User:Robotech Master/Romancing the Changed

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Paradise story universe


Romancing the Changed

Author: Chris Meadows
Separator stars left.png AUGUST 14, 2007 Separator stars right.png

“Laura lay back, safe in Michael’s arms, secure in the knowledge that her loneliness was over. Now that they had finally found each other, neither of them would ever be lonely again.”

Portia Henderson contemplated the monitor for a moment, then tapped the ENTER key and entered those six lovely letters every writer longs to reach: “THE END”

She sat back and regarded her work, taking a deep breath of satisfaction. Now, according to the movies, she was supposed to get all weepy, drain a miniature liquor bottle or two from the fridge, and then head down to South America to have an adventure. She snorted. Yeah, right. She was certainly no Kathleen Turner for looks, and out here in the real world there was still plenty of work left to do.

Now that Portia had finished the first draft, she could set it aside for a few days to “ripen,” then go back through it and make any necessary revisions once she could see it in a new light. Then she had to send it to the publisher, wait a few weeks, get it back with red pencil marks on every page, and revise again. Lather, rinse, repeat. Meanwhile, there were plenty of other projects that required her attention.

Portia sighed. She didn’t regret the convenience of the computer, not one little bit—but all the same, sometimes she wished for the old days of manual typewriters. It seemed to her it would feel satisfying to pull the sheet out, then rack in a new blank one and slide the carriage across to start typing. It would actually feel as though she was doing something. It always felt a little silly to start a new project with nothing more momentuous than hitting “Ctrl-N”.

But for now…new projects could wait. Maybe a tiny little liquor bottle wasn’t warranted, but some kind of a break was. Portia rose and stretched, feeling the kinks work out. She supposed she had been too long at her computer, come to think of it. She made sure to save the file, then headed out of her study to get a drink in the kitchen.

But as Portia entered the kitchen, she felt the first pang of nausea that heralded an onset of the flu. “Oh hell,” she muttered. “I hope it’s not avian flu. I’d hate to turn into a bird or something.” Chuckling at her feeble joke, she went to get a bucket ready and check herself into bed.

Separator stars left.png AUGUST 16, 2007 Separator stars right.png

Brrrrrrrt. Brrrrrrrt.

Portia’s hand reached out from under the covers and fumbled for the phone on her bedside table. After a few moments, she found it, and pulled the handset under the covers with you. “Whoever this is, I hate you and I want to die.”

The rich baritone chuckle from the other side almost made Portia forget she was sick. “I’ll try not to take that personally.”

“Hi, Keith. Bleah, I feel sick…sorry I couldn’t make the photo shoot today.”

“So am I. I know how much you like to be there.”

“Couldn’t risk infecting anyone else, even if I did feel up to getting out of bed.” Portia sighed. “It’s all right, I’ll survive.”

“How about I drop by sometime tomorrow to make up for it?” Keith asked. “If you’re feeling up to visitors, I mean.”

“Um…I don’t want to give this flu to you,” Portia said.

“That’s all right, I’ll just make sure to wash my hands a lot.” Keith chuckled. “It’s been too long since the last shoot.”

Portia considered, the desire to see Keith again warring with her incipient nausea. It wasn’t a close contest—even if Keith was the person who made her feel least like Kathleen Turner. He was the cover model for all of her romance novels, and thus epitomized the phrase “ruggedly handsome” in a way few other men could. To make matters worse, he didn’t even have a Fabio-esque ego about it. In fact, the modelling was just part-time moonlighting for him—his day job was, of all things, a librarian at the local university.

She sighed. She had a crush on him sooo bad—which was the real reasons she looked forward to the cover photography sessions for her books. But of course she wasn’t attractive. She was barely even “average.” Why would he even look at her?

(Of course, Portia wasn’t stupid. She recognized this feeling as one of the biggest clichés of the romance genre—but at the same time, clichés were only clichés because they just kept happening, right?)

Then Portia remembered Keith was still on the line, waiting for an answer. “Um…sorry. Mind wandered. Sure. Maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow morning. If not, it’ll still be nice to see you.”

“All right. I’ll drop by around ten. See you then.”

“See you.” Portia fumbled the phone back on the hook, and sighed. “I’ve had this thing for three days. I’d damned well better feel better by tomorrow.”

