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The wind whipped through her fur as she raced through the night on her steadfast mission. She passed trees so quickly they barely registered in her mirror-eyed gaze. She could smell the river getting closer and hear her heart pounding in her chest more furiously with each step. Her legs were short and quick, allowing her to tear across the forest floor with speed and agility that was unmatched. Her sleek and graceful body adjusted quickly to each movement as she raced against herself and the night, to get somewhere. Anywhere but where she was.

Tonight she was supposed to be hunting, but she knew it was just an excuse to get away from everyone.  Of her sisters, she was known to be the fiercest hunter and didn't need practice. She liked to schedule a time for hunting alone, touting a need to focus and hone her skills. Truly, she didn't need to sharpen any skills; she just needed some freedom. Close quarters, someone always in her breathing space, and the fact that she was one of five sisters sharing one small house made for brief spells of claustrophobia. It was enough to make anyone insane. What was that line about having too many eggs in one basket?

Chaos was not her cup of tea. She liked order, a schedule, peace, quiet, and fun; all of which were in short supply at home. Each of those things was so short that there was nearly a famine, a starving for it there. However, no one else seemed to notice, except her. Either she was asking too much of the world and her life, or everyone around her was a lunatic that needed medication, a beating, or perhaps even both. Instead of begging for peace and change, it was just easier to let others assume she was a freak of nature, since she was born as one.

Clouded-leopards are born in all shapes and sizes like many other creatures on Earth. Most have fairly similar color patterns of large cloud-like patches of fur in various shades of brown and yellow on their body. They all also have rings of color or spots on their tails and faces that get smaller as they reach the end of an appendage, fading nearly into leopard freckles. Their coloring assists in their blending into the forest for survival. Most are born with blue eyes that soon turn to a golden color.

Mira was the exception to this and so many other rules since birth. She was the youngest of her litter of five girls and born as the runt. Her fur was white with grey patches and her eyes had only grown more and more blue after her birth until they settled on a mystical shade of electric blue. Even with her odd coloring and tiny body, she was the fastest, strongest, and most feared of the family.

Ever the rebel, she took extra steps to separate herself from her pride when in human form also. Body modifications were her target of choice, as often as possible. Tattoos covered the entire left side of her tiny body. Vines, flowers, obscure symbols, and other things that meant something to her were branded into a wonderful piece of art.  Her mother protested more with each new tattoo and finally came to an agreement with Mira, that she would only tattoo one side of her body and leave the rest pure. Their agreement left at least half of her daughter unmarred. She also requested no body piercings, which saddened Mira.  Her mother reminded her that her body goes through something miraculous during the change and the piercings could get complicated, or even painful. Mira smiled and accepted her mother's request, knowing that she was probably right.

Her furious run began to slow as she approached her destination. The forest was dazzling with every possible shade of green, from the lightest yellow-green to deep hunter, and nearly aqua. When she raced through the trees, she could smell life in the breeze. She really appreciated the kaleidoscope of colors that assailed her vision. It was always so beautiful and tempting. Mira had tried to stay out of the forest as much as possible, but in this form she was much higher on the food chain than in her human form, so tonight was a rare treat.

She crept close to the edge of the river to taste the cool water as it passed her. She could hear the drop off for a waterfall nearby. The night was so still, she could have sworn she felt the spray of the water on her face. While reveling in the taste of the water, the calming of her heartbeat, and the peace of the night, she heard an almost imperceptible movement behind her. She impulsively leapt to the closest tree, climbing up to the safety of the branches just below the canopy to investigate her visitor.

She peered over the leaves to investigate whether the sound would lead to conflict and the fight she had been setting all of her hopes on. A dazzling pair of onyx eyes stared back at her from the branch below.

Well, hello there, my love. Where were you off to in such a rush? I nearly didn't catch up, Mira's mate's voice in her head calmed her quickly, and then annoyed her almost simultaneously.

Of course, you noticed I was gone and caught up to me before I could have some peace. Of COURSE.

Speaking to Vander telepathically usually made her smile. It was as if they had a secret language that no one could understand. Being able to touch his mind, to know if he was okay, or in need of something. Then him having the same ability usually worked in their favor as a couple. Tonight, she just wanted peace and a break from everyone. She needed a few minutes to herself to think, to reflect and to just be without someone else sharing her brain.

You seem very distracted and upset, love. What's the matter? Is there something I can do to help? Vander's sincerity and love flooded her mind with each word.

After a heavy pause and slow sigh, No, baby. There is nothing you, or anyone, for that matter can do. I just want a break from it all. I just need time to think. I'm not ready for this. I just feel like I'm being rushed. I am the baby of my family! Why am I the first one to have to marry? You’re already my mate. We know this. Just because we have not actually mated does not mean I have not found love, or want to keep you in my life forever. We have our own plans. Why does it matter to everyone else what we do and don’t do, and when we do it? I am so frustrated!

