User:Robotech Master/Holding Helena
|Paradise story universe|
Author: Chris Meadows
- So let mercy come,
- And wash away…
- What I've done
- I’ll face myself,
- To cross out what I’ve become.
- Erase myself,
- And let go of what I’ve done.
- So let mercy come,
- —Linkin Park, "What I've Done"
At a hundred feet across and thirty feet deep, the enclosure would have been the envy of any zoo in the world. Divided by a long stream and dotted with large boulders, it was the kind of place where large cats would be at home during the hottest days of summer and the coldest days of winter. And if the weather turned inclement, or the cats just wanted some privacy, there was a cave at one end to provide cover. A railing around the rim provided a place for visitors to stand and watch, but there was also an enclosed observation platform at the west end.
Mostly open to the sky, the bowl also harbored a number of trees—some species native to North America and some native to the African Savana—that provided shade and places where cats that liked to climb could find respite. The shade was necessary at this time of year, when the summer sun blazed hot overhead and left little shade except that cast by the trees and the walls. Whether they were cougar, cheetah, or lion, the cats that had once been housed here would have been pleasantly comfortable on this hot June day.
Today, however, the enclosure only had one occupant—feline, but not entirely. She was covered in tawny fur, and her head resembled that of a North American Cougar but with more expressiveness—especially around the eyes. Brown hair cascaded down her back to just past her shoulder blades, providing even more evidence of her nearly-human nature.
Naked but for her fur, the cougar-woman sat on a sun-warmed rock near the center of the enclosure. She was crying: tears streamed from her eyes and left wet trails through the fur on her face. How had it ever come to this?
TWO MONTHS EARLIER
Leo ran up the hallway with the others, his naked paws easily gripping the smooth parquet floor. He still halfway couldn't believe it; after months imprisoned in a giant cat pen, they were finally free! With the help of a turncoat guard, the six Changed most able to fight had escaped their enclosure, taken care of the other guards, and were now closing in on the man who had held them prisoner. The other five were back in the now-open pen, with the paramedics they'd called for the captive who had gone into labor.
The turncoat guard, James Case, had the security codes to Hugh Melton's mansion. He'd let them in through a servant's entrance. The place was furnished expensively: the paintings that lined the walls probably cost more than most cars; the floor was marble and the scent of floor wax irritated Leo's feline nose. The house was deserted; James had already spread the word for the staff to get out.
Case pointed up the sweeping, curved staircase. "His bedroom is on the second floor." He glanced back at the six of them—five snarling cats and one angry squirrel. "Look, guys—I know what he did—"
"What you all did," Lee, the snow leopard Changed, growled.
"—um, yeah. But all I'm saying is…no fatalities, okay? Two wrongs don't make a right."
Tiffany, the tigress, put a handpaw on his shoulder. "James, it's all right. We're not going to kill the bastard."
"Much as we'd like to," Lee muttered. Her ears were flat against her skull, and her eyes gleamed dangerously.
"He needs to be around to face justice," Tiffany continued. "We're all clear on that, riiiight?" She drew out the last word as she looked at the rest of them, in a way that brooked no argument. They all echoed the word, "Right," though Lee's assent was more than a little reluctant.
"So no little 'accidents' with claws and teeth."
"We get it already," Lee said through clenched fangs. "Let's get on with it!"
"Like, chill out with the, like, negative vibes, stripey-babe," Dan, the surfer-turned-Cheshire-housecat Changed said, his ears perking forward. "You're, like, totally harshing my mellow here."
"Whatever that means," Lee muttered, trying to ignore the way Dan immediately grinned at her. Leo was pretty sure Dan had feelings of some kind toward Lee but was still trying to work out the best approach. Given that his own advances in that direction had been met with the threat of an impromptu veterinary procedure, Leo wished Dan luck—he was going to need it.
"All right, then let's do it." Tiffany and James led the way up the stairs.
Leo followed behind the others. The lion-Changed was slumping a little. If he was honest with himself, he supposed that once the adrenaline had worn off he wasn't really good for much. Some lion he was. "I'm a lover, not a fighter," he mumbled.
"Huh?" Lee said.
Glad it was hard to see a blush under fur, Leo responded, "Uh…nothing."
At the top of the stairs, Tiffany braced herself to kick in a fancy, mahogony-finished door—but James held up a hand to stop her. He reached down and tried the knob, and it swung open at a push. Tiffany led the way into the luxurious apportment, looking almost resentful she hadn't gotten to kick the door in.
Leo looked around. The room was big and spacious, with deep pile carpet and expensive furniture. There were a couple of doors, and a balcony entrance visible at the far end of the room. One corner was occupied by an unmade queen-sized bed. A lump under the disheveled comforter seemed to be shivering.
Tiffany strode over and yanked the bedclothes away…to reveal a cougar-Changed woman alone in the bed, staring up with wide, terrified eyes. "Well son of a…" Tiffany muttered. "This is a new low, even for Melton. Don't worry, honey, nobody's going to hurt you now." She nodded to the study, then the rest of the house. "Search the place. He can't have gotten far."
"Got it." James went through one of the adjoining doors, and the others headed back to the hallway.
Leo started to follow, then stopped. Something about the woman in the bed held his attention. He moved over for a closer look, but was stopped by Tiffany glowering at him. "I don't think there's anything you can do here, Leo. This one's already been traumatized enough."
Leo shook his head. "There's something…just let me close enough to smell her."
Tiffany rolled her eyes. "We're only part cat, you know. We don't have to sniff each other's butts."
Leo sighed. "Tiff, I'm not a complete jerk. I'm also the only one who met Melton in person."
Tiffany's eyes narrowed. "What are you saying?" But she let Leo come close enough to get a good whiff.
Leo's sensitive nostril picked up the scent—and underneath the musky odor of female cougar, and the tang of fear, was a scent Leo had never forgotten. He looked up. "I think this is Melton."
