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Hearth Fires

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Lorel hummed along to the bluesy song that twined with the smells of dozens of sweet things filling the air.  Swinging her hips slightly from side to side, she counted out the day’s totals to figure out what to bake tomorrow.  The maple pecan cupcakes were sold out, as were the pear sticky buns. Maybe she’d switch it up for the weekend and make chai cupcakes and maple sticky buns.

As she tallied, she mentally designed an upcoming wedding cake order.  The couple wanted silver accents, which was in vogue and nearly to the point of tired and overdone.  Maybe arabesque flowers outlined in a royal blue and the silver? She could gild edges of sugar paste flowers.  Would it be too on the nose to mimic the flowers in the bride’s bouquet?

The door opened almost soundlessly.  One of the first things she’d done was rip the bell off; the jangling was hell on Changeling hearing.  Finishing up the note she was in the middle of, she turned around to greet the customer.

“Hi, how can I help you?”  The chirpy greeting died off as her nose caught up.

Spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla had temporarily masked the threat that had snuck up on her.  A threat that smelled like moss and oak, and a dominant predatory Changeling male. Her blood turned to ice water.  The power of him filled the shop and had her animal in a crouch, waiting to see whether she should run or would have to fight.  She wiped her palms on her apron and plastered on a smile that probably more closely resembled a grimace.

The stranger scanned her with a coolly appraising eye from the top of her frizzy hair to her flour-dusted hands.  She froze in place and focused on his right shoulder to avoid eye contact while still watching him like a rabbit he’d decided was dinner.  Fear spiked in her scent, strong enough that even she could smell it over the mixture filling the place, and he could probably hear the thundering of her heart.  He turned, locked the door, and turned the sign to closed. Her cat was clawing at her to run far, climb high, but she was too busy doing her best impression of a deer in headlights to pay attention.

His presence, reinforced by his actions, could only mean he wanted one of two things: either he wanted her gone or he wanted her for himself.

“Ms. Cain, I’m Remi Denier, Alpha o’ the RainFire Pack.  Please, ‘ave a seat so we can talk.” The bayou dripped like Spanish moss from his words.  He pulled a chair from one of the bistro tables by the front window and gestured for her to take the other seat.   He’s laying the Southern gentleman routine on thick , she snorted inwardly.

“It’s Maddox now, and I’m comfortable right here.”  The strained pitch to her tone gave lie to the statement.  She shifted her weight in preparation to dash out the back door.

“Ya won’ get very far, Ms. Maddox,” he drawled mildly, his brilliant topaz eyes flashed gold.  The alpha, and he certainly looked the part at somewhere over six feet with line-backer shoulders, sat where he could watch both the front door and the one that led to the kitchen.  He stretched out long, jeans-clad legs; he was making himself at home. On her turf. “I ‘ave de alley covered.”

“What did I do to deserve such an honour, Mr. Denier?” she asked crisply and folded her arms.  While she wouldn’t stand a chance against a predatory Changeling Alpha determined to hurt her, that didn’t mean she would go down without a fight.  She just had to wait for her chance.

“You’re in my terr’tory.”  His eyes had gone leopard-gold.  Shit. Heart hammering, she felt her cat settle into a crouch in preparation for a pounce.  Adrenaline dumped into her bloodstream and she wanted to bare her teeth at the threat, but strangled the urge before her lips did more than twitch.

“No pack can control a mixed-race city, and your border ends at the Madison-Haywood line.”  She had made certain before she took over the bakery. Their boundary was the next county over.  The flash in his eyes and the low growl said without words that the cat didn’t care about semantics.

“RainFire does now.  Say, could I get a cup o’ coffee?”  His accent was so thick she could practically cut it with a knife.

“Sorry, I’m not in the habit of feeding strays.”  The acerbic retort popped out of her mouth before she knew what she was saying.  Swallowing, she dropped her hands to fist at her sides in preparation for a full shift and not just the talons that had sprouted from her fingertips.

Remi Denier didn’t attack, didn’t even growl.  To her utter surprise, he laughed. The sound was rich and filled the bakery like the tones of a brass bell.  Her cat cocked its head in confusion.

“We’re small and growin’, jus’ expanded our claim last month,” he explained, spreading large hands wide.  And she had purchased the shop five weeks ago, which was when she’d checked that no shifter groups had marked the area as theirs.

“I took over this place before that.  I won’t be run off my land.” Said land wasn’t even an acre in total, and it was technically just the home she shared with her aunt since the shop was on a lease, but it was hers.  Every survival instinct screamed at her to stop challenging him, even as her animal wanted to go for his throat.

“I never said not’ing ‘bout chasin’ you off.  Jus’ like knowin’ who’s in my terr’tory,” he shrugged and hooked an arm around the back of the seat.  The relaxed posture didn’t fool her one whit; one didn’t become an alpha without catlike reflexes.

“You already know that if you know my name.”  She folded her arms again and leaned back against the counter behind her.

“Lack o’ criminal record don’ mean much.”   Lord ain’t that the truth , she silently agreed.

“Not much to know,” Lorel said aloud.  “Raised by my human grandparents, some university, bounced around some, and then my aunt wanted to retire.  But you probably knew all that already.”

“You were born into the RedRock pack.”  Her stomach sank.

“I was just a kid, I don’t remember much.”  She leashed the need to snarl at the alpha. She couldn’t expose any potential weaknesses.  If he thought she was hiding something she’d never get rid of him until he uncovered it.  Damn cats.


“Never joined another pack.”  A statement, not a question. He already knew the answer, he just wanted to see if she would lie to him.

“Never saw the need.”  Rounded shoulders rose and fell jerkily instead of in the fluid way they should have moved in feline Changelings.  Remi filed that away the same as he had the talons that appeared when she’d thrown out the crack about strays. It wasn’t the first time he’d been called that, and no doubt it wouldn’t be the last.  Then there was the fear, more than was to be expected. His leopard didn’t like that; submissive Changelings should feel safe and protected with dominants, even strange ones who’d shown they intended no harm.

Well, no lasting harm, anyway.

“Never felt need for family?”

“I have family.”  Lorelei gestured around the bakery that had been her aunt’s.  While she couldn’t make eye contact, the hard ice in her voice hinted at a hidden backbone, a reminder that submissive was not synonymous with doormat.

“But do they understand you?”  That spine, which was already rigid, snapped so straight he worried it would crack under the strain.  Judging by the white lines of her mouth she probably wasn’t about to reply any time soon, but the lack of answer was an answer in itself.

If he was a better man, he’d feel bad about baiting a woman so far down the hierarchy she didn’t even risk a glance at his eyes for fear he’d see it as a challenge.  As it was, he only felt a twinge of guilt. The most extensive background check in the world couldn’t tell him how she would react under duress. Being cornered, no matter how temporarily, with a strange, dominant predatory Changeling alpha was an effective stress test for most people.

“Unless you’ve got a sweet tooth, I think you’ve wasted your time, Mr. Denier.”  Her folded arms shifted, pushing her breasts up even higher until they nearly spilled over the heart-shaped top of her apron.  Instead of plain black canvas, hers was an ice blue that brought out the colour of her eyes, with cupcakes decorating the full skirt and ruffles of the same fabric edging the bodice.

“Hmm…”  He gave her a slow once-over.  Damn if she didn’t look like a treat herself with generous curves and freckles sprinkled generously over her creamy skin.  “Not worth the cavities.” Her jaw dropped in affront at the deliberate provocation.

“I promise I’ll only stick to the woods in this county, and I’ll let you know if I have to cross through your territory,” she said firmly, recovering quickly from the barb.  “I just want to run my business and not cause any trouble.”

Her cat was no doubt pissed he’d invaded her territory, but her eyes never flashed gold.  Other than the tiny shift to claws briefly, her other half never surfaced; as an alpha, he could tell.  If he hadn’t known beyond a doubt (his nose never lied) what she was, he wouldn’t have guessed that she was a Changeling.  A few slips on her part were to be expected under the circumstances, which was a large part of the reason why he was there in the first place; he needed to see how she reacted.  But the sheer amount of control she had was bizarre for someone who had only lived among humans.

“How ‘bout you join RainFire?”

She gaped at him.

“No!” she cried once she realized he was serious.  Remi waited for her to elaborate upon her refusal.

“Why not?” he asked when it was obvious nothing else was forthcoming.  She continued to stare at him as if he were a few bricks shy of a load.

“Leopard,” she said slowly, pointing to him.  “Ocelot,” she pressed one hand over her heart.  Each word was carefully pronounced.

“DarkRiver has a jaguar and a lynx.  We have a tiger,” he shrugged. Lorelei seemed genuinely taken aback by that; she must have deliberately avoided any and all news touching upon Changelings.  “The old way of thinking was hurting more’n it was helping. No room for that in RainFire. Is it because of what happened at RedRock?” Women typically didn’t respond well to his bluntness unless he was seducing them, and by her full body flinch, Lorelei It’s-Maddox-Now-Thank-You-Very-Much was no exception to the rule.

“You want an honest answer?”  Thin ginger brows climbed up her freckled forehead.  When he nodded, she pushed off the counter with muttered “fine” and a deep sigh.

Remi scowled at that, but she continued before he could say anything.

“I just want to be left alone and nothing you can say will change my mind.”  She folded her arms again, her pink lips pursed into a bow that was probably poutier than she realized.

“You’ve managed pretty well on your own, sticking to mostly human areas.”  When he stood and stretched to his full height her breathing quickened, but otherwise she gave no sign of being intimidated.  “How well do you think you’ll do now without pack to protect you? On your own, you’re prey for Psy, non-predatory Changelings with a ‘tite more dominance on you, even cunning humans.”

“Is that a threat, Mr. Denier?”  Her face was a bloodless mask, but she held his gaze with a hard stare of her own.  The contact only lasted as long as it took a heart to beat, but he felt electricity shoot through his body.  It wasn’t entirely sexual, despite his reaction. There was something off about her he just couldn’t put his finger on.

“No, but this is.”  The scent of fear sweat filled his nose.  “You’ve got one month to either join RainFire or leave town.  Au revoir, Ms. Maddox.” With a shallow nod of his head, he strode out the door and into the warm autumn afternoon.

Chapter Text

Remi entered a familiar code into the comm screen and sprawled out on the large cushions scattered around the main floor of his aerie.  Waiting for the call to connect, he cracked his beer and took a swig. His stomach rumbled, making him wish he’d at least gotten a cupcake before scaring the piss out of the little baker.

He knew she didn’t intend any harm to the pack.  But sometimes what happened wasn’t what one intended, as he knew very well.  Just like he hadn’t intended to throw out that ultimatum. He’d wanted to get a sense of her and make the offer.  Then she’d turned him down and it was like his brain had switched off and his alpha hindbrain had taken over.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been turned down since he started building RainFire; it was, however, the first time a lone submissive female had said no.  Generally, ones like her didn’t go roaming for as long as she had. The feeling that something was amiss with her hadn’t left him, like an itch that he just couldn’t scratch.

“I’m flattered I’m your drunk dial,” Lucas Hunter said dryly, “but I have a mate.”

“I’d’ve to be drinkin’ bad hooch to be drunk dialin’ your laide tchew,” he snorted.  “And I’d hope it’d make me blind.”

“I love you, too.” He reached down out of view of the screen and picked up a little, black cub by the scruff of her neck.  Naya purred loudly enough that Remi could hear it and butted her forehead against Lucas’ face, even though her body continued to dangle limply in his grasp.

“You know better than that,” Lucas frowned at her, unfazed by the cute affection, and tapped her nose.  The responding mewl was adorable enough to pierce even the most jaded heart. “No, you can’t have a cookie, but you can say hi to Remi.”  He pointed to the screen and set her on his lap. A fluffy black tail rose high and curled at the end in greeting.

“Quoi se fais du mal, possede?”  His cat stopped its irritated pacing and chuffed in amusement at the pair of bright green eyes that now took up most of the screen as she leaned in to greet him.

“She’s been using my chair as a scratching post.”  Remi coughed to cover a laugh at the other man’s deadpan expression that barely hid his amusement.  At the recount of her misdeed, she flopped onto her back and put one paw over an eye as if to say “oops.”  Hunter had answered in his office at DarkRiver HQ. If he’d been at home, which had cushions instead of traditional furniture much like Remi’s own, his daughter would have sharpened her claws on a tree instead.  “Can you make it quick? I have a meeting in ten.”

Remi laid out the situation to Lucas, who listened without interruption.

“She says she didn’t know ‘bout the expansion.”  He spread his hands wide.

“You posted to Packnet?”  Hunter referred to the network utilized by Changelings all across the world.  Even loners used it, primarily to keep track of claimed territory to avoid accidentally trespassing.  A mistake meant death for a predatory Changeling.

“’Course I did,” Remi snapped in frustration.  Lucas let that one slide. “Damnedest thing is she says she’s never heard of it!”  He ran a hand through his shoulder-length hair. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Bullshit,” he snorted, then darted a glance at Naya, who’d climbed up to drape herself across his shoulders.  “You just don’t like your options.”

“Could you run a submissive off your lands?” he snarled.  Lucas gave a low warning growl to remind him that they were both alphas; his cub stopped kneading his shoulders and her ears swivelled forward, looking for the threat.  Remi had to rein his cat in before they got into a pissing match; it had been on edge since he stepped into the bakery. The animal, too, was disturbed with the mystery that was Lorelei Cain Maddox.

“Buy her land, her mortgage, and any other debt out from under her if she doesn’t play ball.  It doesn’t have to come to combat.” A ruthless solution from an alpha who was as accustomed to fighting in the boardroom as he was with teeth and claws.  The merciless alpha stroked his daughter’s back, lulling her back to her sleepy state. He looked like a damn villain when he did that in that chair.