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August 17th dawned clear and bright, and Portia woke with a clear head for the first time in days. The nausea was gone. She actually felt good—full of energy. Which was a good thing, because she really needed to shower and clean up if she was to look what she laughably thought of as her best for Keith’s visit.

Portia was soaping between her legs when she felt something unusual—a lump right at the base of her spine. “That’s weird,” she muttered. “Aren’t the strange lumps supposed to be in my breasts?” And then, as she felt it, the lump grew longer beneath her hand. “…the hell?”

Portia tried unsuccessfully to look over her shoulder. She could actually feel the lump growing. It was like her spine was extending into a tail. That wasn’t right! Then she noticed something else. Patches of something were forming all over her skin—grey and white fuzz, like five o’clock shadow. As she watched, the patches grew larger, spread, merged into each other, and continued growing longer.

Then her fingers and toes started cramping up—and her entire lower legs spasmed. “Gah!” Portia slipped on the shower tiling and fell against the side, hitting her head. “Ow!” She tried to get to her feet, but something about her legs wasn’t working like it was supposed to. Finally she reached up and turned the water off, then crawled out of the shower and used the toilet to pull herself back up to her feet. “Whuff fappening tuh me?”

The words didn’t come out right. Something was wrong with her lips. They seemed to be…getting longer. Pushing outward into a muzzle. And something was happening to her ears! But that wasn’t possible…was it? Steadying herself on the counter, Portia looked up into the mirror.

A complete stranger looked back at her. A stranger with long white hair instead of mousy brown—but more importantly, with the face, ears, eyes, muzzle, and grey-and-white fur of a snow leopard. Portia wobbled on her feet, staring. This wasn’t happening. Peter Funt was going to jump out from behind her door and inform her she was on an episode of Candid Camera. This couldn’t be real!

But after a moment, the waves of panic subsided, replaced by something that was almost like euphoria. Is this what being in shock feels like? Portia wondered, as she continued to stare at herself.

Portia turned her head this way and that, checking out her profile. Once she was over the initial shock, she had to admit, it could be worse. She wasn’t sure why, but she seemed to look a bit slimmer now. Her breasts seemed slightly larger, and they showed no signs of the sagging that had afflicted them before. “If I weren’t furry,” she reflected, experimentally feeling out how to enunciate the words with her new muzzle, “I’d look damned good.”

There were some weird differences now, though. Her fingers were a bit shorter, and ended in claws instead of nails. Her lower legs were digitigrade—she was standing on her toes, and her heel was way up in the air. She stumbled and nearly fell over before firmly resolving not to think about it.

And of course there was that long, silky fur that covered her entire body—and the long, thick tail that was lashing agitatedly behind her. Portia reached back and tried to grab it. It took her three or four tries; the new limb almost seemed to have a mind of its own. “This is soweird.” She ran her hands along its length and shivered at registering sensations from a body part that hadn’t existed a few minutes before. “What’s happened to me?” Quite irrationally, Portia found herself wishing for a miniature liquor bottle or two. Or one not so miniature.

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In the end, Portia supposed she couldn’t stay in the bathroom forever. If nothing else, Keith was going to be coming over soon and—

“Oh God, Keith!” Portia realized. “I can’t let him see me like this!” She wobbled to the phone to call his cell, but it went straight to voicemail. “Dammit, he left his phone off again!” Portia looked down at herself and sighed. “Well, one thing’s for sure. I’m not going to answer the door naked.” She went into her bedroom and dug through her dresser for clothes that would fit. Annoyingly, none of her bras was the right size anymore—but that was all right, she had plenty of sweatshirts that were loose enough to cover everything.

Skirts were another problem, though. If she pulled the back of the waistband up to just below her tail, it pinched. Finally, Portia took an X-acto knife to one of her older, crummier skirts, making a tail slit that she could see about stitching more permanently later. As for shoes…forget about it. She wasn’t even going to try. “If I can’t go barefoot in my own home, where can I?”

As ten a.m. fast approached, Portia glanced nervously at the door. She was torn between pretending not to be home or just telling Keith he couldn’t come in because she’d taken a turn for the worse. He’d understand…wouldn’t he? But at the same time, Portia found she wanted to see him now more than ever. He, at least, was normal.

But what would he think of her?

