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Putting On My Otter Shirt

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My life had always been something of a mess, but it was quickly turning into something even more confused. After an embarrassing incident drove me from my childhood home, I moved to a cabin in the woods some distance from my home town, and had been doing odd jobs for a while.

My current job as a carrier in the market was keeping me incredibly busy, as I struggled to make a good impression in order to keep it for a change. My back was complaining almost daily of its mistreatment, but I did not feel comfortable enough to ask for lighter loads quite yet.

To top it off, a few days ago a promising relationship - one that I had managed to entertain for almost a month already - ended with him deciding that I'm too engaged with my work to be a partner. At this point I was quite ready to declare my life to be an official disaster area.

The next morning, I found a letter on the table of my little cabin. It had apparently gotten there somehow past all the bolts on my door. I opened it, and only got more confused: "We know your secret. It is past time for you to be reunited with your own kind. Fill in the information requested below and leave the letter on your table."

To anyone else reading the letter, it might have seemed just a strange joke. The list included questions like "What is your clan?" next to the slightly more normal questions of parentage and suchlike. But I grew worried at it, and by the time I got to the final question, I was certain that the letter was no joke: "How much time do you spend in form, and how often?"

I was getting late from work, so I hid the letter carefully, lest any other unwanted visitors spot it, and left. I could hardly concentrate on working, and kept listening in on all conversations around me, almost convinced that word of my little incident had reached this remote village as well.

My secret? I am a werepanther – you know, a creature from fairy tales! I cannot remember a time when I could not change into a panther. I found out relatively early that it was not something I should do in public, however. No one ever talked about any other people changing into things, so driven by my curiosity, I'd rummage through the library of my home town and find old texts about werewolves and vampires. Needless to say, I ended up rather convinced that my kind is not too popular in the world.

I had been living in a relatively secluded house with my somewhat strange aunt Millie. When she once saw me in panther form, she screamed and ran off, after which I decided to stick to being human whenever she or anyone else could see me.

Once it was time for me to go get some schooling, I was already well-prepared for a life full of secrecy. I always snuck far away from people to change, and stayed away until I was ready to come back.

It felt good, being a panther; it was nothing like the tortured and forced change at full moon that the werewolf writings were going on about. I felt the strength and freedom of the panther me was in some ways present in my everyday life as well.

My embarrassing little incident involved a friend who followed me one time, out of curiosity. She saw me enter a cave and then watched a content, full-grown panther come out some time later, with no trace of me left beyond some dried-up blood at the back of the cave from my earlier nightly travels...

I spotted the smell of the unexpected visitor when I was heading back, and barely missed the group of hunters that my thoroughly loyal friend had brought to track down me, as the horrible beast, and thereby to avenge my assumed death, as the girl known as Otter. I fled the town in the quiet of night, not even daring to stop to gather my belongings.

Until now, I had been rather certain that people would just think me dead, and not suspect that I was a shapeshifter. But who could know my secret, and then come demand this strange sort of information from me?

For a few days, I was exhausted enough coming back from work that I simply did not feel like I could face the letter again. It almost felt like it had been a dream. Then I suddenly had half a day free, due to an expected delivery failing to arrive. When I got home, I decided I should finally do something about this strange ghost from my past. I have to admit I was almost a bit disappointed to find out that the letter had not vanished like a dream during its wait.

I sat down by the table gingerly, to avoid annoying my poor, strained back, and began to fill out the information. I could not for the life of me figure out what some of the questions meant. When I was a child, I had occasionally pondered if my aunt was really related to me or not, but I was not aware of being a member of any "clan". Maybe werepantherism was the curse of some ancient noble family? The thought was not completely unpleasant. But in that case, would the question of clans mean that there were so many people with the same condition that they needed to be arranged into clans within that family? This sounded extremely unlikely; it would be expected that more of us would get caught and become conversation items.

I hid the letter again, deciding that the final few questions would require more thought. I moved to arrange dinner instead, but found myself idly pondering how much more rewarding it would be to go hunt in the woods. The letter's questions had managed to touch something within me that I almost had pushed away, while scrambling to be distracted by everything and anything else.

I suddenly felt eyes on me and turned. There was a huge black hound staring at me intently through the window. Its yellow eyes glinted with malicious intellect, and for a while I could only stare at it in horror. Then I realized that a mere window would not hold the hound back, and that I would have to defend myself.

I began to change into a panther. As my mind began to fuzz over momentarily to adjust to the new body, I retreated to the corner furthest from the window. All my aches and discomfort faded away, to be replaced by the expectation of a fight for my life. The knot that had formed in my stomach at the sight of the hound turned into anticipation as the panther me took over.

When I opened my new eyes, the hound had disappeared from the window. I remembered I had left the door unbolted until I would go to sleep. The hound was just stepping through it. I was more confident of my chances in this more capable form, and leaped at the hound with a ferocious growl.

There probably were a few things that one could say I certainly was not expecting. I had seen an ominous glint of intelligence in the hound's eyes that certainly put me on my guard. Even then, I was taken aback by the mind-boggling strangeness of what followed. One of these things was the sheer speed at which the hound moved. My eyes, usually excellent for tracking movement, could not keep up with the beast! When I tried to turn to face my strange foe again, it suddenly slammed into me with bone-breaking momentum. We rolled on the floor, a mess of claws, teeth and fur, and when the ground stood still again, I found myself pinned down.

