Crossing Fields

These days, Reina had to make a habit of frequenting places where folks didn’t pay much attention to how you looked. She wanted to be able to enjoy a cup of bad coffee and a plate full of undercooked sausage links in a place where the cashier would take her ten dollar bill and not ask so many goddamn questions, thank you very much.

Thankfully, the Night Owl Diner, tucked away on the emergent corner of a dimly lit Cordova alleyway, was one such place. Sure, the few patrons that stuck around at this late hour afforded the hooded woman a wary look or two, but most of them simply wrote her off as some sort of bizarre, method-acting makeup artist when they got the stray glimpse of her split lip or her strange, luminescent eyes. The hood took care of the migrated ears, and the whiskers were more or less translucent with the abrasive light of the diner’s bare bulbs being blocked by the edges of the fabric that fell about her face.

All in all, it wasn’t enough to forsake all of the unpleasant stares. But it was enough to simply allow Reina to ignore them in peace. So there she sat, perched in the corner of the café with a plate of sausages piled in front of her, sipping on the piping-hot sludge that sat in her mug and hoping her claws did not scratch up the ceramic too much.

It was a calm night; completely uneventful and devoid of note. Finally.

 Working late was, admittedly, getting old. It was hard to keep up with his typical mantra when he was worn this thin, running on little sleep and maybe even less food. He struggled to cling to the notion that he was impacting the lives of children, that he might be a beacon of light in their darkest hours - it was increasingly tough when he hadn't slept in over twenty-four hours.

 Some mix of weariness and hunger all but tugged him into the diner that appeared to be little more than a hole in the wall, a place he had passed many times but had never really even spared a glance. The smell of food was just enough to cover the mysterious scent of grime - even if it wasn't, he lacked the energy to notice anything except his brain's foremost desire to put something in his stomach.

 His shoes stuck to the floor in some places, but after laying eyes on the "seat yourself" sign, he forgot about the sensation in favor of dropping his ass in a seat. It was on this search for a resting place that he caught sight of a face that was, even for a brief look, familiar. He had passed the hooded figure, and his brain felt like it was shorting out for a moment before he took a couple backward steps and tried to get a better look at the woman... even if she seemed to be wearing early Halloween wear, he was sure he recognized her.


Or not. Yeah, that tracked.

"…Noah," she said, her raspy voice carrying a hint of feline yowl as she spoke. Inwardly, she cursed her own apparent bestial infirmities. This was the exact sort of thing she had been hoping to avoid – the exact sort of thing that she had come to this burnt grease stain for in the first place.

Oh, well. There was no circumventing it, now; she could hardly play off some mock ignorance. The man, a former friend (or perhaps a still-friend and former contact?) had already pegged her despite her drastic change. It would be almost impossible to walk back, at this point.

"You know, I never took this for your sort of dive," she said, idly. "You’re – You’re looking well."

Really, Reina? What a stupid thing to say. Not going to lead with the far more appropriate ‘I can explain’? Well, perhaps not. Reina had only done it a few times and she was already tired of explaining.

 She said his name, and while he was glad that she still recognized him despite the time that had passed since their last meeting, he could not help but notice the strange warp of her voice when she spoke. He stood stupidly for a moment, undeniable weariness making it hard for his brain to process what was going on. Maybe he was just imagining the weirdness of this situation.

 "I've seen this place before but - never really seen it, you know," he rambled somewhat, and without really thinking about it, moved to slid into the seat across the table from her. Probably rudely, but unable to help himself, he stared at her as he sat, folding his hands on the table before him. "You're looking..." good, was what his professional brain wanted to say, but as he was speaking he realized he maybe shouldn't have said anything like this at all. He trailed off and cleared his throat awkwardly, finally looking down at his hands. "Been a while. How've you been?"

Reina laughed – a weird, churring sound that seemed anything but human. "Oh, you know," she said. "Been here and there. Quit my job after I got mauled by a tiger. I got better, though – then some other things happened."

