Authors: Sarah A. Hoyt
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General, #Contemporary, #Epic, #Science Fiction
He bit back the obvious answer: "You don't need to put on the politeness. No need to thank me, since I was the one who made you forget them." Most of his life, long before he'd found out he was a shifter, at sixteen, he'd been giving the answer guaranteed to infuriate people and rejoicing in getting a reaction. Any reaction. He didn't know why. That was just the way he was.
It was tempting to say that he'd become a hostile bundle of aggression because both his parents were busy professionals, too busy in fact to notice their son existed. Tempting and, no doubt, some psychologist would say it in all seriousness.
But Tom didn't believe in psychology any more than he believed in any other organized religion. And at some point a grown-up had to stop blaming his parents for his quirks. Perhaps that was what had set him off . . . perhaps not. Perhaps some accidental genetic combination had caused him to be born hostile and contrary. But three months ago, when he'd moved in with Kyrie, he'd decided that habit stopped and quickly too. So now he bit his tongue and sighed. "They are a little too tanned."
She smiled back, as if she knew of the averted response and appreciated his effort. "No matter. Still edible." Picking up a cookie, she sat down.
He got himself coffee. Her whole attitude said
we have to talk,
and he supposed they did. He used the time of filling the cup and sugaring his coffee to think of what he could say that would mitigate what he had just done.
I'll pay for it
was obvious, though he had exactly zero clue how. All the money he had—just like all the money Kyrie had—was part shares in The George. And, unlike what he would have imagined before getting into it, profits and debts weren't as clear-cut as they seemed. His father—in an impulse for atonement that could not be gainsaid—had bought them the building and equipment for The George. That much they had. But it wasn't money. You couldn't walk into the mall with five bricks and buy a T-shirt. And there was no way he could swap one of the industrial freezers for the repair bill on the bathroom. For one, because they needed the freezers.
Which was the issue with the money. The George was doing well. Money came in every night and day. The few upgrades he and Kyrie had been able to afford here and there—a coat of paint, new Formica on the tables, re-covering the vinyl booths, a new stove—were drawing in a better clientele, too. In addition to the manual laborers and students who had always drifted to The George, they now got young professionals from the gentrified area a few blocks away, amused at the dragon theme of the restaurant and intrigued by Tom's culinary experimentation.
They were—from what Tom understood of the raised eyebrows of his accountant, who was a man of few words—doing very well indeed, having unwittingly become the spearheads of the push for gentrification in
area of Fairfax. But the money that came in went out again very quickly, and the improvements fueled other improvements. There were waiters to pay and Anthony's salary had been raised since he'd become manager. To keep the better clientele, Tom had bought new silverware and dishes and improved the quality of everything from the paper goods to the coffee mugs. His own self-respect as a cook had forced him to buy better quality meat.
His father—when they talked—assured him all this would eventually pay off and while the cycle seemed fruitless and inane right now, eventually the money coming in would outstrip the need for improvements and Tom and Kyrie would find themselves wealthy or close to it. Today was not the eve of that day, though. Their separate bank accounts, if pooled, would net them maybe two thousand dollars. On which they had to live for the month. Not enough for this type of repair.
He could, of course, ask his father for help, but just the idea of it was enough to give him heartburn. He'd solved—he thought—his life-long struggle with his father. While his father was not the best of parents, neither was Tom the best of sons. But still . . . Edward Ormson had forced his sixteen-year-old son out of the house at gunpoint onto the streets of New York City on the day he found that Tom shifted shape into a dragon.
Tom could forgive, but he could not forget. He'd accepted the diner, but even that had smarted, and he'd only accepted it because he could tell how much Kyrie wanted it. And he'd talk to his father and be civil when he called because the man was trying his best to establish a relationship. And Tom was not so flush with friends that he could turn down anyone willing to befriend him. Even if it was his own father.
But he'd be damned if he was going to go cadging his father for money. He'd be damned if he'd go back to his father every time he found himself in a scrape. He'd be damned if he gave his father reason to think of him—ever again—as his fucked-up son.
He'd rather live on the streets, he thought decisively, as he made his way back to the table and sat down, cup in hand. He'd done it before.