The hound growled, "Yield, or I'll tear open your throat!" I was so stunned by the words that the teeth around my throat were not really necessary to make me stop struggling at once. I was furiously trying to decide what to make of the situation, when the hound stood up and continued, in a more human-like tone: "Now why did you attack me like that? And why didn't you answer me?"

My ears turned back in shocked disbelief. I rolled to lie on my legs and get my belly-side safely against the floor. "You were staring at me like I was dinner! Don't even try to tell me you're here just to welcome me into the neighbourhood."

The hound sat down on its hind legs, and I could have sworn it was chuckling. "Honestly, girl, you must have a serious impairment in people-reading. How long have you been living like this?"

I wrinkled my face. "Like what?" It suddenly felt inappropriate to be using any human-like expressions, but the situation just made me want to roll my eyes. Instead, my tail twitched nervously from side to side.

"Like a human! Haven't you heard of civilization? You're really a pushover for being a panther, too. I wouldn't be surprised if rabbits outwitted you."

I resisted a nearly overwhelming temptation to furiously start cleaning my fur. Most of his words weren't making any sense, but the comment about rabbits did strike a sore spot. I had not dared to hunt freely in ages, and rabbits had never been that easy to catch.

I decided it was time to change the subject. "You didn't tell me why you are here."

The hound lolled his tongue, and for a moment managed to look somewhat less feral despite its size and its black fur that looked like it had seen more dense woods than combs of any kind. "I'm Kariya, and I'm here to call you to the tests." Seeing my totally blank look, he continued slowly, "The tests to determine how you could best serve the shifter community. Honestly, where are your parents? How did you make it this far while remaining so ignorant?"

My ears pulled back again, and I felt my hackles rise. "My parents are really none of your business," I growled, "but I was raised by my aunt Millie and I've never seen a talking animal in my life. I haven't even tried talking myself; unlike you, I know I shouldn't be able to. Why aren't you growling and barking? Or are you claiming I understand you even though you are? I can see your lips aren't really moving, but I can hear your voice."

Kariya stood up and partially turned his back at me, dismissively. "Cub, I'm talking human at you, because apparently you are incapable of understanding real speech. Now get your act together and follow me, and I'll give you a few examples of the tests we'll have for you tomorrow."

I pondered stating exactly how interested I was in taking some stupid test for entry in the crazy talking-animals club. However, I figured I might as well humour the hound in order to be left alone for the rest of the day.

After we had snuck a little deeper into the woods, Kariya had me demonstrate how fast I could climb a tree, and how high I could leap, after which he raced me for a few distances. Despite my severe lack of faith in the sensibility of the activity itself, I felt quite liberated from seeking my limits for my own sake, not to mention I immensely enjoyed the long-awaited time as panther. When Kariya told me he had seen enough for the day, I felt a bit disappointed in my ability. My tail drooped, and I dropped my head down. Kariya cocked his head at me, and I wondered in passing what kind of a stream of mockery I'd have to endure at the end of the session. To my surprise, there was no sarcasm in his tone.

"There'll be more testing tomorrow. Don't worry, we'll find your strengths and weaknesses to assign you a place in the community."

I sniffed the air. "We've got a slight problem there. I have to work tomorrow." This mysterious community would hardly be able to pay me wages for jumping up and down or climbing trees, and I couldn't live on raw meat for the rest of my life - at least I was pretty sure I couldn't. In addition, the stories of werewolves said that you could lose yourself if you stayed in form for too long; I didn't want that to happen, no matter how much fun panthering around could occasionally be.

Kariya snorted. "Work? Ignore that, it's an utter waste of time."

I decided not to argue the point; how do you make a mystical creature understand life in the real world, anyway? I would have to find time eventually to get to know this community the hound - Kariya, I corrected myself - kept talking about, but right now I had a life filled with more pressing matters to think about.

I bid him good night and got back to my house, this time taking more care to check that no one would see me arrive. Once inside, I crept into a corner almost invisible from the outside, and changed back.

The dull ache in my back immediately returned, and I was so overwhelmed by the change for a moment that I could only sit down on the floor. For a moment, I was rather tempted by the idea of living a crazy life as a talking animal, but then reason overcame the pain and I got back to thinking rationally.

I changed out of my day clothes, went to sleep and had a truly disturbing dream about not managing to calm down aunt Millie, who was on the verge of fainting at the sight of a panther in her living room. It did not help that I was just about as bewildered as the old lady. No matter how I shouted, my words could not reach her. I woke up feeling horribly frustrated, but could not remember why.

For the next few days, I had to work long hours due to being slowed down by the unyielding pain in my back. I tried to avoid putting too much load on it, and the carefulness made me need more time to do everything. Luckily, my employer did not seem to pay that close attention to the timing of my work, as long as the job got done.

One night, when I was heading back from work well after sunset, I almost walked into a night-black hound in front of my door. In the poor light, I could only hope the hound was Kariya; it let out a low growl that made me suddenly feel very vulnerable in my human form.

