Gentleman Takes A Chance

Gentleman Takes A Chance

Sarah A. Hoyt

 

 

From near and far the creatures gather – winged and hoofed, clawed and fanged and armed with quick rending maws.  Great hulking beasts appear that the world has not seen in uncounted ages: reptiles that crawled in great primeval swamps long before human foot trod the Earth; saber tooth tigers and winged pterodactyls.  And others: bears and apes; foxes and antelopes, all converge on a small hotel on the outskirts of Denver, as a snowstorm gathers over the Rocky Mountains.

Outside the hotel, some change shapes – a quick twist, a wrench of bone and flesh, and where the animals once were, there now stand men and women.   Others fly into the room, through the open balcony door, before changing their shapes.

In there – in human form – they crowd together, massing, restive.  Old and young, hirsute and elegant, they gather.

Outside the day darkens as a roiling darkness of clouds obscure the sun.  Inside the men and women who were – such a short time ago – beasts wait.

Then of a sudden he is there, though no one saw him shift shapes no one saw him arrive.

He is not huge.  At least not in his human form.  A well formed man, of Mediterranean appearance – with well cut if somewhat long lanky dark hair, sensuous lips and a body that would not have looked out of place in a Roman temple.  He appears to be in his middle years and wears his nakedness with the confidence of someone who feels protected in or out of clothes.

But it is his eyes that hold the assembly in check – dark eyes, intense and intent – that look at each of them in turn as though he knew not only any of their possible sins and crimes, but also their nameless, most intimate thoughts.

“Here,” he says.  “It is here.  It is nearby.”

“Here,” another voice says.

“Nearby.”

“So many dead.  Shapeshifters.  Dead.”

“We can’t let this stand,” someone says.

“It won’t stand,” the leader of the group says.  “We’ll find those who killed the young ones of our kind.  And we will kill them.  The blood of our children calls to me for revenge.  I’ve executed the murderers of our kin before and I will do so again.”

“The deaths happened in Goldport Colorado,” a voice says from the crowd and a finger points.  “That way.”

“I will be there tomorrow,” the leader of the meeting says.  A tenseness about him indicates certainty and something else – an eagerness to kill again.


            Kyrie looked up at the ceiling as a sort of scraping bump came from the roof of the tiny working-man Victorian that she shared with her boyfriend, Tom Ormson.  The sound reminded her of ships at high sea — of the shifting and knocking of wood under stress.  How much snow was up there by now?  And how much could the roof withstand?

From the radio – high up on the shelf over the card table and two folding chairs that served as dining nook — came a high pitched whistle, followed by a voice, “We interrupt this program to issue a severe winter storm alert.  All city facilities are closed and everyone who is not emergency and essential personnel is requested to stay indoors.  Goldport Police Department is on cold reporting.  Should your home become unsafe or should you believe that it will become unsafe, these are the public shelters available.”

There followed a long list of public buildings and churches.  Kyrie thought briefly that with the weather the police couldn’t be on anything but cold reporting – icy in fact — though she knew very well they meant that any accidents should be reported later.  Cold seemed such an apt adjective for what was happening outside.

Not that she anticipated needing shelter.  The little Victorian cottage had been here for over a hundred years and presumably had survived massive snowstorms.  But though it was only three pm,  the scant light outside, the swirling darkness looked more like stormy midnight than the middle of the afternoon.

It was her first blizzard in Goldport, Colorado.  She’d lived here for just over a year, but the last winter had been mild, sparing her one of the legendary Rocky Mountain blizzards.  Which she wouldn’t have minded so much, except for the fact that those blizzards grew ever larger in the tall tales of all her neighbors, acquaintances, and the regular diners at The George.

For the last week — while the weathermen  screamed incoming — the clientele at The George had been evenly divided between those who’d say not a flake would fall and those who insisted they would all be buried in snow and ice and future generations would find them like so many Siberian mammoths buried in permafrost, the remains of their last souvlaki meal still in their stomachs.

