*So it took me forever to finish this. Not because writing is difficult, but because I was doing it in dibs and drabs while painting/cleaning/preparing for holidays, such as they are this year.
I’m going to try to do them in another three/four worlds for the rest of the year, but I’m not going to promise one a day.
Anyway, this is unproofed, and fresh off the keyboard. I hope you enjoy.
Merry Christmas for those of you who celebrate. And everyone, enjoy the short story. – SAH*
Home For Christmas
A Shifter’s short Story
Sarah A. Hoyt
Rafiel Thrall, Goldport police detective and lion-shifter wanted to scream, but he couldn’t.
He woke up in his bed, sitting up, with something much like a scream at the back of his throat but no sound emerged.
An ancient, insinuating, sticky voice spoke in the back of his mind I’ve got you now.
And he knew it was true.
He didn’t even try to fight as what controlled him told him to get dressed and come out into the night and play.
“A spider monkey?” Tom Ormson, part owner of the George Diner in downtown Goldport, and dragon shifter asked the delivery man, frowning.
The delivery man, Paul Orvan, who was known in shifter circles as Orvan Ox, though really he was a minotaur in his shifted form, smiled apologetically. “Yep. Young lady. Missing from the zoo?”
“The zoo,” Tom answered, frowning. He knew that some of the shifters chose to live at the zoo, or at least spend part of their time there. There had been l’affaire camel not so long ago, where a veterinary had … Tom resisted making a joke about gone over the hump … and realized he was allowed to make such jokes in his head. Well, the vet had got over whatever hump had driven him to the zoo in dragon form, and there had been much hullaballoo a missing/never found camel. Tom wondered how they’d first got the camel added to their numbers, to begin with. He sighed, and signed for the delivery Orvan was proffering. In his human form, Orvan was a pleasant middle aged man, with glasses. He looked somewhat worried. He started to turn, then turned back, pushing his glasses up his nose, in a gesture that denoted nervousness. “Her family lives there, you know? They say it’s a Romeo and Juliet thing.”
Orvan shrugged. “Well, mostly Bob from the Rodent Liberation Front. He goes in and out of the zoo a lot. He’s a squirrel, you know, and he says it’s a Romeo and Juliet affair.”
Romeo and Juliet … spider monkeys?
It made Tom’s head hurt. He could –in a power recently acquired – reach into the mind of any shifter. He could probably figure out where the spider monkeys were and why.
But the problem wasn’t so much that he could reach into the mind of any shifter. It’s that he could reach into the mind of every shifter. At once. Loudly. Which was great if he needed to put out a distress call, but not so great if he needed to delicately tap a spider monkey “young lady” on the shoulder and ask her what she was up to.
Also, if Tom reached out to all the shifters, the Great Sky Dragon – his ancestor, protector and foe – would find out about it. And find out Tom had the power. Tom … wasn’t keen to have the old dragon try to fight it out for the power that Tom was sure The Great Sky Dragon could control much better than Tom could. Inevitably. I mean. He’d had it a lot longer.
Also, if this was a Romeo and Juliet affair, Tom remembered perfectly well how the play had ended. And he certainly didn’t want to startle the young…. Couple?
Instead, he busied himself wiping down the counter surfaces, and cursing softly under his breath. The diner was full and he was alone behind the counter. And there was only one server, and a part-time one at that. Jason Cordova, now at instructor at the local community college, who had been known to hit the local bar dumpsters when he became a bear.
Jason was doing the best he could, circulating amid the tables filled with shoppers, weaving carefully around piles of packages stacked next to every table or on the table itself, and giving warmups and taking orders. But there were too many people.
Tom finished wiping the counter, turned the burgers on the grill, and, as the bell tinkled indicating someone had come in, he saw his back up cook, Anthony, come in, rushing.
Anthony was whispering “Sorry, sorry, sorry, before he even got to the counter. He took off his jacket, put it under the counter, and signed in the time sheet, saying, “I’m sorry. The baby is teething. I barely slept, and then when I finally fell asleep, my wife—”
“It’s okay,” Tom said, making a face. “Kyrie was supposed to be here and is having morning sickness.”
