2 months later
“You want me to fight you?” Matthew asked incredulously, one brow raised in disbelief. He was sitting on a bench in the training center, watching Sable run for the last half-hour. This was becoming her routine.
By now, all the agents were aware of what she was, and many were not thrilled. Every day her mood was becoming worse and he noticed some lapses in her judgment. She was volatile, but he noted it was with reason. On several occasions, other trainees would purposely use excessive force when training with her. She’d been jumped once by a group of girls, who were subsequently hospitalized. And, the sexual misconduct cases with the men were growing. She was also especially extra irritated whenever she had to visit George and the quack scientist dude. He was never allowed to go with them, and she never spoke about what happened when she did.
Currently, they were living together in a two-bedroom space on the base. Matthew was annoyed at first but accepted it.
Tonight, she was livid. He was escorting her to their quarters when she insisted they go somewhere where she could blow off some steam so, he brought her to the gym.
He was surprised her body didn’t give out on her yet. It was a little after 3 p.m. when they arrived, now it was pushing 6:45 p.m. and she was still going with no rest.
“Yes, I do,” She answered him, never breaking her sprint.
“You should take a break. We can do that tomorrow,” He insisted and then jumped to his feet when she slumped to the floor as soon as she got off the treadmill. She put her head between her knees, tried to steady her breathing and also resist the urge to vomit.
“Bad idea. Lift your head,” he told but then, she flopped on her back and closed her eyes.
When she felt hands on her forehead, her eyes slowly opened. Seeing the concern on Matthew’s face, she frowned.
“I don’t want to wait until tomorrow,” Sable finally said in response to his earlier comment. She brushed his hands aside.
His expression turned hard. “You need to rest,” He countered.
She stood up, her legs wobbled and threatened to give out on her. Sable hobbled over to the mats in the center with him right on her heels. He grabbed her shoulder and spun her to face him.
“This isn’t a good idea,” He said sharply.
She sucked her teeth and pushed him away. When he moved towards her again, she ducked out of his way, then kicked her leg out towards his stomach.
His hand wrapped around her ankle and he swept her other leg out from under her. Her back slammed against the padded mat.
“Shit,” She gasped, trying to pull air back into her lungs. She struggled to get back on her feet. “Again.” For a moment, her hands rested on her knees while she caught her breath. When she finally looked at Matthew, anger was etched into his face, clearly from his unwillingness to participate in her self-torture.
Within a minute, she was thrown on the mat again, but she refused to stop. Matthew sighed, annoyed when she got up again.
Her body ached after the sixth time she landed flat on her back. This time, he pinned her to the floor, his body pressing into hers. “Enough.” He said sternly. “You’re going to hurt yourself.”
“I’m not fucking human, I’ll be fine,” She cried against him while struggling to get free.
“Is that what this is about?” Matthew barked at her. She was pissed watching him. He wasn’t even remotely out of breath. Not a bead of sweat on him. Meanwhile, she was panting and drenched like a pig in a sauna.
Weak. Pathetic. Target. She growled at herself.
“I was given a mission. I need to be strong so I can kill them,” she said.
Matthew pressed harder against her, stilling her wriggling. “Really? It looks more like you’re trying to kill yourself.”
Sable laughed then, and he admitted to himself that it unnerved him. “What difference does that make. One less shifter is one less problem for you right?” She was still laughing when she shifted right under him; her human flesh quickly replaced with a furry, spotted feline. Matthew quickly removed himself from her. He’d seen the things enough that he should be used to them, but it still shocked him whenever they shifted in front of him.
Like all shifters, their animal forms were abnormally larger than normal animals. It was part of what made them deadly. Tie in their regenerative abilities and it was a cluster fuck of problems. Supposedly, half-breeds were smaller and weaker, as if the average human could tell the gotdamn difference. But, that was part of why they were so strung out about keeping bloodlines pure. They had no use for weak shifters. Even mixing species was forbidden. Racism—or was it Species-ism—was a real thing among those clans.
The king cheetah across from him was pacing. Matthew honestly didn’t think she’d shift on him. What was he supposed to do?
Sable lunged at him. He rolled out the way, and as a reflex reached for the gun on his hip but stopped himself. He couldn’t very well shoot her. But that was what she wanted, wasn’t it? He had the strangest feeling that she was provoking him into hurting her but fuck if he knew why.
It dawned on him then. Back in the basement, she’d wanted the same thing. This wasn’t new. Whatever happened to her in there, it made her want to die. But she was also fighting it because if she was really seeking death, she would have let one of those animals kill her in there.
