Chapter One

The blaring alarm clock sounded through the bedroom. Had he not already awoken, the loudness would have woken Darius Laporte. As usual, he hadn't slept well during the night and woke long before the alarm went off. He had stayed in bed, hoping he could fall asleep again, but that never happened. He turned the alarm off, allowing silence to reign in the apartment. At least, it was as silent as it could be given that he lived in a major city. It never was truly quiet, but his apartment came very close to it.

As he got out of bed, he crashed into the table next to his bed, nearly knocking over the lamp. Swearing, he caught it and steadied it. Once the lamp was out of danger, he looked to the foot of his bed, and saw nothing but blankets. He walked over to the window and looked out, hoping to catch a glance of gray fur on the fire escape or in the alley below, but he saw no signs of movement anywhere. Once again, his only friend had gone out early in the morning, leaving him alone.

"Stupid cat," he grumbled under his breath, although he didn't mean the words. He loved Viceroy more than anything in the world and recently, she was his only motivation to get out of bed in the morning. Another day with her was always one worth living, even with all the drawbacks. Such as lack of sleep. He took one last look outside, but she wasn't in view. If he really wanted to , he could find her easily enough as they shared a special bond. All he had to do was concentrate on the lihnyg and feel for her, but the thought made him frown.

Lihnyg. The Anitreh word for the bond shared between human and animal. He had used the term most of his life, but after being betrayed by the Anitreh, he wanted nothing to do with them. Not even with their language. Unfortunately, there were many Anitreh words that Darius constantly found himself using as they were so deeply ingrained in his mind and so very simple. No other language had a way to convey the meanings of some of the Anitreh words.

Darius stepped away from the window and left his bedroom, trying to force all thoughts of the Anitreh from his head. The last thing he needed to think about at that moment was the Anitreh. He crossed his messy living room into the even messier kitchen, making a mental note to clean his place up eventually. His coffee maker sat in its usual spot on the counter, surrounded by dirty dishes. Inside the pot sat week old coffee. He hadn't gotten around to dumping it out before he left town on his latest mission. When he opened a cabinet to grab more coffee grounds, he remembered that he had run out. When he made the last batch, he thought he'd have time to get more before leaving, but he had run out of time and by the time he returned last night, it simply wasn't on his mind.

Now he needed coffee. Or anything with caffeine. He glanced at the week-old coffee and considered it. It did have caffeine. He grabbed the pot and took a sip, and then nearly spit it out. There was no way he was going to drink that. Even he had his limits. Feeling even grumpier than he had before, he returned to his bedroom He needed coffee and it was obvious he had to go out for that, and if he had to go out, he didn't want to look as horrible as he felt.

He took a quick shower and when he stepped back into his bedroom to get dressed, he saw his friend back from her morning walk around the city. The snow leopard was laying on the bed, steely blue eyes watching Darius carefully, as if she were a predator observing her prey before deciding on the best method for attack. Darius knew he had nothing to fear from her, however.

"Hey Viceroy," he said, a slight smile forming for a brief moment. He stepped over to his bed and pet her gently on the head, which he followed with a good scratch behind the ears.

Feeling a bit better with Viceroy back home, he stepped over to his closet. Like the rest of his apartment, it was a disorganized mess. Looking through, Darius decided that all his regular clothes needed to be washed. Another chore to add to the list. He found the least dirty t-shirt and pair of jeans he had and threw them on and headed out the door. His clothes may not be in perfect condition, but he only planned on going to his favorite coffee shop two blocks away.
After the short walk, he walked in the door of the coffee shop, the door ringing a bell to alert the young woman working to his entrance. She looked up but quickly looked away. Darius had the feeling that she really didn't like him, and he couldn't blame her. His boss was well known and with all the rumors surrounding him, Darius got caught up in them, which led to people thinking he was a terrible person. The worst part, Darius knew, was that too many of the rumors were true. And that there were even worse things that no one had a clue about.

"Hi," he said as he approached the counter, feeling awkward and stupid as he spoke. Out of all the times he had come to the coffee shop on the corner, he had never spoken much to any of the employees. It was time to fix that, and maybe then, the barista would dislike him a little less.

"Uh, hi," she replied. She fidgeted a bit and Darius wondered if perhaps she was afraid of gim. If she believed even half the stories about him, he wouldn't be surprised.

