“Well?” The halfling woman's worried face filled the space between the Hat’s wide brim and the mossy forest floor. “Do you...feel any different?”
He sat for a moment, idly impaling the undergrowth with his front claws as he thought about her question. Eliza sighed impatiently and pulled her face away so she could move to sit on the stump a few feet away. She kicked one boot gently against the roots that entangled the sun-bleached skeleton leaning next to her.
“I don’t suppose this fellow’s going to give us any help figuring the leaf-rotted thing out. Can’t you just...activate it? Oh no, do you think you’ve got to say a magic word, or something?”
Callahan tried to use a forepaw to push the Hat back far enough to give himself a better range of view, but only succeeded in bapping it against the brim several times before giving up. He almost felt like yowling.
Both of them let the stillness drag on for a few minutes. Callahan lowered himself onto the ground and twitched his tail in frustration. This damned Hat was supposed to fix everything. Unless...it somehow wasn’t the right Hat? Panic began to rise in the back of his mind, but he shoved it down with sarcasm like usual: Maybe there was another Hat out here, somewhere? Perhaps in a more flattering shape or color.
The sun shifted, dappling the moss between his paws in new pinpricks of light. Callahan batted at a fleck. Stuck in the middle of a giant, haunted forest, with a woman who would never return his trust and a broken magic Hat that didn’t even flatter his stripes. It was moments like this when Callahan wished cats could roll their eyes. He would have to think of some way to pay her back for all the time she’d wasted traipsing about this weird wood and picking him out of thorn bushes on their wild goose chase.
“Fig seeds, this magic business is annoying. Callahan, surely you—” Eliza’s voice trailed off into a squeak. Callahan looked up at her and cocked his head to the left a bit. “You...the Hat.”
Oh. Oh. Callahan realized he hadn’t been forced to fight with the floppy brim to meet her amethyst gaze. The sun hadn’t shifted at all; it was the Hat. It now sat at what he hoped was a jaunty angle, just wide enough to sit snugly between his pointed ears. He couldn’t see if the color was any better.
“Maybe this thing hasn’t succumbed to the ravages of time after all,” he mused, “Eliza, please, tell me it’s not yellow anymore?”
Instead of heeding his request, Eliza angrily tossed a twig she’d been pulling bark off of directly at his head. “You, you—you weed! Try to make it fix you!”
Callahan’s fur ruffled at the insinuation that he wasn’t magnificent as-is, but he had to admit he missed having a proper set of limbs. Instead of clipping back with some witty retort like he usually would, he slapped his tail against the forest floor and squinted his eyes shut to try to… well, to do whatever he had done to make the Hat change shape. What was the key? Frustration? Did he need to insult it again? In his gambling days, he’d come across more items than you’d expect that wanted him to curse at them in some half-forgotten language before they would activate. But no, he thought, maybe… he squinted harder, as if that would help his focus.
Suddenly, there was a small pop, like someone had opened a bottle of wine in another room. The forest floor jerked itself away from Callahan’s face and he instinctively tried to sink his claws down to hold on through whatever was happening — only to grit his teeth when soft, human fingernails jammed themselves against a rock hidden under the melange of fallen leaves and slick moss. Callahan shakily sat back onto both knees, then carefully stretched to his full height. His normal height. He grimaced at how the forest floor clung to the soles of his feet.
Eliza coughed quietly. Callahan looked down at her (something he hadn’t been able to do for what felt like an eternity, except for when he was up on branches, scouting ahead) and felt the blood drain from his face and then immediately return in a fierce blush. Eliza was turned politely away, holding out his tattered old pack so he could claim some clothes. Callahan gingerly reached out to take the pack and… it fell limply onto the ground at his feet. Callahan threw back his head and gave voice to what could have passed for a short howl. Of course his fingers wouldn’t behave right off the bat. That would be far too much to hope for, even from a magic fucking Hat, wouldn’t it?
Eliza stole a glance back over her shoulder to chastise him for making such a loud noise, biting her lip when she saw what had happened. It looked like she was trying not to laugh. What an irritating woman, Callahan thought. He sighed, stooped down to lace his whole forearm through the strap, and hoisted it off behind a tree to try to navigate clothing, and hopefully regain some dignity.
After a number of minutes far greater than he would have preferred, Callahan swaggered from behind his leafy changing screen. Eliza was taking notes on the stump, propping their map up on the bones of the Hat’s former owner. Callahan’s lower lip jutted out obstinately. She wasn’t even watching. As a cat, he would have made just enough noise coming back into the campsite that she could have looked up expectantly, to make sure he wasn’t hurt during his forage. But what, now that he could wear clothes again, his entrance wasn’t important? Not that he, uh, was really sporting much at the moment. Unfortunately, that run-in with the raccoon a few days prior had done more damage to the pack’s contents than they had cared to check for. He was stuck with a spare cloak and a long tunic for now, but he wasn’t too bothered, honestly. The cloak was midnight blue, and the cut of the tunic wasn’t too terribly improper, and besides: he hadn’t even worn clothes in months and months. They were a good deal itchier than he remembered.
Eliza finally stopped writing. Callahan spread his arms wide and grinned what he prayed was his signature dashing smile. Eliza covered her mouth with one hand, and then two, and buckled over with suppressed laughter.
“Callie, what are you wearing?” she gasped, “I thought I handed you the whole thing?”
“The raccoon—” he let it fade.
“Oh. You mean the marmot?” she wrinkled her nose, “I didn’t think of that. Are you, umm… okay? With that? I could probably let out a pair of my breeches if you… uh. Wanted.”
She looked him over more carefully. His grin faltered for a moment, but the cocky pose held. His hair was shaggy and tousled beneath the Hat, which was now a jaunty huntsman’s cap that matched the lining of his cloak. The cloak itself was draped loosely around his shoulders, and fell to just below his knees. The tunic… Eliza felt a tinge of blush rise on her neck. The tunic barely hit the middle of his thighs. She couldn’t help but note that all the tree-climbing seemed to have kept him in proper adventuring form, even for all his complaining about finding his way down.
“We’ll have to find you something a bit more… modest, let’s say? Perhaps there’s another ancient dead bloke around, with a pair of enchanted underwear.”