|Xanadu story universe|
"I hate Florida," Joseph grumbled, waiting for the uniformed National Guardsman to finish checking his faxed paperwork. He couldn't use his car's air conditioning, it was so humid here it iced up, so the Honda tended to overheat. He was left to swelter and bake in the unnatural warmth. He leaned out the window of his decade-old CR-V and couldn't believe this was supposed to be late November. It was like the convention center itself was changing the local weather patterns. Just a few hours north the trees were starting to turn. Here, it still felt like August. "Can you gents hurry things up a little!"
The Guardsman looked even more miserable than he was, and had a rather haunted expression. "Trust me, Mr. Mercer, you don't want to go in there. But everything seems to be in order, so I guess you have to. Picking up a friend, huh?"
Among the papers on the passenger seat were some printouts of digital photos of the friend Joseph was picking up. He had barely looked at them, really. The idea was still very hard to take, even after three weeks of seeing it on the news almost nonstop. Xanadu, so-called "Kubla-Con", where people had become the impossible. The hotel loomed over the landscape in this area of Orlando. Everyone within a mile of the building had been evacuated, perimeters and checkpoints established. Hundreds of thousands of people displaced. There were a more than a few military vehicles around, and choppers patrolling constantly.
And the place still leaked victims like a sieve.
But if he was going to get Nico out of this cushy jail of his, he had to enter Ground Zero.
There was evidence of chaos all around the hotel. A dozen burned out cars in one corner of the parking lot, places where the blacktop had been heated, even turned bubbly. Smells he couldn't identify—and a paddock of what looked like large animals like horses or cows off in the distance. One of them was a shimmering white and had a single long horn. Wait... is that... what... a unicorn?
A forest of TV news antennas from all over the world occupied another corner. Yet another area were trailers and RVs that housed scientists and medical specialists from every major university and government agency. Joseph followed hand-waving directions from the other Guardsmen, pulling up into a reserved parking space a short distance from the main entrance portico. A female soldier met him as he opened his car door.
"There's a couple things I need to tell you before you go in," she said. She was a rather pretty girl, with short dark hair and a statuesque appearance. And she had an even more haunted expression than her squad-mate at the last gate. "One, try not to stare too much. I know what you've seen on the news, but it's nothing to seeing them in person. Two, you enter at your own risk. Magic, comic book superscience—it's possible you'll get zapped by something or someone. No matter how many times we sweep the place, there's always something we missed. Especially don't look in any mirrors. Go in, and you may be signing up for a stay yourself. Can I see your pickup papers?"
Numbly, wondering about the significance of the mirror comment, Joseph handed them to her. She looked them over. "Okay. Go see the bureaucrat down the hall, second door on your left."
Not five steps in, he saw the impossible.
Joseph didn't consider himself furry, as least in the sense of "being furry". He was more in the "liking furry" category. He enjoyed the free art available on the web, but had never commissioned anything for himself. He had also never considered wearing a fursuit. And he only had vague ideas of a furry persona, a seldom-used generic fox on a certain web forum he frequented. And he was the first to admit that he'd simply shut off the TV to avoid the news. Until Nico had called him, he'd just as soon forget anything had happened. This was a fairly easy thing to do from Seattle.
But now, lounging on a lobby couch that had seen better days, was a curvaceous, large-breasted, golden-furred vixen. She watched him with half-lidded eyes, bushy tail swishing gently back and forth. The vixen had impossibly digitigrade feet—and impossibly human blue eyes. Her ears flicked idly, then she ran her tongue over her pointy teeth. "Hello there, handsome," she cooed in a sultry voice, coyly flipping her long blond hair out of her eyes with a toss of her animal head. "Picking up somebody? Down the hall, on the left."
Her tone of voice dripped with innuendo, and she was also utterly naked. Though laying on her stomach, there was nothing overtly in view. She swished her tail hypnotically.
"Er... thanks," he stammered. There was a smell, a sharp musk that tickled his senses. It was actually a little arousing, so he moved on...
But the entire lobby was filled with them now. These were the people who, for the most part, had ended up looking nonhuman enough that returning home was problematic at best. Before the Con, Joseph had read that there were going to be at least hundreds of fursuiters attending, competing for a number of prizes or just showing off. While Kubla-Con was supposed to be a science fiction convention, the furry community Joseph frequented had been adamant about having a significant presence there. The results were still in the hotel, for the most part, since the human (or mostly human) victims had gone home.
There were a couple dozen various furries in view, including six foxes. One, a male dressed in a green lab coat and a pair of goggles situated above his eyes, swaggered over. "Traci! Don't bug the hyoomans!" he chided. "I don't think he's prepared for your perfect golden beauty."
The vixen folded her ears back, then spun around so she was sitting normally. She was a little overripe for Joseph's tastes, and he had a decent collection of sexy vixens on his computer at home. "Oh, I'm not going to ask him for a quick yiff or anything. It's just fun to have so much to show off for once," she said. The golden vixen stood up and sauntered over to the green-lab-coated red fox. She gave him a rather passionate hug and licked him on his furry cheek. "Thanks ever so much, darling. It worked perfectly. I love my body."
"I'm glad my invention pleases you," he replied, panting a little. "I'm still looking for a beautiful lab assistant for a new project, my dear. Perhaps I could interview you more closely?" He said, panting harder.
"Get a room, you two! No yiffing in the lobby!" A deer-man grunted, snorting. "Stupid oversexed foxes!"
Joseph stared at the deer. At the impossibly hoofed legs, the large antlers, the long muzzle. Drawings were one thing. Photomorphs were another. This was a hundred percent in-the-flesh real. And they looked amazingly like they were drawn, in a realistic style. But there was a good deal of physical variation. From a catgirl just with ears and a tail, to what looked like a giant... rat. Oh, shit. That's gotta be him.
The brown rat, the size of a large dog, had paused in the hallway, sniffing the air. Its long, bare tail snaked on the stained carpet. The huge rodent took a moment to wash its face with its forepaws, then retrieved a backpack it had been dragging before it continued on toward where Joseph was supposed to be going.
Joseph swallowed, looking at the handful of paperwork. He had purposefully kept the emailed photos at the back, but now he took them out. Nicodemus Pennell. From software engineer to giant rat.
A few weeks are nowhere near enough time to get used to this. Nico grumbled to himself, grinding his teeth in annoyance at the various obstacles he was faced with.
He'd been lucky to keep his voice, his hands, and his mind—for the most part, anyway; they'd all taken a bit of collateral damage but nowhere near as bad as it could have been. He'd seen a few of the worst cases before they'd all been taken away to various places and some of them still gave him nightmares. But it was hard to keep that in focus considering the rest of what had happened.
Nico snorted. Keeping things in focus, right. He shoved the backpack into the nearest corner of the room, climbing up to perch on it for the precious extra foot of height, and squinted his obsidian eyes while scanning the room for familiar faces.
His vision wasn't really bad, exactly. It was just very different from what he was used to. The shape of his head and snout spread his field of view out enormously and made it hard to look at just one thing. Colors were muted, presumably a tradeoff for the amazing low-light sensitivity he'd gained, and the shapes of stationary objects tended to fade into a background blur. The slightest movement leapt out at him with intense clarity, setting him on edge. Rats were a prey species, after all. And out here in the lobby there were plenty of things to set him twitching.
Sitting up on the backpack and rising to his haunches got his vantage point back to a more familiar height, and also got his nose away from the distracting miasma of scents that had become embedded in the tattered carpet. Nico rubbed his hands over his face a few times, sweeping his whiskers and clearing his senses. This was where Joseph was supposed to meet him. Was he early? Nico kept a wristwatch snugged tight around his left wrist, but considering how hard it was for him to read the dial it was more of a decorative accessory than a useful timepiece. He kept it because it was the only article of his old clothing that he could still reasonably wear.
There were several other people lounging around in the lobby. Traci, of course—he'd scented her distinctive musk well before he'd caught a glimpse of her tan fur that everyone told him was actually golden. Marx the "mad scientist" foxguy was there too, of course—he was always hanging out near Traci, they had some sort of a thing going on. Marx was talking with her agitatedly, asking her questions that she was evidently not sure of the correct answer to, and Nico was glad the two predator-types were keeping each other distracted. A deer-man whose scent was familiar but whose name slipped Nico's mind was also here, they paid each other no mind. And also several ordinary people.
It was one of the more disturbing things about his new senses, but ordinary tended to look very much alike to him now. Beyond gender and approximate age he found himself having to rely on scent to tell them apart. And although he'd known Joseph for years and years, he had no idea what the man's signature scent was like. It was like all of a sudden he'd never met him before.
Two were Guardsmen whose scents were familiar, and one was a woman. That left two men. One was walking through the lobby purposefully, heading in his direction, and Nico curled his tail protectively around the bulging backpack while peering intently at him with trembling whiskers.
The man noticed Nico's attention and veered away. Nico felt his ears flatten slightly in an expression of disappointment, and also a bit of embarrassment. He still wasn't used to other peoples' reactions to him either. Hey, buddy, I didn't want to become a rat... But he dismissed those thoughts from mind. This guy wasn't Joseph.
Nico turned back to look at the remaining man. The man was watching him back, and Nico cocked his head in what he hoped was an inquisitive gesture. The man blinked. "Um, Nico?" He asked.
Nico's ears twitched; Joseph's voice was familiar at least. "Hey, Joseph," he responded—his own voice much squeakier but still easy to comprehend—and raised a pawlike hand in greeting.
Joseph came over to him, moving with an understandable mixture of caution and morbid curiosity. Even with Nico up on his haunches and seated on the backpack Joseph still stood almost twice his height, and Nico forced down the reflexive urge to flee whenever something that size came near him. He'd become adept at overriding that reflex, at least.
"I definitely never took you for the rodent type," Joseph said at last. "I mean, sure, you're a bit weaselly sometimes..."
Nico snorted, exposing his incisors in his best attempt at a grin. "Don't get me started. I came for the Stargate merchandise, maybe get Michael Shanks' autograph on something. But this guy at a costume stand saw my name tag, insisted I should check some of his stuff out... Have you ever heard of a movie called 'The Secret of NIMH'?"
Joseph nodded. He'd heard it mentioned many times in furry fandom circles, and knew it had something to do with intelligent rats. "Never seen it, though."
Nico nodded back. "Me neither. Fortunately. I watched it since then, and it's a good thing I didn't know what the real Nicodemus looked like. He managed to convince me to try on a mask and tail, when... well..."
Joseph didn't know exactly what Nico meant by that, but before he could ask he was cut off by an exasperated growl from the fox-man. Nico froze, suddenly extremely tense, as Marx turned his attention away from Traci and focused it on him.
"Have you seen my ionic diffusion capacitor?" He demanded. "You keep sniffing around Traci's room; she's tidied up and I can't find anything!" The red fox pulled on the fur-like hair atop his head.
"Um, what?" Joseph asked in bewilderment, caught in the middle.
"Mad scientist," Nico explained, trying to keep the tension out of his already high-pitched voice. "Marx, I-"
The fox-man's expression became very, very intense. "Mad? You dare to call me mad? The fools at the institute called me- uh..." Marx blinked, suddenly realizing he was making a scene and that the two Guardsmen were paying particular attention. Traci seemed to realize what was up as well, rising quickly to her feet and slinking sexily over to slip her furry paw around Marx's lab-coated elbow.
"Maybe I can help you look for it in my room," she purred.
Marx blinked again, gears jamming briefly in his mind as his train of thought jumped several different tracks. Joseph watched the fox-man's yellow eyes go crossed momentarily. "This isn't over, rodent," he snarled at last. "I'll have my revenge." And then with that he allowed Traci to lead him away.
"Revenge?" Joseph asked, tension dispelled but still bewildered.
Nico shook his head. "A standard line, he'll forget about it soon. A lot of the people here... aren't entirely right in their heads." Nico sighed, climbing down off his backpack onto all fours. "Speaking of which, can we get the hell out of here please?"
Joseph nodded, bending down to pick up Nico's backpack with a slight grunt of surprise at how heavy it was. "We have more paperwork to sign off, first. They sent me what must've been a fifty page fax."
The huge brown rat snorted. "I know, I know. The government is being really careful about this. They want to keep track of everyone. And if you actually have powers, they want to keep you locked up for a while. National security, you know."
They spent the next twenty minutes in front of a sour-faced woman who had seen it all. Nico-the-rat didn't phase her. She dutifully read off the rules and responsibilities of remanding Nico over to Joseph's legal custody. The papers were a cobbled together modification for foster parents and adopting a pet from an animal shelter. Thankfully the convention's main organizer—very wealthy Eric Winters, a victim himself—had put his lawyers to work immediately and pushed an injunction against state or federal government taking victims' property and civil rights.
At least, for the most part.
"What I don't get is how fast the government put all this together," Joseph said. "You'd think they'd just toss everyone into a military base for a couple years while everything gets sorted out. Instead, they're allowing all the humans to go home, and you..."
"Get to be your giant pet rat. I'm not too happy about it either, Joe," Nico said. "Let's just take it day by day. Or even minute by minute, if we have to. The next few years are going to be a total grind."
By the time they were finished, Joseph felt like wilting. The oppressive, unnatural heat, the unending stress of the situation, actually seeing Nico for the first time, and to top it off, well over three thousand miles in four days. Seattle was a very long drive from Orlando, and he had to fit this thing into his two weeks of vacation. He had camped across the nation with a small dome tent and his other gear he normally used for going out in the Cascade wilderness. But now all he wanted was a soft bed and about twelve hours of uninterrupted slumber.
The lobby was even busier when they returned. Marx and Traci were gone, but there were more than enough furries to make Joseph forget his exhaustion for a few minutes. They now lived in a world of furries and superheroes. There were talking animals, mythical creatures, werewolves, vampires, aliens, and more than a few strange perversions from the Adult Contest, if the rumors were accurate.
Beyond the overtly nonhumans, there were Vulcans, a few Borg, wizard, witches, a number of Harry Potters and associated wizards from Hogwarts, hobbits, elves, dwarves. The list went on and on. And it wasn't just that the Con-goers had been physically changed. They had costumes that had sometimes included fantastic machines. From mere props to real death rays and phasers. But it all had the very same source.
Xanadu was Ground Zero of a blast that would reverberate forever.
Magic was in the world again.
"Just what is in this backpack?" Joseph asked, hefting the stuffed pack up with some difficulty. "Wow. I think if you put any more in it it'd burst."
"A few useful things," Nico replied, rubbing his handpaws together. Joseph had pulled the CR-V under the portico to avoid the oven-hot blacktop. "A bit of this, a bit of that..."
"You're clear to take it with you, right?" the human asked. "There's nothing in here..."
Nico cringed a little as his friend and co-worker lifted it into the back of the Honda. "It's mostly just junk. Useful junk, I hope. But junk. I...I can't help it. I've been able to fight off a lot of ratty behaviors, but I need an outlet, so... Um. Guess I'm a packrat."
The rat looked into the back of the CR-V. "Camping stuff? You camped all the way cross country?"
Joseph snorted. "This surprises you? You can go ahead and get into the back seats. And I hate to say it, but stay down low. I don't want to get stopped by any cops, okay?" Joseph yawned widely. "I got a room at a hotel about a hundred miles north. Everywhere else is full of refugees from around here. I have some food back there in the cooler, if you're hungry."
The rat swallowed, then nodded before hopping in back. Joseph was having a little trouble connecting the voice with the rat's lip movements. They did match, in a way that reminded him of a Pixar movie. The same with his eyes—they were rodentine black orbs, but nevertheless had an unquestionable human intelligence that put him at some ease. And the brown rat sure talked like Nicodemus did.
But ever since that first call two weeks ago, Joseph felt like he was being carried along by events far outside his control. And as he stopped at the gate and had the Guardsman look over his paperwork one final time, he turned to look back at the hotel parking lot. There was a strange shimmer there, surrounding a group of cars. If he squinted, for a moment he caught a glimpse of a green lab coat and the nude, golden figure of Traci. But then it vanished into the heat.
"It's all good, Mr. Mercer," the Guardsman said, taking off his helmet to wipe his forehead. "Good luck to both of you. You're gonna need it."
Nico couldn't see much of the road from his "bed" behind the front seats. He curled his tail around himself and actually found he started to doze off to the gentle rocking of the Honda's suspension. The mini-SUV smelled somewhat comforting. Joseph's frequent camping gave it a deep pine-and-dirt scent that even blotted out the diesel and exhaust fumes from outside. He felt relaxed for the first time in three weeks, now that he was out of the convention center. Away from those crazy foxes.
Eventually the car came to a stop. Nico carefully lifted his head. "Where are we?"
"Ocala... aaaaaa," Joseph informed, breaking into a yawn. "I swear it's thirty degrees cooler out there now. We're at a Hampton Inn. Wish me luck, Nico. I'm going to try the direct method for bringing you in first."
"Maybe they allow pets?" Nico squeaked hopefully, flicking his ears.
"You're not exactly a pet. Here goes."
Minutes passed as Nico awaited judgement. Maybe I can pretend to be a dog, he thought. But his long, naked tail and buck teeth ruled that out.
Eventually he heard the sliding doors open, and the sound of Joseph speaking calmly and firmly to someone he assumed was the hotel manager. "...so my offer stands. I'll pay double the normal rate. I just want a room for the night for me and my poor friend Nico. He's had a very rough time..."
"I'll bet," the gravelly-voiced woman replied skeptically. "You're not the first I've seen, ya know. I've had all sorts of weirdos through here already from that Xanadu place. If I didn't need the business so much... Well, let me see your friend."
Joseph tapped on the glass. "I'm going to open the door, Nico. Okay?"
The brown rat looked up at his co-worker and nodded, sitting up on his haunches.
The door opened. The woman stared. The rat waved, then hunched over, feeling like he wanted to make himself as small as a real rat. "Uh... hi there," he muttered.
"I've seen a lot of weird things lately," the manager stammered. "But I ain't never seen..."
"Maybe we should move on," Joseph said, closing the door again.
"Yes," the woman replied, swallowing. "Yes, I think you should."
Joseph got back into the CR-V and started the engine, then paused to drum his fingers on the steering wheel. Nico heard him click his teeth together. He always did that when he was thinking hard. "Okay, buddy. Second choice."
They eventually found a Motel 6 about twenty miles further north. The hotel layout was different from the Hampton Inn, an L-shape with exterior doors. There were only a few people around. Nico slipped inside without anyone seeing, then went and hid in the bathroom. Joseph brought in a few things behind him, including the rat's overfull backpack. "Junk, huh?" he said, setting it on the edge of the bed. "C'mon, Nico. What's..."
The worn nylon bag tipped over and landed on the floor with a heavy thump, the zipper burst open and spilling forth its contents. Brass doorknobs, some silverware, pieces of what looked like chrome. A few deflated mylar balloons. Anything that glittered, and for the most part it really did look like junk. "Oh, crap," Nico said nervously, scuttling over to the now-ruined backpack.
"Sorry about that," Joseph apologized, a bit taken aback. "Heh..."
"It's okay, really," the rat replied, gathering up all the spilled items. "It's mostly just stuff I found around the hotel that the Guardsmen didn't mind me keeping. Bits of this and that. I explored a lot of the hotel. Met a lot of interesting people."
"Like a those foxes? They seemed more than just 'interesting.'"
