“For the last time, Jazz, he’s not going to attack Danny. He only scratched me because I startled him.” Roark Wallace looked pleadingly at his sister Jasmine, hoping she’d let the subject drop. Jasmine’s arms were folded across her chest as she scowled up at him, foot tapping impatiently; even in three-inch heels, Jazz was a full foot shorter than him, but somehow still managed to make Roark feel like a kid about to get grounded.
“I don’t care,” Jazz told him flatly, her mouth pinched at the edges with displeasure, lips pressing together into a thin, pale line. “You keep that thing in its cage. If I find even a single bruise on Danny, I’ll-.”
“I know, I know,” Roark held up his hands, trying not to smile, “revoke my position as uncle.” He barely stopped himself from adding ‘though I’m the only babysitter Danny doesn’t make an active effort to pee on,’ because they’d had this argument before and he knew better. Roark checked the clock on the wall, and handed Jazz her coat. “And you are now officially late for your own anniversary dinner.”
“Remember,” Jazz said as they walked to the front door, “we’re only a phone call away, so if there’s any trouble…”
“You’ll be the first to know,” he assured her. “Don’t worry, Jazz. Just let me focus on Danny, for a change, while you celebrate surviving four years of marital bliss.” Roark pressed a quick kiss against Jazz’s cheek, then shooed her away, locking the door behind her.
Having a baby of her own had shattered his sister’s lifelong aversion towards children, and she had quickly evolved into a stereotypical first-time mother; she worried about everything and anything that could possibly hurt her little boy. Even though he was Danny’s uncle, Roark had obtained babysitting privileges only after baby-proofing everything he owned a good two months before Danny was even born.
Roark swooped down to grab Danny, holding the toddler at arms’ length and spinning around in circles. Danny squealed with delight at this sudden game of ‘airplane,’ grinning to show off his recently completed set of teeth. Laughing, Roark dropped to sit on his couch, carefully balancing Danny on his knees.
The couch was lumpy in all the wrong places and bore several stains of questionable origins, but, although Roark could now afford to replace it, the brown monstrosity had remained a permanent fixture in his living room. After graduation, he’d scoured garage sales all over the city, and the couch had been one of the first things he’d bought with his own money.
“Alrighty, Danny, what are we going to do now that your mom’s gone?” Roark asked, gently bouncing the toddler. Danny gurgled happily, drooling.
“Want to watch one of your movies? How about the dinosaur one? I know it’s your favorite.” Danny clapped his small palms together, stubby fingers splayed wide. “Yeah, I thought you’d like that,” Roark said. “Good, ‘cause I don’t think I could handle a round of ‘find the missing keys’ tonight.”
Roark set Danny on the carpet, making sure he was surrounded by plenty of toys, and popped the disk into his TV’s system. Soon, Danny was chewing on the tail of his toy monkey, bewitched by the magic of Barney, oblivious to anything not purple, green, and singing. For a moment, Roark just watched him, feeling the kind of deep contentment that, towards the end of high school and all through college, had only come after a good fuck. God, how he’d changed since then.
There’d been a time in Roark’s lie when he’d hated kids. He’d always thought they were too messy and too loud, and he’d always wound up with one of the little monsters kicking the back of his seat at the movie theatre. But Danny had changed that. The first time he’d held his nephew – warm and wriggling and somehow breathtakingly fragile – Roark had felt like some part of himself, a part that he hadn’t even realized was missing, had finally slotted neatly into place.
Holding Danny hadn’t made Roark want to have his own kids, but it had sparked some sort of deep protective instinct that he still couldn’t quite understand.
Roark then turned his attention to what Jazz referred to as the ‘Z problem.’ If only she knew the whole story…
“You can come out, now, Z. Jazz left a few minutes ago,” said Roark. There was the sound of claws on wooden flooring, and then a shape appeared at the base of the kitchen’s threshold.
“What about the boy?”
“Who, Danny? He’s two years old, Z. I don’t know what it’s like for dyrlichs, but humans don’t remember anything when they’re this young. And he hasn’t started talking yet, so it’s not as if he can tell anyone about you.”
Z didn’t move from the doorway.
“Stop worrying, and get your fluffy little tail over here,” Roark said.
“…I should kill you for that comment,” Z grumbled, but he had already begun making his way into the living room.
“Try it, and I’ll punt you off the roof.”
“I’ll remind you that I can be quite ferocious when I need to be,” Z said icily as headed towards the couch, giving Danny a wide berth; Danny never looked away from the screen. Roark snorted, rolling his eyes.
“Sure, Z, whatever you say, though I think Monty Python’s already covered the legendary viciousness of rabbits.” Z didn’t respond, but his tail flicked from side to side in annoyance. Reaching the couch, he tried to jump up onto it, claws scrabbling madly on the fabric before he fell back onto the floor. He tried again, with the same results.
“Aww, does poor widdle bunny need some help?” Roark teased, grinning impishly.
“Address me in that demeaning manner again, and I swear to set your precious buzzing pet free as you sleep.”
“For the last time, my laptop is a machine, not a pet,” Roark said, leaning forward to pick Z up in one easy movement, right hand sliding under Z’s chest as he supported Z’s hindquarters with his left.
