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The Bear Pair
|Xanadu story universe|
Patricia James' cheerleading outfit weighed over thirty pounds, concealed her completely from head to toe, and was as hot as a winter parka. But it was definitely beginning to grow on her.
She'd tried out for her high school's regular football cheerleading squad first, of course, with their more conventional and comfortable pom-pom and miniskirts. Despite her strength and athletic ability she'd been quickly rejected. "Too tall," Mr. Thompson had explained in his usual blunt manner, "you wouldn't fit with the rest of the squad."
It had been a major disappointment; Robert Browne High's football program was the main center of school activity, and she'd wanted to get into it in any way she could. There wasn't an official girl's team - not enough money in the athletics budget, Mr. Thompson claimed - which meant the only significant way for girls to participate was through the cheerleading program.
Or so she'd thought, until at the last moment she thought of one other remote possibility. There were no official gender limitations on who could be the wearer of the team mascot costume, Browne Bear.
Patricia applied, and to her surprise she'd been almost immediately accepted. Browne Bear seemed like a very masculine sort of role and she'd expected resistance to having her play it. At first she'd wondered if perhaps Mr. Thompson had felt guilty about rejecting her as a cheerleader and had given her that as a consolation prize instead, But in hindsight she was beginning to realize that she really was quite well qualified for the job. She was enthusiastic, she had the right sort of attitude and acting skills to grab crowd support without getting in the way of the team itself, and she was large enough for the costume to fit well.
And perhaps just as importantly, she was one of the last people anyone would expect to take the job. The identity of those who wore Browne Bear's costume was traditionally kept a secret, since it would ruin the mascot's own unique sense of identity if it were widely known who was inside it. Patricia had only told a few of her closest friends that she'd been selected, the minimum she felt would keep her secret safe while still allowing her to brag just a little about her involvement with the team.
The job itself wasn't as easy as she'd hoped, though. A corollary of the rule of secrecy was a code of silence; as the Browne Bear she wasn't allowed to speak or remove her headgear in public. It was actually the the most difficult part of the job for Patricia, especially during away games when she sometimes had to stay in the costume for long stretches in 'hostile territory.' She couldn't easily ask for a drink, or for directions if she got lost, and to be on the safe side she couldn't even use public restrooms while suited. After a couple of slip-ups that had almost blown her cover in front of spectators, she'd begun to worry that she was going to get cut from this as well.
When Patricia's best friend Cindy had mentioned this year's Kublai Con costume contests to her, she had realized it was the perfect opportunity to get in some safe practice with public exposure. She'd jumped at Cindy's offer of a lift to the convention center.
She'd borrowed the costume from the storage room for the weekend, confident enough that it wouldn't be missed that she didn't bother taking the risk of asking permission. The Orlando convention center was half a day's drive from home, making it unlikely that many Robert Browne students would be present, and as an added bonus the distinctive team jersey the bear normally wore wasn't an integral part of the costume. Browne Bear looked a little plain without it, but she was much less identifiable that way.
Patricia suited up in the car as soon as they'd parked, mentally switching over into mascot mode. Cindy had promised to fill the role of 'furless lackey' while they were inside, the non-suited buddy who could step in if she needed help with something she couldn't handle while in costume, but Patricia had resolved to rely on her as little as possible. Once Cindy had signed them both in at the front door, the two of them set out to wander the halls of the convention center and take in the sights. They were both somewhat overwhelmed by the scale of the convention, especially Patricia since she'd never been to one before; it was easier to blend in than she'd expected.
"Oh, check this out!" Cindy grabbed Patricia's arm, and Patricia turned to get her back in the mask's narrow field of view. She was wearing one of the cheap knickknack costume accessories that were for sale around the convention center's entrance, a pair of furry round bear's ears mounted on hair clips. Cindy grinned. "What do you think? As good as yours?"
Patricia sighed silently to herself, but couldn't help grinning a little too. She mimed exaggerated scrutiny of Cindy's ears before giving a thumbclaw-up.
"You can talk to me here," Cindy suggested. "Nobody's listening."
Patricia shook her head and mimed a furtive, suspicious glance around the room. "I'd rather not," she murmured back. "I know it's allowed, but let's pretend it isn't, okay?"
"You take these things way too seriously," Cindy sighed. Then she chuckled. "Still, I guess I'm one to talk." Cindy had herself made it into the cheerleading team that Patricia hadn't, and she'd spent the next couple of weeks falling all over herself apologizing to Patricia and fretting that it would ruin their friendship. It had taken a great effort for Patricia to finally convince her that it didn't make the slightest difference to her, and that if anything she was genuinely pleased that a friend of hers had got in. But even so, she'd chickened out of her plan to wear her cheerleading outfit to the convention after a bout of residual concern.
