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Chickenhawk and the Shapeshifter
Chickenhawk slept lightly, curled up under the rooftop duct with his head tucked under a wing. Drifting up to near-awareness, he drowsily peeked out with one eye and saw that the sun was still a few minutes from setting. Muttering and yawning, he curled tighter and tried to catch a little more sleep. He had hunted hard last night, tiring himself but also eating very well. He decided to reward himself with a little lazing today.
Many people dream of flying. Chickenhawk, too, often dreamed of flying, but these dreams held less exhilaration for him than for most. Since his wild card had turned a year ago, he flew for real every night in search of food or a place to rest for the day. For him, flight had become routine. What exhilarated Chickenhawk were the dreams of walking like a man, striding through crowds of people just like him. Being able to walk up to any door, grip the knob in a normal hand, turn it and walk in. As he was now, his hands were nearly useless for anything other than flying. He counted it a bit of perverse luck that his feet had gained some of the dexterity that his hands had lost, but it was small compensation. In the air, he went too fast to use them for anything other than grabbing things. On the ground, he could clumsily stand on one foot and try to manipulate with the other. Not very good for opening doors.
Chickenhawk's dream faded with his second waking. Feeling more energetic, he realized that he wouldn't be able to get back to sleep and besides, there were things to do. He was starting to get hungry again, and the thought of a fat, warm rat clutched in his toes made his toothy mouth water. He thought back to the first few weeks after becoming a joker, and how he resisted the strange new tastes his body had. But hunger has a way of breaking down inhibitions, and after his first fresh-killed meal it became easier. Now, a year later, he had come to accept his body's preferences as his own. Yawning, he uncurled and crawled from his hiding place.
A quick stretch, and then Chickenhawk began preening the patches of feathers on his roughly birdlike wings and body. They were not the sleekest of feathers, their texture was in fact the source of the first half of his name. But they were his, and it felt good to straighten them out. He was just beginning work on the mane of feathers down his back when he noticed a silent figure sitting on the low wall around the edge of the roof, watching him. Chickenhawk gave a startled yip and hopped back a step, tensing to leap into the air if necessary. The figure remained in place, but made calming motions and spoke in a reassuring voice.
"It's okay, 'Hawk, I came to see you. I don't mean harm, I'm a friend."
"Wh . . . Who are you?" Chickenhawk croaked in surprise. He cleared his throat and added, "What do you want?" It had been some time since Chickenhawk had spoken to anyone, and his voice was disused.
"I'm, uh, an ace. Name's Martin, though I'm trying to think of a good ace name. I'm kind of new at this, and I'm looking for your help with something."
"Huh?" Chickenhawk grunted. This situation was taking him completely off balance. "What do you mean, you're an ace?"
"A few weeks ago, oh, about two months actually, my wild card turned. It was... difficult, but when it was over, I had powers. I can change my shape, and when I touch someone I can feel how they feel. I'm not even sure of my limits, and stuff. I'm still learning."
"So what do you want my help with?" Chickenhawk was vaguely suspicious, but also interested. What could he do for an ace with powers like that?
"I'd like you to teach me how to fly," Martin responded.
It took Chickenhawk several seconds to get over his surprise and continue. "Fly? Why me? I'm not even that good at it, I mostly glide. Why not ask Peregrine or one of them?" Chickenhawk had always been a little jealous of those aces, especially after his own wild card had manifested. In most cases they hadn't lost their human form, yet they could still fly faster and were more manoeuvrable than he was. They didn't even seem to work as hard at it as he had to.
"Well, I did try that. But I can't, they don't fly with wings. They fly with telekinesis, and I can't duplicate that. I grew a pair of wings like Peregrine, but they were only good for decoration. You fly with muscles and wings, but I never got the design right on my own somehow. Flying requires a very well- designed body, and I just don't know how to make one. I also don't know what to do with it when I do give myself one, and that might be part of the problem."
Chickenhawk mulled this over. "So what you want," he said slowly, "is to turn yourself into a copy of me?"
"Yeah, but I figure once I can handle one flying body I can adapt it to other situations as well. I wouldn't use your appearance without permission." He seemed hesitant and uncomfortable about this explanation, as if he were trying to worm out of something.
He doesn't want to come out and say I'm ugly, Chickenhawk thought angrily. "Don't dance around it, you think I'm ugly, right?" He demanded.
Surprisingly, Martin looked surprised. "No! you're quite elegant, as a-a-a person. I just didn't want to offend you, if it would I mean. I mean, it's a personal matter, isn't it?" He was quite flustered.
"Oh." Chickenhawk was slightly flustered himself, his anger deflated. Martin seemed honestly concerned. "Well, okay then." He lapsed into silence.
