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World of Darkness: The Academy - And Miles To Go Before I Sleep

Autumn Keane

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(Sometime after Late-Night Consolations.)

It was leaves, dry and sere, and not snow that drifted down from above to carpet the forest floor, but the last stanza of Frost's poem kept repeating through Autumn's mind as she jogged down the winding animal paths. Her feet pounded the earthen track at a steady pace, the same easy rhythm from her earlier run. When she'd met Lucia, and Ahvia, and Rosa. And... that freak who'd made them all think she was a dog.

Looking back on it, it wasn't possible. People didn't turn into dogs; that's not how magic worked. Magic was subtle, more or less coincidental, and basically completely indistinguishable from the normal course of events. If not for the marks on her palm, she'd just assume she dreamed it all, but those were real enough. There had to be some other explanation. 'Sorcery' didn't exist, and therefore what happened had to be chalked up to some other cause; the fact that she had no idea what that other cause might be was irrelevant. Any number of things might've rendered her, or all of them, susceptible to suggestion or hallucination. Unhappily, she remembered that someone had told her once that crazy is contagious.

Could an entire campus of students, and maybe even staff, go nuts? she wondered. History was filled with accounts of ergot poisoning, chemical tests, and so forth, so it wasn't entirely out of the realm of possibility.

Her brain began meandering down grim and abstract paths even as her feet carried her down more literal ones- at least until a rumbling, throaty roar split the silence of the moonlit night. Startled, and with all grace abandoning her, she stumbled to a noisy, leaf-crunching halt and whipped her head in the direction of the sound. It might have been a mountain lion, but it sounded as if it came from the school grounds, not farther out in the wilderness. Panting softly, Autumn tried to calm the pounding of her heart as she peered through the half-light of the forest and listened for the tell-tale sound of movement.

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He ran. Fleet and sure of foot, he ran, now and then putting on bursts of speed that nothing normal on two legs could reach. The exertion would wear him out eventually, but his unnatural vitality was dealing with a large portion of the fatigue poisons as soon as they hit his system, dissolving the lactic acid buildup and keeping the flow of oxygen to his muscles high enough that they weren't starved. He didn't know any of these details, of course. All Ravi knew was that he felt he could run like this forever.

Ravi ran, and the Beast loped along inside his skin companionably, enjoying the night.

He felt it closer now, the other part of him, his other shape. It too wanted to run and hunt. Not the berserk frenzy of the previous night, but as nature intended for it to: the dance of predator and prey. Ravi could feel his fur on the inside of his skin, could feel his claws under his nails. It was as though a tiny veneer of the Man-shape was all that restrained the Beast.

He leaned into that feeling and tried to forge that connection, to will the change, letting his eyes and feet keep him moving as he hit a game trail and flew up it on the balls of his thick-soled feet, the faint slap of a frond or twig on his skin and deep, even breathing the only noises he made.

He could feel it, feel the joy of his beast-soul at the run. He started to cajol it across, to bring the hidden shape out from wherever it hid inside him. He didn't really concentrate on where he was going, so intent was his inner focus right now. Besides, his eyes could see as easily as if he were on the Dalton Quad at mid-day, and his nose and ears were almost as acute.

Due to the wind, however, he didn't smell the human girl ahead of him.

There. There it is! He felt it, the link just outside his grasp, the trigger coming closer and closer to his mental finger. To feel the Beast, to be the Beast took a primal, deep-down connection. The detachment of Man was a hindrance to the shift. To become the panther, he had to momentarily Be the panth-Someone was standing on the trail!

Ravi swerved, trying to avoid the human shape. Autumn caught a glimpse of moonlight in shimmering green eyes that widened in shock as the hurtling figure tried to check his speed. She yelped, the rushing man cursed, and Autumn shut her eyes and crouched, bracing for impact, her last thought being Who the hell runs THAT fast at night?! A faint snapshot afterimage of bare skin in the moonlight went on her mind's backburner - she had more important things to worry about.

Ravi tried to swerve and leap at the same time, powerful muscles carrying him effortlessly into the air in a graceful arc that passed ten feet over the crouching girl. The landing, on the other hand, was not so graceful, giving the truth to the old adage that one should look before leaping. To the left of the trail was a small dip in the land, a ten-foot deep gully filled with dry leaves and shrubs of various kinds... including thornbushes.

There was a rustling crash, a cry of angered surprise and pain, thrashing, then a moment of silence. The expected impact did not occur, and Autumn opened her eyes. From the gully to her left, a strained voice said "Ow." then went quiet but for two sets of breathing, hers and whoever lay below.

Now safely laying inside a less-painful piece of shrubbery, Ravi gingerly began tugging thorns out of his skin. He'd been scratched up pretty badly, and felt as though he'd gone ten rounds with a pincushion. Probably looked like it too, he thought sourly, thanking whatever stars he had that he hadn't put an eye out. Some of these thorns are two inches long! Dammit. He kept as quiet as possible and waited for the girl to run off, whether in fear or to get help.

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"OhshitohfuckohallthegodsofAbrahamandIshtarandKrishnaandVishnu!" Autumn exclaimed shrilly, the last few syllables little more than a terrified shriek as she tensed, bracing herself for an impact that never came. She felt the breeze of his passing and heard the crashing, the cry of pain, and only when things were relatively quiet did she manage to dislodge her heart from her esophagus. The redhead could still feel its rapid pounding vibrating through her bones as she crept closer to the gully, trembling with the panic-surge of adrenaline coursing through her.