Reina tugged her hood down, revealing the full scope of the changes that she had faced. Triangular ears with rich black stripes peeked through her mane of dark hair. Her almost-snout twitched with abandon. She let the image sit for a long moment before tugging the hood back up. There was little sense in skirting around the obvious, she thought; Noah was a kind and polite sort who had even stopped the obvious question in his mouth before it had been made fully manifest, but she could see the morbid curiosity and surprise lurking in his stare.

Besides -- Reina needed to figure out how to explain this to people eventually. She couldn't keep up this trend of living off of wild game on the outskirts. She needed to enter society again, if it would have her. This would make for good practice.

"Needless to say, I’m having a bit of a time finding new employment," she said, her voice low and rasp-ridden. "Most folks with this particular malady get to lay low, metaphorically speaking. These days I’m not so lucky."

 Her laugh was as weird as her voice. Noah swallowed dryly as she began to speak again. Got mauled by a... tiger. Then other things happened. He tried to keep his expression neutral through such a vague explanation, but that was a hard feat to manage as she lowered the hood from over her head and revealed a set of ears that... were... real? He wanted to think they were just really well-made fabric decorations, but, coupled with the fuller view of her distinctly feline face, it was hard to think that any part of it was less than real. His expression gave him away, shifting into muted horror as his brain processed her appearance. The movement of her nose that tugged at the cleft in her upper lip was both convincing and a little disgusting.

 He managed to close his mouth finally as she began to speak once more, blinking as he realized the tension in his face. While Reina seemed a lot less human, he had to treat her as if that was not the case. She likely still had feelings and he would hate to hurt them, even if he felt a very distinct brand of fear building up inside of him. He would hate to piss off a woman who was likely part tiger. He struggled to find a response, and moved his hands to rest beneath the table instead of on top of it so that he could channel his growing anxiousness into wringing his fingers rather than wearing it on his face.

 "You could... work from home?" he suggested weakly, after a while. "Computer job... don't have to, uh. Look anybody in the face." That was rude, he realized immediately, but... it was what it was. What the fuck. He blurted words again before she could properly respond, his brain working at half speed. "What... so you're a, uh." Maybe we don't out her in public. He cleared his throat, lowered his voice. "Do you all look like this?"

"Nah. At least, I haven’t met any others that are – well, quite so horrifying." She gestured to her face with a wicked-clawed hand; the pads upon her fingers and palm were more obvious when her hands sought purchase upon anything but the flat of the tabletop. "As far as I can tell, I’m the only one like this. The rest of them are… Well, shit. You could be working with them, for all you know. They live among us, as it were."

The paw-hand came back to rest upon the table. Little tufts of fur were just visible between the fingertips – white and downy and very soft. The claws rapped against the already-scratched surface in nervous sequence; surely the waitstaff wouldn’t notice a few more divots on the well-worn synthetic wood.

The woman’s heart was doing its best to crawl out of her chest and into the open. The tiger did not like explanations – particularly those offered toward someone who felt so human. Reina had not felt quite this alien ever since her mishap; even while she stalked the underbrush of the outskirts, she still felt like she was in her element. Here, she was caught in the woeful in-between of two unpleasant realities.

Reina shook her head in weary frustration. Beneath the dark cloth of her sweatpants, her tail twitched angrily. It didn’t like being confined in the best of situations, she had discovered. "…Sorry," she admitted, luminescent gaze directed downwards. "This is… Hard."

 She was quick to explain that hers was a unique case, and Noah wasn't sure whether her explanation was comforting or more disturbing. His eyes caught her hand as it gestured, noting the leathery pads and hairy, clawed fingertips. Controlling his expression felt easier now, but perhaps only marginally - he could not do much more than try to keep it neutral, relaxing all the muscles in his face except the tight clench of his jaw as one part of his brain still seemed to work out all the ways in which this was just not possible. His only response to her explanation was a nod of the head and a quiet hum of acknowledgment. What was there to say?

 She apologized, breaking the short stretch of silence, and Noah shifted uncomfortably in his seat. A woman like Reina, as she was now, was as much a threat to society as it was to her. No wonder she was in some seedy little joint with a hood over her face. "Yeah," he replied dumbly. "I bet." Not like he could even scratch the surface of understanding. The closest he could come to it was one of his child cases, in which the young girl's guardian had been mauled to death by an overly large animal right here in the heart of the city. Yikes.

