or, how to make friends and run into people
by Hallan Mirayas

  Skidding around the corner, I snatched for a street lamp to tighten my turn and keep from winding up on my scrawny, lightweight leonine butt. Looking quickly over my shoulder, I hoped my pursuers wouldn't notice the marks my claws left on the metal. The sharp turn might throw them off. I hoped. Another fight with those bullies, and I could wind up in real trouble.
  High school is never easy. Gather any large group of teenagers together, and you'll wind up with a fight. High school bullies latch onto differences like sharks on blood. That's where I come in. I was never very popular, but when SCABS gave me a fur coat for Christmas, well, I might as well have hung a bull's-eye around my neck. Of course, feline reflexes and claws help, but they get you in a lot of trouble, too. Especially the claws. People turn a blind eye to a bully beating on a kid, but wave claws around and whoosh!, suddenly concerned parents and school authority figures pop up everywhere, ranting and raving about 'dangerous weapons in the schools'. Idiots. Never mind that I didn't ask for them, or that they're part and parcel of my fingers now. There are even some people demanding that I be declawed! Declawed?? Not likely. Maybe after they have their fingernails surgically removed.
  The look back took about five steps. On the sixth, I turned my head back just in time to collide with a gray wall. At least, that's what it felt like. I landed in a face-first sprawl, seeing stars as pain blossomed in my nose.
  Out of the corner of my eye I saw whomever I'd run into picking himself up. "Hey! Why don't you watch where you're going?" came the angry voice of my 'wall' as I gingerly pushed up onto hands and knees. The voice softened. "Oh, dear, you're bleeding." I was? My hand went to my nose and came away red. I was. That would explain why it hurt so much. Canine-padded hands helped me to my feet, hands that belonged to a sturdy-looking wolfmorph SCAB, gray fur completely covering his 'walking wolf'-style body. "C'mon inside," he said, leading me toward a doorway off the street. "We'll get you cleaned up quick." The sign hanging beside the door read, 'The Blind Pig Gin Mill.' Great. A bar. Oh, well; any port in a storm.
  "By the way, what is your name, sir lion?" asked my escort as he pushed open the door. I must've misheard him earlier, because there was definitely a weird British, no, Shakespearean, accent to his voice now. Odd. Ask later, fix nose first.
  "Harri -- Hallan. Call me Hallan." At his curious look, I fingered my scrawny scruff of a mane and explained wryly, "I really don't like 'Harry', okay?"
  "I understand completely. Call me Wanderer. Everyone else does," he said with a lopsided smile. "And the big fellow with the horns and the mop coming over is Donnie, the owner and bartender of this fine establishment."
  Geez, the bartender's huge! was the first thought through my mind... followed closely by the realization I was dripping blood on the floor. "Umm, sorry?" I said sheepishly, trying not to let my ears drop back. He didn't say anything, to my great relief, just pointed out the bathroom and started mopping the floor. I went meekly. Wanderer went back out the door, saying he'd be right back with the bookbag I dropped when I ran into him. Mental note: thank the wolf. Homework may be a pain, but it's for a grade.
  The bathroom was surprisingly elaborate for a bar, at least as far as I'd ever thought one would be. Why do they need a bathtub in a bar bathroom? Setting that aside for the moment, I turned my attention to the mirror and sinks, using some wet paper towels to try to stop the bleeding as best I could. Behind me the door opened and a guy came in with an icepack and a bundle of white cloth in his hand. "Are you okay in here? Wanderer said you took a pretty nasty spill out there," he asked as he handed me the icepack.
  I accepted the icepack with a grateful nod. "Yeah, I'b okay. Just have to get this stopped first. Gibbe a secodd?" Icepack to the back of the neck, just like Mom taught you. Slows the blood flow to the nose, stops the bleeding faster. Keep the head forward so you're not swallowing blood. One of the many perks of having a nurse for a mother is a rather intimate knowledge of first aid. While I did that, I took a closer look at my visitor. "Raccood ears, eh? Cool. My nabe's Hallan. I'd offer you a hadd, but they're bot' kinda busy a' da momen'."
