Night Blooming

By MJB

Disclaimers: The characters are all mine, in looks, thought and deed.

Sex/Violence:  A little from column A and a lot from column B.

Feedback:  Would be greatly appreciated at mjb1_1@hotmail.com

(Chapter 3 added 23/09/07 and its quite a long one!)

PROLOGUE

Small hands reached up and rubbed at tired eyes as coral lips mewed in a yawn.  Turning onto her side, ready to snuggle into her blankets, she was shocked to feel icy cold hardness under her cheek.  Bolting upright in confusion, big eyes blinking in confusion, she tried to make sense of what she could see.  Or rather, couldn’t see.  Gone were the stuffed animals, canopied bed and pastel drapes; replaced by dank grey walls and windowless gloom.

The little girl blinked owlishly in the dim light, hoping against hope that she would wake up at home.  It didn’t work.  Head bowed, she realised that she was still wearing her school uniform.  How had she got here?  Mind whirling she could remember nothing.  Feeling tears welling in her eyes, she pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them.  A lone, fat tear broke away and splashed onto her arm.

“Hey,” a soft voice made the dark head shoot up as the child scuttled back.  “Don’t cry, kid.”

Blue eyes focused in on the origin of the voice and saw another girl, an older girl, sitting in the opposite corner.  Thin shoulders relaxed as she saw that her cell mate appeared to be in the same boat.  Sniffling and scrubbing her sleeve over her face, she continued to watch her companion.

“W…Where are we?”  The words trembled out of her mouth, thick with the remnants of tears.

“I don’t know,” the tall redhead unfolded herself and padded across the small room, to the child.  Dropping to the floor beside her, green eyes met blue intently.  “What I do know is that the men who brought us here want us alive.  I think they want ransom money or…” she didn’t continue, seeming to think it best left unheard.  “Hey, I’m Blayne.” A long fingered hand was extended to the younger girl.

Still trembling, the child shook the offered hand, “Hello, I’m Harmony.”  As she shook hands with the older girl, Harmony couldn’t stop herself from marvelling at how pretty she was.

“You go to St. Katherine’s,” Blayne released the small hand and gestured at the dark blue uniform.  The dark head nodded.  “I used to walk past there on my way to school when I was your age.”

Relaxing in the older girls calming presence, she let herself be lulled into the familiar comfort of conversation.  “I’m 11, how old are you?”

“Kid, you should never ask a lady her age,” the adage was delivered with a protruding tongue and crossed eyes as she leaned over and tickled her new friend.  She was gratified to see the pre-teen wriggle and giggle to get away.  “I’m 18, just started college, actually.  I don’t think being stuck here is going to do me much good.”  She chuckled in an effort to distract the child from her maudlin proclamation.

“Do you really think they want a ransom?”  Harmony now looked more curious than afraid.

“If they do, they won’t get much for me,” inside Blayne was quite certain she knew the real reason behind their kidnapping and it wasn’t money.  The child clearly had no idea how different they were and the redhead hoped she wouldn’t.

“My mom and dad have lots of money, I’m sure they’ll pay for you, too.”  Noticing the petite form shaking once more, this time from the cold, the older youth scooted closer and held out her arm.  She was surprised by how readily the eleven year old crawled closer and snuggled into her.  Blayne had never been one for physical displays, always shying away from human contact even as a child. She was growing into an equally detached and aloof adult but something about this girl made her want to give comfort; to keep her safe.

“Thanks for the offer Harm, you’re a sweet kid.  How about we get some sleep?” She was surprised when no argument was forthcoming.  “There isn’t a bed but you can use my shoulder as a pillow, OK?” the round cheeked face buried itself even further into the fabric of her shirt and the slight form began to calm as sleep carried her away.

Looking down at the inky tresses beneath her chin, Blayne felt the desire to press a kiss to her crown.  She didn’t; it wasn’t her way.  Titling her head so that her cheek was resting on silky hair, she too found refuge in sleep.

######

“So, you…?”

Dark brows drew together in concentration as a grubby hand traced numbers in the dirt covering the floor.  Blayne enjoyed these moments, where her little friend would seem so dynamic even as she sat still.  That was something about Harmony Blyth, the child seemed to pulse with life; radiating an inner fire.

It was hard to know just how long they had been held captive in the dingy room.  The place was little more than a big closet, with no exercise possible.  A small bulb poorly illuminated the place, though neither girl needed it to see through the gloom.  Sporadically food would be slipped through a small hatch in the door.  Its infrequency made telling time near impossible.  It had definitely been weeks, lots of weeks.

“You move the decimal point and divide the number by itself!”  A triumphant grin lit up the dirty face.

“That’s right, kiddo!  When we get out of here you’ll certainly be top of your math class.”  Ruffling the shaggy, stringy hair of the other girl affectionately she saw those sky coloured eyes cloud over.

“Do you really think we’ll go home one day?” Seeing a full lower lip quiver the taller woman drew the child into her arms and hugged her tightly. 

“Of course we will, sweetheart; of course we will!”  Although she wasn’t feeling all that confident herself she was damned if she’d dash Harmony’s hopes.

In all their time in the windowless room, the only times she saw the people holding them captive they weren’t exactly forthcoming with their plans.  Nor was she, at those times, in any position or condition to ask questions.  It was a sacrifice she willingly made to protect the innocence that she held in her arms.  She would sacrifice body and soul to keep the child safe.  Whatever those men were waiting for hadn’t happened yet and she prayed that rescue would come before it did.

For her part, Harmony had become attached to this stolid, intelligent protector of hers.  Young as she may be, she knew that on multiple occasions Blayne had saved her from harm.  The redhead would push herself in front of the child whenever the men came.  They would drag her out and she would come back, endless minutes later bruised and sometimes bleeding.  Harmony feared that one day her guardian wouldn’t come back, but she never voiced it; she’d just cuddle up to the long body and try to help her feel warm and get better.

“Don’t think you’re getting out of calculus by distracting me!” and all was right in their tiny world again, for a while.

######

Crack!

The door exploded.  Splinters rained down on the two cowering girls.  Light filled the room, silhouetting the huge figure standing in the space the door had occupied.  Acting on instinct, Blayne leapt to her feet, pushing her charge behind her.

“Stay close!”  A frantic whisper and then they were moving.

The massive shadow just stood there, waiting.  Getting closer, Blayne braced herself, ready to fight.  Her emaciated form wouldn’t be much of a threat but she would give her last to save her friend.

Reaching the doorway she was brought up short by the face of the man waiting for her.  A grin split her face; they were saved!

“Dad…”

“No time for that Blayne-girl,” the voice positively growled, making the little girl at her heels crane to look beyond her friend.  “Make the change!”

Blayne simply nodded.  She could hear the sounds of fighting growing increasingly louder.  Weapons fire mixed with the animal sounds of snarling and roars.  Turning to Harmony, she forced the girl to look at her.

“You need to run, Kiddo.  Follow me and when I say jump, you jump!  No sightseeing!” The blue eyes looked terrified but there was no time to offer comfort or explain.

Following the giant man who had liberated them, they ran through the brightly lit room.  Suddenly chaos was all around them.  Harmony could make out little in the mayhem.  People were moving fast, as was she.  Brief glimpses showed her what looked like animals fighting with people, but that couldn’t be!  Even Blayne seemed to be growing larger as they ran.

Blayne skidded to a halt abruptly, Harmony slamming into her back.  There was a window and beyond it a rooftop.  The child could make it!  In the violence there was every chance that she could die and the youth had sacrificed too much to allow that to happen!  All that stood between them and the window was a single man with a machete.

Moving again, she called over her shoulder, “When I say jump, jump!”  Harmony was sure the other girls skin had taken on a crimson glow, far more than the exertion of running could create.

Blayne launched herself at the man, hands bared like claws.  She felt the blade bite into her shoulder.  It wasn’t enough to stop her.  Forcing him back through pure force she cried out, “jump!”

Scared beyond belief, Harmony obeyed blindly.  As she flew out of the window she tucked and rolled onto the lower roof.  Winded but otherwise unharmed she turned to look back up at the window.  She saw what looked like Blayne, throw her head back and roar.  Then the window was empty and the place was in flames.

Harmony ran.

######

“Doctor, it’s been two months and she doesn’t seem to be getting any better,” running a hand through his greying hair the man looked intently at the therapist.

“Mr and Mrs Blyth; Harmony went through a truly harrowing ordeal.  We can not push her to disclose what happened.”  Pulling off his spectacles he cleaned them with a cloth.  “She may never be the little girl she was, events have changed her.  All we can do is lend our support until she is ready to talk.”

“Do you think she will talk?”  Corrine Blyth, who until now had stayed quiet, finally voiced her fear.

“Almost certainly; eventually she’ll want to share her experience.  She’s a young girl, were she an older teen things would be different but eventually she will break down.  You’ll need to pick up the pieces.”