There was a person down there. Mountain lions didn't say "ow." Someone else had been out here, racing down the trail, in the dark. Most people didn't just decide to go sprinting through the woods at night; even assuming there were other nature-lovers on campus, and even on a clear night, you couldn't see more than a couple of yards in any direction without artificial light. There wasn't much in the way of birdsong, and you didn't get to catch glimpses of the fluffy bunnies and squirrels and whatnot. The shapes of trees changed when glimpsed after dark, and as one side of Nature slumbered, another awoke.

Being outdoors at night was an altogether different experience, one that varied with the season, and with the mindset of the person out in it.

Leaves rustled tentatively as Autumn crept closer, the reflective silver stripes on her pants and windbreaker shimmering brightly in the wan light of the moon through the branches overhead. She could still hear movement down there. Grumbling. What if they were hurt? Or dangerous? Or... A sudden thought chilled the blood rushing madly through her veins. What if they were being pursued? Maybe by the cougar she'd heard?

With a wary look behind her, she tested the ground cautiously with the toe of her shoe and crouched down near the lip of the gully. No matter how she squinted, it was impossible to see through the underbrush, though the sounds of furtive movement and a soft panting continued. Unbidden, that glimpse of green eyes, wide and startled, flashed through her mind. There was something familiar, something that tugged at the back of her brain but didn't quite spark in recognition. Catching her lower lip between her teeth, she worried at it for a moment before making up her mind. Summoning up courage she didn't really feel, she called down to him.

"Hello? Hey, are you okay down there?" Ironically, the breeze that had shrouded the girl's scent from him before now carried it directly across the ravine, bright with fear and strawberry shampoo. "Do you need help?"

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Bugger... Ravi removed a particularly vicious thorn from a particularly sensitive place and checked himself over. He was streaked in blood from the scratches, which were already healed or, in the case of the worst ones, healing rapidly. He decided that healing itched like blazes. Then a girl called from the lip of the ravine, and with her voice came a familiar scent laced with strawberries. Great. he silently grumped. More female company. Just what I need to help me control my libido-OW! Blasted thorns. He plucked another from his rear. Hopefully that was all of them.

He debated remaining silent, though he considered that she already knew someone was down here. Perhaps he could make a noise, a roar or growl, that would frighten her off. After last night, everyone in Dalton would be scared of big cat noises... Wait. What the hell is anyone doing out here at night when alleged cougars are stalking the grounds? Ohhh, right. Autumn knows her wildlife. I really hope she's not out here hunting with her bow. He glanced up at the top of the gully and saw the young woman plain as day, crouched on the lip and peering down into the shadows where he squatted. He was relieved to see no bow or guns, her eyes casting this way and that as though she couldn't see him...

Which she couldn't, Ravi realised with a start. The woods were as bright as noon to him, but to her they were dark and shadowed and shrouded. She knew he was down here somewhere, but couldn't see him. Plan C, then. He groaned weakly.

"Hello...? I... I think I've hurt myself. Damn... stupid of me... really." He tried to sound in pain, putting a faint hoarseness to his voice. "I'm not sure if it's a sprain or a break. This is... quite embarrassing." He chuckled faintly, as though at himself. "Stupid dare. 'Run a perimeter around the school grounds au naturel for a hundred and fifty dollars', indeed."

"I'm sorry to ask this of you, but do you suppose you could get help, Ms...? Umm, who is it I'm talking to exactly?" Ravi grinned at his cleverness. Hopefully, the girl would dash off and get someone, then come back to find an empty ravine. It was unkind, but needs must when the Devil drives...

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"Autumn," she replied, and while the concern in her tone was evident, so too was an undercurrent of determination; all tremulousness had vanished from her voice as surely and suddenly as if the breeze had borne it away. Noting the change in her scent as the acrid tang of fear dissipated in the moments of silence that followed her announcement, the aristocratic young rake was left to muse over whether that was precisely what had happened.

"And if you think I'm going to just run off, leaving somebody hurt at the bottom of a ditch, without any kind of protection from predators, poison oak, or hypothermia, especially when there's supposed to be a mountain lion roaming around, you're out of your damned mind." A thoughtful frown knit her brows, and she rested her forearms on her knees as she studied the edge of the gully. There had to be another, easier, less painful way down. "Knew I should have brought a fucking flashlight," she muttered under her breath. Swearing was a good way to release a little tension, and Autumn swore a lot. Still, she was kicking herself for not being more prepared. What the hell had made her think this whole night-run-on-campus thing was a good idea, anyway?

Probably, she reasoned, she just needed to burn off excess energy and nervousness built up from the day's events. The simple answer was naturally not the first one that occurred to her: she enjoyed it. Dalton wasn't home. She knew all of four people by name (five, counting her roommate), she was miles and miles away from her parents, and being outdoors was one of the few things that could link the two worlds for her. At least, she thought with a quirk of her lips that almost managed to become a smile, it was the same sky, the same stars and earth and trees. If there was a link there, maybe-

A rustle in the undergrowth below brought her attention back to the present, and her slightly wistful expression brightened into one of genuine relief. Moonlight flooded the forest floor, illuminating the path, the thick tangle of briars and brush, and the vague form of the teen whose pride sustained the gravest injury from his graceless tumble. Her rational mind plugged in the necessary information even as she edged around, scanning the bracken for a safer descent: even if she hadn't seen the clouds earlier, the sky must have gotten overcast while she was jogging. Now it was clear, and she could actually make out details she hadn't been able to see before.

"Hey, hang on. I think I see a way down, maybe. Just give me a minute."

She could hear the blood rushing in her ears as she got to her feet, moving farther down the edge of the gully until she reached a tree several yards away. It took a little longer than a minute, to be fair, but she managed to maneuver down the side with the aid of some exposed roots. She couldn't help feeling a little awed as she clambered down the rocky embankment, peering all around at the trees stretching up to embrace the night sky. A nearby birch was practically incandescent in the moonlight, and it took another uncomfortable rustle behind her to get her moving again.