Kyrie suppressed a shudder, gave a forceful stir to the bowl of cookie dough she held against her jean-clad hip, and told herself she was being very silly.  It wasn’t like her to have this sort of fanciful, almost superstitious fear.  She’d like to think she had imagination enough, but she’d never had time to let it run riot.

She had been abandoned as a newborn at the door of a church in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Christmas Eve, and had lived up in a succession of foster homes, having to fend for herself more often than not.  She’d grown up slim and graceful, with the muscular body of a runner.

At almost twenty two, she’d been and adult and on her own for about four years.  She rarely stayed at a job for very long.  What she had thought for many years were dreams of turning into a panther – and now knew was true shape shifting – usually scared her away from any given place, job or relationship and had kept her moving before anyone became too close.  She’d been afraid they’d make her see a psychiatrist.  She’d been afraid of being given anti-psychotic drugs.  Sane or not, she wanted to know her thoughts came from her own mind, not from some chemical.  And her madness – as she thought it – hurt no one.  It was just dreams.

For years she told herself she didn’t miss people, or relationships, or those other things that seemed to be a given right of al other humans.  She kept her own house and her own mind.  And, until three months ago, when Tom had become her boyfriend and started subletting the enclosed porch at the back of the house, she’d been lonely.  Very lonely.

Then suddenly she’d had to believe she was a shifter.  That the panther she dreamed of being was her other self.  And that there were others like her.  This had tossed her head first into a sea of new relationships, new ties.

This house and Tom were the closest thing she’d ever had to a family.  Probably the closest thing he’d ever had to a family, too.  Oh, he’d grown up with wealthy parents, she knew.  He’d been raised in New York City by professional, well to do mom and dad.  But that hadn’t made them a family.  It wasn’t just that Tom’s parents had divorced when he was very young.  People might divorce and yet raise their children well and as a family.  It was more that his mother had never cared again if Tom lived or died.  And his father had left Tom to be raised by hired help, and only took notice of him when Tom got in some scrape and had to be bailed out – which he did regularly – possibly because it was the only time he got attention.  And then, when Tom was sixteen, his father had walked in on him changing from a dragon to a human, and – horrified or scared – had thrown Tom out onto the streets of New York City in nothing but a robe.

After that Tom, too, had drifted aimlessly, living as he could, without anyone to rely on, without anywhere to call home.  And now…

And now they lived together.  And they were dating, presumably with a view to marriage, not that it had ever been mentioned.  Of course, since Tom’s father had bought the diner for them jointly, they were already part of a partnership.

And a touch of Tom’s calloused hand could still set her heart aflutter, just like a sudden tender look from him, across the diner, on a busy day, could make her feel as though she were melting from the inside out.

Still all their kisses and their caresses had an end.  Tom always pulled back, before things went too far.  Everyone in the diner – everyone who knew them — assumed that, since they dated and lived, they were sleeping together as well.  And Kyrie didn’t know what to think.  Tom said that he wanted to take it slow, to give them both time to establish a normal relationship before they became more intimate.  And yet…

And yet sometimes, when he pulled back, she caught a hint of something in his eyes – distance and fear.  Was he afraid he’d shift during lovemaking?  It wasn’t that unusual to shift under strong emotions, so that might be all it was.  Or perhaps he’d realized he’d made a mistake and she was not whom he wanted?

A wave of protectiveness and of almost shocking possessiveness arose in her  – the need to protect this, the one haven she’d found.  Something – someone – must belong to her.  And Tom was hers.  Oh, not against his will.  But hers to protect and hers to love.

Setting the bowl down, she pulled back her waist-long hair marring her carefully dyed-in Earth tone pattern – that gave the impression of a tapestry whose lines shifted whenever she moved – with a broad streak of white.  She frowned at the little door to the side of the door that led outside.  The door to the back porch where Tom was still asleep.

Would Tom be upset that she had turned off his alarm clock?  They both worked the night shift at The George – a long night shift, often seven pm to seven am – and he always set his alarm for two pm.  But she had turned it off because she thought there was no point going into the diner today and Tom might as well rest.  The chances of their having enough customers to justify the money used in lighting and heating The George were very low.  And even though it was only a few blocks away, Kyrie didn’t want to drive in the storm howling outside.  And she certainly didn’t want to walk in it.