Tiffany gaped. "What?"
Then James came back, holding a portrait in a desk frame. "Tiff, I found this in the study. I think you need to see it."
Tiffany spun to face him. "What?"
"I've seen this picture a hundred times, Melton keeps it right on the edge of his desk. It's him with Representative Sandrick at a fundraising dinner." He slowly turned the picture around to show the familiar badger…arm in arm with an attractive brown-haired woman.
"Did someone photoshop it?" Tiffany asked.
"No, it's ROB. The RDF," Leo said.
"Look, if you hadn't mixed with any TG Changed before, uh, y'know, you might not have heard," Leo said. "But ever since a year or so back, whenever you, uh, reverse polarity in your Change, the 'Random Omnipotent Being' searches and replaces all your records in the world with a new face and name. Driver's license, newspaper clippings, everything."
"So Melton's turned into a woman?" Case asked.
Tiffany looked from the photo to the cougress, who was still curled up and whimpering on the bed. The woman in bed might have fur and a muzzle now, but her hair was the same. Tiffany caught James's eye, and nodded toward the bed. "A woman…and a cougar." James stared, his mouth making an "O" shape.
"See if you can find anything that would have had his name on it. Certificates, diplomas, whatever," Leo suggested. "We should at least know what to call her." James nodded and slipped back into the study.
Tiffany sighed. "I'll go get the others."
"You…you bitch!" Lee growled. "How could you have done this to us?" She was standing over the bed with her claws unsheathed, glowering at the cougar-woman who was still lying there. All the other captives except Clarisse, Tim, and Jack (who were still down in the pen with the paramedics) had also gathered in the bedroom.
"Um, technically, Lee, she—he—wasn't a 'bitch' yet when he…did…" Leo trailed off as Lee turned her gimlet eye on him.
"…I'm sorry…I'm so sorry…I didn't…I wasn't…" the cougress whimpered. She'd rolled over with her head back, exposing her neck, in a gesture of submission. "…please don't hurt me…"
"Her name is Helena," James Case said, holding up a philanthropic award certificate taken from the study wall. "That's what every article, reference, license…anything I can find that had his name in it says now."
"He must have had an out-of-phase Change, just recently," Leo said. "That's why he wasn't in the observation booth the last few days."
"Well, this is awkward," said Carl. The skunk-Changed had helped himself to one of the cigars in the humidor on Melton's desk, and it was an open question whether the tobacco smoke was any improvement over his natural aroma. "What do we do with her now?"
"Arrrrgh," Lee growled. "The trial will be enough of a media circus already without…this." She waved a hand angrily in the direction of the bed. Helena whimpered and flinched away.
"Watch the claws, Lee," Tiffany said calmly.
"It'll be all over the papers!" Lee continued. "'Changed versus Changed'. No matter who wins, the Changed as a whole get a big black eye."
"Who says she has to go to trial?"
Everyone turned to look at the Changed who had spoken. Trixie was a fox, in more ways than one. The vixen's tail swished nervously at the attention. "What are you saying, Trix?" Lee asked.
"Well…James, where's that secret bunker you were telling us about? The one where she—he… The one where Melton would have put us if there'd been a raid?"
"Um," James said. "I'm not sure what you're thinking, but—"
"Look, it's simple. When we got out, 'he' fled the country. Well, okay, they'll know from public photos he's a she now, but anyway. Nobody knows where she is." Trixie's tail swished again. "When everything quiets down, we find someplace private, build us our own 'enclosure,' and have our own little one-furre zoo."
"I don't know if I can get behind this," Tiffany said. "Like James said, two wrongs—"
Lee turned on her. "What gives you any right to judge us?" she snarled. "We've been here for months. You joined us, what, two weeks ago? Little miss, 'Oooh, we must escape! It is our duty!'"
Tiffany held her hands up and backed away. "Hey, take it easy, Lee, I'm just saying—"
"Of course, it could be a problem if anyone found out," Trixie continued. "We'd have to be sure nobody talked."
All heads turned toward one particular furre. "What're you all looking at me for?" Amy squeaked. The squirrel-Changed had a reputation as an insatiable gossip-monger. "All right, all right, I promise, I wouldn't say a word!" She made a zipping motion across her muzzle.
"What about you, Tiff?" Lee said, her tone still slightly dangerous.
Tiffany waved her hands. "Fine. Look. As long as you don't, y'know, torture her or anything, I'll keep quiet. Like you say, it's not my place."
"And what about you, James?" Lee said. "You know, we could still press charges against you for aiding and abetting."
James shook his head. "You don't have to threaten me. My sister's one of you. I'm in."
Leo looked at the furre cowering pathetically on the bed and felt…he wasn't sure what he felt. He knew he should hate her for keeping him and the others prisoner for so long. If anyone had a right to be mad, he did—he'd been the first of Melton's little "acquisitions," and had been kept here for over a year. But it was so hard to connect this quivering cougress with the smarmy young man who'd had him penned up. "Just don't…hurt her."
Lee eyed him. "Oh, what's this? Mister Sleeparound has a new girlfriend?"
"No! Of course not!" Leo growled. "I just…well, he never hurt us. He held us prisoner, but at least he never hurt us. I don't want us to be worse than him. Her. Whatever."
Consuela, the dark-grey melanistic jaguar Changed who had been silent up until now, nodded. "I agree. We do to her…what was done to us. No more. No less."
"Any objections?" Lee looked around. "No? I guess it's decided, then. James, show us where the bunker is. The rest of you, gather up some food. Maybe find where he keeps his—she keeps her—oh, just find where the steaks they fed us with are. Hope she likes 'em rare!"
"Lee…" Tiffany said warningly.
"Oh, all right, all right." Lee rolled her eyes. "You can cook them first. And find some handcuffs or something."
