They all knew, really, before it even started. Liaison knew he was destined to be killed by the weak little man who knew, in a dark place in the back of his mind, that he was destined to be punished for his crimes. Epsilon and Leander knew they would be bonded together through pain and hate, through trust and respect as friends and partners and then ripped apart and glued, unevenly and imperfectly, back together, stronger and yet weaker than ever. Madison and Alex knew, at the start, that they would find each other and hate each other, find each other and love each other. And Wolf and Mercedes knew, somewhere, somehow, months before it began, that their team would be rocked to its core.
Even knowing, they took their places on stage and prepared for what was to come. Because they also knew, although not one of them would admit it, that they had to. They were meant to. This was destiny, and this would change everything.
This area is restricted. Please enter your personal pass code.
Thank you. Please place your right hand on the sensor and hold still.
Welcome, Epsilon! Please enter the ID number of the files you would like to access.
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Open file Leander Kale?
Name: Leander Kale
Species: Fox “kin” (Humanoid with ears, tail, teeth, claws, and occasionally fur of a certain animal. Despite more and more occurrences of this, scientists have yet to discover how this mutation came to be. More information available in the library files. Link to files can be found below.)
Weight: 140 lbs.
Scars: Back, chest, left shoulder, and right leg
Tattoos: A dragon encompassing entire body
Piercings: Left ear, four; right ear, one
Other marks: N/A
Notes: Leander was brought into TASK at fifteen when he stole information from the TASK system. Talent duly noted, he was drafted into the team as a skilled con artist and hacker.
Kale is… unusual, due to his lifestyle before TASK. Partner should be chosen carefully.
Information on TASK center and systems can be found in Secure Files. Brief History—TASK center, (Or, its official name, kin Related Circumstances Management Team) was formed after the first outbreak of kin and humans born Differently—that is, with ESP-related abilities. It is a team of specially trained men and women, human and otherwise, designed to police the events and people surrounding them.
PERSONAL FILES ON KALE, LEANDER, HAVE BEEN ENCODED.
PERSONAL FILES ON KALE, LEANDER, HAVE BEEN ENCODED.
Partner: N/A Epsilon Maddox
Open file “Epsilon Maddox”?
Open Library files?
Please select topic of choice.
Open file “kin information”?
Ten years ago the world was shocked by the appearance of a child born with the ears and tail of a cat. The child was found abandoned on the steps of a hospital in Brooklyn, New York. Rather than being killed, the child was sent to a lab for study.
The baby was highly evolved and had animal-like instincts such as hissing when it felt threatened. The child also had the ability to change shape into that of an actual cat. Despite numerous tests, there was no answer for where this child came from or what caused the odd mutation that gave it its abilities.
Time gave us the answer quickly. Years past and over time, more of these “mutants” were born. Many were like the first “kin,” animalistic with the ability to take on another form. However, other mutations came out as well, and not only in humans. The mutation soon became apparent in animals as well, giving us creatures we know today as kits, Bearrs, Wylfs, Equess, and so on. Many of these mutated animals were domesticated as their more common ancestors had been. More information available under file search.
Today, society has adjusted to most of these mutations in both humans and animals. They are generally thought of as just another part of the human or animal species.
Further information needed or close files?
TASK information center is shutting down.
Thank you, Epsilon.
“You read my file.”
“I just told you that, didn’t I?”
“You had no right.”
“It wasn’t like there was anything in there anyway.”
“Because they knew snoops like you would abuse your power and go sneaking around!” Leander’s eyes flashed at him as the young con whirled his chair around and stood. “If you want to know something about me, ask me!”
“You wouldn’t give me anything.” Leander’s teeth clenched at the flash of bored amusement in Epsilon’s eyes. “I like knowing about someone I’m to partner with.”
Leander stood in a swirl of red-blond hair, grabbing a tie off the table near his partner and roommate. “Could be a reason why I don’t want you to know,” he snarled.
Those cool eyes just kept regarding him, and Leander started when Epsilon’s hand came down on his shoulder. “You want to get even? Read my file then. I don’t care.”
“I don’t want to read your file!” Leander smacked his hand away, gritting his teeth in frustration. Epsilon honestly didn’t see the harm in what he’d done; he wanted information, he got information. That was just the way the man was—the way he’d been brought up.
“What do you have to hide?” the older man half-barked. Leander’s ears flattened against his head, and he snarled.
“I am your partner—”
Leander snorted and started to turn away. “Yeah, so that gives you the right to play around in whatever you choose—”
“No, what gives me the right is the fact that I am a senior agent here—”
“Boys.” The voice was mild and light, crisp with a British accent and surprisingly deep for a female. They both stopped, turning as one to face Madison Rivers, a beautiful, hard woman with thick red curls and startling gray eyes, tall, leggy. She held a group of files under one arm, and her lips twitched in amusement.