Whether Tom agreed with her was something else again.  She looked down at the bowl of dough.  A succession of never-ending foster homes had taught her that the easiest way of managing men was by setting something sweet down in front them.  It tended to distract them long enough that they didn’t remember to be angry.

Still, as she knelt down to rummage under the cabinet for her two baking sheets, she tensed at a sort of half gasped cry from Tom’s sleeping porch.  Rising, she held the trays as a shield, and looked at the door into the enclosed back porch.  Tom didn’t cry out in his sleep.  The house was barely large enough to swing a cat.  If he sleep-screamed, she’d know by now.

He didn’t yell again, but there was a deep sigh, and then the slap  of his feet – swung over the side of the daybed – hitting the wooden floor of the sleeping porch. The sound was followed by others she knew well, from normal days.  A confused mutter that, had she been close enough, would reveal itself as “What time is it?” followed by a cartoon-like sound of surprise, which was followed, in short order, by the sound of the back blind being pulled aside to allow him to look outside, and then by words she couldn’t hear well enough to understand but which – from the tone –  were definitely swearing.

Then Tom’s bare feet padded towards the door between sleeping porch and kitchen.  Kyrie, who in her short time of sharing the house with a male, had learned that if you appeared to be totally in command and quite sure you’d done the right thing men – or at least Tom – were likely to go along with it, set the tray down on the card table at which they normally ate and started studiously setting little balls of cookie dough down on it, two inches apart.

Tom cleared his throat, and she looked up, to see him in the doorway.  Her first thought – as always — was that, despite being all of five six, he looked amazing – pale skin, the color of antique ivory.  Glossy, curly black hair just long enough to brush his shoulders – contrasted with intensely blue eyes like the sky on a perfect summer day and generously drawn lips that just begged to be kissed.  Her second thought was that the most sculpted chest in creation deserved better than to be encased in a baggy green t-shirt that read Meddle you not in the affairs of dragons, for thou art crunchy and good with ketchup.  Even if she’d bought him the t-shirt.  And the best ass in the tri-state area should not be hidden by flannel checker-pattern pajama pants in such virulent green and yellow they could give seizures to used car salesmen.

“I take it The George is closed?” Tom said, and raised his hand to rub at his forehead between his eyebrows.

He squinted as if he had a headache and there were heavy dark circles under his eyes.  Granted, skin as pale as Tom’s bruised if you sneezed on it, but he didn’t normally look like death warmed over.  She wondered why he did now.   “It’ s either closed now or it will be very soon.  I called Anthony and he said it was pretty slow.  He wanted to shut down the stoves and all, close and go home.  So I told him fine.  I know we could probably walk to The George but–”

“I looked out,” he said.  “We might very well not find The George in this.  Blinding blizzard.”  He blinked as if realizing for the first time what she was doing.  “Cookies?”

“Well… the radio said that there will be emergency shelters and I could only figure two reasons for it.  Either the snow is going to be so heavy that the roof will collapse, or they’re afraid we’ll lose power.   Can’t do anything about roof collapsing.  Not that tall.  But I can preemptively bake cookies.  Make the house warm.”

He came closer, to stand on the other side of the little table.  Though he was still squinting, as if the light hurt his eyes, his lips trembled on the edge of a smile.  “And we get to eat the cookies too.  Bonus.”

“Make no assumptions, Mr. Ormson,” she waggled an admonitory finger.  “This is the first time I’ve baked cookies.  They might very well taste like builder’s cement.”

His hand darted forward to the bowl and stole a lump of dough.  Popping it in his mouth, he chewed appreciatively.  “Not builder’s cement.  Raisin AND chocolate chip?”

She shook her head and answered dolefully, “Rat droppings.  The flour was so old, you see.”

He nodded, equally serious.  “Right.  Well, I’ll take a shower, and then we can see how rat droppings bake.”

Down the hallway that led to the bathroom, she heard him open the door to the linen closet.  Using a clean towel every day was one of those things she didn’t seem able to break him of.  But part of living together, she was learning, was picking your battles.  This was one not worth fighting.

