In the last ten minutes I'd gone from miserable to totally screwed.
An hour ago I'd thought a city named Haven would be good luck. Now I wondered who it was supposed to be a haven for--polar bears and penguins? Next time I snuck aboard a train, I would remember to check whether it was headed north or south. The snow-laden streets were the miserable bit; "screwed" began two blocks back when I picked up the scent of something never meant to exist in the human world. Well, a something other than me.
A woman cut a beeline through my path, her attention on a curbing taxi. I stopped, the man behind me didn't. He shouldered by with a grunt, his briefcase slamming into my thigh. I scowled after him, but he didn't look back, let alone apologize.
I hated crowds. Any one of the bundled-up people trudging down the street could be hunting me. Of course, that same anonymity protected me. Shivering inside my over-large coat, I resisted the urge to glance over my shoulder as I matched pace with the pedestrian traffic. Remaining inconspicuous was key.
A Do Not Walk sign flashed, and the crowd stopped on the corner of Fifth and Harden. Horns blared and drivers shouted, but despite the green light, there wasn't much room for the cars to move. Some of the more impatient foot traffic wove through the vehicles, earning a one-fingered wave from a cabbie as another car slid into the space that opened in front of him. I debated crossing, but decided keeping a low profile among the suits on the corner was safer. Shifting my weight from foot to foot, I held my breath as a city bus covered us in a dirty cloud of exhaust.
A hand landed on my shoulder.
"Kita Nekai," a deep voice whispered. "Come with me."
I froze, unable to turn for fear any movement would betray me into running. Breathe. I needed to breathe, an impossible task around the lump in my throat. My first gasp of air brought the hunter's scent to me, and the skin along my spine prickled in a response more primal than fear. Damn. Wolf. The blood rushing through my ears drowned out the street sounds so the crowd moved silently, in slow motion.
The fingers digging into my shoulder tightened, and my eyes darted to them. The manicured nails and white cuff peeking out under his brown coat sleeve marked the hunter as a suit. He'd blend in nicely with this crowd.
"Let go of me." I didn't bother whispering, and the woman beside me coughed as she glanced at us.
A half-turn put me eye level with the hunter's red-silk tie. I grabbed his wrist, a weak illusion that I was the one doing the restraining, and cleared my throat.
"Thief! Pickpocket! He stole my purse!"
People turned, their eyes taking in the hunter's pristine pinstriped suit and my Salvation Army duster with its patched elbows and frayed hem. The suits closest to us shuffled further away, casting leery glances from the corners of their eyes. But they watched. They all watched, and the hunter couldn't just drag me off the street with so many human witnesses. I saw that realization burn across his amber eyes.
The light changed, and the crowd surged forward, filling the small gap that had opened when I created my scene. The hunter clung to my shoulder, but the push of bodies dislodged his hand, and I let myself be carried away. The businessmen in tailored suits and women in pumps towered over me. I never thought I'd be grateful for being short, but with any luck, that would hide me from the hunter's view--if only I could cover my scent that easily.
The crowd flowed down a set of cement stairs to the subway. The voices of hundreds of commuters bounced off the underground walls, a symphony of impatience accented by flickering fluorescent tubes. As they pushed into lines in front of the turnstiles, I realized the flaw in this plan: money, or really, my lack thereof.
Okay, no time to panic.
A weathered sign advertising public restrooms hung on my side of the turnstile, and I hurried through the door. The hunter wasn't likely polite enough to obey the little girls' room sign, but I was willing to bet the line of women waiting inside would give him pause.
I bypassed the line, ducking inside the first open stall and locking the thin door against the angry murmurs of protest. The cramped space boasted dingy walls covered in scrawled insults and just enough room to stand in front of a rust-rimmed toilet. What a lovely hiding place. The need to pace itched my heels, and I rocked back and forth on my toes, hugging my arms around my chest.
Someone pounded on my door.
"Stall's taken," I said.
"Hurry up," an agitated, but clearly female, voice said.
