Kim shivered in the wet grass and eyed the large building before him. The old church had been renovated and was now an institution for orphaned shifters who couldn't, or wouldn't, fit into society. Some were enrolled by force, others from sheer desperation. Kim was in the latter category.
He tucked his tail tighter around his stomach, flinching at the resulting pain, and rubbed his paws over his face to clear the water from his eyes.
He didn't want to enter those tall, ominous gates. As a squirrel he was at the bottom of the food chain. Prey. A building full of aggressive and unstable shifters was one of the last places he wanted to be.
But what waited for him at home was worse. His mother was an addict and her boyfriend was an abusive dealer.
To make matters worse his new stepdad hated shifters - and when the man had snuck into Kim's room the previous night, and touched him, the fear had triggered the boy's first shift.
The resulting chaos had nearly killed him and the base of his tail still ached from the reminder of a hard grip.
Kim heard a smattering of laughter, followed by the sound of running steps and ducked back into the bushes.
His heart pounded when he spotted two teenagers kicking a ball around the wet field - fluid movements a sure sign of their shifter heritage.
A dark haired boy, with a long braid, shoved his shoulder violently into a larger boy and seized the ball, whooping in triumph.
The tall boy had a thick head of shaggy blonde hair and he released a rumbling grow, that had the squirrel's limbs twitching.
Kim decided to keep moving. This wasn't safe.
Suddenly the blonde pounced, muscles rippling, as he reached for his opponent.
The brunette snarled and kicked the ball hard, aiming it straight for the squirrel's hiding place.
Kim released a squeak of terror and tore through the shrubs, as the ball crashed into the branches above him.
Feline snarls approached fast and a hand caught his injured tail. He squealed in pain.
"What's this?" A second hand wrapped around his middle and Kim was lifted into the air. The world spun sickeningly, but he managed to focus on a pair of bright green eyes.
"Aw, look Mikkel, this little guy is barely hanging in there! Isn't he the cutest?" The green eyed boy laughed, showing large canines.
Kim heard a muffled grumble from the blonde boy and shivered pathetically.
"What's your name, red?" Kim's chitter was cut off by a hard shake. "Can't you talk in your animal form? Or are you just rude to friendly strangers?" Those sharp fangs flashed again and the boy laughed at Kim's tremble.
"Silas!" A young voice barked and the green eyed boy, Silas presumably, groaned.
"Ugh! Does he have eyes everywhere?" Silas looked back at his large, silent companion who shrugged.
"Silas! Mikkel! Get out here now!" The voice barked and both boys set through the bushes - Kim dangling absently from a fist, like a rag doll.
The blonde swept the branches aside and revealed a slender boy on the grassy lawn. His skin was bone white, with the slightest flush of anger in his cheeks and silver hair fell in waves to his shoulders. His large grey eyes were fixed icily on the taller boys who visibly hunched beneath the weight of his stare.
"You were supposed to clean the lunch halls an hour ago. Get to Katherine's office now!" The stranger snapped.
The tanned boy scowled and his fingers tightened around Kim's belly, making him squeak.
"Robert was doing it! We switched chores." Silas protested.
The silver haired boy wasn't listening, those steely eyes were now fixed on Kim and he held out one elegant white hand.
"You're hurting that squirrel. Give him to me!" The stranger demanded.
Both Silas and Mikkel snarled. The nails digging into Kim began lengthening and he squealed in alarm, small paws scrabbling uselessly.
"We don't answer to you, Chilla!" Mikkel finally spoke, voice gravelly with an inhuman growl.
Through panicked and blearing eyes Kim saw the silver boy bare his teeth to reveal long incisors.
"Stand down!" Chilla ordered, stormy eyes flashing. "Or I'll have you assigned to community service for the next month!"
The boys reluctantly calmed. Kim could feel Silas' fragile grip on sanity as his hand tightened and his claws slowly retracted.
The dark haired boy abruptly flicked his wrist and Kim was suddenly airborn. He heard Chilla shout as he tumbled through the air. Hands caught him and he was cradled in a gentle embrace.
"That's three weeks of community service for abusing a shifter." Chilla spoke coldly above him.
Kim heard Mikkel and Silas roar out their protests, but couldn't catch the words. His eyes had closed and his ears were ringing.
A gentle hand stroking down his back was the last thing he knew.
Bright lights woke him and Kim squinted behind closed lids. His body felt sore but warm. The sheets against his skin felt crisp and clean and the surrounding scents were sterile.