"You could say that," Nico grumped. "A lot of the people at Xanadu were affected mentally. He was in the room right next to mine, though, so I bumped into him a lot. He wanted me as his lab rat."
"Well, I've got you away from there now. No need to worry about those people any more." Joseph sat down on the bed with a heavy sigh. "Let's just focus on the drive home for now. It's going to be a long few days."
Nico nodded, pushing his pack out of the way under the table. A long few days. And then...? He gave a little sigh of his own. He had managed to keep his mind off of the long-term implications of his situation until now, but while getting away from Xanadu was a relief it did force him to confront the "real world" outside. In a way, he was kind of dreading his homecoming—the return to familiar surroundings and people while still stuck in this unfamiliar body was going to be hard to deal with. Bad enough trying to get used to how Joseph looked to him now. He had a hard time simply interpreting his old friend's facial expressions.
"You hungry?" Joseph interrupted Nico's train of thought. Joseph was watching Nico curiously, probably having some difficulty with the big rat's expression himself.
Nico shook his head. "I'm fine. Just a little beat." He stood up and stretched all four limbs, giving a tremendous yawn that promptly set Joseph yawning in sympathy despite the unsettling display of huge incisors. "Heh. You wouldn't believe how messed up my sleep cycle's been."
"Know what you mean." Joseph lay back on the bed. He probably didn't, really—he was pretty sure rats were nocturnal for starters—but the drive out here had been pretty hard on him too. Even though he was definitely hungry himself, he figured he could put that off until morning. "I'm thinking I should get some shut-eye. Need anything else before bed?" Nico shook his head again.
It didn't take very long for Joseph's breathing to settle into a soft sleeping rhythm. Nico stayed restless for a while longer, though; certain rodentine urges were pressing on the back of his mind. Once he was sure he wasn't being watched he eased his restraint to give them vent. He sniffed along the base of every wall in the little room, exploring both the shape of the place and the scents of the many previous inhabitants until he was satisfied it was safe here. Then, keeping as quiet as possible to avoid waking Joseph, he pulled the top sheets off of the other bed and dragged them over to the far corner of the room.
He had tried many times back at the Xanadu hotel, but there was just no way for him to get remotely comfortable for sleep while perched up on top of a human mattress any more. He nudged and prodded the pile of sheets until they were formed into a nest. He had to raise his self-restraint once more to keep from trying to shred the sheets a bit to increase their fluffiness, but eventually the rat in the back of his mind was satisfied. Curling up inside, muzzle poking out to keep alert even in sleep, he finally dozed off too.
They were both awakened the next morning by a knock on the door. Nico shot bolt upright on his haunches, instantly alert and whiskers a-tremble, while Joseph groaned and took a moment before awareness returned enough for him to feel alarmed. "Room service!" A throaty voice announced, and the knock came again.
Joseph sat up with a groan of annoyance that turned into a grunt of surprise at the nest Nico had built for himself in the corner. The giant rat noticed his attention and his ears twisted in an expression Joseph guessed was probably embarrassment. "Crap. What time is it?" He glanced at the clock radio; just past 9:00. He'd slept in, but he'd slept in his clothes so at least he didn't need to change. Joseph got to his feet and shuffled groggily toward the door.
"Wait," Nico squeaked quietly, hopping out of the pile of sheets and cautiously approaching the door to sniff at its base. Joseph frowned. Then it dawned on him; since when did Motel 6 have room service?
Nico gave a little snort, ears flattened against skull, and scampered back into the bathroom to hide. Clearly, he'd scented something amiss. Joseph walked as softly as he could over to the door to peer through the peephole.
The bright blue eye of a golden vixen peered back. Joseph stifled a gasp of surprise. She seemed uncomfortable, shifting her weight from paw to paw and swishing her enormous tail while giving an occasional nervous glance back at a white van parked nearby. "Try the next one!" Marx hissed from the open driver's side window.
"I think I smell-" Traci's objection was cut off with an urgent wave, and she turned to move on to the next door. Despite her uncomfortable demeanor she still moved with a sexy grace that seemed completely reflexive and Joseph couldn't help but give her a lingering glance through the Venetian blinds.
What were they doing here? Once Traci was out of sight Joseph checked to make sure all the locks were secure before stepping back from the door. Nico peered out from the bathroom. "She's gone?" His voice was tight, somewhere between nervousness and possibly outrage.
Joseph nodded and spoke softly. "Just to the next room, though. Marx is outside too. I think they're looking for someone." He looked meaningfully at Nico.
Nico spread his handpaws in a broad shrug. "They're nuts. Just like plenty of others that were left back at Xanadu, though. I don't know why they're following me."
"Marx still wants his lab rat?"
"I never agreed to anything, I swear!" Nico huffed. "He made some weird claims about building a ray that could 'fix' everyone, but nobody's managed anything like that. I think he's just nuts."
Joseph nodded. He could certainly believe that. It left the question of what to do about them now, though. Fortunately the question seemed to answer itself in fairly short order; Nico's ears perked up and a moment later Joseph could hear the distant wail of a police siren approaching as well. Traci came away from the door she was up to, hurrying over to Marx's van and climbing back inside.
With a high-pitched whine, the van vanished. Joseph blinked. Invisibility? Teleportation? Whatever the heck the crazed fox had come up with, at least they were gone. He relaxed slightly. "I guess someone called the cops and reported weirdos from Xanadu nosing around."
Nico came out of the bathroom, climbing up onto the heater in front of the window to peer outside with him. "Good. If they find him wandering around outside Xanadu, maybe they'll lock him up."
Joseph grimaced. "I've got your papers, but maybe we shouldn't get involved in this. I kind of smuggled you into this room, after all..."
Nico blinked, then jumped down and started trying to secure the broken zipper on his backpack that was still spilling bits of treasured junk from last night. Joseph sighed, turning to his own meagre luggage. He'd been hoping for a shower and a meal before hitting the road again, but it looked like they were going to be in a hurry.
It was tight, but they pulled out of the parking lot just as the police car arrived and for whatever reason the cops decided not to bother with them. Perhaps they'd been told about the van, perhaps they just didn't care or have the manpower, it didn't matter. Joseph and Nico were back on the way home.
Joseph easily settled into his driving rhythm. The Honda had nearly 300,000 miles on it. He'd already had the engine rebuilt once, preferring to keep an old, reliable vehicle rather than invest in a new one that would depreciate the moment he drove it off the lot. The CR-V had been to Alaska, Maine, Mexico, and now Florida, a state that he otherwise wouldn't have bothered with. The state wasn't exactly known for its mountains, and that's where Joseph liked to spend his vacation time. Unfortunately he was using his year's vacation time to pick up Nico instead of the trip to Mt. McKinley he'd planned for next year.
There was little traffic, the economy of the Southeast had simply ground to a halt the past few weeks. He crossed over the Georgia border going eighty-five miles and hour without the state troopers bothering, since everyone else was going that speed too. Nico rode in the "nest" in the foot-well between the front seats and back, saying little, though Joseph heard the occasional heavy sigh.
The more miles from Xanadu he put behind them, the safer Joseph felt. To sate his hunger he grabbed a couple of granola bars from the bag on the passenger seat, but they wouldn't sate him for long. Just south of Atlanta his stomach finally growled loudly enough. "Maybe we should stop to eat," Nico suggested. "I'm feeling peckish, myself. And I wouldn't mind stretching my legs a little, if we can find someplace out of the way."
"Good idea," Joseph admitted. He started looking for food signs, avoiding any exit where it looked like fast food or Waffle House were the only things available. He twice pulled off the freeway and found no place for Nico to get out to move around.
"I don't mind staying holed up in here, Joe," Nico reassured after the third attempt. "Rats are fine in small places."
"One more try," he said.
It was a Tuesday afternoon, and the parking lot at the Cracker Barrel was nearly empty, with only a few cars and a truck or two. He pulled into a parking space in the corner of the lot, where the blacktop was covered in leaf litter from the late November season. He estimated it was somewhere in the low-sixties. He opened the rear door on the side that faced away from the restaurant.
"Smells like pancakes and burgers," Nico said, whiskers twitching. "Rats can eat just about anything. I don't care what you bring me."
"I'll try not to take long," Joseph replied. "I'd like to try and hit Nashville today."
"That far?" Nico sputtered. "That's almost seven hundred miles from Orlando!"
The older man shrugged. "I've done a thousand in a day, Nico. Only a couple times, granted. But I've done it. Don't sweat it. I'm going to get some food."
He was just ordering from the menu—something to eat now, and something "for the road"—when a high-pitched wine, somewhat like a jet engine, flared directly over the rooftop. The waitress plugged her ears, but the sound only got louder until it came from at the front door. And then...
A hum filled the air. Joseph's muscles froze, still grasping the menu, mouth open to order a burger and fries. Strangely, he found he could still blink and move his eyes, which told him that everyone else in the sparsely populated restaurant had the very same problem. A strange paralysis. What the hell?
The explanation marched in a minute or so later. The golden vixen was completely nude, her breasts bouncing gently with every step. Behind her came the green-coated, goggled, red-furred Marx with that same intense expression Joseph had seen in the hotel, though he was more watching his new assistant strut around like a dancer at a strip bar. "Darling, it worked!" she squealed.
"But of course, my dear. The principles behind the Paralytic Field—"
Traci walked over to her mad fox and tickled his chin with her claw tips. "Focus, darling, focus," she purred. "Remember what we came for."
His tongue hung out of his mouth for a moment, before the fox furry licked his nose. "Of course, of course." He reached into his pocket and took out a very odd-looking device that resembled a mix between a BlackBerry, an early Star Trek phaser, and for some reason, from the rotors that started to spin on the top, a tiny helicopter. "Greetings, ladies! I am Marx, foxy scientist extraordinaire!
"And one of you have my ionic flux capacitor! I want it back!" He held up the gun and flipped a switch. It started to whirr and hum, floating up in midair so it hovered right next to the red fox's head, muzzle pointing in whatever direction he was looking. Then he shrugged. "No matter. One mustn't let setbacks interfere with the progress of SCIENCE!"
Joseph felt his stomach clench. Just what was he planning to do to us? Including himself, there were eight people in the restaurant. Five women, three men. Thankfully nobody under the age of twenty-five.
"It pleases me to present to the world, for the very first time, the Vixenator 5000!" Marx announced. He scanned the room. "Ah, but I require test subjects. You hyooman females, stand up and form into a line, please. I need a control group."
As if they were rag dolls or mannequins, their bodies obeyed the command as Traci moved tables and chairs aside. Three of them were middle-aged women who probably had children at home, and one elderly woman with snow-colored hair who was probably having a heart attack, if the look in her eyes was any indication. The hovering gun landed in Marx's hand again. He pushed a few buttons. "Let's see. Purple, blue, pink, red, and white," he announced. He smiled at his golden girlfriend. "A rainbow, my dear. Companions for you.
"Zap sequence!" he commanded.
In quick order, a beam of the named colors shot out and zapped each of the women in order. The effects were immediate, and Joseph couldn't believe his eyes. In fact, he had to shut them tightly. The strange sound, reminding him of celery being crunched up, filled his ears anyway. Only when the disconcerting sounds went away did he open his eyes again.
Standing there, now in outfits far more revealing than anything they were wearing before, were five vixens. Their physiques were nearly identical, except for the color of their fur. Marx had broken out a clipboard and was busily writing down observations, nodding and making little monosyllables of concentration. "Interesting. Results as expected. Perfect."
"Almost as gorgeous as me," came Traci's voice from behind Joseph. Then she draped her black-furred arms over his shoulders, removing the menu from his unresisting hands. He could see the tip of her muzzle right next to his left ear and felt her breasts pressing against his back. "We're going to need more tods, darling, if we want enough genetic diversity for a breeding population. How about this one?"
Marx shook his head. "That is not the objective of this experiment, my dear. We need at least ten vixens for each tod! Now, you hyooman males, please to stand next to the vixens. Form a line, my dears!"
Like the women before him, Joseph's body responded to the command like a badly-programmed robot. He stood at the very end of the line, unable to see the other two men next to him, looking at the exotic golden beauty of Traci and wondering if that was now in his future.
"Let's go one at a time for this one," Marx said. "Single sequence, red. Zap!"
The same bone-crunching sounds filled the air. Joseph's shirt felt wet, soaked with sweat so that it stuck to him. Traci looked from him to Marx's newest victim, tilting her head. The mad scientist muttered something. "It looks like you're getting your tod anyway, Traci. Disappointing." Scribble scribble. More observations.
"Sequence black. Zap!" Marx said.
This time the changes happened right next to him, and he could actually see the poor middle-aged man change. He caught a glimpse of his chest thrusting forward into what was obviously a pair of breasts. His whole body seemed to go scrunch as he grew shorter... Joseph shut his eyes, unable to look.
"Oh my!" Traci exclaimed. "But... oh. Looks like only a partial success, darling."
"Total gender inversion, yes," Marx said agreeably. "But only ears and tail. A pity." His tone of voice changed, then he stood right in front of Joseph. "No worries. We still have one more attempt in this experimental group! What color do you think for this one?"
Ohshitohshitohit! Joseph thought, staring down the barrel of the strange gun.
"Silver," Traci replied. Joseph felt one of her claws on his cheek. "To compliment my golden self, of course. If I can't have another tod, I'll have a girlfriend. It helps to swing both ways."
"Of course, of course," Marx replied. "Sequence silver. Zap!"
Nicodemus lay curled in his backseat nest, restless and bored, waiting for Joseph to return. It had only been a few minutes since he'd left—Nico kept checking his watch, trying to occupy himself with the effort of making out the numbers—but it was already weighing heavily on him.
He'd never liked having to depend on others. Nico had been a very independent sort all his life, making his own decisions and going his own way; considering his rather poor family situation he'd always preferred it like that. His transformation had thrown all that for a serious loop. He couldn't even depend on himself any more, the strange impulses of his new body sometimes almost impossible to keep in check. And now he had finally hit bottom and become the legal ward of someone else. Virtually a pet. He'd joked about it but it really did gnaw at him a bit.
At least it was to Joseph. Nico trusted Joseph more than anyone else he could think of. They'd known each other long before they'd become co-workers, meeting in anime club in college and initially hitting it off simply due to their similarly 'biblical'-sounding names. Neither of them were particularly religious, it was just one of those random coincidences that ended up sparking a friendship. It was ironic that a coincidence involving Nico's full name had now changed his life a second time.
I should finally get around to legally changing it... Nico sighed, tucking the tip of his muzzle under a handpaw. Maybe when I get my license tags or something. He tried to settle in for the wait and put all such thoughts out of mind.
Moments later he succeeded completely as the familiar high-pitched whine of Marx's van reappearing reached his ears. Nico surged up out of his nest and peered over the lower edge of the CR-V's window, nose twitching but otherwise frozen in alarm.
Holy shit! What do I do? The van was roughly between him and the restaurant. He felt like he was cornered; even though there were other escape routes outside the car, he didn't want to just run off randomly into the unknown neighborhood. Should I call Joseph? Shit, he's got the cell phone. Do I...? The distinctive green-coated and gold-furred pair of foxmorphs got out of the van and Nico tensed, considering running anyway, but was relieved a moment later when they turned away from him.
They were headed into the restaurant. "Shit," Nico squeaked quietly. It was Joseph who was in danger now.
Marx was a loon, one of the victims of Xanadu who'd been completely overwhelmed by whatever character he'd been imagining when the massive wave of magic had hit the convention. But he'd been a relatively 'safe' loon as these things went, content to ramble and tinker meaninglessly in his room. That had started to change a few days back when Traci had hooked up with him. She was a different sort of cracked, someone more like Nico himself; she hadn't lost her old self in the transformation but had subsequently succumbed to the instincts that came with her new body. In her case, disturbingly sexy instincts. She'd even tried to seduce him at one point, ostensibly in aid of Marx's plan to have him as his 'lab rat.' Nico had been glad to get away from those two, National Guard presence or no.
But they'd followed him, and now Joseph could be in trouble because of it. Nico ground his teeth in helpless frustration as the two foxes set up a tripod with a small dish aimed right at the restaurant and then went inside carrying some dangerous-looking gear with them. Marx had been busy in that room of his.
Nico wished he knew exactly what Marx had been busy at, though. He'd poked around the fox's room a few times—rodentine curiosity overcoming rodentine caution whenever the room was empty for long enough—and hadn't been able to comprehend a thing he'd seen in there. Marx's ramblings had been of little help. Maybe the dish was a jammer of some sort, to prevent the police from being called like they had back at the motel?
The foxes had been inside for at least a minute now. If they were searching for him they wouldn't find a trace of his scent in there aside from what was on Joseph, so they should be coming out soon. What was taking so long? Why hadn't anyone else run out of there? Nico couldn't make out much through the tinted windows but he thought he could see other people standing motionless in a line. Perhaps they were robbing the place? He just didn't know.
A strange light flared inside. Nico cringed. They were doing something in there and he had to do something about it. He unlocked the car door and pushed it open, cautiously poking his head outside to sniff the air. Gasoline, exhaust, foxes, humans... Another flash inside, smaller this time. Bah. Quit stalling, rat! He climbed down onto the pavement and began scurrying furtively through the parking lot, crouched low enough on all fours to see under the cars in case anything else was on the prowl.
He reached the edge of the last row of cars before the place where Marx's van was parked and hesitated once again. The open space sparked yet another surge of instinctive caution, his hindbrain not liking the combination of daylight and lack of cover, but there was a third flash of light and Nico was close enough this time to hear disturbing crunching noises accompanying it. Whatever was going on in there had to be disrupted now. He forced himself out and darted across to the back of the van where the tripod was set up.
The dish was a jerry-rigged mess of tinfoil, coat hangers, circuit boards and other less identifiable components. An array of LEDs on the back was blinking quite actively and Nico sat up on his haunches to peer at it, momentarily entranced by the display despite all the other competing stresses of the situation. Pretty...
There was another flash of light from the windows and Nico snapped himself out of it. Gah. Stupid rat! He gave the tripod a shove, toppling it to the ground.
A commotion instantly erupted inside the restaurant, an outburst of angry yelling... and yipping? Nico blinked, first startled and then with a chill of primal fear down his spine. He backed away from the fallen tripod, crouching down halfway under the rear bumper of the van for protection. He really wanted to be back inside the car right now.
After a moment his fear was fully realized as Traci burst out of the restaurant door, half-dragging Marx along with her by the back of his collar, pursued by a whole pack of angry yapping vixens. They were all wearing sexy outfits and their fur had startling hues; two were bright red, one was blue, and one was pink of all things. But the clothing and colors didn't really register over the simple fact that six huge predators were coming right for him. Nico gave an inarticulate squeak and cringed the rest of the way under the cover of the van.
"No, my vixens! How can you turn on me, your creator!? I gave you life!" Marx was in full mad science mode, waving his strange black ray gun even as he stumbled awkwardly after Traci.
She dragged him up to the side door, yanked it open, and shoved him in. "Drive, darling, drive!"
Oh shit! Nico flattened himself against the ground as the engine turned over, frantically glancing around for a direction that didn't have fox paws stomping around. There was nowhere to go. He curled his tail up around himself to keep it from getting run over.