“Mais.”  Blowing out a breath, he took another drink to give himself time to consider the suggestion.  He shouldn’t have made the offer at all if she made his hackles rise, not until he figured out why.  Now he had to deal with the fallout and any leverage would serve to protect the pack, even if he didn’t use it to force her hand.  “Might have to. She looked like she’d rather chew an arm off than listen to me.”

“I can’t blame her if you were your usual charming self.”  Remi flipped him the bird, but there was no heat in his accompanying glare.  Lucas snorted a laugh. “You can’t help those who don’t want to be helped, you need to focus on your own.  If she won’t play ball with you, she might with your enemies.”

“Ca me rapelle, there’s something else I wanted to talk to you about.  I’m forwarding you something.” He set his bottle down and fired off the email as he spoke.  “Several folks in town reported receiving this.”

“’Trinity’s Goal is Human Genocide’,” Lucas read the subject line with a snort.  “’We won’t be replaced, trying to take power, subjugate the human race…’ Yeah, we had something like this awhile back, so did StoneWater.  Do you know where it came from?”

“We got someone working to trace it.  I was wonderin’ if your people have time to look at it, might be tied to the one you mentioned.”  He wasn’t above asking for help to keep his pack safe, and the older pack had resources that RainFire simply didn’t have yet.

“It might be the same group, but extremists tend to use the same catchphrases; it’s like they just swap out the nouns.  I recommend keeping your sentinels on alert.” Remi nodded. He’d already briefed those that hadn’t brought the situation to his attention, but if this was a larger threat then they needed to know that, too.

“We’ve got some friends in the city, I’ll ask them to keep their ears to the ground.”

“This might be an individual, but if it’s a cell working to sway public opinion your friends will probably hear of it first.  I’ll have my team see what they can find.” Lucas’ eyes narrowed, but that didn’t hide the teasing glint in his green eyes that looked so much like his cat’s.  “You know, the mentorship was only meant to last the first year.” While that year had passed nearly nine months ago, the two of them had kept in regular contact.

“You don’t have to answer my calls,” he shrugged and tucked a hand behind his head.  “I could always ring up Hawke. Say, you got his number?” Hunter scowled at the mention of the SnowDancer alpha.

“Are you so hard up you’d ask a wolf for help?”

“I’m asking my Trinity representative for help with somethin’ that might be a bigger problem, but if you’re too busy…”

“Naya, say ‘adieu’ to Oncle Coonass.”  She waved her tail back and forth.

“Bye-bye, cher.”  Remi blew the cub a kiss.  “Donne la belle Sascha un bec pour moi.”  Before hanging up, Lucas gave him one last scowl for telling him to kiss his mate for the other alpha.

He pulled out his organizer and began to plot.  She might be stubborn, but he had an entire pack behind him and he wasn't afraid to use it.


 At the sound of the front door opening, Lorel set down the cranberry coloured frosting she was piping onto rows of cupcakes.  She wiped her hands off on a damp white washcloth that was already smeared pink and red with previous uses.

Stopping in the archway that led to the front, she stifled a groan.  The customer who’d entered with her daughter was a Changeling: a leopard, to be specific.  Even if she didn’t have a note in her scent that matched an element of Denier’s, she obviously had to be a member of RainFire.

She could hardly refuse to serve the woman; not only was it illegal, but it would be hypocritical.  Besides, Changelings were extremely loyal and prolific customers at their favourite restaurants due to their higher caloric requirements.  And not to mention it was probably unhealthy for her if she pissed off RainFire.

Somehow, she was sure the asshole was behind the two approaching her counter, even if she had no way of proving the suspicion.  She had seen some underhanded tactics in her time, but this was the lowest of the low. Standing up straight, she braced herself.

A little girl in a lavender tutu dress toddled up to the display case like she’d found Nirvana.  Her dark hair was tied up in loose buns that bobbled with every step of her purple, glitter rainboots.  It was impossible not to smile at the sheer joy that lit up her face, which was marked with what looked like slashes from a set of claws, yet they lacked the pigmentation and texture of scars.  They appeared to be birthmarks, albeit pale instead of dark.

“Cookie, pease?”

Seriously, those wide, guileless eyes should be registered as lethal weapons.

“What kind would you like?” Lorel asked after glancing at the adult with her to make sure it was ok.

“Dat one!”  A tiny finger pressed to the plas-glas pointed to a set of sugar cookies shaped and frosted to look like various types of leaves: green fading to brown, yellow to red, and whatever other combination had occurred to her at the time.  Lorel picked one of her favourites: a maple leaf with yellow at its centre, surrounded by orange, and turning to red at the edges. For the veins, she’d drawn a knife through the frosting to create lines of colour that bled outward through the gradations.

“Make it a dozen, please, and a dozen each of the caramel apples, the maple pecan cupcakes, and, ooh, pumpkin cheesecake snickerdoodles,” the woman said, her eyes lighting up with the last order.

She nearly did a double take.  That was her entire stock of each of those items, and over half of her seasonal items.  Not that she was about to complain. She wrapped the maple leaf in a napkin and handed it to the girl, experience telling her that it wouldn’t last enough to warrant packaging.

“Thank you!” she chirped and rose on her tiptoes to take the leaf.  The cookie was bigger than both of her hands. Settling back on her heels, she took a bite and exclaimed in delight.  Lorel struggled to breathe past the ache in her chest.

Avoiding eye contact with both of them, she quickly boxed up the goodies.  The sooner she got them out of there, the sooner she could breathe easy again.  It didn’t help that her cat was currently clawing at her with a fierce need to play with the cub.   Kid , she mentally reprimanded herself.

“Is something wrong?”  Lorel stared at the other woman for a heartbeat before she realized she’d been shaking her head while silently rebuking herself.

“Oh no.”  She donned a smile like well-worn armour.  “Just talking to myself. Thinking about how many to bake tomorrow, you know?”

The customer nodded and hummed in agreement, but something in her eyes said she wasn’t buying it.  

“It must be hard to move to a town where you don’t know much of anyone and take over your aunt’s business.”

Lorel’s eyes narrowed. She didn’t trust sympathy from a cat, not even one with a child that appeared to be loved and treasured.

“Small towns, everybody knows everybody.”  The other woman shrugged off the suspicion cast her way.  “By the way, I’m Tien and this is JoJo.” JoJo was currently spinning in the sun streaming through the window and watching her skirt flare out.  The glitter in her boots flashed brilliantly in the light. With each bite of her cookie, she hummed a happy little tune.

The pang in her chest was back.

“Lorel,” she flashed her customer service smile, the small one when she wasn’t really feeling like smiling.  Luckily, she was ringing up the sale and therefore had an excuse to avoid anything more than briefly flicking her eyes at Tien.  Then she gave the total and they went through the ritual of the transaction.

“Here’s my number.”  Tien jotted down the code on a slip of paper she’d found in her purse.  “Let me know if you ever want to talk or if you ever want to… I’d say go for coffee, but,” she broke off with a laugh and gestured at the espresso machine.  “Do lunch or something.”

She couldn’t decline without being rude.  And the other woman’s smile was so broad and genuine that she smiled back despite herself.

“Thank you.”  Lorel took the scrap and slipped it into her apron; today it was yellow and edged at the bottom with lace.  The lavender flowers on it matched the full-skirted dress she wore.

“Come on, kidlet.”  Tien herded the girl towards the exit.

“Bye!”  JoJo waved and skipped out the door, offering a bite of her cookie to her mom, who accepted with an “mmm!”

Lorel sank back against the counter and thrust her hands into her pockets, idly fingering the contact number.  How could they be so happy and obviously well-adjusted in a pack with an autocratic asshole like Denier? Although, was there really any other kind of alpha?  In her admittedly limited experience, the answer was no.

And yet neither of them had, had the hollow, guarded eyes that were the result of abuse from those in power.  But Tien was on the dominant end of the hierarchy and could probably protect JoJo from the rest of the pack. She hadn’t hesitated in welcoming Lorel, no doubt the carrot to Denier’s stick, but instead was free with her cheerful welcome.  That wasn’t something she was used to.

She crumpled up the paper and tossed it in the recycler.

No matter how honest she appeared to be, Tien was still Denier’s pawn.

Chapter Text

Tien and JoJo hadn’t been back but three minutes before the rest of the pack came sniffing around.  Remi could practically see their animals’ tails arched into question marks of curiosity. Taking a snickerdoodle for herself, Tien set the box on a table and stepped back to let the others swarm.

“Suddenly my cooking’s not good enough for you?” Avery scowled and folded his arms.  “Fine, then you can cook for yourselves.” The lanky male threatened to stop running the kitchen in the communal aerie whenever someone irritated him, which was nearly on a weekly basis.  He never did, though, because the offending party usually made reparations before the next mealtime.

“Hmm, it’s good enough for me, baby.”  Tien nuzzled her nose against his with the soft, lazy smile she reserved for her mate and fed him a bite of snickerdoodle.

Avery chewed thoughtfully before muttering, “Not bad.”  She stroked and petted his back until he wrapped an arm around her and fed her small bites.

“Oh man, I don’t care what you gotta do, we need this woman,” moaned Elijah around a cupcake, the senior soldier’s eyes rolling back into his head.  “ I need this woman.”

“One look at you and she’d run,” Lark snorted and waved her caramel apple at him.  A few slices of pecans fell off his cupcake and Elijah caught them with cat-like reflexes.  He eyed her like he was considering pelting her with them, but after a moment he tossed them in his mouth with another groan.

“Besides, why do you automatically assume she would cook?” Tien frowned at Elijah.

“I’m sure I could coax the kitten into it,” he smirked and licked the frosting from his fingers.  The male never had a shortage of lovers, all of whom looked like the cat that got into the cream when they shared skin privileges.

Normally, Remi would be more concerned about a submissive female tangling with a dominant male, particularly one as deadly as Elijah was under the jokes and openly sensual nature.  Despite a face that was just shy of being beautiful and a body nearly as packed with muscle as his own, Remi doubted the other man could coax the reticent Lorelei into anything.

Remi, on the other hand, was certain he could entice her.

“She turned you down.”  Theo’s quiet, but deep, voice drowned out the yumyumyum noises Elijah was making.

Everyone stilled and turned to look at their alpha.  Merde, he’d hoped to gloss over his failure, but it was too late.

“Do you think I’d get arrested if I kidnapped her?”  Elijah’s musing broke the silence as he contemplated the best way to attack the caramel apple he held.  Remi smacked the back of his head.

“You’re a leopard, not a bear.  Act like it,” he growled. The male soldier waggled his brows and bit into the apple, nearly unhinging his jaws in order to fit the damn thing in.  His unrepentance slackened into concern when the caramel melted around his teeth and he appeared stuck.

“You’re just grumpy because she resisted your charms,” teased Lark.  The sentinel was at the back of the room and therefore safely out of smacking range.  While he knew that the teasing denoted an ease and a sense of safety, sometimes Remi braced himself to see if he would lose his temper.  Some alphas didn’t permit such familiarity, holding more Machiavellian views, and he still worried that he fell into that group.

Instead of taking it as a challenge, his leopard rolled its eyes and flopped on its side with its back to Lark.

“I’ll remember that when the first snow hits and it’s time to do perimeter rotations.”  He narrowed his eyes at Lark.

Elijah managed to break away from his sticky trap, taking half the apple with him.

“How’d she manage to defy our fearless leader?” he asked around the chunk of fruit.  Or at least that’s what Remi assumed the garbled noises coming from the soldier’s mouth were.

“Ms. Maddox doesn’t see the need for pack.”

The soldiers and maternals stared at him.  Most cats were solitary creatures, but their human halves needed community, family.  Dominants needed to protect, and maternals needed to nurture. Each needed the other to feel whole.  Even those who chose to go it alone understood those who preferred pack life.

Moreover, they could not afford to have a predatory Changeling living within their borders that wasn’t one of them, it might give ideas to those with purposes darker than creating sinful concoctions.  RainFire was just large and powerful enough to make outsiders think twice before trespassing, but there were those who would be emboldened by her presence. They couldn’t hold off many repeated comers, and they had to protect their young ones.

None of the soldiers pointed any of that out, but they did exchange glances.  Like him, they were uneasy at the prospect of having to drive Lorelei off, their instincts wanting to bring her in where they could watch over her along with the rest of their vulnerable.  Not all of them had met the ocelot, but all were aware of her, just as they were the herd of elk that occasionally roamed through part of their area, the flight of crows to the east, and each individual non-predatory Changeling who lived on their territory.

“I do enjoy proving people wrong,” Tien said mildly into the silence, momentarily diverting the martially minded.  Sly grins broke out around the room.

“No caveman tactics,” said Remi with a pointed look at Elijah, who gave him wide eyes in return.  “We’re cats; at least try and be sneaky. If you can’t figure that out, I’m sure one of the cubs could give you tips.”  Elijah clasped a hand to his chest as if mortally offended, then grimaced when his t-shirt adhered to his caramel-coated hand.

“Now that you’ve all been bribed and some of you are glued to your seats.”  Elijah shifted and had to pry his palm off the table he sat on. “An email has been circulating in the area.”  Remi brought it up on the screen at the front of the conference room. Everyone’s attention snapped to the display.

He smiled to himself.

The poor baby had no idea what she was in for when an entire pack of cats focused on a single goal.


 

“Of course they want it delivered,” Lorel muttered sarcastically to herself as she bobbled along the road, which was barely deserving of the name.  A particularly large pothole had her worrying about cracking a tooth.

The hover option in her ancient sedan had given out that morning, and she had neither the time nor the money to get it looked at.  She couldn’t even appreciate the patchwork of trees because she had to keep one eye on the rutted-out dirt track and the other on the cake in the backseat.  If it bounced right up into the ceiling of the car, they weren’t getting a refund. And she was going to charge them to have the car detailed.

The donkey trail dead-ended in a turnabout circle; no buildings appeared to be in sight, the only sign of life was what looked like game trails leading off into the woods.  Did they live in burrows like animals? She didn’t think that there were any caves in this part of the mountains.