"Kariya? Is that you?" I realized that even if it were Kariya, I had no idea what he was up to. The hound repeated the ominous growl when I took a few slow, careful steps towards it. "Kariya - I really, really hope it's you - would you please let me go in? It's cold, I can barely see you and you're scaring me witless."

The hound made a sound somewhere between a snort and a bark, but when I got closer, it stepped aside enough to let me slip in. It followed me through the door, and I bumped into it when groping around for light.

When I could finally see again, I was reasonably convinced that the hound was Kariya. It certainly had a similar knack for staring at me unnervingly. I pulled out a chair and sat on it, to which Kariya responded by another low growl.

"Kariya, I must assume you're pissed off about something, but it would be a lot better if you'd just talk to me. I'm sorry I told you I think it's impossible, alright? I can't help you if you won't tell me what's wrong." A horrifying thought passed my mind: maybe he had spent too much time as a hound now, and had forgotten how to speak. Maybe he wasn't even thinking any more, and had wandered here out of instinct only. Strangely enough, I was quite convinced that my memory of hearing him talk previously was no dream or hallucination. Being strange yourself makes it easier to accept some strangeness in others as well.

He grabbed my pant leg with his teeth and yanked it. I felt relatively certain he was not indicating that the next yank would be at my leg, but I put my foot down. "Kariya, I'm not going anywhere with you if you don't start talking. I'd like to trust that you're sane and all, but I'm rather worried that you've lost yourself in form. And if you're going crazy, I'd just rather have you go crazy here." The thought of possibly getting killed from Kariya going berserk seemed a touch more endurable indoors than outside in the dark and cold of the night.

The hound let go of my leg and shook itself all over. Then it started to shimmer, as if a cloud of another reality formed around it. I stared at it for a moment, then realized that this might be what I looked like when shifting. At least I sincerely hoped he was shapeshifting and not exploding, fading or whatever other things runaway magic could undoubtedly do to you.

When the shimmering stopped, a man dressed in somewhat woodsy wear stood before me. I'll underline that he was dressed; this did not come as a particular surprise to me, since I knew I held on to my own clothes whenever shifting, but it was something I had occasionally wondered about - the werewolf stories involved dropping or tearing any clothing, after all. These thoughts aside, if I said he looked handsome, at least half of it could just as well come from the infinite relief that I was dealing with a person and not a soon-to-go-feral beast.

His features did suffer a bit from the thoroughly exasperated expression on his face. "Honestly, girl, I swear I get more response from yelling at rocks! Change back to panther, and stop this obtuseness, or I'll haul you to the council in a sack!"

I have to admit that I have trouble talking back to a big dog, while a full-grown man who has had his teeth on my throat the last time we've had a conversation is even somewhat more authoritative. I stood up hurriedly, almost fell down on my knees from the sharp pain in my back, and promptly pushed the pain aside to focus on shifting. Kariya watched me for a moment, then began to shimmer again and shifted back to a hound himself.

My pain melted away, but I was still somewhat troubled. I would have preferred him to remain a human and was about to summon the courage to comment on it, when I heard his voice in my head again, clear as day. "Out we go, we have a lot of ground to cover tonight."

I followed him out, but when I looked at the door, wondering how to bolt it, he nudged at me. "No more delays; the house is the least of your worries right now." I followed him meekly, as he turned and dashed off into the woods.

Had I imagined that the words we exchanged moved through our mouths somehow, the opposite became quite obvious when I realized I could go on speaking without gasping for air while straining to keep up with Kariya's speed. I always thought of myself more as a sprinter than a long-range runner, while he seemed capable to go on running like this for all eternity like it was nowhere near his peak performance.

Questions like "Where are we going?", "Could we slow down a bit, my lungs are burning?" and "What about my job?" bubbled in my mind, but I kept them to myself. Kariya might be a crazy talking animal, but the look he had given me back in the cabin convinced me that I should keep running if I did not want to get literally stuffed into a sack. The more convenient options which did not include a total disruption of my old life were simply out of the question.

Instead, I thought out loud: "Kariya, I'm sorry I didn't come to get tested the other day." I had a dozen good reasons for it, and I could have recited them, but I was rather convinced this was not the time.

I couldn't turn my head to watch for any facial expressions, but I think he sighed. "It's really too late to feel sorry for it now, but for my part, I'm sorry as well."

"What do you mean?" I knew he was not apologizing for tearing me out of my cabin into the night now.

"When I came back the next day to find you gone, I intended to wait until you came back and drag you with me. But something came up, and I couldn't stay." He slowed down just enough for my burning lungs to adjust to the steady running rhythm again. I took it for a sympathetic gesture, and was grateful for it. "I should have sent someone for you," he continued, "but I got... distracted, and it slipped my mind."

I had an ominous feeling that he was not talking about any small "distraction", but I let it go. His tone had been grave enough throughout that this did not seem to be the most pressing of concerns at the moment. "I'm not sure I should ask, but I'm in some kind of trouble, aren't I."

He almost chuckled. "You thought that up all by yourself, now?"

"You keep assuming this is all obvious to me," I bristled.