Mira's heavy rant through Vander's mind made him visibly wince. You probably do not want to hear that I understand, but I do. I don't like it any more than you do, that we are being forced to rush things. I'm not ready for children. I wanted us to enjoy our life together; be young, stupid, and have fun, but this is something that our families need and that we are bound to do. It won't change anything about how we feel about one another; it just means we get to have sex sooner.

The devilish thoughts that trickled through his mind made her chuckle.

You know that I can see those images you are thinking, right?

I do, yes. Worried you’ll get excited?

You can only dream, cat man. Now go! Get out of here. I'm hunting and you throw off my mojo.

Pfft! As if you even have mojo, lame kitty. His playful nickname calmed her even more than before.

Well, I guess we shall see who brings home more haul, won't we? Call me 'lame' now, I'm totally going to kick your ass!

He leapt from his branch to the forest floor, as she eased her way down the tree. He watched her coming down headfirst and sent her a mental nudge. Do you know how sexy it is that you can do that? Leopards rock.

The next time I am in human form, I am going to roll my eyes at your lame ass. It's beneficial to be able to come down this way. I can see what's waiting for me at the bottom.

Once she reached the forest floor, she sent a longing look over her shoulder to the water and gave a silent goodbye to her peaceful journey tonight. She nudged her mate, to give him the green light to head off on their hunts. It would still be fun to see who could win and at least this way she would be able to run and kill things. Always a bonus!








Chapter 2


Hours later, covered in grime from the hunt, Mira and Vander arrived back home on the edge of the swamp, deep in the forest. The lights from the house reflected off of the sluggish water, making everything look more beautiful and magical. The wooden path leading up, beside the water to the house had a lantern at every other post, lighting their way to the house that, at first, appeared to be nothing more than a little shack on the water's edge. Upon closer inspection, the house was more apt to be referred to as the fanciest treehouse in all of history.

The house was raised up off of the forest floor, keeping the inhabitants safer from all creepy crawlies that could not climb. The outside was reinforced so that any other animal, who obviously forgot their place, could not be successful if they attempted to enter the dwelling unannounced. Very few windows were visible, giving the house more protection from onlookers or any possible threat. The irrigation and water purification system was set up nearby as well, to give the inhabitants of the house a way to have clean, safe water. This was provided by the biggest, free natural resource that surrounded them daily. The rain.

Beauty was one of those frivolous things Mira's mother insisted upon with the home, but insisted that said beauty would also have the double-purpose of being functional also. The lanterns seemed to be in place for their aesthetic only, as none of those living in the house needed the lights to guide them. She was sure her mother had another purpose for them; she always was planning ahead. Their eyesight was undeniably one of the strongest attributes of their nature, but being able to see with human sight how beautiful the house looked, was truly a gift. Their mother's talent for beautiful things was never truly wasted.

 Now in human form, the couple approached the home with their kills from their hunt, slung lazily over their shoulders.  Making their way up the ramp toward the house, Mira paused to take in the beauty of her home.

"I really do love it here. Even when I'm stressed out, this is the only home I've ever known. Leaving it will be more difficult than I thought."

"We will be just fine, love. Just trust that we are an amazing team and can handle this."

A sigh and nod, showed that she was in agreement with her mate. Another non-surprising thing was that Mira was the winner of the night's kill. Vander pained to admit defeat.

"It's a blow to my masculinity that you always beat me at everything, woman!" he jokingly complained and then bit his lip ring. Where she was the tattooed freak, he was the pierced freak with a septum, lip, and eyebrow ring. Each piece of jewelry drew attention to one of his exotic, beautiful features. His onyx eyes and hair, a strong jawline, and lush lips made him undeniable gorgeous. For a man, he was just pretty!

"So, stop being such a wuss about my winning and beat me at something already! But stop biting your lip like that, it makes me jealous, 'cause I'm pretty sure it's my turn to be biting your lips," she teased as she pressed herself against him and nipped at his bottom lip playfully. "How about this for a challenge, first one to the shower gets to scrub the other one clean! Ready? GO!" She took off quickly up the path and into the house without pause. She made a beeline down the hallway, in the direction of the bathroom, with him following closely at her heels.

"Wait, on second thought, I think I want to lose this one!" he called behind her, purposefully going much slower than her and completely stopping at one end of the hall as she made her way to the door. He leaned against the wall and smiled triumphantly as she turned back to see him lounging.

"You're so lazy!" she called back, then added, "It's not like you could have beaten me anyway, so it's better that you give up before you’re creamed!"