"Sorry," she sighed apologetically, picking her way back toward the injured young man. "I just don't get to see nights this clear very often, and the woods here are pretty cool. How're you doing back there?"

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She's coming down... Dear gods, I should have realised that a bloody Girl Scout would come to render aid... Shit. Despite his irritation Ravi had to admire the sentiment, if not this particular execution of it. He watched her clamber down in the moonlight and sighed under his breath. Of course. She likes to climb. Whilst Autumn finished making her way down and paused to gaze at the woods, the werepanther gathered himself into a crouch, moving slowly as though testing his ankle.

"Quite alright." he said breezily in answer to her apology. "I'm the laying starkers in a bush: I hardly think I have room to comment on other people's appreciation of nature." A few rustles punctuated his words, and Autumn could see the dark shape of him moving slightly. "I think it's weight-bearing. To be honest, I'm more worried about you seeing me without clothes." He must have looked at her then, because the dim light caught and shimmered in a pair of green-gold eyes, causing them to glow softly.

"Ordinarily I'd add a crack about 'until the second date' but I'm off my game right now." he added with a chuckle in his voice that ended in a pained 'ow' as he plucked out another thorn. "Damn thorns."

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  • 1 month later...

"Well," Autumn replied easily, a hint of laughter in her voice that was muffled slightly by the crunch of the underbrush beneath her feet as she picked her way through the bracken. "If it'll make you feel any better, I'll pretend I'm not peeking." The gleam of her teeth in the darkness illuminated a cheeky grin plastered across her pleasant, guileless features. To her credit, she at least made the attempt, focusing instead on the way the moonlight brushed silver over his cheekbones as she approached, and transformed his hair into ravens' wings sweeping along his jaw.

He's too fucking pretty to be real, she mused wonderingly, openly staring at the gorgeous young man crouched in the half-shadows. Guys like that don't exist except in front of a camera.

And then, the moon caught his eyes again, and something clicked into place that hadn't a moment before. She froze, as her "uncle's" voice rang, with its sing-song cadence, in her mind.

"A skinwalker can take the form of anyone who locks eyes with them, steal their shape and use it to do wicked things to the tribe. Animals, too, can be yee naaldlooshii in disguise, but there are ways to know them for what they are. They avoid the light, and when they take the form of a human, their eyes will glow like an animal's. When they take the form of an animal, their eyes will be that of a human."

Tom Little was a civil engineer, her father's best friend, and a full-blooded Navajo. He was the first in his family to have graduated from college. He also believed in the old legends in the same way most people believed the Earth was round.

Swallowing nervously, she felt a sudden chill as goosebumps prickled her arms. It couldn't be true, though, right? Not literally. Not seriously. A tiny voice in the back of her mind whispered that anyone who performed a ritual for a familiar companion couldn't afford to take much of anything supernatural for granted, but she clenched her teeth and held out her hands.

"C'mon, I'll help you up," she offered, watching him with what she hoped was a relatively neutral expression. Inside her chest, however, her heart was pounding against her ribs so hard she could feel it against her skin.

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Well now... what's that about? Ravi mused as he took her firm hand and let her help him to stand. He'd seen the hesitation on Autumn's face as she'd looked at his eyes, watched her freeze and seen her mischievous grin flicker to a nervous swallow, before being schooled into a neutral look as she'd offered the hand. Ravi was somewhat of a gifted amateur at reading people, but even without the visual cues the scent didn't lie. Stretching out a hand to him had been as nerve wracking for Autumn Keane as putting her hand into a wild animal's cage. She knows something. Or does she just have a gut feeling? he mused as he got his feet under him, grumbling a little as the thorn bush tried to hang onto it's prize. More scratches that would heal in seconds, leaving blood streaks and no wound. Her nervousness was probably a good thing - she wouldn't be too curious about those.

"Thank you." Ravi murmured as he held her hand a second longer before releasing it. He made a show of trying his ankle and limping. "Urgh, this hurts like blazes, but I suppose it could be worse." He raised his head from contemplating the 'injured' ankle and looked at the edge of the ravine. "Did you find a decent path down?" More dissembling - he'd watched her carefully, noting the sure way the girl handled the rough terrain.

"Sure. It's over here." Autumn turned to lead the way, only to hear the boy rustle behind her and take a couple of faltering steps. "Uh... can you make it?" Please say yes...

"I think I may need a little help." Ravi said in a pained tone, trying not to grin in the semi-gloom. He was unable to resist this bit of deviltry. "It's a little wobbly - I certainly don't want to go arse over tip into another briar patch... Sorry."

"Alright." Okay. This isn't manhandling a naked hot guy. This is helping an injured boy out of a ravine. Being a supporting shoulder. Autumn took a deep breath and turned back to Ravi, slipping under his left arm and wrapping her arm around his (surprisingly solid) waist. "Lean on me." she instructed him. "We'll go slow to where I climbed down, then I'll climb up and reach down for you, okay?"

"Okay." Ravi enjoyed the slow walk to the embankment feeling the warmth of a female form against him, even if it was through several layers of clothing. His eyes picked out stray roots and loose rocks that might trip the two, and for a moment the Machiavellian youth pondered engineering another tumble... But he discarded the idea. Too much chance that Autumn might be hurt down here, with all the sharp rocks and detritus.