I ignored her. There were two other stalls she could use.
I rocked on my heels again. I needed a plan. The bladder-heavy humans aside, if I tried to out-wait the hunter the after-work crowd would thin, and I needed human observers to protect me. The bathroom had only one door, and if the hunter saw me enter, all he had to do was watch for me to exit. Of course, if I could slip out without him recognizing me . . .
How much did he know about me? He knew my name and clan, but did he know anything else? It was a chance I had to take.
Balancing on the toilet seat, I tucked my knees to my chest so I wasn't visible under the stall walls. Around me, agitated voices complained about everything from the wait to the gray weather. I closed my eyes and tuned them out. I needed to center myself. Mentally I stroked the coiled energy inside me. It boiled. Spread. I anticipated the pain but still drew a ragged breath as the energy burst to the surface.
A sharp sting shot down my back, and the skin split open. My clothes vanished as they always had for my change. A whimper trembled in my throat, and I choked it back, but it escaped as my skin slipped off and reversed itself. My joints popped loudly as they reformed.
Someone banged on my door again. Could they hear the fleshy sound of my muscles and organs rearranging? I hoped they were just impatient. Then I passed into the seconds of the change in which I had no awareness of my surroundings.
My skin sealed around my body again, and the dingy stall snapped back into focus. My right foot slipped, and I fell up to my hips into the toilet bowl. Hissing, I scrambled over the seat and landed with a wet plop on the tiled floor.
Great, now I resembled a half-drowned rat.
Twitching my tail, I shook my back legs and tried to dislodge as much of the water as possible. I only accomplished further soaking the gritty tile. My back paw slipped, leaving gray streaks in its wake across the brown tile.
I craned my neck, then hesitated. Did I really want to give my fur a quick bath? That was toilet water. It was better for it to be on my fur than my tongue, right? I struggled with that thought a moment, my instincts demanding the offensive substance be removed.
"Anybody in there?" Someone shook the stall door.
My attention snapped back to more important matters--time was of the essence, a bath would have to wait. I was taking a risk by shapeshifting into my second form. If the hunter found me, I wouldn't be able to defend myself--at least not in any way that would matter, and no one would question him chasing down a cat. But, I had to get out of this subway station.
A child pointed as I crawled under the bathroom stall.
"Look Mommy, a calico!"
I sauntered closer to the girl, staying just out of reach--children had the tendency to pull tails.
"Stay away from it," her mother said, jerking the child back. "It might be rabid."
My lips curled to hiss at the insult, but I curbed the desire. Hostility wouldn't get me anywhere.
Purring, I wound around the legs of the next lady in line. She pressed a tissue to her nose and backed away. Great.
Who was my most likely ticket out? My gaze landed on a woman washing her hands. She'd been shopping, and several large department store bags stood staunchly at her feet. Slinking over, I dove into a fancy white bag and curled up beside a hat box and hoped she wouldn't notice the extra weight.
I repositioned myself to balance the load as she claimed her belongings and bustled out of the bathroom. The bag swung in her grip, propelling me into something hard. The turnstile was a nightmare. She pushed through it, and one of the packages squeezed all the air out of me. I thought the worst must be over as the bags swung free again, but the swaying made my stomach threaten to rebel.
No, I won't be sick. I refuse to.
I got sick all over her hatbox.
Shaking, I eased away from the box. The swish of the train doors opening initiated another barrage of attacks as people crowded into the car. The train lurched into motion, but the movement of the bag settled.
I peeked out and found myself at eye level with a startled brunette. She screamed, dumping the contents of her lap to the floor. I guess the cat was out of the bag--well, not yet, but I needed to be. Dashing through a forest of legs, I hid under the seat of a man in mud-caked construction boots.
From the limited shelter, I sniffed the recycled, train-car air. Not a hint of the hunter's scent.
Thank the moon.
In the past five years I'd caught a hunter's scent maybe half-a-dozen times. Most cities had at least one hunter stationed somewhere to watch for rogues and strays, but I'd never before had any reason to believe they were hunting me specifically. This wolf obviously was.