Patricia grinned inside her mask. She gestured toward the entrance of the main display hall, where most of the other new arrivals were going in, and then cocked her head. Cindy chuckled again; Patricia was a natural born actor, quite capable of making the costume's inflexible face seem to convey genuine emotion. "Alright. But after you, you're the star of this one."
The two of them went inside, and found a marvelous menagerie scattered among the rows of tables spanning the vast room. There were aliens from all walks of life, of course; the brochure Cindy had found had emphasized the presence of a large science fiction contingent. But there were also fantasy creatures, people in period costumes from many eras, and a surprising number of animal costumes. Cindy had expected Patricia to stick out like a sore thumb in a bear suit, and had been preparing to bravely stick by her at the center of attention, but hardly anyone even looked up as they passed.
"Where now, Browne Cow?" Cindy asked brightly. Patricia struck a thoughtful pose, then with exaggerated precision played eenie-meenie-minie-moe to pick a direction in which to wander. They headed off through the crowd, Browne Bear leading the way.
After about half an hour, Cindy was actually starting to become interested in the convention itself. She had imagined it would be some silly gathering of fanboys playing dress-up, and come prepared with plans to excuse herself and Patricia from the gathering if things got too annoying, but there were some truly spectacular costumes on some of the people here. There were even some non-costume things that interested her, such as the Natural History of Pern exhibit set up in one of the hallways and the tables selling soundtrack CDs.
Patricia was quite pleased that Cindy was finding things to do; it allowed her to tag along behind her carrying on silently with her act without trying to lead events. It was important for a mascot to be able to go with the flow.
Heh. I should be good at that, Patricia reflected, I'm practically melting in here. She started keeping a surreptitious eye open for someplace out-of-the-way to get a drink, and when she finally spotted an appropriate vending machine she tapped Cindy on the shoulder to drag her attention away from the art she'd been perusing. She gestured to the alcove the machines were tucked away in and mimed lifting her headpiece slightly while taking a drink.
Cindy smiled and shook her head. "No thanks, I'm fine."
Patricia nodded and went into the alcove. It was more of a short dead-end hallway than an alcove, out of sight and quite suitable for a brief stepping-out-of-character. She tugged on one of her paw-mitts, to get a hand free to operate the machine.
It didn't come off.
With a puzzled growl, Patricia probed for the seam at her wrist to see if she could find what was snagging it. She accidentally jabbed herself with the claws on her other paw, and winced more from surprise than from pain. What the hell? These are supposed to be made of cloth, not sharp... Patricia started to get a very strange feeling in her gut, an unnerving sensation she didn't understand but which she knew couldn't be normal. She looked down at herself.
She was swelling rapidly before her very eyes, the folds smoothing out of her costume's furry fabric as her body filled it out and then began to stretch it. Patricia was so stunned that she just stood there for a moment and stared while her torso bulked out to full ursine proportions, her legs shortening and thickening to match. Then she started pawing at her chest, struggling to tear the costume off with the long, black claws it had inexplicably sprouted.
Patricia grunted in pain. The costume felt like it was stuck to her skin, somehow... or like it wasn't even there at all. Her fear was beginning to blossom openly now, and she reached up to wrench her headpiece off. Her clumsy paws slammed into the sides of her muzzle, and she snarled in panic. I felt that! My face! Patricia turned and tried to run back out into the hall, but her altered body completely threw off her balance. She toppled forward to land on all fours. It only gave her pause for an instant, though, as her arms had also thickened and supported her now-massive bulk without difficulty. Roaring an inarticulate cry, she charged out into the hallway.
Cindy was still examining the watercolor painting of an island floating in the clouds when a full-grown grizzly bear came charging and roaring out into the hallway beside her. She didn't take any time to consider the implications; she just answered its roar with a scream of her own and turned to run.
She slammed into the man who'd been standing next to her, knocking her painfully onto her posterior. She stared up at the man in shock. Moments ago he'd been wearing some kind of cheap plastic armor over regular street clothes, but now he was clad in perfectly authentic-looking Roman gladiatorial garb complete with short sword and a face-concealing helmet. He turned toward Cindy and drew his sword, falling into a fighting stance and shouting "Curre! Te conservabo!" Cindy whimpered, not understanding his Latin and too scared out of her wits care what it meant. The gladiator lunged toward her.
Cindy cringed out of the way as the gladiator swung his sword at the bear behind her, striking a glancing blow on its shoulder. It didn't look like he even got through the thick coat of fur covering it, let alone did any damage. The bear backed away anyhow, snarling fiercely but also apparently frightened too. The gladiator took another swing, driving it back farther, and Cindy realized that whatever the outcome of the fight she didn't want to stick around any longer than she had to. She scrambled to her feet and started running down the hallway in the opposite direction. The bear roared behind her, and she ran harder.