“Honestly, you two spend so much time at each other’s throats I’m amazed it’s the enemy you wind up killing in the end.” Which was perfect bullshit. She knew what kind of team Epsilon and Leander made. “Hello to you too, Madison.” Her lips tried to twitch upward, but the rest of her face remained stern. It made the resulting smile look more like a snarl of victory. “I’ve got a case for you boys.”
Leander flopped in a chair and let it tip back on two legs. Epsilon moved forward to take the files, and then his brows shot up. He passed the file over to Leander, who skimmed it. His ears flattened to his skull, tail lashing.
“Ah, man, don’t tell me we’re dealing with an amateur Hunter.”
“What’s the matter, boys? Afraid to go up against a Hunter?” Madison asked, and that vicious grin again, more a snarl than anything else.
“Amateur,” Leander snapped, and Epsilon glanced at him out of the corner of an eye. “She’s an amateur Hunter.”
“Amateur then. Hunter all the same.” Madison studied the young red-blond, watching the Kin and his Partner. One ear was up again, swiveling around toward her, but the other was locked, all attention on Epsilon. The older man was still as stone, his blue, blue eyes steady on his partner. They were utterly focused on each other.
“Well?” she asked, reaching a hand out as if to take the files back.
Leander’s ears flattened back again, and he snapped them shut.
“We’ll take the case,” Epsilon said, without moving from the chair. “If you explain it.”
“Typical Hunter case, boys.” She shrugged, sitting back. “Lover reported it in; says the girl’s been acting weird the past few nights.”
“So this guy’s girlfriend starts cheating on him, and he decides she’s a Hunter?”
“This girl’s girlfriend starts acting weird, and she thought it was strange enough to call paranormal investigators when she started getting violent during intercourse—”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Madison!” Leander flinched, ears back.
“Grow up, Leander Kale. It’s not as though you don’t make sex jokes constantly.” Madison rolled her eyes. “And don’t tell me you’re homophobic now.”
“Jokes are one thing,” Leander said, his ears still back. “And believe me, I have no problem with one girl gettin’ it on with—”
“Leander!” Epsilon snapped. “We’ll take it, Madison.”
“I’ll let Wolf know then,” she said, rising and reaching out as if to take the files but instead starting to scratch behind one flattened-down ear. Leander instantly relaxed, his furry appendages lifting upright and his tail lashing. She smiled again, much more softly now, and then pulled away.
Leander glanced over at Epsilon, a grin on his lips.
“You need to stop going through my files and more time learning how to do that.”
“I don’t get paid to keep you happy.”
Epsilon took the files and headed out of the room. Leander paused and then flipped off the door.
“Fuck you too, dude.”
Leander stretched, his back popping and joints adding to the symphony as he finally sat back from the computer. His furry ears swiveled listlessly about, his green eyes scanned the information he’d entered in, and he yawned. He rubbed his eyes, pushing back from the desk. It was unusual for him to be alone like this. Usually Epsilon was barely two feet away from him, and it was nice to know that his partner was there. But it was also nice to have a few moments alone to work out the information on their target and just have time to relax without the man at his shoulder.
They were safe in their own apartment, after all, and he was, admittedly, too relaxed here. It was a place of safety, of shelter, and he let his guard down too far here.
The apartment was funded by TASK, and, like all of the homes provided and funded by them, a little special. It was a two-story townhouse with a large kitchen and living room, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and the guest bedroom used as an office slash workroom that Leander was currently in. It was a tastefully if sparsely decorated apartment, cream and brown in color, most of the furniture old-fashioned in nature. Hints of both occupants could be seen in the apartment.
Books, rows and rows of research and nonfiction books on one bookshelf, most of it on those like Leander and Epsilon, signs of Epsilon’s seemingly never-ending desire for knowledge and understanding. The wooden furniture was all him too: the couch, a simple brown thing that could be extended into a bed, and the overstuffed rocking chair in the corner. Despite everything, Epsilon liked comfort as much as anyone.
Leander was there too, in the beanbag chair pile near one wall, in the fiction and sci-fi books on the other shelves. Despite his existence, Leander loved fantasy; it let him get away from reality. He was in the knick-knacks and pictures that personalized the apartment and the bright green rug on the floor near the beanbag chairs.
Their rooms were very different as well. Leander’s room was a royal mess. Books, computer manuals, clothes, shoes, and such littered the room, some of it organized, some of it pure chaos. Toys, knick-knacks, pictures, and other things lay around too. It was a personalized, warm, lived-in, and comfortable room.
