“Hey. Hey, Rowan. Wake up.”
Rowan floats to consciousness and focuses her eyes on Andy. It’s bright in the room and it must be at least noon.
Andy smiles slightly. “Hey, sleepyhead, it’s 4:30. You hungry? I just got back from school.”
Rowan stretches, feeling a twinge from the cut on her collarbone. “Uh, yeah. I slept all day?”
“Hah, yeah. You looked like you needed it. Eggs ok?”
Once Rowan is sitting on the kitchen counter eating, Andy finally bursts out, “Please tell me what’s going on. You left after saying you were in danger, and then you come back looking like you were in a knife fight! What the- what is going on?”
“Well, for starters, I was in a knife fight.” Rowan says wryly. Funnily enough, Andy doesn’t look very amused. Rowan continues, no longer making light of the situation. “It’s a long story. When I had just started living on the street, I didn’t really know what to do. I didn’t have anyone, I didn’t know Xavier and Mary at that point, and I got picked up by Derek Kennedy. He’s the leader of a drug ring, but at first, I didn’t know about that; all I knew was that he was nice to me and he gave me a place to sleep. But I got suspicious that he wanted me to either run drugs or start using them. So I started to leave during the day.
“I’d stay away from their hideout in animal form, and come back at night. Kennedy got suspicious and started spying on me, and one day he saw me turn from human to raven and fly out a window. Then his conniving little brain must’ve made the connection that a person who can run drugs as an animal would be much more able to run from the police and hide. He confronted me about it the next day, and I basically changed into bird form, clawed his face, and left. Shortly after that, I met Mary, and she introduced me to Xavier, Marc, and the rest. They’ve basically been my family for two years, and I just try to stay out of Kennedy’s way. But when I started to be in human form more, hanging out with you, Kennedy heard about my being sighted and he’s been bothering me more.”
She sees the stricken expression on Andy’s face and rushes to reassure her. “No, it’s not your fault. It was going to happen anyway. So then this morning, one of Kennedy’s guys was bothering Mary, and I confronted him. That was the knife fight. And now here we are.”
Andy doesn’t look any less worried.
Casting around for something more reassuring to say than “but it’s ok, I can handle violent gangs by myself, I promise I probably won’t die,” Rowan blurts out, “Um. So you know how I said I had friends? Do you want to… I don’t know. Meet them? I need to check in anyway, they’re going to be worried about me.”
And that’s how they end up near Rowan’s usual place, waiting. Rowan texts the others, and eventually they gather: Xavier and Marc swing down from a fire escape, Mary rattles her way to them with her cart, and a couple of cats slink into the general area. Rowan explains quietly to Andy that most of the group are shifters. The cats are too, Rowan says they’re just “wary, ok? They’ve had… bad experiences. They don’t trust most people to see them in human form.”
When Mary reaches Rowan, she clasps her in a tight hug. “Honey, why did you do that? I was so worried-”
“You didn’t even call or anything!” Xavier interjects. “Where were you?!”
“I was… I went to Andy’s. Sorry, I just panicked, and I was hurt, and I just wanted…”
“You’re hurt?” Xavier and Mary step away, scanning Rowan for injuries. Rowan shows them her bandages, saying hurriedly, “It’s fine! I’m fine. Andy patched me up.”
Xavier’s eyes fasten on Andy, studying her. She stares back, slightly afraid of this lean street kid with his shaggy hair and baggy clothes, but she hides it well.
After a few seconds, he strides forward, ignoring Andy’s startled twitch, and touches the jacket she’s wearing. It’s Rowan’s, the same heavily patched grey one she always wears. He glances at Rowan questioningly. “So you slept at Andy’s?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry, I should have called.”
“No, it’s fine. I shouldn’t worry, since you can obviously take care of yourself.” His tone is biting and sarcastic. “It’s not like you’re being targeted by a gang or anything.”
“Xavier. Sheathe your claws, child,” Mary interrupts quietly, then turns to Rowan. “Perhaps you could bring your friend and we could go to the usual place to discuss what’s happened.”