Closing my eyes, I mentally touched the tight coil inside me. It would be awhile before I could return to human form. Well, chances were good that the station where I ended up would be far from the hunter. Tucking my tail around my body, I resigned myself to a long ride.
Night had fallen during my subway ride, transforming the city of Haven from the dull gray of evening to inky darkness. That darkness framed the welcoming glow of storefronts and streetlights glistening in the snow. Tomorrow, when Amtrak began running again, I would need to find a way back to the train yard. Tonight, I just needed a place to lay low and protection from the cold.
The streets lacked the hurried commuters that had been present in the business district, so they were easily navigated on four legs. I could only hope there was an animal lover among the varied shoppers. I stopped in front of a high-end clothing store and perched on the cleared steps in a pool of light, better to see and be seen.
I scanned the crowd, searching for friendly faces sympathetic to a stray cat. No one looked my way. Finally, a couple turned toward me. Show time. The woman leaned down and scratched under my chin. I purred encouragingly and nudged her hand, but the man tugged her arm. With the swish of her coat tails, she was gone. Pressing my ears back, I huddled into a ball for warmth and glared at the shoppers as they scurried from one pool of light to another.
Ten more minutes. If no one took me home or offered me food in the next ten minutes, I was giving up and shifting back to my human form. Of course, if I wanted someone to take pity on me, I probably shouldn't glare at them like I'd claw out their eyes.
I left my dry perch and moved to the center of the sidewalk to circle the legs of the first passing person. He shoved me aside with his boot without pausing.
I called to a gaggle of teenagers with my most pathetic meow, but though one of the girls glanced at me, they didn't stop.
What was wrong with these people? I didn't look mangy, anymore. I had broken down on the subway and washed my fur. I still wasn't sure the bath made me feel any cleaner, but it did make me look more presentable.
I paced. Clumps of snow stuck between my paw pads, and ice clung to my tail. This wasn't working. Time for Plan B--whatever that was, but it definitely included two legs that could walk me into somewhere warm.
I ducked into the alley behind a clothing shop. A large dumpster took up most of the space, but a quick sniff told me everything I needed to know about it--nothing edible there. Weren't there restaurants in this part of town?
Twitching my tail in annoyance, I crouched in the deep shadows and made quick work of shifting back to human form. The snow chilled me to my core in the seconds between my bare flesh forming and my clothes appearing. Stupid city. Maybe I'd been too optimistic before--even polar bears would freeze here. I huddled inside my coat and hurried back to the street.
Now that I was five feet taller and walking on two feet again, the city changed for me. Colors were richer with my human eyes, but the shadows hid more from my sight, making the darkness far more oppressive. I trudged past the teenagers I had begged to take me home earlier. Now, I kept my gaze down, avoiding drawing attention to myself. The teenagers, absorbed in divvying out a street vendor's Styrofoam cups filled with hot chocolate, ignored my presence even more as a human than they had as a cat.
I turned on Magnolia Boulevard and then onto Primrose. Shop after shop displayed brightly dressed mannequins. How many clothing stores did this city have? I could understand if the people here needed more clothing than most to stay warm, but the fashions I was seeing would never have been worn on the street. I stopped to stare at a window featuring a live mannequin decked in an elaborate evening gown. It must have been deliciously warm inside for her to flash that much skin, but with my battered coat and blue jeans there wasn't a chance I could blend in to their clientele.
I trudged on. The happy glow of a bookstore greeted me a few blocks later. That I could handle.
I stomped the snow off my sneakers and watched it puddle on the welcome mat. The aroma of fresh coffee and hot cinnamon buns drew me toward the cafe in a corner of the bookstore. My stomach rumbled. Shifting was hungry business, and I'd done it twice today without a meal in-between. But I still had exactly no money, so after a quick glance around confirmed the cafe's lack of free samples, I wove my way through aisles of bookcases, further from the inviting smells.
