|[[:Category:Paradise|Paradise]] story universe|
|This story is a work in progress.|
|Works by MatthiasRat on Shifti|
Rob the skunk carried the cardboard boxes from the hall into his room and set them down on the clean floor. It had been almost a year since he'd changed into an anthro-skunk and forced to keep his room clean, and still he flinched his toes to avoid stubbing them into discarded detrius that no longer lingered upon his carpet. His friend CM had shown him the necessity of maintaining house and over a week's time helped him turn his room from a pig sty into a place where a Changed could easily keep their true nature a secret.
And now he and his friends were leaving FoxRidge 1600J for good. Trevor, Brett, and Nick had found a house in downtown Christiansburg to rent, while he was moving with Audrey into the upscale apartments FoxRidge offered. A few weeks ago Audrey had accepted his marriage proposal and now his mind was abuzz with managing his and her families as they swarmed in battle over the wedding arrangements. It had to be in Vermont! No in New Jersey! It must be big! It must be small! It must be Protestant! It must be Catholic! On, and on, and on!
Here in Blacksburg, Virginia, he and Audrey could escape for a time and be together without the discomfort of feuding families. In one week's time he'd be out of the Furry apartment and would no longer need to hide. Apart from Patrick whom CM had told because he'd become too nosy, Audrey was the only other among them that knew the secret of the Changed. He hoped she didn't mind lots of potpouri or cleaning up skunk fur.
As the skunk set down the boxes his phone rang. He snatched it from his computer table and read the number. His eyes widened; he recognized that name. He cast a quick glance at the server humming away in one corner and then opened the phone.
"This is Rob. Hello?"
A deep, rumbling voice answered him. "Good afternoon, Mr. Hallman. This is Walter Lundh. How are you?"
"I'm fine, fine, just getting ready to move next week. Already signed the lease and everything." He said that deliberately. The last time the longhorn bull called he'd had to cancel his plans on short notice. "How are you?"
"I am well. I'm mailing you, CM, and Mr. Ryan round-trip tickets to Washington in two weeks."
"DC?" Rob asked, both surprised and relieved that he at least had two weeks before he needed to jump through the lawyer's hoops. "What for?"
"Congressman Sandrick requested an update on the status of your project prior to next month's Change. We want to know where to look and what to expect. You and your colleagues must ready a presentation for the Congressman. Will there be any trouble for you?"
Rob walked to his calendar and studied the dates. "I'm going to have to get off work. So will CM. They'll probably be pissed that they didn't have more advanced warning."
"I apologize for that," Walter replied brusquely. "I'm sure the Congressman can send you each a letter if necessary, though we'd all prefer to keep this low profile. Are there any other difficulties?"
The skunk shook his head. "No. It's good for me, but you'll want to check with CM. She might have plans. Will we see you in DC?"
"I'll be waiting for you at Dulles. All the arrangements for the hotel have been made. I will see you there. Good luck with your move. Don't damage anything."
The bull hung up and Rob set the phone down with a long sigh. A move and a presentation! Well, he'd better get started packing then.
CM carried the footboard into Rob's new bedroom and set it against the wall with the rest of the pieces of his bed. The skunk was rifling through his toolbox with Audrey at his side resting one hand on his shoulder. Rob's tail twitched to the far side as he turned to see the bear.
"Hey Audrey, can you go keep the others busy for a few minutes?" Rob asked.
"Changed stuff?" Audrey asked, and at the skunk's nod, she smiled and nodded. "Sure! Open the door when you're done." She hugged CM as she walked past, surprising the bear, and then closed the door behind her.
"Trevor and the others are busy packing their own things," CM pointed out. She rested her paw on the footboard and tilted it back and forth. "Is there something you need my help with?"
Rob held a wrench out and said, "Well, you can help me put my bed together!" CM laughed. "Seriously, we haven't had a chance to talk. You got Lundh's message last week, right?"
CM nodded. She'd been at work the first time the bull had called. Leslie had taken the message, but of course Lundh hadn't said anything to her other than his name; CM was amazed he'd given her that much! "I've got my part of the presentation prepared. I know you haven't had much chance to look it over or anything but what you've done looked good to me."
"Not much else I could do," Rob grunted as he straightened and looked around the room. "Here, against this wall. The headboard should go here. Do you need a paw?"
CM nodded. "It's a little awkward, yes." Together, they carried the arched headboard to where Rob wanted it and then leaned it against the wall. "Do you need some help with your presentation?"
The skunk frowned as he returned for one of the side pieces. "I shouldn't. It's not like I did anything anyway."
"You kept the server going," CM replied with a smile. She could tell the skunk was bothered by something but she couldn't tell what. "Carter and I couldn't do anything without that!"
"But are we really ready to tell these guys anything?" Rob asked. "Bring the footboard; we'll get these pieces together."
CM pondered the question for a moment as she retrieved the footboard. Rob had both side pieces laid out in front of the headboard and was checking the various bolts to make sure he had the right ones. She ran her tongue along the back of her short fangs and grunted. "We have enough to give them a good estimate. We've ruled out pretty much everything except exponential growth. That's scary in itself."
"And there should be a heck of a lot more of us than there are, right?"
CM set the footboard down and held it steady with one paw. She was careful not to nick the wood with her claws. "Yes, but Carter would know more about where they should be than I do.. It'll be good to see him again at least."