When they reached the tangle of roots Autumn breathed a small sigh and slipped her arm from around Ravi with a mixture of relief and odd reluctance. "Hang on." she told him, then scrambled up the roots carefully. Going up was easier than going down, and she turned at the top and motioned Ravi forwards and upwards. "You'll have to climb a foot or so, then I'll grab one hand and help you the rest of the way." His eyes gleamed up at her as he nodded, and she again was struck by how odd that shimmer was... in anything that normally wore pants, at any rate. For a moment, Autumn felt a strange, irrational and almost overwhelming urge to back away, to leave this strange, beautiful and spooky boy in the gully and go back to her dorm for some hot chocolate. Some primitive part of her mind was tugging at her sleeve like a scared kid wanting to go home now.

But now he had climbed a foot or so and was reaching up, those eyes on hers, and Autumn bit the bullet and grabbed his wrist. Then it was all over bar the scrambling and occasional grunt of effort, and Ravi was sitting on the edge of the ravine, rubbing at his ankle.

"Let me take a look." Autumn not-quite ordered, wincing as she saw the bloody streaks all over the toned body showing black in the moonlight. He'd have some scars to remember this adventure. Ravi looked at her, mouth open as though to argue, then stopped and glanced up the game trail.

"Keep quiet, move slowly." he said in a low, urgent tone, gathering his feet under him. Autumn followed his gaze. Illuminated by the moonlight about fifteen feet away, sitting back on it's haunches and watching with feline curiousity was a cougar. A large one.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Autumn gasped suddenly, a short, sharp little intake of breath that might almost have been mistaken for a hiccup. Frost lancing through her veins, she stared wide-eyed in rapt terror at the tawny feline she hadn't even known was there. A momentary surge of paralyzing panic flooded her brain as some primitive instinct demanded she take flight, but her muscles, frozen by fear, refused to obey. She could feel the lean, corded sinews beneath her fingers shift as they bit into Ravi's forearm, but the fact it might be causing him any discomfort never quite registered; only the presence of the cougar held her attention, and the young shapeshifter could feel the tension in her trembling body drawn tight as a bowstring. All thoughts of the preternatural gleam in Ravi's eye and potential danger fled in the face of a genuine threat.

"Oh, fuck," she whispered eloquently, a despairing quaver drawing out the sound of the curse a moment longer than the word would normally allow. I can't believe I didn't see it/It's probably the one everybody's been talking about/Holy fuck Autumn you're so goddamned stupid/Ohsure, midnight run sounds great/It's not moving/What would dad say?/Well first he'd ask about the naked guy/Very fucking funny/But he really is naked/It's not crouching/And he's hurt so he couldn't run/Running is stupid anyway, you'll just die tired...

He could actually see the shudder that rippled through her, and a long, slow breath ended her near-hyperventilation. The sound of her heart all but colliding with her ribs was overwhelming as it pounded madly in her ears.

Think, Autumn. Cougar. Frantically, Ravi's would-be savior wracked her brain for anything useful, anything that might help them get out of this without being attacked.

"Just... stay behind me," she muttered, then hesitated. "No. No, wait. Can you stand?"

Absently, and without giving the question a great deal of thought, he replied simply, "Yes." Intent as his focus was on the interloper, he scarcely realized she was moving until she'd looped her arm furtively around his midsection.

"Okay. We're getting up," she said grimly, her voice low and surprisingly even in the still night air. "The bigger we look, the less likely it is to think we're take-out."

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*Two-leg-cat friend?*

Ravi blinked, aware of the smell of Autumn's fear beside him as her fingers dug into the muscles of his arm. He was barely conscious of that, lost in the silent communication that passed between him and the mountain lion. It was a language of feelings, impressions and very basic concepts, and it initially took the young werepanther entirely by surprise.

*Two-leg-cat friend?* the cougar asked again. It was an adult male, curious about the interloper and understandably nervous as it caught wind of a superior predator so close to the edge of it's range. Animals were pragmatic in ways that humans sometimes weren't - the cougar wouldn't even bother fighting if the supernatural creature wanted this territory. Ravi was aware of Autumn's arm around his waist and her urging him to stand but resisted.

"Wait." he murmured to her. Under the hand pressed against his smooth bare skin, the girl could feel a strange rumbling sensation as the naked, defenseless youth kept his eyes locked on the big cat.

Two-leg-cat is friend. he sent back, opening his mouth slightly and allowing a faint purring growl, almost inaudible to Autumn, to carry across to the cougar. The cat's ears flicked in interest, the tawny eyes turning on Autumn and the ears laying back a little as it smelled her fear.

*Man-she stink fear.* the cougar sent somewhat acerbically. *Kill?*

No kill. Mine. Ravi sent back, understanding that cats didn't really have a word for 'friend'. 'Mine' was about the closest it got, being a catch-all for mates and young. To reinforce his point, the green-eyed shapeshifter put an arm around Autumn's shoulders possessively.

"Stay still." he told her from the corner of his mouth. Autumn looked at him as though to argue, but he met her gaze briefly and the glint of his green eyes was a warning in itself. Before she could collect her thoughts to make a cogent argument the cougar stood and turned, padding away into the forest night. For a long moment Ravi remained as he was, watching the animal go intil it slipped out of view of his night-vision.

"There." he murmured, rather pleased at this new discovery. Now he stood up, fastidiously dusting leaf-litter and dirt from his knees. Blood speckled his body, but he knew that under the thorn-scratch patterns of drying blood his skin was whole. He smiled at Autumn. "He was just curious."

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Relief and skepticism warred in the clear, sea-coloured pools of Autumn's eyes as she stared hard at the attractive, utterly unabashed young man. No way. There is no way that just happened. You don't just make a wild animal walk away by staring at it.

