How bounced into his dorm room, humming "Rhapsody in Blue" under his breath. The full orchestra version, complete with strings and brass. His roommate reached out to turn the radio up. Since it wasn't on before, this brought it into that condition. Chet turned and stared in confusion at the radio, which was blaring out the news.
That brought a grin to the kitsune's face. Chet Rimple was one of the strangest people that How had ever met. Given that many of his acquaintances weren't human, that was saying something. Chet was a math major, and never seemed to be quite aware of the real world. How had met computer geeks with more social skills. How often thought that he could change into a naked blond bombshell laying in Chet's bed and Chet would barely notice.
Still looking at Chet, who was now tuning the radio, trying to find the station playing the music, How moved to set his book bag on his dresser. Only there was something in the way. Puzzled, How turned to see that the top of his normally messy dresser was occupied with a cage full of rats, a package of rice cakes and a bottle of sake. The stuff normally there - brush, comb, deodorant, plasticine nude of Madonna, bronze cast of Tina's lifemask - had been moved to the bed.
"Chet!" said How, loudly, knowing that he'd have a hard time attracting the guy's attention. "Chet! Where'd this stuff come from?"
"Somebody put it there," muttered Chet, abandoning the radio and going back to his book.
No response. How glared, and Chet's desk lamp flickered out.
"Chet, who put this stuff on my dresser?"
"The delivery man," said Chet, who was staring at the light. He reached up and turned the switch. Nothing. He turned it a few more times. "Do you have a spare bulb?"
With a little more questioning, How learned that a uniformed delivery man (which uniform he gave up on trying to learn) had brought the items just half an hour before. Chet had signed the receipt, which was "around here, somewhere." How sighed, realized he'd gotten as much information out of his roommate as he was going to, and the light came back on. Chet stared at it for a moment, then went back to his book.
How looked at the five rats, puzzled. They looked back, pressing their black noses through the bars to sniff at his hand. There were water and food dispensers, plus a bag of feed. Next came the rice cakes. They package was labeled in Japanese. How had never particularly liked the bland things; in fact, he found it strange that anyone would. Finally the sake, also a Japanese brand. How lifted and gently shook the bottle, listening to it gurgle. He set it back down, more confused than ever. Could they have been delivered to the wrong room?
Then something clicked, and he knew they hadn't been. A chill ran through How as he remembered that, according to Japanese legend, kitsune liked to eat rats and rice cakes and drink sake. How stared at the rats... and his stomach growled.
"Stop that!" he hissed, startled. He knew that foxes liked to eat rats - that was the main reason they went into hen houses, despite what farmers thought - but he'd never tried one himself. They did look tempting...
How turned and hurried out of the room. Forget his sudden craving for live rat; he was enough in touch with - and in control of - his wild side to understand that and know he wouldn't give in to it. Someone knew what he was!
* * *
Tina was in the locker room at the pool, just finishing some extra training. That is, it would have been extra for most people; for Tina, taking an hour's swim twice a week was routine. There were other people around - coming, going, in the pool - but for the moment she was alone. That's when she heard the tapping. Looking up she saw a hawk pecking against one of the windows, high up above the lockers. Tina sighed, and stood on a bench to let How in.
*Someone knows what I am,* he blurted, landing on her bare shoulder and grabbing hold.
"OW!!" yelped Tina. "Claws, dammit!"
"Sorry," gasped How, turning to his trueform.
"Now you're a boy in the girls' locker room," hissed Tina, glaring. "And a fox boy at that!"
How groaned, rolled his eyes, and turned into a cute, redheaded girl in a one-piece swimsuit.
"Better?" she asked.
"For now," muttered Tina. She reached up and rubbed her shoulder, winced, then pulled her hand away to find blood on it.
"Oh let me fix that," said How, quickly. She laid her hands on Tina's shoulder, healing the injury.
"That's neat," said Tina, grudgingly. She wiped the blood away with her towel. "Okay, now explain."
How told her about the gifts.
Three girls came in, nodded to How and Tina, and began to strip. How stared, practically drooling. Two of them had good figures, and the third was a gorgeous black girl, almost as tall as Tina and better built. Tina waited until they went into the shower, then physically turned How around.
"You go back to your room. I'll meet you there as soon as I get finished here."
"Yes ma'am," sighed How.With a reluctant glance at the shower, she turned back into a hawk and fluttered out through the window.
* * *
Unfortunately, when Tina arrived at How's dorm room she found someone else already there. And that was besides Chet. As How let Tina in she saw Susan Holiday examining the rats.