“Yeah. And she’s probably having wedding nerves too,” Tom said, and sighed. “We had a massive fight, and made up, and I told her she could sleep in. Then I called Connan, but he had a singing gig late last night on 18th Street. So he’s out.”
Anthony grinned. “Well, it’s you and me against the world, old friend.”
“The world I could handle. It’s the customers that scare me,” Tom said. “Can you handle the cooking? The orders are there,” He pointed to the cabinet door next to the grill where the orders currently being cooked were stuck with magnets. “I’m going to give Jason a hand.”
He grabbed the coffee pot, and started circulating the nearer tables, giving warm ups and chatting. Jason, headed for the counter, gave him a sigh of relief.
Tom waited till Jason was close enough and asked, “What do you know about Romeo and Juliet spider monkeys?”
Jason almost dropped the tray filled with dirty plates and glasses from the table he’d bussed. “Oh, damn. Is it Leah and Mike? Only Mike isn’t a spider monkey. He’s a Capibara.”
Bea Ryu overflew the small house in the old suburb with the tree-lined streets early morning. She hated flying long distance in the winter. You arrived frozen and with bugs in your teeth. Granted, it was better to do it at night, so the paparazzi didn’t have the chance to get a picture. Or at least not a clear picture, without forewarning. Most of the pictures they got were fuzzy and twisted and half cocked, and could be explained the same way as UFOs, as weather balloons or a camera issue. She momentarily wondered if UFOs were also real. Rafiel had said something about aliens?
But then she touched down, back paws hitting the little brick path that wound between two flowerbeds planted with winter-dormant roses.
And then she started coughing as the pain of shifting hit, bone grinding on bone, twisting, as her shape changed and morphed into that of a young woman of twenty or so, and obvious Asian extraction, but with vivid green eyes.
She stood in the middle of the path, still cold, spitting out bugs, and realized there were two people watching her.
Bea’s first impulse was to run. From her earliest shifting it had been drilled into her that you simply couldn’t allow people to see you shift. You couldn’t.
That way lay villagers with pitch forks, or worse thousand of years old shifters who thought they could control your love life.
But then the human brain intruded, and she realized she knew these people. They were Rafiel’s parents. She had met them before during her brief sojourn in Goldport.
Rafiel’s father looked a lot like Rafiel, only he had white hair where Rafiel’s was blond, and he had a little weight around the waist where Rafiel was trim. And instead of Rafiel’s ubiquitour tropical wear, Rafiel’s father wore khakis and a dark t-shirt. But mostly, he had wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. Mostly wrinkles of laugher and good humor. Right then, though, he wasn’t smiling. Nor was his wife, a woman only slightly shorter than him, with green eyes, and red hair running to sort of pinkish.
They both stared worriedly at her, and Bea shivered, reaching for the backpack which she’d carried strapped around the dragon’s wrist. It was now strapped around her wrist, and she had to flex her hand. It had cramped from cold. She had to get it to move properly again, before she could reach into the pack and bring out the robe she’d brought with her for wearing into the house. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Am I late? I—” The truth is she didn’t expect Rafiel’s parents to be waiting for her outside. She expected Rafiel.
She got a sense something was very wrong, even as Rafiel’s mother – Daisy – came up and grabbed her frozen hand. “It’s okay, dear,” she said. “It’s okay. Come inside. We have the wood stove on. You can change inside.”
Could she still call it change when the change was between mother-naked and clothed? Bea asked herself, but of course didn’t say it.
She never got to take her robe off. Rafiel’s parents herded her to the wood stove, in a corner of the family room, and next thing she knew she had a blanket wrapped around herself and was coaxed to sitting on an armchair. Rafiel’s mom handed her a cup of hot chocolate, and Bea wrapped both hands around it.
“It must be terribly cold flying at night,” Rafiel’s mom said.
“Actually the worst thing is the bugs,” Bea said. She drank some of the hot chocolate, to make sure there were no debris in her teeth, then looked up and smiled apologetically, “I’m sorry. Am I late? Rafiel said he’d be here.”
“Oh, my dear,” Rafiel’s mother wrung her hands together. “Rafiel is missing.”