Once they get to the bridge, the group assembles on the ground, laying out sleeping bags in much the same way as they do for the nights. Then Rowan tells the story of the fight. When she gets to the end, Xavier’s eyes widen. “And you just flew away? As a BIRD? Do you realize, that means if he didn’t know what you were before, that particular jerk will see even more clearly why Kennedy’s determined to get you!”
“How did he react?”
“What does it matter how he reacted?” Xavier accuses.
Rowan turns to Andy at the question. “He was…he just looked really disbelieving, I guess. Maybe Kennedy hasn’t told them all that I shift.”
“Well… I mean, that’s a pretty big element of surprise. Like, I was super surprised when you suddenly turned into a hedgehog that time, and I knew you,” Andy offers. “Sorry, I don’t know if that helps.”
“Hmm. Maybe,” Rowan replies, and the conversation moves along.
Eventually they finish talking, and after Rowan reassures them and promises she’ll make sure they know where she is more often, Andy and Rowan head back to Andy’s house.
Andy really does try to concentrate on homework. Seriously. She makes a concerted effort, and it’s totally not her fault that Rowan is there and keeps turning into cute animals. It’s really hard to do your math when there’s a cat sprawled on your textbook. Andy finally compromises and lets Rowan sit in her lap in cat form and be petted while Andy does math. Rowan is unhelpful with math problems, but she rubs her head encouraging against Andy’s arm and encourages her in a small, throaty cat-voice. “Hey, you’ve only got a few problems left. And also it’s 10:30? Maybe you should just go to bed soon. It’ll be ok.”
Andy sighs and starts to punch more numbers into her calculator.
That night, Rowan stays at Andy’s again. She burrows down in her floor-nest of blankets, but she just can’t fall asleep. She turns over, tries that position for a minute or so, then rearranges herself again. She’s about to turn over once more when she sees Andy moving on the bed above her.
“Can’t sleep?” Rowan whispers.
Andy turns at the sound of her voice, resting her chin on the edge of her bed. Her brow is wrinkled with worry. “No.”
Rowan sits up. “Are you worried about something?”
“I’m fine, I promise. I’m right here, and I’m not hurt- anymore, because you helped- and you’re fine too. No one’s going to hurt you, Kennedy’s guys can’t do a thing to you, I won’t let them. I swear.”
“Rowan, what are we going to do?”
“I’ve got the start of an idea. Try not to worry, ok? Get some sleep.”
“You sure, Ro?”
Rowan’s mouth curves into a soft smile. Andy usually doesn’t call her by nicknames.
“Yeah. I’m sure.” She shifts to cat form and jumps onto the bed. Andy rolls onto her back, and Rowan walks onto her stomach and curls up there. Andy rubs her soft fur for awhile, and finally falls asleep. Rowan slips back into sleep, listening to the thump-thump. thump-thump. of Andy’s heartbeat.
In the morning, Andy wakes up to bright sunlight and Rowan lying half on top of her, dark hair falling out of its braid. She’s shifted back to human form in her sleep. Andy raises her free hand and gently taps Rowan’s shoulder. “Hey. Wake up, Ro.”
Rowan snaps awake, jolting slightly, then relaxes when she sees Andy’s face inches away. “Good morning. Breakfast?”
Rowan grins groggily. “Coffee?”
On their way out of the room, Rowan picks up her phone and checks for messages. There are two text messages, from an unknown number. She reads them and stops dead.
Andy keeps walking for a few steps before she realizes Rowan isn’t following. She sees Rowan’s frightened, angry face and strides back to her. “What’s wrong?”
Rowan shows her the messages. There’s a block of text, and then a photograph.
You have not been open to discussing my offer in the past. However, now that I have someone in my possession who you hold quite dear, perhaps you will reconsider. Choose a meeting place and we will talk, little raven. -K
The picture is of Xavier, tied to a chair. He has a fresh-looking purple and blue bruise on his forehead, and he looks defiant but scared.