"You need to clean their cage," she told How, reaching through the bars to stroke one of them. "Hi, Tina."
"Hi," the athlete replied. "Uhm, listen, I guess How told you about these, and we really need to deal with this. I mean, you're welcome to help..."
Tina faltered, as the older woman shook her head.
"He told me, and I understand why you're upset. But this takes precedence. There may be a life at stake, and we need How to help us contact someone. You don't have to come; this could be dangerous."
"Then I better come along. How's useless in a fight."
Susan looked over at Chet, still reading some arcane mathematical tome.
"We better find someplace private..."
"Oh, don't mind him," said Tina, grinning. "He wouldn't know it if you set off a bomb in the hall."
"Actually, I think he's aware of everything going on around him," countered How. "He just doesn't consider it important."
"I thought your kind didn't like associating with dull people," said Susan.
"Dull? Oh, you mean mundane. Well, Chet's not. He lives in a world of pure thought and creativity. He's one of the most artistic people I've ever met; he just uses mathematics to express himself, instead of paint."
"All right," sighed Susan. "Broderic and I went to a fair last week, over in Jeffersonville. There was a small carnival there. We saw a caged tigress that Brod insists is Changing Folk. A were-tiger. It was all I could do to keep him from breaking her out right then and there. We snuck back later and tried to talk to her, but she took one sniff of Brod and went crazy, so we left."
"So why do you need How?" asked Tina, puzzled.
"Because he knows the only other were-cat in the area," said Susan, firmly. "Brod is still at the fair, watching from a distance. I say we get this Dawnwind person and take her to the fair and straighten this out, fast."
"Uh, well, Lisa and I aren't exactly on the best of terms right now," said How. "Last time I was there I put a sign in her yard that read 'FREE KITTENS.'"
"So?" asked Susan, as Tina rolled her eyes.
"So, she has three young of her own, and didn't think that was funny."
"Oh, well; I think she'd be willing to put an old grudge aside to help free someone," said How. "And she'd probably give me a chance to explain before tearing me to shreds. So, let's go."
It was a bit of a long drive to Lisa's home, which actually was much closer to where Broderic and Susan lived than either place was to the University. A dark-haired, dark-eyed young woman answered the door.
"Hi, Mariah!" said How. "Is Lisa in? We've got something important that she needs to hear."
"I'll check," the young woman replied. "Come in; you can wait in the den."
"Who was that?" whispered Susan, after the three were left alone.
"Mariah; she's Lisa's Gypsy housekeeper," said Tina.
"Oh, it's a lot more complicated than that," countered How, grinning.
Before he could continue, Mariah returned, bringing with her a tall, darkly handsome woman with long, flowing hair. It was easy to believe she was part cat; she moved with an eerie, fluid grace, and had an unnerving gaze that made all three visitors uneasy. The sheer, physical presence of the woman was intimidating. Tina had little doubt that she could give Broderic himself a hard time, if the werewolf dared challenge her.
As it turned out, Lisa was more than willing to listen to what they had to say. After brief introductions, Susan explained the situation.
"And what if she's - say - the lion tamer's daughter?" asked Lisa, raising an eyebrow.
"That's why we want you along," said How. "She's more likely to talk to another of her kind. If everything's cool, we'll leave quietly. If it isn't..."
How shrugged... and Lisa gave a grim smile that made Tina shiver.
* * *
It was night by the time they arrived in Jeffersonville. Partly this was because both How and Lisa insisted on taking certain "precautions" before crossing the river into the area.
"That is a bad place," said Lisa, her deep alto voice changing from its normal disinterested tone to a grave one.
Susan parked her car as close to the tents with the animals as she could, and the four of them climbed out, stretching. For Lisa, that action was quite impressive.
"There is one thing to consider," the cat-woman told them, as they approached where Broderic was waiting. "Most animals sense that I'm a predator and react to my presence with fear."
"I may be able to do something about that," said How. "You know; set the mood a few notches lower, keep things calm."
"Then I suggest you do so," said Lisa.
Broderic noticed them coming, of course. Even with all the sounds, sights and scents of the carnival. He and Susan greeted each other warmly. Tina was a bit embarrassed by their open passion, but noticed that Lisa looked away, poker-faced.
"Nothing's changed. The next act starts in an hour and a half, so we have some time."
"Good," said Lisa. She motioned for How to precede them.