"He won't have his jeep with him this time. Did you get stuck in coach too?"
CM nodded and Rob rolled his eyes as he lifted the first side piece and put the bolt through the hole. CM held the other end up with her free paw. She laughed and rumbled. "His note did say that he reserved the two seats next to mine too. Paid extra for that. I'm going to need it." She patted her tummy which was already building up girth for winter hibernation. Of course, if the August Change played its usual tricks, she wouldn't be a bear for much longer.
As long as she became male again she wouldn't mind staying a bear forever. But that wasn't up to her.
"Well, that's something at least. I hope you didn't have any plans for next weekend."
CM grunted. "Jan and Dennis were planning to come down to visit."
Rob's tail darted to one side and he glanced back at the bear in surprise. "The boar and the hedgehog? Wouldn't that be like their third time this year?"
"Jan's fourth, Dennis's third. He couldn't make it last time." CM grinned and shrugged. "Jan's determined to make a biker out of me. He's probably going to succeed at some point too. Just don't have the money for it now."
"And Leslie would kill you," Rob added.
CM's grin didn't fade even though she nodded. "Yeah, probably. They're working on that too."
"So what did you tell them?"
"I told them I'd be in DC anyway, and if time allowed, I'd meet them there. Probably going to have to be in the evening though. Looks like Lundh wants us there to present and get out as quick as possible."
"Probably to keep from too many questions being asked," Rob said. He stood up, brushed his pants off, and walked over to where CM crouched against the footboard. "Okay, the first one's in. Scoot back and I'll get this bolt in too."
Roanoke Airport was a small regional airport with a single concourse. There were direct flights to Charlotte, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Richmond, and of course DC. Their plane left at 2:20, so Rob picked CM up at her apartment a little before noon. They each had packed an overnight bag, though in CM's case it looked like one that would barely fit in the overhead compartment. Rob resisted the temptation to ask the she-bear if she'd packed the kitchen sink.
Traffic was light that Friday as they drove up I-81 to Roanoke. The airport itself was reasonably busy with families heading out for the weekend to visit relatives as well as several others heading out of town on business. The pair checked in, saw that their flight was on time — which surprised the skunk who'd never seen a plane leave on time — and headed for the security.
Both of them felt a little anxious passing through the security station, especially with the post-9/11 heightened security measures. But neither of them were singled out for extra scrutiny and they passed by unmolested.
While Rob went to their terminal, CM stopped at one of the terminal-side restaurants and ordered the largest fish item they had on the menu. That and an appetizer of fried cheese sticks. It did sate her hibernation hunger for the time, but she knew she'd be hungry again in a few hours. At least the flight wouldn't be long. She hoped that Walter would be understanding about how much she'd probably order from room service!
When CM went to their terminal she found the skunk reviewing his portion of the presentation. He'd been able to finish only the day before and only because Audrey let him shirk his duties to setting up their new apartment. He'd have a lot of catch up to do when they got back, but CM had volunteered to come over a day or two and pitch in to make up for it.
CM settled her bulk on one of the benches and grimaced as the arms pinched her paunch. "Ugh. They need bigger seats."
Rob glanced up and chuckled. "How much do you weigh?"
"About two-eighty," CM replied. "I'll hit three hundred again by the Change."
The skunk nodded. "The way you eat, yah. What are you going to become?"
"A rat I expect," she replied. She briefly touched one breast with a claw and grunted, "And hopefully male again. Do you hope to change again?"
Rob shook his head. "Skunk wasn't my first choice, believe me, but I've gotten used to it. I'm happy this way, so why Change again?"
"But if you did, what would you prefer?"
The skunk put his papers down in his lap and leaned back into his tail which curled over the end of the seat. "Something feline I think. Jaguar. Definitely a jaguar. Oh, and male too."
CM chuckled. "Well, odds are you won't change again. How goes the presentation?"
"Slow," Rob grunted and shook his head. "I think I'm going to be reading over this on the plane. I finished the slides at like 3 AM last night."
"Well, if you practice, don't practice too loudly," CM said as her eyes followed a family coming up the causeway and settling in next row of seats. "We won't be alone."
Rob glanced at them and nodded. "Right." He lowered his snout to the pages and though he moved his lips, not even the bear could hear anything he said. She glanced at the clock, sighed, and resigned herself to waiting another hour for their flight to depart.
Despite the fact that their plane was a prop, CM managed to relax and sort of enjoy the flight. Perhaps because bears were natural swimmers, she had no trouble adjusting to the pressure change as the plane gained altitude. And with nobody sitting in the seats next to her, she was able to stretch out her bulk across all three. The seat belt was almost as loose as it could go, but it neither pinched her gut nor did the seat pinch her tail. For all of that she was grateful.
Rob faced a different situation. His length tail made getting comfortable extremely difficult. It wasn't like his car where he could sit forward and lean forward when necessary. In the purgatory of coach, there was no room to lean forward and if he sat forward his knees pressed into the tray table. So he ended up pulling his tail between his legs and doing his best not to get it tangled in the seat belt. The older woman sitting next to him watched him with a vague sense of unease, but of course she couldn't tell what was really going on.