"You won't have to do that," Helena Melton said quietly. "I'll go to the bunker. I won't resist."
Lee glanced at her. "All right, good. Let's get a move on, people. Hup hup hup!"
TWO MONTHS LATER
Helena was crying. Of course, she cried most days. She had trouble stopping.
It wasn't that she was imprisoned. She knew this was what she deserved—it was better than what she deserved. Kidnapping carried a mandatory life sentence, and at least this large enclosure was better than a tiny shut-in cell. At least here she could feel the sunlight on her skin, taste the rain when it fell. She was grateful for that.
Helena was crying for the person she had become—and for the person she had been.
Hugh Melton was the scion of a wealthy family. He had been raised mostly by servants and boarding schools, because his family cared more about money than about raising children. The parental affection he'd lacked had left a hole he was forever trying to fill.
Then his parents had died in a tragic plane crash, and the hole had settled, solidified. Hollow inside, he had turned to a search for beauty in all its forms. Paintings, cars, exotic animals…anything he thought was absolutely gorgeous, he absolutely acquired. The animals came closest, especially the big cats. So graceful in their movement, so sleek and powerful in form. But even that wasn't enough. Something was still missing.
He hadn't even realized what it was until one day, he'd heard from a friend of a friend about a different kind of animal. It was a mystery where the man had even gotten the glasses, but when he looked through them he was able to see that some people were…animals, under the skin. Put the glasses on, and that man was actually a lion that walked on two legs!
And so he did his research, made his connections, and arranged for a new, special enclosure at one of his mansions. He asked around, hired the sort of guards who would not ask questions and would help him with kidnappings. Then he began to fill the enclosure.
Hugh had known the furres he caught weren't happy about being penned, of course. But what zoo animal was? He'd captured them from the wild, brought them back to his enclosure, and kept them penned up in their natural state so he could watch and listen. Oh, sure, they talked like people, and acted like people, but he'd managed to convince himself they were not people—not really. They were animals.
They were Hugh's animals, and he took good care of them.
All that had changed one day when Hugh had gotten a bad flu. He hadn't thought much of it—he'd just stayed in bed, drunk plenty of fluids, the way you did for a flu. But just when he'd thought he was over it, he'd woken up to find his fingers curling into claws and fur sprouting all over his body. And the…other changes…
And when she had been able to think clearly, for the first time, Helena had been so horrified by the knowledge of what she had done that she hadn't been able to leave her bedroom. She had still been there when the escaping Changed had found her.
At first she'd been scared of what they might do, but she had been glad—even relieved—to go along with them when they plotted to secretly imprison her. And even though she knew several ways she could have gotten out of the bunker, Helena had not tried to escape. Her crimes had been horrific, and she was so happy to be punished as she deserved.
She couldn't understand how she could have been such a terrible person for all that time and not even known it. It was as if, when she had Changed, her dormant conscience had been switched on. She was having trouble even remembering what it felt like to want the things Hugh had wanted.
It was tempting to believe that it was all a mistake, that the "Random Omnipotent Being" had shovelled someone else's memories into her head when they turned her into a cougar-woman. But that would just be running away from it. She couldn't pretend Hugh had been someone else. She had to take responsibility for her—or his—own actions.
And so she cried.
Leo was on duty in the observation shed, along with Lee. They always kept someone there, "just in case she tries to escape." So far, there had been no signs that Helena had even contemplated escape, but it had become something of a tradition—as well as a nice quiet place to read, or think, or clip your claws, or whatever. Nobody would disturb you if you were on "guard duty."
Except possibly the other guard.
Leo sighed, and put down the binoculars—the same binoculars Hugh had used to watch them. "She's crying."
"So what? Does it all the time," Lee said, not looking up from the iPhone on which she was reading an e-book. "Nothing to get worked up over." She tapped the screen with a paw pad. "She damn well ought to be crying, what she put us through."
"I've…been thinking," Leo said, drumming his fingers on the shelf where the binoculars rested. "About how we're treating her. We're supposed to be doing the same thing to her as he did to us, right?" The Changed had gotten used to the weirdness of using two different pronouns in the same sentence about the same person. It was better than stumbling over them all the time.
"Yeah, so?" Lee said.
"The thing is, we're not. Not exactly. He put us together in the same pen. All eleven of us. So we could at least talk, socialize…"
"…have sex," Lee added helpfully.
Leo rolled his eyes. "You're never going to let up, are you? All right, fine, that too. The point is, she's in solitary right now. And that's not healthy."
Lee put her iPhone down. "So, what do you you want? Do we go out and kidnap some other furre so she can have someone to talk to?"
"Of course not!" Leo growled. "But…we could go in and talk to her ourselves. Keep her company."
Lee snorted. "You want to do that, be my guest. Hell, you can sleep with her for all I care. But I'm not going anywhere near the bitch."
"Fine." Leo went over to the door, flipping a panel of switches on the wall as he did so.
"Hey, what're you—" Lee began.
"Microphones and cameras off while I'm in there," Leo said. He smirked. "I'm sure if you're okay with me sleeping with her, you wouldn't mind giving us a little privacy."
"I didn't mean—" Lee shrugged. "Oh, to hell with it. As long as you don't help her escape or something, I don't care."
"Wouldn't dream of it." Lee left the observation booth, pulling his shirt off over his head as he clattered down the stairs.
Helena smelled him before she saw him, even through her tears. The musky aroma of male lion was hard to miss. She looked up, and there he was. Leo, her first "specimen." He was completely naked, just as she was—and there was no mistaking just how magnificent a specimen he was. But why was he here? She choked off a sob. "What—you—?"
"Hello, Helena." Leo sat down on a rock, across from her.
