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Just Under the Skin

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There were only about a hundred ligers in the world, oversized hybrids born of the union between female tigers and male lions. Of those hundred, more than thirty were in the United States. At Peace Grove Animal Park there was only one. Titan.

He padded out from behind a screen of scrubby bushes and stretched, letting all the guests snap their pictures and murmur their excitement. Titan understood people-speak, he knew what the tour guide was saying about him. His height and weight, how long he’d been at the park.

Titan was brought here for rehabilitation after the transport vehicle he was traveling in crashed. He almost didn’t make it. We grew so attached to him we bought him from the zoo he was heading for.

He didn’t remember the accident, or anything that came before. He didn’t remember his parents, or whatever home he’d come from. Just the park and the large enclosure that was solely his. He knew his nearest neighbors, which were elephants, but he didn’t know elephant-speak. He had no-one to talk to.

Titan is just over ten feet in length, from his nose to the base of his tail, and he weighs in at an impressive eight hundred and twenty-six pounds. Hercules, the largest liger recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records, was nine-hundred and twenty-two pounds.

Every day was the same. He ate, he slept, he swam in his little pond, he posed for the guests. His handler, Savannah, would pull him out to the show area to talk about him and let the guests touch him and take close-up pictures with him.

When he wasn’t performing, Titan contemplated the universe. He didn’t know if all animals thought about the things he did, or if they had simpler ruminations while they looked up at the night sky. He thought about numbers, and stars, and the numbers of stars.

And wondered if he’d always been so alone.

*o*o*o*

Unexpectedly, in a sea of sameness, something new happened. The empty enclosure on the other side of Titan’s was filled with a new acquisition. A sleek, slinky black jaguar. Titan waited by the fence for two days, until the new cat was let out of quarantine. Every type of cat had its own dialect, but it all sprung from the same cat-speak.

“Hey. Over here,” Titan called as soon as he caught sight of the jaguar. “Hello?”

The jaguar made a complete circuit of his – noticeably smaller – enclosure before he deigned to come to the fence.

“What’s your name?” Titan asked. He towered over the much smaller jaguar, so he got down on his belly. “Where did you come from?”

“They’re calling me Phantom.” The tone of his voice made it clear how little he thought of that name. “But my name is John. What’s yours?”

“Titan.”

“Is that your real name?”

Titan shook his head. “I don’t know my real name.”

“Well, you don’t look like a Titan.”

He looked down at himself. “I don’t?”

“How long have you been here?” John asked.

“As long as I can remember.”

John bobbed his head. “I’m going to check this place out.”

Titan wanted to ask him to talk longer but he didn’t want to seem too needy. Instead he watched John prowl around the enclosure for a while before he went back to minding his own business. At least for a little while.

*o*o*o*

Phantom is a new acquisition here at Peace Grove Animal Park, a transfer from the San Diego Zoo. A black jaguar, he clocks in at one hundred and eighty-nine pounds.

“Just so you know, she’s telling all the assembled visitors how much you weigh. Next will be your eating habits and your mating preferences. No fact too big or too small to enlighten the masses.”

“How do you know?” John asked. He was lazily basking in the sun.

“I understand people-speak.”

That had John lifting his head. He looked at Titan with his big, greenish eyes. “You do? How?”

Titan twitched one of his massive shoulders. “I don’t know. I just can.”

As you can see, Phantom is making fast friends with our very own Titan, one of a very rare few ligers living in captivity.

Fast friends was probably overstating it, but Titan had been pleased that John spent so much time talking with him. Well, listening would be more accurate. It had been a long time since Titan had a captive audience, so to speak, and he found himself telling John everything that came into his mind.

“Do you ever think about where we are in the universe?” Titan asked. He rolled on his back to look up at the blue, blue sky. “Have you ever looked up at the stars and wondered if there’s another big cat up there somewhere, looking back at you?”

“Can’t say that I have.”

“Well, you should. There’s more to life than these fancy cages.”

Titan may not have remembered his life before the animal sanctuary, but he was certain it was more of the same. He’d heard the spiel enough times to know there were almost none of his kind in the wild.

“It doesn’t always have to be this way,” John said softly.

“Oh really? Am I supposed to escape and just…blend in with the neighborhood strays?”

John chuffed. “I’ll show you tonight, smarty cat.”

“Show me what?”

“Show you how to be patient, that’s what.” John got up and stretched, his tail quivering. “And then you’ll see something really good.”

With those annoying and enigmatic words, John went to the opposite end of his enclosure.

*o*o*o*

Titan pondered John’s words all day. Did he have an escape plan? If they did escape, where would they go? John was small and sleek, he could stick to the shadows. Titan was easily twice his size, and not nearly as light on his feet. Had John taken that into account?

He pondered and fretted and pondered some more, all through his special appearances and dinner, until finally the Sanctuary was closed to the public and all the staff went home except for Henry, the night guard.

“John!” Titan called through the fence. “Where are you?”

“Back here!” John called back. “Where the cameras won’t see us.”

Every animal enclosure was fully monitored, but there were blind spots. Especially when only the safety lights were on. Titan went to the back corner of the fence, and there was John waiting on the other side, eyes gleaming.

“So what’s the big show?” Titan asked. “And this better be good, because you’ve had me thinking about it all day and if it’s just something lame –”

“Not lame,” John said.

And right before Titan’s eyes he changed. It was fast, so fast, but all John’s fur vanished, and he went from being on all fours to being on two legs. Human legs. In the space of three breaths, John became fully human. He was thin, pale-skinned, and the hair on his body was much diminished but not entirely gone. Titan had never seen a human outside their clothes before.