He looked up, frowning slightly, to meet Kyrie's attentive gaze on him. She was examining his face—probably for signs of the madness that had caused him to shift in the bathroom.
When she saw him looking, she smiled. "Have a cookie."
What Kyrie wanted to know was why he'd shifted. But she was terrified that if she asked him, he'd feel the need the shift again. After all, whatever it was had to be powerful enough to cause a visceral panic reaction. Thinking about it might bring on another shift.
His eyebrows lowered a little and as he took a bite of the cookie, he did it as if it required a large amount of concentration. When he looked back at her, his gaze remained worried and more than a little bit confused.
"I figured," he said, his tone slow and calculating. "I might be able to get a loan. But I don't know how because I don't want to mortgage The George because that's yours too and, you know—"
"What?" She hadn't meant to interrupt, but the last thing she'd expected was for him to start talking money.
"The bathroom," he said, gesturing airily.
"Oh, that. I looked at the walls and they seem to be fine. You just peeled the tile off and destroyed the plumbing and appliances. Cosmetic stuff. We'll find a handyman. Place is solidly built." She shrugged. "Yeah, we'll borrow if we have to. We could do it all ourselves, you know, with a good how-to manual, but we don't have that much free time and a functioning bathroom is kind of a necessity." Seeing him open his mouth, she went on, redirecting the conversation, "Which is why I think we should go to The George."
He blinked at her. "What?" he said, his tone exactly matching her earlier one as, clearly, the gears of his mind had been grinding at a different place.
"I think we should go to The George until the blizzard is past and we get the bathroom repaired. While I don't like the idea of driving in this, we'll have a bathroom at The George. I mean—no place to take showers, though we can probably get a room at the bed-and-breakfast next door for that—but we'll at least have a place to go to the bathroom. The weather—not to mention the neighbors—kind of precludes just peeing in the yard."
Her absurd words managed to bring a smile to his lips, but it vanished very fast. "Yeah. We'll have to go."
"Yes. I know we could just stay at the bed-and-breakfast, but if we're going to be that close to The George, we might as well open too. I'm sure you don't want to spend however long in just a tiny rented room. And we might get a few diners, and it might just pay for that opening. And the bed-and-breakfast. I mean, we could go to one of the emergency shelters, but you and me and an enclosed space with a lot of people . . ." She shrugged. Given what had just happened to him, in the bathroom, she didn't need to draw pictures of a dragon and a panther rampaging amid distressed refugees.
He nodded and took a sip of the coffee. "Okay," he said. "I'll take a sleeping bag. In case we rent a room with only one bed." He got up and headed for his sleeping porch, clearly intent on packing. "And my laptop. Perhaps I can do some of the paperwork that's been accumulating."
"Tom . . ." She didn't want to ask, but she'd have to. "Why the shift? Was it the storm? You don't normally shift during the day, much less—" She stopped.
He'd turned around, a hand going up to his head, as if to pull back hair that didn't need it—a habit of his when he was nervous. His Adam's apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed. He sighed. For just a moment, it seemed to her, he was concentrating very hard on not shifting. "It was the Great Sky Dragon," he said. "I . . . I don't know how to put this without sounding like a science fiction story, but I heard him in my mind. Without sound." He took a deep breath like a drowning man who has succeeded in getting his head above water for a moment. "I know I sound crazy, but . . . He was there."
She shrugged at him. They were people who could—and did—change into animal shapes with or without wishing to. And still, he was afraid she'd think having experienced telepathy made him sound crazy.
"So you heard him in your mind," she said. "Did he threaten you?"
Tom shook his head. "No, that was the odd part. He warned me. But it wasn't a threat. He said someone he called the Ancient Ones wanted to kill us. That we should beware."
"Right. We'll stay out of retirement homes," Kyrie said, and immediately after, "I'm sorry. It isn't funny. But why should he warn us now, when he went out of his way to almost kill you before?"
Tom shook his head and looked startlingly naked and vulnerable—as if it cost him something to admit this. "I don't know."
The phone rang.