Helena blinked at him, then stared. He was as naked as he had been all those months she'd watched him through cameras and binoculars. "But you're…?" Her eyes flicked to below his waist—then she looked away, embarrassed.
Leo didn't seem to notice. "Didn't think it'd be fair if I had clothes and you didn't." He shrugged. "Besides, I'm really more comfortable without them now."
"Oh." She looked down. He was so handsome, Leo was. That had been why Hugh had wanted him in the first place, but Helena had a new appreciation for that tawny fur-covered body now. And he was being so kind to her—and here she'd been responsible for imprisoning him…it was enough to make her start to cry again.
"Hey. Hey, let's not have that." Leo reached out, put a hand on her knee. "No crying while I'm here, okay?"
She looked back up at him, trying to stop. "I'm sorry. I just…I feel so guilty. I'm so sorry for what I did."
"I believe you. But you'll have a hard time convincing some of the others of that," Leo said.
Helena sighed. It wasn't anything she hadn't thought about dozens of times already. "I know. They'll just think I'm sorry because I got caught, or because I Changed myself, but it's not like that." She shook her head. "I'm not the same person anymore. I'd never do something like that now, and not just because I am Changed. My mind Changed too. But…since I did it in my old state of mind, I have to pay for it now."
"No reason you should be alone all the time, though." Leo shrugged. "I'm here to listen."
"Just to listen?" Helena raised an eyebrow. "Remember, I watched you." She remembered all the times Leo and one of the women from the enclosure had copulated…and she (he) had watched on hidden camera. She felt the blood rush to her face as she realized she wasn't sure whether she was worried…or hopeful.
Leo raised his hand-paws. "I know, I know. I have a reputation. But Stockholm Syndrome doesn't go that far." He shrugged. "I just get tired of seeing you sitting here crying by yourself. They—we may be punishing you, but it's not right to try to drive you crazy."
Slowly, and despite herself, Helena smiled. "Thank you."
"So…it's been a while," Leo said. "I guess last time I talked to you, you'd just 'bagged' me, and were explaining how life was going to be in the enclosure."
"God, I was so insane," Helena moaned. "I honestly thought you'd be happy there. I was already building my own little castle in my head."
Leo shrugged. "I guess it wasn't really so bad. Especially once I had company. At least you served good steaks."
"Glad you liked them." Helena chuckled. "I've noticed you kept the same supplier. Though I can't say I ever expected to be eating them with my hands."
"Sorry," Leo said.
Helena shook her head. "Don't be. It's just—"
"—what you deserve, yes." Leo sighed. "Damn it, sometimes people shouldn't have to get 'what they deserve.' If we all got 'what we deserve,' we'd probably be dead."
"I'm fine with it. Really," Helena said. "I'd rather be here than in jail. At least here I'm not shut in with strangers." She shivered at the thought. "I'd rather be held by people I know. At least that way I know they care, even if it's just to hate me."
Leo got up and paced. "I'll try to get you some books or something. I still have some of the paperbacks Case snuck in for us—they can't object to those."
"Why are you being so…nice?" Helena asked, exasperated. "Leo, I kidnapped you. I put you, naked, in a big bowl where I could watch you through binoculars. I took your dignity. I spied on you having sex! How can you possibly not hate me?"
Leo stopped pacing, with his back to her. "I did hate you—until I saw the 'new' you. Then—well, I think you've been punished a lot already." He turned, spreading his arms. "So here I am, to try to make your stay a little less lonely."
And before she even knew what she was doing, Helena was on her feet, hugging Leo, and crying into his shoulder. "Thank you," she managed between sobs. "I—it's more than I deserve."
After a moment's hesitation, Leo put his arms around her and patted her on the back. "It's all right," he said gently. "It's all right."
Leo sat in the enclosure, watching Helena. She still moved with the skittishness of someone not quite used to her own new body, to the way people reacted to her, even though it had been a couple of months since her Change. Of course, she hadn't had the chance to be around people much since then, to adjust to the reactions of and to society.
She was actually really cute. It was a hell of a thing to say about someone who'd used to be the rich man who had held you captive, Leo had to admit. But she was. He could still see the vaguest hint of Hugh's features in her—mostly the hair, which was the same color and parted the same way even if it was longer now. But what had simply looked greasy on Hugh now made Helena…well, adorable.
And Leo had to admit…he did want to sleep with her, and that was really a hell of a thing. He had even fantasized about slipping down into the enclosure, seizing her by the shoulders, and kissing her. She would be scared at first, maybe struggle some, then—tamed by his kiss—surrender herself to him…
But those were just fantasies, and they'd evaporated the moment he actually met her. She was just so scared and skittish, she appealed to some dormant lion instinct. "The leader must protect his pride," and all that. But was she part of his pride? Would she like to be? his traitorous libido prompted him. It would be so easy…
The thing was, Leo knew it would be easy. Helena was so vulnerable, so needy, that it would be simple to maneuver her into that cave and onto her back. And she'd be thanking him all the while, would be so grateful that he could still love her, and…
…And for the first time in his life, Leo didn't want to take advantage of someone that way.
"So," Helena said. "Tell me about what's going on outside?"
"Are you crazy? Is that your problem?" Lee fumed. She was stalking back and forth in the mansion's salon, where the ten Changed who had stayed took to meeting in the evenings.
Leo was sitting calmly on a sofa. "I don't see what you're worried about. You said yourself—"
Lee stopped in mid-stride and glowered at Leo. "I didn't expect you to actually do it!" she growled.
Leo sighed. "I'm not sleeping with her, okay?"
"You're spending an awful lot of time with her these last few days, though."
Leo grinned. "What's the matter, Lee? Jealous? Maybe wanna reconsider what you said when I asked you on a date? I'm still available, you know."
"Oh, for—" Lee threw up her hands. "I just don't know. You have the cameras and mics off so often, we might as well not have them on at all."