She heard him open the door to the bathroom as she put the cookie trays in the oven.  She was setting the timer when she heard the shower start.

And then…

And then the sounds that came out of the bathroom became distinctly unfamiliar.  They echoed of metal bending under high pressure and tile and masonry cracking, wrenching subjected to forces they weren’t designed for.

Her first thought was that the roof had caved in over the bathroom.  But the sounds weren’t quite right.  There was this… scraping and shifting that seemed to be shoving against the walls.  The cabinet over the fridge trembled, and the dishware inside it tinkled merrily.

Kyrie ran to the hallway and to the door of the bathroom.

“Tom?” she said and tried the handle.  The handle rotated freely – well, not freely but loosely enough that the door clearly was not locked.  And yet it wouldn’t budge when she pushed at it.  “Tom, are you in there?”

A growl and a hiss answered her.

***

            The lion leapt across the entrance of the Goldport Undersea Adventure.  He bounded across the next room, amid two rows of aquariums.  The private company that had bought out the municipal aquarium had outfitted this room to look like a submarine’s control room, with gages and the sort of wheels that turn to activate pressure locks, and buttons and things.  When the aquarium was open and functioning, the screens above the controls showed movies of underwater scenes in various bodies of water around the world.

Now dead and silent, with  the aquarium closed due to inclement weather, they were just large, dark television screens.  The whole building was empty except for a woman in the back office and the lion, who sniffed his way down the pretend mountain path that wound among tanks stocked with fish from the world over.

As he padded past the tank with piranhas, the lion growled softly, startling the exhibit of sea birds on an elevated area and causing them to fly up till they met with the net that kept them within their space.

The lion didn’t care.  He  had picked up the scent he had been looking for.  A sweetish, almost metallic scent.  The smell of shape shifters.  He put nose to the ground and followed it, growling softly to himself, past the little suspension bridge with the artificial river underneath — momentarily disoriented where water had sprayed and diluted the scent.  But the scent picked up on the other side of the bridge.

The lion couldn’t think why the scent was important.  There was a part of his mind – as if it were someone else, another mind, locked deep inside his brain – telling him the smell related to death and killing.

The lion didn’t know why death or killing would be important, and he couldn’t smell death in the air anyway.  There was no decay, no blood.  Just a smell of fish and water and chemicals, and the smell of people, many people, some of which had probably passed by days ago but left behind the olfactory trail of their passage.

Then there was the clear bright scent of a shape shifter.  Not that the lion knew what a shape-shifter was, or not really.  Just that this was the scent he was seeking, the scent he must follow, deep into the broad chamber decorated with a cement chest and a hoard of plaster coins that his other mind remembered as unconvincingly painted to resemble gold.

The chamber was vast, with a tall ceiling lost in darkness.  The lion crouched close to the ground, and followed two trails of smell – or rather, one trail that wound itself around, in front of two vast tanks.  Inside the tanks swam creatures the lion’s inner mind told him were sharks.  Large, with sharp, serrated teeth, they swam towards him, while he sniffed at the glass.

 

The lion paid them no more attention than he did the yellow tape that blocked one of the tanks and the service stairs, discretely hidden behind some plastic fronds, leading back to the top of the tank.  There was no smell there at all, and the lion didn’t look at it.  Instead, he turned to follow the interesting scent out of the chamber, towards the front of the aquarium.

And stopped when he heard a voice, coming from the opposite direction of where he had come.  “Officer Trall?”

The words made the lion turn, giving something like a half-grunt under his breath, as he lopped very fast back the way he had come.  Very, very fast, his paws devouring the distance he had traversed so cautiously.

Steps followed him.  Human steps.  Steps in high heels – the inner voice told the lion.  A woman.

The lion gave a soft, distracted roar as – the inner voice yelled to hide, to change, to do something –  he leapt into a corner of the entrance chamber, around the side of the ticket booth, and into the narrow hallway that led to the bathrooms.  He hit the door of the men’s bathroom at a lope, and rolled into the room.