The engine's roar rose rapidly into a whine, accompanied by the whirrs and clunks of other strange mechanisms. Vents opened in the undercarriage and there was a tremendous blast of hot wind all around Nico that made him clench his eyes shut and squeal with terror. The wind lessened quickly, fortunately, and the whine of the van faded away with it. Nico cracked an eyelid.
The van had gone straight up. He was huddled on the pavement completely unharmed, not even singed.
He was, however, still surrounded by four very angry and confused-looking vixens. They stared at each other for a long moment. Then Nico's stunned instincts caught up with him and he darted away in a flash, dodging through their legs and back into the maze of parked cars.
It was quite a few minutes before Nico got his wits back about him, and quite a few minutes more before he dared come back out of hiding. The strange vixens hadn't pursued him; on the contrary, they'd evidently been just as startled by him as he had been by them. By the time he peered around the corner at the restaurant again their scariness had faded significantly.
The pink one was actually crying, sitting at the curb with her muzzle between her knees being comforted by the blue one. The two reds were a short distance away and seemed to be lost in stunned amazement examining themselves. It was a strangely familiar scene. Nico had seen these sorts of reactions a lot back at Xanadu.
Joseph hadn't come back out of the restaurant yet. Nico examined the four intently. He had a momentary spark of concern when he realized that although both of the reds were dressed the same and looked almost identical one of them was actually male, but that quickly passed. If that was Joseph why hadn't he come back to the car?
No, Joseph must still be inside. There had been four flashes, and there were four foxes out here. With a tremendous sense of relief Nico realized he must have escaped whatever mayhem Marx had let loose in there.
Nico's ears pricked to the sound of distant police sirens. Second time today, he grumbled to himself. But it gave the situation new urgency. He had to go in and get Joseph before the cops arrived or once again he feared being blamed for whatever had happened. Steeling himself against instinct, Nico took a deep breath and padded out toward the door.
The foxes all turned to stare at him. "It's that rat..." The blue one murmured under her breath.
Nico grimaced nervously. "I wasn't with those other foxes. I'm from Xanadu. I've got a friend who was giving me a ride home. I think he's still inside."
Perhaps it was simply the case that too many impossible things had happened in quick succession already, but none of the new foxes seemed to have trouble with that. The blue vixen just nodded, and even rose to open the door for Nico when he padded cautiously up to it. Nico slipped inside.
The place was a bit of a mess from the sudden rush to the door, tables and chairs upended, and from Nico's perspective down on the floor it was hard to see anything much through the forest of furniture. He glimpsed a human in a uniform—presumably one of the restaurant staff—peering nervously from behind the counter; his slight movement caught Nico's eye easily despite his attempt to stay hidden. Nico decided it was best to let him think he was still unnoticed.
There was a soft sobbing coming from a little farther in. Nico crept through the fallen furniture until he got a clearer view of what was going on at ground level. Lying on the floor was a woman, almost human but with big triangular black ears and a huge white-tipped, black fox's tail erupting from her seat. She was curled up on fetal position, and a white vixen was crouched next to her attempting to give some comfort. Wait, two more? Nico sniffed intently. He could scent Joseph nearby now. What was going on?
The white vixen noticed him. "Careful, beastie," she said warily. "I don't know what's going on but I seem to be pretty spry now. I'll whup you somethin' good..."
Nico shook his head and sat back on his haunches, raising his paws in what he hoped would be interpreted as a gesture of inoffensiveness. "I'm not with the others who did this. I'm just looking for my friend... Joe?" Nico blinked.
Lying just beyond the black-tailed fox-woman, out of sight until Nico had risen up, was a human woman with strange, silvery hair. She was dressed in a snug blue-grey tank top and cutoff stonewash jeans. Quite similar to the clothing that Joseph had been wearing. She also had quite a nice figure, like the rest of the new vixens. Even as a rat Nico could appreciate that.
The woman looked up at the sound of Nico's voice and she stirred, propping herself up on one elbow to look at him with wide green eyes. "Nico," she murmured softly, pushing back her long hair with her free hand. "What... what do I look like?" she asked in a quavering voice.
"Aw, geez." The police would be here any minute and Joseph was obviously in no condition to run. Nico dropped back to all fours and sighed.
The police closed off the restaurant, keeping Marx's victims all in one place while they took depositions and generally gawked at the seven vixens and one tod. Joseph wasn't unhappy with that, since it kept their eyes off of her. She could sit by herself and stare at this strange new body. She simply could not resist cupping her breasts and giving them the occasional squeeze just to remind herself that this wasn't a delusion.
The new plumbing further down did not bear thinking about just yet.
"Stop poking at them, dear," the white vixen who had been an elderly woman said. Her voice sounded just as sultry and attractive as Traci's, and the blue-eyed fox seemed more unflappable than the rest of the new vixens. "They're not going anywhere."
"Well, until a half hour ago they weren't even here!" Joseph pointed out. "Look at me! I shouldn't have cleavage!"
The white vixen didn't have an answer for that one. Instead she took a seat next to her and examined her paw-like hands. "Well, just take it a day at a time, dear. I swear, I haven't felt this good for fifty years!" she yipped. "But I ain't human no more, neither. God's really thrown me a new challenge." She swished her tail.
"I look like cotton candy!" the pink vixen who had been the waitress wailed. The policeman interviewing her clutched his pen and looked like he needed a cold shower.
"Joe, if it's any consolation, I must've met a dozen people who got their genders changed at the hotel," Nico reassured. "There was a whole crossdressing contest going on in one of the meeting halls. We could probably get in contact with someone..."
"FBI, Division Six."
The entire room turned to look at two men in black suits and dark glasses who had just entered. They were flashing ID badges that looked official, but at least one of the state troopers had enough wits to point out the obvious. "Wait a second. You two are from that Xanadu place like that rat!"
"This time we're actually official," said a man who looked a lot like Wil Smith. The duo looked more like their cartoon counterparts than the versions from the movies. "Agent Kay and I realize that we're not who we were, exactly. But given the shortage of qualified personnel for dealing with strange shit like this, even if our MiB memories are false ones, we're as good as it gets. They decided to put our skills to good use. Now, what happened here?"
The male trooper peered at the badges, then scratched his head with the tip of his pen. "A pair of mad scientist... um... foxes used some kind of ray gun to change... well... two of them were men and are now women." He stammered, brow beaded with sweat. "Fuck, this is unbelievable shit!"
"You don't say," Joseph said with a sneer. "You're looking at it and we're living it!"
"We've been tracking these perps ever since they escaped Xanadu," said "Agent Jay". "I can vouch that a male friend—who I assume is now one of these vixens—of the rat picked him up from the hotel yesterday then proceeded to a Motel 6. Apparently the perps were looking for someone, and these two left the motel before the police arrived." The black-suited man looked at the newly-female Joseph and the giant brown rat. "What or who do you suppose they were looking for?"
"I thought they wanted me," Nico said. "I mean, Marx's tried to make me into his lab rat for days now. But... he walked right by me."
"He said something about an 'Ionic Flux Capacitor'," said the white vixen.
"The backpack," Joseph said, folding an arm under her breasts. "What do you think, Nico? That guy would put MacGyver to shame the way he puts things together. It could be any piece of junk you picked up."
"It's not junk!" Nico said defensively. Then his ears drooped. "Fine, I guess it is."
"We'll have to take the backpack, ma'am, just to be safe," said 'Agent Kay.' "Can you take us to it? We can probably let you go on your way after you sign a few forms. We have more than enough witnesses to verify what happened here. Your ID and bank accounts will still be valid, though you'll still have some trouble using them for a period."
"I can't go home like this!" Joseph said, standing up with a bounce from her chest. As if she needed the reminder. "I live in Seattle! I'm three thousand miles from home!"
Kay sighed. "The present shortage of manpower has to be focused on more dangerous Xanadu people who exhibit actual magic powers, like your mad scientist Marx. You're still human, unlike these other poor souls. We have to take them into protective custody. Go home and lay low for a while until the legal limbo gets sorted out. Drive carefully, Miss Mercer."
As she got into her Honda three hours later, Joseph had to pull the seat forward several inches in order to reach the pedals. She adjusted the mirrors and the tilt of the steering wheel so that she didn't have to reach around her breasts so much. It was all she could do to keep from breaking into tears. For all that had happened to her, she hadn't done that yet. Perhaps it was the drive to Go Home, but for the present she felt pretty stable, and...
"You okay?" Nico asked for the third time in ten minutes, whiskers twitching.
"No," the newly female replied, giving herself another squeeze. The outfit the ray gun had given her was both revealing, and oddly comfortable. The tank top revealed some cleavage, and the shorts clung to her behind like a second skin. She stared at the view, at her curves, and the clear absence of anything resembling a package between her legs. "This is so surreal."
"Believe me, I know," the brown rat replied. "Dear Lord, how I know. But at least you're still human, right?"
A trio of ambulances had come to take the vixens away. They had backed up against the restaurant door to avoid being seen. But there were already people gawking, and a few local reporters had shown up. It was going to be a trick to avoid them.
"Right," Joseph said, clicking her teeth. "I wonder if there's any possibility of a cure."
"I don't know," Nico said. "Nobody really does. If they can capture Marx, maybe he'll reverse it."
"Yeah, right!" Joseph snorted, starting the engine. She had less than a quarter tank of gas. She was going to have to interact with people who didn't know her any other way, pretty soon. All they would see is a pretty girl. Her mind was whirring with all sorts of scenarios. Trying to imagine herself in this strange body, interacting with the rest of the world on female terms. Marx had changed the rulebook she knew how to play by. From here on out it was going to be by ear. She looked at her feminine self in the vanity mirror. Marx's ray gun had done its job perfectly. She had a very pretty face. "This is going to be... weird."
"At least that nut won't be following us any more," Nico added. The MiBs had taken the backpack and anything else that looked suspicious, though Joseph had accounted for the camping and hiking gear in the back cargo area.
Joseph pulled a brush out of the center console and started on her unruly silver hair. With her odd green eyes, it made her look rather exotic. It wasn't silver like an old woman's would be. It seemed more like a silver-blond. The one foxy thing that the ray actually gave her. And that made her realize something else. "I'm going to have to stop at a Wal-Mart or someplace. I'm totally not wearing this outfit for the entire drive. And I need a shower."
Nico settled himself into his backseat nest. "Um... did you just say 'totally'?"
The silver-blond woman stared at him wide-eyed. "I did, didn't I?" She didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. But there was something new—a "fizzing" sensation in her head. For a moment she thought of telling the MiBs, but the urge to go home abruptly became much, much more important. "Let's get out of here, Nico."
A reporter snapped a few photos as she pulled out of the restaurant parking lot, she tried to smile and look to all the world as just another girl from Washington. One even tapped on her window and asked for an interview. The rest of the small crowd that had gathered had their eyes on the vixens. The reporter did see Nico in the back seat, and was taken aback enough to step away from the CR-V. Joseph took that opportunity to gun the engine and head for I-75 North.
"Turn it off. Just... turn it off," Nico complained. "I don't want to hear it."
Joseph had spent the last ten minutes trying to find a station on XM that wasn't having some kind of featured Xanadu content. It'd even invaded the music stations with interviews of transformed convention-goers. She had been hunting for something about the escaped foxes, but the "personal stories" of thousands of victims simply drowned them out. To top it off, Joseph's bladder was filling up and before too long she'd just pee her panties. "Is that a Wal-Mart up ahead?" she said, turning the radio off.
They were an hour north of Atlanta now, and Wal-Marts of all sizes were ubiquitous features of the retail landscape. She hated the place, but if she was going to get a new wardrobe for the drive home on the cheap, this was the place to get it. There would also be restrooms, a McDonald's, and possibly a Starbucks if they were lucky. If there wasn't one in the store, there would likely be one close by.
The fact that she hadn't had a bite to eat since the day before was also a factor.
She had already stopped for gas once, swiping the credit card she had for emergencies. Joseph avoided the restrooms at gas stations like the plague. But now, with Nico stretching his legs in an empty grass field near where she'd parked the CR-V, she rushed into the restroom inside the store...
It took a moment to realize she was in the wrong room. Two men, both store employees by their blue smocks, stared at her in shock from the urinals. "Oops. Sorry, guys," she stammered before backing out and retreating to the Women's Restroom.
She didn't have time to think the procedure through. She just dropped her panties and cutoffs and sat herself down on the toilet seat, then let go. "Aaaah..." she sighed heavily, pressure relieved.
Then she got a look at herself.
The carpet matches the drapes, she thought, slender hand hovering over her new anatomy. She spread her legs more, angling her head to get a better view of her feminized crotch. The memory of the transformation boiled up again. There had been an instant, after she had lost maybe four inches of height, after her waist had cinched in... when everything down below had gone scrotch with the spreading of her hips. From man to woman in an instant. Last had come the snapping and shifting of her facial features, boiling under her fingertips.
Joseph was torn between a sense of surreal horror and an odd fascination. She gave her belly a pat. I wonder if I've got everything in there? Ovaries? A womb? Presumably so—Marx intended to create a breeding population of foxmorphs, after all. But like the poor man who had ended up a woman with fox ears and a tail, and the man turned into a male foxmorph, the experiment had only been a partial success on her. That meant... Should I be looking at some tampons or something?
For some reason the thought of having a menstrual period made her giggle uncontrollably instead of scream in horror. "Oh, this is going to be fun!" she said, only half sarcastically.
What she had to do next just added another surreal layer to the growing onion of the unreal.
The raygun had given her a complete outfit, including a pair of low-heeled sandals that took some concentration to walk on. There was even, amazingly, a purse. It was really quite attractive as an ensemble, Joseph had to admit. But she was the one wearing it, and she had the body to make it look good. But the clothes were also dirty, and she hadn't showered in three days. I probably don't smell too good.
This supercenter had a grocery store, so she'd grab a few things there for Nico and herself. First thing was first, though. Find a few tops her size that didn't show so much boob. Then maybe a bra or six... then...
The fizzing sensation in her head increased as she got some cash out of the ATM.
Nico hadn't really gone outside in the weeks since he'd been transformed. He spent part of the first day evacuated into the parking lot with the rest of the convention-goers, of course, but that was different; the situation had been tightly controlled and he'd been in a rather distracted state of mind. Since then he had felt safer indoors.
The intense restlessness that drove him out of the car and into the heavily overgrown vacant lot next to the parking lot had therefore caught him a bit off-guard. It wasn't even dusk yet, though the overcast sky managed to quell his nervousness to some degree. I guess I haven't figured out all the ways a rat thinks yet after all... He mused as he crept through the meter-tall weeds exploring the rich tapestry of scents woven into it.
It was an especially disheartening thought considering the circumstances, with Joseph suddenly being confronted with drastic changes of her own. Nico had hoped Xanadu had been put solidly behind them both, giving him time and space to figure things out on his own. But if anything the situation had become more hectic and stressful. He'd lost all his carefully hoarded loot, junk though it may be, and he hadn't even had a chance to eat since yesterday.
Nico came to a toppled shopping cart, almost completely hidden under the vegetation growing through its meshwork, and paused to sniff and listen for observers before beginning to nose around exploring it. His rodent side was ever on the lookout for predators and the feel of soil under his bare paws was making his human side a little self-conscious about crawling naked in a field like this.
Ooh! A quarter! The cart had one of those security locks where one inserted a coin to free the cart for use and got the coin back when the cart was locked up on return, and Nico could see the rim of the coin poking out of the slot in this one. He poked and prodded at it with his claws, trying to figure out how to get it out and glad of the distraction from weightier thoughts.
Eventually Nico resorted to gnawing it out, his chisel-like incisors and powerful jaws making short work of the lock's hard plastic casing and even the thin metal of the lock mechanism inside. Nico extracted the battered coin from the torn-open wreck, admiring it for a moment while spitting out a few chips of plastic that had made it into his mouth, then glanced around furtively to check once more for observers. He tucked the quarter into his cheek for safekeeping and ran a short scamper through the weeds to put some distance between himself and the scene of his wonderfully shameful little crime.
It felt good to gnaw things, it felt good to find shiny little treasures. But he knew it shouldn't feel good, and he knew it had already indirectly resulted in terrible consequences for his friend Joseph. That felt bad. Nico sighed; the conflict just wouldn't leave him alone.
But at least for now he'd made 25 cents. Nico's stomach growled quietly and he sniffed the breeze, wondering if perhaps he might find a different sort of treasure next.
It was dark by the time Nico returned, cheeks stuffed, fur disheveled, paws muddied. He'd been lost for hours. He couldn't tell exactly how long, at some point his watch had fallen off.
In his exploration he'd followed a culvert, crawled through a drainage pipe to the other side of the highway, and discovered a deserted alley behind a strip mall with row after row of dumpsters. Back at Xanadu he'd never had the chance to get so hungry so he'd always been able to deny his scavenger urges long enough to get away from any given garbage can and make it to the cafeteria for a proper meal instead. This time there had been no resisting the allure of the delicious scents.
Nico slunk quickly through the mall parking lot, satiated but ashamed. He couldn't guess what combination of anger or concern to expect from Joseph when he finally made it back to the car. After all he'd been through that day—all she'd been through, Nico corrected himself—the last thing he'd wanted was to was cause her more stress by mysteriously disappearing. He was the reason she'd got into this mess, after all.
It was a startling bit of turnabout when he arrived at the car and found it still empty. Nico blinked, spat out the various interesting trinkets he'd discovered while dumpster diving, and rummaged through them for the spare key Joseph had given him. At least I didn't lose that.
Sniffing the seats told him that probably nobody had been in the car since they'd both left. Nico ground his teeth, trying to think. He knew why he was so late, but why Joseph as well? Had Marx and Traci showed up again? There was no sign of any commotion, though, the megamart was still open and looked busy. Nico glanced at the dashboard clock and figured it was about fifteen minutes until closing time. Okay, I'll wait that long at least. He wasn't sure what else to do other than that. Joseph had the cell phone and there was no way he could possibly drive this thing himself. If she didn't come back soon...
Five minutes past the hour, as the parking lot was starting to clear out for the night, she returned. She was moving a lot more smoothly on her high heels now—a definite sway coming naturally to her hips—and she was laden with bags from what must have been a half dozen different clothing stores. Nico peered over the edge of the rear window at her in amazement. She'd obviously gone on a serious shopping spree in there. But the new outfit she was already wearing wasn't much less revealing than what the vixen ray had given her; a white short-sleeved polo shirt, earrings, a khaki miniskirt, and a pair of high-heeled shoes. Her shirt was unbuttoned almost all the way down, and it hung open, showing off cleavage. She certainly didn't look like she'd been a man that morning.
Joseph caught sight of Nico staring at her and paused, blushing slightly. "Sorry I'm so late, Nico," she apologized. "I, uh, got a little carried away." She giggled vapidly and lifted the bags in an embarrassed shrug.
Nico twitched his ears, nonplussed, and wordlessly pulled up the lock on the driver's side door so Joseph wouldn't have to fumble for the key with her hands full. She opened it and bent down to pass her purchases through to the passenger side. Nico may have been a giant rat, but he still noticed that even doing that her posture and movements seemed tuned to maximize her sexiness. "Joseph? What did you buy?"
Joseph grinned, still blushing, and settled into the driver's seat. Her silver bracelets clinked together on her left wrist. "Um, a little of this, a little of that... I didn't know what would go best."
"Did you get any food?"