Portia was pacing her living room when the knock finally came, and was so startled she stumbled on her unaccustomed tiptoes and nearly fell. Catching herself, she staggered over to the door and peered through the peephole. There he was, standing there in jeans and a “wife-beater” T-shirt, looking like he’d just stepped off the cover of one of her novels—with, of all things, a “get well” fruit basket tucked in the crook of one arm. Seeing the change in light behind the peephole, Keith grinned and waved.

She sighed. Well, pretending not to be home was out of the question now. She reached over to put the chain on, then opened the door, standing out of sight behind it. Oh God, I can smell his cologne. Portia almost whimpered. “Uh, hi Keith. Um…listen. My flu got worse this morning. It’s really not a good idea for you to come in right now.”

She hazarded a glance through the peephole. But Keith was just nodding, a slight smile still playing over the corners of his mouth. “I thought it might be something like that,” Keith said. “It’s hitting a lot of people this morning.”

Portia blinked. “It?”

Keith kept his voice calm and steady. “Portia, this may sound crazy, but I’m going to guess you woke up this morning and found you needed to shave a lot more than just your armpits. Am I right?”

Portia’s jaw dropped. “How did you know that?”

“It’s something that’s been happening to a lot of people at this time of year. If you let me in, I’ll explain. I promise I won’t be shocked or horrified by how you look now.”

Portia stood there for a long moment, as his words slowly sank in. Then with trembling hands she closed the door, fumbled for the chain, and opened it again, taking a deep breath and swallowing hard as it swung out of the way leaving her and Keith face to face.

Keith looked at her for a long moment, his eyes traveling from the tips of her ears down to her furry feet and back up. Then he smiled wider. “Portia, you’re gorgeous!”

“I’m a freak!” Portia protested. “I know I wasn’t much to look at even before, but now…how can I live looking like this? I belong in a zoo!”

Keith stepped inside and put the basket down, shutting the door behind him. “You’re not a freak. You’ve just got a natural fur coat. There are hundreds of thousands of people who are going through exactly the same thing, and it’s doubling every year.”

Portia blinked again. “Hundreds of thousands? That’s not possible. It would have been on the news.”

“Well, the thing is, it’s been happening very quietly.” Keith grinned. “You see, to most people you won’t look any different. Well, maybe they’ll notice you look thinner, and you’ve started bleaching your hair. But there’s this ‘reality distortion field’ in effect that makes the Changed still look human to almost everyone except other Changed.”

“Changed.” Portia could hear the capital letter. “So why can you see me?”

“I’m not really sure,” Keith said. “I guess I’m the exception that proves the rule. I started seeing furry people a couple of years ago, and after enough of them noticed I was freaking out at them when no one else was, they took me aside and explained the whole thing. I’ve been expecting to Change myself every {{separator|stars|AUGUST 17th since then, but so far no luck.” He shrugged. “Anyway, I do my part to keep an eye out for people who get sick at the right time. This year it was you.”

“’The right time’? You mean it’s on a schedule?” Portia asked, slightly hysterically.

“It has been so far. Nobody really knows why. Some people think there’s some kind of intelligence behind it, but if there is it’s not something we can communicate with any more than ants can talk to the ant farmer.”

Portia shivered. “There’s a pleasant thought.”

“Anyway.” Keith lifted the fruit basket up and put it on the table. “I didn’t have any way of knowing what you’d turn into, carnivore or herbivore, so I sort of split the difference.” He pushed a couple of oranges aside and pulled out a plastic bag of beef jerky. “I expect you’re getting pretty hungry by now.”

“After what happened to me? I couldn’t possibly—” Portia began, but was betrayed by the sound of her stomach growling. She snatched the bag out of his hand and ripped into it. The dried meat smelled amazingly good to her newly-sensitive nose, and her sharp pointed teeth tore into it with ease.

Keith slid onto a seat, backward, resting his arms on the top of the back rest and leaning forward to watch her. “It’s not true, what you said, you know,” he said after a while.

“Mwha?” Portia asked, her mouth full of shredded jerky.

“About not being much to look at,” Keith said. “I’ve always thought you were kind of pretty.”

Portia nearly choked. “You’re not serious,” she said after swallowing.

“No, really,” Keith said.

Portia blinked. As far as she could tell, he wasn’t kidding at all. He looked dead serious. “But—why didn’t you say anything?”

He shrugged. “I knew how you felt about yourself. I was…well, I guess I was afraid you’d think I just liked you for your fame.” He looked down. “Of course, now you’ll think I only like you because you’re gorgeous. Or because I’m some kind of a fur fetishist.”