 The waitress appeared, and Noah glanced quickly at her, glad he at least had managed not to jump in his seat at her sudden approach. Could she get him anything? "Water, and uh... a cheeseburger with fries. No pickles. Thanks." The woman, who looked tired - more in a sense of tired of life and not just tired from insufficient sleep - jotted down his order on a piece of paper with an expressionless face and walked away to put it on the line and retrieve his drink.

 He sat in an awkward silence in the wake of her departure, eyes drifting back to Reina's translucent whiskers of their own accord.

The waitress wouldn’t meet her gaze. Fair enough, Reina thought. An ear twitched; a tail swiveled uncomfortably. The whirring of the exposed fluorescent lights was nigh maddening, but otherwise the Tiger was satiated – if a bit bored. The woman’s cleft-nosed mouth parted, jaw stretched wide open in a yawn far too wide for any human anatomy to properly manage. It was instinct; Reina couldn’t do a thing to control the way her fangs bore themselves out upon the world, glinting in the artificial light as her rough, feline tongue extended in the air for a moment.

She shook her head to clear it once the waitress had departed once more. “I’ll cover your dinner,” she said. “For your trouble, yeah?” Reina knew what she was doing; a monetary apology for shattering his worldview. It was self-flagellating, perhaps, but it still made Reina feel better. More human. What else was she going to do, hunt a deer for him?

The tiger liked that idea. Reina sighed.

"…What about you? How’s work? I bet things have been crazy with – with recent events." Reina wondered idly if it was harder to get attention for the cause of neglected children when there were myths and legends running about the city. She hoped not; she had enough guilt without feeling responsible for sad foster kids.

 Her yawn was an entirely animalistic thing that he could not look away from, as much as he wanted to. Morbidly drawn to the warping of her face as it happened, he felt outlandishly rude, but took in every detail of her wide open mouth, looking quickly away only when it seemed she was going to close her face again.

 She offered to cover his dinner, for his trouble. He looked in her general direction, but not quite at her, letting his gaze settle somewhere just over her shoulder as he considered the kind gesture. For his trouble. As if he would be in any more pain than she was for all this. He merely hummed a quiet note, nodding his head in acceptance, even though... it felt better to think he should pay for hers instead. As if he could make it right by footing the bill.

 "Yeah," he began with more confidence than he'd had just a moment ago. "Haven't had too many kids directly impacted by it, which is nice I guess, but... I guess the federal government is pretty tied up in figuring things out, getting their shit together about all this." He gestured slightly at the air around them. "So it's really not much different. We still lack the attention we probably need as an organization." A light jiggle of his foot as the waitress dropped his water off at the table. "There's talk of taking kids away from parents who are found to be supernatural beings." Something that struck him as both sad and also probably a good idea.

He was staring. But of course he was. She would stare, too, in his situation. It didn’t make it feel any better, really, but at least she was able to empathize.

They were taking children away from supernatural creatures, he said. Probably for the best – at least, from a human perspective. At least if you saw shifters as lesser – as dangerous. The tiger roared in inward protest. Really? More dangerous? She hadn’t mauled anything that she did not intend to eat. Could humans say the same?

"You wanna know something really funny?" she said. "I think I’m less dangerous now than I used to be." A vague statement, to be sure – but honestly, Reina had a far higher kill count as an accidental pyrotechnic than as a tiger-creature. In fact, that kill count is what had driven her to Cordova in the first place.

"It’s funny," she said quietly. "I moved to Cordova to get away. To melt into the background and become invisible. To start fresh, with no preconceptions." The woman tapped the tip of her damp nose with a padded finger; it wriggled cattishly. "So much for that."

 More dangerous now than she used to be? Noah remained silent in the face of that statement. Obviously she would know better than he could even hope to, but after what he'd seen on the news? She was a literal monster. A thing of nightmarish fantasies - and yet, still so human. She said they could be working alongside him, likely a part of everyday life. It left him with some very conflicted feelings, of which fear seemed to be the ruler for now.