"Fine," she said tersely, sharply enough to earn her a curious glance. "I'll walk back with you, get some ice on your ankle and get it elevated, get you warm and... not naked. That's..." She hesitated, heat flooding her cheeks for what she was sure wouldn't be the last time. "...nice, but really, really distracting, just so you know. And then, Ravi FitzCoventry, you and I are going to talk." Her tone brooked no argument, and the somewhat bemused young lordling lifted his hands in mock surrender.

Autumn's heart was still beating perilously fast as the adrenaline coursing through her system kept her from collapsing bonelessly in a state of shock. Somehow, she managed to get an arm around the young man again, trying not to think about the smooth, warm flesh stretched over the lean muscle she could feel rippling beneath. With her shoulder for leverage, he managed to put just enough weight on the redhead that she'd not question the severity of his injury; fortunately for the werepanther, his twisted ankle was the last thing on her mind as they slowly hobbled back toward the campus proper.

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How they managed to get back into Lancaster without alerting the notoriously vigilant Ms Dorn, Autumn wasn't sure. It was somewhat surreal to her, the whole night taking on a dreamlike quality as though she'd fallen through a rabbit hole that afternoon and emerged in some alternate Dalton where boys ran around naked and weird man-woman things made her believe she was a dog. And now a beautiful naked young man was leaning on her after having somehow driven off a cougar by staring at it. And that was anothing thing: the word beautiful wasn't easily applied to men without making them seem girlish or androgynous, but somehow Ravi FitzCoventry managed to be both beautiful and uncompromisingly male. Even with a twisted ankle and scratches all over his body.

But they had managed to slip into the building, up the stairs, and into FitzCoventry's single dorm room without anyone noticing. Some ice had been procured from the small icebox in the little half-fridge and, best of all, Ravi FitzCoventry was wearing a bathrobe. Okay, he was still smolderingly hot, and covered in little bloody scratches all over, as evidenced by the dusky slice of chest visible where the robe was open, but he wasn't naked. That, Autumn felt, was very important.

Ravi was settled into the armchair, his foot propped up and a towel stuffed with ice on one ankle. Unfortunately this bared a certain amount of leg, but not too much. Guys legs weren't usually distracting - Ravi was a walking distraction. Autumn concentrated on the impassively glinting eyes that regarded her.

"Well... I suppose this is the point where we talk?" he asked with a quirk of his lips.

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She wanted to hit him. He was too damned good-looking, and not in any wholesome, pleasant kind of way. He was also almost smirking, and that smug, self-satisfied expression coupled with the evening's events had her just the teensiest bit out of sorts. Autumn bit back a sharp reply, and somewhat abashedly unclenched the fists she hadn't realized she'd been making. Her palms ached, still tender from the shallow cuts she'd made with her nails when she'd encountered Yasu and Lucia in the woods.

"Yes," she sighed in exasperation, pacing agitatedly back and forth. Frowning, she pulled her loosened ponytail up and off the back of her neck, then abruptly let it fall again as she turned to face him. "All right. You're supposed to be rich. From the looks of this place, you probably are. You would have no reason to take a fifty-dollar bet from anyone to run naked through the woods."

"Male pride, I'm afraid," the lordling replied blithely, spreading his hands. "One of the many weaknesses of my sex is fear of a bruised ego, an injury far more damaging than any other known to modern medicine."

"Some of this stuff looks pretty expensive. Why would you want to ruin it by heaping bullshit all over the place?" she asked acerbically. "Look. The last couple of times I've been in the woods, something weird has happened. The last couple of times I've run into you, something weird has happened. So, please, just tell me why you were out there, naked, because I am totally on the verge of freaking completely out." Her intent, clear gaze was pleading as she stared at him, hands resting on top of her head.

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He almost laughed at how ridiculous this whole situation was. At his fit of mild conscience that had caused him to turn Frida's astonishingly tempting offer down, at his naked plunge through the maddening night, at his leap into the gully, at the fact that he'd spoken to a big cat in it's own language - no, their shared language - and now a not-unattractive girl who'd been brave enough to try and save his life when he hadn't been in any real danger was demanding that he level with her. Earnestly. With big blue eyes.

Damn it.

"Fine." he sighed, throwing up his hands. Autumn sat on the edge of his bed and watched him expectantly. Ravi's face was more honest now, the smug poker-faced smile that made her fists itch gone, leaving behind an almost-sinister gravity.

"I'm reluctant tell you too much. It's one of those rabbit hole things, and you'd either think I was mad or worse, you'd believe me. And that would be awkward." he told her sincerely. He reached down and removed the ice from his ankle and, holding it before her eyes, rotated it, showing no signs of discomfort or swelling.

"I lied about my ankle. I hoped you'd run off to find help so that I could bolt before you returned." he confessed calmly. "Most people would have gone rather than climbed down into a thorn-filled gully with a naked man." He smiled, a wryly charming smile that carried more impact than his affected smirk of a few minutes ago.

"As to why I was running around naked..." he hesitated, and Autumn could tell that he was weighing his words carefully. "The best way I can put it is that I really, really wanted to. I had a lot of energy and wanted to try and get in touch with my... mm... primal side." he shrugged gracefully. "For what it's worth, I'm really very sorry that I scared you like that."

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Autumn was quiet for a few minutes, leaving an awkward silence to descend on the room. Her lips were pursed, and she was busily tugging the zipper of her windbreaker up and down, but she hadn't run out screaming, and based on what he knew of females that must have counted for something. Perched on the edge of his bed, she turned his words over slowly in her mind and watched him with an intensity that could only be described as unnerving. She scrutinized his face, measured his expressions, searched the hypnotic green-gold pools of his eyes for some hint of a lie and, finding none, dropped her hands with a sigh.