He made a small sound of agreement. "There are certain rules, and I think you have managed to break quite a few in your ignorance. After you failed to show up to the tests as well, the council decided that it was time to make a warning example out of you."

I did not like the sound of this, and furiously wondered how far this mysterious council was intending to go to make its point.

"It does not help that you happen to be descended from a rogue clan that is apparently deep enough in decadence by now to have abandoned a cub to isolation." He let out a growl, and it wasn't coming from his hound mouth.

I was so stunned I almost stumbled before I managed to separate the rhythm of my running from the jumble in my thoughts. "Abandoned? You know who my parents are?"

"No, I don't, but they're panthers." He paused, maybe to adjust to my lack of comprehension again. "We don't cross-breed."

I had not given the question of offspring the slightest thought. But come to think of it, if he was a dog and I was a panther, there could be other animals out there. The question about clans suddenly seemed to make more sense, if parentage determined the form we could take. There was something peculiar here, however, and the puzzle seemed to provide a distraction from worrying about the faceless council that awaited. "But... if everyone can turn human, isn't there bound to be, um, accidents at least?"

I think Kariya missed a step at my question, but I may have imagined it. "Yes, it's possible. But the offspring is cursed, unable to enter its real body and doomed to a half-life of isolation as a human. Few are so overcome with lust that they do not stop to think about the consequences."

"Isolation? You herd these children to be caged somewhere?" I hoped I had misunderstood. "This sounds rather harsh."

"You tell me; you've lived with them all your life."

I blinked. "You mean... aunt Millie?"

"No, silly cub, I mean that the sorry souls you've lived with are either the result of horrible mistakes by their parents, or the offspring of such. Their numbers are growing, and they are happy to forget about their curse among each other, but it does not take away the fact that they are broken, stuck with a single body. Just because some people somewhere in the past failed to think about consequences." His tone was bitter, but then lightened up a bit. "So, you understand why we're so anxious to pull in poor lost souls like you, to be properly trained and taught?"

I was not so sure. "What I don't understand is why you first take so long to contact me in the first place, and then all of a sudden there's this horrible rush."

I felt a wave of frustration from Kariya. "From the point of view of everyone else, you're the one who's been ignoring the constant call. You have been hiding in the shadows. The call is not that easy to ignore, in or out of form."

"You've been calling me?" I was incredulous. How I had searched for any signs of others like me back in my home town! I would have jumped at an invitation from anyone, if it held any promise of finding out what I was.

"We call out to everyone; it was not directed at you in particular. We only started to focus on you separately when you wandered in out of nowhere."

I could have told him that it should not be that easy to miss an entire town, but it seemed that he might have a personal issue with human communities, so I decided to focus on other things. "Why the letter, then? If you don't consider the human form the real one of the two, why deliver me something only usable in that form?"

He mumbled something about experts on human handling, but I missed what it was exactly. Right then, a clearing was opening before us, and it was filled with animals. When we arrived, it seemed that everyone stopped what they were doing and turned their eyes, ears or both at us. I sorely wanted to turn and flee, but there was no way out of this. The fur standing on end on my neck and tail must have made me look like an oversized kitten more than a panther, but I was acutely aware of being the only one of my kind in the entire clearing. Kariya's words about a "rogue clan" rang in my head.

There was some movement at the other end of the clearing, and Kariya urged me towards it. I obliged, with unsteady steps both from the run here and the staggering amount of attention directed at me. The relative silence was eerie; I suspected that if I was deaf to what these people considered normal talk, this must have been the first good thing to come out of it. I really preferred not to hear what kind of talk my arrival might have generated; it was hard enough to fathom that this group of predators and herbivores, pack animals and solitary creatures all in one big mix had gathered at one place for a rational purpose. How on earth could they do all this without any humans noticing that there was more to these creatures than met the eye?

I was still gaping at my surroundings when I heard a rustling and my attention was drawn to to a handful of creatures standing separate from everyone else. I was also partially outside the crowd, as if on stage - or like someone with a contagious disease.

I looked around and saw Kariya being escorted aside. It looked ominous, and I remembered how he sounded so grim about not leading me to the tests. Things connected in my head: I was not the only one being judged here! I shouted at the top of my lungs, not knowing if I'd even be heard: "Don't take him away! I am the cause of the trouble, don't punish him for what I've done!" With that, I prepared to run to him.

"SIT." Kariya boomed; his growl made my ears turn back, and I noticed I had sat on my heels before I even had time to consider it. "You are not helping yourself."

I sensed a sudden turn of attention from me to Kariya and back. No words reached me, but I could feel a strange buzz in the air. Kariya would not look at me, he seemed to be busy focusing on the group that looked like judges.

Another voice croaked in my head; it was shaky, as if seldom used. "Why do you not answer when spoken to?"

I was confused, but less so than I would have been a day before. "I'm very sorry, it appears that I cannot hear you most of the time. You are the first voice I've heard here besides Kariya's."

A third voice joined, this one stronger. "Lies! You claim to be deaf, but you heard him fine just now. Are you wilfully ignoring us?"

The bombardment was overwhelming. I looked at Kariya for help, but he said nothing for a moment. Then, after a pause that seemed like forever, Kariya spoke to me, or growled: "Get down. NOW."