"Wynter," he said, reading the name tag pinned to her apron. "I'm Darius."

"Yeah, I know," she mumbled, still looking uncomfortable. "Um, do you just want your usual?"

"Yeah," he said. "Actually, could I get two? I could really use the caffeine. Didn't really sleep well last night and I gotta go to this meeting later and that's sure to be boring. Or not really boring, but I just don't want to be there. Today's just not a good day for it."
Darius rambled on, giving a few pauses in hopes that Wynter might add something, but she was obviously not in the mood for a conversation. At least not with him. By the time she placed the first cup of coffee on the counter, he got the hint and drank his coffee. Although hot, Darius had ways of dealing with that. Concentrating on the heat of the cup, he let thoughts of cold fill his mind. Almost immediately, the coffee cooled down to just the right temperature for Darius to drink it down quickly.

His second cup of coffee was waiting on the counter, but he had something more important to take care of first. He pulled his wallet out of his pocket and took out a money card and slid it across the counter. "I'll be right back," he said as he headed for the bathroom.

He cursed under his breath as soon as he stepped into the bathroom, feeling like an idiot. He didn't know why he had tried acting friendly with the barista, but it turned out a failure. No one wanted to talk to him. Going back out there would be embarrassing, but unless he wanted to knock a hole through the bathroom wall and leave his money card, he didn't have much of a choice. He would make it a quick interaction and then find a new place to get coffee. He only liked the place because it was the closest. Going somewhere else wouldn't be a problem.
Just as he was finishing up in the bathroom and getting ready for what was sure to be an embarrassing moment, he felt something not quite right. He paused by the bathroom door, making sure he wasn't just feeling crazy or imagining it because he didn't want to go back out there, but even after calming his mind, he knew he had been right. There was trouble on the other side of the door. Darius reached for his gun, but since he hadn't expected any trouble on a quick trip down the street, he hadn't brought it with him. Firearm or not, Darius knew he could handle whatever threat lay on the other side of the door.

He opened the door and walked through, making sure to project a casual air about him. The first thing he saw were two young men, younger than himself, holding guns pointed at Wynter. Both turned to look at him when he left the bathroom, but only one moved his gun. Immediately, Darius put his hands up.

"You really don't want to do that," Darius said, calm despite the situation.

"Shut up!"

Darius said nothing else. He tried to give a fair warning, but it they wouldn't listen, Darius couldn't help what he had to do next. Without moving, he telekinetically pushed the gun up while also exerting enough force on the man backwards to knock him down. Once that happened, the man's grip on the weapon loosened enough for Darius to pull it towards himself.

"He's a – " The second man turned to face Darius, forgetting Wynter, but he never finished his sentence, as Darius pulled the same trick on him as he did on the first man. With both men relieved of their guns, Darius stepped towards them. One reached into his pocket and Darius knew it wasn't quite over yet.

As soon as he saw the knife, Darius telekinetically gripped his hand, keeping him from moving it. The man struggled, fighting against the invisible hold, which made Darius increase the pressure he exerted. While he was preventing the man from bringing the knife up, the other man made a run for the door. Darius' attention was split and when he tried to stop the second man from escaping, the first managed to almost get his knife into position to attack. Realizing the danger, Darius instantly returned his focus to the hand holding the knife and there was a cracking sound as he accidentally broke several bones in the man's wrist.

"Call the cops!" Darius shouted at Wynter as he ran for the door, hoping to catch the other man. When he got to the door, he saw that the barista must have already called the police as he saw them speeding down the street, sirens wailing and flashing. The man who had escaped was still running down the street and Darius sent him to the ground by simply telekinetically holding one leg back. Certain the cops could pick him up, Darius went back inside.
The man with a broken wrist remained on the floor, but still had the strength to shout at Wynter. As soon as he noticed Darius, he fell silent and looked to the door, obviously looking for a way to escape. Darius didn't want to bother with him, but he didn't want him to sneak away from the police.

"If you so much as stand up, I'll freeze all the blood in your body," he threatened. Although he could carry that threat out, it was far too difficult for Darius to consider it unless absolutely necessary, but the man didn't know that. His abilities, and those of others like him weren't really understood very well by regular people. Under normal circumstances, it wouldn't have been unusual for one to question just how strong the abilities were, but no one wanted to take the chance when they were in a situation like the one the man was currently in.