Joseph's grin faded as the question nudged through the effusive fizz in her mind and reminded her of her original goal. "Uh... no. I got distracted by..." Her already wide green eyes widened some more. "Oh, Nico!" She breathed. "I forgot!"
Nico grimaced slightly. "It's okay, I had a little something myself."
"No, seriously! How could I forget?" She looked at the pile of bags as if fully registering them for the first time. "And how much did I spend?" She grabbed her purse and started rummaging through it, pulling out a bundle of receipts.
Joseph flipped through the receipts, the fizzing in her head surging up again to slow her effort doing the math, but she successfully fought it off. "T-two, three hundred... Oh, man!" She dropped the receipts back into her purse, but her expression turned vapid again. "Pretty clothing is expensive."
"Joseph! Why did you buy all that?"
"I like pretty clothing," Joseph answered easily. Then she blinked, the fizziness in her head pierced by surprise at her own words. "Oh. M'gawd. Did I just say that?"
Nico nodded. "You also just said 'Oh m'gawd.' Joseph, focus. You're acting weird. I think that vixen ray may have had more than just physical effects."
Joseph nodded, not daring to speak for a moment while she wrestled with the unsettling realization. She tried to think back to remember the moment she'd lost control and couldn't place it; she clearly recalled the hours of shopping and how she'd felt like she knew exactly what she was doing. But just as clearly, she had been acting out of character. She leaned over and quickly looked through some of the bags she'd bought. Had she picked up anything that wasn't revealing? "I've..." She frowned, mulling the words carefully. "I've got this fizzy feeling in my head. I guess at first I thought it was just hunger."
"I know what you mean," Nico sighed. He sometimes imagined his own rodent urges coming from a little rat inside his skull, and there were times he imagined so vividly he could almost swear he felt it gnawing on the back of his mind. "You're still you, though, right? You remember being a guy yesterday?"
"Of course!" Joseph's reaction was quick and confident, and Nico was relieved.
"Okay, good. In that case... let's find a motel. You have enough money left for that?"
Joseph nodded again. "Yeah. Heh!" Her laugh came out solid, not a giggle this time, and her shaken self-confidence felt slightly renewed. "I think I actually restrained myself a bit... like some part of me knew something was amiss. Yeah. I could really use that shower now." She started the car, turning to shoulder check and pausing for a moment to sniff in surprise. "You too by the smell of things. What were you doing while I was away?"
It was Nico's turn to blush, fortunately concealed by fur. "Nothing I want to talk about right now. Maybe at the motel." To his relief Joseph just accepted that without a further word, pulling out of the parking spot and setting off down the road.
Since his backpack had been stolen by the Men in Black, Nico had hidden the new treasures he'd collected by stuffing them under the rear seat. He was glad they weren't sitting out in the open; the parallels with the pile of clothing on the front seat would have been uncomfortable.
Joseph sat in the driver's seat, fending off a slight headache as well as the feeling that she hadn't really been the same person over the past few hours. The Wal-Mart had been attached to a modest suburban mall. Apparently not finding anything she liked in the discount store, she had left it and found some other places with better outfits... and even now she could feel that unsettling fizz taking up permanent residence, waiting to pounce again.
I am not turning into some kind of Valley Girl stereotype! she told it firmly. At a stoplight she looked down at her unbuttoned polo shirt, and defiantly secured it all the way to the top.
Her headache intensified almost instantly, rising to near-migraine levels. The silver-blond girl could only withstand it for a few seconds before she had to unbutton it again, almost popping the buttons off in the process. It seemed like there was a minimal level of cleavage that she absolutely had to show. And even this shirt wasn't quite sexy enough for whatever that raygun had done to her mind.
"You okay?" Nico said, sticking his nose between the seats. He smelled like ripe garbage, was muddy, and needed a shower more than Joseph did.
"Let's just pretend I'm fine for now. I have a little cash left, so I guess we'll have to stop for fast food. Maybe there's at least a Chic-Fil-A..."
She hated fast food, having read Fast Food Nation, and tended to shop at Whole Foods, Wild Oats, or other such organic foods grocery stores. So she felt like she was betraying herself once again when she told Nico to lay low so she could go through an all-night McDonald's Drive-Thru. She had actually done a lot of interacting with people over the past few hours—she even remembered introducing herself as "Josephine" or even "Denise" to a couple people. And when she took the bag of chicken strips and cup of Coke from the young man at the pickup window, she realized she was angling herself so he could look right down her shirt.
At least it kept him from seeing Nico, she thought, driving off with a heavy sigh. His eyes were definitely on her—or rather, on her breasts. The young man didn't even look in the rear passenger seats as she drove away.
Nico snorted from the back seat. "You know, I think you've just acquired a superpower," he quipped good-naturedly.
"What? Superboobs?" Joseph replied sourly. Next up was looking for a motel. Any motel. She had to shower now. The perfume wasn't masking her odor very well. In fact, the tangle of unwashed human and rat was reaching a crescendo, so she rolled down all the windows and the moonroof.
She pulled in next to the office at a Best Western located right next to the freeway. Before going in, she fished the ID papers out of her purse. The name "Josephine" had actually come from them, she realized. The MiBs had thoughtfully provided a feminized version of her name—she was now officially Josephine Denise Mercer. For a moment she'd feared that they would use one of those memory flasher things from the movie to make her forget she'd ever been a man, but they assured the FBI had confiscated them.
"Wish me luck," she said to Nico, papers firmly in delicate hand. She checked her reflection in the vanity mirror. Apparently during her hours in the mall she'd gone all the way—she had makeup and lipstick on, and even a pair of stud earrings from ears that, somehow, were already pierced. It wasn't even overdone, or extremely feminine. She just didn't look like she'd woken up a man that morning. Looks like the real me put up a fight, she thought. It was only a small comfort.
"Can I help you, Miss?" said the balding man behind the counter, barely looking up from his want-ads.
"I need a good, clean room for the night," Josephine said firmly. "And I've had a very bad day, so I can't pay cash ahead of time. This is going to be a little weird..."
"Weird?" he replied gruffly. He sounded more like a New Yorker than a Southerner. "Lady, we're within a day's drive from Orlando here. I've seen all kinds of crazy stuff. On the news and here."
Josephine—the fizzing sensation somehow approved when she thought of herself with that name—handed him her credit card with her given name on it, and the paperwork.
The man looked at the card, looked at the papers, then gawked at her. "You gotta be shitting me, um, lady."
"I've had a very hard day," Josephine pouted. "I just want a warm bed and a hot shower. I'm not trying to put one over on you, but this morning I was a very different person." Stupid foxes!
"Um... uh... well..." He scratched his head, his expression a study of conflicting emotions. "Couple weeks ago I had a few of you people stay here. I let 'em because it was the right thing to do. I guess I can do it again. Um... just sign the register and I'll get you a key."
When she came out, Josephine had to wrench herself back into her old way of thinking. Joseph, Joseph! But at least she was more conscious of what she was doing that time. She had some satisfaction of a little self control. However, the light headache returned. Nico seemed very concerned. "Room eight," she said. "I'm going to get that shower first, if you don't mind. Then I need a Tylenol..."
The motel room had seen better days. Perhaps the cleaning staff had either quit or been let go, but the inside smelled just a little ripe. Joseph turned on the fan mode on the room's air conditioner to help clear out the stale air. It rattled, clattered, and generally made it too loud to sleep just yet. But at least the air freshened.
It was just the standard inexpensive motel room. Joseph sighed and dropped the bags of clothes she had purchased on her bed, then eyed the shower room. Then she looked at the view again. During her time in the mall she had actually seen herself in the nude a couple times while trying on lingerie. But that was when the shallow, raygun-implanted personality had been in near-total control. So it didn't really count.
But in those bags were clean clothes that fit—quite closely, in fact. Even the plain white polo shirt she was wearing was still a breast-hugging garment. She'd changed the cutoff jeans for—she swallowed, finally really looking at it—a pleated khaki miniskirt. It was amazing what she'd gotten for just three hundred dollars, but the stores that weren't closed had sale signs all over them. It hadn't taken much to bargain them down even more. She estimated there was at least a thousand dollars worth of stuff in those bags, some of it originally quite expensive jewelry. "Josephine" felt great satisfaction in "saving" so much money.
The silver-blond sat down heavily on the edge of the bed. "I feel so... what's a good word for this? Brainfucked. I feel like there's two of me in here, and I'm being crowded out."
The giant rat was already sniffing around the perimeter of the room. "What? Oh, yes. I know exactly what you mean, Joe. Sort of... um..." His whiskered twitched. "Hm. I smell other rats."
Joseph kept very tight control, as her other persona's reaction to that would have been to jump up on the bed and go "eek!" Despite the fact there was a giant rat right in front of her. "It's a sucky room, then," she replied, wishing she could beat those crazy foxes over the head with a shovel. "I've got this goddamned headache that won't go away unless..."
"Unless what?" Nico asked, genuinely curious.
Joseph sighed, folding her arms under her bosom. "Nevermind. I'm going to get clean."
She removed her earrings and left them on the counter, then took the cold cream and started wiping away the expertly-applied makeup. It was hard to look at her own face. There wasn't a hint of even a family resemblance, just a near-supernatural flawless beauty that belied the method of her transformation. The odd thing was her green eyes—they almost glowed, and the shape of her pupils seemed a little off.
She had brought a towel with her, knowing that motel towels were typically tiny and rough even on a man's skin, then went into the shower room to undress. She unceremoniously dropped the hated—though cute—miniskirt on the floor, then tore off the polo top, exposing her new, lacy lingerie. She couldn't recall exactly where she had bought it, but it really didn't matter. She struggled only a little with the bra, snapping it to the floor so hard the underwire bounced, then with exploding rage, hurled her frilly white lace panties against the wall.
Joseph screamed, glaring at her new body in all its bouncy-breasted, curvy perfection. It wasn't a scream of fear, but an all-consuming, snarling rage that managed to frighten that fizzy persona into shocked silence. She gripped her breasts tightly enough to hurt, then with greater care, put two fingers up her vagina. The reality of that act drove her into a fury—directed one-hundred-percent at Marx and Traci. She felt like pounding the walls, like throwing fragile things. This was the final straw. "I can't fucking believe this! I'm really a... a... GIRL!"
From behind the door there was a panicked squeak, and a scrambling sound to the far corner of the motel room. Abruptly realizing she had probably scared Nico out of his poor rodent wits, the bottom fell out of Josephine's anger. In its place came a strange upwelling of sympathy for him. "Oh dear..." she said, opening the door, not bothering to cover herself with anything.
"Nico, I'm sorry," she said as apologetically as she could, standing in front of the sink. "Where'd you go?"
"Umm..." he replied in a quavering voice from under the far bed. "Just... don't do that again, okay?"
"I won't," she replied, mind feeling like it was swaddled in a sad pink cloud. "It just got to me all of a sudden."
"Anger's normal. It's a grieving process. Guess you just got there quicker than most," the rat replied nervously. He stuck his twitchy nose out from under the bed. "I'll be fine by the time you're out of the shower. Then I need to wash up, myself."
"I'll try not to use all the hot water," Josephine replied, repressing a giggle. The Fizz was back, lurking around the edges of her consciousness, insinuating itself into her thoughts when she wasn't looking. In fact, she realized that she'd started thinking of herself as Josephine instead of Joseph again. Stop that! she ordered whatever was sharing her head with her. I'm going to be me and not some shallow stereotype of Marx's!
The Fizz seemed a little stunned at the strength of the reproach, but it was going to take more than stern words to win this war.
As luck would have it, the motel's shower had one of those water-saving nozzles that spit out thin, needle-like shards of water that felt very sharp against her skin. So she soaped up as quickly as she could, intending just to get herself clean. The shampoo took longer, and when she was finished, tried to maneuver herself under the pitiful stream to get all the suds off.
After she got out, she saw that there was something new. Something had changed, just in the past few minutes. She had dismissed the tingling sensation in her nether regions to the shower nozzle, but now there was...
"Fur?" she muttered to herself. Her pubic hair had matched the silvery sheen of her head before. But now it was whiter, the texture was smoother, and the area it covered had increased to the inner parts of her thighs and up her belly a little. "Um... No. I'm just seeing things. Better put my clothes back on."
And now she could finally eat something.
By the time Joseph exited the bathroom Nico had come out from under the bed and was nosing around the bags of things she'd bought, peering curiously at the selection but resisting the urge to rummage or steal any of the tempting shiny buttons. Joseph flashed him a smile, his interest in her clothing causing a brief fizzy surge. For a moment she thought about offering to model them for him.
Fortunately Nico preempted the thought with a grin of his own, turning from the bags and scurrying right by her legs. "Uh, shower's free," she told him as he passed.
"Thanks, won't be long!"
Nico pulled his tail into the small bathroom and closed the door firmly behind him, then crouched for a moment on the damp linoleum and stifling a sigh. He had been surprised by how strongly his nerves had reacted to Joseph's angry outburst earlier. There was something about her since the shopping trip that had set him on edge, something in her scent... or perhaps it was just him. He was still feeling much rattier than usual, his stomach perfectly settled despite knowing full well what he'd put into it during his runabout.
He shook his head. Time to get at least some of that feeling cleansed. He climbed into the bathtub, warmed up the water, and then tentatively turned on the shower.
Nico hadn't washed since his transformation weeks ago. He'd groomed himself often, of course—it was one of the behaviors he slipped into by default whenever he didn't have enough human thoughts to occupy him. He didn't sweat any more and he had stayed in the relatively clean convention center so he hadn't felt any particular need for more.
Now, however, the soaking felt wonderful. He rose up on his haunches, pointy muzzle raised directly into the stream, and let the water sluice down over his body to sweep away the clinging filth. Rubbing his handpaws over his head and through his fur, Nico chuckled ruefully at the grey runoff. He really needed this. A few minutes after he'd got in he heard Joseph's cell phone ring and the sound of her answering it but he couldn't even spare the attention needed to wonder who was calling.
He wound up using all of the remaining shampoo lathering his whole body. The scent of the shampoo was powerful enough to make him sneeze but it wasn't unpleasant. It took a while but eventually he reached the point where he was satisfied with his cleanliness. Turning off the shower at last, Nico sat for a moment in the tub, dripping and content. It had worked; although he still failed to feel the slightest bit nauseous about what he'd eaten, at least now he felt like his human dignity had been restored.
Which actually raised an amusing new problem, Nico realized as he climbed out of the tub. With his fur slicked down with moisture like this, he actually felt naked.
He was no more naked than before, of course. He'd spent a few days after his transformation vainly trying to jerry-rig a pair of shorts to suit his new pelvic arrangement but had ultimately resigned himself to going without when he'd realized he'd become used to it. At Xanadu he was far from alone in his predicament, and far from the worst off; some people, like Eric Winters' right-hand man Felix, were somehow magically prevented from wearing clothing even though they were still the right shape for it. And some, like Traci, decided voluntarily to go without.
Now, suddenly, things felt different somehow. Nico took down the small motel towel and spent a few minutes attempting to dry himself off, but it would take hours at that rate. He paused to ponder... then grinned. The towel was small, but so was he. With a few judicious tooth-rips to make knot-tying easier he fashioned himself a simple little toga-kilt. It wasn't the most practical of garments but it would serve for a few hours of lounging around the motel room before nest-time. Nico finally emerged from the bathroom, padding out as confidently as he could on all fours.
Joseph was sitting quietly on the bed, back in the new clothes she'd bought, knees hugged up against her chest and with the look of one who was lost deep in thought, clicking her teeth together. "I'm done," Nico announced.
She looked over at Nico, her brilliant green eyes for just a moment betraying a haunted expression that suggested her train of thought was a disturbing one. But then the sight of him swept all that away. "Heehee!" She giggled, grinning widely. "And I thought girls took a long time to shower. You look like a drowned rat!"
"Heh," Nico chuckled gamely. "Yeah, this fur kind of soaks it up-" His ears flattened and he was caught by surprise as Joseph's mood abruptly changed yet again.
"Rrr!" She growled through clenched teeth, clutching the side of her head in one hand. "No, I will not giggle vapidly! This is serious!"
Nico stayed frozen, his sodden fur prickling again with fear and staring at Joseph's teeth. The distinct impression of fangs welled up from his subconscious, his dormant inner rodent rousing itself to sound the predator alarm. He held it back long enough for Joseph to recover from her sudden rage and turn apologetic once more.
"I'm so sorry, Nico," she sighed. "I don't mean to snap. I'm just having a bit of difficulty in here."
Nico nodded silently, wariness fading slowly—though not as slowly as it had before he'd showered, he noted with some satisfaction.
Joseph smiled, a warmer and more genuine expression than her initial giggle. "You look refreshed. I hope I didn't spoil that with my little outburst, it wasn't aimed at you."
"No," Nico spoke up at last, giving himself a little shake to try to shed the remaining tension. He sprayed a few droplets of water in the process, which made him chuckle and actually accomplished his original intent. "I'm feeling a lot better. And hopefully smelling better, too."
"Heh." Joseph released her legs and turned to hang them over the edge of the bed, sitting a bit more relaxed herself. "Yeah. I didn't want to pry about what you were up to, but... c'mere." She patted the bed beside her. "Your fur's a mess and I've got a hairbrush. You look like you've got a mohawk all the way down your spine."
"I'm a razorback rat," he joked. The invitation made him nervous in ways he couldn't quite grasp, but Nico chalked that up to his inner rodent again and decided not to give it any more free reign tonight. So he padded over to the bed and hopped up, crouching on the mattress within easy reach. See? Safe. Now settle down.
Joseph picked up the brush from the nightstand and started straightening out Nico's rumpled fur. She worked silently, and Nico realized that the nervousness wasn't entirely rodent-derived. This was a very strange moment of intimacy with someone he'd known for a long time under very different circumstances, and now he had no idea what to think of her. He twitched his nose, surreptitiously sniffing. Still fresh from the shower, he got a strong impression of her most basic scent; a mixture of familiar Joseph and less familiar woman. Also, somehow, a strong trace of the smoldering vixeny scent of Traci still lingered. Nico wrinkled his muzzle slightly; what did it take to get rid of that, tomato juice?
"I got a call from the Men in Black while you were in the shower," Joseph broke the silence.
"Oh?" Nico asked, remembering hearing the ringtone and genuinely interested but also just happy with the change in subject.
"Yeah." She brushed a few more strokes, evidently finding the activity calming. Nico tried to hold still and not let his restless curiosity show. "It was about the other vixens from back at the diner..."
"How did you get this number?" Joseph asked, feeling a little scattered as she fended off further encroachment from her mental nemesis.
"Men in Black, ma'am," Kay replied matter-of-factly.
"Wait. I gave the police all my contact information earlier," she pointed out, temporarily throwing off the influence. "So much for the legendary MiB omniscience!"
"Spoilsport," Kay grumbled back. It wasn't an in-character tone of voice, so Joseph wondered if they weren't quite as lost as they'd seemed at first. "At any rate, we have a serious matter to discuss. The other victims have displayed some obvious personality changes. They've become... how to say it?"
"Oversexed vixen stereotypes?" Joseph supplied. "They're a common image in the furry fandom. Foxes are as common as dirt, and they take a lot of heat for that. They're rather legendary for their loose sexual habits, too..."