She only got a short distance before she ran into a massive surge of people pouring out of one of the exhibition halls. "A bear!" She screamed hysterically. "Behind me!"
The crowd didn't pay attention, and it took a moment for Cindy to realize they were running away from something else; everyone already had a confused or panic-stricken expression without her help. Cindy didn't bother wondering why, though, preoccupied as she was with her own terror. She quickly found herself swept up in the crush as they fled en masse down the hall. At least they were all going in the right direction, there was an exit into the parking lot ahead...
Someone bumped hard against Cindy from the side, and she shoved him back with a guttural snarl. Then she screamed again as she realized what the person looked like; some kind of huge humanoid lizard-creature dressed in primitive hide clothing. That's no costume! She realized, seeing its eyes blink far too realistically and its tail flex of its own accord. But instead of attacking her, the monster just winced at her scream and hurried off through the crowd away from her.
Cindy didn't have a lot of time for relief as the people who'd parted to let the lizard-creature through closed ranks again behind it and swept her up again. She was surrounded by freaks and monsters, most only slightly inhuman but some as bad as the lizard who'd just passed her. Cindy struggled to keep her focus on the exit, since trying to go against the flow of the crowd at this point would only get her trampled or worse.
As soon as she was through the exit the press of strange bodies spread out, and Cindy dashed unsteadily through the gaps to get as far away from the convention center as she could. Many others ran too, some of them appearing quite fearsome and monstrous, but they didn't seem to be chasing her; they looked just as scared as she was. She got out onto a wide grassy field about a hundred yards from the door and finally stumbled to a halt, panting heavily and worn out.
Cindy knelt down on the grass to try catching her breath and thinking of some explanation for what had just happened. It was several minutes before she'd calmed down enough to finally make the connection between the things that had come pouring out of the building with her and the costumes everyone had been wearing beforehand. Cindy surged back to her feet and turned back towards the building. "Patty," she whispered. "Oh god, that bear... what happened to Patty?"
Patricia had no time to think about what had happened, either to herself or to anyone else; she was too busy being scared out of her wits and fighting for her life against the crazed gladiator that had attacked her the instant she'd come out into the hallway. At least Cindy got away from him, she thought, managing a brief moment of relief at that thought before the gladiator lunged at her again.
Patricia's hind end hit a wall as she backed into a corner. For an instant she was overcome with panic, crouching down even lower to the ground as the gladiator charged in to deliver a vicious blow.
Goddamnit, stand up! she screamed at herself and shoved up off the floor with all her strength to rear up into an upright posture again. Suddenly, instead of being in helpless retreat before a huge man armed with a sword, she towered over him.
The gladiator hesitated, and with a surge of desperate rage Patricia roared mightily. She swung a hand at him, hoping to drive him back to a safer distance without really expecting to do much else.
Her massive forepaw smashed into the man, knocking him to the floor with tremendous force. Patricia stared at her paw in surprise; she'd barely felt the blow herself. What the hell happened to me? she whimpered. I'm huge, and... and...
The gladiator groaned and coughed wetly, then started struggling to crawl toward where his sword had fallen. Patricia glanced around for an escape route she could use before he managed to get back to his feet; she had no way of knowing how much time she had before he recovered his breath. The hallway leading deeper into the convention center seemed clear, and she started down it as fast as she could.
After a short distance lumbering along on just her hind legs, Patricia dropped to all fours again and picked up speed. She didn't stop to think about the action yet, she just wanted to move as fast as she could.
Patricia ran for quite a distance through the hallways, turning now and then to throw off any pursuit and bowling over a few frightened people who didn't get out of her way fast enough. Most managed, however, fleeing in terror as she thudded heavily past them.
Finally, in a section of hallway whose light fixtures were all burnt out or dimmed for some reason, Patricia reached a set of closed fire doors that blocked her path. They refused to yield to a shove, and when she tried to grip the handles she found that her hands weren't flexible enough for the task.
My hands... Panting with exhaustion from all the running and fear, Patricia sank miserably to a seat on the floor in front of the doors. She held up her right hand and inspected it carefully in the dim light. It looked just like a bear's paw, huge and furry with a black leathery pad covering the palm and long, curved claws extending from her fingertips. She tried flexing it, dismayed at how short and stiff her fingers felt. She couldn't even curl her fingers more than a few degrees or wiggle them independently, let alone grip anything.