"Are you awake?" The female voice, gentle though it was, had his heart galloping and his eyes flew open.
The woman watching him had a plump face lined lightly with age. Her greying hair was pulled back in a bun and she wore a white lab coat.
"How are you, dear?" She smiled, revealing slight buck teeth and Kim's heart immediately slowed. This was no predator.
"I'm better." He tried to say but all that escaped was a few squeaks. He looked down and saw his red furred limbs and plush tail - now with a bandage around the base.
"I'm Milly. Head physician at Archbridge High. You've sprained your tail and there's some nasty bruising around your ribs. No broken bones, thankfully. I have a sling for you." She showed him a length of cloth. "Can you shift?"
Kim lowered his head in shame. He didn't know how.
"That's fine, sweetheart. I have another option." She turned, placing the fabric back into a glass cabinet and returned with a padded band of elastic.
"I'm going to show you how to put this on. I'll have to touch you, dear. Is that alright?" Her brown eyes were warm and patient.
Kim slowly nodded but his heart still quickened when her hands moved towards him. They were small, even for a woman, but so much bigger than his current shape.
He squeaked softly with stress when she gently fit the band around his tail and slipped it over his small shoulder.
"Oh, I know." The woman tutted in sympathy. "It's going to be a little uncomfortable for a while, but your tail will be good as new in a couple of weeks." She straightened and smiled at him.
"I'm going to fetch one of our teachers now - to help you get you settled." She turned to leave and Kim chirped out an involuntary breath. The woman glanced back from the open doorway. "Don't worry. I won't be long."
The door shut and Kim was alone in the large, white space. Light flooded in from glass windows and a few stood open to let in a gentle breeze. It would probably have a calming effect on most patients, but Kim felt exposed. His fur was bright red and he imagined himself as a target sign.
The door opened and he hunched down instinctively, huddling into the white sheets. At first he felt silly, it was probably just the nice physician, but the steps approaching him were lighter, and faster, than Milly's had been.
He squeaked with stress, cursing himself for the involuntary sound. The steps immediately slowed and then stopped before him.
"Hello?" The voice was soft and Kim recognized it as Chilla's. "I won't hurt you. I've come to see how you are."
Kim took a few calming breaths and slowly ducked out from beneath the covers. Chilla's long lashed eyes were dove soft, so different from the icy exterior he'd shown the two predators earlier.
"How's your tail? Dr. Fowler told me you sprained it." One elegant hand hovered above Kim's shoulder and the squirrel trembled.
Despite his sharp fangs earlier the boy didn't feel like a predator, but he was male and Kim still felt the ghost of his stepdad's hard hands on his skin.
Chilla hesitated and then smiled gently, revealing two adorable dimples in each of his smooth cheeks.
"You're safe from me." Chilla spoke softly. A gust of air from the windows tousled the silver waves lightly around his shoulders and Kim caught a cool and earthy scent with the faintest hint of strawberries.
His trembling eased and long fingers touched his back. Chilla's touch was feather light as he stroked down the squirrel's spine and Kim's tension drained away completely.
He squeaked softly, this time from contentment and leaned into the touch. The boy sat carefully on the edge of the bed.
"Can you shift yet?" Chilla asked quietly and Kim flinched. Those soft eyes blinked in understanding.
"That's okay. A lot of new shifters take a while to learn. We have some great teachers here." A fingertip stroked over Kim's head and he raised his chin.
He knew it wasn't a normal reaction for him to enjoy being petted this way by another boy. But he was a squirrel now. His senses were heightened to an extreme degree, making a whisper of sound seem like a gunshot.
But Chilla's touch was gentle and warm. His smell was calming and Kim's exhausted body was able to relax for the first time in months.
The door opened and Milly breezed in, followed by a large man that smelled like predator.
Kim's tail twitched with anxiety, causing him to squeak with pain and he ducked behind Chilla's thigh.
"There now, sweetheart." Milly spoke gently. "This here's Mr. Faisal, our headmaster. He wants to ask you a few questions."
A deep but friendly voice spoke.
"I want to welcome you to our academy. You are safe with me, I assure you."
Chilla's hand settled warmly behind his back and he looked up into those silver lashed eyes. The boy winked and gave him a slight nudge forward. Kim obeyed the pressure and peeked up at the massive shifter.
The man was perhaps in his late thirties, with dark skin and ruggedly handsome features. The squirrel shook and Faisal's mouth quirked in understanding. Without a word the headmaster turned and pulled up a chair to sit in. Kim immediately felt more at ease without the predator looming over him.