As he rolled he… shifted, his body twisting and writhing even as he tumbled, till a tall, muscular blond man landed, from a somersault, in the middle of the bathroom, by one of the closed stalls.

From outside the door, the voice called, “Officer Trall?”

“In here,” the man who had been a lion answered, his voice shaking slightly.  “Just a moment.”

And it was just a moment, as he reached for his clothes – khaki pants and a loose-cut shirt that, with his mane of long, blond hair gave him the look of a surfer about to hit the waves – and slipped into them and his shoes with the practice of someone who changed clothes several times a day.

In fact, Officer Rafiel Trall of the Serious Crimes Unit of the Goldport Police Department, had clothes hidden all over town and in some of the neighboring towns as well.  One thing shifting shape did —  it ruined your wardrobe.  Though he controlled himself – well enough during the day, with more difficulty at night – he still destroyed clothes so often that he’d developed a reputation as a ladies man throughout the department.

Every time he came back wearing yet another set of clothes, all his subordinates, from his secretary to the newest recruit, elbowed each other and giggled.  Rafiel only wished his sex life were half as exciting as they thought it was.  Not that he could complain, or not really.  He dated his fair share of women.  He just couldn’t allow any of them to get close enough to see his… changes.  So he had a lot of first and second dates and rarely a third.

He looked at himself in the mirror, frowning, as he combed his fingers through his hair.  Receptionists, women officers, even the medical examiners and legal experts who had sporadic contact with the Goldport Police Department, all warned each other about him in whispers.  He’d heard the words “Fear of commitment” so often he felt like it they were tattooed on his forehead.  And it wasn’t true.  He’d commit in a minute.  To any woman he knew would accept him and not freak out.  In less than a minute to a woman like him, a shifter.  Of his kind.

The thought of Kyrie came and went in his mind, a mix of longing and regret.  No point thinking about it.  That wasn’t going to happen.

Instead, he opened the door — his relaxed smile in place as he met the aquarium employee who waited outside, a slightly worried look in her eyes.  She was small and golden skinned, with straight black hair and the kind of curves that fit all in the right places.  Her name was Lei Lani – which made him think of her as one of the Bond girls – and she was a marine biologist on some sort of inter-program loan from an aquarium in Hawaii.

Looking at her smile, it was easy to imagine her welcoming tourists in nothing but a grass skirt.  Of course, thinking about that was as bad as thinking too much about her first name.  Neither encouraged his good behavior.

“I’m sorry,” Rafiel said.  “One of those sudden stomach things.”

“Ah.  I was just checking, because I really should lock up and go home.  I mean, everyone else has, and I only stayed because I live so close by here.”

“Yeah.  How bad is it out?”

“Blinding.  As I said, if I didn’t live within walking distance, I’d have left long ago.  I mean, I’m not even sure you should drive in this.  Perhaps you should stay at my place till the weather improves.”

Was that a seductive sparkle in her eye?  Did Rafiel read it correctly?  It wasn’t that he wasn’t tempted, but right now he had other things on his mind.

He shouldn’t have been so reckless as to shift shapes while there was someone else in the building, but the hint of shifter scent he’d been able to pick up even with his human nose had forced him to check it out.  After all, a shape shifter at a crime scene could mean many things.  The last time he’d picked it up, it had, in fact, meant that the shifters were the victims.  But there was always the chance it meant the shifter he smelled was the killer.  And a murder committed by shape shifters, properly investigated, would out them as non-mythological.  Which meant – if Rafiel knew how such things worked – that at best they’d all be studied within an inch of their lives.  At worst…  Well… Rafiel was a policeman from a long line of policemen.  He understood people would be scared of shifters.  Not that he blamed them.  There were some shifters that he was scared of, himself.  But the thing was, when people were terrified, they only ran away half the time.  The other half… they attacked and killed the cause of their fear.

“I will be okay.  I have a four wheel drive, and I’ve lived here all my life.  This is not the first blizzard I’ve driven in,” he said.  He was still trying to process the input of the lion’s nose.  There had been a clear shifter scent trail throughout the aquarium.  It had circled the shark area.