And the worst part was that it didn't feel like a costume at all. She could feel the texture of the carpet under the pads of her hands and feet as if they were really hers, feel the roots of the hairs in her skin bending where her heavy coat of fur pressed against the doors as she leaned against them, feel the sharp teeth in her mouth as she ran her tongue around the inside of her lengthened jaws... "Graaahh," Patricia growled experimentally. "Rrrr... Rrraughh..." Holy shit, I can't even talk! I'm a real bear!
Patricia crouched down on the floor, closing her eyes and trying to look as small as her massive frame would allow while she worked to keep panic at bay. Maybe it'll wear off. Just stay calm, Patty, and it'll all go away. You can't be a real bear.
She remained crouched there for quite some time waiting for normalcy to return. It never did, although at least the noise and commotion began to die down in the background as people fled the building. A lot of people - and some things which clearly were not people - came seeking an escape route down the hallway she was in, but they all quickly retreated when they saw her staring back at them from in front of the doors. I must look terrifying, Patricia thought uneasily. On the one hand, it was somewhat reassuring; nobody else was attacking her like the gladiator had. But on the other hand... I'm a bear. Oh god, I'm a bear. No costume, no pretend, a real honest-to-god bear. I don't think this is a hallucination. What am I supposed to do now?
Patricia slowly and carefully pushed herself up into a sitting position. She didn't feel quite ready to attempt standing again right away, either on two legs or on four, but having recovered from the mindless panic following her transformation and the gladiator's attack she felt like she had to do something to cement her grip on the situation. She ran her paws over all of herself that she could reach, taking her time to absorb all the strange new sensations of her body. Her pelt was was extremely thick - Oh god, I've got a pelt - and her paws were not as sensitive to texture as human hands - Oh god, I've got paws - but it was still quite apparent just how different her form was now. She was huge and muscular, with fully ursine musculature and bones and hide. She even had a stubby bear's tail. The one thing she was relieved to discover hadn't changed was her gender; after several minutes of careful probing she reassured herself she was still fully female.
A fully female bear. Patricia shook her head, still having some trouble accepting it even after all the examining she'd just done. She decided the only way she was going to convince herself was with a mirror, and rose shakily to her hind legs to see if she could find one nearby. Hind legs... Patricia took a few experimental steps, waddling embarrassingly slowly and awkwardly. She sighed with a deep grumble. It's no good. Bears are quadrupeds. She reluctantly lowered herself back down to all fours. Better, damn it. I hate this.
Keeping an eye out for gladiators lurking in the shadows, Patricia lumbered down the hallway in search of a reflective surface or anything else that could help to explain things to her.
Cindy recovered her breath quickly, but she stayed where she was for a few minutes to keep an eye on everyone while she tried to figure everything out. No bears had come out of the convention center, at least from the exits that she could see from where she was, and nobody in a costume or otherwise who resembled Browne Bear significantly. The closest she spotted was a wookiee, bellowing incoherently and waving his arms while a man in blue spandex tried to figure out what he was trying to say.
The sound of distant but rapidly-approaching sirens began filtering through the commotion, and Cindy breathed a sigh of relief. Although she had no idea what the police could do about this mess, at least they could take charge and make it seem like things were making some sense. Cindy stood back up and watched for their appearance, rubbing her sore posterior where she'd hurt something in her landing after running into the gladiator. She winced at the stabbing pain in the base of her spine, and then frowned at an odd sensation.
There was something stuffed in the back of her panties, right where the pain was. She shoved her hand down the back of her pants to grab it, then stifled as scream of horror as she seized something warm and furry and alive. She didn't manage to stifle a second scream - this one of pain instead - as she tried yanking whatever it was out of there, and she dropped back down to her knees. Oblivious to the stares of the people around her, she frantically unzipped her fly and pulled down her pants to get a better look at her posterior.
She had a tail, stubby and covered in short brown fur and quite clearly sprouting from her own body. She squeezed it disbelievingly between her fingertips, wincing at the sensation; it was a part of her alright, she could feel the pressure she exerted on it. I sprained my tail, Cindy thought giddily. I must have already had it when I fell on it, and didn't even notice until now in all that confusion. But why? I wasn't wearing a costume tail... Another thought suddenly struck Cindy like a physical blow, and she clapped her hands over her ears with a gasp.
They were furry too, erect round bear's ears sticking out through her hair on either side of her head exactly where she'd clipped the fake ears earlier. She grabbed them and yanked hard, trying to pull them off and prove they were still made of fabric, but only managed to make herself cry out in pain again; they were firmly rooted, as real and as much a part of her as the tail. She felt something else too, small hard lumps fastened in their edges that she recognized an instant later as her earrings.
