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Ficlet: “Team Work”

And some writing. This is one of the most recent things I’ve written, featuring characters I used in my NaNoWriMo story (which still hope I will be able to turn into a pretty decent book after some editing and rewriting). It is, like most of my short stories where I explore my characters and get to know them better.

Enough with the ranting, story goes below.

If there was one thing which spoke in Cassandra’s favor, it was that she had a pretty good work ethic. Give her a task and she would perform it, thoroughly and without distractions. It did mean that when she was fully intent on finishing a painting, she would not stop for anything, food or drink, not even sleep, resulting in her complete and utter collapse when she thought herself done. She had been forced to make some concessions in that area recently, it would not do to collapse with a toddler about the house, someone who was unable to take care of itself…someone much more fragile than her.

Yes, she had been forced to make some adjustments in the recent year, but her work ethic was just as strict as ever, so just like any other year, after the ground had fully thawed and she felt secure enough in the moods of the weather gods, she knew it was high time to get her garden cleaned up for another growing season, toddler houseguest or no.

That morning, after she had fed the boy, getting more food on him than in him as usual, she’d put him in the little play corner she’d put together for him, for the time being his motor skills in either form did successfully confine him there, then she got her gear in order. Seeds and shovel, the hoe and the rake, hopefully the bag of fertilizer would have survived the winter out back, if not she’d have to make do somehow until the next trip into town. She could feel the boy’s eyes on her, crisp and blue as a summer sky, as she puttered around and when she opened the door to leave he let out a squeal of distress.  Cassandra turned around and found the boy in his feline form, trying to climb the crate that boxed him, letting out squeaks that were half kitten, half pup.

“Just stay there and play with your toys, Oy”, she said, turning again to leave. The truth was that she didn’t quite trust the boy to stay put if she let him outside, he might have a more mobile and dexterous animal form to resort to, but his mind was still that of a small child. If kittens could get lost, then surely a small boy with the body of a kitten could do much worse than that. She almost jumped at the loud thump and yowl, turning around to see the boy throwing himself violently at the box barrier, actually making the heavy crate rock slightly. Another thump and a pair of paws appeared for a moment, clinging in desperation to the top of the crate, before slipping down with a howl of anguish. Cassandra let out a sigh and walked over to the play corner. She peered down into it, facing those clear blue eyes as the boy looked up at her with expectation. He reared up on his hind legs, his tail waving back and forth as a loud purr emerged from his throat.

“You can be such a pest sometimes, do you know that?” she said as the boy reached up a paw, batting lightly at her outstretched hand.

“Oy”, the boy said as he reverted back to his human form, patting her hand with his chubby fist.

“You’re coming with me, on my conditions”, she said as she plucked the boy from his confinement. She’d seem images, but it took a few tries before she could strap the boy to her back like she’d seen in pictures, Oy just seemed to view it as good sport as he laughed and pulled at any strand of hair he could get his hands on. She had half a mind to dump him back in the play corner at one point.

The sun was well up in the sky when she finally took her things off to the back of the house. Dumping the gear next to the large maple nearly toppled her over, the weight of the boy on her back really upset her sense of balance. Refusing to be hindered, she set to work as well as she could, tilling the soil, hacking out the big clumps and mixing in the bag of fertilizer, which still seemed good to her. Oy rocked back on forth on his perch on her back, babbling and chasing after the butterflies foolish enough to come near him. After a while she fell into a nice rhythm, the hoe in her hands, the slight weight on her back, moving back and forth, preparing the soil for planting. She found herself mentally planning what to plant where, she remembered what the text book said on crop rotation, to ensure that she’d always have the best harvest possible. The carrots and potatoes would have to be put in a different corner this year, the peas and beans too. The tomatoes were tricky; they’d need a sunny patch, but not the same patch as last year.

Her thoughts distracted her from the fact that the weight on her back had lessened; she did not even notice it as she walked over to where she’d left the seeds. It wasn’t until she was on her hands and knees, carefully spacing out the carrot seeds she had left from last year, when she saw the kitten loping around the other side of the clearing, chasing butterflies. Stupidly she found herself reaching for her back; naturally it came up empty, the shawl used to tie the boy to her hanging loose and limp.

“Oy, come back here!” she yelled, climbing to her feet, her toes sinking into the damp soil, warmed slightly by the sun.

The boy stopped dead in his tracks and looked over at her, his tail whipping back and forth. Her heart sank as she recognized that look on his face.  “Oy, this is no time to play!”

But the boy set off, jumping and running into the forest, letting out excited yowls. Cassandra pursued, her bare feet slipping sometimes on damp leaves, but she was grateful for the better grip she got on the forest floor. There was a cracking of limbs and as she looked up she saw the boy climbing up an old pine tree, showering the ground and her with old, dry needles.