Just as Lorel was contemplating whether or not to dump the goods and bail, a tall black woman materialized from the trees and motioned her to the right.  What she’d thought was merely a grassy berm raised on hydraulic lifts to reveal a plas-crete reinforced bunker. The guide loped inside to lead her to an empty spot amongst rows of parked vehicles.

“Come into my parlour,” she muttered as she eased into the space.  The door closed, leaving her in a dimly lit cavern. “That wasn’t ominous at all.”  She popped the back hatch and sweat burst out of every pore when she stepped into the coolly neutral atmosphere of the garage.  “That’s great, go into the leopard’s den reeking of fear.”

She was too busy muttering to herself to notice the man who swooped in and grabbed the cake before she could; she tried not to stare at his size.  The man was built like a freaking tree.

“Thanks.  Is the exit automatic or does someone need to let me out?”   Please say it’s automatic .  The man-tree was too busy admiring the neon green cake topped with black chocolate that looked like it was oozing.  She was a little worried that he might start drooling. At least the boxes of cookies and cupcakes in her hands had lids and were therefore safe from him.

“If one speck of frosting’s out of place, you get to be the one to tell Tien,” the woman warned him, and shut the hatchback.  He affected a shudder and stepped back to flank Lorel.

The two of them shepherded her towards a door set into the wall at the back of the lot.  A bead of cold sweat slithered down the small of her back. Her cat did not like having two dominant predators at her back pushing her into unknown territory.

They led her through the thick, steel door and up a gently sloping corridor.  It would be easy to move something heavy along the slight incline, like a dead body.  And that thought certainly didn’t help her anxiety.

Her escorts ushered her through another door, also thick and steel, and into a clearing filled with sheer chaos.  JoJo ran past in a pirate costume- Lorel only recognized her because she wore the same glittery, purple boots- and a leopard cub wearing a miniature cowboy hat nipped at her heels.  Several other children, some of whom were on four paws, frolicked in a giant leaf pile at the other end of the clearing.

In the center there was a las-fire.  Most of the adults either stood in groups or sat at tables off to one side.  At one edge, far from the kids and the tables, the rest were playing a game of football.  Full contact, of course.

All in all, it was a far cry from the church gatherings her grandparents had dragged her to.  And yet, if not for the fact that they were strangers, both sides of her nature felt a curious sense of rightness, like she was home.  She shut that in a box and locked it tight before she could analyze that.

Lorel managed to follow tree-man and tall, dark, and deadly over to the tables to deposit the treats.

“Welcome to the madhouse.  Beer?”

She had to do a double take.  The man who had come up on her left with a couple of longnecks was probably the most gorgeous man she’d ever seen, with deep aquamarine eyes that contrasted against flawless, brown skin.  It was the fine angles of his face combined with the lithe musculature of his body that gave him the unreal perfection of a model. Although she preferred people who were more rugged, she could still appreciate a pretty face.

Then she had to mentally slap herself.   Don’t fall for the bait .

“Um, no thanks,” she blinked, still attempting to process the pandemonium.

“Cider?”

“I don’t drink.  Look, I think I’d better go.”  Lorel took a step backward and ran into a wall.  A tall, warm wall.

“Runnin’, catin?” the wall rumbled in that lyrical accent.  Hairs along her arms and the nape of her neck stood at attention and she had to repress a shudder.

“Hardly.”  She turned to Remi with an arched brow.  “I would hate to trespass. I know that ruffles your fur the wrong way.”  She wanted to clap a hand over her mouth before any other snarky comments spilled out of her.

To her surprise, he merely chuckled.  Her ocelot cocked its head in confusion, having been hunkered down in a defensive crouch.

Before she could marshal her scrambled brains into some form of order, a little boy of maybe four or five clambered up Remi and clung to his back.  Without looking, the alpha put a hand back to steady the climber.

“Hey peeshwank.”  Ok, wow, that smile was dazzling enough to make even the model seem drab in comparison.

In response, the boy roared at the top of his lungs and bit Remi’s shoulder.  Since he was in human form, his mouth didn’t even fit around the hard curve of muscle, let alone do any damage.  If anything, Lorel was more worried about the child than the adult. Reaching back, Remi grabbed the kid’s ankle and hauled him around to scowl at his upside-down face.

“I’m a dinosaur!” the child giggled, his stick-straight hair hanging down in a short blonde curtain.  His free leg kicked idly so he swung slightly in his alpha’s firm, yet gentle, grip. The blue t-shirt he wore had “When I grow up, I want to be a dinosaur” blazoned across the front.

“Dinosaurs don’t bite people,” Remi scolded, a gleam dancing in his eyes that couldn’t be hidden by his glare.

“Is it ‘cuz they’re dead?”  The boy feigned innocence, widening baby blues that probably had gotten him out of trouble before, but it was his huge grin that gave him away.  Every adult in the vicinity did their best not to laugh, some succeeding more than others.

“Yep, ‘cuz I ate dem.”  With a growl, Remi lunged forward as if he was going to bite the soft belly that was exposed because the boy's shirt had bunched up around his ribcage.  The kid let out a shriek that quickly dissolved into giggles at the raspberries Remi blew above his belly button.

Just when the child looked like he might pass out from lack of air and the blood rushing to his head, Remi gently tossed him to the giant who’d escorted Lorel.  He caught the living projectile easily, his arms moving with the trajectory to cushion the landing. The kid shrieked with laughter and begged to be thrown in the pile of leaves.  His wish was granted, albeit from a low height, once his playmates got out of the way. Soon, the man was bombarded with similar demands from the other children.

She felt as if someone had clubbed her between the eyes with a two-by-four.  Of all the things she’d been led to believe when it came to Changeling packs, none of what she had seen so far fit with that understanding.  While the two men laughed and indulged the kids, she cast about for a way to slip away without being noticed and accidentally made eye contact with Tien.

The other woman took that as an invitation to come over.

“Lorel, the cake looks great!” she beamed.  “Has anyone shown you around?”

“Um, no.”  Lorel wished she could teleport herself out of there like a telekinetic; as it was, she had no idea how to extricate herself without offending nearly a hundred predatory Changelings.

“You’ve already met Angel.”  Tien pointed out the model-gorgeous man who’d offered her a drink.  He was sharing it with the woman who’d met her out front. “That’s Lark with him, her cousin Theo’s the one swamped with cubs.  And you remember Jojo.”

She gestured towards her daughter, who had joined the others frolicking in the leaves.  She disappeared in a shimmer, shifting to her leopard form, and leapt into the leaf pile.  Lorel blinked and glanced around at the adults, who carried on as if the little girl hadn’t just sprouted claws and fangs and jumped into a maelstrom of leaves and kids, some of which were human.

“You let the children run around…?” she broke off, searching for the right words.

“In leopard form?  Of course.” Tien looked at her as if anything else was unimaginable.  “She knows better by now. At least she has a spare Halloween costume,” she said with a fond sigh and rueful shake of her head.

“You’re not upset about the clothes?”  When a Changeling shifted, their clothing disintegrated around them.

“Normally she gets a reminder, but I’ll let it go this time,” she shrugged with a nonchalance that had Lorel feeling like an invisible band had tightened around her chest.  “Got to pick your battles, you know? Did your poor grandparents ever have to rescue a naked cub from a tree?”

“Um, no.”

“Rescue” wasn’t the word for it.  Did everyone here know her history?  Was that why they were so keen on getting her to join?  The thought of any of these strangers pitying her had claws pressing at the tips of her fingers.

Chapter Text

         Lorel started to demand to know how much RainFire knew about her past and how they knew, but the sound of a branch cracking overhead had her looking up.  Instinct had her on her feet and catching the cub that tumbled out of the tree.

         She stared at the small leopard with wide eyes; light green eyes as large as saucers stared back while golden hickory leaves rained down around them.  The part of her that was still a scared little girl braced for the inevitable recrimination for the display of inhuman speed and her ocelot readied to fend off an attack for daring to touch one of their cubs.

         “Good catch.  Jojo’s still learning what branches can or can’t hold her weight, ” Tien smiled and ruffled the tufts of hair between her daughter’s ears.  She had also leapt into action, although she’d been a few feet farther away.

         Lorel bit back a snarl, an inborn need to curl protectively up around the cub still gripped her hard, but she forced herself to pass the cub to the other woman.  Tiny claws caught in her sweater stopped her. Jojo tried to retract them, and stopped when they threatened to shred the fabric, mewling in what was obviously a plea for help.

         Tien nudged them towards a table and together they extricated Jojo from the cardigan.  Once freed, she placed her forepaws, sans claws, on Lorel’s chest and headbutted her as she purred in thanks.  The warm weight and casual affection of the girl grounded Lorel in her body in a way she hadn’t felt in a very long time.  It felt so right she almost stroked the baby soft fur.

         As tempting as it was to pet the richly patterned coat, she didn’t feel like losing a hand.  She’d heard that predatory Changelings could be violently protective of their offspring. Moreover, she knew that interacting with one, especially in its animal form, was a slippery slope away from what it meant to be human.  She could feel her own cat rising to the surface, brushing insistently at the inside of her skin. Soon, she knew it would punish her with claws and teeth for denying it’s needs.

         Jojo, however, had different ideas.  A fluffy head nudged at her hand, a tiny whiskered nose squirming under her fingers.  Lorel gave into the urge and gently worked her nails between the ears that seemed too large for the little head.  Jojo purred and arched into the attention, her paws doing a slow dance like she wanted to knead at Lorel’s lap, but was too well-mannered to do so.

         A lump formed in her throat.  Had she once been this small and trusting?  Had she ever been this loved and cared for? Vague but colourful memories, like an impressionist painting, surfaced with the happy echoes of a childhood long past.

         She felt the eyes of every adult watching her, either overtly or in darting glances.  They would kill her before she could hurt Jojo. That watchfulness was somehow reassuring.  They’d embraced their savagery to protect their youngest and that, paradoxically, allowed her to relax.  While she would never intentionally harm a child, she wasn’t so certain about her other half; she only knew she shouldn’t trust it.

         A sandy-haired man in a blue plaid shirt set a few plates of food on the table and leaned down to press a kiss to Tien’s lips when she tilted her head up in welcome.  It was more than a quick peck. When his hand cupped the nape of her neck, Lorel averted her eyes. While the festivities certainly weren’t orgies like in the sordid tales with which she'd been regaled, the open affection was more than she was used to.

         Jojo stood with her forepaws on the table, her nose twitching at the scent of the food, and reached out with one claw to snag a cookie.

         “Hands for cookies,” Tien said as if it were an oft-repeated admonition.

         A shower of multi-coloured sparks burst in Lorel’s lap; she froze for fear of interfering with the shift.  An instant later, there was a naked girl sitting on her knee. Lorel shrugged out of her cardigan and helped Jojo into it.  The soft yellow hem fell to her knees. Lorel glanced at Tien and her partner. Neither of them appeared as if anything was out of the ordinary, no cutting rebukes or punishment for being nude where others could see.  There was a twinge in her heart from memories of a very different childhood.

         “This is my mate, Avery.”  Tien gestured to the man who had joined them.

         Lorel was thrown by the term.  “Mate” was such a primal word that it threatened to bring a flush to her cheeks.  She didn’t have time to mull it over because Avery offered a hand as he sat next to his… wife.

         “Nice to meet you.  Please eat.” He smiled and nudged a plate arranged with crispy bread and some sort of creamy dip towards her.  Meanwhile, Tien had moved the cookies away from Jojo and pushed the crudite, also arranged to be shared communally, in front of her.

         Lorel opened her mouth to politely refuse, but Jojo offered up a stalk of broccoli.  She couldn’t say no to that earnest expression. Making “nomnom” noises, Lorel carefully snatched the vegetable with her teeth, making the girl giggle.

         Allowing herself to relax, Lorel sat back and took the chance to look around at the people chatting, playing, and laughing. Several of the leopards looked back.  No one hid their open curiosity, but they didn’t stare either. At least they didn’t swarm her, although she suspected that if Tien wasn’t there then all bets were off.

         They all seemed so... human.  No one licked their lips over the grilling meat.  Perhaps it was too well-done to salivate over? At least they didn’t have a bloody carcass roasting in a pit.  While she was no vegetarian (her physiology couldn’t handle a no-meat diet), she couldn’t have stomached such a barbaric display.

         “Not what you expected?” asked Tien.

         “Not really,” she admitted.  “I know RainFire’s only a few years old, how did you get this many members?”

         “Well, Remi met some of us, like Lark and Theo, when he was roaming.  Some of the sentinels, and our healer, Finn, came from packs where there weren’t many opportunities for them.”  Lorel blinked at the blithe reference to soldiers, as if their occupations were something as prosaic as accountants or teachers.  That was the darker side they tried to hide, the violence hidden with a thin veneer of humanity. “Avery and I lived on our own until I got pregnant with Jojo; we wanted her to grow up in a pack like we did.  We put our feelers out among our friends and family and heard about RainFire.”

         The contentment pouring off the couple made Lorel want to wrinkle her nose.  She knew it was all a lie: love, loyalty, family. Scratch the surface and it was all illusion.  They were like everyone else, only with a public façade to lure in others. She wasn’t going to fall for that again.

         “And how many were press-ganged?” she muttered under her breath.

         Being accustomed to humans and Psy, Lorel had forgotten that the leopards had hearing as sharp as her own until she caught the twin glares cast her way.


         “He said he didn’t fall, he was attacked by invisible ninja.  I asked, ‘Isn’t invisible ninja redundant?’”

         Remi was only listening with half an ear to Hugo’s story of how Jasper had broken his arm while his eyes tracked Lorelei’s every move.  His leopard was restless at having an outsider in their midst. It hadn’t even reacted this strongly when he’d rescued two half-drowned Psy assassins, unarguably among the most lethal people on the planet.  Then again, neither of them were as beautiful as the ocelot.