“I thought we’d get our little girl back.  Six months without her and… she’s still a million miles away.”

Wrapping an arm around his distraught wife, George Blyth levelled his gaze at the man across the desk.  “Do whatever you have to, money is no object.”

“Tell me about the incident with the toy…”

######

Five weeks after they had found their daughter, curled up and in tears on their doorstep, George and Corrine had been unwilling to let her out of their sight.  She had yet to return to school and seemed more than happy to stay, isolated, in her own room.   Even with their regular trips to the psychologist they had seen no return of their fun loving child. She was quiet, something that she had never been before.

With the coming of her birthday they had hoped that she would welcome a party and a return to her normal life.  They had invited her friends and held a bash that, in the past, she would have loved.  It did little but push her further away from them.

Harmony had come down at the start of the party, greeting her friends almost as she would a group of strangers.  Her eyes seemed to pass over and through the other children, as though she was looking for somebody.  Whoever she was searching for was not in attendance and after barely an hour of very obviously forced good humour, the twelve year old disappeared back up to her room.

The party had broken up soon after, the children able to feel the palpable worry running through the adults.  Corrine and George had found themselves sitting alone, surrounded by the debris of a childish affaire at a complete loss.  As Corrine turned to her husband to voice her growing concerns the doorbell rang, echoing loudly in the all too silent house.  Looking at each other in puzzlement, George ambled to the door.

“Mr Blyth?”  The UPS courier looked at him for confirmation.

“Yes; you have a package?”  Looking down at his watch he was surprised to see that it was only four o’clock in the afternoon.

“Yes, sir.  Actually it’s for a Miss Harmony Blyth, could she sign for it?”  There was something not quite right about the young man standing in front of him.  George couldn’t quite decide what it was, but something about his eyes struck him as strange.

“I’ll sign, she’s my daughter.  It’s probably a present.”  The youth in the brown uniform looked far from happy but handed over his tablet to the older man.  As George signed he returned to his van and brought out a large box.  “Thank you.”  George took the box in exchange for the electronic tablet and the young man muttered something before marching back to his van.

Contemplating the young mans strange actions he walked back into the main room where his wife was now cleaning up.  She glanced up at him, nodding towards the box in a clear question.

“A present for Harmony.”  Just then he heard loud footsteps thump down the stairs and the girl in question appeared in the doorway.  Her face looked alive, eyes curious and a smile skirting the edge of her lips.  It was the first time that she had seemed excited about anything and he just hoped that there wasn’t a nasty surprise in the box.

“Daddy, did you say that was for me?”  She was barely restraining herself from reaching out to grab the parcel.

“Yes, honey, it’s for you.”  Bounding over she grabbed the package eagerly and before either of her parents could voice their concerns for her to be careful, she was tearing onto the brown paper.

The paper gave way to a white cardboard box and this too she dealt with quickly until she was looking into the contents.  At the same time as a huge smile lit up her face a trail of tears rolled down her cheeks.  The smile was a welcome sight to her parents but it held such sweet sorrow in its depths that they wished they understood its origin.  Reaching inside the box she withdrew a large stuffed tiger, half as tall as she was.  Holding it up she buried her face in the plush fur and seemed to be inhaling the scent.  Corrine sniffed the air as her child sniffed the toy and a spark of recognition came to life.  It couldn’t be; could it?

“Who’s it from, Harmony?”  Corrine needed to know.

“Just one of my friends, Mommy.”  Surreptitiously and so quickly that her parents could barely see, she pocketed the small envelope that had been sitting beneath the toy.  “I’m going to take it upstairs.”  She was running up the stairs before they could say anything.

The couple looked at each other in quiet concern.

######

“She has slept with that toy every night since.  She still won’t tell us who it was from and we haven’t been able to find that letter.”  Corrine’s frustration was clear.  She did not voice her other concerns to the therapist, they were worries to air in other quarters.

“I don’t think it is healthy to search her room for clues.  It is clearly something that she values.  Yes, it may have links to her captivity.  I have managed to establish that she was not alone in her incarceration, maybe it was from one of them.  I do not think we should read too much into it.”  He gazed into the eyes of the adults who sat in front of him.  “She has seemed a lot more relaxed since her birthday and if this object has done that it can only be a good thing.”

Eventually the meeting was over and the Blyths found themselves seated in their car, looking at each other in frustration.  Something had to happen soon, they needed their baby back.

PART 1

Running feet thundered down the empty halls.  Breaths panted out as she frantically made her way to the blue door.  Just a few more feet!  Casting an eye down at her watch, she failed to see the man step out from the adjoining hall.  Eyes widened in horror as her head came back up, finally seeing the figure looming ahead of her.  Panicked she tried to stop, succeeding only in crashing to the ground with her momentum.  Sliding across the polished surface she came to an unceremonious stop at the feet of her observer.

“Miss Blyth, why are you running in the halls?”  Glowering, the older man made no move to help the girl to her feet.

Pulling together the tattered shreds of her dignity, Harmony scrambled to her feet, straightening her skirt as she stood. Across her face was the familiar glare of an angry teen.  Looking the older man in the eye, she responded evenly, no sign of her earlier exertions in her voice, “Late for Math, Sir.”  The teacher raised a speculative brow, clearly waiting for more.  “Fencing practice ran over…I had to change.”  She defiantly refused to look away.

“This is the third time this week that you have been caught in the halls!”  A vein began to pulse in his neck.  “Just because your mother is from one of the old houses doesn’t give you special privileges in this school!”  Brown eyes board into her.  

Hah, special privileges my ass!  You try being mixed race at this school!  Was what she thought, what she said was, “Sorry Mr McKean, I wasn’t trying to take advantage.  I’ll try to be more punctual in future.”  His answering grimace told her that he was not satisfied with her apology and she thanked god she hadn’t decided to bait him today.

“Get to class!  I will be calling your parents about this!”  Heavy hearted the teen trudged the last few yards to class.

Pushing through the door that now seemed to weigh a tonne, she again found herself under scrutiny.  This time the nineteen pairs of eyes zeroed in on her.  Any thought that she might be able to sneak in was dashed.  The clearing of the teacher’s throat made heads snap back to their perusal of text books.  Finding her seat, Harmony set her back down and fished inside for her books.  Glancing up she saw Mr Sheffield walking towards her, his footsteps reverberating like gunshots in the quiet room.

How did being ten minutes late turn into such a big deal?  Mentally she rolled her eyes.  She was the first to admit that she wasn’t exactly the poster child for a good student; cocky, arrogant, stubborn and antagonistic she had often been in trouble in the past.  The irony was that this year, her last, she was actually trying and couldn’t seem to do right for doing wrong!  I guess that happens when you’ve burnt all your bridges; you can’t walk back across them.  A small sigh escaped her at the thought.  Holding back the desire to slam her book onto the desk she braced herself for yet another confrontation.

“Harmony,” Sheffield’s voice burred lowly, he looked around to ensure that the other pupils were firmly engrossed in their work before continuing.  “Late again; you really have to try harder to get to class on time.  You’re missing some key issues.”  His voice wasn’t accusing, it clearly rumbled with worry.

“I’m sorry Sir, really.  I do appreciate being in this class,” she looked around the room and not for the first time was amazed that she was in the advanced class, “and I really like Math, it’s just really hard to get here after fencing on time.  You know what Miss Phelps is like!”  Sheffield and Phelps were two of the few teachers who actually believed that she had a future.

“Just like it’s hard to get here after recess?  After music class?”  Tired of her constant excuses he shook his head ruefully.  This child…looking at her again he amended; this woman really was gifted with numbers.  She showed an almost unnatural love for the subject.  The trouble was, he just couldn’t make the live wire conform, he doubted that anybody could; her near constant lateness was just one example of her mercurial nature.

“Harmony, you really have to buckle down or I don’t think that the powers that be are going to let you finish out the year.”  It wasn’t said to hurt, he saw real promise in the seventeen year old.  More than anything he hoped his words would give the girl a reality check.

Muttering something vaguely like an acknowledgment she fell into her chair.  As the stocky man walked away, she read the words scrawled across the whiteboard.  Pen in hand she began to take notes with an efficient stroke, before opening her textbook and becoming absorbed in the numbers in front of her.

######

Hurhurhurggg…hurhurhurggg…hurhurhurggg…Damn it!  A fist connected with the dashboard as the car refused to turn over for the third time.  Sitting on the side of the freeway, cars rushing by at almost blinding speed, the dejected motorist knew that leaving the car on the side of the road was asking for trouble.  Carefully stepping out of the compact, tall frame almost unfolding from the interior, a shoulder was pressed to the door pillar.  Feet braced on the asphalt a mighty heave got the car moving and soon there was enough traction to quite rapidly get it off the main road and onto the off ramp.