"We read up on it," Kay replied briskly. "What we'd really like to know is if you've exhibited any personality changes yourself?"
"Nothing yet," she replied instantly. With some effort, she was able to box in the Fizz in, despite the headache that returned in force. "I'll have Nico keep a close watch on me. Is that satisfactory?"
"The rat? Mmm... yes, I suppose it is, Miss Mercer. At least one victim's original personality was nearly obliterated—that poor man who ended up a woman with ears and tail. I think the gender change was too hard on his psyche, so the vixen simply took over. She's being held in a psych ward, but nobody really knows what to do with her."
"I'll stay in touch, gentlemen," Joseph replied firmly. "I'm fine right now. And I'm trying to get home as quickly as I can."
"Marx and his accomplice are still at large," he reminded her. "They haven't taken the bait yet, assuming what he's looking for was in that backpack. If you see any sign of them, call us immediately."
"I will, I will. Believe me, I will!" Joseph replied vehemently. "Get that bastard!"
"Goodnight, Miss Mercer," he said crisply. The line went dead.
"I'm in dire straits," Josephine said gravely, carefully brushing the rat's now-dry brown fur out. It felt good to do this. It felt like a very feminine act, and managed to quell her inner woman's demands a little. The name was another significant concession, at least until she found a way around it. "At least, if I don't learn how to control it. I doubt I can repress her completely. I'm not the man I used to be, so think of me as Josephine. Or Denise. Either one works."
Nico sighed, arching his back under the brushing. "I... um... I don't really know what to say. But I've watched a lot of people perform some pretty elaborate mental acrobatics to get around their own compulsions. I don't really have any advice to offer, since I'm kind of working at it myself. I've been feeling more ratty since we left Orlando."
Josephine chuckled and petted her old friend between his ears. "You're a rat wearing underwear. I don't think you're that far gone."
"A rat needs some measure of dignity," he replied haughtily, pushing into the scritching. He started to paw-wash to smooth down his fur, which had become very fluffy in the course of Josephine's brushing. "What time is it?"
The new woman looked at the digital clock next to the bed. "About midnight. I suppose I should try and get these clothes untagged and packed up before bed. We're going to have to get going early and I won't have time then."
She was almost afraid to look—almost. But it was more morbid curiosity than anything. But as she took clothes out of bags and put her old clothes into a plastic sack, it became apparent that her real self had been in enough control to bend the Fizz away from outfits that made her look like a slut. And she was actually quite impressed with some of the deals. A sixty dollar blue dress for ten dollars, three pairs of shoes (all with heels and open toes), a dozen tops of various styles, a half dozen skirts, an equal number of shorts, a couple pairs of butt-hugging Capri pants, and a selection of very racy lingerie. There were some items in there she didn't even know the names of. But there was one thing at the very top of the list of already very feminine things she had removed the tags from.
"I can't sleep in this," she said, holding up the pink see-through babyboll. "You'd see everything!" she told the rat. Her belly was still itching. And now the cloying odor of the perfume in another bag was starting to bother her. Her sense of smell had apparently sharpened.
"Tee shirt and shorts?" he suggested, gathering up the blankets into a nest.
There was the desire not to give so much ground to the Fizz than was absolutely necessary. But now that she was no longer reviewing her purchases, the headache was slowly coming back. She felt like one of Pavlov's dogs. But there was no way she was going to sleep with a constant headache. "Give me a few more minutes."
How do I get around this? she wondered, looking at the filmy babydoll back and front. She had a vague memory of trying it on, a pose in front of the fitting room mirror. Josephine repressed a giggle, clearing her throat, and finally had an idea.
She gathered up the matching—and opaque—panties, a pink tee-shirt, then went into the bathroom.
The end result was no headache, a satisfied Fizz, and a minimum of skin exposed. "I think that did it."
"Sneaky," Nico observed. "You're wearing it under the shirt?"
"It's actually kind of itchy," she replied, pulling the hem down over the barely-visible patch of silver-white fur at her waist. She sauntered over and got into bed, pulling the paper-thin quilt over herself. "But I'll survive. Good night, Nico." Josephine reached up and turned out the light and the rattling fan.
Joseph curled into a ball of sleepless anxiety under the covers.
I feel like a little gi... child, she thought. The near total darkness brought back an old fear, one she had once held as a child, but now could actually happen. The warning from the Men in Black weighed even more heavily than her new body. Personality obliterated... she thought, scrunching herself up even tighter. Ohm'god...
As a child she had had nightmares of going to sleep, then waking up someone else entirely. That someone else had taken up residence in her head, and all she could do was ride along as "It" did things she would never have done. What if it happened as she slept? What if she ended up like Marx, or even the MiBs? She whimpered to herself. This was far worse than the idea of dying in her sleep. It was... becoming someone unrecognizable as Joseph, or even a female version of him.
And her body was still changing. She was increasingly certain of this. The tingling sensation had begun to spread. Her canines ached, the tips of her ears felt strange. Slowly, inexorably, she was going to be a silver version of Traci.
No... Marx's Vixenator wasn't finished with her yet.
Nico poked his muzzle out of his nest very cautiously the next morning, working his nose hard to interpret the scents that had awakened him. More foxes... no, just one fox. The scent he'd mistaken for Traci's the night before. Now that it was so much stronger he could tell it wasn't her.
It was Joseph, obviously. Nico crept out of the bundle of blankets in the corner of the room, as stealthy as he could manage, and rose up on his haunches next to the bed to examine her sleeping form. She was lying curled on her side, only half covered and with a peaceful expression. At first glance nothing much seemed to have changed, at least not visually. He leaned closer and saw that her sideburns extended much farther down her cheeks now, a fine silver-grey fuzz that was hard to make out but definitely not normal. The tip of her nose was upturned, her lower face just slightly stretched out, and most obvious of all now that he noticed it was how pointed her ears had become. She was starting to look distinctly elven. But Nico's nose wasn't fooled.
Joseph's pointy ear twitched, giving Nico just enough warning to sit back on his haunches before her brilliant green eyes fluttered open. Waking up face-to-face with a giant rat would have been startling at the best of times and right now Nico had no idea how Joseph was going to react.
She blinked, smiling and stretching, then yawned to give Nico an inadvertent display of her developing fangs. "'Morning," she greeted, propping herself up on one elbow. It was at that point that she finally startled, glancing down and grabbing one of her breasts with a gasp and then a disappointed sigh. "Not a dream... not all of it, anyway. Damn."
Nico was almost hurt that his own appearance didn't warrant a reaction like that any more, just two days after reuniting with him. But that was a side issue. "Joseph? What do you remember?"
Joseph cocked her head, puzzled by the question. But she stifled a giggle and tried to answer seriously. "About what, my dreams? Uh, not sure... or do you mean about yesterday and the whole being turned into a woman by those crazy foxes thing? Or before that, about my life in general?"
The question itself told Nico enough to relieve him of his primary concern; Joseph was still Joseph, his old friend hadn't slipped away into permanent bubble-headedness during the night. But she apparently hadn't noticed the other changes that had happened. "You've got a bit of fuzz, there..." Nico gestured at his cheek demonstratively.
Joseph put her hand to her own cheek, revealing that her nails had become darker and pointier on top of everything else, and rubbed. She blinked, momentarily startled again, but then gave a rueful grin. "Damn. I can't believe after all this I still need to shave."
Now it was Nico's turn to be startled. Joseph's seeming nonchalance was out of character, but it didn't seem to be coming from wherever her valley-girl behavior was. It's not even been 24 hours yet, by this point I was still hiding under my bed in terror. "Uh... did the Men in Black say anything about this? Did that guy who became a black-tailed woman keep on changing physically?"
"No... not physically. Look, Nico." Joseph sat up, moving a bit gingerly, and lifted the edge of her shirt slightly. There was a definite pelt spreading up her stomach, still short but much denser than the fine ruffs that had developed on her cheeks. She ran her claw-like nails through it and gave a quiet chuckle. "It's thicker now, but... I noticed this last night. I kind of figured this was happening." She stroked her fingertips over the fur a few more times, fascinated rather than frightened.
Nico put his handpaws over his eyes and shook his head, trying not to freak out on both of their behalves. "Did you tell the Men in Black that you were still changing?"
"Heavens, no," Joseph laughed—still managing to keep the giggly edge to it under control. "I... I guess I didn't really believe it. I felt kind of detached. And what I really want is to just get home. If I tell anyone I'll get detained just like those other vixens."
There was that. And if Joseph got detained, Nico would be back at square one again too—possibly worse, since now he wouldn't have any idea who to turn to for assistance. Joseph was the only person he'd trusted and now she was wigging out in more ways than one. Still, Nico managed to wrestle the panic back down again; he needed to think straight right now. Think human. Hiding under the bed wouldn't help.
Joseph had climbed out of bed while Nico thought, standing in front of the small dresser mirror and checking herself out for other visual changes. There weren't any more that were obvious to Nico, but given how much his vision had changed he couldn't be sure what he might be missing. She certainly smelled different, but normal humans probably wouldn't notice or care. So we just need to keep it together and carry on with this insane road trip... "Okay. I want to get home too. We still have a long way to go, but it's early. We need to get on the road. Are you okay to drive?"
"I'm cool as a cucumber... I'm a girl and that's okay... It's all very zen."
Oh, god. Nico had no response to that; in theory it sounded like a very positive outlook to hold, but just last night Joseph had been yelling in rage at her own reflection. It didn't seem genuine, more like some pool of calm beyond panic. He would need to keep an eye on her.
Fortunately they didn't need to do anything special to check out, Joseph had paid by credit the night before and all they had to do was drop the key into a drop box on the office door. Nico didn't have any luggage any more, his only remaining possessions being the few coins and shiny bits of junk he'd left hidden in the car, so he scurried stealthily out to wait there. Joseph eventually joined him, bringing with her all the clothing she'd bought.
They still didn't have any real food, though. They picked up breakfast at another drive-through and this time the server at the window gave Joseph a definite double-take. Joseph tried giving a reassuring smile but the prominence of her canine teeth didn't help matters much. They got back onto the highway and ate their sausage muffins in silence.
Nico kept a close eye on Joseph from his perch, for once riding up on the back seat rather than curled in the foot well. It was hard to gauge the growth of fur on her cheeks, and cooped up inside the car like this it was hard to gauge any continuing change in her scent either. But as the morning wore on Nico could tell she was getting uncomfortable about something. Nico's tension rose with Joseph's discomfort, and Joseph picked up on Nico's tension in turn. Finally something snapped and Joseph gave a frustrated growl, pulling over to the side of the road and switching on the emergency blinkers.
"What's wrong?" Nico asked, mentally bracing himself for a difficult conversation of some sort—or at least for a dash from the car to find a safe hiding nook somewhere, if it came to that.
"I've... I've got something..." Joseph squirmed in her seat, struggling to slip her hands under the waistband of her extremely tight shorts. "Ahh, there," she sighed in sudden relief as she got her fingers in far enough to achieve whatever goal she'd been after. "How do you deal with it, Nico?"
"I'm sorry?" Nico's whiskers were trembling visibly in confusion.
Joseph sighed. "I've got a stubby little tail in here. I think it got kinked and fell asleep or something... It's hard to tell, I've never had one before."
Nico blinked. Not what he'd expected, but surprisingly, not all that bad. He actually knew what to say. "It's just reflex at first, I think. I couldn't control my tail at all when I first got it, it just flicked any which way it wanted. I think what worked was to just let it do that, and eventually learn to copy the actions."
Joseph squirmed a bit more in her seat, perhaps trying to test out Nico's advice. "Makes sense. I'll need to get out of these shorts at some point, or put a hole in them. I think I'm good for a while more, though... thinking about stopping for lunch soon. Not sure what to do about that either."
Nico thought for a moment on that, fending off a few ideas involving dumpster diving that leapt immediately to mind. "You've still got your shaving kit, right?"
Joseph nodded soberly. "Good idea. I still have a window of opportunity for hitting a supermarket, one last chance I guess..." she trailed off, lost in thought herself, then reached over and gave Nico a playful ruffle of his headfur. "What would I do without you?" She asked with a giggle in her voice.
Nico blinked, resisting the urge to cringe, and instead grinned back. It was not a good sign that he couldn't figure out who was going to have to rely more on whom.
The Fizz was an implacable beast that dogged Josephine's every thought. It had largely taken control of her body movements, putting a confidently sexy sway into her walk that she otherwise wouldn't have done. It didn't seem to be conscious, per se. It seemed to be a set of impulses and responses to certain stimuli that just happened to include instinctive knowledge on how to dress and act. As she strolled quickly through the A&P supermarket just over the Tennessee border, she managed to keep her mind on getting road food and items suitable for camping.
From here on out, there would be no more motels. In fact, she was starting to realize that as she became more and more a vixen, simple tasks like getting gasoline and driving down the road without being stopped by the cops would be near-impossible.
The Fizz almost made her break down in the checkout lane at that thought, but her normal self took control again. This is like climbing Mt. Hood, she thought. Or that hundred-mile hike I did around the Grand Canyon five years ago. Just... a challenge.
Even in the store people were starting to stare. Her growing tail was more and more difficult to keep still under her shorts, and she had to keep it clamped firmly between her buttocks. She tried not to smile at the clerk. Her teeth felt sharper, her face projected just a little more. She had shaved off her sideburns, even a few spots on her chin that had sprouted fur. And...
"You've got something on your hands, ma'am," said the tobacco-smelling woman behind the counter. "On your fingertips."
"It's just black nail polish," she stammered. In reality, they were paw pads. And they hadn't been there when she'd entered. And she'd made sure to cover her ears with her hair.
I wonder if this is what going mad feels like? Josephine wondered as she rolled the shopping cart back out to her mini SUV. Maybe I should call the Men in Black, or the FBI. Tell them what's going on and let them take me into custody. What the hell am I going to do when I get home? She clicked her teeth together and found her canines slid together like a pair of scissors. "Oh, poot!" she swore.
"'Poot'?" Nico said. She was putting the groceries in the cargo area.
"That's just the Valley Girl talking. She can't bring herself to say a bad word," she explained with a wave of her hand. Once they were loaded, she tried to make herself comfortable in the driver's seat. She estimated she had a good four inches of tail now, and it was getting a fur coat of its own. She looked at her face in the vanity mirror and saw that the fur was already growing back, and her ears were taller as well as pointy. "I need to make a call."
The rat's whiskers and ears twitched this time as he stood on his hind legs to stick his nose between the front seats. "Giving up, Joseph?"
"Josephine," she corrected sullenly. "I might as well get used to it. These boobs aren't going anywhere. I'm a girl for keeps and the name's been chosen for me anyway. But no, I'm not calling the FBI. I'm calling Roadwolf."
"Um... who's that?"
"Furry friend of mine," the half-vixen replied, pulling her cell phone out of her purse. "He's a trucker I've known for a few years on the furry forums. I met him at a truck stop on the way here. Bunked for the night in his semi. He's got this huge rig. Been all over the place. He's got this wolf fursuit head he keeps up... uh..." Nico gave her this sour look. He didn't want to hear about costumes of any kind. "Well, he's a good friend. He should be headed back west now and we may be able to hitch a ride."
"What'll you do with your car?" Nico asked. "Um, Joe... Josephine?"
"I have no idea. I'm just going by the seat of my pants, here," she replied, combing her hair out of her eyes with her almost-clawed fingertips. Roadwolf's number was on speed dial, and she steeled herself for just how she was going to convince him of this situation.
He answered almost right away. Caller ID or a special ringtone must have announced who the caller was. "Heyo, Joe! What's up? Did you get Nico?"
Josephine opened her mouth to speak, but all that came out was a strangled yip. She started to shake a little.
The voice on the other end became confused. "Hello? Who's there?"
"Um... I don't know how else to say this. But Joe is speaking," she said.
"You're shitting me," Roadwolf replied. "Who's this, his new girlfriend? He meet you in Orlando or something?"
"You know how you told me how dangerous it was to even get within a hundred miles of Orlando?" she continued, feeling tongue-tied and stumbling over words. But she barreled forwards, pushing the Fizz out of the way with sheer brute force of will. "Well, the shit hit the fan, buddy! I'm turning into a vixen, Roady! I'm literally sitting on my tail here in Bumfuck, Tennessee with Nico in the back seat."
For a moment there was just a stunned silence from the furry trucker, just the rumble of an idling diesel in the background. But even that went quiet. "He... he hung up on me!" Josephine said, almost wailing in despair. "Holy shit, he hung up on me!"
"I imagine he's in shock," Nico offered, speaking calmly and clearly. "Just give him a few minutes, okay? Calm down." In a way he was relieved. This wasn't some Valley Girl talking. When Joseph was pissed—which was rarely, with his long fuse—he could swear like a sailor. "He'll call back."
Josephine sighed and gave the rat the phone. "Shit. Well, if he does, you answer. Sitting here isn't getting us any closer to Seattle."
It wasn't long before the fur started to creep down her arms from her shoulders. Josephine turned on the air conditioning a couple notches and repressed the urge to pant. Every few minutes she would look at herself in the vanity mirror. Everywhere the fur spread like honey, an itch like a slow rash, leaving a cloying warmth behind it. For now she still resembled some bearded lady from a sideshow, but it had even reached her now paw-like hands. Her claws were more prominent, the "pawpads" more developed on her palms and fingertips, and a few tufts of black fur had appeared.
"I guess I shouldn't have worn a tank top," she said ruefully, trying to make light of the situation. She hunkered down in her seat more, wincing as her tail got kinked up. She had to sit up straight to have room for it. "Maybe I should stop and put on a skirt..."
The cell phone rang. Unlike so many annoying songs, Josephine's ring tone was just an antique bell. Nico flipped it open and put it up to his ear. "Um... hello?"
"Is this Nico?" Roadwolf replied, still sounding a little stunned. Josephine could hear him very clearly, despite the small speaker. "Joe said you're a giant rat now, I think. Am I right?"
"You get the cheese," the rat replied. "Yes, it's me."
"I think I met you once last year. It's my fault you even know about Xanadu in the first place. Remember that little furry get together? You were there with Joe," he continued. He seemed to be working up to something.
"Um. Can you pass the phone to Joe? We need to talk," Roady said.
She decided to pull over, since driving and cell phones don't mix. There happened to be a rest stop, so she drove off the freeway and found a parking space before taking the phone. The rest stop was empty, so at least they'd be undisturbed. "Hey there, Roady," she said. Unfortunately it probably came out differently than she intended, thanks to the Fizz. "Um, I'm not flirting with you or anything."
"Holy shit, Joe! What happened to you?" he asked.
"In a nutshell? A mad scientist fox followed us from Xanadu and zapped me and a bunch of people in a restaurant with a 'vixenator' gun. I'm female and I'm going to be a vixen. Just like in those pinups of yours." Josephine tried to hold back the tears, but they came anyway. "I need help, Roady. I'm not going to make it home looking human enough! The cops will stop us and they'll send me off to who knows where! And I have no idea what'll happen to poor Nico."
"Wait. They sent you home after you got zapped? How crazy is that?" he said.
"I looked quite human at the time we left the Men in Black. Look Roady, I can explain in more detail later. But Nico and I need a ride to Seattle. I don't care about anything else but getting us home."
"Men in Black? Where are you?" he asked after a short pause.
"Maybe a couple hours east of Nashville," she replied.