For an intense panic-filled moment, Tom thought it would be the Great Sky Dragon calling him to repeat the vague warnings he'd spoken within Tom's mind. It took a deep breath and remembering the damages to the bathroom to keep him from shifting again right then and there. His back brain equated
. He told himself the phone wouldn't eat him, as he stretched his hand to the phone on the wall and picked it up.
The caller ID window read "Trall, Rafiel" which made him draw a sigh of relief. For all his faults—and there were many—and despite the fact that he still carried a torch for Kyrie, Rafiel was the closest thing Tom had to a friend. He was, with Kyrie, almost the only other shifter Tom was friends with. Almost because an addled alligator shifter who went by "Old Joe" didn't exactly qualify as a
. Not so long as friendship involved more than Tom covering up for Old Joe's shifts and giving him bowls of clam chowder on the side. Kyrie, Rafiel, Old Joe, an orangutan shifter, two now-dead beetle shifters and the dragon triad were the only adult shifters Tom had ever met, period. He guessed there weren't many of his kind in the world. The few, the proud, the totally messed up.
"Yeah?" he said, into the phone.
"Uh," Rafiel's voice said from the other end, as though the phone's being answered were the last thing he could possibly expect. Then, "I'd like to . . . I need to talk to you and Kyrie, when you have a minute."
There was that tone in Rafiel's voice—tight and short—that meant he was on the job. Tom wondered if Rafiel was alone or if he was picking his words carefully to avoid scaring a subordinate. Aloud he said only, " 'Ssup?"
"Murder. There's . . . been . . . well, almost for sure murder. Human bones and stuff at the bottom of the shark tank at the aquarium."
"And?" After all, solving murders was Rafiel's job and he usually managed it without a little help from his friends.
"And I smell shifter," Rafiel said. "All over it."
"Oh," Tom said. "We'll be at The George." And suddenly he felt exactly like a man in the path of an oncoming train.
His dreams had been full of a nightmare about some ancient menace; the Great Sky Dragon had spoken in his mind; and now there was murder, with shifter involvement.
Was the shifter a murderer or the victim? Either way, it could make Tom's life more of a mess than it already was.
"Don't shift! Don't shift! Don't shift!" Kyrie told herself. But she wasn't at all sure she was listening, and she kept looking anxiously at her hands, clenched tight on the wheel. Her violet nail polish was cracked and peeled from her run-in with the bathroom door, so it was hard to tell whether the nails were lengthening into claws or not. Part of the reason she kept her nails varnished was to make sure that she saw the first signs of her nails lengthening into claws. Today that wouldn't work.
Outside the window, in the palm of visibility beyond the windshield, white snowflakes swirled. Past that, the flakes became a wall of white, seemingly streaming sideways, shimmering. Somewhere out there, in the nebulous distance, there were twin glimmers of dazzling whiteness, which were the only indications Kyrie had that the headlights of her tiny car were on.
"Maybe we should have walked," Tom said. He shuffled in his seat and leaned close to the snow-covered windshield, as though he could lend her extra vision.
Kyrie gritted her teeth. Maybe they should have, except that the three steps they'd taken on the driveway, their feet had gone out from under them, and they'd only remained upright by holding onto the car. From which point getting in the car had seemed a given. She slowed down—which mostly meant defaulting to the fractional amount of sliding the car seemed to do all on its own—and twisted up her windshield wipers' knob, not that it did much good.
"How can you see?" Tom asked.
"I can't," she said, just as a sudden gust of wind cleared the space ahead enough for her to see they were at the intersection of their street and the next perpendicular one. And that a massive, red SUV was headed for them at speed.
Don't shift, don't shift, don't shift,
Kyrie thought, as a mantra, even as she felt her whole body clench and her muscles attempt to change shapes beneath her skin, to take the form of a panther.
Don't shift, don't shift, don't shift,
as she struggled to keep her breathing even, and bit into her lower lip with teeth that weren't getting any longer, not at all, not even a little bit. She maneuvered quickly with a tire up on the sidewalk, tilting crazily around the corner, even as the SUV went by them and buried them in a shower of slush. Bits of ice rattled against roof and windows.