“But,” Roark added, feeling the faint, rapid throb of Z’s heartbeat against his fingers as he lifted the rabbit off the ground, “if you do chew through its power cord when it’s plugged into the wall, you’ll probably get electrocuted, and I think your chances of cheating death a second time are pretty grim.”
As soon as he was free of Roark’s hands, Z scurried to the opposite end of the couch, purposefully kicking up his back legs. Once away from Roark, Z began grooming himself, making small, muffled grunts when he got to the hard-to-reach areas of his body. When he was done, Z stared expectantly at Roark, his ears erect, and his nose twitching. Roark knew that look all too well.
“Z, we’ve had this conversation before,” Roark groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose in hopes of staving off the headache he could feel building at the base of his skull. “No, we haven’t found a way to get you into a different form yet. Yes, we’re still looking, but none of Blake’s old books mention animal-to-animal transfers. And, even if they did, I don’t think anything would work, since dyrlich’s aren’t technically animals, even by supernatural standards,” Roark said, glaring at Z.
Z was unimpressed; one of his ears briefly twisted in the direction of the television, where Barney was singing his final song of the episode, then returned to its original position.
“One of the books referenced dyrlichs,” Roark continued, gaze shifting from Z to Danny; when he saw that his nephew had fallen asleep, Roark lowered his voice. “but only that you’re somehow related to wood sprites.”
“What about animal-to-human transfers?”
“Oh, so you’ve finally changed your mind about us?” Roark distinctly remembered being called a ‘ridiculous pink ape’ for the first few months Z was around, until he’d threatened to sell the rabbit’s hind feet as good luck charms.
“Never, but even your pathetic bodies would be better than this wretched form and its infernal nose,” Z muttered darkly, sitting on his haunches to run his paws over his whiskers.
“Fine, I’ll call Blake tomorrow, and see if he’s found anything useful.”
“I can’t make Jazz to take it,” Roark said, gesturing to the rabbit huddled in one corner of the open cardboard box he’d set on the carpeted floor of his cousin’s apartment. “She just had a baby, I think she has enough on her plate without adding an animal into the mix.”
Roark had claimed the loveseat for himself, so Blake sat cross-legged on the carpet next to the rabbit’s box, knees poking out through the holes of his jeans, the faded denim smeared with paint from his latest job at an art supply shop.
“But it would be a good learning experience for Danny,” Blake insisted, peering down at the rabbit. “Caring for a pet encourages responsibility.”
“Not this rabbit. It’s a mean little bastard. Attacks anything that gets too close.” Roark held up his hands so Blake could see the dark scabs adorning his fingers.
“Didn’t know rabbits could bite so hard,” Roark said, slouching and stuffing his hands back into the front pocket of his oversized hoodie. He stretched his legs out in front of him so he could rest his feet on the corner of Blake’s squat wooden coffee table, its top bare except for two cork coasters, a green catnip mouse, and a magazine, the glossy cover depicting a blonde woman holding a basket of tomatoes too glossy and perfectly red to be real.
If they hadn’t been related, Roark would probably have avoided Blake, writing him off as ‘that weirdo.’ Not only was Blake the only guy Roark knew who could eat what he’d cooked without needing the Poison Control Center on speed-dial, Blake thoroughly enjoyed cooking; but, despite his love of the kitchen, he refused to join the Culinary Arts Institute, for reasons he wouldn’t discuss.
“I’m sure it’s just scared. I worked at a pet shop all through High School, remember? I’m pretty sure I still know how to handle rabbits,“ Blake said with a grin. He reached inside the box and picked the rabbit up with two hands, holding it close to his chest. The rabbit struggled for a few moments, but went still when lowered onto Blake’s thigh, its rump resting near his knee.
“It’s not moving,” Roark said after a few moments, surprised that the rabbit hadn’t already attacked. Blake shrugged.
“It’s the rabbit version of playing possum. Since most predators prefer live prey, they’ll usually release a rabbit if they think it’s already dead,” Blake said, sounding like he was quoting from a book; knowing Blake, he probably was. Blake’s apartment always felt like a private library to Roark, with two large, sturdy bookshelves dominating the one wall of the living room not interrupted by a window, more books stacked high on the kitchen counter and tucked away in the corners of the living room.
“So, what do I do with it?” Roark asked, still waiting for the rabbit to spring to life and attack.
“Him. The rabbit’s male.” Blake set the rabbit back in the box; it scrambled away from him, claws tearing into the cardboard.
“OK, professor,” Roark said, grinning, “what do I do with him?”
“Would a shelter take him?” Blake answered his own question before Roark could say anything. “Probably, but he’d just be put down.”
“Too many people abandoning their pets thanks to the economy going down the drain.” Blake got to his feet, his knees cracking, and sat down in the battered armchair next to the coffee table. “Are you sure Jazz couldn’t-?”
“No,” Roark said firmly. Blake shrugged.
“Just making sure.”