Kyrie Smith, Tom Ormson’s fiancé, a panther shifter and co-owner of The George was in a mood. Not even the sight of the big neon sign with a dragon in a chef’s hat flipping pancakes could make her smile.
The thing in her mind was that it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that both of them were going to be parents, but she was the one stuck with carrying the baby: with the morning sickness and the mood swings, and oh, yeah, the inability to change into her animal form.
She was vaguely aware, somewhere at the back of her mind that this was probably a mood swing except her mind didn’t really care. She wanted to claw-swipe Tom and make him bleed for not having to put up with any of this. Not that it did her any good, because by the time she gave birth, she probably wouldn’t want to claw him. Or only on occasion when he came up with some stupid idea to promote the George. Like, say, the famous “doughnuts shaped as fingers, that get filled with red jelly.”
She smiled thinking of that and how neither Tom nor Rafiel could seem to process that the idea was revolting. Because as far as she could tell, there was something permanently broken in males’ heads. Or at least shifter males. They could revert to 12 year old with startling rapidity.
She both rolled her eyes and smiled at the jokes that Rafiel often made at the expense of the reproductive processes of “big lizards” which he claimed was what dragons were.
Smiling and shaking her head she came into the diner.
The first thing she noticed was that Jason and Tom were huddled in a corner talking. That meant there was something afoot, and likely it was shifter business. Because if weren’t shifter business, Jason, Tom and Anthony would be huddled in a corner talking.
She smiled at Anthony who smiled back, though he darted a worried glance at the other two. Kyrie gave Anthony the nod that meant “I’ll go see what’s up,” and approached the other two.
They looked almost relieved at her approach, and Tom put a hand around her waist.
“Problem?” she asked.
“Yeah. Apparently two young shifters ran away together and their families are vowing to kill each other over it.”
She raised her eyebrows. And she thought that they’d had problems when the Great Sky Dragon tried to make Tom marry someone of the dragon line. “What are they? Tigers and antelopes.”
Tom shook his head “No. Spider monkey and Capibara.”
“What. Oh, no you’re serious. Leah and Mike?”
“How come everyone knows them but me?”
“Well, darling, you’ve had other things on your mind. Besides the crazy fear that the fryer will explode. I just listen to gossip, that’s all. Poor kids. They should have a chance at their own lives. And both sets of parents are nuts.” She sighed. She didn’t like recommending this because, even though the guys were now friends they had started out as rivals and near enemies. But really, they were short staffed at the diner as was, and heck, finding missing kids was his job right? “Have you told Rafiel?”
“We tried,” Jason said. “His parents say he disappeared from his bed in the middle of the night. Bea just got here for the holidays, and she’s frantic.”
“Well, that didn’t work,” Bea thought. She’d come across the country, against her father’s wishes, to spend the holidays with Rafiel’s family. Well, not exactly against his wishes, but it was complicated.
Bea’s father had said that if she was serious about dating Rafiel she needed to know Rafiel’s family and spend more time with him. Then he’d freaked out at the idea of Bea coming out for the holidays, even though that made the most sense, since Rafiel had some time off, and Bea was on Winter break from college. Mostly because “you’ve always had Christmas with us.”
She’d tried to explain that if she were to marry Rafiel she would spend some Christmases not with her parents, but it hadn’t made much of a dent in her father’s sense of hurt. He’d finally said that fine, if that’s what she wanted, but she could tell he wasn’t happy.
And of course, both she and Rafiel were only children. Which meant if they did get married, they would have to figure out which set of parents to have their holidays with. Their parents lived across the country from each other, after all.
It wasn’t like Bea’s father could just move his veterinary practice. And Rafiel’s family had century-long roots in Goldport. He had uncles, cousins, great uncles all over the city and state. Sometimes it seemed to her he knew everyone in town, and had a cousin in every useful profession.
And in his own direct line, both his father and grandfather had been police officers in Goldport. That was the sort of tradition that was hard to break. And he’d said he’d go to Atlanta, if that was what was required to marry her. But she couldn’t ask it of him. What kind of woman would? So, instead—
Had he really left home to avoid her?
The thought came and went just as rapidly. No. Rafiel wouldn’t.