To the skunk's immense relief, the flight lasted less than an hour and soon they were settled back on the ground. He lashed his tail back and forth and hissed as they walked up the boarding passage to the gate. "Ugh! I'm never flying coach again!"
"Yeah," CM said as she hefted her carry-on over her shoulder. "It's a little cramped. If Walter hadn't kept the seats next to mine empty, I think I would have eaten somebody. Just kidding."
"That lady was giving me the creeps!" Rob shook his head and checked behind him to make sure she wasn't nearby. "I thought she was going to have a heart attack and die on me."
The bear chuckled and pointed down the concourse. "Well, we're here now. I think we want to go that way to get to the main terminal."
Rob glanced at the signs and nodded. "Yeah, looks like it. Shouldn't be hard to find Walter."
"There is that at least," CM agreed.
The two of them moved through the throng of people waiting for their flight or rushing to catch a connecting flight. Rob held his tail close to his back and twitched anytime anybody brushed too close. CM ambled along at a decent pace over the worn carpeting. It was so old that the long claws on her toes clicked against the concrete beneath every few steps.
Dulles International Airport was immense compared to what they'd left in Roanoke. Vendors and restaurants greeted them the entire way through the concourse, as well as people going every which way. Many were dressed for business, but just as many were dressed as if they were going to Florida, Mexico, or California. A good number were either calling somebody on cell phones or were getting called. And despite the huge throng, not a one of them was Changed like them.
It took almost ten minutes to get from their gate to the security plaza. Once through, they headed into the wide open-air centre lined with airline registration desks and even more shops selling touristry gewgaws. Skunk and bear scanned the crowds in every direction, and found what they sought almost immediately.
"There he is," CM said as soon as she spotted the huge horns sticking out of either side of his black-and-white speckled bovine brow. Rob saw it too and the pair of them made their way through the crowds towards the huge computer display listing arrivals. Walter was dressed in business attire and carried a briefcase in one hoof-like hand. Small, glassy eyes greeted them as they approached. "Mr. Hallman, CM, I see you made it without incident."
Rob held out one hand and the two shook. "And good to see you too, Walter."
"Likewise," CM said before shaking the bull's hand. His grip was heavy and felt odd with those two pointed hoof-like nails. "Where's Carter?"
"His flight is just now arriving. He'll be with us shortly." Walter grunted and glanced between the two. "I hope you brought more professional attire for tomorrow's meeting."
"Yes," Rob said. "I only have the one set of suit pants with a hole for my tail."
"I only have one good suit that fits me at this size," CM admitted.
"That will suffice. If we have too many more meetings, I will see to it that you each have more. My discretionary funds are limited, but they would be ample enough for that if there was a need."
"Discretionary funds?" Rob asked, not sure he could believe what he was hearing. "Just how long have you been a lawyer?"
Walter lightly stomped one hoof. "This is a business meeting, Mr. Hallman. It pays to be professional. As to my years of experience, I will have been with my firm for thirty years as of October 04."
"That long?" CM asked in surprise. "You don't look that old."
"It's the Change," Walter replied with a faint degree of aplomb. "It is much harder to tell people's ages this way. In time we'll adapt and learn to read the clues. Are you ready to present tomorrow?"
"Yes," Rob replied. He patted his suitcase. "Power Point okay?"
"So the meeting's tomorrow." CM shifted her carry-on from one shoulder to the other. "Are there any plans for tonight?"
Walter set his briefcase down and pulled an envelope from his jacket pocket. He pulled a pair of small cards from this and handed them one to each. "Once Carter joins us we will ride to our hotel. I am attending to transportation. I have a business dinner to attend this evening with several lobbyists. I would have preferred dining with you myself but that will not be possible. I'm afraid you are on your own for dinner. I do ask that you avoid alcohol. Our meeting with the Congressman should remain out of the news, but it might not if any of you shows up hung over."
Rob grimaced then nodded as he studied the card. An itinerary was listed on the one side while the other was blank. "Yeah, I learned my lesson about alcohol. You don't have to worry about that."
"I won't touch anything either." CM pocketed her card and then waved over their heads. They all turned and saw a black wolf shouldering his way through the crowd clustered beneath the departures board. He grinned, tail wagging back and forth as he approached. "Hey Carter!" the bear called as soon as he was close enough. CM gave him a hug around one arm. "Good to see you again!"
"And you too, CM!" He then hugged the skunk, "And you too, Rob! Been way too long." With the bull he shook hands. "And it's good to see you too, Walter. What did you think of those numbers we sent?"
"I'm not a statistician, Mr. Ryan," Walter said rather gruffly. "I'm looking forward to your presentation tomorrow. Hopefully then I will better understand the numbers."
Carter's tail fell, but still he nodded and managed to smile. "So, what are we doing now?"
"Do any of you have any other luggage?" But they each had everything, and so Walter said, "Then follow me." Walter turned down the concourse toward the parking lots and shuttle buses. Once four sets of furry paws and hooves clattered along the faux marble floor, Walter continued, "We're going to our hotel. You will be on your own for dinner. I recommend you order room service so I can charge it to my business account. If you want to go out to eat you may do so, but you will have to pay for it." He handed Carter a third card. "That's the schedule for tomorrow. Bring it with you to the meeting. We'll be disposing of them afterward."
Carter grinned and pocketed the card. "Wow. I feel all cloak and dagger."