"Charles informed us of your unfortunate run-in with two of our students." Faisal spoke more crisply. "They've been assigned to three weeks community service and their chores have been extended." He smiled wryly at Kim, shaking his head.
"Some of the younger predators have poor impulse control but we keep them under strict surveillance. That is also why we assign all new..." the man hesitated for a brief second, "less aggressive shifters with a guardian. Since you've already been introduced, I thought Charles might be a good fit. He's also headboy of his year. You certainly seem to be getting along." The man looked back and forth between them expectantly.
Kim blinked up at Chilla in confusion. His name was Charles? Then again Mikkel had spoken the name in a derogatory tone. Perhaps it had a negative connotation, but Kim felt it fit.
Charles inclined his head. "I agree to this." The teenager said seriously. He looked down at Kim. "Do you accept my guardianship?"
Kim felt the warm fingers against his back and a rush of relief poured through him. He wouldn't be alone and defenceless in this place. This strong and beautiful boy was offering his protection and Kim's heart swelled with gratitude.
He nodded eagerly and Chilla's serious eyes warmed to a sky grey. Kim somehow couldn't think of him as Charles. Faisal chuckled, drawing their attention back to him.
"You'll be sharing a dorm room and schedules, until we measure your level of education and then we might reassign your classes to fit you better. Until you've healed it's best that you stay on the top level of the dorms." The headmaster smiled to soften his words. "It's for your own safety. Once you've shifted we can fill out your application forms and hear what you have to say. Charles, I'll leave him in your capable hands."
"Yes, sir." Chilla nodded respectfully and Mr. Faisal nodded and turned to Milly. "Dr. Fowler, good day to you." The large man bent and kissed Milly fondly on the cheek.
Kim was a little surprised by the familiarity between the staff but the gesture didn't seem romantic - more like a greeting between mother and son.
The headmaster exited the room and Milly packed a bag of painkillers and fresh bandages.
"You'll have to assist him with these, Charles. Change them every few days and keep them dry. Remember his sling."
Chilla seemed withdrawn as he accepted the package.
"I'll be sure to bring him for regular checkups dr. Fowler." He told Milly and the older woman smiled.
"Very good, Charles. He couldn't have a better guardian." She turned to Kim and smiled warmly.
"I'll be seeing you soon, dear. Be sure to keep that tail resting now." She stroked over the squirrel's little head and Kim fought not to flinch.
Chilla carefully lifted him off the bed and Kim settled into the curve of his arm as if it was the most natural thing in the world. They stepped out the door, into a long hall and Kim's heart rate increased.
Students greeted Chilla and stared curiously at Kim. A few gasped outright and approached them eagerly to ask questions. The headboy evaded them all, cool persona firmly in place, but the hand on Kim's back was warm.
The impressions and predator smells were overwhelming and the squirrel turned into Chilla's arm, burying his face in the soft fabric of his shirt. He felt the boy's thumb slide soothingly over his spine, before the touch abruptly stilled.
"Chillaaa, where've you been princeling?" A cheerful voice shouted and Chilla's body jolted from impact.
A tanned, muscled arm rested casually across Chilla's shoulders. Kim squeaked and looked up into dark blue eyes in a sharply handsome face. Full lips parted, revealing sharp fangs and Kim smelled blood and humid forests. He chittered, heart pounding out of control.
"Watch it, Jonathan!" Another boy laughed along with a group of friends nearby.
"Who's your friend, baby?" Jonathan growled into Chilla's ear, watching Kim with rapt interest.
Chilla snarled, pink mouth flattening and white cheeks flushing. He cradled Kim with one hand and moved fast - ducking and swinging his elbow into the larger shifter's throat.
The curly haired teen crashed to the floor and rolled into a liquid crouch. He held his throat and coughed, blue eyes flashing with hurt.
Chilla's large eyes were slitted, cold depths cutting like steel.
"Don't call me that!" He snarled, then turned and strode down the hall, silver hair glinting in the intermittent light from the windows.
Kim glanced back as they turned a corner and was speared by a furious blue stare. He squeaked and scrabbled against Chilla's shirt.
"There, there." Chilla murmured, lips barely moving as a few more students passed them and his thumb resumed stroking down the squirrels back.
They moved up several flights of stairs and finally made it to a floor full of blue doors. Chilla moved to one that had a silver mountain emblazoned on the front and opened it with a key.