Tom was a very smart man, and a very honest one. He'd said the yee naaldlooshii were cunning, deadly, and full of malice.

If Ravi FitzCoventry was a skinwalker, she decided, he'd get laughed out of their annual convention.

"Okay," she said slowly, still watching him warily. "So. Primal. Running in the woods. Naked. No way you're pagan, no tribal marks or anything. You weren't actually hurt, which means... You're also probably not bleeding. You didn't bother cleaning up, and there's nothing smeared or oozing or anything. You stared at a mountain lion until it walked away, even though it should've perceived you as vulnerable prey." He could see her trying desperately not to come to what was probably the most obvious conclusion at this point. "Drugs?" she asked, almost hopefully. Ravi shook his head.

The cat had come to his window before, had led her directly here. Why? What was she supposed to do?

After a long pause, she nodded as she caught her lower lip between her teeth, and met his gaze again.

"I'm not going to like this, am I?"

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"Well, in my defence I was bleeding. Past tense." Ravi said urbanely as he scraped away some of the dried blood on his arm to reveal unmarked skin. He favored Autumn with a sly grin. "And the answer is no, you probably wouldn't like this. But with all the weirdness going on around here, what's one more crazy talking nonsense to the police?" He curled up in the armchair, dangling both feet over one stuffed arm.

"I was trying to change my shape." he said simply.

"Change your shape." Autumn echoed, thoughts of yee naaldlooshii springing up once more.

"Yes." Ravi continued calmly, his smooth-toned voice perfectly at ease. "It's only happened by accident before, you see." He picked up a pair of shredded and torn jeans from the floor by the chair and held them up. "Once earlier this afternoon..." he dropped the jeans and gazed levelly at Autumn. "And once last night."

"I could talk to the big cat because I am one. Sort of. It's complicated." he said in the pregnant pause. "He wasn't really hungry. More nervous that I might be looking take his range. Anyway, I was out running because I can feel the beast and I was trying to bridge the connection, to control the change."

"So... That's why I was naked. Didn't want to ruin my clothes." Ravi said.

"...Because, well, I get a bit bigger." ventured Ravi.

"And the wrong shape." Ravi stated.

"You're being quiet. I knew this would get awkward." Ravi sighed.

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Autumn was, indeed, being very quiet, and very still; save for a tell-tale trembling, she might have been a pleasant-looking red-haired mannequin posed on the edge of his bed. She didn't think he was crazy, and that was the worst part. She really, really wanted to. ...But the way he described it, all the pieces that had been jumbling around in her head suddenly fit together. So, why? If that's what he was, why hadn't he attacked her? Why bother with the pretense of humanity for such a long period? Did he just enjoy the hunt that much, or was there something else going on in his head?

There were so many questions she wanted to ask, but he was watching her with those strange eyes...

"So, you... accidentally... became yee naaldlooshii." As she said it aloud, the phrase that still made Tom Little nervous, her shaking stopped. It was almost a relief to hear the faintly sing-song syllables uttered, to stop holding her fear in. She blinked, finally, as if waking, and looked at him directly. "The Navajo skinwalker. But I thought it was supposed to be intentional." There was a moment's hesitation, her teeth worrying at her lower lip. "In the woods, your eyes..." Suppressing another shiver, she added, "Your eyes weren't human. They didn't match the body you were wearing. That's supposed to be one of the signs." That, he realized, explained the sudden shift in her demeanor near the gully.

"If you're not going to kill me, or, ah, steal my face, or however it works, I have some questions. I mean, don't get me wrong," she added hastily, pressing her damp palms into the edge of the bed, "if I get the slightest hint you're dangerous, I'll do whatever I have to do to get the hell out of here. But as long as we can just sit here and play nice, I will try very, very hard not to lose it." Swallowing hard, she finally dared to actually look him in the eye; her pupils had all but engulfed the clear, ocean blue. "Deal?"

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"Firstly: I don't steal faces. Or kill people- uh, as a rule." Ravi corrected himself and shrugged. "Second: I'm not a- a 'yee naaldelucy'. A skinwalker is a type of witch or something, if I remember my mythology right. Or a malicious spirit like a Rakshasa from Hindu myth, correct? Impersonates people and animals, eats hearts, the whole nine yards?" Autumn nodded slightly, and Ravi grinned, folding his arms.

"Well, I'm not." he declared. "I do change shape, but it's hereditary. And I only found out last night when a friend was in danger and my beast broke free." He raised his hands, palms outwards. "And yes, I killed the guard who attacked me out of rage. And some horses from hunger. And once I fled the campus, a deer. In my defence, I was doing everything I could not to eat people, but it was hard. Lots of screaming, panicking students aren't exactly a calming influence on a panther that's just been freed from a deep, dark prison for the first time in 17 years."

"So..." he said with a sigh, shoulders deflating a little. "I only seem to change when threatened or outraged. Earlier today was outrage, but I didn't lose control. I just shifted." He gave Autumn a wry smile. "Still want to stay and ask questions?"

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"...yes," Autumn mumbled somewhat uncertainly, sighed, and then nodded. More firmly, she repeated, "Yeah, I do." He was either the next political prodigy, or he was telling the truth. If he wanted to keep up the charade, he would have denied everything, and she couldn't imagine it would be very entertaining for a predator to torment and manipulate prey that was becoming less panicky. She decided to hedge her bets in favor of the smolderingly hot young... were-cat?... being honest so far, even if something in the back of her brain was screaming at her about losing her mind.

"All right. You've already answered two of my main questions: you said it's hereditary, not something you intentionally did, and that you apparently do this-" She paused, gesturing helplessly as she tried to think of the right term. "Transformation? Shift? under duress, which I guess makes sense. Hunger, fear, and anger, or violation of territory, are pretty much the only reasons an animal will attack anyway."

