Enjoy this free read in the Harmony Ends universe.
I recognized Mom was mad at me the moment I walked into the kitchen. The way her hands folded over each other, pressed tight, not fidgeting. The way she kept her eyes from meeting mine.
I sat in front of her. Her shoulders rose, and she faced sideways, away from me.
“What did Lu tell you?”
She sighed. Pale brown eyes turned to mine, but I didn’t read anger in her gaze. Just disappointment.
“Have you seen the bruises?”
Guilt trickled through the hurt I nursed from my sibling grievance. “No,” I said. “Is Hakuugi really hurt?”
Mom sighed again, but there was an air of relief in the way her shoulders sagged. “She’s not black and blue, but she’s pretty tender. You can imagine Lu is in fits.”
“She was having so much fun. I wasn’t… I wasn’t thinking.”
“I understand, and I know you feel bad about it. Still, Lu has every right to be more than mad at you. You are the adult, whether or not you are thinking about.”
I hung my head. “The way he started yelling at me, I just couldn’t stop myself from snapping back, you know? He didn’t even say things like you should’ve been an adult or it was your responsibility. He called me an idiot and worse.”
“Don’t you think, out of the two of you, you should give him some leeway? Hakuugi is his first cub.” Her hands finally broke from their tense hold and she patted my fist. “He’s allowed a little irrationality. Especially since she gets into so much mischief. Did you know she jumped out of tree two days before Lu brought her down here? She’s too brave for her own good.” Mom’s affectionate tone didn’t sound like she worried too much about Hakuugi’s brazen exploits.
Ugh. “I can allow him some irrationality. But he can’t talk to me that way.”
Mom raised her eyebrows at me.
“Fine, fine. I’ll apologize.”
Mom smiled. “It’s a good start.”
I squinted at her. “Start?”
Her eyes widened, and she shrugged her shoulders. She tilted her head in a submissive posture.
I would not enjoy her next comment.
“I know it seems trivial to you, but I think it would mean a lot to him if you did a little more than apologize.”
I couldn’t hide the sarcasm in my tone. “Like writing a card?”
Mom blinked at me slow. I dropped my head.
“Getting him some jerky?”
Mom grinned. “The salmon one he likes so much is what I would do.”
I’d had no intention of going into town. More than a foot of snow fell overnight, and I doubted the roads were plowed. Going on four paws would be fast, but breaking trail all three and three-quarter miles into town to ease a grudge I didn’t feel was deserved did not sound appealing.
Mom’s eyes rounded, pleading. “It’s the right thing to make amends. Otherwise he’ll stew over it for months.”
“Fine, fine,” I threw my hands up. “I’ll go get his stupid jerky.”
Snow covered the world in icy white. Beautiful, but dangerous. My boots crunched through the top layer of snow as I stepped off our doorstep.
Earth song grew from a muted whisper to a delighted chorus. I closed my eyes as the mana rushed up from the ground and caressed me. Gentle when the winter was biting. Soothing when the temperature dropped so low my bones ached.
I knocked off some icicles above our door before stepping into the rune garden, blanketed but still intact. Muscle memory carried me to the purification rune. Though I preferred to sit when eating manna, I hated wet pants more. Standing, I let my voice move with the music Earth magic made for me. The melody was simple, thankfully. Often, the Earth song far surpassed my musical ability, but it loved me and my limited voice all the same.
Purifying mana in our home took only a second. Rot’s violent whispers didn’t have a strong foothold in the vast natural wilds of Montana.
I stepped sideways onto the enhancement room. I opened my spirit, and mana flooded into me. I could gorge on the bounty the Earth gave me, singing and satiating my magical store.
If I didn’t have Lu to appease, I might have.
Instead, I only indulged in a few moments longer than needed to eat my fill. I stepped away from the enhancement room, Earth song still loud in my ears, but I didn’t carry its tune anymore. I just listened. The sturdy voices of rocks under snow, the hazy whispers of grasses rooted deep underground, the steady crooning of the trees swaying in the wind all tempted me with the call of the hunt. The urge to run and roam and root in my skin meant for the Earth.
And for once, I could give in.
I crossed the veil in an instant.
The pads of my paws distributed my weight better than my boots. My claws scraped against the ice, gaining traction when my treads couldn’t. The air stung my nostrils. So cold. That didn’t change.
I shook, my fur settling. At least the chill couldn’t penetrate my hide.
I snuffled at the ground to assure my lands that I would return, and as I walked on toward humanity, Earth song serenaded my steps.
Our Montana lodge acted as base of operations for the family firm, but we chose the location because it was near enough to town to provide the benefits of electricity and plumbing while still guaranteeing privacy and access to acres of undeveloped land.
I knew the lands intimately, and with Earth song guiding my way, I could not get lost. I pushed forward in the unique gait I mastered to break the trail through the snow while conserving stamina.