"Uh, sorry." Martin broke the pause. "Look, I didn't mean any offence. Apology accepted?"
Chickenhawk nodded his head. "Of course. I'm not used to talking with people any more, I guess I've lost the knack of conversation."
Martin smiled understandingly. "Yeah, I'm not much of a social person either. Ever since I got my ace, I've turned into a bit of a recluse figuring it out. I don't think anyone's noticed my absence though."
"Nah, not really. They live out east, there's no bad blood or anything we just don't have much contact. Came here for an impersonal job, never really got to know anyone. Yourself?"
"My family was hell. I changed right in the middle of a big fight, I have no idea who was more scared, me or mom. I flew for it before I knew what was going on, out the window. Never went back."
Martin made a sympathetic sound. "How old were you?"
"You're only fourteen now? whoa. I wouldn't have been able to stay alive at that age."
"I grew up quickly," Chickenhawk said, slightly defensive. "And my body knew what to do."
Martin went silent for a moment again, sensing his upset. Then he tried bringing the conversation back on topic. "Well, I hope I haven't interrupted your routine too much. Do you think we could start, or is this a bad time?"
"I was just going to look for food. I'm sorta hungry, can you wait an hour or so before... what exactly did you want me to do, anyways?"
"Well, first I want to touch you, to feel how your body works. That shouldn't take long, a few minutes at most. Then I'll try out some shapeshifting, that may take longer. Call it ten minutes? Then I want to figure out basic coordination before trying anything like flying, that could take a while. How about if I shapeshift, then practice moving around while you go do your thing?"
"Sounds like a plan. Uh . . . This doesn't hurt, does it?"
"I don't think so. At least, it shouldn't. Don't worry; I'll stop if anything goes wrong."
"Okay, but you owe me."
Martin approached Chickenhawk, then sat in front of him. Their eyes were almost level. Chickenhawk tentatively extended a wing, offering what passed for his hand. It was really only a pair of clawed fingers that hadn't fused into the rest of his wing, barely enough to help him climb things. Martin gently took it, and concentrated. He began extending his awareness through the connection, feeling every nerve, bone, and muscle fiber as he went. Chickenhawk felt only a strange pins-and-needles sensation creeping over his body. A minute later, Martin was done. The pins-and-needles sensation passed, and he pulled free as if his hand had been glued to Chickenhawk's.
"There, that's it. All I have to do now is do it to myself."
Chickenhawk flexed his fingers. "Cool," he said. "So you're going to turn into me now? Can I watch?"
"Fair's fair," Martin replied as he took off his jacket. Then he took off the rest of his clothing. "Clothes are restrictive," he explained to the surprised Chickenhawk.
Martin took a deep breath, then concentrated again. Chickenhawk watched with fascination as his skin twitched, then rippled. It was almost as if Martin's flesh was flowing under his skin. His legs bent and shortened as he squatted down, and his arms and fingers stretched and folded. Martin grunted slightly as his face and neck elongated and his body thickened. His skin glistened with sweat, and then as his shape approached Chickenhawk's his hair fell out and downy feathers sprouted. Minutes later, Martin relaxed and opened eyes identical to Chickenhawk's. "There," he slurred. "Done." He clumsily tried to take a step, and promptly fell over. "Ow!" He exclaimed indignantly, and carefully flexed each muscle before trying to move again. "Wow, this is great," he murmured.
Chickenhawk had a similar opinion. He walked up to Martin with a mixture of fascination, excitement, and awe. Even though he knew this was a shapeshifting ace and not a joker, here was another person just like himself! He hadn't realized how much it would mean to him simply to see another of his 'species', so to speak. He tried to help Martin up. "Holy cow, it really worked!" He said delightedly. "Here, let me help!"
Chickenhawk helped prop Martin back into a standing position, which he kept easier this time. Feathers rumpled, Martin struggled to figure out how to comfortably fold his wings. He managed and then rested for a moment, swaying slightly. "That's okay," Martin said. "It's not all that different from some of the forms I made up on my own." He took a few more steps, successfully this time, and flexed his wings and tail. "They work together well," he commented.
Chickenhawk stood back as Martin continued to gain coordination. Finally, he was strutting around the rooftop as if he had been born in that form. Chickenhawk admired his adaptability, remembering the days it took him to get oriented after his first panicked flight. Of course, it probably helped that Martin knew exactly what had happened to him and that he could reverse it at will. Finally, Martin stopped and asked "weren't you going to go for food or something?"
"Ah, I wasn't that hungry. This is really neat!"
