“Please, have a seat.”
Lanora sat in a chair made of leather that probably cost more than her entire studio apartment—which, she decided as an afterthought, wasn’t that impressive, considering her studio was actually shit. She crossed one knee over the other and intertwined her hands around them, hoping that by locking her fingers in place, she’d stop scratching. It was so dry and felt like it needed to shed—which, truthfully, was most likely accurate, considering it’d been almost a month. And she’d forgotten to apply lotion that morning, in angst over the email she awoke to from her boss—currently seated across from her—asking her to come into his office, before she even clocked in. As her thumb dug into her wrist and tiny flakes of dead skin cracked against the surface before snowing onto the linoleum floor, she cursed the forgetfulness her nerves had caused.
Rule Number One: never forget the lotion.
Looking away from her hands, Lanora met her boss’s eyes, a meadowed green compared to her stormy gray. His desk—from its scent, obviously made of mahogany—was completely cleared, aside from a single manilla envelope. She swallowed a nervous gulp, confused on why she’d been called to see him so quickly. She’d only started working with the company a week ago, as a secretary. Her tasks weren’t difficult. They were rather mundane, actually—especially compared to her evening “job” that she didn’t actually sign up for, get paid to do or could be recognized doing in any way, shape or form whatsoever. But her shitty apartment had to be paid for somehow and her actual agency had already moved her around so much. She needed this job to stick, to work.
She pointedly didn’t think about how she was out of strikes with her agency. Another screw up, another altercation, another mistake…well, she didn’t want to think about it; couldn’t think about it, the horrid rigidness of her agency that she had never understood. But, consciously aware or not, the harsh standards her agency set and her inability to meet them since graduation were very, very real. Just like the consequences.
So when Mr. Pollard reached without preamble for the envelope, she wasn’t ashamed when her breath caught with acute fear.
Her supervisor pushed it towards her without opening it. “An explanation for these, Miss Temple, would be most welcome.”
Lanora reached with her left hand, pointedly keeping her flaking right hand tucked into her lap. Pulling the envelope towards her, she flipped it open without waiting for seconds to become dramatic by pausing. Inside were a dozen copies of scans, at least. That wasn’t surprising. They got a lot of requests for scans. Their special book collection piqued interests from scholars across the world. She’d already scanned hundreds and grew to hate the task before finishing even the first one.
As she flipped through them, they looked normal. She frowned. Sure, she’d found one where the the corner of the book was dangerously close to the edge of the page, but the words were still obviously legible. She didn’t think a slightly imperfect scanning job warranted a trip to her supervisor’s office. Though he could have called her in to complain about the invasion of her fingertips along the edges, but she could have sworn Judy said that wasn’t that much of an—
Lanora sucked in a breath as she reached the second half of the stack.
She flipped through the final three scans silently.
Glancing up through her lashes, she noticed Mr. Pollard had leaned back into his over-the-top reclining office chair, his expression not smug or curious or scared, as she expected, but unreadable.
“Please, Miss Temple,” he said simply, keeping his emotions to himself.
“Caesura,” she said.
Mr. Pollard had time to frown, his eyebrows knitting together before his expression froze in place, followed by his entire being. Behind him, stood her handler from the agency.
And she was not amused.
“You spared him an explanation,” Limlock said, her voice as sharp as the angles on her face became when she was obviously disappointed. Like now. “Give it to me instead.”
Lanora wasn’t surprised her handler was caught up on exactly what was happening. Considering she wasn’t off the probationary observation period required for the first sixty days after graduating from the academy, Limlock was aware of every single second in her life the same instant that they passed, if she wanted to be. Yet Limlock didn’t observe her as often as some handlers did, but Lanora was never warned and had no inclination when her handler was watching or not. Any illusion that she had any privacy until she was cleared from probation remained such.
Apparently, Limlock had chosen to skip watching her when she scanned those books.
“Lay them out.”