  "Not a problem. My name's Brian Coe." He unfolded the bundle of cloth into a t-shirt and a bottle of extra-strength spray disinfectant. "Donnie sends these with his regards and wants you to make sure you spray out the sink when you're done, okay?"
  I wondered what the t-shirt was for until I noticed how blood-spotted mine was. Mom's going to love this... I hope it comes out. "Okay. Do probleb. Thanks." He set the items down on the counter nearby, and then left so I could change. Nice people here, I thought as I checked to see if the bleeding had stopped. Good. It had. Wash out the sink, clean yourself up, change into the t-shirt, and call home. Sounds like a plan, fuzzball.
  It took a few minutes to wash the blood out of my fur, but eventually I deemed myself presentable for public appearance again. After wiping up a few bloodspots on the floor and spraying the sink liberally with the disinfectant, I headed back out into the bar, spray can in hand. I spotted Donnie after a few moments (not a hard task) and went over to give him the disinfectant back and ask if I could borrow the phone to call home. "I usually take the bus, but..." He nodded in an understanding, fatherly kind of way, and gestured down the bar to a phone. "Thanks." A quick punch of some phone card numbers later, I was calling home.
  "Hi, Mom. It's me."
  "Harry? Are you all right? Where are you?"
  "Yeah, I'm okay. Eric tried to pick another fight after school, so I missed the bus. I'm at a bar down on..." I looked over at Donnie, but a lady nearby chimed in with the address instead, which I relayed. "Can you come pick me up?" After reassuring her that I was fine, that the people at the bar were treating me nicely, and that yes, I'd work on homework until she arrived, I said goodbye and hung up the phone. "Is there a table where I can --" I started to ask, but Donnie beat me to it, pointing out a booth off to the side which already had my bookbag sitting waiting for me. I chuckled. "Thanks." He nodded, his hands coming up to make a quick gesture that I recognized as sign language. I thought it meant "you're welcome", but it had been years since I'd taken any sign language. I signed it back, just to be sure, saying, "You're welcome?" He nodded, the corners of his mouth and the set of his ears suggesting a smile. I smiled back, careful not to show too many teeth. "Hmm... while I'm up here, how much is a Coke?"
  Drink in hand, I headed for my booth, detouring around a pool table where a female wolfmorph and a lizard guy who looked like he'd stepped out of that old movie, Jurassic Park, were setting up a game. Their game had a lot of spectators, including a group of lupine guys who watched almost religiously. I watched curiously for a few moments, then sat down and started laying out math homework, planning to get a good amount of it polished off before Mom arrived. That ambition lasted all of a minute. Then my ears picked up the clack of pool balls, followed closely by the distinctive 'thunk' of a ball going into the pocket. My curiosity aroused, I looked up as the she-wolf bent to line up her next shot...
  "Having trouble with your homework?" Wanderer asked as he arrived at my booth a minute or so later. "You've been staring at that same page for about two minutes without writing anything." Okay, so maybe it was more than a minute or so. "Is something wrong?"
  I looked up rather sheepishly as the wolf slid into the booth across from me, looking concerned. I nodded slightly towards the pool game as I whispered, "Ummm... does she know that her shirt falls open every time she leans over to take a shot?"
  "I have no idea," Wanderer whispered in reply, his eyes fixed in the direction of the pool table. "Nobody's been fool enough to ask." A smile tugged gently at the corner of his muzzle.
  I nodded, thinking about that for a minute. Hey, wait a minute, does that mean this happens often? I glanced over at Wanderer across the table, opening my mouth to ask, but his eyes were reflecting black lace and little else. I was just about to ask him anyway when a cheetah-morph strode up to our booth and placed himself between Wanderer and the pool table, much to Wanderer's consternation. "Sorry to interrupt your viewing pleasure, Wan'," he said sardonically, "but we've got practice in five." He jerked a thumb at me as the wolf scowled. "Who's the new guy?"
  "I believe the leonine gentleman introduced himself as Hallan."
  The cheetah got an unfocused look on his face for a moment, then asked, "Hallan... Meras?"
  "That was the inspiration, yes," I replied, then chuckled as Wanderer looked at us both uncomprehendingly. "An old sci-fi character. And you would be?" Since the cheetah made no effort to do so, I put out my hand for a shake.