As they neared the tent Broderic moved ahead and stopped to listen. Nodding after a moment, he held the bottom edge of the tent up and How slipped under. True to his word, How altered the scene, subtly shifting things so that the animals were calmer, less likely to react to the intrusion. Once he was sure his whammy was working he motioned for the others to join him.
"There she is," said Broderic, pointing at a large cage with a young tigress inside.
The animal had noticed them, and despite How's influence backed away, hissing. Lisa, appearing calm, approached slowly, shifting to midform. The tigress froze, wide-eyed... then made a strange, mewing sound. Then she, too, shifted to midform.
"Well, you were certainly right about that," said Susan.
"I'm not likely to be wrong," said Broderic, firmly.
The other were-cat seemed uncomfortable on two legs, and crouched down next to the bars. Lisa crouched beside her; after a few moments of communication she reached in and began stroking the other. Lisa and the Tigress spoke quietly for several minutes, in a strange language of purrs, mrrows and chirps. Then Lisa stood and opened the cage door. She led the tigress - who moved on all fours - to the others. There she introduced them. The tigress still seemed nervous around Broderic, but fascinated by How.
"And this is Lives-In-Steel," said Lisa. "She was born a tigress, and doesn't really understand human concepts too well. Her mother was a human, her father a tiger. I'm not sure where the shapeshifter blood comes from..."
Broderic and Lisa suddenly stiffened, and turned to look toward the tent entrance. There stood an older man, who was gaping in disbelief at the six strangers... especially at Lisa, who was still in her midform.
Lives-In-Steel made a sound of welcome and bounded over to the man, reverting to tigress. She rubbed against his legs, demi-purring the way that most big cats are limited to. After a moment the man recovered, crouching to rub her large head between his hands. Then he straightened and headed for the others.
"I am Michael," he said, simply.
The others introduced themselves, giving first names only as well. Michael sighed and looked down at Lives-In-Steel, who was again rubbing her head against his leg.
"You must think me cruel," he said, reaching down to rub the tigress' ear, "keeping her in a cage like that. But it is for her own protection. Even those others in the carnival who know her secret feel uneasy with a big cat loose among them. And she feels most comfortable in this form."
"She told me that except for being bored she's happy," said Lisa, giving the man a long look.
"You can understand her?" he gasped. Then he winced. "Oh, of course you can. Sorry, I'm still feeling a bit overwhelmed and not thinking."
"So, what's the story?" asked How.
"Her mother - my wife - was an acrobat. Sometimes she helped me tend the cats. Her father... well, he was a young cat when I got him, not quite full grown. I felt from the start that there was something wrong with him, and I told Josephina to be wary of him. She was, but not enough. One day I heard her screaming... and found him, in semi-human form, raping her.
"He was a beast; he knew the chair and the whip and the prod... but not the gun, except as a noise maker. I shot him, right between the eyes.
"Josephina was never right after that. Physically she recovered, but mentally not. And she became much worse when what we hoped would be our first child was born a tigress..."
Michael broke down at this, crouching and hugging Lives-In-Steel to him, sobbing into her furry shoulder. She made plaintive sounds, trying to get a response from him. Finally, he looked up at them with guilty eyes.
"I named her Celeste. I knew of the beast folk, but not how to contact them. I felt from early on that she was one, and at an age of two years and a bit she changed into a young girl. But she would never stay that way for long. I couldn't teach her human things."
He almost broke down again.
"She is nearly five years old, and has never spoken. She helps me with the other cats, in the act... She's a good child, not like her father..."
Lisa shifted to human form and moved forward, hesitated, then put her hand on the man's shoulder, a surprisingly gentle and comforting move.
"We know some people who can help you," said Lisa. "Some of them are circus folk. I'll... give you a list of contacts."
* * *
"That poor old man," said Tina, quietly. "Five years he's suffered, trying to figure out some way to help his adopted daughter. He thought she'd die a tigress, a stupid beast. He didn't even know she won't have a tiger's lifespan, but will live longer than most humans."
"What do you mean, 'old'?" demanded Lisa. "He's only two years older than me!"
"Well, that's one more good deed for us," crowed How, rubbing his hands together.
"It was a bit embarrassing, the way he kept thanking us, and crying the whole time," muttered Broderic.
"Oh, stop grumbling," said Susan, grinning at her lover. "How's right; we did good. I can forgive a bit of emotional display, considering the circumstances."
This work is Copyright 1998 by Rodford Edmiston Smith, who can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please contact the author for permission before reposting or reprinting. Thank you.