Walter grunted and swung his head to the side. The horns whipped over the wolf's head. "This is not a game, Mr. Ryan. This is professional. Please remember that."
The wolf nodded, "Of course. I know how to be professional." CM and Rob glanced at each other and stifled their mirth.
Transportation proved to be a non-descript blue minivan with Virginia plates. Walter indicated that they should all ride in the back, and once he opened the driver-side door they could all see why. There was only one seat in the front with the steering column only slightly off center. The bull didn't wait for them to ask before explaining, "I cannot drive a normal car with my horns. I'd have to keep the window rolled down and that is not always a convenient option."
"How'd you get this done? I've never seen a car like this before!" Carter exclaimed while Rob and CM climbed into the back. It was all bench seating which in general was easier for the often oddly shaped Changed.
"I contracted the conversion work to a Changed auto mechanic for vehicles in every area I'm likely to be. The work will prove pivotal in the future as more and more Changed need such modifications. You three are fortunate that you have not needed any such modifications. Other less economically stable than myself have had to make do with very unsafe workarounds." Walter set his briefcase next to his seat and then climbed into the car, turning his head as he did to slide the long horns smoothly inside. His chair had a little hole along the left side to allow his tail to comfortably slide into place as well.
Rob pulled the seat belt over his shoulders and grimaced as his tail bunched uncomfortably behind him. "How do you explain this to still human clients?"
Walter shut his door and grunted. "I don't. All non Changed clients ride with me in a limousine if we ever need to travel together. Since this meeting is to be as low-profile as possible, we take the minivan. I hope that doesn't bother you."
"Not at all," CM replied as she settled into place. "What do other drivers think when they see you in the middle?"
"I do get a few queer stares," Walter admitted wearily. "But nothing more than that." After Carter had buckled up, the long-horn bull started the van and carefully eased out of the short-term parking lot. An Easy-Pass system officiated his parking bill and they soon merged onto the highway.
The bright Summer afternoon greeted them as they drove through the crowded highways of Northern Virginia. Though a Saturday, the highways were still jammed with cars going in either direction. CM was reminded why she never wanted to move back to the area with each passing minute. They would have talked, but as soon as they reached the highway, Walter brought up a TV feed of C-SPAN on a dashboard LCD. Some congressman droned about a bill to increase spending on some pet project, but the language and details were so esoteric, CM couldn't make heads or tails of what the pet project actually was. Carter and Rob looked no better off.
They were on the road for no more than twenty minutes before Walter turned off the highway and led them to a nice but unremarkable Holiday Inn. He drove up to front and pulled to a stop in front of the portico. "Your rooms are reserved under my name. Don't use the phones unless it's an emergency. And remember no alcohol tonight. I'll be by at seven o'clock tomorrow morning to take us into DC. Make sure that you're ready to leave by then."
Rob was the first to climb out of the van. "See you at seven then!" The skunk hefted his bag over his shoulder and waited by the curb for the bear and wolf to climb out. CM grunted in irritation at Carter who held the door for her, but the wolf just wagged his tail.
After Carter shut the door, Walter nodded to them and drove off around the back-side of the hotel. CM drummed her claws over her suitcase and sighed. "I guess we should get our rooms and get this stuff put away."
"What then?" Carter asked.
"Dinner I suppose. It's already past five," Rob replied.
A slight grin played at the edge of CM's broad muzzle. "I could call Jan and Dennis. They live in this area. We could get together with them."
"Walter said no phone calls," Carter pointed out.
"I've got a cell phone," CM replied. "I'm sure Walter only meant for us not to use the hotel's phones because those calls will show up on the bill."
"I'm up to it," Rob replied. His long tail danced behind his head and a smile crawled up his cheeks. "They probably know some good places to eat around here. I'm really not up for whatever room service this place has to offer."
Carter gazed at the hotel and began to nod. "Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. Who are Jan and Dennis?"
"A couple Changed we know," CM replied. "Good folks about our age too." CM dug into her suitcase and took her rather large cellphone from its pocket. "So if there's no objection?"
"Not from me," Carter said with a tail wag. "I'm always happy to meet more Changed!"
CM tapped the number with the tips of her claws then set the headset to her left ear and wiated while it rang. Three rings and a familiar grunting voice replied with far too much aplomb, "Hello there, sweet lady!"
The bear's eyes narrowed and her lips drew back revealing a few fangs, an effect completely lost on the boar for whom it was meant. "Jan," she said in a warning tone, "how many times have I told you not to answer my number like that?"
"Ya, I'll remember one day," he continued in his usual affable manner. The boar was charming in an irritating sort of way. "How are you, CM? I wasn't expecting to hear from you this weekend."
"I'm well. Up your way actually. Rob and I both, with another Changed. Wondering if you and Dennis were free for dinner."
"Dennis should be back soon," the boar replied in a more even tone of voice. "We were going to ride, but we'd rather be with friends if friends are around! Where are you at? We can come pick you up."
An image of three Changed all stacked on the back of Jan's bike clutching each other for dear life flashed through CM's mind. She chuckled and then told the boar the hotel's address. The boar wrote it down and hummed to himself for a few seconds. "Probably be an hour before we get there. I know a few good restaraunts out that way. See you in a bit!"
CM hung up the phone and shook her head. "About an hour, Jan said."