I hit the ground without thinking. I was brimming with questions, but only dared to open my mouth for one: "What is going on?"

Finally, Kariya spoke so that I could hear. "Uh huh. I've seen this thrice, now. It seems that sometimes I get through to her when I have her full attention; at all other times, she has been as responsive as a wall of stone. I do not think anyone could be this selective by choice, let alone an untrained cub." His voice was amused; that heartless bastard was laughing at me, and making sure I knew about it. Even if it were to defend me, I wanted to give him just one good slap.

My ears twitched nervously; the conversation had moved away to where I could not hear it again. Every now and then, someone dropped a question at me, like "Have you had any contact with others of your clan?" or "Where did you live before coming here?" or "How much time have you spent in human form?", and whatever I answered, a silence followed as the questioners discussed it.

It ended as strangely as it started. A strange wave of hush passed through the clearing, and the group of judges scattered again. Apparently I was not the only reason everyone was here, since the crowd was not dispersing anywhere; I made a mental note to ask about that later, should there be a later.

To my relief, the one with the fragile voice told me I was Kariya's charge now, since he "seems to be a good influence". I was more than happy to swear on my honour and a bunch of other things that I would be good, do as I'm told and take his teachings to heart. That is, right after I'd punch him proper for laughing at me. They didn't need to know that.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

After the whole big council debacle was out of the way, Kariya took me to meet a bunch of other dogs. One of them, a dark gray bitch, he introduced as his daughter Rin. She had definitely managed to inherit some of the haughty houndness from her father, but seemed a bit less intimidating than him. While this was not saying much, I was quite relieved to not be facing a teenage version of Kariya. It was bad enough to be scary; being unpredictably juvenile and scary at the same time would have been downright nasty.

The canines spent a moment exchanging friendly gestures and presumably gossiping about the cat that Dad dragged in. I had no idea what they were saying, and it was getting rather frustrating. I could almost smell them talking in their creepy telepathic way, but there was no lip reading or listening to intonations that I could apply to figure out what it was about. In a social sense I felt like I was a deaf foreigner, just waiting for someone to come translate to me when they felt like including me in the conversation.

A long, brooding moment later, a young female voice addressed me. I identified it as belonging to Rin, although I was still not quite certain how that happened. "Hey, Otter, was it?" She giggled, a melodious tinkling sound that made me immediately think her human form must be a regular heart-breaking beauty.

The mental image caused by her girlish talking voice was in stark contrast to the hound standing before me. The kind of aesthetic impressiveness I was prepared to attribute to these two creatures mostly revolved around their observable capacity to chew me up and spit me out. I was not certain if this was, in fact, some kind of stuffy cat-and-dog projection that my subconscious was making, or simply my animal brain drawing rational conclusions to improve my chances of survival in the wild. I was seriously tempted to act according to the latter assumption.

But to be fair, she had so far given me no reason to think of her as an enemy. I snapped out of my broody ruminations and nodded affirmatively. "Yeah. An understandable mix-up, eh?" I had been named by non-shapeshifting people, who of course had no idea about my panther form. But considering that, their intuition had managed to hit uncannily close to truth.

Rin wagged her tail and barked amusedly, to which Kariya reacted with an approving snort. Seeing my obvious bogglement at his commentary, she explained, "I'm studying to be a human handler, and a part of that involves making my body language expressions clear enough that they can understand them." A bit like talking slowly and clearly to the elderly, I completed the unvoiced thought in my head.

Then something else clicked in my head. "Studying... so, am I going to be a sort of project for you?" I was not sure whether to greet this possibility with apprehension or with gratitude for the possibility that I would end up finding a way to be useful in this society after all.

Rin struggled to control her mirth. "I guess you could say so. I can be your interpreter, and learn about the human society before it is actually time for me to go out there, so it benefits both of us, doesn't it?"

My whiskers twitched in resignation. "I suppose you're right. I'm just not used to being... handicapped. Just a couple of days ago I was leading a quite decent, independent life, now I suddenly can't even talk properly and need a babysitter to look after me." I sighed. There, it was out. I was officially a whiney deaf foreigner in need of babysitting.

Rin nuzzled my shoulder comfortingly. "Don't worry. I'm sure the elders will figure out a cure for whatever it is that's causing this. You only just got here!"

Kariya chimed in with a gently reprimanding tone. "To be honest, girl, when we got here, I was almost certain you had already spent up all your chances. Since being labeled a harmless infant just saved your tail out there, it'd be best to suck it up and learn to live with it."

Trust the hell hound to sprinkle around optimism with a "things could be drastically worse". My wisdom growing quickly, I offered no comment, although my tail was swishing around irritably. I pondered for a moment how well talking telepathic dogs could read feline body language; maybe I was a mysterious mute to them, or maybe they were reading me like an open book.

Kariya fixed me with one more of his trademark creepy stares that seemed to see right through me. "All things considered, do you really wish you could go back to your isolation in that cabin?"

I had to admit that the possibility had not even occurred to me. My earlier content was mostly based on ignorance; there was no solace left now that I knew the world was full of others like me. Even if I was a deaf simpleton to them.

oOOOo

I was not granted a whole lot of time for getting used to my new status. Before long, a messenger arrived, reporting of a panther sighting a day's journey from where we were. Now that the whole community was apparently aware of the council harbouring a member of the rogue clan, this random disturbance was suddenly considered noteworthy news.