The shark area where, yesterday, a  human arm had been found – still clutching a cell phone – inside a shark.  The aquarium had been shut down – though the weather provided a good excuse for that.  And the relevant area was isolated behind the yellow crime-scene tape.  The dead man had been identified as a business traveler from California, staying in town for less than a week.

The question was – had he fallen in the aquarium or been pushed?  And if he’d been pushed, was it a shifter who’d done the pushing?

***

            The sound of the roar-hiss from the bathroom made Kyrie stop cold.  Tom didn’t – normally – roar or hiss.  But the dragon that Tom shape-shifted into did.

She frowned at the door, trying to figure out how Tom could have become a dragon in the bathroom.  And why.  While Tom was a short human, as a dragon he was… well, he had to be at least…  She tried to visualize Tom in his dragon form and groaned.

With wings extended, Tom had to be at least twenty feet from wing tip to wing tip and she was probably underestimating it.  And he was at least twelve feet long and his main body was more than five feet wide, with big, powerful paws and a long, fleshy tail.

Now, your average bathroom might – for all she knew – be able to contain a dragon.  But the bathroom in this house was not what anyone could call a normal bathroom.   In fact in most other houses it would be a closet and not even a walk-in closet.  It was maybe all of five feet by four feet – the kind of bathroom where you had to close the door before you could stand in front of the sink and brush your teeth.  There was no way, no way at all, a dragon could fit in there.

“Tom,” she yelled again, pounding on the door.  “Tom!  Please tell me you didn’t turn into a dragon in the bathroom.”

The sound that answered her was not Tom’s voice – in fact, it resembled nothing so much as a distressed foghorn – but it carried with it a definite tone of apology and confusion.

“Right,” Kyrie said, as she tried to push the door open.  The problem, of course, was that the door opened inward.  That meant to get in — or get Tom out — she must swing the door into the bathroom which was, in fact, already filled to capacity with dragon.  The resistance she felt was some part of Tom’s flesh refusing to give way.

She stopped pushing.  She had no idea what had caused Tom to shift.  Normally he only shifted involuntarily with the light of the moon on him and some additional source of distress working against his self control.  But what could make him shift, in the middle of a blizzard, in the bathroom?

She needed to get him to shift back.  Now.   Knowing why he shifted would help, but if she couldn’t find it out – and he wouldn’t be able to answer questions very intelligibly – then she must get him to shift back by persuasion.

The door dated from the same time as the house – somewhere around the nineteenth century, when Goldport had been built from the wealth flowing from the gold and silver mines around the area.  The wealth hadn’t reached into this area of tiny houses – filled mostly with workers brought from out East to build the mansions for the gold rush millionaires.  Oh, the house was still far more solid than houses built today.  The walls were lath and plaster or brick, instead of drywall.  It was framed in heavy beams.  But the doors – as she’d discovered when repairing hinges or locks before – were the cheapest, knottiest pine to be found in any time or place.  One grade up from kindling.  Further, to make their construction cheaper, they were not a solid panel, but a thicker cross-frame filled out with four veneer-thin panels.

Kyrie silently apologized for any injury she might do Tom, but she had to bring him out of this somehow.  She went to the linen closet and wrapped her hand in a towel.  Then she aimed at the thin pine panel and punched with all her strength.

The panel splintered down the middle and cracked at the sides.  It remained in place, but only because it was held together by countless layers of paint.  The dragon inside the bathroom made a noise like a foghorn, again.

Kyrie ignored the noise and, instead, started tearing at the door panel, pulling it out piece by piece. When she had all the pieces out, she leaned in to look into the bathroom.  Which was not as easy as she’d anticipated.  First because it was dark in there.  Whatever else the dragon had done in the shifting, he’d definitely broken the ceiling light fixture.  Judging by a sound that evoked a romantic brook running through unspoiled mountains, he had also torn the plumbing apart.