"An hour?" Rob replied. "Good. Maybe I can get some of these knots out of my tail by then!" The wolf and bear laughed. Together, the three went into the hotel lobby to pick up their room keys.
The trio of Changed took advantage of their hour to settle into the rooms and relax. Walter had reserved adjacent rooms with connecting privacy doors each with a TV and single Queen size bed. Rob's room was in the middle which suited CM just fine. She left her privacy door shut while Rob and Carter talked. CM could hear the skunk chuff angrily as he brushed out the snags in his tail like promised.
The she-bear laid out on the bed and breathed heavily, paws resting on her already growing belly. The long plane flight and the ride here had all been without food, something her body craved ravenously. She contemplated ordering some room service while they waited for Jan and Dennis. They would undoubtedly have to wait at whatever restaraunt they stopped at. But she knew that it would probably take just as long for the room service to arrive. She was better off just raiding a vending machine. She'd seen one in the hall on the way to their third floor rooms.
But first she had to decide what to wear. It was easily fifteen degrees warmer here in Northern Virginia than it had been down in Blacksburg. And it was ten times as humid! The first thing she'd done after coming into the room was crank the AC to the max. She was comfortable now, but would she be once they left with Jan and Dennis?
There wasn't anyway around it. She was going to have to dress lightly. That meant no bra and there was a good chance she'd be showing some cleavage. The thought didn't appeal to the male portion of her brain which always lurked in the background when she was in female mode. She thought about briefly making herself think as a guy again, but there didn't seem much point. CM was female for the duration of this trip. But she was a female off limits. The others knew that, even if Jan liked to tease her from time to time. She'd have to trust the boar to behave himself.
"Easier said than done," she muttered ruefully.
Nevertheless, CM pushed herself off the bed and stripped her clothes off. Once naked apart from the panties she glanced a look at her massive ursine shape in the mirror. An unconscious twitch in her jowls brought a beastly smile to her face. CM turned away and grunted at herself, turning all her efforts to digging into her suitcase for something light to wear. She didn't have to worry about revealing too much because she would never buy such clothes, but still, she'd be around other Changed all evening long and all of them guys. It couldn't help but make her predominant female side anxious.
She selected a V-neck blue T-shirt and jeans that fit her comfortably but not too tight even with her expanding waistline. CM took a moment to examine herself in the mirror, turning this way and that to make sure not too much was showing. Jan would undoubtedly stare until she smacked his snout with the back of her paw, but it was at least modest. There may be no bra, but everything that was visible, and that but a crescent lune, was covered in thick brown fur anyhow.
Once satisfied, CM raided the vending machine and then joined Rob and Carter in the middle room. She carried with her a dozen items with an even mix between chips, candy bars, and fruit-based snakcs. Rob sat on the bed combing his tail which stretched out beside him. Carter reclined in the chair by the window with his tail sticking out the front and long gangly legs propped on the little side table. His lupine paws massaged the air as if he were still walking and pressing into the ground.
"Hey, CM, woah! Nice shirt!" Carter grinned and then lowered his ears in a canine blush. "Sorry about that. Just didn't expect you to... you know."
"It's too hot here for anything else," CM replied. She unceremoniously sat down on the floor and proceeded to tear into her packages. Rob glanced once, nodded having seen it all and more before, and then returned to working knots out of his tail.
"A little hungry?"
"A little," CM replied after scarfing the first candy bar in one bite. It was some chocolate thing; she hadn't really cared. She wasn't going to taste any of them for more than a second anyway. "Stare at my chest again and I might eat you."
Carter laughed and quickly returned to talking about the vagaries of polling data and the crazy stuff his company did when there wasn't an election season going on. Rob interjected frequently with little tidbits about stupid users who shouldn't be allowed within ten feet of a computer. CM listened as she devoured her light snack. Oh Jan and Dennis had better get there soon and get her some real food!
About an hour later as promised, CM's cellphone rang. The she-bear had long since finished her snacks and was leaning against the wall, legs splayed in front of her, the girth of her belly weighing down into her lap. Carter and Rob stopped talking while CM fished the cellphone off the floor and answered it. "Hello?"
"Ah, CM!" Jan's voice called back with a grunt of delight. "We're parked outside your hotel right now."
"We're on our way down." She hung up the phone and heaved herself to her broad feet. The claws dug into the carpet, but didn't catch.
"Just a second," Carter said as he leapt to his paws. "I think I took my shoes off. Can't remember." He bent down and fiddled at his paws, and before their eyes a shoe materialized. "Oh, guess I didn't. Nevermind." The wolf slipped the sneaker back over his four-toed paw and it disappeared again. Rob twitched a little as he watched, his long tail tip flicking back and forth in surprise, but after nearly seven years, CM was used to what the Changed now called the 'Shoe-Field'.
They grabbed wallet, locked their rooms, and headed back into the later afternoon heat. They didn't see any other hotel guests, but they did pass one of the cleaning ladies who gave them a brief stare, thne snapped her head back up in surprise. All three tightened but the lady turned away again shaking her head and muttering something to herself.
"Okay, what was that?" Rob asked once they were in the stairwell.
"I don't know," CM admitted. "It's like she saw something that wasn't there."
"Saw us perhaps?" Carter suggested.