"I'm still at that Flying J truck stop, maybe an hour and a half west of you. Can you make it that far?" he asked.
"I'm going to damn well try!" Josephine replied, almost growling.
"See you then, buddy-girl. Hang in there." He hung up.
Josephine stared at the phone, both stunned and relieved. "'Buddy-girl'?"
The hard part of entering the Flying J parking area was not being seen or stared at. The truck stop was less than half full. And the reek of diesel exhaust from the idling rigs made Josephine wrinkle her nose, which thankfully hadn't changed more in the past hour. For now it was leaving her face alone, instead working on finishing up hands and feet. Worse, she felt like she was sitting on a stick now. Her tail was a constant source of pain and annoyance.
Roady's truck was impossible to miss. He owned his own rig, and had customized it thoroughly with all sorts of wolf-themed decals. He had an amazing wolf fursuit he had worn—and won—contests at various furry conventions. Josephine pulled up next to the big Peterbilt on the far side of the rig, out of view of anyone at the truck stop, and waited.
"Where is he?" Nico asked.
Josephine shrugged, then rolled down the window. "Um... Roady?" she said in a voice that was almost a whisper. "Roady?"
Then she saw his face in one of his side few mirrors. He was staring at her, stunned. "Um..." he stammered. "Gimme a minute. Uh, Joe."
She heard the sound of clothing being removed, then the door opened. Roady was one of the few other furries Josephine had ever met who actually looked the part—that is, he resembled his chosen animal to a degree already. He was an unmarried middle-aged man with a salt-and-pepper beard. He typically wore tee shirts with wolf prints on them, but now he was just in a plain white undershirt.
Still staring, he dropped down to the dirt then came over to stand next to the driver's side door. "Joe? That's you? What the fuck?"
"It's me," she replied, waving shyly. Her ears twitched.
"Umm..." he looked in the back seat, where Nico waved at him. "Okay. I guess that's your Stargate friend. Why don't you both come up into my truck and get out of view?"
"You go first, Nico," Josephine said. "I need to get something out of my suitcase."
She watched Nico climb up the side of the rig and head inside. The back was a rather massive living space the size of a small RV. The rig was Roady's home. He had a satellite internet connection, a tiny kitchen, and basically all the comforts of home inside. She was looking forward to talking with a familiar face, but had to make herself more comfortable first.
Once both men were out of view, she opened the driver's side door. Over the past hour her feet had simply stopped being human—they were vulpine paws now, covered in black fur, with four toes tipped with sizable claws. Her pawpads felt the dust as she tried to balance herself, unsteadily at first. The silver-furred vixen opened the back of the CR-V, then using the open door like a privacy curtain, removed her shorts. "Ahhh..."
Her tail might not be fully filled out yet, but it was already impressively bushy. She wagged it experimentally. The breeze ruffled the fur. "Grrrf. Just great. I can't drive with this thing anyway," she huffed.
She reluctantly replaced the shorts with the gray khaki miniskirt she had bought the night before. It was short enough not to interfere with her tail too much, but long enough that nothing showed if she was careful. Her ears twitched at the sound of conversation about thirty feet away. It was time to get out of sight. Okay, here comes the grand reveal.
Up she went into Roady's rig.
This time both Nico and Roady stared. "I'm pretty far gone, here," she stammered. "How do I look?"
"You're a Dark Natasha pic come to life," Roady replied with a stunned look. "Tail and all? What's left?"
"The other victims ended up looking like pretty standard vixens. I guess just my face. I'll get a foxy muzzle," she added. "Look, let me just fill you in on the last few days, Roady. It's a hell of a story."
As Joseph told her tale, Nico sat quietly on the floor in the corner and found himself relieved to not be the center of attention.
He supposed it was reasonable under the circumstances; Roady knew Joseph personally, whereas he'd merely heard about Nico secondhand. They didn't travel in the same circles of fandom. Plus, Nico's story wasn't really news at this point since nothing much had happened to him since Xanadu weeks ago. And even with his skewed rat senses, he could tell that Joseph—Josephine, rather—was particularly attention-grabbing for a guy like Roady.
Nico was just a rat, after all. Nico blinked and shook his head, wondering at which point in his thought processes his relief had become tinged with annoyance. He preferred not to be noticed, after all. But as he examined Roady's body language and made out the rapt interest with which he was regarding Josephine, Nico realized there was a difference between not being noticed and being ignored. He gave a small snort.
Josephine had just been describing her harrowing out-of-body shopping experience and paused mid-sentence. "Nico?"
He shook his head, not wanting to add anything about what he'd been up to at this point in the story. "Nothing. You just reminded me that I left something in the car."
"We've got time. I, uh, will need to figure out how to use the bathroom without being noticed before we go anywhere... Just be careful, okay?"
Nico nodded, climbing quickly out the door and scampering behind the rig's big tire to hide for a moment to check his surroundings for observers. He scanned for motion and kept his ears perked alertly.
"So I guess I still had my wits about me somewhere," Josephine continued in the cab overhead. "I managed to find amazing bargains somehow, so I got a lot for that money. Like, I got three pairs of shoes, even!" Her giggle was muffled by the truck's floor but to Nico it sounded a little strained. "They totally won't fit these feet now."
There wasn't anyone around so Nico scurried out to the CR-V, low to the grimy concrete on his own four bare paws, then sat up on his haunches so he could reach the door handle and climb into the back seat.
Since by this point Nico had supposedly lost every possession he'd started out with, right down to his watch, Josephine might have wondered what he'd forgotten in the car had she been less distracted. The large rodent squeezed his head in under the back seat, sniffing around to locate the trinkets he'd hidden there after his foray into the field by the megamart. Some loose change, colored glass beads, a mirror-shiny metal cover from some unknown electronic gadget—it was junk, he knew, but collecting it was important to a powerful part of his psyche. Keeping it happy kept it off his case. And that made him happy...
Ooh! Nico's questing nose probed a crevice under the back of the seat and he blinked at the faint iridescent glow he found. It's my favorite thing! He felt so cheered that for a moment he couldn't tell which part of his mind the feeling came from.
Pulling the little button-sized crystal out and examining it in the light, Nico grinned and for the moment didn't really care. He'd found this thing a few nights back at Xanadu and had been sure he'd lost it when the Men in Black had taken his backpack. It must have fallen out in here due to the broken zipper, he realized happily. Well, I'm not losing this thing again. He tucked it into his cheek, the closest thing he had to a pocket. I wonder what else fell out. Nico resumed his search.
The floor of the car was a rich scent environment, especially under the seats, smelling of ground-in dirt, pine, and empty chocolate PowerBar wrappers. He kept at it for quite some time. But eventually a scent seeped in that slowly overpowered all the rest, creeping up through his nasal passages to sink gentle hooks into his brain.
It was wonderful. Nico drew himself out from his search, perching up on his haunches to sniff intently at the air. So delicious, he had to find it... He nosed the edge of the window, realizing it came from outside, and for a moment he pawed at the door in confusion before remembering how to open it.
That lapse of understanding was enough to bring him the realization that he'd slipped fully under the influence of his rodent side, but by then it was too late to resist and Nico found himself helplessly scampering through the parking lot. God, please, don't let this scent I'm following be from another dumpster... It smelled even better than that, though, leading him almost recklessly onward.
It was like he was merely a passenger in his own body this time. It had never been this bad before, he'd always felt at least somewhat in control of his urges. Nico's fear struggled with his eager hunger, failing to accomplish anything other than to add a little caution back to his hunt.
He'd made it to the far edge of the truck stop without being spotted, at least. The origin of the scent was around here somewhere. Maybe once he found it and ate it he would be free to flee back to the truck. Nico prowled along the edge of the curb on all fours, sniffing, now fully focused on finding whatever it was. There were other familiar smells here mixed in with the mysterious ambrosia...
A net swooped down over him, literally from out of nowhere, and he barely had time to let out a panicked squeak before being yanked up into an invisible trap.
The look on Roady's face as Josephine described the surreal last day and a half, rife with a number of Valley Girl-isms that weren't like her at all, spoke volumes. He didn't know what to think; was this Joseph or somebody else completely? Confusion and doubt reigned supreme. There were a number of pinups around the bed area of the huge sleeper cab that included prints of naked furry shewolves and vixens. And here she was, basically the woman of his fantasies, sitting before him wearing a tank top and a miniskirt.
He took off his Red Sox baseball cap and nervously ran his fingers through his thinning hair. The air inside the truck smelled like salty human male sweat. An odor that tickled the vixen's brain in unsettling ways. Roady put it back on. "Pardon my French, but shit! That beats anything I've seen on the news, um.... Josephine?"
The silver almost-vixen nodded glumly. She looked at her clawed fingertips, then clamped down hard on the thought of how they'd look with a nice red polish on them. Instead, she reached across the modular table and put her paw-hand on her friend's forearm. "I really need to get to the bathroom before we leave, Roady. I'd like to shower one last time, if I possibly can."
Roady swallowed nervously. Josephine could tell, by smell alone, that he was both attracted to and repelled by her. The Fizz wanted to flirt with him intensely, and her normal self wasn't able to repress all of it. "There's, um, a bathroom in the truck stop that has a bunch of modern conveniences, including a shower. All that fur'll take forever to dry, though," he said.
"I'll make do," she replied with a giggle, tickling his arm with her claw tips. "You're such a gentleman."
"Heh. Uh... I've got a poncho you can cover yourself with, too. I'll run interference so nobody sees you. There ain't nobody around here, anyhow. Just can't take our eyes off the news!" He stood up and reached over her head and pulled a wadded-up gray poncho from a cupboard. "Here you go, uh, Jo."
She didn't like the poncho, but it did cover everything, more or less. It was made for a much larger person, and had an oddly intoxicating masculine odor. No... no. Don't even think of that! she thought. I'm not ready for that!
But there was a lot of things she wasn't ready for that God, the Universe, or plain bad luck was still throwing at her. This was just more fuel for the fire. She already felt like she was dancing on red hot coals.
The poncho gave her an instant migraine headache. It was the most unsexy garment she had worn yet. She caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror before they left. Muzzle... she thought. "Grr. Oh, poot! Let's go, Roady."
As it turned out, the furry trucker didn't really need to distract anybody. They made it across the empty parking lot without anyone around, entering the Flying J through one of the three main entrances. The bathroom was actually a credit card activated pay facility. The human man helpfully swiped his card, opened the door, and let her slide right in. "I'll stand here and make sure nobody bothers you," he assured gallantly.
As the door closed, she literally tore off the poncho, then rushed over to the mirror.
A couple years ago Roady had stopped by Joseph's apartment with a rig full of werewolf movies. They had ranged from the stunning—like the first American Werewolf in London—to the horrible—some B-movie with Emilo Estevez and a cast who snarled "wharvolhf" in the strangest accents imaginable.
At the moment her face still looked moderately human, though her nose was now black and textured like a dog's, her ears had grown quite tall and pointed, though they stuck out from her skull a bit, and there wasn't a patch of bare skin on her. But the jaw, the high forehead, the eyes, even the shape of the nose, still gave her face a definitively human cast.
That started to change.
It wasn't so much that her ears grew upwards, it was her skull that shrank downwards. This made her ears more or less seem to grow more, and they came towards each other. At the very same time, the bridge of her nose first seemed to widen... then her upper and lower jaw started to slide forwards. It really was a lot like watching An American Werewolf in London. Except she could hear every snap and pop through her own foxy skull. The process took several minutes. She found herself alternating between the mirror and going cross-eyed.
Eventually all the remaining human features were squeezed away, leaving her with her ears flicking over a wholly animal face that had only retained human-like hair. There was also an obviously human intellect behind her green cat-like eyes. She used a clawed fingertip—gently!—to pull up her lip along her muzzle to show herself a set of very carnivore teeth. "Rrrrf..." she growled. Quite a set of canines, there.
The strangest thing, she realized, was that it all worked aesthetically. She looked like she'd might have evolved from a silver fox. The hair was a little odd, perhaps, but it was the right shade and texture. She stripped down to her fur to really get a look at herself, swishing her marvelously bushy tail behind her. Well, I've sort of wondered what being furry would be like. She stretched and posed before the mirror. Get a load of yourself, Joseph. You can't get any closer to a vixen.
She looked like a silver, green-eyed version of Traci.
Josephine sighed. The Fizz was oddly dormant, as if satisfied just for the nudity and her sensual stretch. Her thinking was as clear-headed as it was going to get in this situation. I'd better call the Men in Black. I'm crazy if I think I'm going to get us both home. Poor Roady...
There was a pop sound from behind the heavy door, followed by an animal yelp. The silver vixen flicked her ears quizzically. No odors gave away whatever was going on outside. The bathroom smelled very strongly of lemon disinfectant and more than a hint of dirt and grime under that. Before she could walk over to the door, there was a click of the lock, and a strange blond woman came inside.
Then, just as suddenly, it was Traci standing there.
The golden vixen smiled, tongue lolling happily as she looked Josephine up and down. "You look lovely!" she exclaimed joyfully. "You turned out just perfect, darling! I kept telling Marx that his experiment wasn't a failure and that the battery was just low when he zapped you. You do look beautiful."
"How did you get in here!" the silver vixen sputtered, folding her arms over her breasts. "Get out! What happened to Roady?"
"People see what they want to see, honey," she replied, tapping a ladies' watch on her left wrist. There were a trio of LED lights flashing in sequence. It was the only thing she had on, though she had something strapped around her shoulder as well. "Psionic holo projector. They see me as a hyooman. I told Marx I just wanted a holo projector, but he came up with this instead. The dear mad foxy. He's so smart and sexy."
There was no way Josephine could escape this. Instead she started to reach for her clothes. Still smiling, Traci sauntered over into the middle of the room and flipped them away into a corner with her paw. "Hey!" Josephine growled.
"Just be cool, dear. And I mean that literally. We furries aren't meant to wear clothes. Anyway..." Her expression turned more serious. She put her handpaws on Josephine's shoulders affectionately. "I came to apologize. I'm so, so sorry about the gender flip. I wanted to keep you as my tod, but Marx is very fixated on making enough vixens. And he doesn't care where he gets them. I'm afraid you're quite stuck this way." She licked her on the nose, then gave the silver vixen an amazingly chaste hug. "Thankfully, I couldn't care less what your gender is, love. Together, we're electrum."
In the breast-squishing embrace, Josephine eyed the watch. She tried to reach for it before Traci's last sentence registered. Then the Fizz interrupted. "Wait. Like, what's electrum?"
Traci let go, tilting her head. "Annd... that's another big problem. Marx just can't let go of stereotypes, so you've got this pink thing in your head now. How strong is she?"
Why am I even opening up to her after what she's done to me? Josephine wondered. It was strange. The mere presence of another vixen had calmed her down. She felt an overwhelming need to talk. "Strong. I don't feel like myself any more. This... thing in me is taking over."
"I was afraid of that," she replied with a sigh. "So I'll have to take other corrective measures." She removed the watch and let it dangle from her fingertips. "You want this, don't you?"
Josephine nodded slowly. "I... really want to go home. Before I do anything else. Whatever happens after, I don't care."
Traci lolled her tongue. "This is for you. Wear it in good health."
The silver vixen put it on, then pushed the activation button. The three LEDs started flashing again, but nothing seemed to change. Except she got a physical zap from the metal backing plate. Her fur was still there. "It isn't working."
"It's psionic imagery in that mode," she explained. "People expect to see a pretty human woman. So that's what they see. I still see a vixen because I know otherwise. There's also a switch for a straight hologram as well. But there's no actual physical changes. The battery lasts maybe four, five hours depending on what features you use. Just snap off the backplate and put in a regular watch battery and you're good."
Josephine smiled... then realized she wasn't thinking this through. "So, you're just giving this to me? Like, what do you want from me, then? And what do you mean by 'corrective measures'?"
"To be perfectly honest, dear vixen, intelligence is an aphrodisiac. Valley Girls are so unsexy to me." She licked Josephine's nose. "I know you, JoeFox. You don't post enough on the forums, and I simply won't have you as a Valley Girl. As a vixen you're more of a Femme Fatale.
"And I guarantee you're going to love it. It suits you."
Josephine was speechless. She was on the forums? She knew who he—she—was? She was too shocked to resist the rather passionate lick-kiss for a moment, then she pushed the golden vixen away. "Stop it! Just... stop it! This is just too much!"
Traci laughed. Not a vapid giggle, not a mad cackle. Just a knowing laugh. "I'm not going to force myself on you. No worries, sis-vix. You'll come around. In fact, I think you'll find your mind feels clearer already."
Josephine hated to admit it, but she was right. The Fizz wasn't gone, but had diminished so much as to make little difference. But in its place was... a strange self confidence. Something that felt old and new at the very same time. It had a distinctively feminine feeling to it, though of a rather different flavor than the Valley Girl's emotional, materialistic flamboyance. The silver vixen put her handpaws on her hips and gave the other vixen an icy look. "No more messing with my head, Traci. I mean it. Don't make me use these claws."
"Cross my furry heart," she replied, making the motion over her chest. "I'll be leaving now..." She started sidling over towards the door.
But Josephine grabbed her tail to keep her from going further, making her yip in surprise. "Just a second there, 'sister'. Where's Marx? And what did you do to Roady?"
Traci's ears folded back, there was a hint of a snarl on her face. "My darling Marx is having a conversation with your friend Nico by now. He has something Marx wants. As for Roady, come see for yourself. I figure he'll be happy. Now let me go!"
She released her. Oh, crap! Nico! Selfish, selfish! Unfortunately Nico was going to have to wait for a little bit. Roady was closer at hand. And from the whimpering, was in a very bad way.
She could only hope Nico could somehow help himself.
Nico laced his stubby clawed fingers thorough the mesh of the cage, giving it a shake to test its strength and glaring up at Marx. The rat's fear was strong, of course—he had been captured by a fox and was confined in a cage barely bigger than he was—but Nico's anger was more than enough to overcome it.
Anger at Marx for trapping him, of course, but also anger at himself for falling for it. There had been warning signs, why hadn't he paid attention? The smell...
A wedge of Swiss cheese, almost cartoonishly stereotypical, sat on a plate by the van's side door with a strange contraption that looked like a cross between a fan and a megaphone mounted next to it. Even after Marx's net had scooped him up and deposited him here, he'd still found himself helplessly straining to reach a handpaw through the bars far enough to snag it, desperate for just a nibble. But then Marx had turned off the contraption and the insane compulsion had quickly faded back to a more bearable longing that was similar to his normal reaction to cheese.
"A scent-amplifier," Marx explained with a chuckle, obviously proud of his latest ridiculous invention. "But it doesn't just make scents easier to detect, no, it makes their effects more powerful! This wasn't its intended use, but I knew you would be unable to resist."
Nico just glared. He wanted to ask why in heaven's name Marx would build such a thing, but he knew that asking for more exposition would only feed Marx's mad scientist complex. Then he thought about the pheromones that Traci was constantly emitting and shuddered, realizing that he probably didn't want to know the real reason why Marx had built it after all.
"What's the matter, cat got your tongue?"
Marx's yipping laughter suggested he was reveling in the stereotypes of mad science even without Nico's prompting, and so Nico sighed. The cage seemed pretty strong, there wasn't an obvious way out. Might as well engage him. "What do you want?"