 She continued on. Noah drew a finger down the condensation of his glass. She was definitely far from invisible - she stuck out like a sore thumb! Saying as much was probably unnecessary. She likely realized it every time she passed a mirror. The councilor in him wanted to offer some advice - the human in him could not even begin to make words that could be helpful. He picked up his glass and took a drink from it, carefully setting it back down on the watery ring it had left behind.

 "So... what are you going to do now?" he asked warily, eyes fixed carefully on the glass before him. What even was there for a literal cat-woman to do to lead a semi-normal life?

"That’s the question of the day, now, isn’t it?" Reina pressed the mug of coffee to her lips; she struggled to drink properly, tongue surreptitiously lapping up the liquid within. It was still a little too hot; it stung and assaulted her tongue. Frustrated, she took a deep breath as she returned the blank white ceramic to its place upon the table.

"If I’m being honest wit’ you," she said, her shifted palate lending a strange accent to her words, "I feel like the moment I so much as put a headshot on LinkedIn I’m going to get the feds tracking me down and tagging me. Human rights are all well and good, but – well, I’m sure there will be folks arguing that I’m no longer human." A long pause, followed by a shrug that seemed all too nonchalant for the subject matter. "They’re probably not wrong. Most humans don’t feel the urge to lick their paws to clean up after meals."

It was meant to be a joke; an acidic bite of humor added to the viscera of unpleasant reality. "So I suppose I’ll – find some graveyard shift job in a place where people don’t care about freaks, yeah? And hope I don’t get reported to the FBI for existing."

 It was a hard question to answer. Noah fell silent again as she spoke, feeling almost guilty that he had even asked such a thing. It had seemed like the best question to ask to keep the conversation flowing smoothly, if it could even be described in such a way - he did want to have it, apparently glued here by the draw of some morbid chitchat about a twisted, supernatural reality.

 He rubbed his hands together under the table quietly, listening to her speak. There were so many laws that were going to have to be made in the face of these creatures - these people. He chewed on the inside of his lip. He could hardly imagine them having the same rights as human Americans, but... such honest speaking definitely felt like it would be the type of thing that would dishearten her. Again, he had no desire to upset a tiger lady.

 She could join the circus. Holy shit, that was mean, Noah. He pressed his lips together and inhaled quietly in a silent bid to keep that tidbit to himself. Abused and neglected children were pieces of cake in comparison to a... werecat. He cleared his throat, stealing another glance at her face. "Yeah," he said, somewhat emptily, uncertain of himself. "Uh. Good luck."

 With perhaps miraculous timing, the waitress reappeared, lowering his plate down before him. Noah thanked her quietly, picking up the bottle of ketchup that sat nearby and squirting it over his fries, filling the awkward silence with the anticipation of eating.

Reina simply observed, a meager, fanged grin stretched across her face. Good luck indeed, she thought with no small amount of bitterness. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Noah. Where did he get off judging her? She came her to be alone. He had sat down, uninvited and unhailed. He had offered nothing in the way of comfort or reassurance. He had stared, and gawked.

Good luck.

The tiger roiled in frustration. Why was she giving this passerby the time of day? Sure, they had been acquaintances. Sure, polite conversation was a perfectly human thing. But this was not entirely polite, and anyhow Reina wasn’t entirely human.

Another awkward sip of coffee. Blunt, weak teeth crushing French fries coated with ketchup that was far too sweet. Ears and nose twitched in tandem. A quiet, annoyed growl rumbled in her chest. Stop it, Reina. Stop being weird.

Was it weird? This is who she was, now. Why should she not just—

Reina leaned hard upon her elbows, peering intently at Noah through wide, green eyes. Talk. Focus on something else. Stop being such a beast.

"How’s the food?"

Not much, but about all she had right now.

 He definitely heard the growl. He tried to pretend he didn't, happy to focus on crispy-outside-soft-inside potatoes and smashed tomato-vinegar sauce. It was becoming harder and harder to consider her human - he struggled to even remember what her face used to look like. What color had her eyes been before?