Pushing steadily the vehicle was soon in a more secluded area and with a final shunt it was brought to rest against the curb.  Straightening up, rubbing a slightly reddened shoulder, a hand reached into the door well and lifted up the cell phone that rested there.  Knowing that calling Triple A would simply take longer than she had, a more familiar number was dialled.

Slamming the door and slumping against it the young woman waited impatiently for the phone to connect.  Growing more and more convinced that he wasn’t home as the dial tone droned on and on, she locked the door and started to walk in the direction of her appointment.  Just as she thought she should hang up a voice came on the line, sounding rather strained.

“Yo, what’s up Red?” 

“Car’s died, I need you to come and tow it.  I can’t wait because I have to meet Doctor Rondell.”  Scuffling could be heard on the other end of the phone.  “What the hell’s going on over there?”

“Nothin’ to worry bout cuz, just some wifely drama.  I’ll be over to pick up your micro-mobile.  Why the hell you don’t just buy a real car I don’t know!”  His thick drawl was now filled with teasing.

“Money, Niall, money.”  Rattling off the cars location she pushed the phone off and, shoving it into her pocket she began to lope down the street.

Rapidly eating up ground she purposely avoided looking at the other pedestrians on the street.  Bundled up as she was, she knew that many curious stares would be thrown her way but that was unavoidable, she would attract far more attention without it.  Moving quickly she soon found herself in one of the less appealing areas of the city.  The place looked ragged and worn, much like the people who inhabited it.  This was a neighbourhood of low incomes and lower expectations.  Winding through the streets with the ease of somebody who has made the journey a thousand times, it was only twenty minutes before she reached her destination.  Thankful that she was a perennial early bird, she stopped and took a breath before pushing the heavy steel and glass door inwards.  She still had two minutes to spare!

Walking through the crowded waiting room she nodded to the harried nurse at the reception and was ushered through to the back room.  More than one pair of angry eyes shot her accusatory glances as they continued to wait for their appointments.  Moving through the sterile corridors of the privately owned free clinic, she made a bee line towards a door in the back, labelled ‘staff only’.  Punching in the access code she was rewarded by the feint click of the lock tumblers falling into place.

This part of the clinic was seen only by the most special of clients and it most certainly wasn’t free.  Here it was much more like a real hospital and as the redhead moved further down the short hall she began to hear the hustle and bustle that comes with such an environment.  From the front the clinic looked like an average size building converted from an old apartment block while the rest of the block was residential.  This was not the case.  The whole complex, which filled the block, was the hospital.  It’s façade keeping it from the view of prying eyes.  The same people went in and out with enough infrequency to give the appearance of residence.  The area was so poor and squalid that nobody wanted to raise any questions, they needed the medical care provided for free far too much for that.

“Hello Blayne!”  The charge nurse’s cheery voice greeted her as she walked up to reception, “He’s waiting for you in exam room 3.”  Returning the greeting the young woman made her way back to the indicated area.

Entering the examination room she saw Dr. Roger Rondell seated in the corner, lazily spinning his chair in circles.  It didn’t exactly give the impression of professionalism one expected in a doctor.  Smirking, she cleared her throat, causing him to stop suddenly and tumble off his perch.  Catching himself before he could hit the floor he casually ran fingers through his hair as he walked up to his favourite patient.

“Hello Blayne; I think we can dispense with all this, don’t you?”  He waved towards he the scarf wrapped around the lower half of her face and the hood pulled low over her eyes.

Wandering over to the examination table, the young woman unzipped and removed the hooded sweatshirt she wore, revealing muscular arms under a white vest.  The scarf was pulled away to finally reveal her smiling face to her old friend.  He watched, nonplussed as the short, ruddy fur that covered her arms seemed to disappeared back into her skin and her features became more contoured and defined.  The last part of her to realign itself was her eyes, whites slowly reappearing around the shrinking bands of green irises.  Pupils shortened and fattened to once again be round.  The entire transformation took less than two seconds.

“Sorry about scaring you Roger, you looked so cute going around and around and…”  Her mirth was cut off by the middle aged man raising a cautioning finger.

“Respect your elders, Kid!”  Reaching out he took a pair of latex gloves from a box mounted to the wall.  “Now take off your pants!”

“You know, you’re the only man to ever say that to me who got any results!”  The pair laughed as she shimmied out of her jeans, leaving her in just a pair of boy-cut briefs and vest.

“Yes, there are a lot of broken hearts out there!”   Pulling the swivel stool over, he sat down in front of her before extending his hand and feeling around the knee and thigh of her left leg.  “How’s the movement in your joints since the operation?”

“Better than it was, I have a lot more movement in my knee but my hip is still seizing up really easily.  I still don’t have a lot of feeling in my upper leg, still numb and kind of tingly.”  As she spoke he manipulated the joints in question, receiving little hisses of pain as he pushed too far.

“I think that this may be as good as it gets I’m afraid, Blayne.  If we do any more procedures on you we could actually begin to make it worse.”  Standing he moved closer to her left and reached out for her arm.  “Now I need you to extend your arm as much as you can.”

Blayne stretched the arm out until it was nearly level with her shoulder and felt the familiar pull in her tendons.  Wincing slightly she flexed her elbow and rotated her shoulder as she was instructed to.  The doctor moved aside the edge of her vest and looked the long scar that ran from the tip of her shoulder down to her clavicle, and was mirrored on the back.  The range of motion she had in the limb was astounding considering the severity of the wound. 

“This is looking really good, you have complete range of motion and it would appear only limited pain.”

“Yeah and it’s only taken five years to get here!”  Her chuckle was a little forced but he didn’t seem to notice.

“Well that’s why you have to be happy that you’re one of us.  Imagine if you were a norm or an elder, this injury would have been really crippling.”  Handing her back her pants he pulled off his gloves and screwed them into a ball before tossing them into the trash.  As she shrugged into the clothing he continued, “At least you can take partial form and run around with the best of them.  I know it’s not ideal,” he was now looking at her scarf, “but it’s a small price to pay.  After all, what would you do without the Pack?”  

“Yeah, what would I do without you guys?”  Affectionately she patted him on the cheek as she limped by, scarf and sweatshirt thrown over her arm.  “I’ll say hi to Gretchen for you!”

“Tell the old girl I’ll see her at lunch!”  Waving he watched her hobble her way to the elevator which would take her to the psych ward and her regular therapy session.

######

Sitting on her bed the girl looked down at the plush toy sitting in her lap.  Pulling at tufts of its hair, mind wandering, she found herself pondering the argument with her parents as she came home from school.  It was nothing new.  They had been having the same conversation for nearly five years.

Dejectedly she flung herself back on the bed until she was lying, staring at the ceiling with the toy clutched to her chest.  It was a vice that she would never admit to any of her friends; it just wasn’t cool to sleep with a stuffed animal every night and seek comfort in its red and black striped fur.  Her friends would never understand that; her status as a badass was one that she had worked hard at and wasn’t about to lose.  Alone in her room she could allow herself to be weak.

Since twelve her relationship with her parents had been strained.  True, she had gone back to much the same girl she had been after months of therapy but things had never been the same between them.  Harmony supposed it was more about her than her parents; they were much the same as they had ever been.  Sure, they were a lot more protective of her and monitored her location carefully but they treated her with love.  At times she had felt almost as trapped by them as she had in that cell.

Following the kidnapping she had never gone back to the very trusting and happy-go-lucky child she had been.  She was still personable yet more detached.  A streak of wickedness had also developed in her, making her cruel to other children and leading, in part, to her reputation at school.  It was also what had gained her the group of friends that she now spent the majority of time with.  They were the mean girls, the bullies.  Her intelligence was tempered by her desire to keep face amongst those friends, and being a nerd just wouldn’t cut it.

Blowing a breath out, ruffling her bangs, she lifted her treasure up to her face and looked at it dolefully.  It was another thing that she had fought with her parents over.  They had badgered her about the gifts origins for weeks after her birthday and finally, frustrated, she had screamed at them, telling them where it came from and why she loved it so much.  It had been quite cathartic and had led to her rapid recovery, though it had not reassured her parents. Whenever she mentioned the name of the girl, who she now realised had saved her virtue as much as her life, her parents would look at each other conspiratorially and then change the subject.

“I wish they’d let me talk about you!”  Voice plaintive she sighed again.  Today was a bad day.

Mr McKean had made good on his promise and had called her parents who, embarrassingly enough, had appeared at the school gate to pick her up that evening.   This had led to a chorus of sniggers and taunts from her clique as they all walked out together.  Tomorrow she was going to have to do some serious damage control.  She thought, for about the thousandth time, about why she bothered with the group.  There wasn’t one of them she really trusted.  It was just too hard to build something new, especially with graduation looming large on the horizon.  Her parents had waited till they arrived home before beginning their tirade.  It was the same speech she had heard before and like most teenagers she had blocked it out after the first words.  Now she was up here, a stack of homework to do and grounded for a month.