  "My name's Jubatus," he replied, grasping my wrist, not my hand -- finally, someone who recognizes what a handshake can do to retractile claws! "If you stick around, it'll be interesting to see which of us can out-obscure the other." Then, to Wanderer: "Five minutes." And he left us.
  "I really must apologize for his abruptness," Wanderer said diffidently. "Unfortunately, Jubatus' virtues have never included mastery of the social graces."
  "Don't worry about it. You'll be late for practice." I smiled. "Thanks for your help, Wanderer. Thanks a lot."
  "You are most welcome, dear lion. Until we meet again, although I trust our next meeting shall be at a somewhat lower velocity?" he said with a teasing grin before slipping off into the crowd.
  Blushing, I turned my attention back to math as a refuge. I didn't get far. A few math problems later, something large and white approached in my peripheral vision. I glanced up to see a large white rabbit sitting next to my table, watching me. "Good afternoon, newcomer. Mind if I join you?" he asked.
  I couldn't resist a smile. Which probably was not that smart, considering my smile is a lot toothier than it used to be. I toned it down as much as possible before replying, "Sure, but if I see a young British girl come in the door looking for you, I'm leaving."
  My new companion blinked, then rolled his eyes as he introduced himself and hop-wriggled his way into the booth. "You must be Hallan." Before I could ask, he explained, "Wanderer asked if I'd keep an eye on you. I'm Phil, by the way. If I didn't know better, I'd ask if you and Jubatus were related. He likes obscure references, too."
  "Sorry," I apologized unrepentantly, shoving my books aside, then chuckled as Donnie set a pewter paw cup before my newest acquaintance. The label on the side read, 'Hare Restorer'. Watching him fit his paws into the handle-mitts, I remarked, "That must be specifically yours... it fits." At his arched eyebrow, I explained. "I've seen a couple generic ones around school. They slop all over the place. I'd almost rather drink from a bowl."
  "You've used them before?"
  I held up my five-fingered hand. "No, I was pretty lucky when it came to the SCABS shuffle. I got enough of the looks to be obvious, but not much more than that. If I work at it, I can do a passable lion's roar, but I'll be feeling it for a day or so after." I shook my head ruefully and rubbed my throat. Just thinking about it hurt. "Anyway, I've seen paw cups used by a couple of the other SCABS at school, one of my friends in particular. After the first few times, everyone brings straws if they can get their hands on them. But, like I said, this one fits."
  Phil nodded. "It was a very thoughtful gift, even if it was anonymous. The generic ones are rather heavy for me." He took a drink from his cup, then changed the subject. "If I may ask, what were you running from today that you ran into Wanderer?"
  "There's a couple of bullies that are trying to get me kicked out of school." I flexed out my claws for display, scowling. "The principal says if I get in one more fight with these 'dangerous weapons', I'm suspended. Never mind who starts it. I'm suspended. If it weren't for that, they'd stay well away from me, because they know I'd thrash them otherwise." I let my claws retract. "Still haven't figured out a way to hit them without using my hands, though. Punching with retractile claws hurts."
  Phil looked like he was about to reply when I noticed someone come in the door. "Yikes. Boy, am I glad I ran into Wanderer instead of that guy..." Phil tilted his head slightly, then turned and looked. Beyond was a quadrupedal stag SCAB with a set of large, branched, pointy antlers. "Two words: Shish. Kabob."
  Phil laughed. "Point taken."
  I groaned, then tried to track down my derailed train of thought. Quickly, in case the next pun was worse. "Um... why does Wanderer talk with that accent?"
  A few minutes and an explanation later, which boiled down to a shrug and a 'because he likes it', Donnie came over and tapped me on the shoulder, pointing to the door and signing something. "My what is here? Oh, my ride. Thank you, Donnie." I started gathering my homework, and paused to look around for Wanderer.
  "He's off to singing practice," Phil said, anticipating my question, "but I'll let him know you said goodbye. Stop in again sometime." I thanked the rabbit, then slid out of the booth and headed for the door, detouring around the many, varied patrons along the way. The Blind Pig, huh? I'll definitely have to come here again.