“Oh no. Wait, how do you know it’s Kennedy?” Andy tries to hand the phone back, but Rowan’s clenching her fists at her sides and won’t look at the screen. “Reply,” she says through gritted teeth. “I know it’s Kennedy because only Xavier and a few other trusted friends have that number. If he’s got Xavi, he’s got the number.”
Andy’s eyes widen. “What do I say?”
Rowan rattles off a location that Andy vaguely recognizes. “And tell him to be there at 9 PM.”
Andy composes the message and sends it. The phone notifies her it was “Read 10:30 AM,” but Kennedy doesn’t reply. Typical.
After a minute, she looks up from the phone. “Listen, whatever’s happening, you should still eat something.”
Rowan gulps coffee and reluctantly eats half a bagel, and then says “C’mon, we have to go. We need a plan, I don’t know if Kennedy texted everyone else.”
Rowan texts everyone, they swing by Mary’s usual corner to find her, and soon the group is gathered underneath the bridge. Rowan shows the text message, and then has to calm them down. Marc is practically hissing. The ones Andy has only met in cat form flicker from cat form to human forms with dark skin and then to panther forms that stalk around and eventually gather beside Rowan, tense and with their hackles standing straight up.
“So Kennedy has Xavier, and I told him to meet me at the Damen Silos at 9 PM. Aside from that, I don’t know what to do.” Rowan says, looking around at them.
“They’ll outgun us, you know that,” Marc says grimly.
“Yeah, I know.”
“They won’t have hesitation about shooting.”
“Yes, I know!” Rowan says irritably.
“They won’t just back off, and now they have Xavier too! You can’t keep pretending running away will stop this problem!”
“I KNOW THAT!”
Rowan and Marc are in each others’ faces, shouting. Mary steps between them. “Rowan. Go for a walk.”
“But we need to figure out how-”
“Rowan.” Her voice is commanding, and Rowan steps back.
Mary shoots a look at Andy to keep her from following, and Rowan walks a short distance away.
Mary walks back to Marc and lays a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll figure something out.”
By 8:00 PM, they haven’t figured anything out. Marc feels like he’s about to vibrate out of his skin with worry. He takes out some nervous energy with swoops and curves and frantic speed as he flies with Rowan and the others to the Silos, but it doesn’t help much. He’s too worried about what could be happening to Xavier. Rowan’s panic is quieter, but she follows his flying patterns as if she’s trying to outpace her fears as well.
Andy gets to the site by bus, and soon Rowan swoops down in raven form, along with two hawks and a smaller bird- a starling, Andy thinks. The hawks flash through forms before settling as large cats again.
At that point, it’s 8:30. Rowan’s getting more anxious, and she’s clenching her hands into fists to stop them shaking as she leads Andy up to the second floor of the warehouse beside the silos. Andy stops. “Hey. Ro.” She puts a hand on Rowan’s shoulder.
Rowan finally looks at her, eyes wide.
“It’s gonna be okay.” Andy runs her hand down Rowan’s arm and grabs her hand, tangling her fingers with Rowan’s. “Remember what you said about that guy’s disbelief at you turning into a bird? I think you can use that. Just switch forms super fast and use their surprise at fighting first a bird then a snake then… I don’t know, a bear?”
From Rowan’s shoulder where he’s been in starling form the whole time, Marc clears his throat. “Yeah, sorry to interrupt this moment, but I think she’s right. We have the others, too. They like switching fast between big cats and stuff. This could work.”
Rowan is silent, but she looks a little less scared.
They reach the second floor and Marc jumps onto Andy’s shoulder. Rowan hands her phone to Andy, who takes it with her free hand and looks at it quizzically. “What’s this for?”
“The password is ‘strawberry.’ If… if things go all Costa Rica, call somebody. I don’t know. Call 911. Not the police. Then run. Leave the phone.”
“All Costa Rica?”
“She means if things go south. Go bad.” Marc clarifies.