“Are you?” Portia asked before she could stop herself.

“No!” Keith insisted. “I mean…I don’t think I am. I haven’t been attracted to any of the other furry girls I’ve met.” Portia gawked. He was blushing now! “But I’ve…well, I’ve always had a thing for you. I just never could work up the nerve to say so.”

“But…you could have any girl you wanted,” Portia said. “Why would you want me?”

“You’re funny and clever and good-natured and smart,” Keith said. “You’re fun to be around. And you’re…well, you.” He shrugged. “You’re still you, even under the fur.”

“Thanks, I think,” Portia said.

“I am so glad you didn’t end up turning into a man,” Keith said.

Portia stared. “Turning into what now?”

Keith smiled wryly. “It’s been known to happen. About one percent of Changed flip genders. It could happen to me next year.”

“Perish forbid,” Portia said. “I can’t even imagine you as a woman.”

“I doubt most of the ones it happens to can,” Keith said. “I guess that’s part of why I finally got around to…saying what needs to be said. I don’t know how long I really have.” He looked at the floor. “Um. Not that, you know, you have to feel the same way or anything. I just feel better for having said it.”

Portia blinked. “I don’t have to…Keith, I’ve had a crush on you since the day we met.”

Keith looked up. “You have?”

“Of course I have. Hello? Unattractive woman, writes romance novels for a living, handsome guy? I never said anything because…well…”

Keith slowly facepalmed. “Of course. The self-image thing again.”

“For all I knew, you were beating beautiful women off with a stick!” Portia said. She paused. “That didn’t come out right.”

Keith chuckled. “I know what you mean.” He shook his head. “The truth is, you’d never guess since I do photo modeling, but I’m actually kind of shy. I usually relate better to books than people. Which is, well, why I jumped at the chance to model for your books when I heard your publisher was looking.”

“But I’d only written one book at that point,” Portia protested. “And self-published it to boot.”

Keith shrugged. “I read it. It was good.”

They lapsed into silence for a few moments, each watching the other. Finally, Portia spoke up. “So…what do we do now?”

Keith snapped his fingers. “That’s right, I forgot. Newbie orientation.” He fished a USB thumb drive out of his pocket and offered it to her. “I’ve got all the important stuff right here. FAQs, howtos, grooming guides, bookmarks for websites and forums, everything you need.”

Portia took it, gripping it with the pads of her new paws. “Organized by Dewey Decimal, no doubt,” Portia said dryly.

“Of course not,” Keith said. “We use Library of Congress, remember?”

Portia chuckled. “Right.” She glanced at the USB drive, then examined the hand holding it more closely. “I can see I’m going to have to learn to type all over again.”

“I don’t have experience with that, but I’ve been told it’s easier than you think,” Keith said.

“How reassuring.”

“But you can go over all that stuff later,” Keith said. “The first order of business is a shopping trip.”

“Shopping?” Portia stared at him. “You can’t be serious. I can’t go out like this!”

Keith grinned and shook his head. “I told you, nobody will notice anything weird. Besides, you kind of have to go out like that, because you’ll probably be like that for the rest of your life.”

Portia fumbled the USB drive, and it hit the floor with a small “thud”. “The rest of my life?”

“Um.” Keith frowned. “I guess there was probably a better way to say that. But, yeah. Some people, a very very small number, have a secondary change a year later, but nobody's ever changed back to human yet. Odds are, you’re like that for the rest of your life. I’m sorry.”

Portia sighed, and picked up the thumb drive. “I guess I’d better start getting used to it, then. So, shopping. What and why?”

“Clothes, mainly,” Keith said. “You’ve probably already noticed you have different measurements now, and also you’ll need things customized for your tail.”

“Where do I go for something like that?” Portia wondered. “It’s not as if chain stores stock it, is it?”

“One of the alteration shops in town is Changed-run,” Keith explained. “They keep a lot of generic stuff on hand, and can customize the rest. And some stuff won’t be any different.”

Portia sighed. “I guess I might as well.”

Keith nodded. “Oh, by the way, are you wearing shoes?”

Portia blinked. “How would I? These feet aren’t exactly shaped for it.”

“Yeah, but you can still wear them anyway. It’s something to do with the field,” Keith said. “You just pretend to put them on and they sort of disappear. Trust me. If you don’t, people will see you aren’t wearing them, and ‘no shoes no service.’”