Confident that the man would remain on the floor, Darius turned his attention to Wynter. He couldn't see her, but when he looked on the other side of the counter, he saw her sitting on the floor, holding her legs to her chest and crying. He jumped over the counter, the sudden movement startling her.

"Sorry," he said softly. "Are you going to be okay?"

She shook her head, but didn't speak, leaving Darius unsure of what to do. His instinct was to reach out and hold her and offer comfort, but he didn't know if that would just make things worse. Instead, he grabbed a napkin and gave it to her so she could wipe away her tears.

"Those two aren't going to hurt you," Darius said. "The police are here and they're going to take care of them."

"You don't understand," Wynter mumbled, although her words were hard to make out as she sobbed.

Before Darius could ask what she meant, he heard the bell on the door ring and he stood up to verify it was just the police. He rose his hands as soon as he saw two cops at the entrance. They had their weapons drawn and he didn't want to get shot by a nervous or trigger-happy cop.

"My name is Darius Laporte," he identified himself. "I have an ID in my pocket. This man over there and the one who I hope you found face down on the sidewalk outside came in here and were threatening the barista here. Their guns are over there."

"Laporte?" One of the cops asked as he stepped closer. "Yeah, I know you. Put your hands down. What happened here?"

"I was in the bathroom and when I came out, this man and the other were pointing those guns at the barista. She's right here, by the way. I disarmed both men, one drew a knife on me and the other ran. I accidentally broke this one's wrist and I knocked down the other one outside."

"Right," said the cop. "We'll get your official statement later. Where's the barista?"

"Over here," Darius said. He knelt back down. "Wynter, think you're up to talking to the cops?"

She nodded slightly and tried to wipe away the tears that just wouldn't stop coming. For a brief moment, her eyes were clear and she looked up at Darius. "Will you stay with me?"

"Of course," he agreed immediately. The request surprised him, but it was far better than her asking him to leave. Thinking that perhaps she wouldn't be so opposed to the idea, he put an arm around her. He felt her body relax as she pressed her face into his shirt.

After a few moments, Darius helped her up and walked her over to one of the coffee shop's tables. He took a seat next to her, keeping an arm around her shoulders. One of the cops came over and sat across the table and Darius heard the whole story of what had happened.

Wynter's ex-boyfriend felt that she owed him money and after leaving threatening messages and showing up at her apartment without getting what he wanted, he took it a step further and gotten two of his friends to try to scare her into paying up. Once the cop had taken all her information, he left, leaving Wynter and Darius alone for a few minutes.

"I can't go home," Wynter said. Tears started to form in her eyes again, and she quickly wiped them away. "He's not going to give up."

"I think I can help," Darius said, thinking about the empty two floors of his apartment building. His boss had given him the entire building, and while Darius rented most of the rooms, the top two floors were vacant. They were available for other people Darius worked with to use, but they very rarely had any need to be there. Before Darius could explain, the store's owner came in the door.

"Wynter! My dear! I just heard what happened! Poor girl! Are you okay? I'm so glad you're not hurt! Take the rest of the week off. And the next week too. And if you need more time, just let me know. I can't believe this happened!"

"Thanks Claudia," Wynter said weakly as she was embraced by the woman.

"Go on home and rest," Claudia said, having calmed down after her initial burst of energy. "And don't hesitate to call me if you need anything. No matter what time."

"Thanks," she said, standing up along with Darius.

"Oh, is he going with you?" Claudia asked, giving Darius a suspicious look.

"I'm going to make sure she gets home safely," Darius said.

"Oh, well, Wynter, call me when you get there. I want to make sure you're all right."

Darius and Wynter walked out of the store and headed towards Darius' apartment. "I have some extra space at my apartment," he explained now that they were alone once again. "You can stay there as long as you need to."

"I won't be in your way?"

"No, of course not," Darius said. He then thought about what exactly he had said and realized he didn't word it quite right. "I don't mean just my apartment. I own the building. There's an extra room you can have. And it's furnished, so you don't have to worry about that stuff. But if you want I can go with you later to pick up some stuff from your place."

"Yeah, sure. Thank you."

"No problem."

They walked in silence the rest of the way, which left Darius to worry about how late he was going to end up being to the meeting. He didn't have the most understanding boss in the world, but Darius also knew it was highly unlikely he would lose his job over something like being a few hours late. Still, he would have liked to get it over with, but he knew that some things took priority.