Again, Sable launched herself at him and this time he allowed her to take him down. She dropped her head to his throat. He felt her warm breath against his skin. It’d be nothing for her to tear his throat out. Her jaws parted. He felt the tip on her fangs slowly bite into his flesh and draw blood.
But then she stopped.
Fur was gone in a flash, and her naked body lay on his. She buried her head in the crook of his neck—crying—while beating her fist into his chest.
He brought his arms up, one rubbing her back while the other patted her head.
I did not sign up for this shit.
When they arrived back to their room, Sable was sitting on the couch. A blanket was draped over her shoulders. Steam rose from the cup of tea sitting on the table in front of her. Their room was cool courtesy of a fully functioning air conditioning system. When he brought her up from the center an hour ago, she cried the entire way. Matthew had to cover her with a towel while he hauled ass across the building back to their room. She quieted down when they got inside, but she didn’t move from her spot on the couch. Thinking she’d be cold, he covered her and brought her something warm. If it helped at all, Matthew didn’t know. She hadn’t said a word to him.
He was leaning against the wall of the hallway, watching Sable in her trance. A bandage was wrapped around his neck where she bit him. An explanation for the meltdown would really help. Also, he’d really like her to get dressed.
“I…uh…” His body jerked, startled by Sable’s voice. It was a whisper, but in the silence, it may as well have been a scream. “I’m sorry about that.”
“What was that?” he asked.
She fell onto her side on the couch but didn’t answer him.
“You should take a bath then go to bed,” He told her then left to his room. He wasn’t going to force her to talk about whatever psychological issue she clearly had. It wasn’t in his job description. He was supposed to protect her and train her, that was it. All this other shit was out of his pay grade.
His pay never increased, but the amount of stress and work accompanied with handling their feral new addition certainly did. Oh, and sleep? Forget about it. Between Sable’s nightmares and her occasional loss of reasoning where she couldn’t distinguish friend–well ally–from foe put a stop to any decent shut-eye. One night she crept into his room and tried to strangle him in his sleep. Since then, he didn’t risk falling into a deep sleep near her.
She still wasn’t allowed outside the academy so all she knew were the walls inside and the people. He wondered if that added to her clear mental disorder. She was caged in with her enemies by force. She wasn’t a willing participant in this little experiment of theirs.
Currently, they were in the library. Sable was reading a book on Felid history. They both knew it wasn’t accurate. It couldn’t be. After all, it was written by humans.
His back was against a nearby bookshelf just a few paces from where she sat. He was giving her space. The other occupants also gave her a wide berth. He hadn’t been her only victim when she spazzed out. She didn’t trust them and they didn’t trust her.
Sable’s eyes quickly scanned the book in front of her. According to it and several others in the room that wasn’t available to the public, Felids–like all the other shifters–were originally animals who learned to shift as a survival tactic. Their exact origins, however, were unknown.
The creatures then built their own towns and blended seamlessly into civilization up until an altercation took place where their identity was revealed. Humans, out of fear, hunted them almost into extinction. They lived as their animal counterparts for years, building back their numbers. While the majority of humans were oblivious to their existence, Hunters were a group of people who were either descended from those who originally hunted shifters or unlucky humans who met a shifter and joined the cause.
Human-shifter relationships were shunned because human blood was deemed weak. Shifter relations were also strained. While Canids (wolves and dogs) and Felids (cats) were always at odds, Ursids (bears) were a neutral party. Still, breeding between species was frowned upon. Half-breeds of any kind, and children born with defects were ultimately slaughtered. It was their way of keeping their clans and packs not only strong but loyal.
Despite what George told her, there was nothing in the books about half-breeds not being able to be found by pure-bloods and nothing about half-breeds being able to track others. She wondered if he made it up.
All shifters were a matriarchal society. For Felids, the next queen begins training at birth and is officially ready to rule on her 21st birthday. She did not choose her King, rather he was appointed after winning a competition of some kind. The former Queen steps down when her 20 years of rule has been met. Under normal circumstances, this is shortly after the next queen has hit her 21st birthday. The former queen then becomes an advisor to the new queen. Male heirs usually leave to find or create their own clans. The purpose was to prevent infighting between siblings.
You couldn’t create a shifter. You didn’t bite a person and change them. While mistaken for werewolves, Canids weren’t affected by silver. Nightshade, the plant, and sodium fluoroacetate, however, might as well be acid to them. It was two of the main ingredients found in Eesac’s reginam veneno or RV for short, which he used to make the Hunters’ weapons.