"It's certainly easier than I thought." Martin hopped and flapped his wings, holding himself in the air for a few seconds. He tried again. "Bit of a problem raising my wings for the second flap," he commented.
"Here, you sort of clench your fist a bit," Chickenhawk offered, demonstrating. "It's really hard to just take off like that though. I'm more of a glider."
Martin practised a bit more, trying some short glides across the roof by climbing the air conditioning equipment with his feet and wing-fingers. Finally, he tried circling out over the street and back onto the roof again, getting a very slight boost from the breeze blowing up the building's side.
"Well, looks like I've got the hang of the basics. Thanks, 'hawk". Martin set down and perched on the rim near his bundle of clothes. Chickenhawk set down nearby and walked up to him.
"What, no more?"
"I think I can take it from here. It's like the basics of flying are built in, my tendons just pull the right way when I want them to. Now that I can practice without worrying about falling to my death, I can handle the rest."
Chickenhawk was disappointed that he hadn't gotten to show the tricks he'd come up with when he was bored, but he was really starting to feel the hunger and figured some time to hunt was in order. "Okay, but come by again if you're in the area, I get lonely sometimes. Not many people to talk to, that live up high." Chickenhawk sometimes visited other jokers that he knew, but he was uncomfortable on the ground. Too hard to take off, not enough room.
Martin shifted back into a normal human, shedding feathers and a few scales in the process. "I could probably use a bite to eat, too. Big changes take a lot out of me. Thanks for the time, I'll try to repay you."
"Ah," Chickenhawk gestured nonchalantly, "what can you give me that I would need?" He grinned, which Martin wouldn't have recognized as such if he hadn't known what it was like to have such a mouth himself. Martin thanked him again, and then turned and went down the fire escape. Chickenhawk watched him until he reached the ground, then launched himself into the air to look for some small animal to eat and take his mind off his nagging jealousy. He wished he could be human again, if only for a little while.
Chickenhawk woke and yawned, stretching his stiff wings and taking a deep breath of slightly crisp spring air. It had been six months since he had met Martin, and he hadn't given him much thought since. He hopped down onto the roof, and took another deep breath. It was a beautiful evening, the sun still hovering above the horizon and spilling it's orange rays across the rooftops. Taking some time to preen the moulting winter coat on his chest, Chickenhawk again marvelled nervously at the brilliant red and purple feathers that were beginning to peek through his old brown ones. The changes in his body excited and scared him at the same time, the strange dreams and sensations more even than his new coloration. He realized it must be his version of adolescence, but that did nothing to soothe him. Learning about such things in Sex Ed. was one thing, but experiencing them was another alltogether. Especially, he reflected with some depression, when he wasn't the same species he'd learned about in school any more.
Waiting to watch the sun finish setting, Chickenhawk finished grooming the loose winter down and a few old brown feathers out. Straightening his ruffled plumage and clearing his head, he stepped up to the roof edge and leapt off into the darkening night. Moments later he was out of sight. Seconds ticked past, and then a dark figure stepped out from behind Chickenhawk's impromptu roost. A delicate tendril still in the process of being reabsorbed into his right hand, Martin pressed a finger on his left into the lock of the roof access door. Flesh flowed and flexed, and then he opened the door and went inside.
As he walked down the stairs to the street, Martin contemplated what he had felt in Chickenhawk's mind while he had slept. He had gained much proficiency with his ability in the past six months, but he had also found limits; one was that he couldn't override the Wild Card. As much as he owed Chickenhawk a normal life for the help he had given, he would remain forever a joker. Martin would have to find another way to repay him. Exploring the thoughts and feelings he had culled from Chickenhawk's sleeping mind, Martin found his loneliness and dawning sexual awareness to be most acute among them. There was really no question about it; he knew what he should do. Martin smiled. It was pleasing that his plan to repay his debt to Chickenhawk would be fun for himself as well.
Martin spent the next few hours walking the nearly deserted streets, looking for just the right opportunity. At last he saw her; a young woman hurrying along the sidewalk, with not another soul to be seen. The neighborhood itself was not poor, but unlikely to be patrolled very heavily. Perfect. Martin positioned himself around the corner of a building, just ahead of her path, and began shifting his arm. He was ready for her. As she passed he lashed out the long thin tentacle he had formed, looping it over her mouth and yanking her to him before she could make a noise. The tip of the tentacle buried itself in her neck, and within seconds she slumped unconscious against him. Martin dragged her further back into the shadows and began to merge his tentacle with her, extending his awareness throughout her body.
