Authors: Sarah A. Hoyt
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General, #Contemporary, #Epic, #Science Fiction
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 neighborhood of tiny houses—originally filled 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 was crammed what looked suspiciously like a bit of wing.
"Tom," she said, trying to sound reasonable, while speaking to a mass of scales that, she realized, was
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 it 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."
Tom was mortally embarrassed. Once past the panic of the dragon and the heightened senses of the beast and the pain of being forced into what seemed to the dragon like a very tiny box—once he was himself—he didn't need to examine his surroundings to know the damage he had done.
The toilet was broken, the pieces shattered everywhere. The plumbing was torn apart. Faucets bent beyond recognition. Walls with their inner layer scraped off, in a way that was probably not structurally sound. The window was smashed—leaving jagged pieces of glass glinting in the frame. The shower enclosure destroyed. What had, less than half an hour ago, been a bathroom was now a disaster zone.
And Tom was sitting in the middle of it, looking up at Kyrie, who stared back in shock. She was very pale. No doubt toting up the expenses he had caused her. The lease was in her name. They'd be lucky not to get kicked out, even after they repaired the damages. And all because he couldn't control his shifting and had gotten scared by—
In that moment, staring openmouthed at Kyrie—who looked, as she always did, like a Greek goddess who had consented to come down from her pedestal and wear jeans and a T-shirt and a single, red-feather earring—he remembered what had made him shift.
There had been a
in his head. There had been a
—echoing in his mind as clearly as though it were coming through his ears, which it wasn't. The voice had been of an entity known to Asian cultures as the Great Sky Dragon.
Whether he was really the father of all dragons as legend maintained, or not, Tom could not know. What he did know was that he was the leader of Asian triads in the west—that he ruthlessly murdered and stole and sold drugs and did what he had to do to keep his people safe and prosperous. And his people were only those who could shift into dragons. A specific kind of dragon. A kind Tom wasn't.
Their last meeting had brought Tom closer to his death than he ever cared to go. As close as he could go and still come back. And now he had pushed his way into Tom's head.
Tom shuddered as panic tried to establish itself and force him to shift again.
No, and no, and
! Nothing would be served by becoming a dragon. There were threats that the human brain was best suited to handling, no matter how much the puny human body might not be a match to claws and fangs and wings.
He heard himself make a sound—a half scream of frustration at the body he couldn't control—as he lowered his head and concentrated on breathing. Just breathing.
In this state he only half heard Kyrie say something about the water valve. He heard her walk away as he controlled himself. And then he smelled burning. The cookies.
It was, strangely, a welcome relief from other thoughts. He got up. Everything hurt. He felt as though every fiber of his body had been bruised and as if all his bones had cracked, crazed, like plates exposed to high pressure. Groaning, holding on to walls and furniture, telling himself he didn't have time to be in pain, he didn't have time to heal; he padded through the soaked hallway to the kitchen where just the barest bit of water was making it over the little metal lip dividing the kitchen linoleum from the hallway wood flooring. His feet slipped as he hit the linoleum, but he balanced, and rushed to the oven—as much as he could rush without screaming. He remembered one of his nannies reading him the original story of "The Little Mermaid" and how, after the mermaid had traded her tail for legs, every step she took would be like walking on knives. This felt like that, except the knives were also throughout his torso and down his arms, and small daggers seemed to stab through each of his fingers as he flexed them.
Oven mitts on, he pulled the tray of cookies out and set it atop the stove, then carefully turned the oven off. The cookies were less burnt than he'd expected—just looked like they'd gotten a suntan.
Right. He'd best make himself decent quickly. They had bigger trouble than the cookies, and there was absolutely no way he could take a shower now. But if he remembered correctly, when you turned off the water valve to a house, whatever water was in the pipes or in the heater remained. That might just be enough to, at the very least, get the grit of masonry off his skin and hair.
He limped to the hallway closet, full of purpose—because any purpose, and any thought was better than to think again of what had made him change or to acknowledge his pain—and grabbed a handful of washcloths and a towel. And he tried not to think of the pain. It would pass. He would be fine. Shifters healed very quickly. Particularly well-fed shifters.
He wet the washcloths at the faucet in the kitchen, and put soap in about half of them—then retreated with them and the towel back to his room.
Fortunately he was familiar with this sort of ad hoc washing. He'd had to do it often enough when he was living on the streets and only working occasional day jobs, between the ages of sixteen and twenty or so. Contrary to public perception, given a supply of paper towels and soap, it was possible to wash up—at least enough to not stink—at a stall in a public bathroom. It didn't, by any means, beat a long soak in a tub, or even a hurried shower, but it would do if it must. And clearly it must.
He was going through the motions of wiping down with soap, then wiping the soap off, noting that the soap stung in a high number of abraded places, and that just touching his skin brought on a pain on the edge of unbearable, when he heard the back door close and Kyrie call tentatively, "Tom?"
"In here," he said. "I'll be out in a moment."
She didn't come in. Their rules for when they were allowed to see each other naked wouldn't make sense to anyone else. They didn't even make any
sense to Tom himself. But they made
Because of the shifting, they had seen each other naked long before they had a relationship, and often saw each other naked in all sorts of situations. But while human and not coming off from a shift, they respected each other's privacy as much as possible. Kyrie would no more walk into his room while she knew he was naked than he would walk in on her in the shower. Oh, yes, they were dating. They were in love, or at least—Tom smiled to himself, as he extracted as much masonry as possible from his long dark hair—he thought so. His opinion might be insufficient, since he'd never had any experience with the emotion before. Still, he would give his left hand, or wing, or claw for Kyrie and she'd proven often enough she'd do the equivalent for him.
But they were both intensely private people. And neither of them had experience of relationships before. So they were taking it slow and trying to establish the feelings and the boundaries before becoming more physical. Not the least because neither of them was sure how the beasts they shifted into would react to
. The prospect of becoming dragon and panther during sex could be regarded as either hilarious or terrifying, depending on how macabre one's sense of humor.
Having finished his Spartan wash, he dried with the towel, tied his hair back—after rummaging for the elastic in the bedclothes—and slipped on a pair of jeans and a loose white T-shirt. Remembering the water in the hallway, he put on socks and his leather boots and came out of his room to find Kyrie coming in too, from the other side, duct tape in hand.
"I wiped the water from the floor in the hallway and sealed the bathroom," she said, matter of fact. "So the cold doesn't come into the rest of the house." Then looking at him, she smiled. "You cleaned up."
He felt himself blush that she was surprised he'd take the trouble to clean up. "I didn't think masonry was the in look this winter."
She nodded solemnly, stowing the duct tape in the drawer under the coffee maker. "There's coffee," she said, while pouring herself a cup. "I'd started it when—" She stopped. "Thank you for saving the cookies."