For some reason the earrings were what really made it hit home that those were her real ears, and Cindy fingered them in stunned silence for a while. Then she realized she was still kneeling in front of a crowd of people with her pants pulled down around her thighs, and she let go of her ears to yank them back up with an embarrassed squeak. She flushed hotly, mortified, but then reassured herself somewhat by noting how many other people were also doing similar things in the course of examining themselves. People who had been normal only minutes ago, just like her.
So I was affected too, Cindy thought numbly. This is not cool. Climbing back to her feet yet again, she noticed that the first police cars had finally arrived some distance away, having pulled to a stop in the road as soon as they'd got a clear view of the mass of people milling outside. I don't blame them. I wouldn't want to mix it up with us either. She looked at the people around her, fingering her ears self-consciously. Damn it, I didn't want to get mixed up in this, why did I have to come? Why did I have to buy these stupid ears?
A few tears welled up in Cindy's eyes, and she quickly wiped them away. "That's not going to help, Cindy," she muttered to herself. "It doesn't matter why. What are you going to do now?" By this point the policemen had got out of their cars and more were starting to arrive, but at the same time some of the conventioneers were getting into their own cars and pulling out of the parking lot to slip out on the roads they hadn't blocked yet. "My car!" Cindy exclaimed. "I'll go there. It's where Patty would go."
It was on the other side of the building from here, but it was the best she could think of. She set off on a wide circle around the convention center's grounds, away from the buildup of police and other emergency workers; she had lost all of her enthusiasm for putting herself in their hands with the realization of how she looked. "This is just too weird," she murmured as she walked, acutely aware of the fuzzy tail lying between her buttocks now that she knew it was there. It tickled a bit as she moved, and twitched of its own volition when she focused on it.
This has got to be temporary, Cindy tried to reassure herself. It'll wear off, whatever it is. I'm probably just imagining it. She kept repeating that to herself as she went, hoping it would become more convincing.
The bathroom was already occupied when Patricia entered. Three women stood by the sinks examining themselves in the mirrors mounted on the wall with varying degrees of shock and disbelief; one was a devilish-looking succubus in fishnet stockings, another was a cyborg with gleaming mechanical arms and legs, and the third was relatively normal except for the twitching mouse's nose, ears, and tail. All four of them froze and stared at each other for a moment after Patricia pushed the door open.
Patricia gave an irritated harrumph and came the rest of the way in, tired of running away from everyone she ran into. I'm a great big scary bear, she thought at them with a quiet growl, deal with it. The three women hurriedly backed away, giving her plenty of room in front of the mirrors, and then once there was a path available they slipped past her to escape out the door. Patricia felt a momentary sense of smugness, but then sighed and turned her attention to her own reflection.
She looked almost exactly like a real bear, with only a hint of Browne Bear's anthropomorphic features still apparent; there was nothing of her real face visible to her. But at the same time it was obvious that the bear's face in the mirror was her real face now. She stood there for a long time just staring at it, trying to get her mind around that fact.
So I'm a bear, she thought, still numb at the concept. Now exactly how do I deal with that?
Patricia sat down with her back to the bathroom door, blocking it shut with her bulk to ensure that no one would disturb her while she tried to figure out how to do that. I have to find Cindy again, and somehow let her know it's me. After that... god, how am I going to explain this to mom and dad? I can't even speak. She tried to say something again just to make sure, and confirmed that the only thing her muzzle could manage were guttural animal noises. Perhaps I could write something, if I had a pen... Patricia examined her paw again, turning and flexing it to test its range of motion.
With an angry, frustrated swipe, Patricia used it to knock over the wastebasket. Damned paws. Worse than mittens. Rising again to her feet, she began pacing the small bathroom restlessly while she tried to think of what else she could do. Nothing much came to mind; she felt completely out of her league, caught up in things beyond her ability to do anything about. Finally, she stopped to examine herself in the mirror again.
Face it, Patty-girl, she berated herself as she met her own gaze, you've got to just go out there and hope for the best, hope that someone else can do something. Hiding in here isn't helping, as much as it may feel safer and more secure in the short run. With a resigned grunt, Patricia turned back to the door and managed to hook her claws through the handle securely enough to pull it open again. She lumbered back out into the hallway, down on all fours again but with somewhat more confidence she could handle herself if the gladiator or any other merely-human threat showed up.
There was a hint of smoke in the air, and even though the distant ring of fire alarms had stopped and the scent was no doubt magnified in her animal snout like every other Patricia decided that the most prudent course of action was to get outside. It's where everyone else had gone too, so if she was to find help that's where it was most likely to be. She hurried over to the nearest fire exit and carefully pushed on the handle with a forepaw. It swung open, momentarily blinding her with daylight, and with more timidity than she'd thought a grizzly bear could feel she stepped outside.