         She was short with curves like a winding back road that he wanted to explore.  The cat wanted to memorize what she smelled like without her bakery mixing with it.  Underneath the acrid layer of fear, which was lessening now that Tien had gotten her talking, she smelled sweet with a bite of spice.

         He had to force himself to back off.  The need to shadow the virtual stranger in their midst was riding him hard, no matter that she appeared about as dangerous and as delicious as one of her cupcakes in that mint green dress.  Her flats, while practical indoors, sank into the thick carpet of leaves. Nor did she wear anything warmer than a butter yellow cardigan. While she was a Changeling and would be fine, most cats preferred to be warm.  He was wearing a forest-green cashmere sweater himself because he liked the texture of it, not because he was cold.

         Judging by her clothing, she hadn’t known what to expect, or no one had told her that she was a guest.  He cast a sideways glance at Elijah, who gave an unrepentant shrug.

         “No bear tactics involved.”  The soldier held up his hands as if to ward off a chewing out.  “All cat. But Tien might have forgotten to tell her she was invited.”  Remi and his cat were amused at their strategy. A pack circle event was meant to reinforce bonds: and thus, were perfect for introducing someone to the benefits of pack life.

         “That’s smart, so I know you weren’t the brains behind the operation.”

         “Au contraire.”  He pronounced it "ow contrary."  Remi rolled his eyes.  Elijah spoke several languages to varying degrees of fluency, but he liked to butcher French just to yank his alpha’s chain.  “I said we should place an order for the party, Tien and Avery took it from there. So really it was all my idea.”

         Remi started to formulate a quip, but stopped at the sound of Tien’s voice vibrating with anger that carried under the ambient noise.  He shifted towards the dominant maternal to hear her better.

         “…here because we want to be.”

         Lorelei’s response was a murmur that not even his sharp ears could pick up, but whatever it was, it cooled Tien’s temper.

         “We can’t let a predatory Changeling live within our borders,” she explained.  A thread of surprise wound through her words, like she hadn’t imagined that someone of their race could be ignorant of their laws, but she was as patient as if she was addressing the juveniles. “There are some who’d assume that meant we can’t hold our territory and would press the issue.  We’re not big or strong enough yet for that.”

         Pride swelled and ebbed within him.  Tien was a damn fine dominant maternal and he’d never regretted allowing her and her family to join the pack.  It was the sting of shame that tempered that pride. Most alphas, if they grew up in a functional pack, were carefully guided from a young age.  Remi partly blamed that lack of formative education for having waited so long before developing his own pack.

         If he’d started building RainFire earlier, then they could have weathered the turbulence that was the fall of Silence and the subsequent restructuring of the world better.  And he wouldn’t have had to deliver an ultimatum to a single submissive Changeling whose only mistake was to live on land they needed to claim.

         He huffed a laugh that brought him out of the pity party for one.  Once, being alpha of his own pack was unthinkable to him. Sometimes he looked around at his people and what they’d built together and felt as bemused as Lorelei looked.  Now he was kicking his own ass for not starting sooner. Fate was no doubt having a laugh at him.

         “…dominants are driven to protect,” Avery explained.  “…sives…” The male was no doubt explaining the hierarchy to her.  Really, it should have come as no surprise that she was unfamiliar with the power structure, but he’d assumed that she knew instinctually.  Then again, he of all people should know that instincts didn’t always coincide with what experience taught.

         Taking a drink of his beer, he turned to catch a glimpse of the small group.  Lorelei looked down at Jojo with an abashed expression. She had looped her arms around the girl to ensure she didn’t tumble off, not that the cub was in any danger of that.

         With the innocent honesty of small children, Jojo wrinkled her nose and said, “You smell funny.”

         Lorelei frowned and made a show of sniffing herself.  “I promise I showered today, with soap even.” She feigned confusion and the cub giggled.

         Remi’s blood ran cold.

         The slashes on Jojo’s face were more than an unusual birthmark.  They were the sign of a hunter, someone born with the skills to hunt those of their kind who went rogue, ones who subsumed themselves in their animal half.  Once they lost their humanity, they slaughtered without compunction, beginning with their loved ones.

         And a hunter’s chief ability was scent.

Chapter Text

Remi’s cat crouched in preparation to battle with the strange predator in sheep’s clothing in their midst; pinpricks in his bottom lip were a sure sign that his teeth were more feline than human at the moment, and his claws itched to unsheath.  How could he have been so blind? He needed to eliminate the threat before anyone could question his leadership, a lethal strike to prove his dominance.


That thought wasn’t him.  It was an echo of another alpha from another time and brought him out of the homicidal haze with a cold splash of dread.  He had to shove the memories and the associated sick feeling in his gut into a box in order to concentrate on the situation at hand.


Holding himself with a predator’s stillness, he studied his prey.  Whenever one of his packmates was unduly intimidated by someone, outsider or not, he and the pack kept a close eye on that individual.  He didn’t haul off and rip their throat out. He could hardly bring her down in front of their youngest in the middle of what was meant to be a celebration.  Such casual exposure to violence could damage young psyches, as well he knew. Yet, it was all he could do not to charge over there and tear the ocelot away from the little family.  Unlike that other alpha, he couldn’t act upon suspicion alone.


The baby hunter had no compunctions about cuddling up to Lorelei, something she would never have done if Lorelei was even close to going rogue.  Moreover, several cubs surrounded her now, curious about the visitor. Their youngest, hunter or otherwise, were some of the best judges of character and the best litmus test when it came to the health of a pack.  It was when the adults didn’t pay attention that problems arose.


“He’s different.”


“Oh sweetie, of course he is.  He lost his mate. You’ll understand when you’re older.”


He shook off the echoes of the past like his cat shook off water and shoved them back in the box.


The music had switched from general background party music to a dance mix, which made overhearing their conversation difficult even with his superior hearing.  Moving closer, he stopped at one of the tables of food so he could eavesdrop without being noticed. Staring at the ocelot would only put her on her guard.

 

Lorelei didn’t appear on the verge of a rampage; rather, she seemed overwhelmed.  Then again, who wouldn’t be when surrounded by the cubs who were peppering her with questions?  His tension eased a fraction when he saw that none of them appeared scared of her.


“Just you and your nana and papa?”  Remi couldn’t help a small smile at Jasper’s wide-eyed incredulity.  Most of their little ones had grown up in packs or in extended family units at the very least.  Such a small family without ties to dozens of “aunties” and “uncles,” as well as numerous friends of all ages, was an unthinkable concept to them.


The interrogation wandered into what type of cat she was since she smelled different and, to his knowledge, none of them had met an ocelot.  They were much smaller than leopards and the children would probably be delighted at having a grown-up playmate their own size. She was actually rather good with them once she relaxed, and he wondered how she’d handle being swamped by them when they were the same size.  He grinned at the thought of little cats ending up in a wrestling pile and the knot in his chest eased.


Elias waded through the throng to speak to Lorelei.  What came out of his mouth must not have been his usual bullshit because she didn’t slap him.  He seemed downright courteous, which was unnatural and creeping Remi out more than a bit. Lorelei only nodded to him after Tien gave her an encouraging smile.

 

The senior soldier pulled Lorelei to join the growing cluster of dancers.  While she was willing, it was painfully obvious that she was far from comfortable in her own skin, moving stiffly and keeping her head on a swivel to look for anyone staring.  Elias, picking up on her discomfort, shifted to hide her much smaller body with his own. In thanks, she smiled up at him and shifted slightly closer.


His cat wanted to be the one to crack open her prickly exterior and unravel the mystery of her.  The only problem was after seeing her interactions with the pack, Remi seemed to be the only one she wanted to swipe a claw at.


The rancid emotions he had stuffed down sprang back with a vengeance, sending irrational jealousy spiking through him.  For some reason, she brought out his inner psychopath, all the dark urges and instincts that he kept chained within. Very few knew about them, and he intended to keep it that way.

 

With a sigh, he rubbed at his temples to ease his pounding headache.  If only he could place the blame on the recent circulation of human supremacy rhetoric, but that would merely be an excuse for his own lack of control.  He told himself that things would be better once she was pack since he disliked having an unprotected submissive female in his territory, which was true, especially with the possibility of active anti-Changeling groups in the area.


He felt scraped raw on the inside.  It had been a while since he’d been this spun up in his head and he needed to get that sucker back on straight.  This was a time for joy, not the shadows haunting him.


“Leaving already?” Lark asked from behind him.  She had managed to sneak up on him, which was a sure sign that he was off his game.


“If you feel the need to babysit, go chase after the cubs,” he growled over his shoulder.


“I’m doing my job.”  She let his temper roll off her.  “Need someone to run with?” He shook his head.  He’d prefer a good fight, but in this mood he was likely to shred even a sentinel.  “Remember you have to be back in time to help judge the costume contest.”


An affirmative grunt.  Pack bonds were important, especially in such a young pack, but he had to vent this before his attitude began to affect everyone else.


WAKE UP HUMANS!

Our children deserve a future free of Changeling violence.  These animals come into our communities with their drugs and violence, lowering property values, living off welfare, and preying on hard-working humans.  In the name of “political correctness,” we the taxpayers are prevented from standing up to these parasites.

DON’T BE DELUDED BY A “BRIGHT NEW FUTURE”

We need to change the country’s liberal policies that are eroding our values.  It’s alright to be human and we need to stop being ashamed of it. Changelings want us afraid and divided to prevent us from having a group identity.  We have been the victims of the other races for too long. They try to divide us, take away our rights, and plan to eliminate us because they fear us.

STOP CONTRIBUTING TO HUMAN GENOCIDE!!!  KEEP THE HUMAN RACE PURE!!!

        -Excerpt from letters sent to residents of Sevier County, Tennessee September 2083

 

Lorel hummed and swayed along to music while she piped bright pink rosettes onto the rows of cupcakes in front of her.  The radio was set to the show of the DJ from the party, a pretty human packmember by the name of Aoife. Country wasn’t her typical choice of genre, but it reminded her of dancing at the party.  She hardly knew anything about Elias, and therefore had no feelings about him one way or the other, yet she couldn’t get the other night out of her mind; not that she was dreaming of the soldier or anything.  


She had been completely dumbfounded; no one had ever asked her to dance.  Well, not since that horrible prom night in high school, anyway. While she’d doubted that the leopard would try to pull what her teenaged date had, she had looked to Tien and gotten reassurance.  She barely knew the other woman but trusted that Tien wouldn’t knowingly put her in danger.


It had been a long time since anyone other than her aunt had touched her, and far longer since she’d had any physical contact of a non-platonic nature.  Elias had made it clear that he found her interesting and attractive, which she could have chalked up to the promiscuous nature of Changelings. But he had also been respectful of her boundaries even though it was obvious that her limits were far more stringent than that of a Changeling’s, and possibly those of many humans.


She kept her distance not just because she didn’t want them to assume she was easy, or that she was going to join the pack, but because it simply felt too good and not even in a sexual way.  At first, Elias’ touch was nearly painful, like her skin was so focused in its need that every sensation was heightened ten-fold to absorb everything at once. Startled by the sensitivity, she had been about to retreat when the song ended, but the ache of the loss had her saying ‘yes” to the next person who approached.


The sun had set and red, yellow, orange, and white fairy lights strung between the trees had lit up.  At that point, she’d called it a night with the excuse that she had to work in the morning; while that was true, she had worried that she’d be tempted to go exploring the woods in animal form.  Even if they’d allowed her, she couldn’t permit the cat to take over.


Tien had approached her with arms wide in expectation of a hug.  Unsure of what to do, Lorel did her best impression of a statue as the other woman’s arms had folded around her.  It wasn’t a brief embrace, either. It was strong and warm and all-encompassing. Maternal. And she soaked it up like rain after a drought, her skin still starving even after all the dancing.  Although her aunt had lavished affection on her before going travelling, as if she’d tried to compensate for the lack over the years, there was a quality among the Changelings that felt like she was finally coming home.


Lorel had let herself relax into the hug and had, had to force herself to pull away, fussing with her clothes to keep from reaching out to the other woman again.  Her cat’s tail had lashed in irritation at the denial, but didn’t act out in any other way, thankfully.


At the sound of the door opening, she set the bag of frosting down and headed out front while wiping her hands on a clean, damp cloth.  A woman looked at something on her phone as she approached the counter.


“Good morning,” Lorel greeted her.  The customer held up a finger while she tapped something into her phone.  Lore’s customer service smile grew strained while she waited. When she finally looked up, her scent soured before Lorel could offer a sample of berry crumble cake.


“Where’s Nora?” she demanded.


That was a question she’d heard far too many times, but this time the edge to it had her ocelot’s upper lip curling away from her teeth.


“My aunt’s currently on a beach enjoying her retirement.”  The mask wavered as Lorel fought against mirroring the sneer of her cat.


“Is there someone else who can help me?” she frowned.


Okay, that was a new one.


“Just me, I’m afraid,” shrugged Lorel.  “Is there a problem?”


“Don’t snap at me.”  Lorel swore that the other woman was two seconds away from clutching her pearls, if she’d worn any.  “I just want to know when someone else will be in to serve me.”


What in the name of all that was good and holy?

“Ma’am, I’m the owner,” she said through gritted teeth.

“Right,” she rolled her eyes, then muttered, “I just don’t know where this country is headed.  Animals like you taking jobs from good people.”


In an instant, her cat went from unamused disdain to homicidal rage.  Lorel throttled it back, but her eyes flashed yellow-green if the sudden ashen hue underneath the woman’s spray-on tan was any indication.


“Ma’am, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”  Lorel didn’t bother with the fake smile this time.


“How dare you!”  Her colour returned, going straight to red.  “I’m going to sue for intimidation.” Her shrill voice grew louder and louder until Lorel’s ears protested the abuse.  She stormed out, entering a code into her phone.