My sense of time in my bear skin wasn’t as accurate as in my human skin, but I made it to the edge of town well before sunset. I shifted well out of sight, but still slowed my shift in case anybody I hadn’t sensed was watching.
Walking paths had been shoveled out along either side of the town’s main road, but fresh snow covered the icy ground, giving my boots the barest grip. I walked to the grocery where they always had Lu’s favorite brand of jerky.
I went to the gas station. Closed.
I walked around to the drugstore. Closed.
Everywhere around me, closed signs filled the windows.
There was one last option. Carter’s General Store. It was far less likely they had the jerky, but I’d come this far already.
I walked across the street and peeked around the corner down the side street toward Carter’s. The neon OPEN sign blinked in the window.
I slid down a side street toward the general store. Well, almost. Half-way down the street, I lost my balance and plopped hard on my butt.
Ouch. Now Hakuugi and I can have matching bruises.
I really hope they have his jerky.
After regaining my footing and my dignity, I scrambled to the general store and opened the door. Heat hit my face, and suddenly I was way too hot.
Got to make this quick.
There were only two other people in the store with me. Carter, the sixteen-year-old daughter of the parents who owned the store and its namesake, stood behind the counter, and Mrs. Remley. Mrs. Remley wandered the aisles wearing an enormous coat, her eyes glazed.
I’d never met one of the Remleys in person, but the town was small enough that we all knew one another by name, face, or reputation. Mrs. Remley was too frail to be out on her own in such weather. And no one could have driven her there.
Monitoring Mrs. Remley, I approached Carter, who was on the phone, her face scrunched with concern. She stank of cortisol, the smell sharp against the numbness from the cold. She hung up as I drew near.
She kept her voice low. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Is there a problem?” I knew there was a problem. I just didn’t understand what Carter thought I had to do with it.
“Didn’t the Remleys send you?”
I frowned. “No.” I looked back at Mrs. Remley. “Is she lost?”
Carter’s eyes darted back and forth, conflicted.
I held my hand up in an easing gesture. “It’s okay. Just tell me what happened.”
Carter’s lips pressed into a thin line before she blurted, “It’s not really my place to say anything, but this has happened a few times now. I think it is all because of Mr. Remley. They used to come here all the time together to buy sodas, and it’s been years… but…”
I nodded. Mr. Remley had passed away two years back. Three of his four children still lived in the area, and one had moved back in with Mrs. Remley to care for her.
“Were you just trying to call Patrice Remley?”
“And she’s not picking up?”
“Yeah.” Carter gulped. “Last time, she got really upset when Patrice tried to take her home. I don’t think… Well, I’m worried about making it worse.”
Oh. “You were hoping the Remleys called me to de-escalate the situation, if there was a situation?”
Carter expelled air like a bellows.
“Can you do something? I don’t think she’s supposed to be here.”
I held back my snarky reply. Obviously, Mrs. Remley shouldn’t be out in such weather or on her own. But Carter was young, green, and trying not to cause problems. I remembered that feeling of responsibility but having no agency.
I sighed. So much for quick.
“I’ll take her home, but please keep trying to get in touch with Patrice. I don’t have her number.”
“Thank you, Lucky. Seriously. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that something bad didn’t happen on today of all days.”
Today? “Sure. Wait, do you have any salmon jerky?”
Carter’s eyes brightened. “I think we have one more box in the back. We were just holding off for the new year.”
“You bet.” She winked at me.
On my way to the aisle where Mrs. Remley paced, I noticed I passed the sodas. I grabbed two, didn’t know which kind, and held them in front of me as I walked.
Mrs. Remley’s shoulders lifted when she saw me. Her lips softened into a smile, a glimmer of recognition in her eyes.
She held her hand out to my left hand, and I gave her a cherry cola.
She took the bottle, beckoned me with the crook of her finger, and walked to the counter where Carter watched with tearful eyes.
“Will that be all today, Mrs. Remley?” Carter asked.
She nodded and reached for the pockets of her long sub-zero parka. I placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently.
I pulled my wallet out of my jacket and laid a five down. Carter snatched it up and rang the cash register.
Mrs. Remley tilted her chin up, and sparkling eyes met mine.
I smiled back.
Her eyes turned toward the windows, vacant again, but she hummed a little ditty this time, her finger tapping on the counter.
Carter squeezed my hand as she returned the change.
“Bless you both,” she said. “And have a Merry Christmas.”
Duh. No wonder everything is closed on a Thursday.
“You too,” I said.
I held my arm out to Mrs. Remley, and she looped hers in mine. I didn’t mind walking at her pace out of the store, and once outside, she didn’t mind that I fussed over her jacket and scarf. Gloves hid in one of those deep pockets. Tugging them over her curled fingers showed how weak she was. Still, she moved the soda between her palms with tender care as I slid the gloves on.