It was a madhouse outside too, but at least it was spread out in the open instead of in the dark and confining halls of the convention center. Small groups and individuals were scattered across the grass and parking lot, most wandering around or sitting with shellshocked expressions. Patricia was so distracted by their amazing array of shapes and sizes that it took her a moment to notice the concentration of flashing police-car lights off in the corner of her eye.
Lacking any better ideas... with an uncertain snort, Patricia began walking in their direction.
Cindy had sat waiting in her car for about half an hour and was beginning to suspect that her current situation really wasn't just going to wear off. Sitting on her tail for that long had made it abundantly clear that it was as much a part of her as her fingers or toes.
"At least it doesn't show," she muttered to herself. "If only these ears..." She trailed off with a sigh, checking herself in the rear-view mirror again to see how well her jury-rigged hairstyle was keeping them out of sight. She'd managed to fold them down and brush her hair over them without much difficulty, scrounging up a couple of hairpins to hold them in place, but it was harder to make her lack of regular human ears look natural. She hoped people wouldn't pay close enough attention to notice until after she'd got home and could do a better job.
Outside the car there was still chaos running rampant across the convention hall's lawns. Cindy tried to tell herself that she was being petty and foolish worrying about such minor things as having furry ears in the middle of all this. But although she knew that intellectually, it was still somewhat hard to get past her own immediate problems. She tried to focus her attention outward.
She'd taken a parking spot near the edge of the lot when she and Patty had arrived at the convetion and she had a clear view across Xanadu's south lawns from there. It looked like a refugee camp from Mars. Fortunately, a lot of the violent or panicked people - or things, as the case may be - had by this point already been subdued or driven away; she'd seen a few smashed cars in the lot but nothing doing any additional smashing since she'd arrived. The police were arriving in force now, she noted with a glance at the mass of flashing rooftop lights over by the main road in. Maybe I should go over and see what they want me to do...
As Cindy looked, she suddenly realized that there was a commotion over by the nearest squad car. A whole group of police had their riot guns out, shouting to each other and scrambling to put the car between themselves and the huge brown animal confronting them. Cindy blinked. "Patricia?"
The bear seemed disoriented, shaking its head as it reared onto its hind legs and emitting a choked roar. The police raised their guns reflexively. "Patricia!" Cindy fumbled with the door handle, trying to leap out and intervene before they opened fire. She still wasn't sure whether the bear that had appeared at the start of all this really was Patricia, or if this was even the same bear, but in the heat of the moment such doubts meant nothing. They were going to shoot Patty!
But before she'd done more than just get out of her car, someone wearing a spiderman costume leapt into the fray and unleashed two streams of gray webbing at the bear from his wrists. The bear thrashed and roared, but within seconds it was thoroughly cocooned and fell to the ground. Cindy was given a moment's pause by this bizarre development. Then she shook her head and resumed running.
The bear was still struggling when she got there, the police keeping their guns trained on it. "Back off, back off!" one shouted at her when she approached.
Cindy skidded to a halt. "Patricia! Is that you?" She called.
Her roar muffled by the webbing wrapped around her muzzle, the bear tried to twist around to look at her. The webbing started to tear, and the bear growled urgently. Cindy was speechless; it was Patricia!
Then Spiderman sprayed Patricia with another layer of webbing, and an instant later another man hurried through the circle of police to shoot her point-blank with a large rifle. Cindy screamed, and one of the cops grabbed her before she could run forward. But it took only a moment for Cindy to notice the red feathers of a tranquilizer dart poking out where Patricia had been shot, and instead of fighting free of the cop she nearly collapsed with relief in his arms. "Don't hurt her!" She pleaded. "She's not a bear!"
Patricia strained mightily against her bonds, but before she could to tear free a second time her struggles began to weaken. As everyone looked on warily, she slowly lapsed into a state of inert semiconsciousness.
The policeman restraining Cindy breathed a sigh of relief and let her go, but reached for her again when Cindy made a move to approach Patricia. "Don't," he warned, "let the professionals handle it." The man who'd shot her was now down on his hands and knees beside Patricia, checking her carefully through the strands of webbing.
"But she's not a bear, she's Patricia! My friend! She's not an animal, it's just a costume!" Cindy protested again.
The cop shook his head and sighed. "There's just no way to tell around here..."
Patricia wasn't knocked unconscious by the drug, but she might as well have been. The world felt distant and disconnected, the crowd of people around her nothing but irrelevant background noise. She vaguely remembered hearing people speaking, but she hadn't been able to register any meaning in the words. A crowd of men had surrounded her, looping straps around her body and hauling her into a small, dark place.
