Her first memory was of warmth, and thunder. Not the great crashes and booms of a fierce storm, but low, almost gentle, rumblings. And the warmth tickled her, making her wrinkle her nose and giggle. She was lying against something very warm, and solid. It moved up and down, rhythmically, and the thunder was inside it. She was three.
Something cool and wet prodded the back of her neck. She waved her hand back, hitting something that felt like damp velvet. There was a blast of warm, moist air that was strong enough to move her blonde curls. She giggled again. "Bess 'oo."
The rumbling increased till the solid form under her vibrated. She rolled over to find a big face hovering over her. It was handsome, sculpted with high cheekbones and an elegantly pointed chin. Triangular black ears were perked on top of the skull, and slanted, glittering blue eyes, set in a dark fur mask, regarded her.
She reached up and tugged a stiff, wiry whisker. It was as long as her arm. The great cat merely tilted his head to take the strain off, eyes squeezing a little narrower. Anyone who saw a child treating a natural cat in this manner would expect the little girl to be wailing and nursing bloody scratches at any moment. With a cat of this size, the loss of a hand was more likely. It was the size of large leopard.
Tiring of her game, the little girl demanded, "Wide! Wide now." When she let go of his whiskers, the cat obligingly rolled onto his stomach and allowed the little girl to straddle his back. Her chubby legs could barely stretch far enough. She buried her hands in the thick cream colored fur at the base of his neck and kicked. "Giddap."
Her steed rose carefully to his feet and began to pad around the small room. There wasn't much space, but he wove and circled, keeping moving. His rider crowed with glee, kicking and tugging.
The door opened, and a woman came into the room. She was young and blonde, pretty in a generic, anonymous way. When she saw what was happening, she scowled. Striding over, she snatched up the child. The girl howled in protest, plump hands waving wisps of silky cream colored fur. "Wanna wide, Ma! Wanna wiiiide!"
"Hush! What did I say about this?" She glared at the man who was slowly standing up from the floor. "Barlan, what did I say?"
He was pulling on a pair of pants, his hands still a little awkward as the fingers elongated, fur receding. "I know what you said, Maggie." He smoothed his white-blonde hair into place as the last of the black disappeared. "And I told you that I will not pretend to be something I'm not around my own daughter."
"It isn't good for her. You'll have her thinking your condition is natural."
"It is natural, it's how I was born. It's a part of me, and I'm not going to deny it. You didn't always find it... distasteful."
She looked embarrassed. "I thought it was exotic. A change." Her expression hardened again. "I just never should have married you."
His blue eyes were unreadable. She could never tell if she'd scored with a barb. "Probably not, but you knew how it was. You didn't make any objections to it until after the ceremony. Did you think you'd snag me, then mold me to suit you afterwards? Very foolish, Maggie. It isn't like this is some sort of bad habit I can drop."
"You won't even try! They have hypnotists who can cure almost anything. They can stop smoking, help with weight loss, lower stress. I don't see why they couldn't..."
"They could no sooner take the cat out of me than they could turn me into a woman. This is what I am, Maggie. And our girl needs to know. When she grows up, the change will be less of a shock."
"But there might not BE a change, you said so yourself. If there's human blood in the line anywhere, you might not breed true. Well, she's at least half human. I don't believe she will change. There's more of me in her than you."
The child had stopped squirming, giving up on escape. Now she hung placidly in her mother's arms. Her father looked at her thoughtfully, and she smiled back at him, her eyes squeezing half shut. Anyone familiar with cats would recognize it as a peculiarly feline gesture. "Believe that if you want, Maggie. But I want her to be prepared. Some who weren't raised in our ways couldn't accept it when it came, and they went mad. I don't want that to happen to my Kitten."
"Don't call her that!" Maggie's grip tightened, and the child gave a mewling cry of discomfort. This seemed to enrage her, and she shook the little girl. "Stop that! Cry like a normal child, damn it!"
"Maggie!" Barlan reached for the girl, and Maggie pulled away defiantly. His eyes narrowed, but not in the playful way his baby's had, and a low, menacing growl rumbled in his throat. Maggie blanched. He'd never made that noise toward her before, but she'd seen what could happen when he was in this mood. When he held out his arms again, she surrendered the child without protest.
The girl snuggled against him, burrowing her little face against his neck. He stroked her smooth cream colored hair. They stayed little for so short a time. The hair was already darkening, her points growing in. She was going to be a chocolate point, like her grandmother. Maggie was purposely blind to the signs. But she'd have to accept it, sooner or later. This was her child, too. Wasn't a female's strongest instinct to protect and nurture her young?
In most cats, yes. And in most humans, also. But he'd forgotten how strong the survival instinct is, and wasn't aware of how deeply it ran in his wife. He knew she was self-centered, and greedy, but it never occurred to him that there might come a time when she would be willing to sacrifice their child's well being for her own security and comfort.