Martin ran delicate mental fingers through her, feeling her every fibre and cell structure. She was young, and healthy, and wasn't wearing a wedding ring. Excellent, Martin thought, and pulled her to her feet. His arm ran to her upper back as if he were draping it over her shoulder, but there was no join where his skin ended and her's began. He touched her nervous system, taking control of her voluntary muscles and working her like the extension of his body she now was. Arm-in-arm, looking like a couple out for an evening stroll, they walked back toward Chickenhawk's roost.
Martin's recent discovery that he could shapeshift others by making them temporarily a part of himself had affected him deeply. By now he had grown blase to the joy of experiencing new forms himself, having tried almost everything already; the act of shapeshifting was now as natural, and as uninteresting, as breathing was. Then one day he had tried to find some pale imitation of that original feeling through sex, secretly merging with his partner and experiencing both sides at once, when in the heat of the moment Martin had subconsciously begun shapeshifting to maximize the sensation. Since he had made the woman a part of himself at the time, he began shifting her as well.
The feeling was incredible, overwhelming, and he lost control. It felt just like his very first shapeshift had felt, exhilarating and terrifying and new. It was entirely reasonable that it would feel like that, of course; the woman had never shapeshifted before, so it was her first time. And while he was connected he felt everything that she did.
When Martin had finally had enough and recovered his senses, he discovered that both he and the woman had been changed dramatically. His own form he knew how to correct, but he didn't know exactly what to do with the woman. Fortunately, the change had been highly traumatic for her and she couldn't clearly remember his involvement; he was able to simply walk away and leaver her as she was. Her change was later chalked up as a normal joker expression, and Martin's role was never suspected. Martin had since learned how to change people at will, but by then had decided not to undo what he had done to her. The world had enough boring old "normal" humans already.
Arriving back on the roof without incident, Martin observed that Chickenhawk was still gone. Excellent, he repeated to himself. He had planned on Chickenhawk staying out all night, and things were going smoothly. Sitting himself and the still- unconscious woman down behind the duct stacks, he closed his eyes and concentrated again on the woman's body. He navigated the internal universe to the first target of his plan. The woman's brain.
Martin had discovered much about the mind as he had experimented with his powers, discovering that a remarkable amount of personality was purely biological. As he had discovered his ability to change his body and others that he merged with, he discovered his ability to alter those fundamental aspects of the mind. He sometimes wondered if he had inadvertently modified his own personality in the same way, considering the depths of depravity and amorality that he had sunk to recently. But he invariably concluded that he had simply lost some old inhibitions, and went on to enjoy himself.
Tonight, he would enjoy himself and pay off a debt at the same time. Carefully exploring the woman's mind, he started by eliminating the contents of her short-term memory. That would keep her from remembering the actual abduction, and keep Martin's existence safely secret. He then went on to dull the rest of her memory, disconnecting her from the emotional ties to her past without destroying any part of who she was. Then, referencing his memory of Chickenhawk's personality, he fine-tuned the woman's to be highly compatible. He didn't do much, she was a good girl.
The mind work done, Martin expanded his awareness to the rest of her body. Mulling over the forms and transforms in his head, Martin examined the woman's shape and used it's characteristics to personalize his designs. It really wasn't necessary, he'd be the only one who'd be aware of the subtle touches he put into his work, but he fancied himself a bit of a shapeshifting artist. Since he had the time, he wanted to get it right. With his plans solidified in his mind, he stripped the woman's clothing and began directing the shift and flow of her cells.
The breasts were the first to go, flowing and flattening into her chest as he simultaneously began softening her bones for the rest of the job. Her hair fell out, and her skin paled as Martin began wide-scale alterations. Her legs twisted and shortened, her arms and fingers stretched out into long jointed shafts. Neck and face extending, Martin gently reshaped her brain to fit her altered skull. Membranes of skin stretched and grew under her arms, extending out along her limbs and down her sides. Her chest deepened, muscles thickening and organs reconfiguring. Through it all, Martin felt the heady rush of changing into something new as if it were his first time. It was the first time for the woman, after all, and even though she was currently unconscious he relished the thought of how she would feel in her new form when she awoke.
Finally, her flesh stopped flowing and her skin sprouted downy feathers that rapidly grew into a sleek brown coat. Martin sighed in satisfaction and began withdrawing his awareness from her new body. Detaching his arm, her feathers finished their rapid growth and her metabolism returned to what was normal for her now. She lay sprawled on the roof, breathing slowly and regularly as she slept. Martin gently rearranged her wings, tucking her into the posture that Chickenhawk normally slept in. Her clawed toes held her in a perched position with a freshly implanted reflex, and he stepped back to admire his work. She looked perfectly natural, beautiful in her simple lines and plain colors. Martin smiled, turned, and left. His debt to Chickenhawk was resolved; he would no longer be alone.