"My dear rat, I want what you stole from me back at Xanadu, of course." Marx's laughter died, his tone turning much more serious. "After I offered you the honor of a position in my lab, you not only turned me down, but you skulked around and stole from me. My ionic flux capacitor, the key component of my future great works."
"Look, I picked up a lot of stuff," Nico objected. "I couldn't help myself, there's just something about sparkly shiny little things. But the Men in Black have it all now. They took my bag, damn it..." Nico trailed off, suddenly realizing that wasn't quite true.
Marx, also, was having none of it. He spun to a console mounted on the van's wall, typing a command and then pointing accusingly at the jerry-rigged monitor. A vaguely radar-like display showed a big red circle in the center. "Lies! I can't pinpoint the power signature of a source so vast, but that capacitor is at this truck stop somewhere. It's been with you the entire time. How else did you think I could track you so easily? Or why else did you think I even bothered?"
Nico was thinking quickly now. The ionic flux capacitor, whatever it was, must have been among the things that had fallen under the car seat when the zipper had burst. "Little glowing crystal, about yea big?" Nico held up a thumb and forefinger to approximate the size of his favorite acquisition. "So pretty and sparkly, like it's got a rainbow trapped inside?"
Marx bared his teeth. "So you have got it!" He accused triumphantly. Nico's heart sank. Closer than you realize. The damned thing was still tucked inside his cheek. He fought down the urge to pant, wishing he could still sweat instead.
"I know where it is," Nico clarified quickly. "But before you threaten me, or start shooting up the place, or something—"
"Yes, yes, yes. I know. People will call the police, the secret service, the 'establishment'." Marx made quotation marks around the word with his fingers, sighing and turning to sit on a stool with a sweeping flourish of green lab coat and russet tail fur. "You do seem to like hiding behind them, don't you? Fools! All of them! But you needn't worry about that this time." He bared his teeth again, this time in more of a sheepish grin than a threatening snarl. "Traci seems to think my direct approach may have caused more trouble than benefit. This time she convinced me to try a plan of her own devising. Most persuasively." His sheepish grin deepened.
Nico glanced around, reminded now of the gold-furred vixen and realizing he hadn't seen her despite the overwhelming scent of her presence. The van's interior wasn't large enough for anyone to hide in. "Where is she, anyway?"
Marx's chuckle returned. "She went out to deal with your hyooman friend. I elected to deal with you."
Oh crap! Nico had no idea what Traci was going to do to Joseph, but it couldn't be good. "You leave her alone!" Nico snarled. "She's just a bystander, she doesn't even know what that ionic thing looks like!" He rattled the cage bars again and then tried bringing his incisors to bear on the metal. He felt it yielding slightly under the strength of his powerful jaws but the bars were too thick to just snip like wires.
"Ha! Heh heh! You misunderstand!" Marx laughed. "What a gallant rodent, and for a hyooman no less. But listen. I don't mean deal with as in deal with. I mean make a deal. I want to trade with you."
Nico paused in mid-gnaw, blinking. "Trade miff?"
"Oh, do take that bar out of your mouth, you don't know where it's been." Nico complied, a little sheepish himself now but still not quite trusting the fox's word. "What was Traci's phrase? Catching flies with honey, or something. Or cheese, in your case." Marx chuckled. "In any event. I have something to offer you, a simple exchange with no shooting and no police. And Traci's taken a little present to your hyooman, too. One that won't finish turning her into a vixen, even, though I still don't understand why anyone should choose not to be."
"What is it?"
Marx rose to his feet triumphantly. "Aha! You're interested! Excellent!" Before Nico could object to the characterization the fox turned, opening a toolbox and rummaging inside. "One of my earlier inventions. The very one I wanted your help in testing, in fact. You were a fool to turn me down then, it has a price now! Ah, here we are." He turned back, holding up a black ring about three inches in diameter. "Behold!"
Nico squinted and cocked his head, his rodentine vision making it hard to discern detail at this range. But then it resolved and he stifled a chuckle. "A digital watch? I admit, I did lose mine a little while ago..."
"No, you fool! Well, yes. I did build it into a watch. But this is far more than that." Marx crouched down to hold the watch tantalizingly before Nico's muzzle. "My original plan was not to turn hyoomans into vixens, you know. Hyoomans are not worthy of that. I was going to turn ordinary foxes into vixens instead, pure blank slates uncontaminated by former lives and hyooman thoughts that might get in the way of their development. This is an anthropomorphizer. But there weren't any ordinary foxes around Xanadu, they'd all been taken away to the zoo or pound or wherever it is hyoomans take them. So I was going to try it on you, who is as close to being an ordinary rat as makes no significant difference."
The comment about much like a rat Marx considered him sparked a bit of annoyance, but not enough to intrude over Nico's realization that Marx might well have something worth trading for after all. "Something like that... you could cure so many people!"
Marx snorted. "No, this was a blind alley of research, I realize now. Traci has shown me that a hyooman can indeed be redeemed, purified into a true example of lovely vixenhood. I've left this design behind... I can only hold so many in mind, you know. Even such a great intellect as myself." He grinned madly. "Why else do you think I don't just make another capacitor? I've forgotten how, I'd need to reinvent it from scratch. So tedious! But the prototypes remain. Here, try it." He undid the strap and held one end through the cage mesh.
Nico gingerly took hold of it, then tugged it through when Marx released his grip. It did look just like an ordinary digital watch, but on the front below the LCD were just two buttons labeled 'on' and 'off'. The LCD read '100%'.
Nico missed his old watch. It had been his only article of clothing, the only thing that signaled to the world that he wasn't just an animal. Right now he had nothing. What harm could it do him to try it out? "I won't become a buxom giggling ratbabe, will I?" Nico asked as he strapped it on, his handpaws just barely dexterous enough to manage the buckle.
Marx shook his head. "No, I never programmed in more than the first stage experimental form. I suppose if you wanted... heh. I imagine you don't. Pity. Anyway, do you comprehend the controls?"
Nico grinned wryly. On and off. Even my simple rat brain can handle that. God, I can't believe I'm actually trying this nutball's invention, I am so going to wind up a bimbo... Taking a deep breath and setting aside any further hesitation, Nico pressed a clawtip down on the 'on' button.
It felt like a wave of warm water sweeping over him, flooding up his arm and out over his body. A moment later the wave suddenly tightened, turning into a constricting sensation that elicited a small gasp. It was his skin getting tighter, he realized. Muscles tensed and stretched, bones warped like stiff taffy... it was similar to how it had felt the first time, when the mask he'd been wearing had seized hold of his face and squeezed his body down into the form of a rat. Now his long rodentine muzzle was being squeezed in turn, face pulling back in toward a more humanlike shape...
The sensation ended and Nico was left panting, still crouched down on all fours, still fitting neatly into the giant-rat-sized cage. He was till furry, except for the long hairless tail still curled around his feet. But his proportions had changed dramatically. He was human again. Well, humanoid, at any rate. Nico resisted the urge to leap to is feet, knowing full well that he'd just bash his head unceremoniously against the cage's ceiling but also knowing that were it not for that ceiling he'd be perfectly capable of it. He touched his face, still buck-toothed and bewhiskered but now identifiably that of a person again. He couldn't believe it had worked.
"I can't believe it worked," Marx chuckled. "There's some sort of energy field unique to hyoomans changed by the event at Xanadu that resists further changes of form, by all rights... heh. Never mind, it worked. Now, the tricky part. You have what you want, but I have you still locked in a cage. How shall we arrange for you to fetch my ionic capacitor from wherever you've hidden it in such a way that I can trust you not to run off or phone the police? Perhaps if you were to give the watch back for now, to hold in escrow-"
Nico cut Marx off by spitting the ionic capacitor out onto the floor. "Feh. Barely fit in my cheek any more. And..." Nico looked down at the sparkly iridescent crystal, his restored vision drinking in far more color and detail than when he'd first laid eyes on it. But even so, he felt only a slight twinge of instinctive covetousness. "Heh! I don't want it!" Nico nearly jumped for joy a second time, realizing how muted his inner rat had suddenly become. He was thinking clearly again for the first time in weeks.
Marx was clearly caught completely off guard by this sudden turn of events, staring at the crystal with all the desire that Nico now lacked but evidently not quite grasping that it was actually there. Then, after a long silence, he broke into yipping laughter. "Oh, you clever rat! Had I only known! But no matter." He snatched up the crystal, his laughter taking a definite insane edge again. "At last, I have the power source I need to make the Vixenator truly autonomous!"
Nico blinked. "Wait, what?" It actually hadn't occurred to him until now to wonder just what the crystal actually did, or what the fox had wanted it for.
"Power!" Marx repeated. "It's the one limiting factor in all my designs. The Vixenator didn't even have enough for a handful of shots running on double-A cells like it was back at the diner. And even that watch, what does the display read?"
Nico glanced down at his wrist in alarm. The percentage display had been replaced with a timer. "Just under two hours... counting down? What does that mean?"
More maniacal laughter. "Clever rat, but only by half! With this ionic capacitor, perhaps it would have had enough power for continuous operation. But continuously fighting against the lingering energy field of Xanadu? It can't recharge itself fast enough."
Nico had a sinking sensation in his gut. "There had to be a catch..." he muttered unhappily. But Marx was no longer paying attention, having turned back to his workbench again. Now that he had his ionic flux capacitor there were other things far more important than gloating on his mind; he opened up a storage case and reverently took out what looked like some sort of complicated model helicopter.
"Let's see what my masterpiece can do when unleashed in full auto mode, as it was always meant to be..."
The golden vixen left the bathroom, tail barely missing getting pinched by the spring-loaded door as she slipped out. Josephine was unwilling to leave the room unclothed, and appearing un-human. She pulled her outfit back on in record time; apparently the Femme Fatale had some skills that were already useful. She had a look at the watch, trying to figure out the controls.
The Fizz would have simply balked and asked someone else to do it. She was anything but technically savvy. It only took Josephine seconds to figure out the two sliders on either side were for the psionics or the hologram. She opted to put the latter all the way to full. It was better that she really appeared human rather than they thought she was one of them. She looked at herself in the mirror before leaving.
It was a perfect disguise. No hint of muzzle, ears, or tail. Just a beautiful, exotic silver-blond woman who would look right at home in a James Bond movie. Astonishingly, exactly how she'd looked right after being zapped.
Outside, Josephine heard a commotion from down the hall. Traci wasn't making any attempt to hide from anyone. Then there was the sound of a thin stream of water, then a couple of feminine screams. The golden vixen had had a purse slung over one shoulder. Just what was inside it?
Roady, she thought, opening the door carefully.
There was a very large fox in Roady's clothing, curled up in a ball directly opposite the door. He was trembling like a leaf in a strong wind, and whatever was going on down in the restaurant portion of the truck stop wasn't making things any easier. Josephine folded her ears back to block it out. The fox—a tod, she noted—stared at her. "Um, Roady?" she said. "It's me, Joe."
"I'm not a wolf!" he wailed. "After all this shit, I'm not a wolf! And I barely even have hands!" He held up his misshapen paws, then demonstrated for her. He could only reach the two closest fingers with his thumbs. Otherwise, he might be as comfortable on four feet as two. "Holy shit, Joe! She at least made you... uh..." he sniffed a few times. "Rrrrf. No, you still smell like vixen."
Josephine pushed the power button off and on again quickly. "She just gave me this thing, Roady. As you can see, I'm as much a vixen as she is now. We have to get out of here..." Her mind raced, as much from being near Roady as the situation at hand. "I need to find Nico, first. Did anybody see you?"
Roady-the-fox shook his foxy head. Unlike her, he lacked human hair. It was just a fox's head. "Nope!" he yipped. "Eyes and ears glued on the news and waiting for loads, and I'm too tangled up in my pants to walk. I stayed quiet." He whined, looking at her longingly. "You've gotta help me!"
It was easy to see why Roady couldn't disentangle himself. Not only did he risk being heard and seen, but his hands were almost useless for the task. The shape of his legs had changed enough that they'd simply gotten stuck in the denim. The first thing I'm doing as a Femme Fatale is undressing a tod. Just great, she thought with a rueful snort. She knelt down and started on the button fly. That done, Roady wiggled out until he was just in a loose-fitting tee shirt and his briefs. Then he easily stood up on all fours and whined.
Down the hall there was even more whimpering. Josephine looked up, peering down the dimly-lit corridor, then saw two almost-identical red-haired girls, maybe eighteen years old. Both had an odor that said "trucker" more than whatever they appeared. In fact, their physical appearance was amazingly familiar. And both were sopping wet. "What the hell?"
"That vixen took this giant water gun out of her bag and soaked those two guys," Roady explained, struggling to get up on two legs. "They didn't do anything to her that I could see when she came in. Must be PMS or something."
Josephine gave him a pointed look. "You're lucky she didn't get you with that, hon. If that's what I think it is." She walked down to the girls, approaching them carefully. They were actually hugging each other, whimpering. "Guys, a hot shower will probably fix you right up. And I suggest you stay away from cold water from now on."
They practically leapt to their feet, scrambled down the hall, not appearing to even see Roady. One of them fumbled for a credit card in her wallet, nearly dropping it in the process, before they finally got the door open and went inside.
Roady's ears perked. "What's that noise?"
The vixen's ears rotated under the hologram. She heard something, too. A sound like a jet engine from far away, getting closer. It was almost masked by whatever was going on inside the restaurant. She could see Traci in there, beyond the glass French doors. She was strutting around like a stripper, apparently performing for the no doubt mostly-male audience. Strange, considering what she had done to the men out in the hallway. Josephine resisted the urge to go see just how she was doing it, feeling like she could pick up some new tricks.
While she watched, the turbine noise went silent, and Roady had lurched halfway down the hall, towards the doors that would take him out towards his truck. Josephine elected to leave Traci to whatever she was doing and go find Nico.
Standing, the near-fox was only as tall as her shoulders, which meant he got a face-full of breasts when looking at her. When she offered her hand to help, he let go of the wall and plunged his nose into her cleavage. "She came up and started chatting!" he whimpered. "Then there was this floating gun-thing and... and... zappo! Mrrrf... You smell niiiice..."
Josephine flushed under her fur. Okay, I guess he really is still male, she thought. He certainly smelled it, but she wasn't about to pull down his underwear to double check. She must have let the gun back out after the zap. I don't see it in the restaurant...
Just outside the doors, Agent Jay appeared. He was holding, upon closer examination, what looked like the tiny Noisy Cricket gun from the movie. He motioned for them to come near, obviously recognizing her. She helped Roady totter the rest of the way to the door, which Jay opened for them. "Get back to your car, ma'am. Things are going to get dicey here," he said. He looked at Roady. "I take it you've encountered the fugitives already. We suspected they were following you..."
"The Feds took your neuralyser, but not your funny guns?" she intoned pointedly, peeling away from Roady's clingy embrace. She could read him like a book, she realized. And he smelled afraid. This was a profoundly insecure man. Ripe for the picking, in another situation. But this was not the time.
Jay looked suitably guilty. "Go find somewhere safe, but don't leave. We're going to have a little chat after all this is over."
"Marx has my friend Nico," she replied.
"We figured that out, Miss Mercer. Kay is looking for them now. Their vehicle is cloaked somehow, but we were allowed to keep a few useful things," he said. Just the way he spoke, the way he stood, the way he looked at her, he was a bundle of useful insecurities.
Oh, shit. Femme Fatale, remember? Still, at least I'm a smart-girl stereotype. I just need to avoid thinking of men as disposable. That was going to be a problem—there was no comparable sensation to the Fizz this time around to tell her she was behaving differently. No "out of body" feelings at all. The integration was seamless. All her thoughts felt exactly like her own. That did not bode well. "We're going," she said. "C'mon, Roady."
The mad science stereotypes were coming fast and thick now. Marx was gloating, spouting grand schemes as he worked on his superweapon, while Nico huddled small and ignored in the villain's cage. He almost felt like shouting 'you'll never get away with this!', or something similar, but held his tongue lest he draw Marx's attention back to him.
What he really needed was to get out of this cage. Ironically, although his incisors were still massive and chisel-like compared to a normal humans', with his shrunken muzzle there was no way he would be able to bite through the cage's bars now. Perhaps if he turned the watch off again, to unleash his full rodentine gnawing powers...
I'm a small man, Nico realized, and not just physically. After spending weeks as an animal he found himself extremely hesitant to cast off the restored trappings of humanity again even with the timer counting down on it anyway.
So what could a small man do? There weren't a lot of resources available; he was still buck naked and there weren't any more useful treasures stuffed in his cheeks. He considered slipping his tail out through the wire mesh to try snagging something, but its prehensility was limited and there were no tools within easy reach. There was simply no way he was going to get out of this stupid cage.
So get the cage out of the van. He smacked his forehead at the obviousness of the solution, and then paused for a moment grinning at the subsequent realization that he had a forehead again. But then Marx snapped the casing of the Vixenator shut with a triumphant laugh and Nico knew it was time to keep focused. He backed up as far as he could into one corner of the cage and then sprung as fast as he could into the mesh on the opposite side.
The cage jumped and shuddered, sliding a few feet across the floor. Marx turned in surprise. "What? Settle down, little mouse! You're about to see my greatest creation yet!" Marx laughed again. "Let's get to a better vantage point." He moved up to the front of the van and climbed into the driver's seat. Nico frantically flung himself against the cage again, sliding it another few feet right up to the edge of the open side door.
Marx shifted gears, revved the engine, and Nico was momentarily overwhelmed by a surge of vertigo as the truck stop pavement dropped away. "Crap..." He couldn't shove the cage out now, he'd plummet.
Motion caught Nico's eye. A sleek black car, moving far faster than it had any right to, pulled into the parking lot. Two familiar men in black suits climbed out and hurried into the truck stop, following the commotion. Nico blinked. How could they have arrived so quickly? They were following us too, he realized.
"They've arrived just a moment too late this time," Marx chuckled, evidently having noticed the same thing. Putting the hovering van on cruise control, he came back to the workbench and flipped a switch on the device. Its rotor started spinning, lifting it into the air. "Vixenator, random color settings, gender ratio ten to one. Mode: full auto rover!"
The little helicopter gunship bobbed once, almost as if nodding in acknowledgement, and then flew out the door.
They passed Jay on his way towards the exterior doors, and had reached them when Traci came out, holding a super soaker and a full load of water. Jay leveled his Noisy Cricket at her. "Drop that weapon right now! You're in violation of the Xanadu Weapons Confiscation Act! Drop it!"
Agent Jay was far more frightened than he looked. It seemed like there was enough of the person he had been left over—someone who obviously had no law enforcement experience—that it was affecting his actions at least as much as the saucy Traci. She flaunted her sensual body openly in front of the Man in Black, and it was making him hesitate.
That was all the opening the golden vixen needed. The super soaker had a far longer range than Josephine would have thought. Jay pitched backwards the moment the stream hit him, and just like in the anime series "Ranma 1/2", the transformation was nearly instantaneous. All tangled up in baggy clothes, the redheaded girl fell on her back, Noisy Cricket skittering across the linoleum.
"Great going, Slick!" Agent Kay said sarcastically from just outside the open door. Jay was curled up in a ball, whimpering. Then came a distant noise, like a tiny helicopter...