She didn’t know what else was inside, but it was enough to stop their regenerative abilities–or slow it down for stronger shifters. It usually took a fatal wound—serious brain damage, a stopped heart, and decapitation–to kill them. But add that RV and there was potential to bleed out and other pathetic, human-like fatalities.
She held her head in her hands. For the last few weeks, she started seeing things. Glimpses of her past she realized. She hated humans, but apparently for a long time she was one.
Or thought she was.
She wasn’t human enough and still not shifter enough. Felids wanted her dead. Humans wanted her dead. Humans were keeping her alive to help kill other Felids and then when she stopped being useful…
Her chest tightened. She fisted her shirt in her hand, gripping the area over her heart.
It was kill and still be killed.
She murdered people in the hospital…ate them. Her training now included meeting with Eesac. It was mostly blood work and some shots. She didn’t grasp what for, but they said it was necessary. She felt like she’d met Eesac before but it was a memory locked away like the others.
Her head was pounding now. Sable stared down at the open pages of the book. The words were spinning.
One stood out of her. So clear and large as though a spotlight or magnifying glass was placed over it.
Matthew ran over to her when he saw it. Her tail appeared for a brief second then vanish. She’d been doing that. Half-shifting. Usually right around when she had her episodes.
He placed a hand on her shoulder. She whipped around and hissed at him. Her slit eye caught his attention first. He remembered when it used to unnerve him. When she unnerved him. He didn’t fear her now. He pitied her.
It must have shown on his face because she calmed down. She growled low, then pushed herself out of her chair and stormed out of the library. He was right on her heels.
She was barely down the hall when she bumped into someone. Green eyes looked down at her and she cursed.
“Sable baby, how are you?” Eprille smiled at her. He almost looked charming. Almost civil. He had been trying to warm up to her ever since their altercation when they first met. She knew he was after something.
She tried to brush around him, but he grabbed her wrist. The contact was brief. Matthew dragged Eprille away from her then placed himself between the two.
Eprille sucked his teeth then left. When Matthew looked behind him Sable was long gone.
“Dude, if it were anyone else they’d be fired,” Cole Bough, Matthew’s best friend said from behind the bar. “How do you lose a whole woman?”
Matthew cursed and quickly drank the alcohol in his shot glass.
The sun had long set and he still couldn’t find her. At first, he was unconcerned because she was likely to draw attention to herself. Finding her was supposed to be easy. Someone should have seen her, but no one did. He was panicking now. Worst case scenario she was off the base.
He tossed back another shot. “Fuck.” He was dead if she got out. Realistically there was no way she could have gotten out.
Aside from being heavily guarded, there wasn’t a soul who didn’t know who and what she was. They weren’t stupid enough to let her wander unsupervised…except for himself.
“Want to take it easy there buddy? I can’t help you if you’re drunk off your ass. My shift isn’t over yet,” Cole said. Despite his words, he took the empty shot glasses and then gave Matthew a glass full of Aged Cruzan Rum.
“You don’t understand, I’m screwed if I don’t find her,” Matthew said.
“You’ll find her. The fact that the heads aren’t at your throat is a good sign,” Cole popped open a coke for another patron’s drink.
Matthew eyed him curiously. He swished the contents of his drink around in the glass. “Why are you so calm?”
“Ain’t my head on the chopping block for one,” he passed the Hennessy and coke to the other customer. “And secondly, because there is nothing to worry about. She’s on the base unwinding somewhere most likely.”
He paused from his duties to properly focus on Matthew.
“Why don’t you just admit you’re worried about her?” Before Matthew could respond, Cole held up his hand, stopping him. “You of all people know what it’s like to be ostracized. You understand her, and you’ve grown to like her. You can pretend to everyone else, but I know better. You’re genuinely concerned for her safety.”
Instead of answering, he finished what he had and ordered an even stronger drink.
Cole’s victorious smile practically touched his brown eye. The eye being singular because the other was closed with a long scar over it.
The black males’ friendship was created through that scar. Matthew had a similar set on his chest over his heart and several down his back.
Cole gave up combat and moved on to providing therapy for the hunters on the base. Unlike Matthew, he didn’t need to go through the academy so he was well acquainted with the base before Matthew arrived. He owned and ran the bar that only opened on the weekends. He figured everyone needed a place to unwind after a week full of glorified homicide and other shit. It wasn’t huge, but it was large enough to host the sports parties they had on the base. It was equipped with six wall-mounted televisions, three gaming systems, and four pool tables.