“Okay. Just stay here.” Rowan squeezes Andy’s hand once, then releases it and strides across the cracked concrete floor to the stairs, and then she’s gone.
Looking out the window of the heavily graffitied room, Marc and Andy watch as the group waits. Rowan sits on the ground with the two big cats for a few minutes, and then Kennedy’s goons start to show up. Three, then five more, then finally two more accompanying Kennedy himself. Kennedy’s dragging Xavier, handcuffed and with a gun pointed on him. Xavier’s face is visibly bruised, even from their vantage point two stories up.
The men arrange themselves behind Kennedy. Andy and Marc can’t hear what he’s saying very well, but his smug expression carries the message clearly.
Down on the ground, Kennedy is laying out his proposal once more. “I can help you if you’ll help me, alright sweetheart? I’ll give your little boyfriend back, and you won’t have to sleep on the street. You just have to help me out. It won’t be that dangerous for you to run smack, with your abilities. And if you don’t want to… I guess that means you don’t want your boyfriend back either.”
Rowan mutters quietly, “He’s not my boyfriend.”
“What was that, darling?” Kennedy leers.
She raises her head and looks him in the eye. “Alright. Let him go, I’ll come.” She walks forward. Kennedy grins with a flash of gold tooth, and shoves Xavier away from himself.
Rowan takes another step. A split second later, all hell breaks loose. Kennedy’s people are lost in a maelstrom of feathers and claws and beaks. A couple of them get their guns before they’re distracted by the attacking birds, and they shoot wildly.
The birds lift off in a swarm and fly up, up, up, leaving Kennedy and his assorted lackeys cowering, bloody, and alone. Kennedy looks around, and he swears when he doesn’t see Rowan or his prisoner. He also doesn’t see some of his lackeys. He swears again.
Kennedy turns to the speaker. It’s Johnson, some useless skinhead who’s just muscle, no brains. “What?! You useless pansies get scared by a few birds?”
“Uh, boss, those weren’t just birds. Those were…skinwalkers or shapeshifters or some crap. That was some bad magic. I’ve tripped before, I know when I am and when I ain’t. And that wasn’t no LSD makin me see that. I’m sorry, man, I didn’t sign up for this.” Johnson starts to back away.
Kennedy lunges at him and grabs his shirt. “You aren’t paid to have opinions! I need that girl, and all YOU need to do is man up deal with some shapeshifters!”
He swiftly realizes that the others have gathered behind Johnson, and they all look apprehensive. “I don’t know, boss.” He’s gathering his nerve now that the others are on his side.
“Hey.” A scratchy voice interrupts them from above. Kennedy looks up and sees a raven. A raven that’s talking. Once the raven has their attention, it continues. “Listen, when are you guys going to be convinced I don’t wanted to run your drugs? I have better things to do. I have more power than you could dream of. I could turn you all into toads. I can’t be killed or hurt easily, so don’t try.” The raven makes its loud, croaking call, and then suddenly turns into a vulture in midair. It dives toward the ground, and when it’s near enough it flashes into the form of a dark-skinned girl with long black hair, a patched, baggy jacket, and heavy boots. She continues speaking: “If you ever bother me, my girlfriend, or anyone close to me again, there will be consequences. I can be the fly on any wall, the bird in any sky, and the venomous snake in any bed. If you don’t want to die, leave me the hell alone.”
Kennedy makes a move toward his gun, and Rowan flashes into bird form and flies at his face again. He ducks and throws up an arm, and she continues to fly, heading up and then through a broken window of the abandoned warehouse. Kennedy watches her go. He’s alone, all his hired guns having left after that little display. He throws a few more curses after the bird-girl and then turns and stalks back to his car, promising himself that if he ever catches her off-guard, there will be hell to pay.
Up in the warehouse, Rowan flies through the window and retakes human form, and her feet have barely touched the floor when Andy wraps her in a tight hug. Rowan buries her face in Andy’s bright, soft hair. She’s shaking with adrenaline and relief and she holds Andy tight to ground herself somehow.