Kay failed to hear it, perhaps because of his merely human ears. The white beam lanced down from high above, striking him right in the chest, which immediately started to swell outwards. Kay grimaced as white fur overgrew his face, muzzle pushing outwards, and his clothing simply dissolved away, leaving a white, blue-eyed vixen. Strangely, she didn't keel over, look at herself in shock, or anything else to betray something was wrong. She still had Kay's same stoic expression. And his silver, rifle-like gun.
The roving Vixenator took advantage of the open door to slip inside before Josephine could stop it, slipping by both vixens and mostly fox-like Roady. Traci smiled at the two transformed MiBs, Josephine, and Roady, then let it into the restaurant, where it immediately started blasting patrons.
The only thing that hadn't been affected by the Vixenator was Kay's giant, shiny, rifle-like weapon, which she still held with great poise and confidence. There's somebody's fetish right there, the silver vixen thought dryly.
"Shake yourself out of it, Jay!" the white vixen shouted at her feminized partner. "A gender change is simple. Did I ever tell you about the Calaxian Matriarchy back in '74? For upwards of six months through the negotiations we became the Women in Black! We've been conditioned for stuff like this!" she growled.
"This has gone way too far," Jay mumbled despairingly. "All I wanted to do was play around for a few days in costume, not..."
"You should've been more in-character. Never mind," Kay said with a sigh. She looked at Josephine and Roady. "Can either of you handle a gun?"
Roady flexed his mostly-useless paw-hands. "I can't pull a trigger," he said. At least the Vixenator had passed him by the second time.
"Hunting rifles only," Josephine answered. "But I can hold a gun."
"You'll do." She tossed her the gun she was holding, which Josephine caught with some trepidation. But it was lighter than it looked. "It's currently set on stun. Crank it down to narrow beam with the dial on the left, then put it on Setting 3 on the other dial. See if you can shoot that flying gun thing, but for the love of Gord, don't point it at any people. I'll try with the Noisy Cricket, but it's not exactly a precision weapon. I'm a trained professional, though. Between the two of us we'll blow it to pieces."
Marx moved to stand in the door next to Nico's cage, looking out after it with an expression of pride.
There seemed to already be some sort of commotion going on at the truck stop, the sound of women screaming came to Nico's ears well before the Vixenator reached the place. When the flash and zap of the Vixenator started in earnest the sounds of panic easily redoubled. "Damn!" Nico hoped Joseph and Roady were still out of sight in the truck. He had no idea what a second zap of the ray could do to someone.
But what could he do? He had an eagle-eye view of the action, his long-distance vision back to human levels again at last, only to be stuck helpless in a cage.
He cringed as a blast from some sort of raygun blew up through the roof of the truckstop diner. A second and third followed, and then swarms of frightened people—and also vixens of various colors—came flooding out. The Men in Black were evidently trying to shoot down the fast-dodging Vixenator, causing a fair bit of collateral damage with their misses. Good God, what a mess!
The console mounted on the van's wall suddenly flashed red and sounded a warning chime. "No! They mustn't!" Marx turned from his position at the door and lunged to read the report coming in on it. "Damaged tail rotor... they must have winged it!" He grabbed a microphone and turned back to the door. "Vixenator, full foxy! Priority targets- yipe!"
The microphone had a cord, which had hung down just within Nico's reach. Nico yanked the microphone out of Marx's hands and pulled it into the cage before the fox could react. "Vixenator, stop! Stand down, end, return to base- eek!"
Marx put his foot against the back of Nico's cage and with a crazed snarl shoved it out over the edge. Nico fell for a fraction of a second and then slammed against the bars as the microphone cable snapped taut, nearly yanking out of his hands. He squealed in terror and clutched it tightly.
The cable held. Cautiously cracking an eye, he stared at it in surprise. There was no way that slender wire would have supported a full-sized human's weight. Thank god I stayed small! Looking up, he could no longer see the van; the microphone cable just vanished a few feet away from the cage. He was hanging just outside of the cloaking effect.
Marx cursed invisibly above him, evidently realizing his mistake a moment too late. There was a tug on the cable, perhaps an attempt to pull him up or an attempt to cut him free. Either way it was rendered moot by a green beam of energy came up from the truck stop, missing him by a hairsbreadth to strike the underside of the van. The cloaking effect sputtered, the van's engine damaged.
He was too high, but at least falling gave him more of a chance than he'd get if a shot like that hit him. Nico let the microphone go. For a moment he was in freefall again, screaming in fear. The pavement was rushing up toward him way too fast-
He glimpsed a small black helicopter careening in his direction, trailing smoke and struggling to gain enough altitude to reach the van he'd just fallen from. Nico's breath was knocked out of him as his cage struck it, the contraption crumpling under him. Then his breath was knocked out a second time when their combined wreckage struck ground.
Roady yipped as the Noisy Cricket's shots blasted through the truck stop's ceiling, fleeing through the rear doors, towards his truck. Josephine could hardly blame him. Who knew what a second blast from the Vixenator would do. Most of the people inside the truck stop had already fled, though more than half of them were vixens, and even a couple of tods. "Keep that damned thing still!" the silver vixen shouted. She was beginning to think she was more Bond Girl than Femme Fatale. She knew how to handle the plasma rifle with greater ease than she could explain.
Traci had also escaped somewhere. There had been more than one nude golden vixen in the restaurant when Kay had blasted the doors off. The tiny helicopter-raygun floated around, looking for still-human targets, ignoring Kay and Josephine, except when their weapons were pointed at it.
"I'm going to drive it to the left," Kay whispered. "Be ready."
Josephine nodded, putting the butt of the weapon up on her shoulder, squishing her right breast a little. She also widened the beam one notch.
Kay let loose with a one-woman broadside of rapid shots, smashing through walls, through the ceiling. The Vixenator didn't know where to go. Josephine raised the gun to eye level, the end of the stock sliding against fur and breast, taking aim through the reticule at the tip of the barrel.
It was her one and only shot, and she winged it. The mincoptor's tail rotor was shot off by a green beam. It started spinning like a top, smoke started pouring out of the stump of the tail rotor. But before she could draw another bead on it, the rotors grew louder and it rose through the hole in the roof, blaring some kind of alarm.
"Great shot!" Kay exclaimed. Then she lowered her gun and stared at Josephine.
The silver vixen looked down. The halo effect from the gun had disrupted the hologram around her chest, face, and forearms. Even though it was actually starting to reassemble itself, the cat was out of the bag. "Heh..."
Kay shook her pretty white head and shrugged. "Doesn't matter. Toss me that weapon!" she ordered.
She did so, then looked up through the holes blasted in the ceiling. Hanging literally by a thread in midair was a square cage, and inside it, a strange humanoid form with a long, ratlike tail. "Nico? Nico!"
But Kay didn't hesitate. The Vixen in White cranked the beam width, took aim, and fired before Josephine could protest.
The silver vixen was out the door before Nico's cage hit the ascending Vixenator and crumpled to the ground.
Nico's rest was not very comfortable. The floor of the cage was dented upward in the center by the remains of the Vixenator trapped underneath and he lay flat on his back across it, looking up at the sky through the bent wire mesh overhead.
There was a black trail of smoke twisting erratically through the air overhead. Nico gave a pained laugh, though in his dazed state he wasn't exactly sure why.
Then a huge woman loomed overhead, blotting out the sun, and Nico blinked in surprise. "Joseph... ine?" She looked human again, though there was still a familiar foxy scent...
"Oh, thank God!" Josephine started prying at the cage's mesh, hunting for latches. "Are you all right? You fell, and you look different. What did Marx do to you?"
Nico chuckled again and checked his watch. One hour and forty minutes left. Better conserve it. He gingerly pressed the 'stop' button and a tingle washed through his body, intimately familiar now; it was the magic of Xanadu restoring its hold once again. In seconds he was back in his non-anthropomorphized giant rat form again.
The pain of the bruises and sprains were completely gone. He sighed with mixed emotions. "Nothing irreversible. I guess that's goo-eep!" He was cut off by Josephine, who had found and unfastened enough latches to cast aside the top of the cage and pull him up out. The combination of scent and touch confirmed that Josephine's human appearance was just a visual illusion, she was still a vixen in all the ways that mattered.
The rat was back in his mind and squealed in terror at being seized by this huge predator. The human in him yelped too, in indignation at being scooped up like a small child. But he forced both of them to shut up, accepting Josephine's concern with the good nature in which it was intended.
"Shouldn't move an accident victim," a nude white vixen bearing a large futuristic-looking silver weapon commented as she jogged—and jiggled—past. She was moving a little unsteadily on her paws but seemed quite intent on following the descending track of smoke in the sky.
"Oh, goodness!" Josephine realized she was hugging someone who might be suffering from a spinal injury and her grip turned ginger, lowering Nico to the ground and placing him gently back on all fours. "Are you okay?" She repeated.
Nico sat up on his haunches and patted himself down. "I guess so. I didn't hit very hard, and Xanadu heals..." Nico cocked his head, sniffing at Josephine to double-check the reality of her status. "You haven't changed."
It was Josephine's turn to laugh—a clearly feminine laugh, but nothing like a vapid giggle. "You'd be surprised. But let's get somewhere a little safer to compare notes. This place is going to be swarming with police in a minute, and poor Roady..." she whined a little. "This is all my fault."
"Hang on a sec." Nico turned back to the cage and hefted it up off the Vixenator. It looked quite thoroughly broken and inert. He placed his handpaws on either end and bit down on the side panel, prying it up with his teeth to expose the raygun's innards.
There was the pretty glittering crystal, the cause of so much trouble. He grinned and tugged it free, popping it safely back into his cheek. "Okay, let's go."
They headed off together toward Roady's truck, just ahead of the first wave of wailing sirens and the colorful confused foxmorphs milling around to meet them. It seemed the two of them had come out of their latest clash with Marx somewhat ahead of the game.
Josephine handed one of the new vixens a ceramic mug of lukewarm coffee. She was a red, with long, wavy red-orange hair the color of a ripe carrot. Her long, bushy tail—significantly longer than Josephine's own—was tucked down between her legs as she leaned her back against the outside wall of the truck stop. She was so shocked she wasn't making any attempt to cover her nudity. But when Josephine looked at her, she only saw another vixen rather than an object of desire. The Fizz was gone, but what Traci had replaced it with wasn't actually better. From what she could tell, it had replaced a man's mind with a woman's. Not something she would have chosen, but reality nonetheless. At least she could function.
She was more concerned Traci had made her into a personality copy of herself. She would have to watch her own behavior very closely. Maybe Nico would be willing to help.
The red stuck her muzzle in the mug, then lapped at the coffee while looking up at Josephine in thanks. These vixens were so far unafflicted by anything mental, though for the life of her she couldn't tell if this person had been male or female before. The police, the FBI, and a slowly-reverting Kay were trying to sort things out.
In her purse were several packages of watch batteries she had bought at the truck stop's convenience store. She had replaced it once already—it just required a twist of the thumbpad, a quick replacement, then the backplate went right back on. It took less than thirty seconds in the restroom. And with both the holographic and psionic emitters on high, only Agent Kay seemed to know what the reality of the situation was.
Marx's flying van had crash-landed in a field a quarter mile from the truck stop. From what Josephine could tell, the mad scientist fox had even come willingly. Agent Kay had led him along, happily handcuffed, behind her. Apparently Marx simply could not resist his own creations. Whatever the former Man in Black had said or done, the red fox was putty in her paws. But once he'd been thrown in the FBI paddy wagon, the madman had turned to shouting. "I'll be back, my vixens! My handsome genius cannot be contained by mere steel bars and concrete walls! Traci, where the Hell are you?!"
And that was another issue.
"There's no sign of Traci," Agent Jay reported. He was male again, but since it was starting to cloud up, he was watching the skies. "You said she had some kind of backpack or purse when you encountered her, Miss Mercer?"
The faux-human nodded. "There's no way that super soaker could have fit inside unless it's some kind of magic bag, and she must have had her own version of the Vixenator to have zapped Roady the way she did. Who knows what else she has in there?"
"She could even look human," Agent Kay added, giving Josephine a knowing look. They were standing between Roady's truck and Josephine's Honda SUV. Kay herself had started looking more human since getting zapped. Apparently the magic of Xanadu was fighting back against Marx's Vixenator. "I expect you'll keep an eye out for her."
"And a nose," Nico added. The rat looked up and saw Roady sticking his muzzle through his open window. "Or two. What's to become of us? You weren't really that forthcoming about that earlier."
"Manpower is short," Jay said, sweating as a few raindrops started falling. "Shorter than even we knew about. Your friend Roady can do what he wants, but we have a couple dozen new foxes to find places for. Your government would appreciate anything you can do to take the pressure off its resources."
"I can't leave my truck!" Roady said, opening the door. He had put on one of his many wolf-print t-shirts, though he no longer wore any pants. He looked rather cartoonish. "It's my home. I can reach the pedals, and I've known drivers with bad arthritis. I can still drive!"
Josephine opened the back of her CR-V and took out an umbrella, but before she could hand it to Jay, the rain turned from sprinkle to downpour.
There was, once more, a sixteen year-old redheaded girl in an ill-fitting black suit.
To the astonishment of all, Agent Kay started laughing. "Get in the car, Slick. I'll find you some hot water, somewhere," the white vixen said. She looked at partly-herself. "I imagine we'll be back to normal in a day or so."
"We can hope," the feminine Jay said sullenly. "After what we've seen I am not so sure. These curses can layer up like an onion. Excuse me." She marched off towards the black Ford LTD, arms folded over her chest.
Agent Kay folded her ears back. "I'm going to repeat what I sad at the Cracker Barrel yesterday. Go home, lay low. Keep that watch of yours running. Don't let anybody see you as a vixen. This is going to take some time to sort out, Ms. Mercer, Mr. Pennell, and Mr...?"
"It's just 'Roadwolf'," Roady added firmly. "No matter what I look like, I'm still a wolf on the inside. Look, I'm pretty well known for being furry in the trucking business. This won't surprise anyone."
"Actually, I think it surprises almost everyone," Kay replied pointedly. "I'll put the word out for you. I've met some magically-inclined folks over the past few weeks who might be able to either cure you, or make some kind of spell or gadget to make you look human like your friend here."
The red fox sighed. "Okay, I see your point."
Josephine felt awful. "I don't know if there's anything I can do to make this up. I just thought..."
"Don't you start on 'could-have, should-haves', Joe," Roady replied. "But I wouldn't mind a place to crash for a while. Mind if I follow you two home?"
"I don't," Josephine said. "Nico? What do you think of having two foxes as traveling companions?"
"Um..." the giant rat said. "I honestly don't know. The ratty voice in me doesn't like it, but rationally, I'm okay with it." Something else was bothering him. "I'll make myself get used to it. The rat will learn."
"We'll camp cross-country," Josephine said, angling the umbrella over herself. Her paws were wet by now. The hologram was actually good enough to look damp. Then she growled. "And if I see or smell Traci, Kay, I'll call you immediately. I have a score to settle with her..."
Nico looked shocked at the sheer venom in his old friend's voice. "What did she do to you in there?"
The silver vixen sighed. "I'll explain once we're on the road. Let's get moving."
"Best of luck," Agent Kay said. She pulled on one of her still-foxy ears. She was soaked to the bone by the downpour, but didn't seem to care. The stoic expression came down for a moment. She actually looked faintly worried. "To all of us."
"Oof. They're kicking." Josephine wrapped her arms around her distended belly. There were, if the ultrasound was correct, a total of three kits that exhibited human and fox characteristics. All through the examination, Roadwolf had hovered over her protectively like the concerned father he was. His name now really fit him. The wizard could not cure him, but had at least given him a more human shape. So in the end, Roadwolf had gotten sort of what he wanted. He was adapting well enough to foxhood, though he still wore wolf-print shirts and hadn't changed his name.
As for Josephine...
The same wizard who had adjusted Roady's physical shape had pronounced, just like all the others, that the tangle of imposed personality changes meant that while he could make her a man again, she'd just feel like a woman in a man's body. A half dozen mages, wizards, even a couple mad scientists, had looked at her and come to similar conclusions. There was a point where one simply had to give up and accept that things had irrevocably changed, and she'd reached it rather quickly. It wasn't as if she was alone. There was a whole community of the gender-flipped in the trailer park.
Ending up with Roady as a husband wasn't what she had planned, either. Not by a long shot. But it was one of those things that had just sort of happened. Inside her, the Femme Fatale fumed. Roady wasn't a man who could be used easily. He had very few insecurities. And now that he had married his former best friend most of those had actually evaporated. Roady was as cool and confident as could be. That made the silver vixen feel content.
Roady leaned over and put his ear to his wife's still-shaven belly, tongue lolling. Then he stood up again, the tips of his ears brushing against the FEMA trailer's roof. "You know, I know you told me never to ask this again, honey. But... regrets? This is kind of what Marx and Traci wanted, you know. And..."
"Roady, I wore a white gown, had bridesmaids, tossed the bouquet, the whole estrogen-soaked shebang. I'm not looking back, okay? There's no point. Especially now," the pregnant fox-woman said, stretching sensually on the double bed. "Besides, the Femme Fatale hates this. The very idea of being a mom just infuriates her. I can't think of anything I've done the past year that Traci would have. I can't think of a bitch like her getting married and having children."
Roady barked. "You got that right. Still, it's a little weird..."
"It's a weird world. And so are we." Josephine looked at her holo-watch on the shelf. Once the kits were born, life was going to get even more interesting. With Congress still deep in debate on what to do about the Xanadu victims, the three of them had been living on FEMA cash cards, the generosity of Eric Winters, and leaning on the other transformed for a little over a year now. And her own pregnancy had stirred up quite a lot of controversy inside the community and out.
There were people out there who thought she should be sterilized. That had actually pushed her to get pregnant as much as her love of Roady. Besides, she figured, if she was going to be a woman the rest of her life, there weren't going to be any half-measures. Josephine had a set of maternal instincts that had whacked her over the head, so she was perversely enjoying every minute of her pregnancy. Even her children playing soccer with her bladder was a victory against Marx and Traci. "Ooof."
The trailer door open, Nico bounding in whooping in excitement. "I got a job! I got a job, I got a job!" the anthro rodent cheered, waving a fist. "Whoo!"
Josephine sat up, grabbing a maternity top and pulling it on out of respect for Nico. The rat-man was rarely on all fours any more. Marx's magic battery enabled him to stay anthro for most of the day before it needed to be shut down. Somehow the thing recharged all by itself overnight. And the Feds had allowed him to keep it, preferring to have someone who could look much more human rather than a rat all the time. The child-sized man's whiskers twitched excitedly. "Enough about me. What's the verdict on the kits?"
"Two boys and a girl," Roady replied proudly. "But I think the job is more important. What's the word, ratty?"
Nico's laptop sat on the table at the other end of the trailer, which was where he had his own nest. "Contract work, really. Winters is tapping the Xanadu victims to make his business work again. Crafty old bird! That means real income."
Winters had appeared at Congressional hearings. Watching a large raven speak so clearly in that chamber had been almost as surreal as ending up as thoroughly feminine as Josephine had become. But the situation of the non-human victims was slowly starting to improve, though where they were living amounted to a luxury campground.
The silver vixen rubbed her gravid belly. Her children started kicking again. Things were starting to measurably improve, though Traci was still at large. But she could be dealt with later. "One day at a time."