"They don't wander to these parts a whole lot," Rin warned. "So it could be a false alarm." But we agreed that it was worth the shot of trying to contact the reclusive community of panthers to find out if they knew something about what was wrong with me. It was not just to help me find my roots out of sheer friendliness, either. For the community of normal people, the information could mean finding a way to make sure it would never happen to one of their own.

Rin offered to lead me to the outskirts of the small town, although she refused to go in with me. "My training is not yet completed," she explained. So she was encouraged not to enter the asylum for the mentally defective quite yet, presumably in case someone could recognize her after messing up royally or something. Luckily, this limitation did not extend to me, given that I was defective myself.

Or, if one would prefer to think positively, because I had already managed to spend years among this sort of people without messing up particularly badly.

We set out at dusk, after elaborately promising to "Daddy Dog" Kariya that we would keep each other safe and not talk to any strange people. Unless they were panthers or it was otherwise necessary for the completion of our mission, that is. I got the impression from the whole shebang that Rin did not wander off on her own a whole lot at this age yet.

I brought it up with her as we jogged through the woods. She giggled at me in that irresistible way of hers, then assured me she was actually quite grown up by now.

"It's just that Mom had an accident recently, so I figure he's going to be overprotective until he gets over it."

I realized I had never met Rin's mother, and stumbled for a bit in my confusion. "An accident? Is she alright?" Kariya had a daughter, and I had not even realized he would probably have a wife to go with the offspring.

Rin slowed down slightly to allow me to catch up. "Yeah, she'll be fine. Just needs to rest for a while."

I waited for a while, but she would not break the silence to volunteer additional information. I prodded. "So... What happened?"

She took a fortifying breath, but had clearly prepared for the inevitable question. "She was working with humans, and there was a run-in with a mother bear. She got between it and the humans and got battered up pretty badly."

Uh oh. I had to hand it to Kariya, he must have been taking it rather well to not downright forbid his daughter from ever stepping near a human again, let alone encouraging her on a quest that would lead her to follow in her mother's footsteps. "And he's still okay with your, you know, studies?"

She made an affirmative noise. "Yeah, it's run in the family for generations, after all. Also, he feels bad for dropping your case earlier because of it, so it wouldn't do to forbid me from helping you this time around, either."

I peered at her quizzically. "Dropping my case? What do you mean?"

Rin barked. "What, he didn't tell you? The reason he didn't drag you to the council by the scruff of your neck earlier was that he ran home to Mom the moment he heard about her. Wouldn't eat or sleep, or leave her bedside, before she was stable and certain to make it through. By then he was too late to catch you on time." She paused in contemplation, then flashed me a mischievous canine ear-to-ear grin, complete with a quick wag of her tail. "You're going to have to pretend I didn't tell you, though, in case he's actually too proud to admit it himself." Then she giggled again, and it was like pieces of gold were falling into a crystalline blue lake.

I shook my head to clear it. All this information would require a bit of digesting. But one more thing was bugging me. "You mentioned there was a bear. Why would it attack your mother?"

Rin slowed her step enough to turn her head to glance at me, as if she suspected I was pretending ignorance. Once convinced that I was serious, she reined in her amusement stoically to give me an answer. "Not all animals care for this sort of existence. They're considered enlightened, not that it stops us carnivores from eating them for food."

Now there was a thought that, luckily, had not occurred to me before. "So you mean... when I eat some animal, it's not a talking one?"

Rin bounced and flicked her back legs at me in a mock-leap at prey. "In your case, actually, I wouldn't be so sure!" She barked at this amusedly. "But yeah, while it's socially accepted to eat anyone belonging to the food species, there's a few who consider it more ethical to eat those who have already achieved the higher plane of existence. There are old stories told to children that even suggest that they've only remained here to provide nourishment for us, and are freed when that has been achieved."

That sounded a bit too convenient to my ears. "Really?"

"Yeah, well. They're stories to children. You eat what you eat, but I figure it might be easier to do if you can't hear them in case they beg for mercy or tell you about a family they'll leave behind or whatever. Unless you're the sort who likes that kind of thing." She threw a glance back at me. "No offense!"

I was just baffled. "Offense? How come?"

"Oh, panthers are just rumoured to be cold-hearted and cruel. I'm sure it's not in your blood though. I wouldn't worry about it," she added in friendly dismissal.

I bristled a bit, nevertheless. We were talking about a group I was remotely identifying myself with, after all. "Are you sure that's not just prejudice talking?"

Rin pondered this for a moment. "It could be! I don't really know why they don't just mix with the rest of us. There's got to be some reason for it." How she could be so cheerful about it, I did not understand.

I guessed I would have to settle on a lack of condemning evidence on this one. There seemed to be a bit of a judgmental streak to this non-panther community that I was not entirely comfortable with. But despite her sympathy for the invalid, Rin was also still reasonably young, so seeing the world a tad black and white was not entirely unexpected. She seemed to like me well enough, but since I was already exceptional, she was not ready to extend the judgment to my entire clan quite yet. I figured there was quite a bit of generational narrative to support the theory that panthers were a bunch of meanies that I would have to disprove, in any case.