“Hmm.” Portia stepped into her bedroom, fond a pair of sneakers, and tried it. “Huh. If that doesn’t beat all. It doesn’t feel any different.”

“It looks different to the rest of the world, though, and that’s what counts.” Keith opened the door. “After you?”

Portia snorted, and bapped him with her tail on the way out.

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A quick run downtown in Keith’s Prius brought them to “Like Cats and Dogs”. Keith was slow getting to the door, and Portia pushed through it before he could hold it open for her. “Whoa!” Keith grabbed the door just before it could close.

Portia blinked, looking over her shoulder. “Huh?”

Keith grabbed the tip of Portia’s fluffy tail and held it up. “You’ve got to be more careful,” he chided her. “It would have hurt if you’d let the door slam shut on this.”

“Oh.” Portia felt her ears tinge pink. Then she glanced at Keith, who was absent-mindedly running his hand through the fur of her tail. “You know, if you keep that up, you’re going to have to buy me dinner.”

Keith dropped the tail as if it was on fire, and blushed bright red. “Oh! Um, sorry.” Portia’s ears got a little warmer themselves as she realized she’d liked the feel of Keith’s hand there and halfway wished he hadn’t stopped.

“Like Cats and Dogs” turned out to be a small clothing shop staffed by a Siamese-patterned housecat Changed man and a woman whose anthropomorphic form resembled a small fox with big ears—a fennec, Portia realized. She’d read about them during research for a novel set in Arabia. She chuckled as she realized where the name of the shop came from.

Keith nodded to the Changed behind the counter. “Hey guys. Not busy yet?” The shop was nearly empty; but for Portia, Keith, and the staff, there were only a couple of people—both humans—in the store.

“You know how it goes on Change Day,” the fennec woman said. “Most of the newbies don’t find out about us until the afternoon. Congratulations on beating the rush, miss.”

“Oh, I’m being rude," Keith said. "Portia Henderson, this is Natalie Karo, and Sean Felhurtz. Natalie, Sean: Portia.”

“Oh!” Natalie squealed. “You’re the romance novelist, right? I have all your books!” She rummaged under the counter and produced a dog-eared (“fennec-eared?”) copy of Portobello Passion.

Despite the strangeness of it all, Portia grinned and held out her paw to take the book. Here, at least, was something she understood. She pulled a pen out of her purse and, after a little scrabbling, managed to grip it firmly in her paw. “This may be a little shaky—haven’t quite got the hang of these things yet.” She scrawled “From a ‘cat’ to a ‘dog’. —Portia Henderson” on the title page and handed it back.

Natalie read the inscription and beamed. Her tail wagged briskly behind her. “Oh, thank you so much! I’ll treasure this always!”

Portia chuckled at the tail-wagging. “No problem. It’s always nice to meet a fan. In fact, this may be the first normal thing that’s happened to me all day. Well, relatively speaking anyway.”

Sean laughed. “I hear that. C’mon, let’s get you fitted for some clothing with tail-holes. That is why you came, right?”

Portia smiled. “It’s like you read my mind.”

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Natalie and Sean turned out to have a pretty good grasp of fitting for Changed, and when Portia described the type of wardrobe she was looking for they came up with a number of tailhole-modified outfits that were just what Portia was looking for. “Hey, Keith, what do you think of this one?” She held up a dress by the shoulder straps.

Keith stared at the dress, a low-cut number in red satin, and his eyes bugged out a little as, Portia supposed, he imagined her in it. “Glrk,” he said at last. Natalie giggled.

“All right, let’s get you fitted for some lingerie,” Sean said, leading the way into the frilly section of the store.

Portia raised an eyebrow. “You’re both going to handle the fitting?”

“Natalie will handle the actual fitting, but I do have experience picking things out,” Sean said. “You see, I used to be a ‘Shawna’.”

Portia blinked. “Oh.”

“Now how about this lacy pink number, here?” Natalie suggested.

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By the time the fitting was over, other customers started drifting into the shop, and Sean left to help them. Natalie led Portia to a section set up in a closet at the back of the room. “This is our mini-boutique,” Natalie explained. “We keep specialty items here that the un-Changed wouldn’t understand if they saw in the main shop. Let’s see, you’ll need a bottle of herbal scent flea shampoo, a set of claw clippers—these are from a vet supply store, meant for use on panthers—a good fur brush…”

“You’re being so matter-of-fact about all this,” Portia said, as they walked back up to the counter. A small line had formed with Sean away helping other customers. “I’m still waiting to wake up and find out this was all a dream.”

