

back to the gas station. My clothes were off before I could even say hello.
We made love every day that we could get together, sometimes two

or three times before the sun came up. Meredith kept trying to talk to

me about my situation, but I had nothing to say to her. How could she

know what I was feeling? She was older; shed been married and had

children years ago. No one else knew what I was experiencing. It simply

wasnt possible.

All right, little miss, Meredith said to me one day. Youre staying

in tonight. The boys want to go hear the story in the library tonight, and

youre taking them.


What? I spun around and looked at her. Meredith! Im all ready

to go and meet Alex. I didnt put on all this makeup to go to the library.

Besides, its perfectly safe. They can go alone.

I know they can. But it would mean the world to them if their big

sister would take them. She blocked the doorway and gave me a mom

look. Im not asking.

My eyes closed, and I sighed so big my shoulders went up and down.

Fine. Fine, Ill go. Ill ask one of the airbornes if theyll take Alex a

message. Meredith smiled and moved aside.


Tom! Nate! The two ran up to me at top speed and slammed into

my legs. Maybe they really did miss me. Hey.

Are you taking us to the story?

Please come with us, Emily! Tom grabbed my hand and looked up

at me with his little boy eyes, breaking my heart into a million pieces. I

really hadnt been much of a big sister lately.

Of course, my darlings. I squeezed his chubby little hand in mine

and smiled down at him. I wouldnt miss it. I just need to talk to a

friend of mine and see if he can deliver a message for me.


The boys a