"That's never happened before," the she-bear growled under her breath. The stairwell resounded with the heavy tred of their paws. "And even if she did, it was only out of the corner of her eye."
"I'll mention it on the Network when we get back. See if anybody else has seen something like that." Rob kept one hand on the guiderail as he made his way down. His snout lifted thoughtfully. "Maybe she's been taking some drugs that messed with her head. We don't know anything for sure. I'm not going to leap to conclusions."
"Good point," Carter nodded and wagged his tail. "Still, it'd be pretty cool if others could see us as we are."
"No it wouldn't," CM muttered, feeling the weight of her breasts with each bouncing step.
None of them said anything more until they were on the bottom floor and walking out the lobby. All three of them began to pant a little as they stared into the afternoon sun. To their left, two familiar voices began shouting.
Turning out of the sun, they beheld a pair of Changed standing in front of an old blue van. The larger of the two was a bristly boar dressed in white tank-top and shorts. His wispy tail flapped on either side of hearty legs ending in hooves with cloves as big as a man's fist. Beside him was a hedgehog dressed in much the same attire but far shorter and plumper. Long spines poked along his upper arms, out from the back of his shirt, and over the top of the back.
"Jan, Dennis!" CM cried as she picked up her pace. Carter and Rob were at her heels as the five Changed all gathered in the lee of the van. CM patted them both on their arms, being careful not to touch Dennis's spines, and rumbled like a pleased bear. "Good to see you both again."
Jan's little eyes glanced up and down CM's attire and his snout broke into a mirthful grin. "Always good to see more of each other."
Dennis rolled his eyes, Rob chuckled under his breath, Carter guffawed, and CM did her best to ignore the remark. "Jan, Dennis, this is Carter Ryan," CM indicated the black-furred wolf who had managed to regain his composure. "Carter, this is Jan Krazinski, and Dennis Meale, friends of ours who live up this way."
Jan extended his two-fingered hand and grinned. "Pleased to meet you, Carter. Are you from Blacksburg, too?"
"Buffalo," Ryan replied as they shook hands. "Down here on business."
Dennis shook his hand next. The hedgehog's pudgy face wrinkled a little. "Changed business I suppose?"
"Yeah, with Walt--- ooof!" Carter's reply was cut short when Rob elbowed him in the side.
"Sorry guys, we're not supposed to talk about it," the skunk cut in.
CM patted her belly. "So where are we going to eat? I'm starving!"
Jan's snout wrinkled into a grin. "There's a great place few miles down the road. They know how to serve food." The way Jan said the word 'food' implied that he didn't think most restaraunts knew what it was. "Trust me, you won't be hungry for long!" They all voiced their approval and followed Jan around the back of the van to the passenger-side sliding door while Dennis climbed into the driver's seat. Jan jumped into the passenger seat and stuck his head and right arm out, pumping his oddly-shaped fist up and down, "Here come the Changed! Watch out food!"
Carter leaned over and whispered into Rob's ear, "He isn't insane is he?"
The skunk laughed.
Despite the fact that Dennis was a generally quiet hedgehog, he drove with an intensity that surprised Rob. The skunk well remembered CM's warnings the first time they drove out to the Cascade Trail to take their hike and bath. Without doctors who could see thme as they really were they needed to avoid accidents with ruthless discipline. Yet here the hedgehog flew down the main roads passing cars on both the left and the right and taking turns fast enough that Rob's tail fell toward the outside of the turn each time. He didn't even seem worried that a cop might pull them over!
CM noticed it too, because she kept interupting Jan and Carter to yell at the hedgehog. Dennis would not, slow down for a few minutes, and then slowly build up speed again.
They left the highway after a few minutes and followed a two-lane road through rolling green hills filled with horse farms. The road dipped and wove, not nearly as badly as the roads around Blacksburg, but bad enough that the skunk was beginning to smypathize with the bear whose long claws nearly tore chucnks out of her seat. After turning onto an even smaller road, Rob finally decided to add his voice. "Hey, Dennis, can you slow it down? I think I'm going to be sick back here."
"Seriously?" the hedgehog asked. "Fine I'll slow down." And slow down he did. The van no longer lurched about as if it were going to flip over.
"I'm amazed you haven't gotten yourselves killed driving like that!" CM scolded in her Momma Bear voice.
Jan grinned as he leaned to one side in his seat to talk with them. "Ya, I thought the same too. But Dennis drove... what cars were those again?"
"Stock cars," the hedgehog replied. "Only stopped because I can't do it anymore with these spines." He turned back onto a larger road and merged in with the traffic. Apartment buildings and shopping centres loomed in either direction. "Parents said I was going to get killed too. Haven't been in an accident yet."
"Let's not tempt fate," Rob said, eyeing CM. The she bear looked back at him with a 'thank you' in her dark brown eyes. "So do you race bikes too?"
"Not so much," Dennis replied. "You aren't as stable on a bike, so the risk of injury's greater. Bikes are for relaxing. Cars are for racing."
Jan snorted and grinned. "Bikes are for riding and conquering the road."
"You a Jack Kerouac fan?" Carter asked.
The boar blinked in confusion but the smile remained. "If he liked bikes then ya!"
The wolf's tail tried to wag where it was pinned between his back and the seat. "He pracitically invented the romanticism of the road, so yeah, you'd be a fan."