Natalie chuckled. “We get that a lot, especially around Change Day. If you think this is something, try having it happen four years ago. There were hardly any Changed at all. For months I thought I was going out of my head. Then I met Sean, who had it even worse.” She slipped behind the counter and opened the cash register.

Portia shuddered. “I’ll bet. This fur is bad enough…but to change gender on top of that? I can’t even imagine what that must be like.” She stepped around to the back of the line.

“I could tell you,” sighed the female ferret-Changed at the front of the line. The female Husky-morph she was with patted her on the shoulder reassuringly.

“Oh. Um…sorry,” Portia said.

The ferret shrugged. “I’ll deal with it.”

Before leaving, Portia slipped into a changing booth and changed out of the old skirt and sweatshirt into some new, cat-adopted clothes she’d just bought. Then Keith rejoined her as she carried several bags out to the car. “Find everything you need?”

“And then some.” Portia pulled a red bikini top out of one of the bags. It was festooned with a row of little hearts, and had shoulder straps for extra support.

Keith stared at it. “Now I know you’re teasing me.”

“I wasn’t going to get it, but Natalie talked me into it. She said I needed something that showed off my new figure and my new pelt.” Portia shrugged, dropping it back in the bag. “I’m still not used to this.”

“Used to which? Being a cat, or being attractive?” Keith asked.

“Either. Both, I guess.” Portia closed the trunk on the bags. “This is all new to me.”

“Maybe there’s a book in it, though,” Keith said. “Didn’t you once say everything is ‘grist for the mill’?”

Portia snorted. “I think my millstone just cracked.”

Keith held the passenger door for Portia. “Well, come on. I think I owe you lunch.”

Portia’s ears burned again. “I was just kidding—”

“No, no, I insist,” Keith said. “It’s a debt I’m only too happy to pay.” He looked down and mumbled, “Besides, I should have asked you out a long time ago.”

“Oh, Keith…” Portia sighed.

“No, really. At least then you’d know for sure I was sincere.” Keith tapped the power button that stood in for the Prius’s ignition key, and pulled out of the parking space.

“What I was going to say is, I should have asked you out,” Portia said. “At least then you’d know I was sincere and not just a whiny, needy bitch on a furry rebound.”

“You’re not a bitch,” Keith said. “In either sense of the word.” He flashed her a shaky grin. “A female cat is called a ‘queen’, after all.”

Portia couldn’t help but smile back. “Then maybe I’m a queen bitch.”

“No, not likely.” He chuckled. “Now, how do you feel about Italian?”

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The meal began as a slightly nervous affair on both their parts. They picked at the salad course and breadsticks and talked about the cover shoot for the latest book and plot points from various of Portia’s novels, as if it were a completely normal affair. Portia noticed that she didn’t have any trouble eating the salad—but on the other hand, even housecats liked to eat grass every now and then.

When the wine arrived with the main course, it turned out that the sommelier was a badger. “There really are a lot of us around, aren’t there?” Portia mused thoughtfully.

The badger withdrew the cork and offered it to Portia for sniffing, then poured a dollop into a wine glass for her. “Yes, ma’am, there are,” he said. “I take it you’re new?”

“That’s one way of putting it, I guess,” Portia said, swirling the wine around and holding it up to the light. She felt faintly silly, since she had no idea what she was supposed to be looking for, but people always did this.

The badger nodded. “Well, don’t worry,” he said. “It’ll get easier with time.” He poured for Keith, then left the bottle with them and hurried off to attend to other patrons.

“This is going to be like when you get a new car and suddenly start noticing the same model of car everywhere, isn’t it?” Portia mused.

“Kind of,” Keith said. “Though on the other hand, you literally couldn’t see them before it happened to you.”

Portia sniffed the wine, and blinked as her newly-sensitive nose detected a remarkable melange of aromas she’d never noticed in a wine before. “Huh. No wonder they have a Changed sommelier.”

Keith nodded. “He’s very good.”

For a while they sipped and ate in silence. Portia kept looking down at her furry new body as if expecting it to change back at any moment, and Keith tried to focus on his food but kept stealing furtive glances when he thought she wasn’t looking.