"You know, I think we shouldn't have them on at all," Leo said. "At least, anything except the main camera on the enclosure. Let her have some privacy."
"He didn't let us have any," Carl said.
"She's not him anymore, okay?" Leo shouted. He growled in frustration, and lowered his voice again. "Look, what about those bank account numbers she gave us? The hidden offshore accounts? They checked out, right?"
Trixie looked up from her laptop. "They did. There's about seventy million dollars total. That'll help a lot in getting the resort off the ground."
"And what does she want in return? Freedom?" Lee glowered.
"She didn't want anything. You can ask her." Leo glowered back. "She just gave them right up when I told her about the project. She's…really sorry, and wants to make amends."
Lee snorted. "Hmph."
"Look, if anyone should be pissed at her, I should—I've been here longest," Leo said. "But the Change…well, it changed her. In more ways than one. She's sad, confused, and kinda lonely. I think she deserves a fresh start."
"I don't know about a fresh start," Tim said, squeezing the hand of his wife and fellow bighorn sheep-Changed Clarisse. After being imprisoned for her entire pregnancy, she had given birth to a healthy lamb, who was sleeping in a crib upstairs even now. "But maybe we should think about lightening up a little. After all, she didn't have to give us those numbers."
Clarisse nodded. "You know I've never been comfortable with holding her captive like that in the first place."
"But we're not going to just pardon her," Jack, a grey wolf-Changed paramedic, said. "She's going to have to earn our trust."
Consuela spoke up—startling everyone, as usual. "Then we should let her try. She is one of us now."
"All right, all right, we can talk to her," Lee grumbled. "But I'm not changing my mind."
The next day, Leo was waiting for Lee when she showed up at the door to the enclosure. "Clothes off," he said.
Lee stared at him in disbelief. "What? Just because you take them off doesn't mean—"
"If she doesn't get to wear them, we shouldn't either. Fair is fair." Leo shrugged. "Besides, it won't be anything she hasn't already seen."
"Fine." Lee pulled off her dress and slid off her bra and panties. Like Leo, she had lost a lot of modesty issues in the months she had been imprisoned naked. It was simply an annoyance to her—and, perhaps, if she was honest with herself, maybe she had wanted the psychological advantage of having clothes to Helena's nudity.
Lee stalked through the enclosure door. As Leo started to follow, she turned on him. "You. Stay out."
"You get your private time with her. This is mine." At Leo's worried look, she softened slightly and added, "Relax, I'm not going to bite her head off. But I don't need a chaperone either."
Leo clearly didn't like it, but he nodded reluctantly, stepped out, and shut the door. Lee turned and stomped the rest of the way into the enclosure.
She found Helena sitting on a rock with a book—and recognized the tattered copy of The Island of Doctor Moreau that had been passed from prisoner to prisoner until it was practically falling apart. "Learning anything?" Lee asked.
Helena looked up. "Oh." She put the book aside. "Hi."
Lee sat down. "Hi." She glowered. "So. Here we are."
"You're very pretty," Helena said, shyly.
Lee blinked, taken aback by the compliment. "Er…thank you." She supposed others would think of her as pretty. But she never thought much about it, since her personality was such that no potential suitor would make it past first impressions.
"And…you used to be a man, too?" Helena asked. "How did you cope?"
"Well, it was easier before someone stuck me in their private zoo," Lee said, rallying.
Helena jerked as if struck. "I'm sorry. I know I deserved that."
"That and more," Lee growled, warming to her subject. "What the hell were you thinking? Were you thinking at all?"
"That's just it, I don't know!" Helena cried. "When I woke up like this, I was horrified by what I'd done. I guess…I guess I should have come right down and set you all free that instant, but I was so shaken I couldn't leave my room."
"So you seriously expect us to believe that you suddenly just grew a conscience?" Lee said. "That seems like kind of a stretch."
"Stretch or not, it's true. What can I do to make you believe me?"
Lee opened her mouth, then frowned. If she was honest with herself… "I…don't know," Lee admitted. "I don't know if there is anything you could do."
Helena sighed. "Then what's the point?"
"I don't know if there is a point," Lee said. "But Leo wanted me to talk to you, so here I am. So what would you like to talk about?"
"I don't know," Helena said. "Except…you really used to be a man? Like I did?"
Lee rolled her eyes, and her ears flattened in annoyance. "Everyone keeps asking me that," she growled. "Yes. Yes, I damn well did used to be a man. I liked beer, I fixed cars, I lived in a state of perpetual three-day stubble. And now look at me."
"You really are gorgeous, you know," Helena said in a small voice. "That's why he…why I wanted you, I guess. I know I thought of you all as animals back in those days, but…if I'd had the nerve, I might have…well, probably best all around that I didn't." She stopped, probably conscious she only was digging herself in deeper.
But it was difficult to take offense. As Leo had said, it was just hard to connect this timid girl with the man who'd held them prisoner—even when she outright admitted to it. "Yeah," Lee said. "It probably is." She sighed. "But you're not so bad-looking yourself, now."
Helena looked down. "Thank you."
Lee threw up her hands. "Oh, I give up. What are we supposed to do with you?"
Helena shook her head. "I'm not…asking you to do anything with me. I belong in here."
"Oh, the hell you do." Lee snorted. "It's that damned Stockholm Syndrome again. You think I don't know it when I see it?"
"No, it's not that. Or at least, not entirely." She looked down. "It's what I deserve."
Something in Helena's submissiveness made Lee angry again. "Who are you to decide what you deserve? Maybe we should let the courts handle that, huh?"
Helena nodded. "That's up to you, but I'd just end up in jail anyway." She shrugged. "At least it's peaceful here."
Lee facepalmed. "We're supposed to be punishing you, not stuck with you."
Helena looked like she might start crying again. "I'm sorry…I don't mean to be a burden, but…I don't have anywhere else to go."