Epsilon’s room wasn’t bare, exactly, but it was less homey and lived-in. There were things on the shelves, but neat and organized. There were fewer books in there, and again they were mostly nonfiction. The clothes were in the closet and drawers, and the bed was neatly made, unlike Leander’s own messy futon, and there were no toys or games scattered about.
This room, the workroom slash office, was a combination of both and a total absence of either of them. There were files and two computers, one of which was a laptop, and folders upon stacks of folders with either Epsilon’s neat hand or Leander’s playful scrawl scratching down notes and information on cases. There was a large box in the corner that Leander insisted on keeping, full of notes on cases they’d solved: his own personal little victory badges.
Leander rose, brushing a hand through his hair, and was preparing for bed when his ears suddenly shot up and quivered. There was a sound that wasn’t quite right outside, a sound that didn’t quite belong. He froze, one ear twisting toward the door. He grabbed a gun that lay next to the computer, checking it and cocking it. Then he stepped forward and flung open the door.
Nothing. His ears tilted in one direction, and his eyes went the other, listening and looking hard for the Wrong Thing he knew was out here. He could smell it, sense it, a faintly wet dog smell that made the hair on his arms stand up. He lowered the gun slowly, the tension easing out of his shoulders.
Paranoid much without your big bad partner, Leander? He scolded himself, ears pressing down so flat that they vanished in his hair. His tail twitched, almost a spasm more than a wag, a sign of irritation and tension. He turned with a low growl, prepared to go back inside.
It was about then that he got hit from the side.
He yelped in pain—literally a high-pitched, doglike sound—and managed to skirt the blow just enough to keep his insides where they belonged. As it stood, his poor shirt was shredded; his skin over the ribs was ripped to bloody ribbons. Panting, he leapt back, staring in dismay.
“Ah, fuckin’ a, man!” He snarled, watching what lumbered out of the darkness toward him.
Bearrs were exactly what the names suggested: bears. But these things had been mutated animals years back, and damn if they weren’t unpleasant little fucks.
Bearrs stood easily twice as high as grizzlies ever had when on their back legs, and when they dropped down to four—thankfully that’s all they still had, four legs—they were still bigger than any bear was ever meant to be. Their fur was thick and curly, more like a sheep’s wool than the traditional bear fur. It ranged in color from silver to roan, and their eyes were usually deep blue. They did not have ears like most bears, small round nubs, but rather long, slender things more like Leander’s own fox ears, and their teeth extended down past their lower jaws in two, long fangs, like a saber-toothed cat. Another set protruded from just behind the first, smaller, but not by much.
They were decently smart, and they were mean. Hunters used these things as attack dogs, sometimes mounts.
“Already?” Leander yipped and then wrestled the gun out as it took another swipe at him.
Then he was running. He fired and spun, flying down the street. Bullets wouldn’t take down a Bearr unless you emptied an entire gun into them nonstop, up close, with something meaner than what Leander was carrying.
But there was a chance, a slim chance, that he could get away.
He raced down the street, yelling at people to get out of the way. Not that there was a need. The Bearr behind him had them in a panic to get away.
He couldn’t change midstride. He needed a place to hide, to make the change.
Behind him, the Bearr’s massive paw caught again, digging into his back, inches from his spine. Leander screamed again, more canine than human, the sound of a fox with its paw in a trap, and went sprawling.
He groaned as he struggled to push up from the pavement, blood leaking down his back, down his ribs. The Bearr prowled closer, sensing what it thought was an easy target.
Leander was panting softly, watching the Bearr stalk closer, and then closed his eyes and struggled, growling, with the change. Fought to focus through the pain… to change….
The Bearr roared and dove forward.
And the battered, bleeding Fox on the ground leapt forward and buried its teeth in the animal’s throat. It roared again and fell back, clawing at the tiny creature attached. The Fox let go and took off at a run again.
The Bearr shook its head, coughed, and then lumbered after, snarling.
The Fox led the huge creature on a mad dash down the streets, but Leander was hurt and running without any sort of goal. Perhaps, were he calmer, he would have been able to plan, but he only knew now to get away.
Faintly, it came to him to run for TASK’s main center, but he knew it was too far away. He’d have to put this nasty son of a bitch down himself. He stopped, whirled, went for the throat again, scrambled against coarse fur for purchase, dodged the animal’s huge paws. Fell off, got smacked, screamed, came up fighting. Grabbed an ear, cried out as his own was torn near to halfway off. Blood ran down his face, into his eyes. Coughed, took another blow. Sank tiny teeth into a massive paw. Got shaken off and thrown halfway across the sidewalk. Came back, less steady, teeth into the Bearr’s muzzle. Hit the pavement again, and this time couldn’t hold back the change. His body convulsed, arched up off the ground as the man was a man again and blearily looked around to see people racing by in a panic. A couple of them were on cell phones, but aside from a team like himself and Epsilon, there was no one who could take down a Bearr.