And who was I to say that they were nice people? I did not know any besides myself, after all.

Beyond the educative conversations, the travel went uneventfully. It was evening again when we arrived near the town, and agreed where to meet up after I had checked out the surroundings. Rin promised to keep her ears open and to ask any locals in the nearby woods for details, and we would meet up out there in a day.

I walked in to the town, oddly comforted to be among people with a familiar set of abilities that I could replicate again. I did not actually know anyone in these parts, but had been supplied with some local currency to be able to buy myself lodgings and even a warm meal.

I signed in to a local feeding and lodgings establishment, and found myself a bit claustrophobic in my small room. It was strange how fast I got used to spending time in the outdoors.

Sleeping in a real bed was a nice change, though. I settled in and quickly fell asleep in the soft comforts that come with being a near-defenseless, soft and pink human. For other species, the period when you're soft, pink and hairless is usually a passing phase completed very soon after birth. I meditated for a moment that this was probably part of the reason why the normal clansfolk considered humans a sort of not very clever livestock that needs to be extensively taken care of.

The next morning, I woke up to a strange feeling of being watched, and groggily tried to pull my mental functions together. My gut feeling was amazingly accurate: there was a stranger sitting at the foot of my bed. When this registered all the way up in my head, my eyes flew open and I rose to a half-sitting position before I realized the stranger had probably been there for a while now.

And what a strange stranger he was! The strangest thing about him was not his looks, as he looked for the most part quite ordinary. It was not even the way he sat there, probably having watched me in my sleep, but his aura. It carried a creepy feeling that I, who was rather firmly on the top of the food chain, had stumbled upon someone who had little (were)panthers for breakfast.

It was like a huge bird of prey was perching right at the foot of my bed, casting a shadow upon the entire room. The atmosphere was rather ominous.

After observing the range of emotions crossing my face for a moment, the man, or potentially infernal creature, spoke. "Do you know who I am?"

I could not get a word out of my mouth. I had no idea who he was, I just knew that we were not from the same pack. Even though he showed no external signs of leaping at me to devour me in one gulp, the urge to submit and bare throat to this deceptively man-shaped monster was so overwhelming that resisting it brought tears to my eyes.

With my oral capacities mystifyingly depleted, however, I just shook my head tentatively, my eyes still the size of plates.

He smiled the smile of people about to shake your hand and introduce themselves. Yet for some reason it felt obvious that he would do neither. "You could call me Mister Black. Or just Black for short."

Could, he said. I just blurted out what was omitted: "But that's not your actual name." Then a momentary re-evaluation. "Uh, pardon my bluntness."

He chuckled. "For someone described as extremely unresponsive, you don't strike me as particularly autistic."

"Au-what?" And who had been describing me to this man? Was he a shapeshifter too? I figured he had to be, to know about my problem with fitting in to the talking animals club. But that was no reason to admit to anything before he revealed what exactly he knew already.

Black waved his hand. "Never mind. And I must apologize for giving you the creeps like this, I just took the opportunity while you were not conscious to take a look at what might be causing this problem of yours."

I was conflicted about playing along with the strange gibberish of this unknown predatory character. Maybe he was from a local mental institution and wanted to lock me away for talking in my sleep about shapeshifters, for all I knew. Right at that moment, I was actually just uncertain enough about myself that if pushed, I could have confessed that I had imagined everything that had been happening of late. Nervous breakdown of some sort, they could call it. I furiously looked for a way out, and just mouthed the first denial to come to my mind. "Uh, I'm not that freaked out, I'm, I'm just waking up slowly."

His pasted-on introductory smile shifted into a smirk. "Oh really."

What was this guy? He knew he was scary, seemed to consider it a source of amusement, and he had showed up from nowhere to pick my brain apart while I was asleep. I frowned suspiciously while collecting courage from staring intently away from him. "And who are you to come judge my mental state all of a sudden, anyway?" I mumbled under my breath, passive aggressiveness emerging to fill in the hole left by regular aggression that was too unnerving to apply.

"An excellent lip reader, among other things." His comment was cheery enough; he was obviously just smug for the opportunity to further rile me up.

I chose to simply sigh at that, maybe a bit dramatically.

"I'm here to try to help you communicate with other shapeshifters. Or, to be honest, to satisfy my intellectual curiosity, but I assume it will be beneficial for you as well." He leaned towards me, and I inched backwards to sit against the wall. "I'd really like to say I'm exactly like you, to build trust and all, but I'm afraid that you and I are both just a little bit too unique for that to be credible." He winked at me conspiratorially, then sat straight again. "Also, I hope you can forgive me for not organizing a demonstratory shifting. I wish not to cause a major event by doing that in here in broad daylight."

I felt my throat constrict at the prospect of getting found out, and swallowed. "It's, uh, alright. I believe you. What do you want to know?"

"My information is a little bit sketchy so far. How much can you communicate with people? What works, what doesn't?"