Worse than that, what she was looking at resembled a nightmare by Escher, where nothing made any sense whatsoever.  There were green scales, and she expected green scales, shading to blue in spots.  But part of what she saw was the bluish-green underbelly of the dragon Tom shifted into.  And right next to the missing panel, a claw protruded – huge and silvery, glinting like metal in the moonlight.  Next to it crammed what looked suspiciously like a bit of wing.  There was no position Tom could be in – except exploded and scrambled – where all of these made sense pressed into a small space  at the same time.

“Tom,” she said, trying to sound reasonable, while speaking to a mass of scales that, she realized, was pulsing rapidly with the sort of panting rhythm a frightened person might breathe in.  “Tom, shift back.  You can’t get out like this.  Shift back.”

The scales and wing and all slid around, scraping the door.  The dragon moaned in distress.  For a moment, the huge claw protruded through the opening, causing Kyrie to jump back, startled.  When everything was done moving around,  a dragon-eye looked back at her through the opening.  The tile balanced just above its brow ridge, only made it look more pitiful.

The eye itself –  huge and double-lidded and blue – except for size and the weird additional inner lids, was Tom’s eye.

Kyrie spoke to Tom’s eye.  “Tom, please, you must shift.  I understand there had to have been something to make you shift.  But if you don’t shift back now I can’t get you out of there.  And that bathroom is going to freeze.”

She didn’t need to be a building expert to know the tiny window into the bathroom had to be broken.  The sudden moisture at her feet made her cringe.  First, they were going to flood the house.  And then they were going to freeze it.  And it wasn’t even her house.  She rented it.  Good thing she’d long ago resigned herself to the idea she’d never see the security deposit again.  And good thing she didn’t expect to ever be rich.  After paying for these repairs, she’d be flat broke.

“Tom,” she spoke as calmly as she could, though she felt her heart racing and was holding back on a strong impulse to shape-shift herself.  She could feel as her nails tried to lengthen into claws, as her muscles and bones attempted to change shape.  She gritted her teeth and forced herself to remain human.  To remain sane.  Becoming a panther now would only add to the confusion.  “Tom, you must shift back.  I don’t know why you shifted, but there is nothing that we can’t face together.  We’ve done it before remember?”

The eye blinked at her, panic still shining at the back of it.

“Look, breathe with me – slow, slow, slow.”  She forced her own breathing to a slow, steady rhythm.  “Slow.  Everything is safe.  And if it isn’t, you can’t fight it while crammed in that bathroom.  You must be human and come out of there first.  Then we’ll talk.”

She spoke on so long that she almost lost track of what she was saying.  It was all variations on a theme.  The theme of being calm.  Very, very calm.  And shifting back.

Water was running under the door, covering the pine floor of the hallway in a thin, shimmering film, but she didn’t dare move or stop talking.  Was she having any effect?  Tom’s eye continued to glare at her, unblinking.  She only knew he was alive because she could hear the dragon’s breathing huffing in and out of huge lungs.

And then there was a sound like a sigh.  Or at least a short intake of breath followed by a long, deep exhalation.  The dragon flesh filling the broken part of the door trembled and wobbled.  The distressed foghorn sounded again.

Other sounds followed – sounds Kyrie knew well enough and which she felt a great relief at.  Not that she’d show her relief.  She didn’t want to startle Tom and stop the process.  That was the last thing she wanted.  Instead, she took deep, deep breaths, feeling Tom breathe with her, while muscles slid around with moist noises, and bones made sounds like cracking of knuckles writ large.

Tom sat there, on the soaked floor of the bathroom, on what remained of his ripped pajama pants and t-shirt.   Plaster dusted his hair.  His naked, muscular body showed a landscape of scratches and bruises.

He looked at her, mouth half open.  Then he keened.  It was neither crying, nor screaming – just a sound of long-held, pent-up frustration.  He raised his knees and wrapped his arms around them, lowering his head and taking deep deliberate breaths.

She’d seen this before.  She knew what it meant.  He was fighting the urge to shift back.  But he had it under control now.  And he would be mortally embarrassed as soon as he had the time to be.

Kyrie did what any girlfriend – what any friend – could do under the circumstances.  “Right,” she said.  “Don’t go anywhere.  I’m going to go turn off the water valve to the house.”

 

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