"And you pretty clearly want to be punished for your old self's keeping your zoo," Lee said. "Which means in some kind of a twisted way, even with us free and you our prisoner, we're still giving you what you want."
"I'm sorry!" And Helena did burst into tears. "I didn't want any of this…"
Careful to keep her claws sheathed, Lee hauled off and slapped her. SMACK! Helena was so startled she forgot to cry.
"Stop with your damned blubbering," Lee growled. "You're stronger than that! You're one of us now, and the only reason you're crying is you're letting yourself. Stop hiding behind your tears." She turned on her heel and stomped out again. The last thing she saw before the door closed was Helena standing there watching her, wide-eyed, with a hand still held to her face where Lee had slapped her.
As the days passed, Leo kept up his visits to Helena. She gradually stopped crying all the time and began to lose some of her timidity. A few of the others made visits, too. Trixie wanted to quiz her about the offshore accounts, and whether there had been any other hidey-hole accounts she had forgotten. Trixie reported that everything Helena had given her checked out down to the last detail.
Jack visited her on occasion to check on her health. To Leo's surprise, even Dan stopped by a time or two. "To tell her to, like, mellow out, dude," Dan explained when Leo asked. "You all, like, need to take a chill pill. She's, like, a little messed up, but could be, like, a totally bodacious babe if she were, like, more mellow."
"Um, yeah," Leo said. "Whatever you say."
After a little hesitation, Amy made one tentative visit to Helena—then started visiting her almost every day. Leo glanced down from the observation shed during one of the visits and saw them sitting close together. Amy was braiding Helena's hair, and they were talking with lots of animated gestures—or at least, Amy was talking. Helena seemed to be listening, with a slightly poleaxed look—an expression typical of anyone Amy managed to corner for more than a minute or two. "I guess I don't need to worry about keeping her up on what's going on in the outside world anymore," Leo muttered. "But God, I hope this isn't cruel and unusual punishment."
And Consuela made one visit.
The enclosure door opened, and Consuela slipped in like a ghost. Before Helena had even quite realized she was there, Consuela was purring in her right ear, "Hola, mi hermana."
Helena started. "Con…suela?"
"Si," Consuela said into her left ear. "Yes, it is me."
She stalked slowly around Helena, tail swishing interestedly, filling the air with her distinctive scent. Her body was tense and poised, and her expression was thoughtful, a little distant…it was the look of a cat stalking her prey. Helena swallowed, her throat suddenly gone dry.
"So, little sister, first you imprison us, then you join us. What are we to make of you?" Consuela asked, flexing her claws.
Helena shivered. "Whatever you want, I guess."
She felt Consuela's claws trace lightly down her back. "Is that so? But what about what you want? Why is that not so important?"
"Because I don't deserve—ow!" Helena tried to jerk away as Consuela nibbled on her shoulder, but Consuela held her by the arms.
"That is not the right answer," Consuela whispered, breathing into her right ear again. "For what you want is to be punished, no es asi? You want to be debased, you want to do penance so you can forgive yourself."
Helena didn't answer, didn't move, didn't even breathe. She'd always known there was something different about Consuela—a South American exchange student at an agricultural college in Texas. Her file said she'd come from a rural area where the people were hunters. But being a South American melanistic jaguar Changed made her exotic, and Hugh Melton had been all about exotic.
Consuela spat on the ground, circling her again. "Tchah! That is not what you need."
Helena shivered. "Then…what do I need?"
"You need to be…" Consuela considered a moment as she moved behind Helena again. "…needed. Yes, that is what you have always needed, isn't it? The hole no one could ever fill."
"I guess…you may be right," Helena said nervously. She felt Consuela's tongue rasp against her shoulder as the jaguar groomed her fur for a moment.
"Do not worry, mi hermana," Consuela said. "If you are strong enough, there is one here who needs you. Can you be strong?" Helena wasn't sure whether the purring voice held an undertone of menace or it was just her imagination.
"I—I can try."
"Bueno." Consuela was in front of her again, moving with a liquid grace that was more than merely feline. "You have not run away from me yet, so perhaps you are stronger than you know."
"Th-thank you. I think," Helena said. She felt Consuela groom her other shoulder—then when she turned her head, Consuela was gone. A few moments later, the enclosure door opened and shut so a shadow could slip out.
"Leo? Penny for your thoughts?"
Leo was sitting on one of the rocks in Helena's enclosure. The question came from Helena, who was sitting next to him. Leaning against him, in fact, with his arm around her shoulder. Leo wasn't quite sure how that had happened, and he wasn't sure what to do next, either.
With other girls, he simply took the initiative…and then it was the morning after. They were simple one-night stands—even the girls he'd slept with in Melton's pen knew it was just for fun and no more than that. At least, the ones who let him.
It had mostly been Consuela; she seemed to share an outlook on sex similar to his own and had no objection to coupling with him as often as he wanted. Amy—perhaps led on by failure to understand Consuela's cool sarcasm—thought that meant they were going steady, but they both knew that wasn't the case.
But sometimes Leo still thought Consuela knew him better than he knew himself. Consuela knew a lot of things.
"Leo? Penny? Thoughts?"
"Oh…sorry." Leo hauled his mind back to the moment. "I was just thinking about how pretty you are, and how lucky I am to be here with you."
Helena smiled, running a hand through his mane. "That's really sweet, Leo. I was just thinking the same thing about you. Well…handsome instead of pretty, but still."
"Helena…" Leo said. "You know me. You watched me. You know I, um…"
"Slept with every woman you could?" Helena said. "Yeah."
"Then why are you still…" He trailed off and looked down at her.
"Because I know you," Helena said simply. "Because I watched you. I know how you come on to women when all you want is quick sex. Which…you haven't been doing with me."
"Oh," Leo said.