They might have been having a long distance romance, but she knew him. Or at least she knew him better than she might have say 20 years ago. Because of the internet technology they had spent many a day talking, together in everything but the most basic physical sense.
And whatever else Rafiel was – conflicted, sometimes confused, often worried about his dual nature and what it meant, one thing he was sure of and she was sure of: Rafiel would never abandon a post of honor, or ignore anyone that he had sworn to care for. And that, now, included her. Particularly since her coming out here was at his instigation. He’d never leave her hanging. Ever.
If he’d changed his mind; if he’d decided that their relationship was too much work, and that marrying was a can of worms he didn’t wish to open, he’d have told her, and told her not to come.
She shook herself, set down the now empty hot chocolate cup.
Rafiel’s mom and dad – Daisy and Don – were standing by the big glass door, looking out. She suspected they were trying not to embarrass her, to let her cope with the news in her own way, to let her decide what she was going to do on her own.
Through her mind, an exchange she’d had with Rafiel – about the visit here over Christmas – flitted. “Is this a test?” she’d asked. “Of course it is,” he’d answered. “I’ve found everything pretty much is.”
She cleared her throat. “I’m going to shower, and brush my teeth, and—” She almost said “put on some clothes” but of course, she needed to do the opposite of putting on clothes. Clothes didn’t take well to a body becoming several times larger. “Change.” She’d have to be very careful not to be seen, but one advantage of being a dragon shifter is that she could overfly the city. On the other hand– Thoughts, not quite cohering into a unified idea flitted through her mind. She maybe should actually dress, go to the George and see what they knew. “Maybe if I can borrow a car?”
“Sure.” Daisy was wringing her hands together. “But there’s something you should know first.”
“There’s something you should know,” Jason said. “See, Leah’s family thinks that they should stay in the zoo. Her grandfather is a keeper there, and he hides all the irregularities. They think they’ve been cursed, and all they can do is live in the zoo, so they don’t get killed. Some mumbo jumbo about whatever forsaken place they came from in Europe and how the peasants would have reacted to their shifting, you know?”
Tom was getting a headache again. Kyrie had gone to circulate and take orders and bus the tables, but he really needed to go work.
“Mike comes from California, but his family is from somewhere in South America.”
That tracked. What didn’t track was what spider monkeys had been doing in Europe. No wonder the peasants had reacted badly. Probably way back spider monkeys tracked as looking like the devil, or something.
But then, what was blue-eyed Tom Ormson doing being descended from the Great Sky Dragon?
“Mike is studying physics. He wants to work in aerospace. He’s planning to move to TX.”
“And Leah wants to go with him?”
“Right. They were perfectly all right with Mike crashing with them at the zoo, but taking their little girl away, and living a life away from being decent zoo exhibits is unthinkable. They threatened to disown her. And Mike—Well. I don’t know what he did. But his family isn’t too happy with his intentions either, because to them her family are those shiftless people who are throwing away their lives being exhibits.”
“Yeah,” Tom said, rubbing the middle of his forehead. “But what are they going to do about it.”
“I don’t know,” Jason said. “Knowing the people involved, though, I suspect half of them are out looking for her, and half have decided to go at the other people.”
“Fortunately,” Tom said. “The zoo is pretty well guarded. I don’t think anyone is going to let a herd of giant guinea pigs go start a war with spider monkeys.”
But Jason was looking at Tom somewhere between pitying and despairing, as though Tom were an idiot. “Yeah,” he said. That would be true. Except, you know, zoo lights. So the zoo is open at night, when people can come in with the ticket to see the lights. And there are minimal keepers on duty. And an entire herd of capibaras can too trot into the monkey enclosure, and wreak havoc before they’re caught.”
“So, it’s all on a timer till nightfall? Which is what? Five pm or so?”
“Yeah. Just about.”
Tom thought really hard of a swear word, but there were families with little kids nearby so he didn’t say anything.
Sleep shifting. Bea punched the middle of the steering wheel, because she had nothing else to vent her frustration on, as she was stuck in lunch time rush hour in Goldport. Seriously?
Rafiel had been sleep shifting and hadn’t told her.
“Well, he hasn’t told us either, dear,” his mother explained. “I think it scares him too much to tell anyone, to be fair. We just caught him a couple of times, and convinced him to go back to bed, without his wakening.”