He could practically see the gears turning in her head, her expression a mask of commingled skepticism and curiosity; I don't quite believe you, it said, but I don't have a better explanation. "So, if it's hereditary, your parents are like you? What about other shapeshifters? Oh, and you're a panther? Why a panther, and not another animal? Or, can you become other things, too? What does it feel like? Do you still think like a human, when you're in a different shape?"

The rapid-fire series of questions came spilling from her lips in a torrent of curiosity, and although Autumn was absolutely certain she'd break down later in hysterical laughter and/or tears, it was absolutely imperative that she not do it just yet. Not here. As long as she kept talking, and didn't think about how impossible it was...

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"I'm pretty certain my parents aren't like me. I mean, my father definitely knows about this - a hundred and one tiny cues he's given me my whole life says to me that he is in on the secret. My mother I think is blissfully unaware. My father's family, though..." He paused, then said "I think they know, some or most of them. And I think they knew I was going to Change."

"As for the other things..." he paused. "There's probably other shapeshifter types. I mean, it makes sense to me that there could be. Why just panthers, after all? And I'm a panther because that's my beast-soul. That's the animal I am, the animal my family becomes - which makes the 'black lions' on our crest a lot more understandable." He grinned again at the thought. "I think some long-ago ancestor had a good laugh at that one. That coat of arms has been the same for about six hundred years."

"I can only change into a panther, nothing else." he ticked the next one off on his fingers. "It feels odd, like a very slow stretch. The first time it hurt, like white hot claws were pulling my body into a new shape, as though the Beast wanted out, and to hell with me."

"As for who I am... I think like me in the other shape, but I'm not sure I think like a human. The two souls merged last night. I'm both panther and man, and therefore neither. My instincts are sharper, my senses are sharper. I can smell your fear -" he flashed a razor-sharp smile at Autumn, an expression both flirtatious and dangerous "- and hear your heart. I can do things in this shape that no man should be able to do. I'm not really human, simply put. I think that before my Change was a caterpillar stage, and this is what I really am."

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  • 1 month later...

"Oh," she said eloquently, nodding as if she understood. She didn't, of course; her brain just couldn't wrap around the idea of an animal and a man actually sharing a body, or soul, or whatever. It didn't make sense. Not that there's really been a lot of good sense-making lately, she admitted silently.

"It's just..." The pretty redhead chewed thoughtfully on her lower lip, frowning a little as she looked off into the distance, somewhere beyond the wall behind him. "I've always believed that everything has a kind of, I dunno." She spread her hands in a vague, helpless gesture. "A spirit, like an essence. Not like a ghost, or anything, but something that really defines what a thing or a person is, that runs through something like a pine tree and embodies its..." Again, her hands moved, fluttering like cinnamon-speckled birds in her lap as she searched in vain for a better explanation. "Pine tree-ness. Separates it from the other pine trees as an individual thing, and from the rocks, and the moss, and everything else. So it's weird to think of a panther and a person sharing the same space. Although, I guess if you're saying there's really just one of you in there now, instead of switching back and forth, that's a little less MPD." But not much. Her lips twisted to the side and her frown deepened as she studied him, considering. "But, okay, you said the two of you merged last night. Where did the other part come from, and what caused this merging, if they were separate parts before? I mean, could they have just stayed separate, or would one of you have eventually absorbed the other one, like some weird in utero twin thing, or am I asking way too many questions?"

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  • 1 month later...

"No more than I've been wondering about myself." Ravi smiled, shrugging. "Where the other part came from, I don't know. It felt like it was a long-buried piece of me waking up." He frowned a little, plainly not pleased with the description. It didn't catch the whole essence of what he'd experienced. "I know that the Change had to happen. And with the Change, there had to be a... meeting of minds. An accord between the two sides of me, if that makes sense. If I hadn't managed to do that, I..." he looked down at his muddy feet, suddenly pensive. "I probably would have died. It really felt like the beast soul needed to be free, and if it couldn't be contained in me, it would go find another."

"And the cause of the merging? I'm not sure." Ravi didn't know why he was opening up to this girl he barely knew from Adam, but he felt as though he could trust her... somehow. More than Mari or Frida, more than Sean or Ryan, he felt that Autumn would get it. "It happened after I hunted, properly hunted. I chased down a deer and ate." He sounded a little proud of himself. "After that, I went to drink at a pool and... saw myself."

"Saw yourself." Autumn echoed. "Your reflection?"

"My other reflection." Ravi clarified. "I was a panther, and looking into the pool I saw me as you see me now." He let that hang in the silence for a moment, then shifted in his chair and rose to make some camomile tea for them both. "And then we talked." he confessed as he started the kettle. "Me and... me. Something passed between us, then we touched through the pool, and became one being." He frowned again as he settled back into the chair. "And then I woke up naked, and by that I also mean furless, by that pool. And I was different."

"Different how." Autumn leaned forwards a little.

"Faster. Stronger. Able to leap higher and further. And my feet... well, running barefoot isn't uncomfortable at all. And everything's more colorful, every sense is high-definition now. It's a little maddening, at times." he admitted, drawing his robe around him a little tighter. "The instincts are all... more, and the senses feed the instincts. I'm still trying to find my equilibrium."