“I wish you’d write to me more.”  The tiger just stared back at her with empty glass eyes.  She had taken to talking to it like it was the older girl almost as soon as she had received it and that first letter so many years ago.  Every birthday and at Christmas she would receive another letter but she had no way to write back.  “I have so much to tell you.” 

Downstairs her parents sat side by side, thinking about their rebellious daughter.  They had never expected her teenage years to be a piece of cake but nothing had prepared them for the constant barrage of misdemeanours and school visits that had made up her life.  Long ago they had realised that when they began to chastise her she tuned them out and that the sanctions they set had little meaning.  Thankfully all her poor behaviour was mild, giving the school authorities nothing to use to expel her.  It was just a constant grind.

“The day she finishes school I think I will be happier than she is!”  George looked at his wife who smiled in agreement.

“I know George.  I’m just hoping that she will graduate, from the look of her last report card I’m not expecting much.”  It irked Corrine that her daughter, who had so much promise was failing to try.  Part of the older woman was disappointed in her child for letting down the family.

“Do you think we should send her to stay at the mission after graduation? She hasn’t applied to any colleges so she could take a year off and stay their.”  Rubbing at his bearded jaw, he thought over the possibility. “I really do think she needs to be more in touch with your culture, I know we thought that this school would do that but I guess being mixed wasn’t a good idea.”

“She’d certainly learn discipline from the Fathers…Lets just see how she gets on at graduation.”  Corrine was not keen on the idea of sending her daughter off to what amounted to a boarding school, no matter what the outcomes.  It was bad enough to realise that soon she would be leaving home without pushing her out.  Harmony’s mother still hadn’t quite gotten over her child’s kidnapping.

“Have you heard from that detective?”  A subject change seemed like a good idea.

“Still nothing,” after they had realised that their daughter was receiving correspondence from the mysterious Blayne, they had decided to track the youth down.  If she was one of the Pack, then Corrine had to know and tell the elders.  It could even explain Harmony’s changed personality.  Corrine couldn’t help wondering if the whole kidnapping had been a ploy to get the young woman to brainwash their child.  If it had been, it had certainly worked.

PART 2

Absently brushing a hand through the lush grass at her side, green eyes watched the gaggle of teenagers as they sat at the picnic tables several metres away.  Carefully hidden amongst a copse of trees, she was certain that she was unobserved even as she observed her quarry.  She knew it was wrong, knew she should not be here, that if she were to be caught she was unlikely to see the light of day again, but she had to know.  Had to protect the girl, so she watched. 

Blayne shifted to take the pressure off of her damaged leg, sitting too long in a fully human shape was uncomfortable at best.  For the better part of the last five years she had kept tabs on the child that she had given so much to protect in those fateful months of incarceration.  A large part of her could not let the youth go.  Those terrified blue eyes as she jumped out of the window haunted her dreams. 

In the months of her recuperation, immobilised and hooked up to a myriad of machines, all she could think of was her young charges safety, hoping beyond hope that she had found her way home.  Knowing that the child’s birthday loomed she had even arranged, surreptitiously, to send a gift and a letter.  In her heart she knew that the girl was safe.  

Ironically, as Harmony grew older it became easier to track her, to be aware of her movements.  The bravado of youth, the perceived indestructibility, made the girl complacent.  Not as bad as her friends, if somebody else was to stalk her in this way the red head was sure that the youth would notice, but she wasn’t just anybody.  Hunting was in her blood, hiding your scent, tracking the wind, things that came as naturally as breathing.  However, Blayne was no fool, Harmony was reaching an age where she would soon go to the Elders; becoming a fully fledged member of the Family.  There would be no watching her after that.

Pulling herself out of her malaise, she redirected her attention to the six girls.  One dark head stood out amidst the sea of blond, clearly their ringleader.  There was a swagger to her movements, a subservience of the others.  It was clearly a crowd of popular girls, cheerleaders in fact, yet there was something almost forced in the lanky brunette’s interaction.  It was as though she was playing a role, rather than simply being herself.  Over the years, Blayne had seen less and less of the girl she had come to know in the cell and more of this personality.  She wasn’t sure she liked it but there was little she could do but watch.  Sometimes she wondered what the girl made of her sporadic letters, her only connection to her ward.

Engrossed in her musings, she was none-the-less prepared when a figure folded itself into the space beside her.  Without turning her head or even acknowledging her visitors arrival, she simply waited for the inevitable lecture that was to come.

“You know, in some circles this would be considered as creepy,” the burring voice was as familiar to her as her own.

“Good job you’re not from those circles, isn’t it?”  Her honeyed voice was equally low.

“Blayne, look at me.”  Not an order but neither was it a request.  Unwillingly she shifted her eyes to look at her pack-mate.  “You know what Gretchen said, you need to leave this behind you.  Move on.”

“It’s not that easy, Malcolm.  I need to protect her!”  Even to her ears it sounded ridiculous.

“You’re going to have to stop soon, you know that; right?”  Brown eyes held nothing except concern.

“You reading my mind now, cousin?”  Chagrined, her head bowed leaving her to peer up through a curtain of red hair. 

“I don’t need to.”  A tan hand reached up, bringing her face back to him.  “She’s the right age now to be sent away, you must be feeling a real loss.  This has eaten up your life for a long time.  I think it’ll be good for you, help you to find something new to focus your attentions on.”

Nodding half heartedly, wanting so much to believe his words she knew that her self appointed ward would never be far from her thoughts, no matter how far away she was.  Allowing the willowy man to help her to her feet, the pair headed out of the park.  Casting a lingering look over her shoulder, the red head couldn’t help but think that this would be the last time she would see the younger girl.

######

She knew.  She always knew.  At first it had been frightening, the little girl had worried that her hostage takers were back for more.  She should have told her parents, but something stopped her.  When she had received Blayne’s second letter, a tremendous relief had washed over her.  The eyes that she felt watching were those of her saviour.  Even aware as she was of her observer she had never been able to catch so much as a glimpse of red hair.  At times she thought that it may be wishful thinking, that Blayne may be out there watching over her, until she would catch the familiar scent of the older woman in the air.

Today was no different; as she let the inane chatter of her friends wash over her she felt the hairs at the back of her neck prickle to life.  It was a familiar feeling and one that she had grown to relish, it was the reason that this park had become one of her favourite hang outs.  Automatically blue eyes scanned the busy park, desperate for that first glimpse of her guardian angel in five years.  Totally focused on her quest, she failed to respond to a question until a manicured hand slapped her on the shoulder.

“Huh?”  Blinking owlishly she turned her attention to her best friend.

“Where were you just then, you seemed a million miles away.”  Well used to her friend’s peculiar behaviour, and unwillingness to discuss it, the blond restated her question.  “I said; are you excited to be going for your training?” 

How to answer?  Harmony was ambivalent at best about the next stage in her life.  If she were human, that next stop would be a choice between work and college.  Being a member of the Family left you with few options that were not preordained for you.  At the end of high school every one of her peers would be heading for an induction programme into the ranks of the Family, finally allowed to harness and use their particular powers.

For any youth of their kind it was a right of passage, something to be gleefully looked forward to.  Like with most groups, the Family believed in a clearly defined journey into adulthood and the year that every teen spent at one of their facilities was that journey.  Harmony wasn’t certain that she would survive the experience. 

Looking around her friends, the first thing that hit her was how normal they all looked, undistinguishable from human.  In fact she stuck out like a sore thumb, her dark hair setting her apart as different; generally her mother’s people were fair and pale, while she was dark and perennially bronze.  Her human heritage, a gift from her father, was the dominant part of her makeup.  As yet there had been no manifestation of power from her, short of the acute sense of smell.  She couldn’t help but anticipate failure.

“I don’t know if excited is the right word for it, Chloe; scared probably fits the bill.”  It was a rare thing to hear the energetic brunette admit such a destructive emotion as fear.

“Why would you be scared?”  The curly haired blond looked quizzically at her friend.  “You’re so good at everything and your mother… Well, you’re moms Corrine Blyth!”  And that was part of the problem, how could she ever live up to that?

The children of the Family were a sheltered bunch, seldom marrying outside their species and even when they did rarely producing offspring to show for it.  Harmony was a true outcaste, neither a part of one group nor the other.  A part of her hoped that she would never manifest any powers and just fade into obscurity but life was unlikely to be that kind. 

“Well, Chloe, you know how much trouble I get into now…” she didn’t finish the thought, allowing the others to fill in the blanks and end up laughing.  She was good at that, hedging.  Redirecting the conversation smoothly onto boys Harmony felt an almost physical loss as she realised that the watching eyes were gone.  A shiver raced down her spine, followed by an unfamiliar sense of foreboding.