But they hadn’t set anything to catch him if he shifted, because he was likely to catch anything they put up. They’d ordered some sensors, but they hadn’t got them yet, and weren’t sure they’d work, since they were Chinese knock offs.
Well, but that meant that she knew who to talk to.
The problem, Kyrie thought, is that they really needed Rafiel. He knew everyone in town, shifter and not. And he probably had relatives who worked at the zoo.
When the lunch rush slowed down, she called his home number.
Don answered. He sounded like Rafiel, if Rafiel had smoked three packs a day for ten years, a gravely, raspy voice that still held the authority of his years in the police force.
After abbreviated pleasantries, Kyrie asked, “He’s really missing?”
There was a long pause.
“He’s been sleep shifting,”
Another pause, a long indrawn breath. “I think… ” Don sounded embarrassed. “Well, what happened to him and that sabertooth, you know….”
Oh. Kyrie hadn’t really noticed anything wrong going on with Rafiel, after the encounter with the female old one. He’d become a little quieter. Slightly less outgoing. But he’d also found Bea, and for a while Kyrie had thought that was all there was to it.
Except she’d heard from Tom. Rafiel had been mind controlled into mating in animal form with the female ancient ones. Which was, ultimately rape. She supposed she shouldn’t be surprised it had consequences.
“Normally we catch him,” Don said. “Last night we didn’t… I think that’s all that happened.”
“Where would he go if he was shifted? And dreaming?”
“Where would he go if he was shifted and dreaming?” the Great Sky Dragon asked.
Bea had been here before, in the back rooms of the Three Luck Dragon, a Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of Goldport and, as far as she and Rafiel and all his friends could tell, the world’s headquarters of the Dragon Triad which was actually composed of dragon shifters.
She had seen the “Chinese palace” style decoration of the back, all silk and gold and exquisite murals.
Which is why she was shocked, after waiting a couple of hours to be admitted to a little room next to the kitchen, where the Great sky dragon, in an apron, sat behind a foldable table, with a huge barrel of peas by his side, shelling them into an immaculate white porcelain bowl.
“I don’t know,” she said. “There is a place that… That is, he used to go there with his parents when he was young, but I’m not sure—” She wasn’t sure he’d go there, for the simple reason that most rape victims don’t go and hang out at the place they were raped.
The Great Sky Dragon was looking at Bea with an eyebrow raised. “Are you sure?” he asked, giving her the uncomfortable notion that he’d read her mind. “Absolutely sure? Because sometime a man has to defend his home.”
Rafiel was the lion, running through the night, when he suddenly became aware of being the lion, and of what was in his mind, taking charge of it.
You! He shouted.
He recognized the unclean presence in his mind. And suddenly he was angry. “You have no right,” he said. “You are dead.”
The voice sniggered. Pretty pretty kitty, it said, in an oily, slithery voice. Come and be killed.
In his head, clearly, he saw where the creature meant to take him, and he blinked. Oh, was that it? Well and good, he was going there under his own power. And he would show them.
Bea thought long and hard. But it occurred to her that if she went into the mountains, to the cabin that had been Rafiel’s favorite place before he was assaulted there by an otherworldly entity, she should have backup. Or at least let someone know where she was going.
It would have to be Tom and Kyrie. Not that she had anything against them, except that Kyrie tended to behave as though Rafiel were a cute, not very bright child. And Tom… well, Tom was just scary. That thing he’d done before, reaching into everyone’s mind—
Then she reminded herself that outside of that role of his, Tom hadn’t been scary at all. A bit neurotic. What was with his fear that the fryer would explode, anyway? And a bit well…. Worried. But she’d met his dad, and been reminded again of all the places that treated the “adult children” of various dysfunctionalities: alcoholics, overeaters, drug users. And she realized anew that the point of “adult children” was adult. They’d had to be adults much too early. She suspected something like it had gone on with Tom.
And Tom…. Well, he seemed to be friends with Rafiel.
It was a place to start.
When she went in, the diner was almost empty. Probably because as the sun was setting there was a frigid wind blowing. The Christmas lights danced around in the façade across the street.