Finally, Portia sighed and said, “So tell me the truth. Am I stuck like this? For good?”

Keith swallowed the bite of food he’d been chewing and took a moment before speaking. “Probably,” he said. “I won’t sugar-coat it. Some people, a very tiny percentage, change again into something else a year later, but nobody’s ever changed back to human yet.”

Portia blinked. “So a year from now I could turn into a…a chinchilla or something?”

“You could theoretically turn into a male chinchilla or something,” Keith said. “Some people, a very tiny few, Change every year. Nobody knows how or why.”

“And you really find me attractive like this? Seriously?”

“Portia, I’ve always found you attractive. I’m sorry now I didn’t say something earlier,” Keith said. “I just knew you wouldn’t have believed me.”

Portia thought about it a moment, then shook her head. “I think maybe I would have.” She chuckled. “I’d have wanted to believe you. Amazing how easy it is to believe what you want to believe.”

“You really felt that way about me?” Keith said.

“I really did,” Portia agreed.

Keith thought a moment. “Then…do you still?”

“Keith, I’m a cat now for goodness sake!” Portia protested.

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Keith said quietly. “Do you still find me as attractive as you did yesterday?”

“Yesterday I was sick as a dog,” Portia said. “I didn’t find anything attractive, except maybe the toilet.”

Keith rolled his eyes. “Last week, then. Stop dodging the question. If the fur thing wasn’t an issue, would you still have that crush on me?”

Trapped, Portia looked down at her plate and admitted, just barely above a mumble, “Of course I would.”

Keith grinned at her. “Good. Because as far as I’m concerned, the fur thing isn’t an issue. You’re the same charming and lovable person you’ve always been.”

Portia blinked. “‘Charming and lovable’? Are you sure you don’t have me mixed up with some other Portia Henderson?”

“You’re the one and only.” Keith chuckled. “Seriously, Portia, I like you a lot. I always have. I like talking to you, I like being with you. How can I make you believe me?”

“Now I know I must be dreaming,” Portia said. “This always happens right before I wake up.” She muttered, “Of course, the ones where I’m naked in public last all night long.”

“I promise, this is real,” Keith insisted. “I thought you were pretty before, I think you’re gorgeous now, but I wouldn’t care if you were ugly because I like you, not your looks. How can I prove it to you?”

Portia felt her ears heating up again. “I’m…not sure.”

Keith grinned. “Well, I guess I’ll just have to think of something.”

Portia raised an eyebrow and wondered whether she ought to be worried.

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After lunch, they went back out to Keith’s car. Portia panted a little on the way. “God, it’s muggy.”

“And you’re wearing a full-body fur coat, too,” Keith said, popping the car door for her. “Want to come over to my place?” Portia stared at him. “Er…I didn’t mean that like it sounded,” Keith hastily added. “I was just going to say, I live in an apartment complex with its own swimming pool.”

Portia snorted. “Admit it, you just want to see me in that bikini.”

Keith grinned. “At least I didn’t invite you up to see my etchings.”

Portia rolled her eyes. But on the other hand…Come on, girl, how many times did you fantasize about him inviting you over to his place? Granted, most of the fantasies had involved dialogue considerably more like that found in her novels—but then again, she supposed much of it would sound fairly corny in real life. “All right.”

“Of course, I could just drive you back—” Keith blinked, and looked at her again. “What?”

“I said ‘all right,’” Portia said. “A pool sounds like a great idea in this weather. And I’ve got the suit, might as well try it out.”

“Oh. Er, right.” Keith swallowed, then wrenched his eyes back to the road.

Portia smiled, watching him, and realized that she no longer needed any proof. The way he was acting was proof enough. He really was attracted to her. He might have hidden it before (though even now she remembered a few furtive glances at previous ’shoots that she hadn’t thought much about at the time), but now that he’d brought it out in the open, his body language gave him away completely.

And when Portia let herself think about the implications of that, it put the Change almost entirely out of her mind. The man she’d had a crush on all this time had felt the same way about her? It was like “The Gift of the Magi”, or a Shakespearian comedy of errors. Portia wondered when, or if, either of them might have worked up the nerve to do anything about it if it hadn’t been for the embarrassed rush of speaking freely that had happened after her Change.

But one thing was for sure. Regardless of what we didn’t have the nerve for before, this is a clean break, Portia vowed. I’m not going to let this chance go to waste.