They followed this road past the first set of shopping centers, through a lightly forested area, and then past another set of horse farms. As they neared another highway, Dennis turned the van off at a restaraunt and store which clearly catered to truckers. All the gas pumps came equiped with extra large canopies and most of them were diesel. The parking spaces were long enough for trailers, and a bright neon sign reading 'Open 24 Hours' flashed in red, white, and blue.
"A truck stop?" CM asked incredulously as Dennis parked the van.
Jan nodded and emitted a very pig-like squeal from the back of his throat as he climbed out of the van. "Best food in the area. Run by a Polish couple so they have real food. Oh, they serve American food too for everybody else!"
"Showing a little national pride there are we?" Rob chided as he jumped to the asphalt. It felt hot and grimy beneath his paw pads, but the thrill of working out the kinks in his tail more than made up for the discomfort.
But Jan was already on his way, hooves clopping the asphalt with Dennis and CM right behind him. Carter slammed the sliding door and shrugged his shoulders. "Never eaten at a truck stop before. These guys seem pretty cool though. CM likes them."
Rob's eyes narorwed thoughtfully, but he did not share any of those thoughts evne with himself. Together, the five of them crossed the parking lot where already sat several trucks, some of them with engines still running, to the front door of the old-fashioned but moderately clean restaraunt.
The interior looked like any trcuk stop seen in the movies, long chrome-plated bar along the back behind which pots of coffee brewed and waitresses liesurely made their way back and forth. Stools ranged across the bar and booths along the front windows. Curtains in a red, white and blue checkerboard pattern gave the place an air of Americana, though with the addition of the red and white Polish flag hanging from the backwall beside the clock and menu, it seemed as if the couple were trying a little too hard to fit in.
The scent of oil and grease still pervaded the air, but overwhelming it was the delicious aroma of cooked meats, potatoes, eggs, fries, and other things they couldn't name but knew they'd love to eat in addition to the faint crispness of fresh vegetables and fruits. A few truckers sat at the bar and with a pair of them arose the pungent aroma of cigarettes. They talked quietly to themselves or ate their food. Talk radio blathered from somewhere behind the double swinging doors to the kitchen. A bell on the door tinkled at their entrance.
Everyone turned their heads to look at them then returned to their food. Jan made a big show of inhaling with his porcine snout, and then drummed his hands on his pants. CM bumped him from behind as Rob and Carter slipped inside. The boar took a step forward, hooves clattering on the linolieum.
From a door behind the bar an elderly lady with pronounced nose and peppered grey hair held back in a bun emerged. She was dressed in a white apron with red blouse on underneath. Her face lit up when she saw Jan and Dennis. They widened when she took in Rob and the others. "Oh, you brought friends this time! Do they like to ride too?"
Jan grinned, "Not yet," he then clasped the bruin on the shoulder, "but this one sh... he likes to ride too. Just no bike yet!"
CM twitched at the near slip but kept a smile on her muzzle.
"Well, just place your order right here, and then find any seat you want." The woman spoke with a stronger Polish accent than Jan did but Rob didn't have any trouble following her. She looked at the boar and hedgehog. "Will you want your usual?"
"Ya," Jan replied. "Been looking forward to it!"
"I will too," Dennis said with a half laugh.
The menu hung on the wall next to the Polish flag. Rob studied it for a while, noting that most of the items were as promised typical American cuisine that one could find at any mid-end restaurant. Then there was the list of pierogies, haluskis, and other Polish items that fleshed out the remainder of the menu. The skunk decided to take a chance and ordered one of the pierogies. Carter selected a half-pound cheeseburger. CM was typical CM.
"How big are your portions?" the bear asked, her claws gently tapping the top of her belly.
The woman smiled sweetly and replied, "We have full portions for dinner menu, but smaller lunch portions if you are trying to lose weight."
All five Changed chuckled to one degree or another. "Oh no," CM replied, a little embarrassment slipping into her voice. "No, that's not it. I'm just very, very hungry right now. Hmmm, let's try two of your fried fish dinners, the chicken strips dinner, a side of onion rings and one of applesauce. Oh, what fresh fruit do you have?"
CM caught the attention of nearly everybody in the restaurant with that order. The lady glanced at Jan as if making sure this was okay. The boar nodded and so she wrote it down. "Okay, sir, we will have that ready in a few minutes. Just find a seat anywhere, ya."
Jan guffawed as he picked a booth at the end of the restaraunt that had wraparound seating. Dennis sat on one end, so Carter and Rob slid in the other side. Jan gestured for CM to follow, but she replied, "I'd rather sit on the end if you don't mind. You know."
The boar nodded and managed not to make the sexist comment everyone expected him to. Still, Rob couldn't help but note that Jan had managed to sit right next to the bear. The boar looked very pleased with himself. He leaned back and polished one tusk with a thick hoof-like finger. "See, I told you this place was good."
"We haven't eaten yet, Jan!" Carter said as he shifted in his seat to get his tail comfortable. Rob had managed to pull his tail between his legs. Somewhat uncomfortable, but he was used to it by now.
"Ah, but this place is good and private," Dennis said in a hushed voice. "We've come here before to meet with other Changed. Those truckers will be gone in ten to fifteen minutes, and even if they do listen to us, they won't have a clue what we're saying."