"Lazy?! I’ll show you lazy!" A sudden burst of speed erupted from Vander and before she could reach the bathroom door, he was standing there with a towel in his hand. "You were saying?" With an even quicker burst of speed, he twirled her around him and placed a sweet kiss to her lips then placed her back where he got her from.

"Yay! Now I get scrubbed clean! Sweet!" The victory dance she did after her announcement looked like a full body dry heave.

"You tricky little devil, you did that on purpose! But please, for both of us and all that might see you, don't dance. That's just terrible. People know we plan to get married and I have a reputation to uphold."

"Kinda. Now you've won something and so have I, so see? It works out well." Then realizing his second comment, she added, "You should feel so lucky that I even take you as my mate! Bah! I'm sexy and you know it. Don't make me do my signature move the very next time we are out in public. 'Cause you know I will do it!" she added, starting up the horrible move again.

He nearly burst with laughter and conceded his defeat, "Yes, you are right. You are very sexy, I am blessed that you accept me as a mate and for the love of all things sacred please don't harm anyone's eyesight with your 'signature move' in any public fashion." He was laughing so hard he almost snorted and wrapped his arms around his mate.

Her grin was followed with, "All I heard was that I am right, sexy, and you are blessed to have me. That's all I need to know." She pecked his lips and leaned into him, then she decided to add, "But I do plan to, at some point in time, embarrass you to absolutely no end with my dork side. It's inevitable. I apologize in advanced for that, but only a little."

Her face reminded Vander of a sculpture he once saw at a museum. A priceless piece of artwork is how he thought of his amazing mate. He hoped she would stay that way forever. Of course, time changes people and things, but he had seen her mother and knew the beautiful lineage she hailed from. Also, she cared about her health and made great efforts to stay well and always natural. The pride he had for his mate always shined brightly through him and his actions toward her. He had vowed long ago to always be her support system, as well as her best friend. It was a simple promise to abide by, as she was the same for him.

Mira twisted the handle to the bathroom door, but it didn't budge. A long, slow breath left her lungs as she tried to get a grip on her frustration.

"Dude! Who’s in the bathroom? I've been hunting all night and need a shower in the very worst way. I am covered in gunk. Come out! It's my turn!" she bellowed. "If you don’t come out in two minutes, I will roll my filth all over your sheets!"

"Seriously, chica, you gotta relax," her sister, Saber called from the other side of the locked door." I am almost finished. You want me to come out naked with your man standing there? I don't think so! I'm too sexy and he's your mate. That could just cause more problems than necessary. Besides that, I already left a towel out there for you to dry off on before I jumped in."

"You are not high on yourself AT ALL, sis!" Mira shouted back as she rolled her eyes so hard it almost gave her a headache. "Please hurry. I feel sticky!"

Her mate's chuckle immediately made her start to chuckle as well and she swatted his arm. "Shut up, pervert."

"What?" he questioned looking amazingly innocent, "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Yeah, uh huh. I'm going to go get more clothes and do some stuff. You stand guard so we’re next, please?" She stood up on her tiptoes to give Vander another kiss. He was nearly a foot taller than her and almost double her weight. Her diminutive frame was a beautiful marriage of strength and femininity. Vander called her his pint-sized ball of sass.

She turned to leave and Vander said, "Good job out there tonight, love. You amazed me as always."

She blushed and then sent him a little wink, "I learned from the best."









Chapter 3


She entered her tiny room with purpose. She was going to make sure all of her clothes were picked up off of the floor, gather anything that wasn't in use, or was definitely trash, and throw it out. She would forage for clothing and clean under her bed. As she milled around her room, she realized that things weren't nearly as bad as they had seemed the last time she was in here. Being in the swamp and jungle had that effect on her. Her room was just in slight disarray, but definitely not enough to alert the authorities.

She organized a few things on her tiny desk and then stepped over to open her Murphy bed. Having limited space in their fancy tree house, they also limited the size of the bedrooms and found efficient ways of saving on space. Her Murphy bed was her most treasured part of her room. She could let the bed down, sleep, read, do whatever, then put it up and exercise, play, and have walking space. It was an ingenious invention.

Being born as a quintuplet tended to give a person little to no privacy for very long periods of time. Even though her mom proved her brilliance more times than enough, making sure the girls had separate bedrooms in the house was her mother's best decision ever.

Just as she had gathering her clothes to head back to the bathroom to wait the rest of eternity for her sister to finish up, she heard her mother's cry come from somewhere in the house. She instantly dropped everything in her hands and raced to find where the cry was coming from.










Chapter 4


Down in the kitchen, Mira's mother sat with her head in her hands at the table. She was visibly shaken and worry streaked her beautiful features.