As I finished wrapping her scarf and tucking the ends in, I let my eyes drift up to hers. Her gaze burned brightly.
Earth song crescendoed like a wave out of nowhere. It pulled on my ears, tugged on my spirit, urged me to sing. Mana swept around us like the snowflakes swirling in the air. Magic held the two of us together, in silence, hands together, united.
But as I looked into those gleaming eyes, I had no words, no music, no expression that could communicate what I felt.
I didn’t know why Earth song was so loud when she was so close.
It made no sense.
While I didn’t follow the urge to sing, I did follow my protective instincts. My dominance was strong, even if other shifters couldn’t perceive it. That primal guardianship extended toward anyone who needed my aid… even humans.
I let go of her hand and dropped our eye contact. Earth song lingered in my ears, but not with the same prominence as before. I surveyed the road, the parking lot, looking for any tracks that she might’ve left. I knew the Remley house was six streets down and up a hill. There was no way she had come from there by herself.
Wait, she is dressed for the outdoors.
The Remleys had a gaggle of grandchildren, and it was common for the neighborhood kids to go sledding at the middle school. Especially on Christmas break. The yard beyond the playground had an enormous hill that made for an epic ride. The school was also only four blocks away from the general store along flat terrain, even if treacherous. I guessed that’s where she’d come from.
Even if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be hard to walk there first and then take her home if her family wasn’t there.
It took all of three steps for me to decide that the conditions were too slippery for Mrs. Remley, even with my support, even given she’d made it there without breaking a new trail. I took her back to the overhang over the store and ran inside.
Many of the shelves in the outdoor aisle were sold out, but there was plenty of rope lay stacked at the end of the aisle. I bought thirty feet and quickly fashioned it into a harness I could sling around my shoulders. It would have been easier for me if she rode me in my bear skin—she was plenty light and short enough to hang on without impeding my limbs—but she was too frail to keep her grip.
It would dig into my shoulders over time, but it was necessary.
I laid my makeshift harness on the ground and helped Mrs. Remley put her boots into the large leg holes. I slid them up her legs, taking time to arrange her parka so it still covered as much of her legs as it could. I crouched low, slung the ends of my rope in an X around Mrs. Remley’s and my shoulders, and lifted her up onto my back, piggyback style. She giggled as she slid into place.
Huh. Not as bad as I thought.
Mrs. Remley could sit around my middle, resting on the loops under her legs and the shoulder straps I’d fashioned. She held the soda bottle on the nape of my neck, which I didn’t enjoy, but I kept my mouth shut. I tied the ends of my rope and put in a backup knot just in case, then set off with my light load.
Rather than risk the icy sidewalk, I broke a new trail again. The physical effort didn’t faze me, but the eventual wet up to my mid-thigh would. But it was the right thing to do. Even if I fell, which I definitely would not, the snow on all sides would cushion the impact plenty.
Earth song spiked as we started walking. It grew louder and louder as we continued toward the middle school. I refrained from humming along, even though its music was tempting. It cooed to me of purpose and love and care.
The first block was slow but steady. Mrs. Remley uncapped her soda and took a swig.
“Strong girl,” she said.
“I’m happy to help Mrs. Remley.”
She thumbed the bottle cap. Took another swig.
Two blocks away from the middle school, we passed one house decorated with spectacular lights. Glittery snowflakes hung from every window. Icicle lights glittered from every gutter and door frame and window sill. Glowing reindeer filled the yard. Sweetest of all, a little angel centered in the yard played Christmas carols and swayed in time with the music.
Mrs. Remley tapped my arm and pointed at the angel. I stopped, and we watched the little figure dance.
Earth song changed. The music the Earth crafted for my ears picked up the familiar human song as if those notes were natural.
I had never heard Earth song make anything human.
But there we were, watching an angel sing, me holding her, listening to the Earth swell with Christmas joy.
The carol ended, and the angel bowed before. Earth song lulled, the baseline still thrumming gently, and then the simplest carol came. Ode to Joy.
The angel started moving again, and Earth song picked up the melody with the voices of plants, soil, rocks, and all their memories into the inspiring tune.
My jaw dropped. The notes overwhelmed me with their simplicity, as if I stood in the middle of an orchestra.
I closed my eyes to the religious scene in front of me, squeezed my arms around Mrs. Remley, and listened to the Earth perform a miracle unlike anything I’d heard before.
Mrs. Remley placed her hand on my forearm and squeezed, and she started to hum.
Her voice didn’t meld with Earth song like mine could.
Her unstable pitch and uneven timing didn’t make Earth song change.
But I’d never experienced such peace between the two worlds that divided my two skins.
Mana embraced the two of us in a magical hug only I could sense until the song ended.
I blinked my eyes open to the angel bowing once more.
Mrs. Remley was looking up at me.