She released the breath she’d been holding only to inhale a lungful of perfume strong enough to make her eyes water.  Her ocelot wanted to hunt her down like a rabbit, but she convinced it that the meat was bad. She propped open the door to air out the store and the obnoxious woman stood in front of the yarn shop next door.  Still on the phone, she turned and the blood drained from her face when she saw Lorel.


“Oh my god, she’s following me!” she shrieked.  


Lorel rolled her eyes and decided she’d go put her irritation to good use by kneading dough for cinnamon buns.  As much fun as decorating cupcakes for a little girl’s birthday party was, that required a steady hand and hers were shaking with unexpressed anger.


The butcher’s block was barely floured when the sounds of sirens pierced her eardrums.  She dusted off her hands and returned to the front to find four cops standing there, each with a hand on a weapon.  Blinking, she froze mid-brush. I probably shouldn’t offer them doughnuts, she thought.


“Good afternoon, officers.  Would you like to try the berry crumble?”  She gestured to the silver tray with the samples and bit back a laugh at their bewildered expressions.  Evidently, they’d expected to find her frothing at the mouth from the way the blonde was still carrying on outside to a fifth cop.  They probably hadn’t anticipated a woman who more resembled a librarian than a murderous beast.

Chapter Text

            The officers eased up when they realized that Lorel was in 100% human form, which was a short and plump one, at that; someone had told her once that in her pretty dresses she looked about as dangerous as a cupcake.  Appearances certainly were deceiving, after all, since she could probably do significant damage to the woman currently carrying on outside. While the thought was definitely tempting, she knew she wasn’t fast enough to get past four cops before they could take her down.  That was her cat’s risk assessment, not hers. She was still frozen in shock.

            Looking like they’d stepped into The Twilight Zone , they lowered their weapons.  She felt the same way, her brain trying to wrap itself around the presence of Enforcement in her bakery for anything other than coffee and donuts.

            One stepped forward to ask her some questions and she answered truthfully.  The absurdity of the situation and their authoritative tone had her operating mostly on autopilot while she focused on keeping her ocelot under control.  The cat bared its teeth at the intruders, wanting to drive them off its territory.

         It quickly became obvious that the snotty woman had reported that Lorel had threatened and stalked her down the street.  Naturally, she was more than happy to disabuse them of that falsehood.

            “Would you like to see the camera footage?” she offered.

            Three of the quartet followed her, the other went to question the other party.  She only used the small office off the kitchen to meet customers with large custom designs like wedding cakes.  Usually, she placed orders from her organizer while having tea or a bite to eat at one of the tables on the sidewalk out front, although that would probably change soon with the weather.

            The portable device was perfectly capable of displaying the CCTV feed, but the screen in the back was larger.  She slipped behind the desk and tried not to feel claustrophobic with the black-clad officers filling the rest of the tiny space between her and the door.  Their scents filled the room, making it hard for her to breathe.

            Lorel closed the sketches she’d been working on to bring up the video.  There was no sound, but it was plain from their body language that the blonde was the aggressor.  She’d been too shocked at the time to note the other woman’s belligerent stance and excessive gesticulations.  As for herself, she looked like someone had smacked her across the face with a fish. She had only moved to grip the counter once the vile words had sunk in, trying to keep from leaping over the counter.  Thankfully she never actually lunged for her throat.

            The trio relaxed as they watched, alternately annoyed, exasperated, disgusted, and resigned.  Not that much of their emotions showed on their faces; it was their scents that gave them away.  A part of her brain filed that realization away to freak out over later.  

            Once the video caught up to when the cops entered, she hit pause.  They asked more questions, most of which washed over her without fully registering in her mind.  She was still reeling emotionally, and her cat was too on edge over the strange predators. A couple of lips pursed, and she thought she caught an eye roll when she got to the part that had been the last straw and she kicked the blonde out.  Their obvious distaste at the false report had her cat easing down a bit, giving her room to breathe.

            “Thank you, miss.”  

            Now that she was no longer fighting the all-encompassing urge to attack, she noted the name on his uniform.  Sugiyama. They’d introduced themselves once they realized she wasn’t even armed with so much as a spatula, but she’d been too off-balance to absorb the information at the time.

            “Maddox.  Lorel Maddox.”  They responded automatically to the ritual of etiquette when she offered a handshake.  She smiled, careful to not flash any more teeth than absolutely necessary. While they appeared genial now, she still didn’t want to give them an excuse to think that she was threatening them in the enclosed space.  Her cat didn’t like being crowded in there at all and she was afraid of how it’d react if subjected to any more stress. “Would ya’ll like a copy of the video?”

            “No, I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” Sugiyama, apparently the senior officer since he’d been doing most of the speaking, shook his head.  “The sheriff will want to speak with you, though.”

            Moving out of sheer habit, she escorted them to the front where she plied them with samples and coffee.  Her hands shook as she went through the motions. She knew that not all such interactions between Changelings and Enforcement went so peacefully.  Was that what she’d intended? She thought she was going to be sick.

            Her cat wanted to hunt her down and rip her throat out.


            Invisible bugs crawled across Remi’s skin.  He flexed his foot a little harder on the pedal and the vehicle responded readily with a burst of speed that pressed him back against the seat.  He could have set it to autopilot once he’d reached the highway, but the safety protocols would’ve kept him at the speed limit and he didn’t have time for that.  The clock on the dash told him that he’d received Chloe’s call merely eleven minutes ago, yet it felt like hours.  

            They’d thus far managed to squeak by without any run-ins with Enforcement, and now he had to intervene on behalf of someone who wasn’t even a packmember yet.  Local Enforcement was almost purely human, with the odd Psy here and there. Most of the Psy brass from the Council days had been cleaned out. Rainfire hadn’t had enough dominants, even if they’d been interested, to spare to the force since they were no longer barred from the ranks.

            After the abuses of the Psy under Silence, the human-dominated city Enforcement distrusted anyone who wasn’t entirely human.  The fall-out of this encounter could impact racial relations in the area for years to come and it all hinged on a stubborn, unpredictable ocelot.

            He pulled to a stop in front of the hardware store in record time.  Cop cars clogged up the parking spaces in front of the bakery and yarn shop across the street.

            “Jack’s just started questioning her,” Chloe called with a grimace from the alcove of her doorway.  The way she wrapped her rainbow-coloured shawl tightly around herself made it sound more nefarious than a simple interview.

            He grunted and nodded in thanks.  He’d met the human woman a few times at her husband’s hardware store, so she knew he wasn’t considered chatty even on his more gregarious days and wasn’t likely to take offense at his response.  But he had to get verbal. Fast.

            Keeping to an easy stride (running headlong was only something hot-headed dominant juveniles did, he reminded himself), he focused on the voices drifting out the open door.  He couldn’t remember the last time he was so grateful for his acute hearing.

            “I just want to know what the problem is.”  Sheriff Shank somehow managed to sound both friendly and patronizing.  The ears of Remi’s leopard went flat against its head and it curled its upper lip in a sneer.

            “She used a slur so I asked her to leave.”  Lorel was clearly becoming exasperated. No cat tolerated condescension for long.  Unfortunately, there were cops forming a loose cordon in front to block his way and he was not in the mood to play at being non-threatening.

            “And what slur was that?”  

            “Animal.”

            Remi had to stop and make nice with the cops when all he wanted to do was burst in there and crack la crâne de cette bibette.  

            “Don’t you people use that word?  Talk about yourselves as cats and dogs?”  The derision in his voice had claws shoving at Remi’s fingertips.  It took every ounce of willpower to keep them in as he made small talk with the guards, working his way around to getting their version of the story.

            “Wolves, there are no dog Changelings.”  The drinks and treats in their hands had his leopard snorting; she’d all but tried to throw him out on his ear when he’d dropped by and then turned on the Southern belle grace full force when Enforcement descended.  He wondered if she knew that he was loathe to see her hurt or if she didn't recognize the lethal threat he posed.

            “So, what’s the difference between ‘animal’ and a specific animal?”

            “Context.  She accused me of taking jobs from humans.”  It was nice to hear that icy tone directed at someone else instead of at him.

            “You specifically?”

            “Well, no, she-”

            “So you kicked her out for expressing an opinion?  Did you know her husband lost his job to one of you?  Ever since ya’ll moved in work’s been hard to come by.”  That was a load of shit.  Some people had their panties in a twist because the timber industry was banned from RainFire lands, while conveniently ignoring the benefits to local businesses

            “That’s no reason to call Enforcement, I certainly didn’t threaten her!”

            The officers- Sugiyama, Norton, and Carter- made it plain that nothing had happened and that the sheriff was “just finishing up” with Lorelei.

            “Predatory Changelings like you can be pretty scary.”  Shank drew “pretty” out into nearly four syllables. “You should just be glad she wasn’t carrying.  This is a stand-your-ground state.”  It was all he could do to keep his eyes from going cat at the subtle threat.

            “You’re saying a woman can come into my shop, scream and insult me, then shoot me if I look at her funny and it’s legal?”

            “Sure, if she’s scared for her life.”  

            “But I didn’t do anything, I only asked her to leave!”  From the corner of his eye, he saw her throw her hands in the air.

            “See, that’s the problem with you folks, you’re just too aggressive.” 

            “Oh, you think this is aggressive?”

            And that was his cue to enter stage right.

Chapter Text

         Lorel bared her teeth at him when a wave of power washed into the shop; it tasted wild, male, and lethal.  She tore her attention away from the cop in time to see Remi stalking through the open door. Her cat went from snarling and ready to pounce to wary watchfulness in the presence of a bigger predator.  She hated that some of her anxiety eased the moment she caught his scent, but at least her cat’s homicidal urges went from screaming to a dull roar.

         But damned if she wasn’t relieved to see Denier, like he was some sort of knight in shining armour.  Or a knight in jeans and a t-shirt. Said jeans hung low on his hips, emphasizing his narrow waist in contrast to the breadth of his chest.  The black t-shirt clung to the ridges and hollows of his densely muscled chest and wide shoulders.

         “Mr. Denier, she here one of your’n?”  Shank turned square to him and jerked his head in Lorelei’s direction.

         “All changelings in Swain County are mine.”

         She opened her mouth to protest the hard, possessive statement, but Remi cut her off with a look, the cat rising in his eyes.  Although they never changed colour, her own cat recognized his and urged her to back down. The animal usually urged the opposite; the sudden shift in temperament had her scrabbling to regain her equilibrium after she’d prepared to fight for control.

         Even though the sheriff was human, some latent instincts must have sensed something because he dropped his folded arms to hook his thumbs behind his belt.  Remi’s gaze didn’t stray from Shaw’s, but she had no doubt that he was keeping careful track of the cop’s hands in relation to his weapons.

         “Ya need to get your girl in line.  Had a call she was intimidatin’ folk.”  Shank levelled him with a hard look.

         The thought that either of them believed she was under his protection soothed something within that she hadn’t even known had been stretched taut.  The relief was like setting down a burden she’d been carrying for so long she only recognized the strain once it was gone. And that set her teeth on edge.

         “The CCTV footage doesn’t corroborate the allegation.”  There was a drawl to his voice, but it lacked the thickness of the bayou it’d had when they first met.

         “Yer a big guy, what a young girl’d find intimidatin’ you’d hardly sneeze at,” he shrugged.

         “Are charges being pressed?”  Remi merely tilted his head and, somehow, she knew that his leopard was close to the surface even though his eyes remained completely human.

         Some long-buried instinct in Shaw must have recognized it, too, because the hand closest to his stunner twitched.  Claws burst from Lorel’s fingertips. For once, she didn’t try to force them back in. Remi, however, kept his hands in his pockets.  Only a fool would miss the lethal threat hidden beneath the lazy demeanour. How on earth he managed to hold the alpha’s stare, full of barely restrained savagery, she had no idea.

         “Naw, I think we’ll let this’un go with a warnin’.”  Shaw shrugged and resettled his hat. “But you best show your girl how things are ‘round here.”

         Shocked into silence by the blatant paternalism, she could only gape at him.

         “Oh?  And just how are ‘things ‘round here’?”  Remi’s tone was deceptively calm, but whatever the other man saw on his face had drained the blood from his own.

         “Well, that… you see…”  His Adam’s apple bobbed as he gulped.  “You can’t just go ‘round intimidating people you don’t like!”

         “I think you should take your own advice, officer.”  The predator was present in his voice. “Cher, why don’t you make a copy of that video for Sheriff Shaw here?”  He never looked away from the cop so the silent snarl she threw his way went unnoticed.

         “Testosterone’s getting thick in here anyway,” she muttered in a volume pitched for his ears alone.


          Once Lorelei was out of the room, the red haze fogging his mind cleared a little and he could think clearly again.  Shaw, on the other hand, realized he was alone in a room with a leopard in human skin, which meant he was less likely to do something stupid to prove his masculinity in front of a third, feminine party.  Men could usually be counted on to pull supremely senseless stunts when it came to pretty women. Such as issuing premature ultimatums instead of merely taking the measure of a prospective packmate.

         “Now look here…” the sheriff licked his lips.

         “I assume the human will be charged with filing a false report?”  He leaned against the cash counter, bracing his hands against the edge, palms down.  The relaxed stance fooled Shaw into downgrading his threat level and puffed up accordingly, crowding the alpha’s space.  Remi barely avoided rolling his eyes. His leopard didn’t take it as a challenge, merely huffed and sat down to scratch behind an ear. 

         “We have to dispatch a car ‘cause if something happens, we could be held liable if we don’t.  We don’t want people to avoid callin’ if they see something suspicious.” Remi wondered if the sheriff realized just how much of a stereotype of the rural hick cop he was, despite his law degree.  When he’d decided to found RainFire, he’d compiled dossiers on the local Enforcement brass. Was it a deliberate good ole’ boy ruse to put the humans at ease?