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They pulled into the lot at Keith’s apartment building a few minutes later. Portia grabbed the paper bag that had her bikini in it, and followed Keith to the elevator. “It’s not much,” Keith explained as they rode it up to the fifth floor, “but it’s home.”

Keith’s apartment had comfortable-looking but not extremely fancy furniture, and was kept more or less neat. The only sloppy element was the piles of books scattered here and there—but then, Keith was a librarian. And Portia noticed that one stack, kept on the sofa, was composed entirely of her books.

Keith noticed her glance. “Oh. Uh, heh, been meaning to put those away.”

Portia grinned. “I rather like it, actually. It’s nice to see my stuff being read, not just sitting on a shelf.”

Keith smiled back. “I’m glad you like it. Anyway, if you want to change in my bedroom, it’s right through that door. I’ll wait out here for you.”

Impulsively, Portia leaned in to kiss him on the cheek—though it came out more like a lick from the still-unfamiliar feline muzzle. She took the bag into the bedroom with her and closed the door, leaving a dazed-looking Keith behind.

Portia looked around at the bedroom. It was tastefully furnished, neatly kept, but fairly plain, reflecting its owner’s personality. There was a king-sized bed, neatly made, and a bedside table with a lamp, alarm clock, and bookmarked copy of California Rose by Portia Henderson sitting on it. The room had the sense of a place where its owner spent eight hours a day because he had to, but didn’t see much outside of that appointed time.

It didn’t have anything like the mirror on the ceiling or other…esoteric implements Portia had imagined for it (and sometimes written about in other contexts). Handsomeness aside, Keith was basically…completely normal. Portia chuckled ruefully at her silly daydreams.

Then, impulsively, she flipped to the title page of the bedside book and autographed it before putting it back as she’d found it. After that, she sat on the bed and quickly slipped out of the new clothes she’d bought at “Like Cats and Dogs”, neatly folding the bra and panties and placing the skirt and blouse on top of them. Then she pulled the bikini out of the bag, examined it for a moment, and began fastening it on.

She’d never dreamed of wearing something this daring before the change—after all, she didn’t really have the body for it. But now she did…even if that body was covered in fur. Portia slid the last strap into place, then turned to look at herself in the dresser mirror, turning slightly this way and that to get the full effect. She tried to see herself through someone else’s eyes—which wasn’t too hard, given that she still wasn’t used to having this body. She had to admit, it did look good on her.

Then Portia poked her head out of the bedroom door. “Okay, come see what you think!”

Keith raised an eyebrow, but stepped into the bedroom to look at her. His eyes widened as he took in Portia’s rosette-dappled body, set off by the bikini. “You look…amazing,” he breathed, staring at her.

Then Portia moved up to him, slowly, as if afraid she might scare him off if she moved too fast. Tentatively, she reached out to touch him, looking up to meet his gaze. “About that crush you said you had…” she murmured, “do you still have it?”

“I do. You know I do,” Keith replied, looking down at her. “What about you?”

“Never lost it,” Portia breathed, moving closer.

“Are…you sure you want to do this?” Keith asked, though she could see what it cost him to do so. “You sure it’s not just the fur talking?”

“If it is the fur talking, I really like what it’s saying.” Portia smiled. “We should have done this a long time ago. It shouldn’t have taken me getting turned into a snow leopard for us to figure this out.”

“That’s good enough for me.” Keith placed one hand over Portia’s on his chest, and drew her into an embrace with the other, tilting his head down to kiss her on the side of the muzzle. Portia shivered, dislodging one of the shoulder straps to her bikini. The shiver proceeded down her spine and out her tail, pointing it straight up behind her back, as she leaned into the kiss.

They never did make it down to the pool.

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Author's Comments

This story was inspired by the following three artworks by Heather Bruton:

Only the first of those images actually made it into this story. Originally I intended to incorporate the other two pictures, too, and end with a repetition of the first paragraph, but with the names changed to “Portia” and “Keith”. But I realized when I got to the end it seemed like such a good stopping point, and the repetition of the first paragraph seemed a little too “cute” to me.

You can just assume the other pictures represent scenes from later in the same relationship (though yes, I know the guy doesn’t quite look the same in all of them). My favorite is the second one.

The “avian flu” joke was originally supposed to be “swine flu”, but then I realized I was going to have to set the story years before anybody knew about swine flu. Oh well.