It was mostly empty now, but later it would be packed. Matthew never stayed for that crowd.
“I’m going to take one more look around. Keep me posted if you see her,” Matthew said. He tapped the counter, saying goodbye then left.
Once he was out of eyesight, Cole sighed. He turned to the other bartender. “Ay, I’ll be back in a few. Someone else should be in about 20 minutes. Let them know I’m in the back.”
The woman nodded at him and he disappeared into the backroom.
Of course, he kept an office in the back. It was also where he had some of his therapy sessions and also an escape when he didn’t feel like dealing with drunk soldiers.
If someone told him years ago he’d be trying to keep soldiers sane while they tried to kill shapeshifters, he’d think they were crazy. If someone told him that one would take his eye during a combat zone, however, he would have thought twice about joining the military. But it was too late for that.
That period of his life was crazy. He knew Matthew from high school, and they met again during basic training. Neither of them imagined being sent to Afghanistan and they certainly didn’t imagine one of the soldiers in their unit turning into a shifter and killing almost everyone. They counted themselves as lucky. Cole returned half blind, while Matthew nearly died. Realistically, he should have died. The fact that he didn’t, among other things, put him at odds with many people.
He dropped himself onto the black chaise, closed his eye and sighed again. Putting him to watch over a shifter was cruel. Cole didn’t know what game the heads were playing at, but he didn’t trust them.
Oh right, he had a guest. He glanced over at the woman wearing his clothing. The baggy white T-shirt and grey sweats were hot. Too bad he was batting for the other team.
“That I am. How are you feeling?” He asked. She came over and sat down on the other side of the couch.
“Why are you helping me?”
Hell if he knew. The last thing he was expecting was for the damn girl to hideout in his office. He didn’t know how she broke in, but she did and then had the audacity to try to attack him. The downside of being a shifter meant you lost your clothes in the shift so when she finally calmed down, he had to lend her some of his. Poor girl just wanted a break. He could understand that much. He hated lying to Matthew, but he could see that if she didn’t get some space, she was going to cause a lot of problems.
“It was just in everyone’s best interest,” He answered. “Talk to me for a minute. What’s going in that head of yours that has you looking like a balloon ready to pop.”
Sable tugged on the ends of the shirt. She opted for fiddling with the stray strands rather than answering him.
“How’s training going?” He tried changing the question. Maybe if he got her to speak about something, anything, he could break through to her.
“How long can I stay here?”
Difficult. Great. “Not long.” She hung her head. He cursed quietly to himself. “The night at least. You have things to do in the morning and if you don’t show they’re going to turn this entire base over to get you. So, it’s not that I don’t want you here, but the way things are…”
“I get it. Sorry.”
“You were a lot livelier when you first got here, what’s changed?”
She stood up and started pacing just as his phone went off. It was Matthew. Cole groaned reading the message. Matthew was coming back. He was giving up looking for her for the moment. Wanted to talk. Which meant he would need to come back here, which meant he’d had to hide her away for the time being. Which meant someone was going to be pissed one way or the other. He could always turn Matthew down, but then the guy would become suspicious as he never said no.
Sable stopped her pacing and examined the man sitting in front of her. His skin was roughly the same shade as Matthew’s. but their similarities ended there. His eye was brown, the other closed and scarred. His beard was thinner and He had a head full of thick, long curls that was currently tied up. He was slimmer than Matthew as well, but still lean.
She wondered what message he received that made him look so frustrated. Should she say something? The silence was becoming uncomfortable.
The man’s eye then shot open while he was staring at his phone. Instantly, he was off the couch and grabbed Sable by her shoulders. He yanked open the closet door and shoved her inside before she could protest. “Shush!” He said as he closed the door.
He spun around just as the office door opened.
“Sorry to just barge in on you,” Matthew said. Sable covered her mouth in the closet, now understanding what was going on.
“Never a problem man, what’s up? I thought you were going to keep looking?” Cole said.
Matthew dropped onto the couch and covered his face with his arm.
Since the behemoth took over the damn thing Cole grabbed his leather armchair and rolled it over. He already knew where this was going, but he had to maneuver it as well so Sable could understand what she was working with. It wasn’t his place to interfere, but he had their best interests at heart. Hopefully, Matthew would also forgive his deceit.
“I was thinking about what you said. Maybe she does need some space. No one is freaking out, I’m not dead, so as they say no news is good news, right?”