Helena was quiet for a moment. Then she said. "But if you wanted quick sex, I would have let you."
Leo didn't know what to say to that, so he decided to go with the truth. "I know."
"Then why didn't you?"
Leo shook his head, brushing Helena's face with his mane. "It just…it wouldn't have been right."
"It was right for you to do it with Consuela."
"Consuela's more…sure in herself." Leo groped for how to explain it. It was hard to put into words. "She's at home in her Change, in her new body. And she felt the same way about it as me. No attachments, no commitments."
"With you…" Leo frowned. "You only just Changed. You haven't even learned that much about being a cougar yet, let alone a woman. And…I didn't want to hurt you."
"Why are you that way about sex?" Helena asked. "Amy says you'll sleep with anything that stands still long enough to let you. I think that's an exaggeration…"
Leo chuckled. "Well…I guess it began with my Change, three years or so ago. I was just a punk kid—raging hormones. And being a lion didn't help that." He ran a hand through his mane, as he had done so many times since the Change had grown it. "I was so confused when nobody saw the fur, but everybody did see me as a lot more handsome than I had been. Including the chi—ah, the girls." He shrugged, carefully so as not to displace Helena. "I was so much in demand, I guess I sort of felt it was…expected of me. All the girls practically threw themselves at me for one-night stands…and it's like potato chips. Once you start, you can't stop."
"But you stopped with me," Helena mused.
"You're…" Leo tried to find the right word, then gave up. "Different, I guess." He reached down to stroke her hair. "Vulnerable. I dunno. Maybe it's really weird to care about someone who used to…be who you were…but I do."
"I'm a different person now, in all the ways that matter," Helena said. "I have to believe that, or I might start crying again."
"Too bad some of the others don't believe it yet," Leo said.
"There's always tomorrow. Leo?"
"Hmm?" Leo turned his head to look at her—just as she turned hers up, and their muzzles met in as close as Changed lips could come to a kiss. "Oh," Leo said afterward.
"Are you sure the cameras are off?" Helena murmured.
"Positive," Leo said.
"Then will you carry me to my cave?"
Leo bent down and gently gathered Helena into his arms. "I'd be happy to."
Weeks passed, and then months. Life settled into a routine at the Melton mansion. "Guard duty" on Helena's enclosure was largely abandoned—with all the daily visitors, and Helena's assurances she would not try to escape, there was no longer any need. The renovaters broke up the enclosure where the Eleven had been kept, and began to build cottages in its place. More swimming pools were put in, and concessions, restrooms, and an arcade. At Jack's suggestion, the foundation was also laid for a small furry medicine clinic, with plenty of room left for it to expand.
The only place the renovaters were not allowed was the area of the grounds containing Helena's enclosure. Even so, the enclosure did not escape some "renovation" of its own. The cave got new mattresses, a privacy curtain, and a bookshelf. And eventually—after some argument—a plate and cutlery, and a chest of drawers with clothing in it. Nothing fancy, but Leo thought Helena should at least rate shorts and a T-shirt.
He also brought some feminine hygiene products…but as it turned out, Helena didn't need those for too long.
One evening, as the ten Changed gathered in the salon, Leo dropped the bombshell.
"Leo, you idiot, why didn't you use protection?" Lee growled.
"Well, I didn't use it all the while we were penned up, and it didn't cause any problems," Leo said.
"But at least then you were smart enough to do it at the right time of the month," Lee growled. "Or you got damned lucky, I don't know which. Why the hell did you have to sleep with her in the first place? Couldn't stand to have yet another woman get away from you?"
Leo mumbled something.
"What was that?" Lee asked suspiciously.
Leo sighed. "I said, 'I love her.' After her, there won't ever be another."
Lee facepalmed. "What? Oh, that's just great, Leo. Of all the women you could fall for, you have to fall for the one who held us all prisoner for months! What next? Why don't we maybe clone Hitler, and let him get Changed? Would you boink that?"
"Like, you do realize, like, Godwin's Law means this, like, argument is, like, mondo finito, right?" Dan put in.
Lee stared at Dan. "What the hell did you just say?"
"The fact remains, he's right," Jack said. "Leo, I mean. I've checked Helena out. She is pregnant."
Consuela, who had been smiling ever since Leo had announced the pregnancy, now grinned broadly. "I do not want to turn this into Tiffany's television show, but I am afraid…I too have a confession to make." She glanced at Tim and Clarisse. "Your little Christine? She is going to have dos playmates next year, not uno." She patted her own slightly rounded belly.
Leo stared at Consuela, who only grinned all the wider.
After staring slack-jawed for a moment, Lee also began to grin, in the manner of a kid who'd just discovered that Christmas really did come twice this year and the other time was right now. "Well how about that, Leo? It appears your wild oats have finally come home to roost."
Leo did the only thing he could. He fainted.
Lee sniffed. "'King of the beasts', my ass."
"But that's great news," Helena said, as soon as Leo had managed to drag himself back to his feet and down to her enclosure with the news. Although she was wearing shorts and a shirt, Leo was still in the habit of visiting naked, just because he really didn't like wearing clothing anymore when he didn't have to.
"You're not…jealous or anything?" Leo asked. He still looked more than a little stunned, himself.
Helena chuckled. "If I were going to be jealous, I would have been a long time ago. Remember who I used to be. I probably watched her being conceived, and marked it down in one of my 'animal watching' notebooks. You should find them and check." Her dry tone, Leo knew, held her distaste for the person she had been, not for him or anyone else.
"I think we burned them."
"Good riddance. Anyway…" Helena shrugged. "I'm sincerely happy for her, if she's happy about it too. I'd like to think something good came out of what I did. But what does it mean for…well, us?"
"I don't know." Leo looked down. "She isn't worried about being married. She says her people are old-fashioned about this kind of thing, but she is not. Guess that means she can't go home."