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He's not lying, and considering that every cut and scrape he had is gone, he's not crazy. Well, at least not delusional, anyway. She sat quietly for a few moments after he'd finished, allowing the tea to cool and digesting what he'd told her so candidly and openly. He hadn't been guarded about his admissions at all, and when he'd said he'd actually hunted down a deer, it seemed somehow appropriate; that's what animals did, after all. When they were hungry, they ate. This went way beyond the idea of skinwalkers and totems, because if what he was saying was really true, he wasn't just walking with the spirit of an animal or hiding in its skin; he was the panther now, as much as it was him. The concept of seeing his "other" reflection in the pool was ancient as myth, with mirrors representing a person's true, hidden nature or acting as conduits into the ephemeral and unseen worlds. She was sure that the hunt and the "confrontation" or "meeting" with his reflection meant something, but... Not knowing how much of the legends she'd read were true, or even applicable in this case, it was hard to guess, but she had to admit, she was intrigued.

"Equilibrium," she repeated, a tiny, crooked half-smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. "Yeah, I get that. It's just..." She took a long drink of the hot tea, feeling some of the tension melt out of her shoulders. "Mm, sorry. It's just that it's pretty fascinating. Not," she added hastily, "a stick-you-in-a-lab-and-poke-you kind of fascinating, but..." The red-head sighed and trailed off again. In for a penny, in for a pound. "I've seen and heard some weird things, but you're pretty much living proof that some of the myths I've read about are real, whether it's some genetic fluke or, or, actual magic. I mean, that's pretty incredible, right?" She looked at him over the rim of her cup as she took another sip, her eyes wide and earnest. Swallowing, she brightened suddenly, as if just struck by an idea. "Do you think you could show me? I mean, it doesn't have to be now, but, y'know, sometime? Maybe on a weeknight or something, so if you eat me I have an excuse not to turn in my homework."

She wondered what it would be like, to be so close to a huge predatory animal; she'd been taught all about body language and posture, when to present herself as a threat and when to seem vulnerable. Probably it wouldn't be anything like sitting next to a particularly large housecat... She was suddenly reminded of the black cat that had led her to the tree outside Ravi's window, and felt a curious sense of deja-vu, like there was a weird sort of synchronicity. There was no way she was going to tell him that, though. The last thing she needed was a guy who could turn into a 250-lb panther thinking she was a creepy stalker or something.

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The response was a surprised blink, followed by a broad, charmed smile that was the most dazzling expression Autumn had seen on FitzCoventry's face to date. In fact, it was downright dangerous, that smile. It needed bottling under controlled conditions, diluting heavily and then selling for £500 a 8oz bottle. With a warning label and possibly a waiver.

"Do you know, nobody has actually asked that?" he remarked. "The few others that know are either worried for me or scared of me. Maybe both. Nobody's actually been eager to see the panther. That they've said, at least." He chuckled, a warm delighted sound, then shrugged as he took a sip of tea. "Unfortunately, I can't actually control the change yet. It's really annoying. I shift when I'm angered past a certain threshold, and that's it." He frowned a little, the handsome brow furrowing as he stared into his tea. His good humor swiftly restored itself, though, and the devastating green eyes glanced up at Autumn once more. "But when I do learn to shift at will, you can have a front row seat. And don't worry. I haven't eaten anyone yet, and I doubt I'd start with you. You'll just have to find another excuse to skip homework."

The mischievous look in his eye and the playful curve of his lips as he sipped at his tea made it plain to the young redhead that if she ran dry of reasons he, Ravi, could doubtless provide plenty.

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It suddenly felt as if the temperature in the room had spiked in response to Ravi's knowing smile, until the cup in her hands felt merely lukewarm. That grin, and the good-natured flirtation his tone implied were infectious, however, and she couldn't suppress the warm flush that crept into her cheeks, veiling the smattering of freckles there in rose as she returned the smile in kind. It had to be some kind of pheromones, or the after-effect of the experience with the mountain lion; she knew she wasn't ugly, of course, but how often did someone that good-looking smile at her?

Whoa... easy, Autumn. Down girl! Somebody, somewhere, has probably already got him on lockdown. They had to. It was like some essential law of the universe, wasn't it? The young lordling was rich, charming, and hot enough to steam up windows just by strolling down the sidewalk. But, he didn't act like someone who was spoken for, so...

"I can think of lots of excuses," she replied with a laugh, waving her free hand in a vague, all-inclusive gesture. "Falling asleep in the park, midnight skinny-dipping, wine and a bonfire... Actually, I'd settle for just about anything else. Homework's the natural enemy of an Autumn, y'know," she concluded with mock-seriousness, watching him with laughing sea-coloured eyes over the rim of her tea cup.

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"I confess, I find it the bane of my educational experience as well. My natural enemy is boredom, and homework is seldom anything but." was the smooth-voiced reply as Ravi, his eyes not leaving hers, stretched and shifted in his chair. There was an element of deviltry in his movements, as they caused the robe to slide along his legs even as it drew tight over his chest in a distracting kind of way. Still, Autumn wasn't complaining in the slightest. Ravi, meantime, was enjoying the effect he was having on her. She was fun, and surprisingly easy to talk to. In that, she reminded him of Frida, only she was warm and vibrant where Frida was dark and ethereal. One was not lacking to the other in Ravi's view - it was simply a matter of noting the difference and celebrating that. How dreary life would be if women were all the same.

"But 'settling' for an excuse? Tsk." he mock-admonished with a purse of his lips, shaking his head before smiling impishly. "We can't have that. Though skinny dipping is always fun, and wine by firelight is delightful. Can't say I've ever fallen asleep in a park, though last night comes close to fulfilling that." He mused on that for a moment, smiling at her. "I've a question for you." he said suddenly, his eyes narrowing playfully.

"Sure." Autumn said, privately wondering what it would be. 'Do you prefer the left or right side of the bed?' 'Rough or smooth?' 'Can I intrigue you to try an English massage?'

"What are you thinking, right now?" Ravi asked with a slow, wicked grin.

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