CM frowned, rested her hearty forearms on the table edge, then finally nodded. "Good enough. So, we know you've found more Changed up here. How is the NoVa community coming?"
"There's about seven of us now," Dennis replied in a whisper. "And that's including Sandrick who doesn't come to our meetings. I've heard through the grapevine that there are a few more working in DC but for security reasons can't reveal themselves."
"Only seven?" Rob asked, eyes narrowing. "As big as this area is?"
"That's the problem, ya," Jan said laconically. "Lots of people, but too big for us to see. We find more after August."
"That's something," CM murmured as she shifted about in her seat, "we're going to have to talk about. August is almost on us. In another month we're going to have a lot more Changed."
"You want us to come down to Blacksburg with the other Changed in VA to meet sometime in the next month?" Dennis asked
"Change day falls on a Sunday this year," the bear replied, counting off the dates on her claws. "Rob and I were thinking of booking a restaurant the weekend before and inviting everyone down who could make it. Drive in and out the same day if ya'll had to."
The boar grinned to the bear on his right. He turned a bit in his seat and said, "Dennis and I can stay in a hotel so we can give you more practice riding!"
CM lowered her eyes at that, and tightened her paws into makeshift fists. "That's up to you. Not everyone can afford it."
"So," Dennis asked, looking over at Carter and Rob, "How many more Changed can we expect?"
Before the skunk could stop him, Carter blurted, "At least twice as many. And that's just in new Changed." The skunk wanted to say something, but shook his head and let the wolf blather on. "There's all the Changed that don't know about the Network out there now. With more Changed period, we're probably going to see the Network population go up to at least ten thousand in a year. At least that's what our models say."
"Ten thousand!" Dennis gasped. "It's hard to believe that there are so many."
"Ya!" Jan agreed, though his sanguine amusement kept the shock from his voice. "But at least we'll still be the old timers in at the very beginning!"
"There is that," Rob conceded. "Although those few at the very beginning would still say were all a bunch of newbies."
The boar waved one hoof-like hand. "In another five years we'll be the old timers. You have to think long term."
"Well," CM grumbled, her eyes staring at a well-laden waitress, "my thoughts are particularly short term right now."
Jan erupted with a squealing laugh at that.
Dinner proved delicious but not exquisite. CM enjoyed her fish, chicken, and sides, and also enjoyed the fact that her bill wasn't too exorbitant. Jan took care of the tip for everyone and the five of them went back to the van after saying goodbye to their server. Jan and she talked briefly about Jan's mother and how she was doing but the boar quickly followed them out.
"What's wrong with your mother?" CM asked her friend after he clopped across the asphalt.
Jan frowned, an expression that wrinkled his snout in an unfamiliar way. "It's cancer. Had it off and on for the last four years. Mom's doing okay for now, but we have to keep close watch on her. I visit them on Sundays." A faint smile crept back into his countenance. "If things turn for the worse, I'll tell her just what her son is."
"A pig?" Dennis asked without the slightest trace of humor.
"A boar," Jan replied with pride. "Far better than a pig."
"I'll keep her in my prayers," CM offered and the boar's smile widened.
"I have said many novenas for her, but thank you!" To the bear's surprise, Jan gave her a sudden hug and then a slap on the back. "That's what friends are for, ya!" He jumped into the passenger seat and his good humor appeared to fully return. "So can we take you anywhere else? Still plenty of daylight left."
It was past seven already, but they had at least another hour of sunlight left before twilight would bring its darkening touch. Carter yawned and climbed into the van, "We should probably get back. We've got an early day tomorrow."
CM noted out of the corner of her eye the skunk glancing between her and the boar. "Carter's right," Rob said. "We should be getting back to the hotel. It's been a long and tiring day."
"We could drop you two off," Jan suggested mildly as Dennis climbed in beside him. The hedgehog's spines thrummed as he settled into the driver's seat. The seats were cloth and looked recently upholstered but still had a few holes where the hedgehog's spines got the better of the weave. The boar looked at the bear and grinned. "Want to come over and practice riding? You have to keep practicing to ride. You'll be happy you did when you get your own bike."
CM didn't doubt it, and the thought of taking a little time to ride on their bikes along the lightly travelled roads feeling the wind through her fur appealed greatly to her. It would be nice to see where Jan and Dennis lived too. Every time they'd gotten together, it was Jan and Dennis who rode down to Blacksburg and not the other way around.
"That sounds lovely," she said with a warm smile. She then felt an undo measure of scrutiny coming from the skunk and realized just how utterly feminine her intonation had been. Steeling herself, the bear took a breath and shook her head. "But Carter and Rob are right. We've an early morning ahead of us and it has been a long day. Thank you for the offer though. I'll make it up to you next time."
Jan laughed and settled in his seat. "Sure thing. Dennis, to the Hollywood Inn! Warp Speed!"
"Could we try the speed limit instead?" CM suggested with a laugh hidden behind her fangs.
"Ya, we could give that a try too. Dennis, to the Hollywood Inn! Speed Limit!" Dennis turned the engine over and gave the boar a long stare which coming from a pudgy hedgehog face looked fairly ridiculous. Jan's chest heaved with his mirth and he shook his snout back and forth. "Nope, doesn't quite have the same ring to it."