I hadn't caught hint of a hunter's presence since leaving the subway, so this was about as safe as I could get without leaving town. I shucked my coat and hat, and left them in a vacant chair. Then I went in search of a book.
Several hours passed before the soft background music turned off and a crisp voice announced that in fifteen minutes the store would be closing. I shut the book in my lap and added it to the growing stack around me. The overly defined man on the cover stared out hungrily at me. I frowned at him.
Purposeful footsteps headed straight for me, and my head snapped up. Had the hunter . . . ? My gaze landed on a teenage girl fidgeting idly with her green-and-yellow name tag. She popped a pink bubble between her teeth before looking at the top book on my stack.
"You know," she said, plastering an artificial smile on her face. "That's a great book, very sexy and hot. She's one of my favorite authors. Did you know she released a new book two weeks ago? It's hot. Really hot. I think we still have a couple in stock. Let me find you a copy." She scanned the shelf of books behind her, popping her gum again. "Ah, here it is. You should definitely read it. Speaking of hot, another steamy book is--"
"That's okay. This really isn't my flavor of reading material."
"Oh, that's too bad. Well, are there any other books I can help you find?" The smile never slid off her face. I wondered if her cheeks hurt after a full day of working.
"I'm actually on my way out," I said, freeing myself from the overstuffed chair.
It took effort to keep from scowling at the sales girl, who was still watching me after I'd donned my coat. Instead, I ignored her and walked away. I must have blipped on her radar as more interesting than the other customers, because she fell in step beside me.
"I like your hair. It's really crazy and alternative. Must take forever to do."
The look on my face knocked the plastic smile off hers. No one actually liked my hair. It was a random mismatch of black, orange-red and white streaks--not silver like aging people, but true white. It looked like the highlighting job from Hell. Unfortunately, it was natural. I tried to imagine the sales girl willingly doing something similar, but couldn't. The soft-looking girl in front of me had a heart-shaped face people probably considered cute. A word no one ever applied to me, at least not while I stood on two feet. Though the same height, which meant the sales girl was on the short side, we were polar opposites in every other way. With my sharp features and unusual coloring, people tended to call me striking, but never cute. If I could have traded my calico mess of hair for her finely permed blond, I would have. But I couldn't. My hair was a side effect of what I was.
"Here, take this." She reached into the front pocket of her apron and pulled out a red slip of paper the size of a postcard. "A friend of mine is spinning tonight. To get another gig he needs the place to be jumping, so I'm spreading the word to anyone likely to go, and with your hair . . . I thought you might be interested. There's a map on the back."
"Thanks." I shoved the flyer in my coat pocket without looking at it. We reached the door and I jerked it open. Brisk winter air rushed in, bringing with it city smells and something the sales girl couldn't detect. The hunter.
Damn. I let the door swing shut and searched for another exit. There was one on the far side of the building, but it had an "Emergency Only" sign posted above it. Well, this counted as an emergency, didn't it? Something waited for me outside the main door. However, walking out the emergency exit would set off an alarm, and I didn't need that kind of attention.
"Do you have a bathroom?" I asked, groping for a plan. If I could stay in the bookstore overnight or leave the way I had the subway station . . .
"Nope, sorry. Bathrooms are closed for cleaning. Didn't you hear the announcement? The whole store is closed."
I stared at her, trying not to let panic show on my face. I glanced around. The only other customer, a middle-aged woman with a young child, waited at the cash-wrap. Everyone else wandered around straightening books.
The sales girl tugged at the pockets of her apron. The popping of her gum escalated, sounding like a small machine gun firing from her mouth. "Um . . . the store is closed. If there's nothing else I can help you find . . . "
The customer from the cash-wrap walked to the door, child on one hand, bag in the other. As she bustled by, I followed her out. A sharp click cut through the night as the clerk bolted the door behind us. At the sound, an extra stab of tension locked onto my spine and stuck there. I could feel eyes boring into me. He was out there, but I couldn't pin down where.
