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The Friendly Beasts

Over the past thirty-odd years, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold adult and YA novels and more than 300 short stories. Her works have been finalists for many major awards, and she has won a Stoker and a Nebula Award.

Nina's novels have been published by Avon, Atheneum, Ace, Scholastic, Tachyon, and Viking. Her short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies.

Nina does magazine production work for F&SF and teaches writing. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.

For a list of Nina's publications: ofearna.us/books/hoffman.html.
Every year at the Shifter Solstice Party, I get my heart broken, and sometimes my tail.
Not this year!
My apartment mate and best friend, Chester Cheetah--he doesn't actually turn into a cheetah; he's more like a coyote on steroids, but it's his game name--and I got to the Dream Lake Trailer Park community building at 5:30 to help with the set-up. Magnus is the live-in caretaker there, which means he can reserve the building for our events every month, and he's a handyman, too. He's made some modifications to the building, like soundproofing and blackout curtains to keep the curious guessing. Anyway, half the people who live at Dream Lake are shifters, and a quarter of the rest are in relationships with shifters, and the rest are retirees who don't leave their trailers at night, so we only have to worry about outsiders, really. And Magnus can lock the gates on party nights.
Magnus and three others were prepping the building when we got there, opening up the community room by removing furniture, and setting out bowls on the floor, some with water in them, some with raw meat, and a few with fruit or vegetables for the herbivores.
"Whoa, Betsy. Who's the new guy?" Chester asked as we stacked chairs to take out to the shed. Nobody in our group shifts into something that sits on a chair.
I looked where he was looking, and saw a short, dark-skinned guy with big, black-framed glasses, an olive-green shirt, and jeans on. His hair was bushy and looked like something wasn't right with it. He was wearing sandals--and it was the first day of winter. Sandals with socks. His feet looked too big for his body.
I sniffed. Such a bouquet when we got together. I identified Chester's wild dog scent, Magnus's lion scent, and antelope, jack rabbit, and lynx--the usual Magnus groupies who always got here way earlier and followed orders too meekly. I sniffed again and found the foreign scent, but I wasn't sure what it was. Not a leaf eater--though there was a strange hint of metal and another note of acid. Not a raptor. Not a dog. Not a cougar like me.
I glanced at Chester. He was sniffing, too.
"I don't recognize it," I said. "You?"
He shook his head. We took stacks of chairs out to the shed--I loved shifter events; I didn't have to pretend to be weak--and when we went back inside, we both went over to the new guy.
"Hi?" I said, and tried to sniff discreetly.
"Hi." He rolled up his sleeve and held out his arm, giving me permission to go ahead and smell him. Chester and I leaned in and sniffed, then straightened and looked at him with our eyebrows up.
"Yeah, you wouldn't have smelled me before," said the stranger. He had an accent I didn't recognize, either. "As far as I can tell, there's only one of me. My name's Niko."
"I'm Betsy, and this is Chester," I said. We held up our arms for him to smell. He shook his head and smiled with his lips closed.
"It's all right. I already got a whiff. Nice to meet you."
Magnus, tall, broad, and lordly, came over, exuding his particular scent with its splash of male lion hormones. "Niko's just passing through. He found out about our event the usual way." We had a listserve on the dark web for the shifter community.
"What's your shift?" Chester asked, which was kind of rude, but that's how he went.
"Pangolin," said Niko.
"Whoa," I said.
"What's a pangolin?" Chester asked. Really, there was no stopping the boy.
"Sort of like an armadillo, but more like a dog, kinda?" Niko said.
"You'll see when he shifts," Magnus said. "We need to wrap this up. Did you bring the scent teasers?"
"They're in the car," I said. I went out and got the suitcase full of scent teasers I'd concocted in the past week, little knots of things that made strange and enticing combinations of smells, some of them discordant, some of them puzzles or messages. I'd used more peppermint than usual because it was almost Christmas. I went back inside and Niko helped me put them up around the room.
Later, when everyone else had arrived and we went into the disrobing room to hang our clothing on our assigned pegs, I watched Niko out of the corner of my eye. I ignored Trent, another cougar shifter, who'd hit on me at last month's event and then turned out to be the kind of jerk who scratched too deep, couldn't hit the toilet when he peed, and didn't clean up after himself either.
Some of us had painful shifts, and some of us had easy shifts. Chester, who had the peg next to mine, had a quick, painless shift. He sat beside me in coyote form as I shifted. It took me longer, and I always felt vulnerable during the shift. Chester watched out for me. Not that anybody in our community would hurt anybody else, predator or prey. But I had some horrible memories from my old community.
After I'd twisted and burned into my cougar self, I sat up and smelled. My senses were much sharper. I learned so much about everybody right away--Susan was pregnant, and Alphonse had a cold, and some of the others didn't bathe often enough to suit me.
And Niko came over. Now he was a low-slung animal with a tail longer than his body, and big overlapping scales all over him, like armor. He smelled like ants and the dust of another country, and deep magic, and he smelled tasty.
I stared at him, and then had a jagged perceptual shift, and realized he was actually a dragon.
I had wanted to meet a dragon all my life.
Hello, heartbreak.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, August 21st, 2018


"The Friendly Beasts" is another story I wrote in response to the Wordos Writers Workshop's annual winter holiday short-short challenge. This year, "The Friendly Beasts" was one of our prompts for a thousand-word story to read aloud at our holiday gathering.

- Nina Kiriki Hoffman

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