The Christmas lights at the George – in the shape of little dragons – were sensibly attached inside the windows, outlining them.
And someone – she doubted Tom, though of course, judging from the name of the establishment and the buckets-of-blood image of George slaying the dragon over the corner booth in the back, it might be him – had written in marker inside the window “Have a Special Slayer Christmas!”
There were three servers circulating, and—
She saw Kyrie and Tom put coats on and rushed in.
“Thank heavens I caught you,” she said.
She could see the confusion followed by recognition in Kyrie’s eyes, but there was no confusion in Tom’s eyes. He smiled “Bea Ryu. Rafiel said you’d be visiting.”
“Rafiel is missing,” Bea said, and then poured out her meeting with the Great Sky Dragon.
Tom’s eyes narrowed. “The creature isn’t often… well.” He sighed. “You know what he’s like. He might be leading us to a trap.”
“I still have to help Rafiel if I can.”
“Yes,” Kyrie said. It was a quick word, somehow dismissive. “But here’s the thing, we were going to intervene in the Romeo and Juliet.”
“Pardon?” Bea said, now completely confused.
They explained to her, though it seemed insane. All about Capibaras and spider monkeys. And family feuds.
At the end of it Kyrie grinned, suddenly. In her bright pink winter coat—like most shifters, she seemed to dress inexpensively and off the rack, because of how often clothes got ruined by shifting – she looked like a gleeful little kid. “You guys go rescue Rafiel. Or at least see if he’s at the cabin. I’ll go to the zoo. Meet me there.”
As she started to turn away, Tom grabbed her arm. “Kyrie, you’re pregnant. You can’t shift!”
Her grin became a little more feral. Bea thought it was a grin designed for fangs. “Sure,” she said. “But they all know who my fiancé is.”
Rafiel, having run through the day in lion form was almost fully free of bonds when he reached the cabin.
It was a rustic cabin in the woods, where his parents used to come on vacation when he was young, and where he used to retreat to to be alone when he was older.
Inside it was nowhere near as rustic.
And as a teen and young man he’d appreciated the ability to be himself, lion or man, no matter what. He was free to roam these isolated woods, and he’d loved it.
The saber tooth tiger shifter had intruded here and controlled his mind. And his body.
Since then he’d woken with nightmares, or sleep shifted, or been on the edge of losing control.
Rafiel wasn’t sure how, but her mind – spirit? – was still around and still trying to control him.
It stopped today.
“You know he didn’t mean to be away when you arrived, right?” Tom told Bea, as they drove through the night.
She gave a sort of hiccup laugh. “I figured that out, though at first I was all distraught. I mean, you fly into town to stay with your boyfriend and his family for the holidays. And then…. Next thing you know he’s missing.”
“Being a shifter complicates relationships. Complicates everything really. And – I’m sorry, but there’s two things you should take in account, in this relationship with Rafiel – Goldport has an unusually high opportunity for chaos since I think we have the highest shifter population in the world. Sometimes I think everyone here is a shifter, some just hide it better. And the other thing is that Rafiel is a cop. And he takes it very seriously. So, while he will try to put you first….”
“There will be times when his duty calls him elsewhere? I get that. I mean, everyone has that to an extent, right. My dad is a vet, and he once left us just sitting at table on Christmas to go operate on someone’s cat who had just been run over. He didn’t have to, but it was his duty. So I get that.”
“Good,” Tom said. “Rafiel is more vulnerable than he seems.”
Sudden laughter burbled up Bea’s throat. “Are you seriously telling me not to hurt your lion shifter friend?”
Tom let out a surprised bark of laughter. The kid was all right. “Well, yeah. Anyway, dragons are bigger, so be gentle with the kitty.”
And he told her the story they’d nicknamed in their group “Three guys in a truck” when after rescuing themselves from the triads, Tom, Rafiel and a non-shifting friend had driven from Las Vegas New Mexico to Goldport. And become friends in the process.
It was while she was laughing at Tom – trying to recover from shifting-hunger — stuffing his face with cold cuts before Rafiel could remove the plastic, that Tom realized that might be happening here too.
They were like a buzz in the air.