"Maybe she thinks this is her home now."
Leo nodded. "Mm. Anyway, with her share of the resort and your offshore accounts, she won't have to worry about working. And if we're all staying right here, babysitters won't be a problem."
"Have you told them about our plans yet?"
Leo shuffled his feet. "Well…um…no."
Helena cocked her head. "Why's that?"
"Well…I thought it might be more fun to…elope?" He looked up hopefully.
Helena stared. "Leo, you're not serious…"
"I hear Vegas is lovely this time of year. And there's dozens of chapels, we can take our pick."
"But…I'm a prisoner here. I can't leave, I might be arrested," Helena protested.
"Nobody knows what you look like. You weren't out in public when you Changed."
"But—the wedding license. You put my real name on that? Won't that raise flags?"
"There's more than one 'Helena Melton' in the US," Leo said. "I did a public record search and it turned up eight. Nobody can prove you aren't another one."
"Well, being with one of the furres Melton imprisoned might be a pretty big clue, don't you think?" Helena pointed out.
Leo shrugged. "Then we come up with some other name. What does it matter? It's just words on a piece of paper, anyway." He put his arms around her. "What's important is I love you and I want to spend the rest of my life with you."
Helena sighed, leaning into his embrace. "I never get tired of hearing that." She looked up at him. "But won't you get in trouble with the others for letting me out?"
Leo shrugged. "You're going to come right back, aren't you? Well, after our honeymoon and all."
Helena nodded. "I am."
"Then let's go." He reluctantly pulled back from the embrace, then offered her his arm.
Helena blinked. "What, right now?"
Leo grinned. "I'm a spur-of-the-moment kind of guy. Don't bother packing." With a quick motion he swept her off her feet. As she squealed in surprise, he carried her toward the exit.
"Hey, aren't you supposed to carry me over the threshold after we're married, and going the other way?"
Leo just grinned. "We can do that, too."
The rest of the furres were lined up on the driveway to greet them when they got back. Lee was fuming, but the others' expressions ranged from mild disapproval on the faces of Trixie and Jack to Dan's goofy grin, to Amy's gleaming eyes and eager interest, and Tim and Clarisse's knowing smiles as they held hands.
Leo helped his bride out of the cab. She was wearing an understated but expensive-looking pearl necklace and a pretty yellow dress, slit up one side, that fit her like a sheath and set off her tawny fur. Leo grinned. "Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce you to Mr. and Mrs. Leo Nelson." Tim, Clarisse, Amy, and Dan applauded, but subsided when Lee glared at them.
"You. Inside. Now," she growled.
"We're going, we're going." Leo grinned. "But if you'll excuse me, first I need to carry my wife across our threshold, and then move my things down into the enclosure."
Lee stared. "Move your…what?"
"You don't think I'm going to live apart from my wife, do you? If she can't move out, I'm moving in."
"Oh, for crying out—who said you could go and get married?" Lee sputtered.
Leo's grin broadened. "Nobody did. That's why they call it 'eloping.' When a man and a woman of legal age decide they want to share their lives with each other, the law of the land says they can get married. Ta-dah!" He held up a hand to show off his ring. "Oh, and might I add? My beautiful blushing bride had every opportunity to get lost in Vegas and not come back. But look, here she is, happily returning to her cell. What do you make of that, huh?"
"He's right, Lee," Jack said. "I think it's time we ditched the pretense that she's some kind of prisoner here, and let her move into the mansion and join the rest of us. I'm sure not having a baby of any kind be born in an animal pen." He grinned, tongue lolling from lupine jaw. "That's why we busted out in the first place, remember?"
"But if her identity gets out—" Lee began.
"So we get her a new one." Tim said. "We've got millions of dollars, how much is it going to cost to make a fake paper trail?"
Lee threw up her hands. "All right, all right. I guess that means we're an even dozen now, counting Tiff. But don't expect me to like her."
Leo leaned in to kiss Lee on the cheek. "Thanks, Lee. You're tops."
"Yeah, well, we're not done with you yet." Lee glowered at Helena. "Just because you've married one of us doesn't mean you're off the hook. If this is just some way to get some of your money back by marrying it…"
Helena raised her hands. "Lee, I don't want that money back. Any money. I'm happy to let my husband deal with it." She grinned. "'My husband'. It still sounds so weird to say that." This confession earned her another hug from the grinning lion in question.
Lee waved a hand. "Oh, just go. Get that whole 'threshold' business done with. See me later."
Leo grinned. "You got it." And once again he swept his wife off her feet, and they tottered off up the path to the mansion's front door.
The others watched them go. "That is completely amazing," Dan said, sniffling. "Just…utterly and completely amazing. I'm so happy for them." The others slowly swivelled their heads to stare at him. "I mean, like, wow!" Dan added hastily. "Like, totally, like, awesome, and, like, bodacious! Whooo, gnarly!"
"You know, you're going to have to forgive her sometime," Tim said. "We all are. I think some of us already have." Consuela nodded her assent.
"And you have to admit, without her, none of us would be where we are now," Carl said. "Living in a mansion, about to open a resort?"
Lee sighed. "I'll…think about it, okay? Sheesh."
Jack nodded. "Then at least that's something."
Dan snapped his fingers. "Hey! Isn't it, like, time for, like, Tiff's show now? She said she, like, wanted us all to be, like, extra special totally sure we watch today's, 'cuz something, like, totally bodacious is gonna happen. Something about, like, Joey Buchanan?" He tugged at Lee's arm. "So c'mon!"
"Oh, all right. I guess it's something to do," Lee muttered.
The resulting yowl could be heard for half a mile.
- For what I've done
- I start again,
- And whatever pain may come.
- Today this ends,
- I’m forgiving what I’ve done.
- For what I've done
- —Linkin Park, "What I've Done"
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