The dark place had been comfortable, and Patricia had actually drifted off to real sleep for a while as the world rumbled by outside. She'd startled awake again when the world stopped moving, the gentle vibration and rocking of the ground under her having become familiar and soothing during the long trip. Patricia blinked blearily, trying to figure out what was going on now.
It took her several minutes simply to realize that she'd been drugged, and that the drug must be starting to wear off. There were people outside the walls of the box she was in, moving around and talking to each other. She still wasn't lucid enough to make out the meanings of their words, but it didn't seem threatening. Finally, after some jolting and rocking, the box she was in got lifted out of the truck that had carried it.
Truck... Patricia's thoughts started to fall into place more easily again, bit by bit. I'm in a cage, and the cage was in a truck.
The cage jolted again, and suddenly the wall in front of her face slid away.
Patricia squinted in the bright sunlight, and growled quietly when a humanoid shape loomed nearby. It backed away, but Patricia's train of thought had been disrupted and it took her a few minutes to pick it up again. I was in a truck. They took me for a drive. Where am I?
The sheets of webbing wrapped around her had become dry, and tore away with relative ease despite her lingering drug-induced weakness. Patricia staggered up onto all fours and carefully poked her head out of the box she'd been transported in. High concrete walls enclosing a rectangle of bare cement. Some kind of courtyard? She sniffed the air and was rewarded with a confusingly complex mix of scents. Animals. Lots of animals. Patricia's hind legs gave out and she sat down heavily as she finally realized what this place was. She'd been put in a holding pen at a zoo.
I'm not a bear! she wailed in her head, whuffling meaninglessly as she tried to say it out loud. I don't want to be a bear! Oh god, please, don't leave me like this... She trailed off in ursine sobs. Nobody seemed to be around to hear them, or at least nobody who was willing to attempt to comfort a crying grizzly.
Finally, after about fifteen minutes, Patricia began to recover her composure. It's the drugs, she told herself as she carefully wiped her eyes with the back of her forepaw. Be strong, Patty, pull yourself together. Don't let them screw with your head. Trying to overcome her timidity, she got back to all four feet and stepped completely out of the cage to have a look around.
Twenty feet by forty feet, with three walls concrete and one wall bars. The cage she'd been transported in had been placed at a hole in the wall just the right size and shape for its opening, letting her into the enclosure. A simple shed-like roof was present in one corner, along with a Rubbermaid tub full of vegetables and a concrete bowl set in the ground half-full of water. It probably wasn't a public display, for which Patricia was immensely grateful. Home sweet home, she thought bitterly. She plodded over to the vegetables and gave them a halfhearted sniff; she was starting to get a little hungry.
But the last thing she wanted to do right now was settle in. She needed to convince the people that had taken her that she was a human being on the inside. If she didn't... Patricia began to feel a sense of approaching panic again. How would her parents ever find her? Would she be trapped in a zoo for the rest of her life?
Cindy knows what happened, she tried to reassure herself. Her memory of the capture was still kind of foggy, but she was sure Cindy had been there. Her voice had come through quite clearly, even though everything else had been just a garbled blur. Patricia shook her head, wondering what had gone wrong when she'd approached those police. She had the sneaking suspicion that they'd pepper-sprayed her.
Her ears suddenly perked up at the sound of approaching footsteps and conversation beyond the bars of her pen, and she hurried over. A couple of zoo employees, perhaps, or a vet coming to see her. She strained to make out what they were saying.
She couldn't. The words were still gibberish; it hadn't been the drugs that had been affecting her comprehension earlier. Patricia was so stunned that she just stood and stared at the two men as they walked past her enclosure. Those noises they're making are words, they have to be, she thought desperately. Why don't they make sense?
Patricia looked around at her pen, and then down at herself. Maybe I really am just an animal now, after all... She tried to clench her fist, and once again was thwarted by the thick leathery pad that was part of her palm. Oh, god.
No particularly good courses of action came to mind.
Phoning her parents was one of the most difficult things Cindy had ever done. First there was the simple physical difficulty; her furry round bear's ears was located much higher up on the sides of her head than her real ears had been, and the payphone's handset wasn't long enough to reach it. She apparently hadn't been the only one with that problem, though, and some resourceful monster had managed to break the earpiece off of one of the phones without disconnecting it from the wires. Holding the two pieces to her mouth and ear separately solved that problem.
Second was the difficulty in convincing them that she was alright. She hadn't told them that she'd be going to Kubla Con, which was bad enough as it was, but they'd been hearing a lot about it from the news over the past few hours and were nearly frantic when she admitted that she herself had been affected "a little bit." After much talking, she finally managed to reassure them that she wasn't about to drop dead or go insane, and that she wasn't even injured.