In his lion form, paws braced, Rafiel stood behind the cabin, and sensed – almost saw but not quite…. The …. Creatures.
They were presences, senses. Ancient and malevolent. The one who’d been the sabertooth tiger kept trying to control him, while the others attacked.
They didn’t have physical bodies, but as they buzzed him, he felt as though the were taking bites out of his soul.
We are better than the fools that thought we’d be better with physical bodies.
Yes. We are as we always were, eternal entities.
And I have learned the error of my ways. Even if you, little cat, must be punished for my killing.
The thoughts hit him like slaps, and the bites on his… essence? Made him feel cold and weak. Like he was bleeding out.
Kitty, kitty, kitty. Come and be killed.
Tom could feel them, as the truck bounced within sight of the cabin, on the rutted private road.
Damn. Ancient ones. It needed only that. And at Christmas too.
Then he saw them, not quite lights, or not visible to normal eyes, encircling and dancing around Rafiel.
He was in lion form, and he looked exhausted. He probably was exhausted, because he must have walked all the way here. But he was also swiping at non corporeal entities with his paw, for crying out loud. And they were doing real damage.
Not-with-his-eyes Tom saw streaks of light? Plasma? Emanating from Rafiel into the cold evening air. He was being bled to death.
Before he could do anything, Bea had jumped out of the car, and was shifting without undressing – always a messy process – twisting and turning in the throes of the pain of ripping tissues and shifting bone, halfway a dragon when she spoke, the words out of her mouth twisting and echoing weirdly. “No, you fool. Use your essence, not your paw.”
Tom took in a deep breath and heard himself say, as if from very far away. “Use the essence, Rafiel, you’re our only hope.” Then jumped out of the car like a popping popcorn kernel, as he was shifting.
The zoo was eerily quiet. Oh, there were groups of people walking around laughing; there were kids shrieking. The humans were loud enough.
But Kyrie noticed all the animals were very quiet. As though they knew something was coming. And they didn’t like it.
Now if she were two young shifters who were terminally romantic, where would she be. Well, probably Las Vegas, getting married by Elvis. But her romanticism was more pragmatic than theirs. And anyway, Leah had never lived outside the zoo. Everything she knew about normal humans was from the people who came in. She doubted even Michael had managed to drag her away from here this quickly and without her parents approval. Oh, she wanted to go with Michael – she and Kyrie had had long talks about it – but she wanted her parents’ approval before she left.
They were probably hiding so that the parents would get worried and come to their senses.
Kyrie suddenly had a good idea where they’d be.
She was going to have to talk to the secretary bird.
The three of them stood, with Rafiel in the middle. They faced hundreds of the creatures.
Bea didn’t know what they were, or how she knew what to fight them with.
But she knew that she could will her mind in dragon form to rake them with thought-fire. And they withered and burned.
Took Rafiel a few minutes before he too jumped into the fray, a thought-paw raking the creatures off.
And Bea who now knew these were Ancient Ones had an epiphany They don’t despise us for having become flesh. They’re afraid of us. The flesh makes us more powerful. If only we’re aware of it. Yes. It’s more dangerous and makes us mortal, but it gives us power and strength beyond theirs.
There was a growl and the creatures rushed her, but Rafiel swept them away with Tom’s help.
They were winning this.
The Secretary Bird’s human form was a young woman named Aimee Morgan. She was not a zoo dweller, but worked as an executive assistant at some downtown firm. When she came into the diner for a coffee, and it was only shifters, she’d been known to joke she was an executive assistant bird.
But she liked to go to the zoo for a respite, now and then. And again, Kyrie couldn’t understand how half the time the zoo didn’t realize they had three secretary birds instead of two. But maybe because of the new lush green exhibit with trees and grasses and rocks, sometimes a bird of the other disappeared and since there were eventually three again, the zoo keepers assumed they were just hiding. Like cats.
But Kyrie had a hunch she’d find her, and she did.
The other two secretary birds were asleep, but Aimee was patrolling the parameter, in the oddly war-like way of the birds.
She rushed at Kyrie, but stopped when Kyrie lifted her hand. “Peace. Don’t start none, won’t be none. I’m just here to make sure the kids are okay. You’re helping them right?”