######

Moonlight streamed through the window of her apartment, bathing the room in the comforting silver glow.  Blayne sat by the sill in a rocking chair, contemplating the sky.  This was her favourite time, when the stars could be captured and you could contemplate all manner of possibilities.  It wasn’t that she disliked the daytime; she enjoyed the bright colours and warmth created by the sun, there was just something so compelling about the monochrome of the moon.

She snorted; it was all genetics she knew.  The Pack were night creatures at heart, their forefathers at the mercy of the waxing moon.  Generations had passed since those days, changing and evolving until they had complete control over every part of their change.  Blayne looked down at her bare arm, taking in the downy layer of ruddy fur that covered it, disappearing into the sleeve of her shirt.  Gratitude filled her that she had this option open to her, the freedom of movement created by this partial change to animal form eliminated all of her human frailties.

Sighing, she ran a finger through the soft fur.  Often the young woman wondered if the ability to change form, to dance and run in the night was worth all of the things she lost because of it.  When walking abroad she either had to bundle up to hide her appearance, or limp painfully around, both options making her an object of perverse fascination.

Melancholy thoughts began to swirl around her head as she tore her eyes away from the moon and instead put her head in her hands.  Pressing her fingers to her temple she desperately tried not to think about the girl.  She was fairly certain that the youth was aware, at least on some level, that she kept an eye on her.  She was even sure that she liked to receive the occasional letters that she sent.  What would the lanky brunette think if she knew the truth about her?  Quite why she cared, she wasn’t ready to contemplate, yet she could not help herself.

She’s gone now; you have to forget about her!  It was a conversation that she often had with herself, about what she should do with regards her obsession, and she was well aware that it was an obsession.  She never came to any sort of conclusion.  It doesn’t matter what she would think about you being an animal, she’ll never see you again.  She’s the enemy, she’s just a kid and she’s high born…  So why did she feel like somebody had torn her heart out?  The bus heading towards the Elders facility had left that afternoon, packed to the gills with seventeen and eighteen year olds, ready to become adults.  She had not seen it, her family had been sure of that.  It was too dangerous to be around that many grown Family members, they’d definitely have noticed her presence.

Green eyes turned back to the moon, one of the few things the Family and the Pack shared was their love of the night and how it had birthed them all.  Raising a soft palm to the cool glass she sent a thought towards the teen.

Good luck Harmony!

######

Three hours on a buss with no toilets and a myriad of travel sickness issues, had not made for the most pleasant of journeys.  Harmony had hunkered down in the corner of the back row and put the buds of her headphones in her ears, effectively blocking out everything around her.  With her mp4 fully loaded with movies and music she had kept herself pretty much entertained.  Ironically for a girl who found herself so popular with her peers, boasting an impressively sized group of friends, not a single one was headed to the same facility as her.  She was all alone.  Sighing loudly, attracting the attention of those around her, she flicked through the images on her player before selecting a nature show to watch.

Settling down, ready to find out about the habits of some of the great apes, she felt the vehicle jerk to a stop, pulling her attention away.  Night had fallen on their journey and as they began to pile off the bus, Harmony stuffing her gadget back into her pocket, she found her eyes inexorably drawn to the moon.  Turning her attention back to the building that loomed before them, yellow lights burning eerily from every window, she watched as a dozen figures emerged.

Studying them as they approached, she soon realised that these were the Elders.  The young woman had seen them before during fleeting visits to her mother, though she had never been allowed to get particularly close.  Thes men and women were different from the regular Family members.  They were born different.  They more closely resembled the ancients.  They were almost a cliché.  Willowy and tall with sallow skin and large, luminous eyes, their teeth elegantly pointed they were what the humans used to fear yet now accepted more than readily.  Really it was frightening how easily the humans would accept you if you looked just like them, as most of the family now did.

Feeling even more self conscious than ever about her appearance, the sole brunette in the group wanted nothing more than to disappear.  Sheer pig headedness kept her standing tall.  She would not be ashamed of her father or the love that she knew her parents shared.  She was the product of their love and she knew she should be proud of it.  Sometimes it was just too difficult to hold onto that pride. 

The Elders separated and began to round up small groups off beaming teenagers.  Eleven groups formed behind twelve elders, leaving one at seemingly loose ends.  The groups were even in size, and she was not in any of them.  A roiling fear once again crept into her belly until the last elder fixed his watery, almost white eyes on her and beckoned her over.  With little choice but to obey, she hefted her backpack and walked towards him, all her usual swagger missing from her step. 

“You’re Harmony Blyth.” It wasn’t a question but from his hawk-like stare she could tell that he expected a response. 

“Yes sir, I am.”  Were her nerves as obvious as they sounded to her own ears?

“You will be working with me.”  His voice was reedy, though not unpleasant.  It was almost hypnotic, in fact and she felt herself drawn under his spell.

“Just me sir?”  Swallowing convulsively as his eyes seemed to sharpen, she instantly regretted her words.

“Yes girl, just you.  You will call me Elder Mathias, not sir.”  A bushy white brow raised and she knew that a he wanted her to repeat it.

“Yes Elder Mathias, I understand.”  Eyes looking anywhere but at the towering figure before her she noticed the larger groups filing into the building.  It was not until they were all gone that Elder Mathias started to move, gliding more than walking, towards the door.  She knew without asking that she was simply expected to follow, not just into the building but the whole time that she was here.

######

Laying on the unfamiliar, though not uncomfortable, bed Harmony stared up at the ceiling.  It was nothing like the ceiling of her bedroom, which was simple white; here it was vaulted and crossed by beams revealing the ancient nature of the student’s quarters.  It lent a further edge to the gothic quality of the facility and its residents. 

The rest of the evening had been uneventful.  Her Elder had led her to the quarters that she alone would share and instructed her to put away her things before the gong sounded for dinner.  Inside the room she had found her suitcase, shipped from home several days before.  Setting her smaller bag on the bed, she had preceded to empty its contents first.  All too soon it was time to eat and she had not even got to her case yet.

The food had been simple but tasty and she had found herself eating with the other teens.  It made her feel less like a freak and an outsider; although they seemed uncomfortable they did talk to her.  The Elders had laid out the itinerary for the first week of their stay here.  It was going to be hard to get used to.

Arriving back at her room she had opened the large case and taken out her belongings.  With the case almost empty she stopped dead in her tracks.  It was gone!  Unable to believe that her parents would do such a thing she frantically tossed the few remaining items onto the bed; pawing through them in the vain hope that it was there.  It wasn’t.  Her parents had taken the one thing that had given her comfort in the last five years.  With tears of frustration and betrayal running down her cheeks she had tossed everything onto the floor.

Laying on the unfamiliar, though not uncomfortable, bed, Harmony let herself cry until, in exhaustion, she succumbed to sleep.

Chapter 3

Letting lose a gusty sigh, Malcolm hefted the axe back into his fist and prepared to go at the thick trunk of the tree one more time.  He felt like he had been swinging the axe for hours, making negligible progress as he did so.  True, the tree was gargantuan in proportions but it was also dieing and needed to be taken down before causing somebody serious injury.  He also knew that, with one simple thought, he could shift form and have the tree sliced in seconds. Why he hadn’t shifted, he couldn’t quite say, but like all his kind he sometimes revelled in his human form.  There was just something about the pull on muscles after hard labour, the ragged breath as it burst from your lungs, the sweat dripping into your eyes that made you feel…alive.  Of course, you could feel all that as an animal, it just took a hell of a lot more effort.

Slinging the blade towards the trunk, he felt as the steel embedded into the trunk, sending a wave up his arm.  Wriggling the head back and forth he freed it from the wood and went again.  Adjusting his grasp on the wooden handle he flipped the blade and arced into the lesion in the trunk from the other side, ready to start at the larger cut that would cause the tree to fall.  The hearty swoosh and thwack as the axe cut through the air and sliced into the tree was rhythmic and lulled him into a near trance-like state.

Blayne stepped out of the forest, stopping short as she reached the edge of the clearing.  She found her eyes drawn to the figure of her cousin as he, almost robotically, sliced into the tree with firm, accurate swings.  The sound of his work had echoed through the trees as she hunted, almost seeming to chase her as she chased her prey.  Even had she not been able to hear him she would have known that he had been at this for a while from the large, and rapidly spreading, stain of sweat on his blue jersey, moulding it to his deceptively slight frame.  It also plastered his hair to his forehead, causing him to toss his head every few minutes, puffing air upwards in an effort to blow his bangs out of the way.  Realising that she had been watching his efforts for longer than she had anticipated, long legs began to lope towards him.