 A quick upward glance at her question, so small and casual as his eyes found her feline face again. He swallowed, looked away, nodded his head. "Not bad for a place that probably washes dishes with spit," he mumbled, half-chewed fries stuffed in his cheek. It was an attempt at humor, but it was hard to even appreciate for himself. He sighed, shook his head abruptly as he wiped his fingers on the napkin before him. "Look - I'm sorry. This probably sounds petty as hell, but this is hard for me too. I help people for a living and I can't do anything for you, so... that's weird." This was all weird.


It felt so much better for Noah to just be honest – that this entire thing was out of control. It was a confirmation, in a way; talking around it just made everything feel a thousand times worse. Now, though? Now she felt like she could be candid.

She laughed – a genuine, earnest sound that rumbled deep in her chest. "It’s so weird!" she confirmed. "Honestly, it doesn’t sound petty at all. I – I mean, of course you feel that way. Like, what the hell even is this? This isn’t something that happens. How on earth can I expect someone to just be fine with it right away?"

Reina offered Noah the best approximation of a genuine smile that she could muster. She hoped it did not look like she was trying to eat him. "Look, I appreciate your honesty. And your company, really. It’s been lonely going for the past little while."

 She laughed, and his chewing slowed until he swallowed. He wasn't sure what he had been expecting - some sort of melancholy response, or something. Anything but the levity that came out of her weird mouth. At least she seemed self-aware and accepting enough to not be offended by his being freaked out beyond normal conversation. His hand lingered over his plate, as if considering making a grab for another fry, dark eyes watching her face split into a strange grin.

 He continued to struggle with mixed feelings. She was so very not human, and yet still.. so very human. Personable. Of course she had been lonely. She was terrifying, and probably terrified in turn. Noah offered her a weak smile. "Yeah. No problem." Was it so hard to extend some kindness to her? It didn't mean he had to trust her. But he could be kind. He took a bite of his burger - it was hardly stellar by any means, but they had at least left off the pickles like he'd asked, and it seemed freshly cooked, so. Bonus?

 "So... how have you even been surviving like this? Has it... been a while?"

"A couple of months," she responded. She helped herself to a french fry, awkwardly munching on it. It didn’t taste as good as it used to, a fact which distressed Reina more than she cared to admit."The details aren’t really pretty. Suffice it to say that the deer population of Colorado has been having a rough year."

Honesty was a give and take, after all. "Ran out of money for takeout a while ago, anyway. Been couch surfing, or sleeping in the woods. That’s becoming less of an appealing option with the weather changing, though."

She idly itched behind one of her twitching ears; it was annoying, she had found, to reach up and around the top of her head instead of just to the nape of her neck. In the grand scheme of things, though, it wasn’t that big of a deal.

"I thought about a shelter. Something tells me that wouldn’t go over so great. Most of them have ‘no animal’ rules."

 He listened quietly to her tale. He wondered if she chased deer in this body, or if she turned into a tiger like the man on the news last year to do that. He wondered how couch surfing went with her... face. He could extend a helping hand - but his logical brain shut that down real fast. Having a tiger woman who he didn't know well and could explode into a giant fucking animal and kill him at any time sounded not great. He took another bite of burger.

 Thoughtful chewing in the wake of her shelter statement. Her kind - animal shapeshifter people - had probably been around for some time. Surely they had some community aspects. "You... don't know anyone else like you?" he ventured tentatively. He sure as hell didn't.

"No." Reina hoped her poker face had improved. Of course she knew others; she even knew that one that Noah probably recognized from the television. Cordova, of course, was a smaller city than many people would likely give it credit for.

Still, she wasn’t about to out anyone; even by proxy, and even to a friend. Easier and safer to feign ignorance. Just because she had to live with this particular badge of honor didn’t mean that she had to drag others into her fiasco.

Reina felt at her phone in her pocket. She should text Wallace, at some point. She missed other shifters.

What a strange thought.

"I’ll make it work," she said with a shrug. "Who knows? Maybe the circus will come to town. That seems like the sort of thing someone like me might thrive in, yeah?"