I kept my head down and fell in step a couple yards behind the mother and child. Earlier people had been walking much closer together on the street, but now it was only them and me. The woman glanced over her shoulder and pulled the child nearer to her.
The final car left at the metered parking flashed its lights as she approached, the locks disengaging. The woman herded the child into the passenger seat and then slid behind the wheel. She didn't worry about seatbelts. I hadn't fully crossed the street when the engine roared to life. The car door slammed, and I was left not quite alone on the empty sidewalk
I watched the car speed away. The air swirling around me was tainted with the inhuman scent of another shapeshifter.
The hunter had found me.
I breathed deeply, the frigid air burning my nose. No, not hunter. Hunters. There was more than one scent. Cursing, I tried to pick up a trail or some indication of where my hunters waited, but the scent was dispersed. They were circling. Like vultures. Or canids outmaneuvering prey.
I shivered. I'd never heard of hunters traveling in packs. The mingled scents were too jumbled for me to guess how many hunters were out there, or from which families. Wolf clans were the most numerous, so if I had to put money on it, I'd guess they were the ones hunting me.
I looked around. Nothing in the darkness moved. I needed to find a new place to hide. I didn't know the area, so I left the decision of which direction to go to the wind. A bone-chilling breeze swept up the street. If I walked against it, I would be able to scent what was ahead of me, but anyone following my scent would have an easy time. If I went with the wind, I would know what was behind me, but any hunters ahead of me would know I was coming. I'd rather deal with hunters coming at me from the front than sneaking up behind me. I went with the wind.
All the shops on the street were dark and still. With buildings looming on either side, the only thing I could look forward to was the spill of the next street light to chase away the creeping dark of the alleyways. Someone digging through a trashcan crouched as I passed. I couldn't tell if it was a man or woman bundled under the mismatched clothing, but whoever it was eyed me as warily as I watched him or her. I hurried on. A solitary car threw strange shadows as it rolled down the street.
I passed another block of dark buildings. If the hunters were still out there, I should have caught hint of them following me by now. Maybe they had missed my scent and it was a coincidence more than one had passed the bookstore. But I couldn't convince myself of that.
A thrum of bass thundered in the air, vibrating off the surrounding buildings. It had to be coming from a club. If I could find the club, it would be full of people who'd provide me with anonymity and safety.
I stopped and listened. It didn't sound too far away.
After several blocks I realized I'd passed it. Now the music was diagonally behind me. Backtracking lost me the wind advantage, and I couldn't find a street leading closer to the music. Alleys cut between most of the buildings, so I turned down the nearest. A fence topped with barbed wire stopped it from being a thru-way. Nope. I wasn't going over that. I headed back toward the street.
Something crashed behind me, and I whirled around. A cat dashed from a toppled crate and disappeared through a hole in the fence. I took a deep breath. Jumping at shadows wasn't going to help. I needed to get off the street. I spared one last glance at the crate, then left the alley behind.
Three steps onto the street, a hand captured the back of my neck.
I swallowed a scream as my heart lodged in my throat. I tried to turn, but the hand tightened, preventing me from moving my head. My captor gave a small shove, and I stumbled forward. Crap. He shoved again. My muscles tensed, ready to run. The fingers only dug in harder. With little other choice, I let the hand guide me back into the alley.
We passed the crate the stray had toppled, and my captor's grip slackened. I wrenched free, spinning on my heels. I ducked, throwing my arms up to guard my face, but the blow I anticipated didn't come. I scurried back a few steps. My captor didn't try to stop me.
Focusing through the haze of fear and adrenaline took a moment. He should have just hit me--it couldn't have been any more painful than recognizing him.
"Did they send you to hunt me, Bobby? Or did you volunteer?"
Bobby straightened, his face taut. "I missed you, Kitten," he finally said, his hand reaching for my face.
"Kita, not Kitten." I took another step back, out of his reach.