“Good job. Did you see how they just ran?” Andy whispers in in her ear.
Rowan nods, raising her head to look Andy in the eyes. They’re both grinning.
Then Andy’s smile turns mischievous. “When you were talking to them, though… Did you call me your girlfriend? I wasn’t informed I had an actual title, babe.”
“It just kind of… slipped out? Are you ok with that?”
Andy’s smile grows wider, if that’s even possible. “Yeah, you dork. Of course I am.”
Eventually Andy and Rowan separate. Marc and Xavier are standing a few feet away waiting for them. Xavier has some pretty bad bruises. The group heads down the crumbling concrete stairs and out of the building. There’s still a smudge of light low in the sky.
Andy convinces them all to ride the bus back. She pays their fares, and they ride the last bus back towards the bridge. Marc texts someone to tell Mary that they’re ok. There are some grazes on Xavier and Rowan from wild shots by Kennedy’s men, but they’re mostly just worn out from adrenaline.
Andy is sitting next to Rowan, leaning into her, when she remembers. “Hey. Ro. Here, want your phone back?” She sets it in Rowan’s lap. (Later, when Rowan opens her phone, she’ll see a new number in her contacts, under the name “🍓 kid.”)
“You did it, you know? You were so cool, all oh look at me I’m a big scary witch and I’ll turn you into a TOAD!” Andy murmurs.
“Hah. Yeah, they probably could’ve heard my heartbeat in Springfield, though,” Rowan replies, the corners of her mouth turning up in a smile. “You were right about the surprise thing. Good idea.”
They sit in relative silence for the rest of the bus ride until they get to Andy’s stop. Xavier and Marc hesitate, but Rowan makes a “follow us” gesture and they acquiesce.
Once they get to Andy’s apartment, she opens the door quietly and gestures them inside. They’re halfway through bandaging wounds and inhaling reheated canned soup when Andy’s mom walks into the kitchen, wearing a bathrobe and a groggy expression. She’s vaguely surprised to see her kitchen full of grungy-looking teenagers, one with a heavily bruised face.
“Panda? What happened?” She asks.
“Panda?” Rowan mouths behind her back. Andy nods sheepishly.
“Uh. Mom, this is Rowan, you’ve met her, and a couple of our friends, they go to my school and they’re just, um, having trouble with their parents? And they needed somewhere to stay.” She says quickly.
“Yeah, my dad’s a jerk.” Xavier adds.
Her mom focuses on him and walks quickly over. “Honey, you should have some ice on that. Of course you can sleep here, the couch folds out, I’ll-”
“Mom, don’t worry, I’ll get it. Thank you.” Andy interrupts. Her mom wraps a bag of peas in a dish towel and hands it to Xavier before slowly leaving, reassured that the commotion is just Andy and her (admittedly slightly rough-looking) friends.
Once Andy’s mom has left, Xavier clears his throat. “Uh, listen, I kind of want to go back to the bridge. Make sure Mary knows we’re ok.” He and Marc stand to leave. “Andy, thanks for all this. Rowan, are you coming, or…” He glances at Andy, then back at Rowan. “I mean, it’s fine if you…”
“I’ll come with you guys. Just give me a second, ok?”
The boys head to the door and wait. Rowan turns to Andy. “Thank you. Seriously, for everything.” She leans in and kisses her lightly on the cheek. Her lips are cool and slightly chapped. Andy wraps her arms around Rowan and tucks her chin into Rowan’s shoulder. “I’m glad you’re alright.”
“Are we still on for coffee on Monday?” Andy’s smile is hidden in her shoulder, but Rowan can hear it in her voice.
Andy lets them out the kitchen window, and watches as the raven and two starlings fly off into the dark. She’s already looking forward to Monday.
author’s note: aaaand that’s it. thanks for reading. stay tuned for more next year (RG&SK is probably over, but rest assured i’ll be writing more fiction so i don’t have to write reports on sports or something).