Malcolm had sensed her approach even through his focused haze, and slowed his movements as he felt her move closer.  As his cousin came to a stop beside him he deposited the axe beside the brutalised tree and turned to her, wiping his forearm across his face in an attempt to use the nubby fabric to absorb the moisture there.  Fast as lightning his eyes took her in, checking to ensure that all was well with his temporary charge.  Her form was sleek and she was in the half state between beast and man, more than the partial shift that she usually wore.  Her feline face looked at him with amusement twinkling in her verdant eyes as she realised what he was doing, holding up the brace of rabbits that she had slain.

“I got us dinner!”  The voice that rumbled out of the thickly muscled chest rose and fell with the sibilance that only a mouth full of overdeveloped, sharp teeth could produce.

“Well I guess that’s my cue to wash up and help you cook,” as he spoke he peeled the damp shirt over his head, leaving him in only his jeans.  He used the fabric in his hands to wipe down his chest and stomach.

“I’ll gut and skin these while you get cleaned up but unless you want to eat them raw I would suggest you be the one to cook them.”  Although members of the Pack could, technically, survive on a diet of raw flesh, they preferred not to (much as their Family counterparts no long craved the warm crimson of life’s blood). 

“I guess you’re right,” he chuckled as they walked towards the cabin that sat several yards away from the tree he had been attacking, he had almost forgotten what an abysmal cook she was.

Pushing open the door he held it for her as she walked in past him.  Her shoulders brushed his chest as she eased through the aperture, he form having more than doubled her mass.  Letting the door fall closed, the interior became darker.  The warm light coming through the windows gave a comfortingly soft glow to the homey interior.  As the younger woman ambled into the kitchen he made his way to the substantial staircase that jutted up towards the left of the door.  Bounding up the steps he could hear the sounds of draws opening and the clanking of what could only be the cutlery draw as Blayne rifled through it looking for a knife.  Reaching the top of the stairs he paused at the open door to his room kicking off his shoes and watching the fly under the bed; he threw his balled up shirt onto the bed before whisking off his pants and socks.  Left only in his briefs he padded into the bathroom.

Downstairs the redhead heard the shower turn on and the off key warbling of her kinsman.  Shaking her head as she began to skin the first of the four rabbits she contemplated the three weeks that she had been staying with her best friend, for that was what the young man was as much as he was a relation.  It had been more enjoyable than she had dared to hope for, having not been out in the wilds since her training as a child; she had found that something in the trees seemed to call to her.  Her lonely spirit seemed soothed by the whisper of wind through the trees, the call of birds in those same trees and the skittering of all manner of prey on the forest floor.

Before she knew it four perfectly dressed rabbits sat on the bench before her just waiting to be cooked.  Cocking her head to the side she listened carefully and realised that the shower and, thankfully, the singing has ceased.  Walking to the sink she reached for one of the taps, her long fingered hand now devoid of any fur took a firm grip of the faucet.  Pumping liquid soap into her hands she vigorously washed away the blood and gore that coated her skin.

Pounding footsteps sent a drumbeat through the wooden structure as Malcolm flew down, sliding to a halt in the kitchen as Blayne turned around, towel in her hands as she dried them.  Smiling at one another as they had as children, with the conspiratorial air that only two people who truly know each other can, they began an almost synchronised dance around the kitchen.  She laid the table with practiced ease while he oiled the pan and lit the stove.  Although not much of a cook the redhead could chop with the best of them and began to julienne the vegetables ready to be sautéed while her partner sealed the meat before popping it into the over to finish.

It wasn’t long before the meal was ready the pair sat at the stable tucking into the gamey rabbits and vegetables all cooked to perfection.  For a while no words were spoken as both savoured the companionable silence and good food.  Malcolm reached forward for his glass of water, watching as his friend used her napkin to wipe away some stray meat juice that had escaped onto her chin.

“Dad called earlier, while you were out hunting, he has a proposition for you,” he popped a meaty chunk into his mouth and waited for her to speak.

A crimson brow raised in inquiry as she took a long swallow of her drink.  Leaning back in her chair she scrutinised her chewing companion, “Oh, does he now?  I assume that you are meant to tell me all about it for him so why don’t you go ahead and fire away!”  Her words were punctuated with the raise of a delicate hand.

“Well, dad thought that now you are at a bit of a lose end, with the girl gone and all, that…”

“Excuse me?” Her voice held an edge of warning.

“Blayne, he didn’t mean anything bad by it. You know very well that we were all worried about your infatuation with the kid, and by how you would cope when she was gone.  You’re doing great and that’s what gave dad the idea,” he paused to take another bite from his fork.  “I told him how much you were enjoying it out here and he thought you actually might like to stay out here, away from the city and any memories that might get you down.  So, anyway, he thought that you might like to mentor the cubs…teach them how to be hunters, how to shift?”  Though he would never tell her, he was hoping that she would take his father up on his idea.

“Good old Uncle Seamus,” mulling over the idea she allowed the table to fall into silence as they both continued to finish their food.  Finally she once again met his eyes, “What do you think?  Could I look out for dozens of kids?”  The inquiry was an honest one.

“Why not?  Isn’t watching out for a kid what you’ve been doing for the last six years?  I’d say that you are more than capable of the job?” Maybe that was what helped make her decision, the idea that she could do for other pre-teens what she had done for Harmony so many years before.  Maybe it would help her to keep the trusting blue eyes in her memory.

“Ring your dad back…tell him I’ll give it a try.”

######

“I am trying!”  The words came out almost as a sob.

“Stop snivelling, you are no longer a child!  I have never seen somebody make so little progress in six months!”  The Elder looked down at the bowed head of the now silent youth before him.

His heart held a particular fascination with this youngster.  His harsh words and even harsher tone belied the fact that he felt a fondness for this last daughter of the Blyth line.  It had long been written that the Blyth’s would end with a lone daughter who would hold more power than any before her.  One who would usher in a new path for the Family.  Yet, the prophecy was tinged with a flavour of warning, that the Family would be changed forever…the word hybrid lay thickly between the lines of the ancient scrolls.  It was the fear of what may come that stopped so many of his kind, those who chose a life with a human mate, from having children.  Usually those that did breed would have children who seemed either wholly of their people of wholly human.  Not so with this youth before him.  That was why she was his alone to shape.

Perhaps it was her mother’s blood that ran so thickly through her veins that made the girl almost seem to hum with power to his keen senses.  Maybe it was her father’s total human ancestry that meant that both sides of the child were powerfully ‘other’ and so refused to be held down.  Maybe, a distant part of him teased, being in such close proximity to one of them when she was a child triggered a primal response; a response that made both halves of her fuse together in fear at the ancient enemy; a prey’s fear of the hunter.  A fear so primal, that the child had not felt it on a conscious level.

Unfortunately, as much as the Elder could all but taste the girl’s power, he had yet to be able to get her to tap into the rich vein that ran through her.  It was leading to a lot of mutual frustration and a great deal of resentment on both sides.  Raising a spidery hand he rubbed at the bridge of his nose, trying to alleviate the frustration fuelled headache that he could feel building behind his eyes.  Even elders, after centuries of living, were not beyond the reaches of a tension headache.

Noticing, almost absently, that the girl was still standing dejectedly in front of him he lowered his hand and waved the youth over to a chair.  The room seemed unnaturally quiet.  This young woman had been so full of attitude and bravado when she arrived, unwilling to show any weakness in front of the other young men and women.  Mathias had been warned about the girl’s moods by her mother, he had been more than prepared to deal with her.  What he hadn’t anticipated was how quickly that shell would crumble away and the young woman would isolate herself from her peers dedicate herself slavishly to her, seemingly futile, studies.  She had something to prove, just not to him.

“Maybe I need to try a different tactic…” absently he mumbled to himself and saw blue eyes finally swivel in his direction.  More loudly he addressed, “Harmony, I think we need to have a little talk.”  He glided over to take a seat beside her.

Harmony tilted her head, listening attentively to the ancient creature that she had grown to respect and fear in equal measure.  He was never really cruel to her but he was certainly not warm.  Something in his voice sounded different today, mellower.  It was curious, considering that she had once again failed to deliver the results they were searching for.

“I’m sorry I failed again, Elder Mathias.” The whiney tone had left her voice, replaced with sad resignation.

“Don’t be silly girl. Look I apologise for being so short with you.” Impulsively he reached over and tilted her chin up till she met his eyes.  “I think that, perhaps, this is what our problem is.  I push you and you try very hard, then you fail get frustrated and then we start resenting each other which doesn’t help the situation.  Therefore when we next have a lesson you are nervous and full of doubt and know you won’t perform and it starts all over again.”  He could see that she was curious about where this was going.  “How about we have a fresh start?  Let’s try something different, we can’t do worse than we are, can we?”

“Elder Mathias, it isn’t you, it’s my fault!”  He could see that she honestly believed it.

“No Harmony, it isn’t.  I am meant to be your teacher, a mentor who can show you how to harness your abilities.  I think all I have managed to do for you is intimidate and make you doubt yourself.”  Coral lips opened to refute his words, showing how much her personality had been eroded by her time with him.  It really wasn’t what he had hoped for.  “Shall we try a new start?” 