Swallowing, Lanora pulled out the last three scans and played them flat on the desk. Mr. Pollard never responded, his conception of time frozen in place until she released him. Each scan reflected a page of a book she had been working on earlier that week. In fact, the time stamps in the corner of each told her that they all were scanned within an hour of one another, three days ago. The day that she had skipped lunch and worked through it instead, in hopes of impressing the company through her “work-first” attitude.
Of course, that decision had quickly proven to be her downfall as the pieces fell into place, an explanation forming. She groaned outwardly.
Why did the scanning station have to be right across the hall from the break room?
Limlock didn’t move. She watched Lanora’s face as she processed and understood what had happened, surprisingly patient throughout the process. She flicked her eyes to the copy on left, before scanning across all three, her disappointment deepening as her eyes moved.
“You broke the Rule.”
Lanora pretended not to notice the sweat that suddenly covered her entire body, ignoring the instinct to flee instantly. Unfortunately, the rule her handler referenced had nothing to do with the lotion they used to keep their skin looking clear, healthy and human, especially after a transformation—just another thing Lanora also couldn’t do right, but at least that was only difficult for her personally. But the consequences of threatening to expose her agency because of her actions…She cursed inwardly, her twisting insides having nothing to do with feeling distorted after changing shape instantaneously.
“That’s the third time, Lanora.”
“I know,” she whispered.
“How?” Limlock pressed, relentless. “How do you lose control? Hell, how were you not caught?”
“I was alone, at the scanning station,” she said quickly. Perhaps if they realized there was no possibility that anyone other than Mr. Pollard was aware something was amiss about her, they could let this lapse slide, despite what traditionally happened after the third strike. It was a minute chance, but it was still a chance. “The door was closed. No one—”
“And what set off this lapse?”
She wanted to point out that if Limlock was so eager for an explanation, she might let Lanora speak, first. But fighting for her life was no time to get feisty. Especially as she struggled to answer Limlock’s latest interruption. Lanora wasn’t certain, but she had an idea. The only one that made sense, anyway, considering she wasn’t aware that she had shifted when she had and never realized it since. “It’s across from the—”
“Break room, yes. I know the layout. Your point?”
She swallowed. “Gary had brought in leftovers, for lunch. I overheard him complaining to Stuart about his wife’s cooking. She loves…rabbit stew…”
Lanora couldn’t take her handler’s glare and instead stared down at the scans, eyes lingering on where her fingers should have been; where her fingers actually were, yet instead of their human mask, claw tips were visible; tips that eventually invaded the book page’s edge enough to show fur. Wolf’s fur. Her favorite form. Obviously, considering she had unconsciously shifted into it—partially, she imagined, though she could never be certain—without ever realizing she had
“It must have been the aroma,” Lanora continued lamely, weakly, her belief in the minute chance of changing Limlock’s mind dissipating quickly. “It must have triggered—”
Swiftly, Lanora cut herself off as Limlock lunged and snatched the scans, crumpling them into a fist until they were no longer visible.
“The board will attempt to punish me for not watching you constantly,” Limlock said, her voice distant. “To pin the blame on me for your repeated lapse in control.”
“Every lapse risks exposure. To expose us would not only kill us, but kill those we were created to save. ‘Tis the human way, to fear what it does not understand yet what it needs.” Eyes flicked and caught Lanora’s, freezing her in place even though she was already still. “You know we cannot risk that.”
“Limlock.” Her voice squeaked. It couldn’t have come to that. It was too soon. She was too young. She could still learn. She could… “Limlock, please.”
“We do not share the human way,” she pressed on. “Shapeshifters are so much stronger. What do we do, Lanora? What do we do to those who try to harm us? To those who try and destroy this world? To those who seek to harm the innocents we took an oath to protect? To those who pose a risk? To those who fail us?”
She couldn’t meet her handler’s eyes. Not when she could feel the extension of Limlock’s scales slipping up her back, inching between her shoulder blades, before wrapping and resting around her throat.
“Tell me, Lanora,” Limlock hissed. “What do we do?”
A tear from Lanora’s cheek landed on one of Limlock’s scales. “We put them down,” she whispered.
A second later, Mr. Pollard blinked, his confusion deepening. His chair squeaked as he leaned forward, glancing around the empty room.