         Lorelei returned with the data chip and his leopard snapped to attention, snarling a warning at the male in the room.  Neither half of him wanted the cop anywhere near the curvy redhead. Remi caught the eye of Sugiyama through the door, which was still propped open, and waved him over.  The lieutenant accepted the chip and promised it would be entered into the incident report, ignoring his superior who clearly smelled displeased. Scenting no lie from the officer, his leopard settled somewhat.

         “Now I assume that Ms. Maddox is free to resume business, unless ya’ll have any further questions.”  It wasn’t so much a question as it was a threat.

         Though Shaw was pissed at the brusque dismissal, he strode out of the bakery.  Sugiyama lingered to thank Lorelei for her hospitality and cooperation. Remi crushed the urge to throw the officer bodily out of the shop.  He could probably hit Shaw like a bowling pin with the lieutenant as the ball.

         “Thank you for your concern, Mr. Denier,” she said stiffly and smoothed her apron.  Today, it was patterned with autumn leaves and edged in yellow worn over a russet dress.  He wondered what he would find if he tugged on the satin tie and parted that modest Peter Pan collar to lick at the freckles that peppered her neck.  Were there more scattered across her creamy breasts? Did they trail across her soft stomach to…

         “Mr. Denier, was there something I can help you with?”  By the sharp arch of her brow, she was repeating the question.  Unlike Shaw, she wasn’t afraid of being alone with him although she was at the other end of the hierarchy.  Even with all the training in the world, a submissive could never hope to win against an alpha leopard in a physical battle.

         “There’s no need to be so formal, please, call me Remi.”  It was an obvious ploy to keep him at arm’s length. If she thought that would work, well, she had another thing coming.  He intended to solve the mystery of this woman who played at being human, needed to figure out why his cat wanted to hunt her in the most sensual way.

         “Was there anything you require?”  Icy haughtiness that would have done those few who still clung to Silence proud.  Coaxing her out of her shell was going to be fun.

         “A ‘thank you’ would be nice.”  A slow, feline smile curved his lips.

         “For what?  Barging in here and claiming responsibility for me like I’m a child?”  That was interesting. Most submissives liked feeling safe and protected, that she found it upsetting was another facet to the puzzle of Lorelei.

         “Keeping you from assaulting a law Enforcement officer.”  It had been obvious that she wanted to go for Shaw’s throat the second he walked in.

         “Thank you, Mr. Denier, for sweeping in here uninvited and undermining my authority in my own business.  I am ever so grateful you patted me on the head and shooed me away while you menfolk postured at each other.”  Her tone was sweet enough to drizzle over one of her confections and the drama was so over the top it would have done Scarlett O’Hara proud.  Any minute now he expected her to start soliloquizing about carrots. “Since you’re marking your territory and all, I think the sheriff peed on that tree over there in case you feel the need to over-mark.”

         “Il y a pas de quoi.  Next time Shaw wants to cause a fuss, he’ll have to notify RainFire.”  She blinked, considering the ramifications of having a pack of predatory changelings on her side when it came to dealing with the bigoted sheriff.  “One of the benefits of pack is protection.” It was not just a case of safety in numbers. Dominants lived to defend their pack, the need to protect ingrained into the core of who they were.

         “It was one person.  Besides, you can’t be there 24/7.”

         The cat didn’t like the insinuation that he couldn’t protect this stubborn woman who regarded him with eyes of cool slate ringed with Prussian blue.

         “No one messes with RainFire.”  Any and all challenges were met with swift and brutal force.  Yet the challenge of Lorelei Cain Maddox was one that couldn’t be resolved with violence.  Not as the initial offensive, anyway.

         “You make it sound like you’re running a protection racket.  Should I pay protection money in cookies? Are you going to shake down the grocery store for milk, too?”  Cocking a hip, she braced a fist on it and gestured in the direction of the grocer.

         “What if next time it’s someone with a gun?”  The blood drained away from her face and he bristled at the spike of doubt in her luscious sugar and spice scent.  At their first meeting, he’d thought that the smell was from her array of goods; now he knew that it was part of her.  When he’d walked in, the sweetness had been tainted with a hint of something foul that nearly left an aftertaste. That note quickly faded while he dealt with Shaw and he wasn’t yet certain whence it came.

         “Then it’s a good thing I keep a hot pot of tea going.”  She glanced at the faintly steaming kettle within arm’s reach.  As a makeshift defensive strategy, he had to admit it wasn’t half bad.  A faceful of scalding liquid would give even him pause.

         “A clever answer,” he mused.  “Do you have one for me?”

         A faint vertical line formed on her brow.  Normally she took care to avoid meeting his gaze in case his leopard took it as a challenge, she did so now with remote appraisal.

         “Are you going to kill me if I decline your offer?”  

         “Only if it’s necessary.  Why? Do you plan on hurting my people, t-minou?  You’ll find we’re not easy prey.” He knew his eyes flashed cat bright as he stalked closer to her.  Wide-eyed, she mirrored his movements until she bumped up against the counter. Bones pushed up against her skin from the grip she had on the white ashwood.  The pulse of her heart was a fluttering butterfly under the thin skin of her throat, the sound of it like the hoofbeats of a racehorse.

         “If you’re calling my bluff, cher, this is a game you won’t win.”

Chapter Text

               Lorel couldn’t breathe.  It was like he’d sucked all the air out of the room.  Stomach tightening, every hair standing on end, everything feminine in her sat up and took notice.  For once, the cat was still, its entire focus on the predator crowding their space. And his smell, dear sweet baby Jesus, his smell.  It reminded her of cut black tea leaves, cloves, and juniper. It reminded her of home.

          Swallowing through a throat gone dry as sand, she managed to work up the courage, and saliva, to ask, “Why the hard sell to join ya’ll?”

          He studied her for a long moment before pushing away from her to straighten to his full height.  In the absence of his body heat, she felt cold despite the warm day. Absentmindedly, she rubbed her hands together to keep from reaching out to touch him.

          “Any predatory changelings operatin’ in our terr’tory are a security risk an’ we’re well within our rights to eliminate you.”  He continued to watch her with an unblinking stare that reminded her of a necklace she’d had as a teenager. The gold, brown, and black striations of the round gemstone gleamed in even the faintest light, just like his eyes were glowing now.

The other, non-hormonal, part of her mind that was usually preoccupied with controlling the ocelot was free to concentrate on what he was saying, or rather, how he was saying it.

From what she’d gleaned online, Remi grew up in Acadiana in a now defunct pack.  Was he switching accents to play on the stereotypes people tended to associate with them?  If so, then what had he been playing at when he’d delivered his ultimatum in the thick Cajun cadence?  And why had he switched back to it now?

“If I’m such a threat, why’d you invite me in?”

“I’d rather not’ing happened to dat pretty lil’ neck o’ yours.”  He trailed a finger along the sensitive skin of her throat, sending vivid excitement spiralling through her blood.  

Cripes, when was the last time anyone had touched her, let alone so intimately?  Lorel gripped the counter harder to brace against knees that had suddenly gone jello.  She was not about to show any weakness in front of him, but he was too damn close for her to get away without coming into contact with him.

“Hasn’t anyone ever told you to keep your hands to yourself, Mr. Denier?”  Her tone was pure Klaudia Maddox; her grandmother’s cold acerbity could cut down anyone from the head of the PTA to the mayor himself.  And she’d been hearing it for as long as she could remember.

“I’m startin’ to love dat mouth o’ yours.  De t’ings I want to do to it.”

She froze, her mind blank, like a computer that suddenly needed rebooting.  The sensuality of him and what he was saying were too much for her to process.  Eyes gone more cat than human tracked the movement as she wetted her lips. Was he trying to kill her with hormonal overload?

The watch on his wrist lit up to indicate an incoming message and he tapped to open it.  Now that he wasn’t staring at her, she could breathe again.

“We’ll continue this later, catin.”

Too unsettled to watch him leave, she waited until he left to let the breath she’d been holding escape in a rush and sink into a chair.  It took her heart a little longer to realize the danger was gone and it could calm down.

What he didn’t know was that she was dangerous.  There was a kind of madness she kept caged within, but she could never confess her secret to him.  Not unless she wanted to disappear with no one but her aunt to mourn her.

          She was thinking about making a cup of tea when Chloe came in, in a swirl of colour and long, chestnut hair.  Taking one look at Lorel, she went straight to the kettle and set about making two cups. Smooth, brightly coloured ceramic warmed her cold hands a moment later.

          “What was all that about?” asked Chloe, taking a seat across from her without blocking her view of the door in case anyone walked in fifteen minutes before closing.

Lorel had to hand it to her friend, she had lasted a whole two minutes after the sheriff left before giving into her curiosity.  The other woman was as bad as a cat. Thankfully, she hadn’t come over while Denier was there, or else she’d probably have popped some popcorn and kicked back to watch. 

“Apparently she’s upset my aunt retired,” Lorel shrugged, keeping her eyes on the rising steam, and got a snort in response.  She assuaged the twinge in her conscience by telling herself that it was technically true: the woman was upset that a changeling took over the bakery.

“Don’t try and kid a kidder.”  Chloe wagged a cerulean tipped finger at her.  “I heard her screaming on her phone out front. You should’ve bitten her, would have served her right.”

“Chloe!”  She was torn between amusement and horror; her ocelot liked the idea of it.

“Oh, I know, you’d never.”  She rolled eyes the colour of bitter chocolate in fond exasperation and muttered, “Wish I was a cat, Lord knows I’ve wanted to claw her eyes out a time or three.”

Giggling, Lorel felt the dregs of stress ebb away, which was exactly what her friend intended.  “Besides, with all that perfume, she’d probably taste bad.” Chloe tipped her head back and roared with laughter.

“You, I like you.”  

“You only want me for my scones.”  The bakery closed a half hour earlier than the yarn store, and she usually brought a couple of the day-olds over to share with Chloe while she finished up her day.

“And you only want me for my yarn.”  Chloe nudged her foot with one of her own; Lorel was wearing a pair of goldenrod socks the other woman knitted.  With a touch of alpaca, they were like walking on warm clouds.  

“Who’s watching the store?”

“I put up a back in ten note that says I stepped out for coffee.  Anyone showing up now’ll just be looking for gossip anyway.” Chloe was the epitome of the gossipy knitter even if she didn’t look it.  In her early thirties, she created beautiful, colourful, and often whimsical items that could grace any specialty boutique. “Did Shaw give you a hard time?”

“You could say that,” she mumbled and took a sip of her drink.

“That’s why I called your alpha, figured that ass would listen to him.”  Chloe raised her mug to blow across it, sending white wisps swirling.

          Lorel choked on her tea and fumbled for a napkin.  Once she could breathe again, she cried, “You called him?  First of all, he is not my alpha.  Will never be my alpha!  Second, now the sheriff will go over my head instead of treating me like an adult citizen with a business!”

          “Pfft,” the older woman waved a hand dismissively.  “Shaw’ll back off. Bullies always do when someone’s bigger’n them.  And it seems to me, Alpha Denier don’t mind comin’ to your rescue.” A knowing wink.

          “What makes you say that?”  She knew her face was the colour of her hair and she hid the brilliant shade behind her cup.

          “It took him ‘bout fifteen minutes to get here from when I called.  And he was at home.” A sly grin curved her full, pink lips.

          The same trip had taken Lorel closer to forty minutes.  Even taking into account caution for the cake she was delivering at the time and unfamiliarity with the roads leading to RainFire territory, he must’ve driven hell-bent for leather to get there so quickly.

  But why?  Initially, he tried the friendly, logical approach while laying down the ultimatum.  Then, at the party, he’d kept his distance, but stared at her when he thought she wasn’t looking.  Not that she could really fault him for that when she was in the centre of their home and surrounded by RainFire’s most vulnerable.  Although why he’d even allowed her that close in the first place, when she’d already turned him down, was another mystery.  

Now, he was overbearing, and then he was flirting and charming before leaving as suddenly as he arrived.  Which version was the real Remington Denier?

          “It doesn’t matter, I doubt she’ll be coming back and I’ll make sure that there’s no reason for the sheriff to come calling.”  Even if she had to check her brake lights every day to ensure there were no excuses to pull her over. “It’ll be fine.”

         “You could get one of those handsome leopards to play bodyguard.” Chloe’s expression would have suited a cat who got the cream.

  “I’m sure they have better things to do,” Lorel demurred.  Undoubtedly, alphas in particular had heaps of responsibilities on their plates.

And yet, one confusing, infuriating, gorgeous alpha leopard had come to her rescue.  Not that she had needed it.

 

    Your territory is what you can hold.  Formal agreements, lines on a map, trees you’ve pissed on,        none of that means shit if you can’t protect it.  

In other words, don’t bite off more than you can chew.

        -Excerpt from The Remedial Alpha’s Guide for Idiots Remi by Lucas Hunter

 

“Call Theo,” barked Remi to the comm controls as he slid into the car.  The call connected as the engine smoothly hummed to life. Spinning around on the empty street, he sped back home.  “Talk to me.”

    “Boundary  breach to the east,” answered Theo.  Knuckles whitening on the wheel, he resisted the urge to snarl because that was what his text said, albeit with one omission of the word “possible.”  The sentinel gave his reports in his own time, but they were always solid thanks to his methodical and determined approach.  

Remi wasn’t in the mood for methodical and determined.

“When?”

“Early this morning.  Probably wasn’t kids because they were smart enough to hide their tracks.”  That region was the easiest to cross into since it was free of natural barriers along the boundary.  It was also the farthest from their network of aeries. The mountains that quickly rose a kilometer inside the border served as a buffer with concentric layers of security growing denser along the most feasible overland routes.

“Human, Psy, or changeling?”  A horn blared its driver’s displeasure when he sped up instead of allowing them to cut him off to escape the slower car in front of them.  The sleek car wasn’t one of the rugged pack vehicles designed for the rough roads leading into RainFire’s territory, which they deliberately kept primitive as a security measure.  Speed the greater concern when Chloe’s call came in, he’d run full tilt down to the lower garage where his baby was parked. The sports car was more than a toy; he’d added enough after-market mods that it would make a good showing on the stock car circuit, and all that work was paying off that day.