“John?” Titan gasped. He dropped down on his haunches when his back legs gave out.

“I’m a shape-shifter. I can switch between my human form and my jaguar form whenever I want to.” John walked up to the fence and curled his fingers through the links. “Just like you.”

Titan shook his big head slowly back and forth. “No. I can’t do that. I’m just a liger.”

“Your name is Rodney. Do you remember that?”

“No, I –”

Rodney! Look out!

Titan sprang to his feet and spun around, but there was nothing behind him. The panicked voice wasn’t real.

“Rodney, you were kidnapped from your Ambush. Your sister hired me to find you. Do you remember your sister?”

In his mind’s eye Titan saw a scrawny tiger rolling around in the grass. There was a name, he could almost hear it. His head was starting to pound and he shook it, tried to shake the memories out.

“I’m coming in,” John said. He climbed the fence, fingers and toes poking through the holes in the links. He seemed incredibly fragile, especially as exposed as he was without fur or clothes.

“Be careful!” Titan snapped, and then he remembered that humans didn’t know cat-speak. In his other form John wouldn’t know what he was saying.

He dropped down on his belly and put his head between his paws. Titan had a lot to process. Was he really Rodney? Was that part of the life he’d forgotten when he came to the Sanctuary? John said he was a shape-shifter too. What did his other form look like? Was he still hulking and over-sized?

Titan twitched when he felt John’s hand on his head.

“It’s okay, buddy. I’m here to take you home, but we can’t go until you remember. You have to walk out of here as a man. When you’re ready, I can help you.”

Titan closed his eyes. He had a home. An Ambush, and a sister, one who was so worried about him she’d hired John to find him. How many places had he gone, looking for the right liger? Did John have his own family, one that was missing him while he was on his mission?

John scratched Titan’s head, and Titan chuffed in appreciation. If he was in his human form, would John find him attractive? Would he still listen to Titan talk and talk and talk? He tried to imagine what it was like, having two legs instead of four, and having opposable thumbs to open doors. If he was human, he could study the stars instead of just speculating about them.

Titan’s breath caught in his throat and for a long, long moment his entire body felt like it was on fire. Everything hurt, everything burned, and he felt a constricting, squeezing feeling that stole all the air from his lungs.

When the moment passed, Rodney opened his eyes and contemplated his own very human hand.

“Huh,” John said. “I wasn’t expecting you to shift for another couple of weeks at least.”

Rodney lifted his head out of the grass. “I’m a genius, you know. And I want to go home.”

Two Months Later

Rodney walked from the observatory back to the main house, Madison hanging off his neck like a monkey instead of the tiger shifter she’d be in another few years. The other members of his Ambush nodded and smiled as he passed, and it was strange that they were all still so happy to have him back. He hadn’t regained all his memories, but enough to know he wasn’t exactly Mr. Popularity. At least, that’s how he remembered it.

He had no memory of his actual abduction, or the accident that almost killed him. If not for the accelerated healing powers most shifters had, he’d have died. Or at the very least been severely maimed.

“Uncle John is here,” Madison said in Rodney’s ear.

“I know.”

“Is he staying?”

“Maybe.”

Truth was Rodney didn’t know the answer to that question. He wanted John to stay. The man didn’t belong to a Leap, was a lone shifter out in the world with no support. He’d put it to the Council to invite John to live amongst them. They could certainly use someone with his skills, and he needed to be with other shifters. The Council vote had been nearly unanimous in their agreement.

“Hi, Uncle John!” Madison yelled, and Rodney winced.

“Hey! My eardrum!”

But it didn’t really matter, because John was walking across the yard, a big smile on his face.

“Hey, Maddie! You’re getting so big!”

“Too big to wear around like a backpack,” Rodney agreed. He pulled Madison up over his head and set her back down on her feet. “Go tell your mother John is here. We’ll need an extra steak for dinner.”

“Okay. Bye!” Madison raced the rest of the way to the main house, pigtails flying.

“It’s not another tofu steak, is it?” John asked, wrinkling up his nose.

“No, thank goodness. Kaleb is finding new ways to torture us.” Rodney pulled John close and kissed him. “You look good.”

“Clean living,” John murmured against Rodney’s lips. He rubbed his cheek against Rodney’s. “Wanna get frisky?”

“You’re ridiculous. And yes.”

Sex with John was good. Everything with John was good. They’d gotten to be friends at the Sanctuary, but the trip back home had made them even closer. Genius aside, Rodney had been trapped in liger form for upwards of six months. After that first shift he’d had trouble sticking to just one form, shifting multiple times uncontrollably. It had made traveling by conventional means impossible. John had looked after him, helped him regain control over the shift, helped him regain more of his memories.

John was still tracking down the people who’d abducted Rodney.

“There’s going to be a more formal offer made after dinner,” Rodney said, leading John to his little cottage at the far side of the property. “But we want you to stay. Be part of the Ambush. And before you say something stupid about jaguars and tigers not being compatible, I’d like to remind you –”

John kissed him again. “We can talk about it later.”

“That’s not a no.”

“You’ll just have to make it worth my while,” John said, waggling his eyebrows.

It there was one thing Rodney was becoming quite versed in, it was John-speak. And those eyebrows were as good as a yes. His body flashed hot in anticipation, even as he felt a stupid, dopey smile spread across his face.

“Let’s go, Phantom.”

They raced each other to the cottage.