Losing it hadn’t worked, and discouraging it had only pissed it off. Leander sat up and retched, gagging on pain. He fumbled at the useless gun, shaking hands coming up, and he fired, emptied the whole damn clip into the animal’s face. It snarled and reared back, clawing at itself, making pained, desperate noises.
“How do you like it, motherfucker?” Leander snarled breathlessly. He moved and doubled back, running for home.
The bullets hadn’t stopped the Bearr—he’d known they wouldn’t—but it had given him enough time to gain ground. He got a good five-minute head start before the thing came after him again, its bellows as much pain now as rage. Leander grinned tightly to hear it and made it back to the small home the partners shared, staggering inside.
Epsilon was already downstairs, a much bigger, nastier gun held confidently in his hand, his incredibly blue eyes narrowed as Leander burst in.
“What in the hell are you doing?”
“Getting my ass kicked!” Leander yipped back, staggering to the table and leaning on it. His blood splattered onto the chair, onto the table, but Epsilon didn’t notice. Of course he didn’t, because the Bearr crashed into the front door and took half the wall out with the impact.
Epsilon was shooting immediately, stance steady, gaze trained on the threat.
Of course he didn’t notice, because there was no time, because he, like Leander, was taught to eliminate the problem first and take stock afterward. Normally, Leander was okay with this mind-set. Very okay, in fact; peachy keen, great, fantastic, just fucking wonderful, and adhered to it himself more times than not. Hesitation got you killed.
Hesitation got you mauled by a Bearr.
But now, Leander was sort of wishing that Epsilon would stop and take stock, because he was feeling very not okay over here. Adrenaline was wearing off, and he could feel his knees going.
He meant to slide down to the floor quietly, to sit there and wait while Epsilon finished the Bearr off, maybe use his shirt to stop the blood flow where he could reach, focus on staying awake, to maybe fumble with his cell phone out and call for aid: Hi, yes, TASK Base, this is Leander Kale. I’m bleeding to death on my living room floor, and my partner is facing off against a pissed-off Bearr. Do you think we could get an ambulance and some backup out here?
Nothing went quite as he’d planned, though, because nothing ever went the way he planned. Instead, his legs gave out with a jolt that was violent enough to yank him back from the bleary, half-conscious place he’d been in, and he unconsciously grabbed the table. The entire thing toppled over with him, in a magnificent, thunderous sound that couldn’t even be described as a crash, really. Epsilon’s eyes darted to him, and he snarled like a wild animal. The Bearr took the advantage to swipe, nailing the other man across the side much the way it had Leander. Epsilon flew into the staircase, not making so much as a sound when he hit. He snapped back as lithely as a yo-yo, without even pausing, and rippled.
Epsilon was another sort of Kin altogether. They were called Gene Babies, or sometimes just Lab Rats, these children who had been created with the mutated genes and taken from their mothers before birth, placed into test tubes and made what scientist called Better.
And in many ways, they were; that was the sick thing. Unlike Leander, Epsilon showed no physical evidence of his mutation. Besides the utter brilliance of his blue eyes, he could pass as any everyday person on the street, and his eyes were just something unique to Epsilon. Not, as far as they could tell, something because of experimentation. He was also stronger and faster than Leander, just as Leander was stronger and faster than normal humans. The change was easier for him, faster, took less concentration, less force of will. He became exhausted less easily, although he, like Leander, was always ravenous after the change. Even for the Lab Rats, changing burned a lot of energy. A lot. Leander always privately thought he could eat his own weight in cheesecake an hour before he changed and still be starving when he changed back.
The best part and the biggest difference between Leander and Epsilon was also the most obvious and the most dangerous. Leander’s Fox looked like a perfectly ordinary fox, but Epsilon…. Well, Epsilon, not so much. For one, the man wasn’t a Fox. He was a Wylf. Or he would have been. But the difference between Epsilon’s changed form and a wolf was the difference between a bear and a Bearr.
If left alone to mutate the way Leander had, he would have been a nicely sized timber wolf by himself, because Epsilon wasn’t a small guy. Leander’s Fox was on the smaller side, because Leander was. So Epsilon’s timber wolf would have been in one of the larger size ranges.
Take that tendency to be larger and combine it with what they’d done to him, and you had a Wylf that was larger than Leander was really comfortable with. It stood easily waist-high on a six-foot-tall man, if not slightly higher, and it was built like a miniature tank. Epsilon once showed him a picture of an extent species of wolf called “Dire wolves” and told him that it was the closest thing to what you could call his changed form.
His coat was black, so impossibly black that he stood out in the shadows. He was too dark to blend in properl