“The whole place reeked of cheap cologne.”  Remi’s mind raced through the implications and possible courses of action while he operated the car on muscle memory and habit developed over years of working on race cars.  If it was local youths looking for a good necking spot, a short term posting of a couple of soldiers would quickly encourage them to look elsewhere. However, the chemical masker used indicated darker intent.  “I can send Angel out to add another temporary perimeter patrol, but that leaves a hole along the southern approach.” The south was the primary route in and out.

“Do it, I’ll take his shift.  Have Lark take the novices and cover the area in traps,” he ordered.

   “Lethal?  Non-lethal?”

    “Non-lethal just inside the border, increasing to lethal at the pass.”  No casual hiker would attempt to use the route through the mountains; only those with survival and mountaineering skills could navigate them at this time of year, and even then they’d have to be highly motivated to attempt the crossing.

   “We’ll set up cameras in case we have to go spring a Romeo and Juliet in between patrols.”

    Experienced sentinels regularly cycled through the area on a biweekly basis, but the temperature could drop suddenly at that elevation.  A couple of teens caught in a leghold trap might find themselves freezing temperatures before the next patrol came around. And if a storm rolled in while they were stuck in a pit trap…

   “Speaking of teenagers, you want I should tell you about the latest stunt the juveniles came up with or wait to hear it from Tien?”

   Remi’s day was just getting better and better.

Chapter Text

       RainFire Leopards: Who doesn’t love a lone wolf leopard?  Now imagine an entire pack of them. What alpha is tough and crazy enough to herd        these strong-willed roaming cats?  Meet Remi Denier.  Don’t let the lazy charm and Cajun drawl fool you or he’ll chew you up and spit you out.         Unless that’s what you’re into.  We don’t judge.

              -From the “Pack Cheat Guide” in the March 2082 issue of Wild Women magazine: “Skin Privileges, Style, and Primal Sophistication”

       A massive fist slammed into Remi’s side, forcing air from his left lung.  It wasn’t full force otherwise he’d be dealing with bruised ribs for a couple of days, but it wasn’t a love tap, either.  Anything less and it’d be an insult to his strength.

       Twisting, he brought his knee up and grabbed for Theo’s shoulders to bring him down into the strike.  His hands slipped off shoulders slippery with sweat as the sentinel stepped back. The other leopard’s chest heaved, nearly matching the pace of his own panting.  They’d been going at it long enough that they were both dripping.

       “Again,” snarled Remi. 

       He needed to burn off the tension that’d been riding him since Chloe called him.  Theo was big, taller than Remi, although not quite as widely built as the alpha. The sentinel used his quiet intelligence and surprising speed to lethal advantage, which meant he was the only one who could hold his own against the RainFire alpha for any length of time.

       The sentinel shook his head and reached for a towel draped over a low hanging branch.  Scrubbing it over his face, he left it to drape around his neck and scooped up two water bottles nestled in the coiled roots of the same tree.  Remi caught the one tossed his way; the bio-plas crunched in his grip and water spilled onto his hand.

       When he first met Lorel, he thought his cat wanted her as a potential packmate, but remained quiet so as not to spook her.  That was nothing new. The animal knew no skittish submissive could handle the full force of a strange alpha who’d been baptized in blood.

       Today, the smell of her fear tinged with a strange note had set his leopard into a hunting crouch, ready to rip out Shaw’s throat.  She didn’t smell quite right, not wrong, but not quite like the cat she was. It wasn’t until he was behind the wheel again that his cat told him what that element was: she was on the verge of losing her humanity.  

       The protectiveness most predatory dominant changelings felt was magnified in him, something he had to carefully mitigate; changelings needed freedom to grow and thrive.  When Jojo had reacted to Lorel, he’d carefully sifted through the sugar and spice layers of her scent and found nothing troubling.  

       Had he been ignoring possible warning signs because he wanted to play with the feral kitten?  It was far too early to have allowed her that deeply into their territory, and he’d only conceded to the harebrained idea because he wanted to see if others in the pack reacted as favourably to her as he did.  But there was no going back now. If he couldn’t drag her back from the edge, then he’d have to take her out as a last resort. He wasn’t ready to give up on her.

       Unfortunately, being alpha meant that he had to put the pack’s needs above his own.

       “You need to do something about that touch hunger,” Theo said when he came up for air, screwing the top back on his empty bottle.

       “Don’t go there.”  Pure alpha poured into every word.

       “Your tension’s starting to affect the juvenile males.”

       “Feet pue tan!” he cursed and punched a tree trunk.  The rough bark split his knuckles and scented the air with blood.  His sexual hunger was a constant pulse underneath his skin; it had to be driving the younger males crazy.  When there were too many unmated dominants, that much unchanneled sexual energy tended to explode into violence that could tear a pack apart.

       The only problem was the only one he wanted to sate his touch hunger with was an ocelot who’d rather hiss and claw at him than permit him skin privileges of any kind.  Rather than being a deterrent, that was like catnip for predatory dominants.

       He didn’t know why he cared so much about one female.  She wasn’t pack, didn’t want to be, and was more trouble than she was worth.  She refused to behave like any sane submissive faced with a predatory alpha, and she challenged him in ways women rarely did.  She didn’t even recognize the favour he gave her by giving her protection, instead, she took it as a mortal insult like a female sentinel would!

       “That’s what you get for headhunting loners.”  Dropping out of a maple across the clearing, Elijah landed in a crouch before rising to his feet.

       “You’re improving, I only heard you five minutes ago instead of ten.”  Remi shook the painful numb tingling out of his hand. He was just yanking Elijah’s chain; no one made it to senior soldier without the ability to silently stalk their prey, no matter what form they were in.

       “You know, Theo, if you mated, it’d help keep the balance.”  Strong ties between men and women, either long-term relationships or those lucky enough to have mated, at the top of hierarchy stabilized the pack.,

       “We’re talking about your sex life, or lack thereof, not ours.  And, for the record, I am good on that front.” Elijah held up his hands, palms out.

       “My sex life is not up for discussion,” scowled Remi.

       A long low whistle.  The two sentinels shared a look.

       “That is one serious case of blue balls.”  Dark brows climbed up Elijah’s forehead to disappear under the shaggy hair that draped over his forehead.  Theo nodded in agreement.

       “Stop talking about my balls and go play with your own.”  Claws erupted from his fingertips. A severe overreaction for some teasing from packmates who were trying to keep him from going over the edge like he was right now.

       Taking a deep, calming breath, he took a minute to get himself back under control.  Theo and Elijah were very obviously not looking at each other, or him, for that matter.  If they had, he might well have interpreted it as a dominance challenge with the state he was currently in.

       Sometimes alphas did go bad.  Within the span of four years, his own father destroyed what was once a solid, healthy pack.  While very few of the sentinels could take Remi one on one, some of them were damn good snipers.

       Not even an alpha could dodge a bullet they couldn’t see.


       Lorel lay awake, staring at the ceiling, bone-weary and yet sleep eluded her.  Her skin prickled and burned like a terrible sunburn, which she’d had enough of to know the sensation well, but she hadn’t been out in the sun long enough to burn.  Her mind kept replaying the events of that afternoon on loop until her blood boiled and her fingertips tingled, the latter was one of the first signs of an involuntary shift.  

       The bedroom was larger than any of the ones in her various apartments had been, but the walls were too close, too confining.  Slipping on a floral satin robe, she padded to the living room to look out the picture window.

      Turning to pace back across the room, she paused facing the back door.  Through that door and thirty meters away, the treeline began. The mountains began about three miles into the forest.  She should be fine as long as she stayed to the lower elevations. Just because they claimed the whole county as part of their jurisdiction, their pack lands were further into the woods.

       The thought of remaining in the house one second longer had her wanting to climb the walls.  She felt caged as it was, her ocelot would go insane if trapped inside one second longer; it had spent enough years stuck inside the trappings of civilization.

       But she didn’t have to remain confined within four walls anymore.  There was an entire mountain to explore full of trees and rabbits and squirrels.  As long as she remained on this side of the mountain, she was fine.

       Shaking her head to dislodge the dangerous thought, she continued to pace.  Her cat yowled inside its cage, protesting the close environs.

       Living on her own at the edge of the woods, free to shift whenever she chose, was like being stuck in a free-fall with no idea when she was going to become a greasy smear on the pavement.  What if the rabbits and squirrels she could hunt weren’t enough to keep her ocelot happy? One day she might sink into the madness permanently, her rational side and everything that made her human disintegrating.

       In forums and magazines, other changelings talked about being in balance, never struggling for control.  She knew that wasn’t true for everyone. It wasn’t true for her. It wasn’t true for her father.

       And yet there was risk if they went long enough without shifting.  Changelings who needed water to shift and couldn’t get to it in time could die.  The last time she’d shifted was the week she’d moved to Bryson City two months ago.  The beast slashed at the inside of her mind, demanding freedom, trying to break through the human shell.  She’d learned to ignore the suffocating need to shift, but now she couldn’t breathe it was so strong. The blinding pain settled the issue for her.

       The robe glided to the floor in a whisper of sound, leaving her nude in the hallway.  She hated pajamas, she twisted and turned too much in her sleep until she woke tangled and choked in soft fabric.  The sense of confinement was something she’d had to put up with until she’d moved out on her own. Her aunt, a self-proclaimed part-time nudist, didn’t care as long as she “put a towel down” if she was running around in her birthday suit.

       Shivering in the chill night air, feet curling away from the damp floorboards of the porch, she shut the door behind her.

       After holding onto control for so long, letting go of it was harder than maintaining it.  The shift was supposed to be instantaneous, but it usually took her a minute and it didn’t happen all at once.

       It was like her senses exploded from the inundation of input that threatened to overwhelm.  The woman reached for control out of habit. The smell of blood, sharp and delicious, scented the air.  Dominance over her own body slipped through her fingers and she dissolved into a million particles of shattering light

       Changelings often spoke of the shift as ecstasy and agony, but for her it was mostly the latter.  

       She stretched, tail high, back bowed, and front paws flashing claws as she kneaded the grass then reached out to flex her claws on a tree, marking her home.  The human’s protests were buried under the instincts of the cat.

       Something tight and cramped unfurled in her chest, aching with sweet pain as it stretched for the first time in years.  Ecstatic clarity that made her want to bound through the trees. 

       Heart singing in her chest, she sucked in great lungfuls of air.  Woods flew by in a shadowed blur. Paws landing solidly, whiskers fluttering in the breeze.  Brain switched off as she ran.

       The close proximity of houses and the overwhelming plethora of scents that came from being inside the city limits was nothing new to the cat, only there was no stink that came with larger cities.  She’d always taken care to keep to her home before, but the wall of trees just beyond the yard called to her.

       The ground was springy with vegetable debris under her paws as she bounded through the trees.  Cold air swept through her nose and wind ghosted through her fur. The sound of prey scurrying through the underbrush drew her deeper into the woods.

       Muscles bunching and she pounced.  Fur and flesh parted under sharp teeth.  The worries of the woman no longer existed.  Only blood and feeding the dark hunger that gripped her mattered.

       Rodents, birds, lizards all fell under flashing claws and teeth.  The cat could eat no more, yet still it hunted, leaving a trail of small bodies in its wake.

       Eventually, the exhaustion weighing down her limbs overcame the need to kill.  Curling up nose to tail in a hollow underneath a fallen tree trunk, she settled in to sleep.

Chapter Text

          “Lo’el!”  A cheerful cry pulled her from daydreams of apples crisp, tart, and bright green baked into galettes and strudels.  She turned from the pie display she was re-stocking in time to catch a tiny whirlwind in her arms.

       “Hi, Jojo.”  The girl’s deep brown skin was flushed with excitement.  Her black hair was pulled back on either side of her head, French braids running along the top, and terminated in two high bobbly buns that looked somewhat like ears.  Operating on deep-seated instincts, she hitched the girl on her hip. The warm weight of her little body tucked against her own felt right in a way she’d never experienced before and she allowed herself to take comfort in the sensation.  “What’re you doing down here?” she asked.

       The small downtown park was bustling with shoppers looking for fall produce, pumpkins, or in the case of the highly organized, holiday gifts.  It seemed like the whole town came out to enjoy one of the last open-air markets of the season before moving to a smaller indoor version for the winter.

       “Pun’kins!”  She flung her arms in the air like gourds were the best thing ever and Lorel quickly put a hand on her back to help steady the girl, but she needn’t have worried.  Jojo was a cat and had the requisite balance.

       “Are you here to get pumpkins or were you hoping I’d giving you something that looks like a pumpkin?”  As she talked, she turned to check on her newest employee, Irena, who was already competently handling the steady stream of customers.  Her predecessor, a cousin of the blonde Madison, had quit after the Incident, as Lorel was calling it, in solidarity with her relative.  Crows weren’t considered birds of prey and therefore exempt from the rules regarding predators sharing territory.

       Jojo’s eyes slid to the sugar cookies cut in the distinctive shape and decorated accordingly.  Long, angelic lashes batted beatifically up at her and she had to fight a smile even as her heart melted in the face of such cuteness.

       “Careful, if you feed them they’ll never go away.”  Angel, the unbelievably handsome man from RainFire, strolled up in Jojo’s wake.  A boy not much older than Jojo orbited him, looking like a miniature version of the man in matching jeans and a red flannel shirt.  He even had tiny coordinating work boots. The combination of gorgeous man and darling munchkin was too much for one poor bystander.  Lorel winced in sympathy when the other woman walked into a pole.

       Taking the teasing warning as permission, she gave cookies to all three of them, received unprompted thank yous, and she happily participated in the routine exchange, knowing that consistency was important for cubs.  It took her a second to correct her mental wording to the more appropriate “kids.” Hanging out with changelings was giving her bad habits.

