"Alice. Alice, it's time to wake up." Chen's handsome purr gently pried her away from dreams in which she imagined him even more furred, more feline, more handsome.
She turned over and looked up at her lover, happy to see him once more, as she was every day, and had been every day, since she had met him at a Starbucks and discovered their common love of obscure French cinema. She'd been carrying a DVD of Guitard's Recherche, and he'd been carrying a biography of the director's life.
"Mmm," Alice sighed. "Tired. What time is it?"
"Five. I told you we'd have to wake up early."
"You didn't tell me how early."
"Oh, yes I did," he said, smiling gently.
She crawled out of the sleeping bag, careful not to bump against any of the other thirty or so people scattered about the second floor of the Temple, and took a deep breath. It smelled only slightly musty, but that was more the wood and the rug than dense mass of breathing, living Bastet. She'd never seen so many condensed in one place, both male and female. Then again, before she'd met Chen, she'd never before been closer to a Bastet the average person waiting at a bus stop. The fact that Seattle had almost forty thousand of them living within and around the city didn't make them any less exotic.
"You said I would have until 5:30," she said.
"I have something to show you. Come with me."
"What?" She rubbed the sleep from her eyes, pulled her bathrobe over her shoulders, and carefully followed him.
"It's... hard to describe." He led her to the stairs that would their way up the outside of the house. "We have to go up to the roof."
Grumbling but now curious, Alice followed Chen out the door and up the creaking stairs.
The Temple to Bast had once been a party house for some rock star Alice had never heard of. That had been back in the 1970's. It had fallen into disrepair, and then the Bastet community had bought the property and remodeled the place into something more to their needs, including a proper temple of sorts on the roof. Alice had looked up Bastet religion on the Internet and had found all sorts of odd comments about psuedo-Egyptian neo-pagan mumbo-jumbo, but the people she'd met last night seemed earnest enough about it.
Alice had never heard of Bastet congregating in this way, other than the poor tribes of the Sudan region, and those Valley Bastet were regarded as a different kind from Diaspora Bastet. Even knowing there were different kinds of Bastet was somewhat new to her.
She hadn't been allowed up on the roof the evening before, and she wasn't sure what had changed between then and now. Chen led her through a wooden gate that ringed the entirety of the roof. "Look that way." He said. She gasped. Even in the darkling night, she could make out the clear view all the way across Puget Sound, right up from the Olympics to the Cascades. "This is our ceremonial space. It's the best view we could find, to watch the dawn. People think Bast is a moon goddess, but she's not. She's a sun goddess." He pointed. "Between those two pillars, the priestess will lead the ceremony welcoming Bast back from her sleep, and thanking her for her gifts of protection and ferocity. It's not complicated, but we do mean it."
"I don't doubt it."
"Lots of people do," he said. "The churches have very mixed feelings about us." He touched his chest with his hand. She noticed that despite the chill he was wearing only a thin shirt and the same jeans he'd worn the night before. "But this is what I came to show you." He reached into a small cardboard box on a table at the back of the ceremonial space and pulled out a mask. It looked like a crude representation of a lion's face, a wooden half mask that would fit over her eyes and nose but would leave her mouth and cheeks exposed. It had band that ran over the top of her head, also made of wood. "You must promise that you'll be very careful with this."
"Is it old?"
"No, but it's precious to us. And while it's not fragile, it could break." He handed it to her. "Alice, do you believe in magic?"
She looked at him quizzically. "Well, yeah. Everyone knows about the Age of Magic."
"Do you believe they could return? Or they're here now?"
"Well, there are a lot of stories that there was a magic outbreak about a hundred years ago. All those stories from Poe and Lovecraft and such." She looked down at the mask. "Are you saying?"
"Try it. Please."
More than a little unnerved by his line of questioning, she contemplated the mask, then pulled it on.
The world changed out from underneath her. Sounds became muted. Sight changed, but for the better or worse she couldn't say. Her skin felt too tight, too cool, and a perfect fit all at once. Her hair itched. But it was her sense of smell that hit her the hardest. Suddenly she could smell everything: the resins of the building, the phermones of insects, mice, feral cats, even a cougar somewhere nearby, the breath of pines, the stink of rotting fish from sound, the smell of oils and smoke and automobiles. It was briefly overwhelming, and she took deep breaths through her mouth as she tried not to fall over. She looked up at Chen.
This was the Chen from her dream, the beautiful Chen, the one who made her so angry, not he himself but the circumstance that meant they would never truly unite: each would need to find his or her own kind to make a family. And Chen had warned her that he'd make a terrible father. But now, just for now, all of that anger fed her desire to have him, to fuck him, to make him a part of her. She felt the wetness between her legs like the Great River itself, the source of all life, from which She Herself leapt forth at the beginning of the world.
She rushed Chen, kissed him. Nothing else mattered. Consciousness was irrelevant, right then. He was the animal Chen, and she was the animal Alice, and their kiss was the most sensual thing she'd ever experienced in her life. She felt it in every cell of her skin, felt it dive deeper into her, reaching for her core, her heart...