His hand fell to his side then started forward again, only to be drawn back like he hadn't meant to move it in the first place. His other hand caught the first as if wrestling for control. I watched the skirmish, until I realized I was performing a very similar dance. Clenching my fists, I shoved them into the pockets of my coat. My eyes focused past him, watching the headlights of a car slide across the dumpsters in the alley. It was an effort to ignore the battle of his hands, but it wasn't his hands that had the most potential to hurt me.
"What's your plan, Bobby? Chains? Rope? Or do you intend to lock me in the basement of a safe house until the gate opens?"
"I'm not hunting you. Sebastian wants you home. It isn't safe here."
"Tell my father--"
"He isn't calling you home as a father." Bobby's fingers clenched so tight the leather of his gloves looked ready to tear over his knuckles. "I'm trying to help you. To get you home. Do you know how many hunters are after you?"
I was starting to get an idea, but I only shrugged, the movement lost under my coat. "He sent that many?" Maybe I'd been holding onto the hope that my father would be easier on me, but being the daughter of the Torin, the clan leader, had never helped me before. "So, what did my dear father say he planned to do after I'm hauled back to Firth?"
"Don't you know what's going on? Your being here implicates you. Hunters are all over this city, and they aren't playing nice right now. Too much is at stake; I have to get you out of the city until the gate home reopens."
"Implicates me for what? Not that it matters. We can't leave without a train, and they're down until morning. Sneaking aboard isn't easy, but at least it's free. Anything else is going to take money."
"I have money."
"Must be nice to be here legally."
"I'm not leaving. I've hidden out this long. I'll stay a bit longer."
Bobby turned and stalked across the mouth of the alley like a predator caged in a zoo. "You don't understand," he yelled, voice bouncing off the narrow walls. He paused, turning toward me and looking lost as to what to say next.
Five years hadn't aged Bobby much. He'd cropped his tawny hair at the shoulders, and lines crinkled the edges of his eyes, but otherwise he looked the same to me now as he had looked to the nineteen-year-old shifter who ran from her clan. The torrent of emotions that had gripped me the last time I'd seen him bubbled to the surface again and threatened to choke me. Taking a mental step back, I asked the question I wasn't sure I wanted answered.
"How is Lynn?"
"She . . . she's resting," he said, his hands finally dropping to his sides. "We're expecting soon."
"Oh." I kicked at a snow-covered soda can and let the news soak through me. I couldn't think of anything else to say, so the silence stretched on. No, it didn't stretch. It opened like a three-mile trench between us.
Bobby crossed the silence first. Both with words and a hand that cupped my face so unexpectedly I jumped.
"I didn't . . . I'm sor--"
"No." I pushed his arm away. "You weren't the reason I left."
His face shut down, becoming unreadable, and he straightened to his full, looming height. He would be an intimidating figure if I hadn't known him since childhood.
"Your clan needs its Dyre," he said, and I looked away.
"The Nekai clan boasts lions and tigers. It doesn't need a five-pound nothing of a calico cat."
"Kitten . . . "
A box falling to my left caught our attention. A rat as long as my forearm foolishly wandered out from the warm place it had been hiding. Perfect. A distraction. I fell into a crouch, and my gaze darted to Bobby. His eyes flashed, and he nodded over his shoulder at a dark corner of the alley. We both slinked backwards, eyes on the rat.
Bobby shucked his clothes before dropping to his knees. In Firth, he and I had spent most our lives as the smallest of our clan, and so we had paired up often to hunt. Bobby took my suggestion like no time had passed and we were still back home. But time had passed, and we had changed.
I hesitated, eyes flicking to Bobby's kneeling form.
His spine appeared to spring from his back as his skin split and slipped down. I heard the bones and joints popping, breaking, reshaping, and shrinking down from the shape of a man. His body twisted itself toward his first form, a bobcat, and his change progressed faster than I remembered him of being capable. I watched--only a single heartbeat--until the change was unstoppable. Then I ran.
I shouldn't have glanced back, but I did. The betrayed look on Bobby's face I would carry until my death.