       “No cookie for you?”  An adorable frown from Jojo.  Lorel’s poor heart couldn’t take it, she cast about for some excuse that wouldn’t plant the seeds of body image issues in a young psyche.

       “I don’t want to spoil my lunch.”  That appeared to mollify Jojo, finally taking a bite of the treat, and she jumped out of her arms.  Lorel’s heart stopped for a moment. The organ stuttered back to life when the girl landed easily and lightly on her trademark purple boots.  She and her friend wandered to investigate the blown glass suncatchers at the booth a few feet over; Angel turned to keep them in sight, his stance relaxed, but she had no doubt that he’d turn lethal in an eyeblink at the sign of any danger.

       “Did you come down for the market?” asked Lorel when she could properly breathe again.

       “The pack has a booth.”  Angel nodded his head towards what she assumed was its general location.  “Jojo had to come say hi to you, probably because she’s figured she can scam you out of cookies.”  He shot her a smile that would have made any other woman swoon, but Lorel liked her men a little rougher, less pretty and more rugged.

       “I’ll have to be careful in case she tells all her friends and they decide to gang up on me for the mother lode,” she laughed.  The ocelot, which was sedate to the point of laziness for once, laughed at the idea of being swarmed by cubs nearly as big as it was, and they’d probably love it, too.  “What do ya’ll sell?” 

       “Pumpkins, mushrooms, leafy green stuff, things people have made.  You focus on local vendors?” She followed his gaze to the sign on the table that proclaimed as much.  “If you’re looking for a supplier, we have berries, too: blue, black, elder, currants... I’m sure we could cut you a deal.”

       Damn cats were worming their way into her life.

       The boy wandered back and tugged on Angel’s pant leg, who crouched to hear what he had to say.  A man across the way stared at what must have been an exquisite derriere because he spilled the sample of apple cider he was pouring for a potential customer.

       “Can we go play in the water?”  The boy twisted his body back and forth the way that kids do when they need to lay the cute on thick to get what they want.

       “I suppose it’s the quickest way to clean you cookie monsters up.  Or I could just toss you in the river.” Using his thumb, he wiped an orange crumb off the boy’s chin, who giggled at the teasing 

       “Can Lo’el come, too?” asked Jojo.

       “Oh honey, I have to stay here and help Irena,” she began, gesturing at the crow who was refilling a sample plate

       Twin pairs of innocent eyes stared up at her in appeal.  Seriously, they should be considered deadly weapons and she was looking down a double barrel.  Looking to Angel for help did no good, he just tucked his hands under his armpits and shook his head with a grin.  It looked like she was on her own.

       “And who are these cuties?”  Having come over at the sound of her name, Irena eyed the trio of cats, stopping on Angel and then coming back for seconds.  Apparently, she preferred her men pretty.

       “Irena, meet troublemakers one, two, and three.  Known aliases are Jojo, Angel, and peeshwank,” Lorel pointed at each of them in turn.  She didn’t know the boy’s name, but she’d overheard Remi call him that the other night.  Sometimes having acute hearing was actually useful.

       “I’m Darin!  Only Remi calls me peeshwank,” he giggled and revealed a missing front tooth.

       “They’re trying to get me to play hooky.”  Hands on her hips, she mock scowled. None of them appeared the least bit fazed.  If anything, the kids turned the charm factor up a notch, something she wouldn’t have thought possible.

       “Go play with the cublets, I’ll be fine here.  Like you said, the breakfast crowd’s already come through so I won’t have to beat off the ravening hordes,” the traitor smiled reassuringly and made shooing motions with both hands, then leaned in close to whisper, “As long as you get me his phone number.”  The slender brunette pulled away with a wink.

       Lorel sighed in feigned resignation and held out her hands like she was about to be handcuffed.  Two soft, little hands took each of hers and dragged her into the throng of shoppers, Angel close on her heels. 

       “Don’t worry, I won’t give her anything without your say so,” she said to him over her shoulder.  Bumping into someone, she had to return her attention to where she was going.

       “Thank you,” came the quiet response. 

       Where the kids’ smaller size allowed them to dodge easily, she was pulled into obstacles, but she didn’t let go for fear of losing them.  The thought that they might get lost or hurt had her tightening her grip and bracing herself against the jostling.

       While she was just over five feet tall, she was far from slender and never would be, to her grandmother’s chagrin.  She was acutely conscious of her ample hips knocking into people and she did her best to make herself as small as possible.  Each bump, no matter how brief, had her ocelot snarling in irritation and it took all of her concentration to remain in control.  The crowd pressed in around her until all she could see was Darin and Jojo in front of her. Her palms grew clammy, but the kids didn’t seem to mind.  A dull roar filled her ears, allowing only the loudest sounds through, and those were sharp and intense. Throat tightening, she fought for each breath.

       The ocelot pressed hard against its cage, sandwiching her between it and the pressure of the crowd.  How she managed to arrive at the splash pad, even though it was only fifty meters away, without going clawed, she had no idea.  More than anything, she was glad that her tiny guides didn’t have so much as a scratch on them. Angel probably would have torn her to pieces for harming them.  And she’d let him.

       The kids stripped down to swimsuits underneath their clothing.  Darin was so eager he forgot to unbutton his flannel shirt and ended up stuck with it around his nose.

       “Help!” he pleaded, turning to Lorel, his arms above his head and his face obscured by red-plaid.

       Moving automatically despite the strange sensation of not feeling fully present in her body, she crouched and carefully helped free the boy.  Once released, he beamed and wrapped his soft arms around her neck. She froze with one hand tentatively curving around his back. A wet kiss against her cheek and he was off to run through the water spraying from colourful flowers sculpted from metal.  Some of his packmates were already there and greeted him with shrieks of welcome, their happiness no longer piercing to her senses.

       A large, warm hand settled on her shoulder.  It felt strange and soothing all at once and she couldn’t bring herself to shrug it off.  Angel helped her to her feet and opened his arms wide in an offer of a hug.

       The leopards were so relaxed and comfortable with one another, sharing platonic hugs and kisses, casually holding hands.  It hurt to look at them like they were a blazing fire and she was stuck out in the cold darkness, looking in. And now one was extending that comfort to her.

       Although she wasn’t raised to accept casual physical contact, even platonically, from men, she stepped into his arms.  It was like a long, cool drink of water after working for hours in the hot sun without a break. The sudden absence of a deep-seated pain she’d learned to deal with long ago made her nearly sag in relief.

       This had nothing to do sex.  She didn’t feel any attraction either to or from him, yet she needed the chaste affection and she soaked it up as long as he would allow her.

        “We aren’t meant to be alone.  Sure, some of us are more solitary than others, but we’re not meant to be cut off from our kind entirely.  I can’t think of a worse life for a changeling.” He rubbed large circles on her back and she fought back a purr.

       “Maybe it’s a nature vs. nurture thing.  If you’re raised in a pack, of course you wouldn’t do well on your own.”  Even she didn’t believe her own words.

       “And how do you know you won’t be better off in a pack?”


       A knot of packmates moved out of Remi’s way as he burst into the emergency room.  The triage nurse took one look, recognized him, and hit the button that unlocked the security door that led into the depths of the department.  The door shut behind him with a metallic click as he strode down the sterile, off-white hallway to where Theo stood guard outside of a cubicle.

       A lean blonde man lay on a narrow bed, his normally bronzed skin was ashen and spattered with carmine.  Catching sight of Remi in the doorway, he gave a crooked smile around a split in his lip and raised his hand in greeting.

       “What the fuck happened?” Remi growled at the sentinel.  The bad-tempered demand earned him a sharp look of reproach from Finn as he worked on the injured male in the treatment room; the wounded non-dominant didn’t need any more stress, least of all from his fucking alpha.

       It seemed like his vocal chords were stuck in a semi-shift for the past two weeks and everything came out a snarl.  That was part of the reason why he’d been running along the eastern border, channelling excess energy and inspecting the new security precautions, instead of sleeping.  

       Taking a deep, calming breath, he forced his voice into a more normal register.  “What happened?” There, that sounded a little less like he was about to go on a murderous rampage.

       “Stian and Leandro were leaving Acapella when they got jumped.”  The lounge was popular with most segments of the population, even the psy who were exploring life outside of the emotionless discipline of Silence.  While the telepathic race couldn’t drink since alcohol wreaked havoc on their abilities, Acapella was known for their extensive mocktail menu. The trendy venue was hardly known for drunken brawls.  As far as Remi knew, the most violent incident that had occurred there was a spat two years before between a couple of drag queens over stealing someone’s routine.

       “There were four or five human guys.”  All RainFire members were trained in at least basic hand-to-hand combat.  Five human men shouldn’t have been able to take a leopard, even a non-dominant.  And Leandro, while human and untrained, was bigger than Stian.

       “First one jumped out of the alley and hit him in the face with a baseball bat, breaking his nose.  The wind was blowing the wrong way for him to catch a scent.” Claws pricked at Remi’s fingertips, the urge to hunt boiling to the surface.  

       “This was planned.”  That time he didn’t bother to keep the cat out of his voice.  “A group of drunks looking for a fight don’t use tactics designed to circumvent our sense of smell.”

       “And they weren’t playing baseball at one in the morning, either,” agreed Theo.  The man who was gentle with their most vulnerable and loved to play with the cubs was gone; only the lethal predator remained.  A passing nurse started to admire him until they caught the dangerous aura he emanated, then quickly scuttled past even though his eyes hadn’t even flashed cat.  The hindbrain of every creature knew how to recognize a predator no matter what skin they wore. “They took him down while he was stunned. One kicked him, possibly with steel-toes, while the other used the bat, and the rest went after Leandro.”

       “Leandro, he ok?”  The human male wasn’t one of his, but he was important to Stian.  Finn did something that eased the grimace on Stian’s wan face and Remi’s urge to kill something eased down a tick.

       “A little beat up, but he’s ok.”  Theo blew out a breath and scrubbed an eyebrow with a thumbnail, then his quiet bass dropped to barely a whisper too quiet for Stian to hear.  “You know his family wasn’t thrilled he was dating a changeling? This was too much on top of that, apparently.”

       Remi turned the air blue.  “Any witnesses?”

       “No descriptions, either,” Theo shook his head.  “Dark, non-descriptive clothing and hoodies obscured their faces on CCTV footage.”

       More cursing.

       “Thanks.”  He clapped the sentinel on the shoulder.  “We’ll talk later, this shit ain’t your fault.  Go, be with the others before they storm the place for an update.”

       “It’s not your fault either.”  He fixed Remi with a firm look and then strode down the hallway, pressed the button that released the door for those exiting, and went to give an update to the waiting packmates.

       Maybe not, but he could’ve at least fucking been there when Enforcement was getting his statement instead of brooding in the woods in the middle of the night like a fucking wolf.  Next thing he knew, he’d be howling at the goddamn moon.

       Cell reception could be spotty in the mountains, texts were the best method of communication once he was within range.  Theo’s message had come in when he was on his way back, which meant Remi made it to the hospital soon after Stian’s statement had been taken.  The distance, the adrenaline, and the fact that there wasn’t a bloodbond between the two of them combined meant Remi hadn’t felt the assault. Although he definitely felt it when Finn pulled energy from him to heal the worst of Stian’s wounds.

       An alpha was supposed to be there for everyone in his pack.

       Comforting others didn’t come easily to him; it was difficult to give something he didn’t have much experience receiving.  With the cubs it was easy since they were easy to love and care for, the same way he’d been loved and petted when his mother was still alive.  Steeling himself, Remi rapped on the door frame of the cubicle as he entered.

       “How ya feeling?” he placed a hand on Stian’s shoulder, grounding him with the touch of pack, of his alpha, while Finn continued stitching up a cut on the other man’s side.

       “Like hell.”  A faint smile that didn’t disturb the deep purpling bruises that mottled his face.

       “You look like it.”  Yeah, it was definite: when it came to compassion, he definitely was the worst.  “But you’ll be back to your pretty surfer boy looks in no time.”

       Snorting, Stian scratched at his close-trimmed beard where a patch of dried blood stained the blonde hair rust red.  Pale, almost colourless, eyes dropped to the blanket tucked around him.

       “I’m sorry about Leandro.”

       “Yeah, well, other fish in the sea,” he shrugged, then winced when his body protested the movement.  “I can’t really blame him, the garbage they were spewing…” He shook his head. “Those assholes called him an ‘animal fucker’ and ‘race traitor’ like it’s 1982 and not 2082!  But I can blame him for breaking up with me in a text message.”

       Remi placed his other hand over the male’s, which was fisted in the blanket; small nicks, scrapes, and more bruises from defending himself marked his lightly tanned skin.

       “I can’t even tell you what they looked or smelled like.  I’m s-sorry.” Big fat tears that he’d been holding back spilled over to roll down his face and soak into his beard. The salt in his split lip had to hurt like a sonuvabitch, yet he didn’t wince.  “T-they were wearing d-dark hoodies.”

       “Hey, look at me.”  Keeping his tone gentle, Remi moved his hand from Stian’s shoulder to the side of his neck.  Those icy blue eyes filled with anguish turned to him. “They used tactics to avoid identification, they were prepared.  You survived, that’s all you had to do.”

       “I c-couldn’t protect him.”

       “That bastard didn’t deserve it anyway.”  A laugh that was part sob. “At least, tell me they messed up his face, too.  Lark’s coming to keep you company. I told Angel to stay home, having him around right now would be adding insult to injury.”  More shaky laughter in nervous relief.

       “Whatever you need, you ask for it, ya hear me?”  Remi clasped Stian in a careful hug and wondered how he was going to hunt down the fuckers who’d done this.  He fucking hated feeling helpless, especially when one of his people were hurt, but he could do nothing less because otherwise that meant he couldn’t protect his own.

       And an alpha who couldn’t protect was no alpha at all.