She pulled the mask off, fell to her knees at his feet with a loud thump she was sure woke everyone downstairs. She put it down carefully, to keep her promise to Chen, then leaned back, looked at the sky. "What was that?"
He sat down next to her, gathered the mask and put it back in its box. "We don't know," he said. "We have artisans who make these, and once in a while we find one of these... a mask that possesses you, makes you understand what we are, what we feel. It tries to make you feel what should be felt, if you were one of us. They're rare and precious objects, and we don't share them with outsiders often."
"I bet," she said. "If the government knew you had something magical that worked... Bast."
"Yeah. Bast," he said.
Creaking footsteps told her they were about to be joined. Four or five Bastet joined them on the roof, and then more, until the whole contingent of the Bastet community that had come that day had joined them. The roof was bigger than Alice had estimated. It could probably hold about 200 comfortably. They all gathered at the end that pointed toward the dawn.
The priestess wore a white, silken robe. "We have a human among us. Human, to be among us on this dawn, you must pretend. Will you wear a mask among us?"
Alice hesitated, frightened by the prospect of wearing that magical thing again. She nodded. Chen held it out, and she put it on.
The change happened again, not as strong as last time but still there. She checked and she could feel herself, still had control over the experience, could take off the mask if she felt the need. She looked through the small crowd gathered to greet the sun and could see the interconnected relationships among them, the happiness and contentment, the desperation and desire. She could tell, with a deep breath, that two of the tabbies were pregnant.
The ritual was short, brief, and satisfying. She enjoyed hearing Chen's growl and hiss among he sounds the Bastet made as they welcomed the morning sun. The incense the priestess had chosen did little for Alice, but she felt echoes of its effects on the others.
She took the mask off and put it back into the box. The small group of Bastet continued to shift and mingle. The air was heavy with a strange energy, and although the ritual was over, the morning air was filled with purpose. She spotted it as soon as it happened: a loud growl from two Bastet, who crashed into each other. "We had better leave," Chen said as he took her hand and led her down the stairs.
When they reached the second floor, she could see his face was flushed, his breathing heavy, his nostrils flaring with each breath. "That was heat, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, dammit," he said. "I was a heartbeat behind Obie." He grinned. "It's okay. I have kits already. But everyone wants more."
"You have children?" she said.
"Yeah. One survivor. She's about six now. Like I said, I make a terrible dad. I seem to have a feral mind."
She nodded. He'd explained to her about BTLV-1, a sadly common and almost always fatal childhood disease among Bastet. It was one of the few diseases actually known to get them, and that it always struck children seemed especially cruel.
He shivered, hard and violently, as if trying to shake off the feeling. Alice felt sorry for him. There was only one way to console him. "Hey, Chen?" She smiled. "I don't suppose there's a private room we could go and help... work off your energy?"
"You want to think about sex now?" he asked, surprised.
"It's not sex, it's... Oh, what the Hades. Come with me." He led her through a thin, wooden door into another room. There were two twin beds, as tightly and professionally made as in a hotel. He led her to one, and she kissed him hard.
She hadn't been wearing the mask when the phermones of those two on the roof had leaked out into the crowd, when Chen had gotten the same signal as every other male on that roof. The magic had lingered with her after the ceremony, had clung to her imagination, and now she sensed it. She could never be a Bastet, she wasn't one of those Furry freaks that wanted to be one. But now she wanted him. If only to make his frustration less. She could sense it now, that frustration.
They stripped hurriedly, falling onto the bed, bodies already desperate. His cock was already seeking out her opening, desperate for her pussy. "Chen, do it."
"Do it," she said. He nodded and plunged into her. It was not the usual, careful, loving Chen she knew, the man who loved to pet and be petted, who thought of lovemaking as a feast of touching and playing. This was a thrusting, desperate Chen, who struggled against his own feelings, who knew that she was at best a substitute for what his body was telling him he really needed.
Alice welcomed that cock, and his desperation, even if the dryness hurt, even though her body wasn't ready for him. Her body adjusted, accepted. She opened her legs and wrapped them around his strong, naked body, held his arms, and watched his closed eyes as he strove for release, for relief. She experienced him without feeling him.
Finally, he came with a powerful yowl, his body slamming into hers, giving everything he could for one last moment and then, suddenly, he collapsed. "Sorry," he gasped. "So sorry."
"It's okay," she said. It was not okay, she knew. Both of them had felt the hollowness of the moment, the pointlesness of it. She'd seen what mating meant to him, what it would have meant to her had, there but for the grace of Bast, she been born one of them. She smiled at him, and he had a responding smile.
By lunchtime, people were leaving. Alice wandered among them, lonely, alone. Chen's presence didn't make hre thrill the way it had the night before. He insisted, the one time he'd brought up her curious sudden onset of anomie, that his own feelings for her hadn't changed at all. It was a momentary, momentous thing, driven by instincts and hormones. When it had passed, he was himself again.
But Alice would never be herself again. Not that Alice. She tried hard to put it into words, but every admission was one of failure: she couldn't be what she knew Chen needed.
It was a long drive home.