“You could put a shirt on, you know.”
Morgan DeFey, collected, relaxed, and topless, shot a amused glare over at the sandy-furred man at the desk across the room. She wasn't complaining about his wardrobe, was she? She sighed. Well, this was his study, after all. Morgan supposed he did have the right to decide the dress code. She sat up from her supine position on the extremely comfy couch she had laid out on, and began digging through her rucksack for a comfortable top.
This most recent of assignments, by the independent contractor Morgan now worked for, had sent her to a small but mineral-rich region known colloquially as “the Minelands.” Morgan and her allies were both investigating rumors of extra-dimensional incursions as well as making sure there was nothing below-board going on with the major mining companies, or at least, nothing too important left below-board. Her hosts were a cross-race company that had apparently been started on just six personal investors, most of whom still ran the place. The shifter at his quill, Crag, was one of those owners, and the manor Morgan was lounging and inevitably sleeping in was the company's base, so Morgan couldn't exactly complain.
Still, it was terribly annoying. She had been wearing chainmail in the direct sun all day, for crying out loud—her girls had to breathe! How a shifter, by definition a beastman, could be so very stuffy was beyond her. She guessed they raised 'em differently in the mountains, where Crag was from; dear River would never--
“What day is it!?” she demanded of her host, abandoning her search for clothing.
Crag turned to her. He was handsome, in a male sort of way, with sharp features and a distinguished dark goatee, even if the turned-up, puma-like nose added a dose of uncanniness to his face. “What? Seven days before the beginning of Sun-season. I realize it is quite warm, DeFay, but that doesn't mean—“
“Oh, Faenya's tits!” swore Morgan.
“What?” asked Crag, urgency slipping into his voice, “What is it?”
“Tomorrow is River's birthday! And I haven't done anything!”
“Is that it?” asked Crag. “Here I thought it was something concerning.”
“Well, it is! Did you not hear the birthday thing?” Morgan, to her embarrassment, was somewhat frantic.
Crag crossed his legs. “Aren't you elf-blooded, DeFay? I would think birthdays would hold very little meaning to your kith.”
“Well, yes,” said Morgan, “I am, but River isn't! Birthdays are a big deal for her, I mean, she only gets so many of them. Plus, I was on assignment for the last couple, so...”
Crag turned his chair, looking directly at Morgan. “I can appreciate kindness to a lover.” Crag's spirit companion, a ethereal bighorn ram, phased into existence beside him. Crag was a shaman as well—the similarities between him and River just served to accentuate their differences. “Did you have something in mind?”
Morgan thought for a moment. “Hmm. What do shifters do on birthdays?”
“Let us just say I have a lot of siblings,” said Crag. Morgan frowned, but then he continued. “Hmm. In our youths, among our clowders—peer groups—we often use birthdays to get together and show the other members of the clowder the talents and skills we had learned over the past year. They are not the fracases humans are known for throwing, but they are celebrations of a kind—celebrating our independence and our survival abilities.”
It sounded almost depressing to Morgan, but already the cogs in her mind were turning.
Fortunately, Crag was willing to trade a favor for a favor.
River didn't return to the manor until late that night, and dropped off right to sleep, which suited Morgan fine. When River woke up the next day, in what was, technically speaking, the early afternoon, Morgan tracked her down after her breakfast (lunch), and asked her to come to the courtyard of the manor.
When River reached the courtyard, she found a circle of transparent animals waiting—sheep, tigers, mountain lions, eagles, and numerous others. These were the dozens of spirits that Crag had spent half the morning assembling. Confused, River looked at Morgan, who was standing on a balcony above the courtyard. Morgan smiled. “I set up a shifter birthday for you!” she yelled down, “so, Pearl-of-the-River, show me what you've learned!”
River burst into the biggest grin Morgan had ever seen. Y'Nami materialized nearby, and River leapt excitedly into the circle of spirits.
By the time the spirits had dispersed, River had shown off nearly all of her abilities, outmaneuvered Crag's spirit companion, had fought the company's dragonborn to a worthy draw, and even beaten a gigantic drake that the company's sorcerer (an odd girl with a talking hat and that Crag did not like at all) may have summoned completely on accident.
Morgan approached River, finally, when she was collapsed, tired and looking utterly satisfied, on the soft grass of the courtyard. Even as exhausted as she appeared, River leapt up to her girlfriend when Morgan got to her, embracing the elf-blood in a furry, warm hug.
“Happy birthday, River,” whispered Morgan, “and maybe we can see what you've learned in one other way later tonight...”
“Mer-ow!” responded River.