“Fine, you got me, I can’t follow you up there”, she said, throwing up her arms in defeat. She was annoyed at the time she’d already wasted chasing him over here and as much as she probably should wait here until he would tire of this game and come back down she had to finish the planting today or they’d have nothing to eat this summer. She could feel his eyes on her again as she walked away.

“’Assa?” she heard him call out to her retreating back, the crude larynx of the animal only managing the most rudimentary of sounds. She walked back slowly, feeling certain that he’d follow her and then she went back to working with her garden.

When she’d finally finished the sun had long since passed its zenith and her stomach was telling her it was about time she had lunch, though at this point it was closer to an early dinner. It was only then that she noticed the boy’s absence and she felt a sharp stab of fear in her gut. Had the boy tried to follow but gotten lost on the way? How stupid had she been to trust such a small child to keep pace with her, even if he was part cat? Kicking herself mentally she ran back, heart beating hard in her chest. She would not be able to forgive herself if Oy had gotten hurt somewhere. What if he’d met an animal larger than him? Small as he still was, he’d make a tempting snack to any wolf or mountain lion. She called his name as she ran, hearing her voice echo among the trees, the rustling of birds and rodents as they got out of her way, sharp roots and twigs digging into her feet.

“’Assa!” she heard, close, very close and as she looked up she found herself in the exact spot she’d left him and so was Oy. Clinging to the same gnarled branch sat the boy, still in his ocelot form, clinging to the branch, his blue eyes filled with fear and despair. “’Assa!” he cried again, causing a shower of old bark and needles to rain down on her as he shifted his position slightly. Her heart nearly stopped as he seemed to stumble slightly, one leg scrabbling for purchase, before he found his footing again. He was tired, that much was sure, all he wanted was to shift back, but that would be fatal, up where he sat.

“I’ll get you down from there buddy”, she said, walking up to the tree, trying to judge how high up he was. She had a ladder, but it wasn’t tall enough and she couldn’t climb trees half as well as the boy could.

“’Assa elp!” Oy called out again, claws scrabbling against the branch as the boy moved towards the trunk, slipping slightly as he tried to make his way down the massive trunk of the tree. She didn’t have much time, the boy would not make it, she had to…

Shifting was like putting on a coat ten times too large for her, the colors of the forest altering to reflect an eye not equipped with the same ability to distinguish and perceive colors as a human. Oy’s brownish red coat appeared as a more dull greyish yellow to her animal eyes. Controlling legs that seemed much too long for her she managed to rear up, raising her lumpy, elongated head up towards the struggling boy. Oy seemed to catch on, for he quickly let go of the tree and with a cat’s dexterity he twisted around in the air to land on her head. A loud grunt was all she could offer as assurance as the boy clawed his way down her long neck, curling up on her broad back as she made her way back to the house with long, confident strides. Though she always feared taking on this form, she felt she owed it to it to let it stretch its legs for a bit. On her back, she felt the boy purr loudly, the vibration oddly soothing as they permeated her thick, dark skin.

When they were back home she lay down on the ground to let the boy climb down before she shifted back, now filled with the disturbing sensation of cramming too much flesh into too small a space as long legs and neck were replaced with her smaller human body. Oy had followed suit and his small hands dug into her front as he began to cry, his small human frame shaking with sobs, finally able to express the fear he’d experienced, trapped up in the tree.

“Everything’s okay now, buddy”, she said, wrapping her arms around him, still sitting on the ground with her legs tucked neatly beneath her. “I bet you’re not going to run off like that again, are you?”

She felt a faint nod as the sobs quieted down to small hiccups, though his body still trembled from time to time.

“’Assa…eave Oy”, the boy said, looking up at her. It dawned on her then that perhaps what he’d truly been afraid of was her abandoning him up in that tree, that she had left him permanently, just like his mother had.

“Geez, I’d never leave you forever, kiddo”, she said, stroking his back. “You might get in my way sometimes, but I’m not that cruel.”

They sat like that for a time, as Oy calmed down and released the death grip he had on her shirt front to sink down next to her, though he still kept a hand on her thigh as if he wanted to assure himself that she was still there and not going anywhere.

“We’re a team, you and me, aren’t we?” she finally said, her own brown eyes meeting his. The boy nodded shyly, fingers digging into her pant leg. “So, we need to stick together. Special people like us; we need to look out for each other, right?”

The boy began to smile and nodded with much more enthusiasm than before.

“Oy ‘elp ‘Assa!” he said, climbing unsteadily to his feet.

She smiled and ruffled his hair lightly, then climbed to her feet as well, letting him take her hand as she led him back inside the house.

“Then you can start by helping me decide what to make for dinner.”

Bubbling with enthusiasm the boy let go of her hand then, running ahead of her into the kitchen pantry to rummage through it. They really were a team of sorts, they were both people who did not quite fit in, with skills and abilities that would frighten and alarm any normal person, so they needed to stick together. Because there was always strength in numbers and comfort in knowing that you were not alone. 

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