“Ok.”  Perhaps she would stop being such a disappointment if should could start again.

“How about when we are working together you just call me Mathias?  Leave the Elder for outside?”  Usually he would have told an apprentice this from the start but had thought he would need a harder line with this young rebel, alas he had been wrong. Or perhaps the reports from her school had done this woman a disservice.  

“Thank you Mathias,” the first smile he had seen come from her in six months wreathed her beautiful face. 

######

What was I thinking?  The redhead thought as she looked at the legion of small children staring expectantly up at her.  It was the first time that she had been given a group to train on her own and she was terrified of these tiny creatures whose lives would be in her hands.  She had been out on many occasions with experienced mentors learning the ropes but eventually every chick has to fly solo (god how she hated all the clichés she had heard in the last three months!). 

Gazing down the line of eight children she tried to take note of each one, hoping to memorise them in case one got lost.  The group ranged in age from eight to eleven, the Pack matured at differing rates depending on a lot of factors.  Felines tended to mature the fastest so the youngest of her group would be like her, while the Ursidae took the longest to reach maturity at eleven.  For the Pack maturity meant the onset of the change.  In ages gone by they were colloquially known as werewolves…a misnomer of huge proportions considering the three vastly different varieties they represented.

“Alright kids, lets go over there and do a little roll call and you can each tell me and the rest of the group a little something about yourselves.”  She ushered the group over to a seating area outside of the complex and watched each one settle themselves before gingerly lowering herself onto a bench, her leg protesting at the hardness of the seat.

“Right, I suppose I should start by introducing myself.”  It was very disconcerting that eight pairs of eyes had stayed fixed on her ever since she limped out in front of them.  “Hello everyone, I’m Blayne.  I will be your mentor so you can ask me any questions you have and I will show you everything you need to know about being a fully fledged member of the Pack!” Inside she winced at the bird imagery, so out of place among people who would hunt the feathered creatures.

“What are you?”  A small voice piped out.  Green eyes trailed over to the speaker, a tubby little girl with mousey hair and a gap between her teeth.

“Who are you sweetheart?”

“I’m Donna and I’m ten.”  She seemed very pleased with her age.

“Well Donna who is ten, I am glad you asked that question but I would prefer if you raised your hand rather than shouting out.  Can we all do that in the future, otherwise it will be very noisy and chaotic, ok?”  All the heads nodded as one and Donna blushed in childish shame.  “Now, to answer you, Donna, I am a feline.  In fact, I am a Tiger.”

“Ooh.  Oooh!”  A little boy had raised his hand with the speed of a torpedo and was desperately trying not to call out while he waved it back and forth.

“Yes, young man?”  Her smile made her already lovely face even more beautiful and the children around all fell in love with their mentor in that moment.  The boys instantly decided that they would grow up and marry her while the three girls decided they wouldn’t mind looking like that when they grew up.

“Carrick…my name’s Carrick!  Aren’t Tigers really rare?  Like the regular ones?”  His very tawny blond hair and bronze skin suggested that he was probably a big cat too.

“Well, not quite Carrick but we certainly aren’t that common place.  So if we go around the group I want your name, how old you are and what genus you belong to.  Let’s start with Carrick and Donna and then go around the circle.”  She pointed at the blond, gangly boy who had just spoken.

“Like I said, name’s Carrick and I’m eight.  I turn into a Lion…kind of.”  His broad smile was infectious.

“Donna, ten and I …um…I turn into a Dog.”  Poor kid, Dogs weren’t the most respected breed; even the Pack had a pecking order.

“How’s it going?  Name’s Juwon, I turn into a Wolf…Oh, I’ll be ten on Tuesday!”  The young Jamaican boy beamed at the others in his group, hoping his charm would garner him a few extra gifts.  Blayne liked him already.

“Next!”  She pointed at the Asian boy sitting to her right, pushing his glasses up his nose from where they had slid down.

“I’m Prathap, my parents originally come from Bangladesh but I haven’t been there yet.  I turn into a Puma, so there’s another cat in the group.”  He giggled while he spoke, almost bursting at the seams with life.  “Ohh, I nearly forgot, I am nine!”

Next in the group was a young girl named Grace who seemed almost painfully shy.  Blayne had to coax every word out of the eleven year old.  The child extremely slight frame and elfin features made the fact that she was a Brown Bear almost laughable.  Beside her sat another of the group’s five boys, this one thickly built and stocky with a shock or black hair.  He seemed to gravitate towards the shy Grace and it came as no surprise when he revealed that he, too, was a bear, Grizzly in his case.  Like most of the Pack he was also of Celtic lineage, baring the name Shaun.  The bears were a peculiar group in that they could sense each other more easily and always gravitated that way.

“Hi, I’m Dolly and I am a Coyote and nine years old!”  Dolly was a vivacious little girl with pigtails and a gingham dress, Blayne couldn’t help but think about Little House on the Prairie while she looked at her.  With her introduction that just left one little boy to go, thank goodness.

“So you must be Cormac?” Blayne wanted to get the introductions over so that she could take the tiny group into the wilderness and start their change training.

“Yeah, that’s me,” replied the chubby, freckled boy whose hair sported a little too much gel.  “My parents and me are Sun Bears so we’re quite rare too.”  And he was, Sun Bears were usually a recessive breed, like blue eyes.

Introductions finally over, Blayne began to explain to the group what they would be doing for the next few weeks.  Every child on reaching their change came to a branch of the Institute to learn how to function both in Pack and human society.  The children would stay for six months, so in order not to miss any schooling they would go to school regularly after the initial phase of induction which happen in the woods.  For the entire period of their stay they would be under Blayne’s tutelage.  For four weeks they would be living and working in the woods, sleeping in tents and catching some of their own food.

The older woman stood and led her group over to the stock room where each one would have to be equipped with a pack full of gear, a bedroll and a one man tent.  Essentially it was like scouting.  Blayne watched as each child got their gear and loaded up, reaching down to adjust a strap here and there.  Their backpacks weren’t too heavy as food would be brought out to their camp every few days…no need to rough it!

“Alrighty then, lets move out boys and girls!”  Hefting her own pack she winced as the weight was felt through her shoulder and hip.  The expression was not missed by the children.

“Hey, Blayne, what’sa matter?”  Dolly piped up before anybody else could.

“I have an injury, so most of the time I am partially changed but I thought I would meet you as fully human.”  Suddenly the children turned to each other and a rapid fire conversation took place before they were all looking up at her again.

“You should do what you usually do, we want you to be a good instructor and you won’t be if you’re limping.”  It was said innocently by Shaun but she couldn’t help but wince again as the idea that she was useless like this was raised by children.

“Thanks kids. Let’s move out then.  Remember that your clothes will already be at the campsite, so you won’t have to carry so much out their.  I want to get their by lunch and it’s a couple of hours away so lets move out!”  As she turned from the group she allowed the change to flow over her and by the time her foot landed for the first step she was just a little bigger and a lot furrier.

Marching forward she didn’t see the wide eyes shock on the faces of the group scrambling to keep up with her.  It wasn’t that the children had never seen people make the change before; they just hadn’t seen it happen so fluidly or with such speed!  As one they were thrilled that she would be the one to teach them how to change like that!

######

Weeks had passed since Mathias had decided to change tack with his young protégé and things were actually moving forward.  The Blyth heir was not yet at the same level as her peers but she was fast catching up.  It seemed that, in giving the teen more leeway, he had helped open up something inside her and her self confidence had reasserted itself and with it the power had begun to creep out.

Standing several feet away from the brunette, he watched as she sent out a mental probe, searching for something to control.  Being one of the Elders, Mathias and his kin were able to watch the ebb and flow of the power building and being sent out.  It manifested as a blue haze that surrounded her head and then lanced outward, like dozens of tiny solar flares.  The color should be more vivid, the flares more powerful but that would come with time.

Ears twitching, hunting for a snatch of sound that would suggest the girl had been successful, he contemplated the huge physiological gulf that separated the two of them in this clearing.  Elders were, indeed, a throw back to a bygone age when his people were termed vampires and reviled by human kind, with justification.  In the middle ages, when his species were coming into their own, was when human kind first realized that they existed.  Too many hunters feasting off a diseased prey without any thought for their own exposure led to hysteria amongst the already plague ridden population of Europe and the east.  Their emergence at a time of such despair only fueled ideas that the plague had come from God and that these opportunistic creatures were minions of hell.