I rubbed my temples. He sent me right back at where all the crazy started. "I... back when Kariya, a big dog, came to fetch me, he said they had been reaching out for everyone for a long time. I got none of that. Also... uh, when I first saw him, he was a dog, and I wouldn't hear him before he, er, threatened to tear my throat." I rubbed at it subconsciously at the memory.

Black interrupted me, eyes alight with sudden interest. "He tried to talk to you and you wouldn't hear him? What form were you in?"

"I... I was human at first, when he was outside, and when he came in to where I was, I was in my cabin at the time, uh, I was a panther and, I, I attacked him when he came through the door, I guess. I mean," I hastily added, "I know I did. But it was all rather sudden. I thought he was some kind of feral beast I'd need to defend myself against."

Black waved this aside. "Don't worry about that, I'm not interested in your social issues. Just this," he tapped his temple meaningfully. "So, suddenly you started to hear him when you were in panther form?"

"A bit after that, when, uh," to my embarrassment, I felt a blush creeping on my face, "he pinned me down. He said later at the council meeting that when he had my full attention, then he could get through to me."

Black lifted an eyebrow. "At the council meeting, I presume you were all out of human form - and you could hear people talking there?"

"Not at first, I felt there was some buzzing tension in the air but heard nothing before... before I started talking because they were taking Kariya away. And, uh, he told me to sit, and then everybody started talking so that I could hear them."

"He told you to sit?" He seemed almost as baffled as I was.

"Uh. He meant to be quiet, I think."

Now Black started to look dangerously smug again, as if he knew something I did not. "But you said he told you to sit. Did you?"

"Er, yes. But I mean, he can be really convincing when he-"

"Literally. Sat. Without thinking?"

"Yes, I don't quite understand what this has to do with-"

"I want to try something." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Then, suddenly, he got up and briskly stepped right up to me and brought his face right in front of mine in one smooth move. And before I could even begin to boggle at this strange behaviour, he roared at me. "BOO."

I like to not think of myself as particularly cowardly or easy to frighten, and I suspect I had been notably influenced by the strange atmosphere in the room. To my great a posteriori embarrassment, I yelped and fell off the bed from the other side, as far away as possible from... a strange man who had said "boo" to my face. Honestly, now?

When my breathing had stabilized, I managed a withering glare at the man, now all but giggling at my state.

I was just about to get up again, when it happened again. "DUCK." And I was back on the floor, flat on my belly.

After I got a hold of my senses again, I got up growling. "Stop that. Stop that right now or I swear, freaky or not, I'll punch your face in."

Black was shaking from held-back laughter, with tears of mirth in his eyes. "Alright, alright, I hear you. I just had to confirm, you know, in case, in case it was a coincidence the first time."

"Go ahead and laugh," I commented dryly. "I know you want to."

He dutifully did as told. I waited for the chortling to die down, then tapped my foot for an explanation.

"Okay, I have some good news for you. You're capable of communicating, but there's something in the way of regular contact. However, there's a more primitive, almost reflexive way of passing information, and it's working fine. Better than fine, in fact. You are unusually responsive." Again he had to pause due to overwhelming amusement. I waited and glowered.

"Something's in the way? What do you mean?"

"Well, if you've been living by yourself until now, some of it is probably lack of use and, I must say, it sounds like there's some disbelief in there too. You don't think animals can talk, so you don't hear them until one talks to you on a level so low even your mind can't get in its way. After that, you're willing to believe that he can pass sounds to you through the human form, but still can't initiate or receive shared thoughts."

"Whoa, wait, what?" I hated it when everyone assumed I was familiar with everything from before. "Our human forms talk? How? And shared thoughts? Telepathy is a fairy tale, right?"

Black stared at me meaningfully. "There's a situation where pla-, well, it'd take a while to explain properly, but imagine that... gah, I was never good with dumbing things down. They just talk, alright? There's a mechanism for it. Trust me, it's not just in your head."

I figured that was as much as I would get from him. "What about this telepathy thing then?"

"It's not exactly paranormal, it's perfectly natural chemical communication and it seems that your receptors are getting some kind of interference from something. Could be some kind of external inhibitors, although I'm suspecting it has to come from inside you. Overactive reuptake, maybe?" He took a glance at my face and deduced I was not picking up half of what he was saying. "Okay, to put it simply, you've got a mutation that makes you half-deaf, and you don't believe the little sounds you can hear mean anything. Is that simple enough for you?"

I am not entirely certain why, but it sounded horribly depressing and relieving at the same time. "Can it be fixed?"

"I can give it a try, but it takes a bit of time. So I suggest you go back and try to get used to the idea that these people go around talking on a whole level that you have not yet really seen. Beyond the reflexive commands, anyway."

"Wait, why do those work then? You just said-"

"Different mechanism, different mechanism. It can't be inhibited, that wouldn't be evolutionarily beneficial." His shoulders were shaking again and he covered his mouth with a hand to hide the grin. "Except maybe in your case."

I snorted.

We parted ways as strangely as we met, he said he would "be in touch" and I figured he meant it. I spent a relatively speaking extremely uneventful morning getting breakfast and getting ready to meet up with Rin, and checked out of my room to take a look around the village. We had not found the panthers and to be honest, they were not so high on the top of my mind at the moment. I was walking around in a daze, trying to digest all this new information.