Aimee shifted, the fastest shifting Kyrie had just seen. Then she ducked behind a rock and came back out wearing jeans and a t-shirt and looking oddly maternal.
“Of course I am. Otherwise their horrible parents would separate them forever.”
They were driving back, laughing with the relief of a battle won. They’d found clothes in the cabin and were decently dressed.
Tom had pounded Rafiel’s shoulder and said “You all right now?”
“Yeah. I think so. It feels good to win against them,” Rafiel said. “I don’t think we killed them, you know. But I now know I can win.”
Tom drove the car, now, and Rafiel and Bea were snuggled in the back seat. He’d apologized – apologized! – for not being there when she arrived.
And then somehow the three of them were making the lamest jokes about crouching lion and not at all hidden dragons. And it was way funnier than it should be.
“And now to the zoo and the world’s strangest Romeo and Juliet,” Tom said.
One shouldn’t want to laugh at the situation but one did. Or at least Kyrie did. There were Leah and Mike, both looking geekier than any shifter had the right too, huddling in human form, behind a rock in the middle of the secretary bird enclosure. They were clothed in jeans and t-shirts, and Mike had his glasses on.
And converging at them, from either side, were a group of monkeys and a group of capibaras.
And they looked pissed. And that only made it funnier.
But Kyrie kept her voice even as she gestured at the two families. “Halt. You know what my fiancé is. You don’t want to do this.”
“How do you know where to go?” Bea asked Tom, as they ran full tilt through the zoo, drawing startled stares from the groups strolling through.
“This close, I can feel them,” Tom said. And then stopped.
Somehow normal humans had known or sensed to stay away from here. It was dark and quiet.
There were the two lovers, in the secretary gird enclosure, with Kyrie and a very maternal looking woman guarding them.
Tom leapt to stand in front of the women, and look at the furry horde of giant guinea pigs on one side, and spider monkeys on the other. “Listen, all of you, the kids are of age by human reckoning. They want to marry and make their own lives let them. Or reckon with me.”
It wasn’t that easy, of course. The leader of each group: an elderly man who looked like Gandalf led the monkeys, and a rounded woman of South American ancestry who led the capibaras shifted and tried to argue. They invoked the decisions the Great Sky Dragon had made a few times. But Tom wasn’t putting up with it.
Tom shook his head. “Look, I’m fairly sure I know what my predecessor used to decide. But I’m not him. We’re from very different times. I say let the kids try it. If they dislike it, they can come back. You know what? We live a long long time. Let them try and make errors, so they learn. That is an order.”
Tom and Kyrie were still discussing the terms of the monkeys and capibaras surrender, or union, or peace treaty, or something, when Rafiel pulled Bea away. They walked through the illuminated zoo paths, away from the enclosure, amid laughing kids, and strolling couples.
“I’m sorry you got here for this,”” he said. “I know it’s a mess.”
He seemed to be asking a question.
She thought she knew what the question was. “Hey, I was here before. And I’ve talked to you for months, I know what this entails. I’m okay with it.”
He squeezed her hand and pulled her under a tree all lit up with Japanese lanterns.
Next thing she knew, he was dropping to one knee “Beatrice Annemarie Ryu, will you marry me?”
“Get up, you geek. People are staring.”
“No. Will you marry me?”
“Of course I will.”
And then he picked her up and spun her around while kissing her. And strangers clapped and cheered.
Afterwards, he gave her an engagement ring, on a coiled plastic necklace. “So it stays with you when you shift. I’ve been wearing it around my neck, that’s how I kept it when I became the lion. I wanted to ask you first thing.”
“Well, you did. First time you could. We’ll be fine.”
And they would be.
Sure, marrying him wouldn’t be an easy life. But Bea had never really wanted “easy.” And Rafiel felt like home.
They’d make their home together. And like the ancient entities being clothed in flesh became stronger, so would they be stronger for their being joined. Even if it doubled the problems.
They walked aimlessly, as snow started to fall.
Near the secretary bird enclosure, they heard Tom’s voice say “Because each person has the right to make a home with the one they love. No matter how hard it is. In the end, it’s worth it. If you never do anything hard, you never grow up.”
And he spoke the truth.