Reina had no intention of joining a circus. The tigress railed against the idea with every fiber of her being, anyhow.

 Noah did his best to maintain his own poker face as she quickly informed him she didn't know any others like herself. Taking a slightly too large bite of burger was a great method at keeping himself from frowning as he decided he didn't believe her. It really wasn't any of his business, he guessed... if she did know someone else like her, then she had other avenues of approach and he could worry less about her fate. It was so far beyond his realm that Noah had to resolve not to care.

 He stiffened a little at her circus remark, then relaxed enough to chuckle as he swallowed his latest bite. At least she had been the one to say it and not him. "Uh," he began uncertainly, "Last resort, maybe." He didn't know to what degree was appropriate for him to go along with such a joke.

"Last resort," Reina agreed. She had never found it this difficult to simply speak to someone before. Elephants in the room were never easy to talk around, though a tiger should have been a fair bit smaller -- and yet it was proving nigh twice as tricky to navigate all the same. The florescents whirred in their eternal drone.

"...Noah, I -- I appreciate you taking the time to sit with me for a time. I realize that you're probably about as freaked out as you can be, given everything that is going on." She glanced around, somewhat anxiously. "I get it if you -- if you want to make a quick and prudent exit. You won't offend me, or anything. Just... Don't report me to the police or anything, yeah?" A catlike grimace; now she was giving him ideas. "I could really use a break. Some good news. And getting tugged into some cinderblock wall with no windows doesn't sound like my idea of a good time."

 She agreed that it would be a last resort thing, and Noah offered a weak sort of smile before he moved in for another bite of greasy burger. Then, she dove into something of a sentimental spiel, and he was happy to eat while she spoke. His head nodded at the appropriate intervals, to show he was listening and understanding - until she mentioned him getting the cops involved, then the motion of his head stopped and began to shake back and forth.

 If he could not help someone, the least he could do was not harm them. Right?

 He wiped his fingers on the napkin again, earnestly working down the latest bite of food so that he could respond. "No cops," he agreed quickly. Unless he saw her do some crazy violent animal shit, or somehow found himself in some other compromising situation with her... he could at least extend the mercy of letting her live her life to the best of her ability without his interference. "I'm not.... really useful to you in any capacity. But. I won't call the cops on you."

No cops. Well, little victories. Part of Reina wanted to be indignant – to know that she was a human with rights, and that she had not done anything wrong. Sure, she was dangerous – but so were a number of completely regular, non-apex-predator-laden humans. She was no different than they were.

Though that, of course, was absurd. People, on average, had a reliable control of their mental faculties. Generally speaking it was very hard for some regular Joe from Cordova to brutally murder someone by mistake.

Not so with Reina and her contemporaries. They had to hope that a vampire didn’t decide to be snarky with any proximity to the full moon. Or that none of them stubbed their toe on an offday, really – or caught the scent of something tasty on the autumn wind.

If she were still her old self, she thought, she would do her best to ensure the safety of everyone. And that would probably mean capturing and regulating shifters. Or worse.

She wasn’t so special. Just on the other side of the coin, now.

She shook her head, dispelling such notions from her mindscape. "Thanks," she said, at last. The tension in her voice was clear. "Honestly I don’t need useful. Just – amicable. If that makes any sense. In short, I could really use a friend or two."

 At least she knew what she wanted. Noah stuck the last morsel of burger in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. He could be amicable. It was a part of his job to treat shitty adults with respect, even in the face of wrongs they'd done to children. He could definitely extend more than professional niceness to catgirl Reina. Right?

 While one half of his brain screamed against it, Noah wiped his fingers off once more and reached into his pocket, producing his wallet and from that, a business card. Next came a pen, and he flipped the card over so that he could write his cell phone number on the back. Gently, he picked the card up and extended it toward her. "If you need... an ear, or something. You can hit me up."

 The desperately human part of him, that (perhaps rightly) feared this woman and rejected any notion of being associated with her, feared that this would end badly. The magic part of him, the part that knew his little abilities made him less than "normal," drove the social worker in him to connect with her. He was scared of her, but maybe... maybe he actually could help her.

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