“Time to go?” she asked.
“I think so,” I said.
I didn’t need my arms for balance anymore. As we moved away from the angel in the yard, Earth song continued to play at the highest volume, though it picked up its more primal music, abandoning the structure humanity imposed on music.
The song guided my footsteps. My feet moved with the magic, never slipping, never unsteady.
Purpose. Love. Care. Earth song would guard me while I enacted this vision for a lost human spirit.
We arrived at the middle school before I knew it, and sure enough, seven very anxious children sprinted toward me as fast as their wobbly legs could manage.
“Where did you go?”
“We were so worried!”
The grandchildren surrounded us, their hands patting their grandmother and my shoulders. The youngest looking of the children bobbled forward and wrapped her arms around my leg.
“Wait, wait. Back up,” I said.
The kids gave me space. I crouched down and helped Mrs. Remley out of the harness. Her grandchildren clambered around her, relief coloring their ruddy faces.
The tallest grandchild tugged on my coat arm.
“You’re one of those bears, aren’t you?”
“I am. You can call me Lucky.”
The girl’s face broke into a huge grin. “That’s so cool! I always wanted to meet one of you. Thank you for finding my grandma.”
“You should come for dinner! I know my parents would want to repay you.”
I shook my head. “No need. I was happy to help.”
The girl’s face melted into a pout. “Please?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t —”
Mrs. Remley looped her arm through mine, just as we had exited the store where I found her. “Come home,” Mrs. Remley said.
Maybe it was because Earth song spiked again when she touched me, or maybe it was because I knew she’d need more help than her grandkids could offer getting home, but Mrs. Remley’s words stirred a change of heart.
“All right. But only for fifteen minutes.”
I helped Mrs. Remley back into my makeshift sling and picked her up.
“How did you get down here the first time?” I asked.
The eldest girl answered quickly. “Dad and uncle Bob drove grandma down on the snowmobiles. They said they’d pick us up in…” She checked her watch. “Forty minutes.”
“Why don’t you call ahead and let them know we’ll be home early.”
She nodded and whipped out her cell phone.
I helped Mrs. Remley back into the harness and made sure the kids got all five of their sleds before we trudge to the Remley’s home.
Earth song did not celebrate the return journey as it had when we found Mrs. Remley’s grandkids. The children provided plenty of entertainment to keep the walk cheerful. They told stories and threw snowballs and cavorted in the snow.
When we got to the bottom of the driveway, Patrice and her four siblings and their spouses poured from the house and ushered everyone inside.
Ginger and orange, cinnamon and cranberry, and best of all, mouth-watering ham filled my nose. Heat coaxed me to shed my layers even though I promised myself I’d only stay a short while.
The Remleys’ table was covered in an extravagant spread. Crumbs leftover from the bread littered each table setting. They had clustered a few bottles of wine next to a pitcher of water. Two gravy boats sat on opposite ends of the table, along with cranberry sauce. There were small bowls of mashed potatoes, greens, beans, and casserole between between each setting. Finally, in the center of the table, next to the ham, lay three extraordinary cakes.
Patrice pushed a steaming mug of hot chocolate topped with more marshmallows than necessary into my hands.
“I can’t thank you enough. Gilly feels terrible for losing track of Mom.”
“She’s young,” I said.
Patrice beamed. “And sometimes dumb, but she’s a good kid at heart.”
I’d learned as much from the way Gilly has fussed over me as I carried Mrs. Remley back to their house.
“You have a beautiful family,” I said.
She laughed. “You’re too kind. Will you please reconsider payment?”
I shook my head. “Absolutely not.”
“Then will you take leftovers with you?”
I paused. The smell of their feast was ten times better than salmon jerky. “Sure.”
Patrice stocked me up with a backpack full of ham, potatoes, beans, bread, and cookies. All the grandchildren, Gilly in particular, tried their best to get me to stay longer.
They were cute—I had to admit it—but with each turn of their pleading eyes, all I could see was Hakuugi and how much I wanted to snuggle her. As each adult shared their gratitude, all I could think about was fixing what I’d damaged with Lu and how much I wanted to hug him.
I yearned for home. And I wanted to tell Mom she was right.
I extracted myself from hugs, lengthy goodbyes, and enthusiastic children. I bundled up quick as I could before the youngest bound herself to my legs again.
Before I slipped out the door, Mrs. Remley cornered me. She patted my arm and crooked her finger at me.
I paused, forgetting my rush. I bent lower, so we were at eye level.
Her voice was soft. “Thank you, strong girl. The music, when we stopped…” Her eyes glistened, and she lay the back of her hand against my cheek. “I remembered.” Her smile shone. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
I held her watering gaze full and returned her sincerity with my own genuine smile. I took her hand in both of mine.
“It was a pleasure, Mrs. Remley. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Lucky.”