Vampires, or Family as they now preferred to be called, were an evolutionary divergence from man right at the beginning of human evolution.  They had traveled many of the same genetic paths as Homo sapiens but where man simply developed the physical and intellectual, the Family built up its primal side.  They tapped into blood lust and ESP, evolving far differently than their counterparts.  Lean, tall yet incredibly strong, they lived in the dark and shadows.  Hunting by night ensured that they would be pale and eventually that became the dominant physical trait.  The prominent fangs they used to feed and preternatural strength all lent to their mythology; a mythology which the humans, in their terror, embellished readily.

Mathias chuckled internally, not voicing his mirth or moving for fear of disturbing the attentively concentrating youth.  The very notion that should he step into daylight he would turn to dust was ludicrous!  What other nocturnal creature had to face such ludicrous speculation?  All of the concepts about religions reliquary having some significance in their destruction was also specious.  The only thing that the humans were right about was how hard it was to kill them; they were made of sterner stuff than their prey.

However, with time and mans continuing evolution it had been the Family on the back foot and they had started to emulate their counterparts.  Over many generations his people grew to look almost indistinguishable from man.  Slightly paler and generally blond, they were able to hide their fangs and feast off of other food sources.  With this change, came integration with society at large until, finally, the two species came together.  They had lived harmoniously, and openly, side-by-side for ten generations and it was beneficial for both parties.  It was in that time that the cross breeding had begun to occur.  Harmony was the culmination of evolution, struggle and death all converging into harmony; again he wanted to shake his head at the pun.  She was dark to his light, skin glowing almost gold in the light.  It was as though the sun was making love to every pore of his skin, he envied that.  Her dark hair and blue eyes made her striking and as much as she may feel like an outcaste now, she would be much sought after for marriage, especially once her powers emerged.

Contemplating her healthy glow, he looked down at his own pale flesh.  Elders looked exactly as his people had from the very beginning. The emerged from the womb looking more like larvae than children; pallid, translucent flesh often terrifying their parents until they realized what this portended.  These children grew incredibly fast and were unable to hide their true form.  This is what led each of them to be trainers in these facilities, their powers were strong they were ideal instructors.  They also had incredibly long lifespans, meaning that they truly did become Elders after a time.  Like all of their brethren they fought in times of need but did prefer a more cerebral life.

Brought out of his thoughts by the sound of leaves crunching beneath hooves, he watched as a large buck walked confidently towards the young woman.  It showed none of the usual terror that deer had for people as it regally approached her.  Mathias held his breath as he watched Harmony raise her head and fix her eyes on him with a grin.  She tilted her head towards him and he was astounded as he watched the animal lower its head and bow to him before it moved towards him and stood staring him in the eye.  The moment lasted for only a second before the girl snapped the connection.  He saw it break as the glow that surrounded the beast disappeared.  Instantly fear filled its eyes and the animal reared back and sped, recklessly into the trees and out of sight.

Harmony turned to the sound of clapping and saw the smile that covered Mathias’s face and broke out into a smile of her own.  “I did it!”  Awe was clear in her voice.  “I did it, Mathias!  I controlled another completely!” 

“Yes you did, my child, yes you did!”  Happiness and a sense of satisfaction filled both of him as he walked up to his beaming companion.  He was not prepared to find himself engulfed in a hug as the youth threw herself at him.  At something of a loss he at first stood rigidly in her embrace, before finally bringing up his hands and linking them behind her back.  Almost unaware of his actions he rested his chin on top of her head and squeezed her.  Although their relationship had started tumultuously, he now found he had grown to love the girl as he would his own child and her every achievement was one he shared.  As an Elder he would never have children of his own so had always hoped to feel this close to one of his students.  “Well done,” he whispered.

#######

Well, this is humiliating!  Blayne thought to herself for probably the hundredth time that morning.  Her expedition with her young charges had been going rather well.  For two weeks she had shown them how to hunt, how to use wild calls and how to control their base urges, brought on by the coming of night.  It was now time for them to work on their change, now that they were feeling confident and trusted each other.  So, here she stood before them clad only in a pair of boxers and a sports bra, feeling absolutely ridiculous as the adoring faces looked at her expectantly.  One thing was for sure, she had eight new fans.

“Now kids, we are going to work on your changes today so all of you need to strip down to your underwear so I can see what you are doing,” she wasn’t sure that she liked the gleam in Shaun’s eye at that thought of seeing Grace in her undies; she would have to keep an eye on that.  “I want you all to watch me as I move through each stage of the change and take notice of what happens to my body as I do it.”  Seeing them nod she moved in front of the assembled group, making sure that each of them could see her.

For some of her people the change was always an uncomfortable, often painful, process while for others, like her, it was as fluid as breathing.  There was no way to tell what each of these children would feel, the simple hope was that by showing them the best way to approach the change they would feel the slightest discomfort possible.  Pain, or its lack, had nothing to do with what type of changeling you may be. It was as arbitrary as sensitive teeth or short-sightedness.

Standing tall she felt the familiar sensation, akin to the breakout of gooseflesh, pepper her skin as slowly short, ruddy fur broke over her skin.  The hair cascaded over her like ink spreading through a crystal lake.  As the fur grew longer and courser her very flesh rippled as muscles began to expand and lengthen.  The plains of her face rippled and bones realigned themselves into a muzzle as ears moved upwards on her skull.  Nails receded into hands, sheathing and resheathing themselves as muscles pulsed in fingertips.  Breasts seemed to recess into a chest that became more muscular and barrelled.  Finally feet lengthened, heals moving up until she stood in the familiar, slightly stoop stance of all the Pack.  Her body now showed a total moulding between beast and man, stronger, faster and nearly invincible. 

Mouth open in a feline grin she took in the various looks decorating the small faces looking up at her.  The expressions ranged from horror to fascination and she hoped that they would be able to move through as smoothly.  Having changed as slowly as she could so that the children could see every stage, she changed back in a split second, the children blinking at the shock of fur now replaced by skin.  “Let’s get started shall we?  Try not to push your body to go from this to animal all at once.  Move through the stages as I did, it makes it easier for your body to cope.  Once you are old like me you will be able to do it in the blink of an eye too, but lets not run before we can walk.  If you feel any pain just stop and call me over.  Let us begin.”

At once the small figures began the laborious process of learning to control this duel part of their personality.  Donna and Dolly both seemed to slide easily through the change, pausing only sporadically to catch their breath.  It was always a tiring process for the young ones.  Blayne wasn’t sure that it was anything to do with them both being canines but when Juwon also seemed to have little trouble making the slow change she decided it just might be.  Moving towards the three young bears (and didn’t a joke just pass through her mind every time she thought that), she noticed that Cormac seemed to be panting a little too heavily, and though his torso rippled little else seemed to be happening.

“Cormac, stop.  You need to rest for a moment and then start again.  Don’t push yourself or it will hurt more.”  Resting a hand on his shoulder she waited until she felt him relax before moving on to the others.

All seemed to be going well, Cormac had given it another go and made it to a partial change before he had to stop again.  It was a strange situation that, when the change first hit a child would spontaneous change just once and then they could not do it again without training.  Blayne was never sure what genetic value that could possibly have though it must have held value once, long ago in their evolutionary history. 

“Argh!”  A child’s scream tore through the glade, causing her head to snap in the direction of Carrick, the youngest in the group.  The boy had fallen to the floor and was writing in agony, the bottom half of his body leonine while the rest of him pulses and morphed into and out or grotesque parodies of his animal form.  Running to his side she fell to her knees and cradled him in her arms.  Whispering calming words she massaged his temples until his breath became shallower and he lost consciousness.  Instantly his small body reverted back to its more familiar human form.

Green eyes looked up from the limp figure in her lap to see seven creatures standing around her, each one with eyes fixed on their friend and their teacher.  None of them seemed to realise that they had done as they were asked and every one of them looked terrified.

“Well done you guys!  Look what you did!”  Her voice was full of an enthusiasm she didn’t feel as the boy’s eyes remained tightly closed and his heart beat sluggishly.  “Even you did it, Cormac, good boy.  Now you need to very slowly try to go back.  I know you are all worried about Carrick but this happens sometimes.  He will wake up and try tomorrow.”  They all stood, unmoving, “Now come on, go and change back.  We will work on this again this evening but we have hunting to do!”  Watching as they scattered she hefted the limp body into her arms and made her way to the largest tent in the clearing.  Fumbling through the entrance she placed him on her bed and began to search for the medicine which would waken the little one.

“Don’t you scare me like this,” she whispered in a delicate ear as she smoothed a hand through his sandy hair.

In that gesture she suddenly found herself transported back to a tiny cell, doing the same to hair the shade of night.  Against her wishes a tear formed in her eye as she realised that it was the first time she had thought of the younger woman in all the months that she had been at the Institute.  Wiping it away, she poured medicine into a spoon and raised the boy so that she could open his lips and pour the liquid in.  Even as she doted on one child her thoughts stayed with the other.

“I hope you haven’t learnt to hate me yet, kiddo.” 

TBC in Chapter 4

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