"Mama, what is it? What's wrong? " Mira asked as she gathered her mom to her chest for a warm hug.

"I am a horrible mother! How can I let this happen? You are my baby and should never have to suffer as I suffer. I'm so sorry! Please, you must forgive me, mija." Her mother only pulled the 'mija' card when things were serious or when she was being overly motherly. Using such an endearment only meant that she was truly sorry about something and needed forgiveness.

"Mama, whatever is going on I'm sure you didn’t intend it and it can be fixed. What’s the problem? Let's fix it together." Mira's attempt to soothe her mother only made her cry harder.

"Vander. I sent him to get something for me from Moreno." Her eyes quickly searched her daughter's face as she said the very last name she knew her daughter would want to hear ever again.

Mira softly shoved her mother away and stood quickly. "Really, Mama? Is Vander gone already? How could you send him there? You know who is there. That puts us all in danger. Why, mama? What could be that important?" she questioned, feeling exasperated already. She turned and yelled to the house, "Someone find Vander so I can go with him! NOW!"

"He has left, mija. When I saw you walk away, I went to him quickly and asked for him to go there and come back before you had time to follow. You don't belong there. Vander is not of our family yet; he is the only one that can go there. You have to understand, I did this for you. You should not have to get married to stop some curse that happened before you were even born! I can't stand it that life has been this way for all of my girls. I feel like a failure. I want this stopped so you and your mate can find happiness, live your life, and not have to worry about this pox on our family anymore. Not just for you, but for all of my girls."

"You still didn't answer what he went to retrieve?" Mira pressed, coming closer to her mother again.

"He went to get a way to break the curse. The witch who cursed you all is married to Moreno now. She and I have been communicating. She feels bad for the curse and wants to help us remove it. She said she never intended for it to cause such harm against your father and our lives and she only wishes to right her wrongs."

Pinching the bridge of her nose and looking at the floor, Mira slowly began her response to her mother. "No disrespect intended, Mama, but any one of us would sacrifice to break this curse. It is not so horrible to have to marry the love of my life, Mama. Besides any of this, how can you trust this woman? Has she proved to have any sort of stellar character thus far? Any one of us would die trying to protect the rest, or go down swinging. Vander is not yet family! You sent him alone to our worst enemy and expected me to be okay with that? And you did that because you took the word of the person that ruined your life in the first place! What the hell is going on?"

"I knew you would be angry. I'm sorry, mija. I trust her because she has nothing to gain and everything to lose. Vander, that sweet man of yours, wanted to tell you that I sent him, but I forced him to leave before he could so that he could have a head start. I want you to stay here and trust in him, that he can do this for us. He will prove his worth to our family this night."

"He has nothing to prove to you, or anyone else. He is MY mate, not yours. He is my love and my family even before we are married. You know better than this, Mama. We do not send our loved ones out in the night with no protection. That is not how we do things and you know that! What is wrong with you?" Mira slammed her fists on the table then stood and turned to stomp her way out of the kitchen.

Entering her room, she slammed the door closed behind her and felt the house tremor a bit. She paused, took a deep breath and then pounced to action. She picked up the discarded comfortable clothes she had planned to wear after her shower and tossed them on her chair. She went to the dresser and grabbed a cleaner shirt and new socks so she would at least stay warmer in the cool night air. She left her room silently and was out the side door before anyone had a moment to stop her.

Saber met her just outside the door, "Where are you going so late, Mira?"

"I am going to protect my mate. Mama sent him to Moreno's on some mission."

Saber's face melted into a horrified gaze that reminded Mira even more of what she was up against. "Do you want me to join you? I can help," she offered immediately.

"No, sis. I can do this on my own. Just keep Mom busy and don't allow anyone else out there. We will not need backup, we have each other. I need you guys to stay safe. I'm begging you this favor."

"No need to beg. I just got out of the shower and my fine ass needs some fluffy pajamas and ice cream anyway. I will go stay with Mama. I'm sure she’ll have a snack with me. Maybe I can get her to watch a movie or something? Not that I'm not worried about you out there in harm's way and all, but I know you can hold your own."

"Yeah, thanks. Go back inside. It's not safe out here at night. You know that."

"Yeah, I know. I was just hoping to attract my mate while I'm all clean and shiny from my shower. It's not working though. The only thing that wants to pay attention to me is some Howler monkey and a few snakes. Even I'm not that desperate," she giggled and went back inside.

Mira smiled softly at her sister. The girls were only minutes apart in age, but it was as if Saber was the other mom. She was beautiful, smart and commanded attention just by entering a room. She should never have a problem with attracting men.

"Lock the door; no one goes out or comes in except for Vander and I, okay?"

"Got it. Luck!" her sister wished her as she ran off into the night.



(continue here...)



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