“Even if Jazz did think it was a good idea at first, he’s too aggressive for a baby like Danny.” Roark looked at Blake; Blake was still watching the rabbit, which hadn’t moved from where it was crouched in the corner farthest away from them. “What about you? You’re the animal lover of the family, and you already know how to handle rabbits, even mean ones.”
Blake shook his head, sunlight reflecting off the frames of his glasses. “This apartment only allows cats and small dogs, and even if that wasn’t the case, Simon would just try to eat him.”
“Crap, I forgot about Simon,” Roark said. “Where is the big guy anyway?” He looked around, but Blake’s cat was nowhere to be seen.
“Probably sleeping in the bathroom sink. Stupid cat’s still obsessed with water.” Blake gestured to the rabbit once more. “So, have you asked your neighbors about him, or put up fliers?” he asked, pushing his shaggy hair away from his face with a hand.
“He attacks anyone who gets close to him, and you think he’s somebody’s pet?” Roark asked incredulously. Blake shrugged again.
“Well, some people-.”
“If you two don’t stop talking about me like I do not exist, I will slaughter both of you.”
Roark looked at Blake, who was blinking owlishly, like he’d just woken up and was still groggy.
“Er…did your rabbit just speak?” Blake asked, carefully not looking at the box on the floor. Roark was too stunned to correct him.
The first thing Blake said when he walked in was, “Let me guess, Jazz still doesn’t know about Z being a dyrlich?” When Roark shook his head, Blake continued, “I thought you were going to tell her last week. Or did you chicken out, again?”
“I couldn’t tell her on her wedding anniversary, Blake,” Roark said, sitting back down on his couch. “It would’ve spoiled her whole evening. Besides, it’s her fault I didn’t have time. She was running late.” Roark slouched in his seat, knowing he sounded like a pouting child and not caring. He stared up at the runes Blake had carefully painted on the ceiling, picking out the few he recognized from his research for Z.
It’d been a real shock to find out that his second cousin, the gangly dork who was always in the kitchen, was a wizard. Then again, Z wasn’t known for his diplomatic skills; the damned rabbit had just stared at Blake and said, “Fix me, wizard.” Two years later, they were still grasping at straws on how to do exactly that, if only so Z would leave them alone about it.
“Why not afterwards, when she picked Danny up? You could have had all night to explain,” Blake said. “Hey, did you bring Z’s harness?”
“Yeah, it’s in my pocket.” Roark tossed the rabbit harness into Blake’s lap. “Do you need to repair it? I caught him chewing on it yesterday.” The only way Roark would allow Z outside was if the dyrlich-turned-rabbit wore a leash attached to a harness; Roark wasn’t so confident as to stroll down the street, but he was fairly certain his neighbors couldn’t peek over his backyard fence to see him walking Z around the garden.
“There’s some damage on the front strap, but it’s nothing I can’t fix,” Blake said as he rifled through the contents of the wooden sewing box at his feet. He pulled out a spool of green thread to match the harness, and, after a bit of difficulty threading the needle, began his repairs.
“You have to be the weirdest guy I know,” Roark said, grinning. Blake shrugged, not looking up from the harness.
“Weird comes with being a wizard,” Blake said. “Don’t forget, I knit, too.”
“Seriously? No wonder Jazz wants to set you up with a guy from her office.”
“Not interested, but tell her I said thanks. Hey, is that monkey still holding up, or has Danny eaten it yet?”
“No, he just likes to chew on the tail.”
“Good. I spelled the defensive spell’s into a pebble inside its chest. As long as the pebble stays inside, the spell should remain intact.”
“So Z still can’t get to Danny?” Roark asked. Not that he thought Z would actually attack Danny. The supernatural community was small, and generally very good about protecting their young; even before Blake had gotten magic involved, Z had always kept his distance from Danny. The spell was really just there for Roark’s peace of mind; his whole future as an uncle relied on the endurance of Blake’s spell, and he would rather the spell be unnecessary than never see his nephew again.
“Yup.” Sometimes, Roark thought, having a wizard for a cousin was awesome.
“So, where is Mr. Grumpypants?” Blake asked, looking around, as though he expected Z to come barging into the room. He made one last stitch, then bit through the thread and gave the harness back to Roark. Roark shrugged.
“He was mouthing off again, so I stuck him in the bathtub to sulk.”
“Well, you might want to leave him in there. I went through my entire library again, but nothing’s come up. There’s just no information about animal to human transfers.”
“What about transformations?” Roark asked, still fuzzy on the distinction between a transfer and a transformation.
“Do you really want a rabbit-man hybrid running around your house, destroying everything just because he can?”
“No.” Roark shuddered, glancing at the mess of stuff piled up on the desk near the front door. Z’s small stature was the primary reason he hadn’t done more damage to Roark’s possessions; well, that and Roark had already baby-proofed everything, in preparation for Danny’s arrival, when he’d found Z in a box on his front porch. “Hell no, nothing would survive. But, really, you didn’t find anything?” Blake shook his head.
“Nope, not a thing.”
“Shit, Z may have to stay in the bathtub indefinitely, ‘cause I refuse to be the one to tell him that. He’ll go nuts.” Blake nodded.
“Well, now what?” he asked.
“I haven’t got a fucking clue,” Roark admitted.