Cole chuckled nervously as he sat. “Yeah, that’s right. She’s just hiding away.”
“You’re right about another thing. I am worried about her,” He said.
Sable, in the closet, was stunned. If he was worried, he had a strange way of showing it. She was certain he didn’t give a damn about what happened to her.
“I mean, I should understand her. Not the shifter part, but being an outcast,” He continued. “I don’t need to tell you since you already know, but it’s not like folks had high hopes for my brother and I growing up. Two fatherless brats from the projects, a mother who fucked up and overdosed herself. And then my brother fucked around and turned out to be a shifter and went on a murder spree. Heh, can’t say I didn’t expect people to think the worst of me.”
Cole nodded his head. He already knew the story and was around for the worst of it. “And you’re sure you’re not a shifter?”
“Positive. We probably had two different dads. Who’d really know.” That theory was already tested. He didn’t show any shifter signs.
“Matthew, you were twins. If Mason was a shifter…”
Sable’s head was pounding. She clutched the sides of her head and tried to control her breathing. Visions of a room with men inside flooded into her mind. One turned into a bear, then, the room exploded and Sable nothing. She panted and wished she understood the meaning of what she was seeing.
“For the last time, I’m not a fucking shifter Cole.”
Mason went missing after the incident. He could be dead by now, but he certainly didn’t die the night he went AWOL. Until now, he had stopped speaking about his brother. There wasn’t much to say. He betrayed them all and left Matthew to die and alone to handle the backlash.
Cole didn’t keep pushing the subject. “So why don’t you try being nicer to her when she comes back?”
“She’s not the type to like pity, Cole. She’d rather me be an ass than do that,” He confessed. “That aside, I think she’s suicidal.”
Cole raised a brow. “What the hell gave you that impression?”
“She loses it sometimes. She tried to agitate me into killing her,” He explained.
Cole rubbed his chin. “I don’t get that impression from her. And she’s on a base full of people who would happily kill her. Don’t you think she’d succeed by now if that’s what she really wanted?”
“I don’t know, I’m not the friggin therapist here,” Matthew said and threw his hands in the air. “Either way there’s something wrong with her. When she’s not plotting her own death, she’s out to get the rest of us. Her episodes have been getting worse.”
“Worse? So she wasn’t always like that?”
“Well, no. She was always fiery, but if I had to think about it…she started getting worse when they added her sessions with Eesac…” He blinked as though realizing something. He looked over at Cole who must have thought the same.
“What does she do with that lunatic?”
“Fuck if I know, I’m not allowed in there.”
Cole glanced back at the closet. He’d really like to ask her about that. All this information was news to him.
“Hey, quick question, why are we even training her?”
“Little too late to ask that don’t you think? George said they needed a half-breed to sniff out other shifters, especially since they can’t find half-breeds.”
“Okay but hear me out, don’t you think that’s a little odd? For starters, how did they get their hands on her? How did they know she was a half-breed, to begin with?”
Matthew looked away. He knew exactly how, and he wasn’t allowed to tell. She was bred in house.
“I don’t know man, but they do.”
“And, we’ve never heard about this new shit about half-breeds either. Realistically, don’t you think other shifters would be able to point out half-breeds naturally? From what we’ve read, they kill half-breeds from birth. Wouldn’t it be easy to assume that they know half-breed when they see/smell/sense whatever the fuck when they see one?” Cole asked.
Matthew’s mouth pressed into a thin line. Cole had a point. Something wasn’t adding up.
“And,” he continued, “She’s already come into contact with and killed other half-breeds since she came here. But according to the reports, they were all taken by surprise. 1) If they were into half-breeds why do they have her killing them too instead of capturing them and 2)If their breeds can sense each other, why don’t they notice her?”
“Cole, what the hell are you getting at?”
“I’m saying, there might be more to this than them just wanting a half-breed. I read her file, Matthew. They brought her from the valley that was scrapped in Virginia. You don’t find that to be a weird coincidence?”
Before Matthew could answer, his phone chimed.
Cole already set off warning bells and the text he was reading didn’t make him feel any more comfortable.
“Who is it?” Cole asked.
“It’s George. He said I’ll be joining Sable in her exercises with Eesac starting tomorrow,” Matthew said, still staring at the message.
Cole breathed off then stood. “Speaking of which, I have a confession.” He walked over to the closet and opened the door. Matthew stared at Sable, who looked just as stunned as he did, with his mouth agape. “Surprise. I guess.”