But the hardest part came last, when she told them she wouldn't be coming straight home. In fact, all things considered, she figured she was probably going to be staying at Xanadu for at least the next day or two. The police quarantine was a leaky sieve, and given her ability to easily conceal the changes that had happened to her she could probably have talked her way through it quite easily, but there was no way she could bring herself to do that right now.
Patty had been taken away by the animal control officers, and Cindy wasn't going to leave until she got her back.
It took quite some time for Cindy to talk her parents out of coming down to Orlando themselves to stay with her. Her resistance was partly due to the quarantine guidelines the police were trying to enforce, but also in large part due to her reluctance to come into contact with them until she'd regained her own sense of balance about what had happened to her. She was okay around strangers, barely, but for now the thought of having people she knew staring at her ears was too much for her to endure.
She finally managed to pry herself away from the phone after over half an hour of nonstop talking. There was a humanoid lion waiting impatiently behind her for his turn, and she was worn out anyway; now that she'd got all the important things out of the way she desperately needed to find someplace quiet and calm to lie down for a few minutes.
Much of the convention center had been blocked off by the emergency teams by now, with possibly hundreds of weirdly transformed conventioneers still scattered around inside in who-knew-what state of mind. But the hotel attached to the convention center had been commandeered as a temporary refugee camp, and all Cindy had to do was ask the harried reception staff for a key to get a free room for herself. She smiled at the man behind the desk as he handed it to her, thankful for once to find someone in a position of authority who was willing to help her out without question.
The SWAT team and animal control personnel who had tranquilized Patricia and carried her away in a steel crate had been virtually impossible to reason with. They had ignored all of Cindy's objections and explanations, steadfastly sticking to the procedure; all of the "dangerous animals" they caught were to be shipped immediately to facilities to be safely contained. Cindy counted herself fortunate to have even got the phone number for that facility off of them before they'd driven away with Patty on another call somewhere else on the convention grounds. She would have to phone them up herself to get any more details, and that kind of thing was probably best done in the privacy of her hotel room rather than from a busy payphone.
Fumbling with the unfamiliar lock on the room for a moment, Cindy pushed the door open and then pushed it solidly closed again the instant she was inside. The room was small, the bed's sheets were rumpled and there were the remains of someone's breakfast still sitting on the side table, but for the moment at least it was a blessed sanctuary. She flopped down on the bed with an enormous weary sigh. "My god what a day." Cindy rolled over on her back, staring up at the ceiling, and squirmed a bit to settle her tail more comfortably under her. Another sigh, and then about ten minutes to let herself slowly relax. Her sensitive ears were picking up lots of distant commotion filtering through the hotel's walls, but they were muffled enough to ignore for a while; she was alone and in private at last.
Finally Cindy pulled the crumpled piece of paper out of her pocket that had animal control's phone number on it, and turned her head to look at the phone. "Crap." The phone's receiver was perfectly intact; she'd either have to break it in half herself, or figure out how to use it as it was. Despite her concern for Patty's well-being she just didn't feel up to either right now. Cindy stuck the paper back in her pocket and rolled over onto her front again, face buried in the pillow.
I've been running around for hours now spending all my energy worrying about Patty or my parents, she thought wearily. It's time for a little me time now.
Firming up her resolve, Cindy eventually pushed herself off of the bed and headed over to the bathroom. After taking the time to relieve herself she spent a few minutes just standing in front of the mirror, examining her reflection. I guess the ears are kind of cute, she decided at last. I always did have a round face, they go well with that... what am I thinking? She shook her head in bemusement. Still, compared to what Patty got, I got off virtually scott-free here.
There had been at least one other minor alteration to her body beyond just the ears and tail, though; Cindy had noticed a little while back that her long fingernails had become much thicker and stronger than they normally were. It wasn't much, but it still left her with some lingering concern that there might be other little details that she hadn't spotted yet. With that in mind she locked the bathroom door and gingerly stripped before the mirror.
Taking off her shirt and bra revealed nothing more out of the ordinary. However, she immediately felt that something was awry when she slipped off her shoes, and pulling off her socks confirmed it; her feet had been superficially altered as well. They were covered in short brown hair, with leathery pads on her soles and toenails that were even more claw-like than her fingernails. She quickly removed the rest of her clothing and discovered to her relief that the fur thinned out to nothing halfway up her lower legs; other than her tail, ears and fingernails the furry feet seemed to be her only other change. Cindy chewed her lip as she curled her toes and flexed her ankles experimentally. No wonder she hadn't really noticed until now, the differences seemed almost purely cosmetic...
"Oh my god!" Cindy suddenly laughed. "I've got bear feet!" The pun was atrocious, but that one moment of levity was enough to clear away a huge chunk of the tension that had been weighing on her. She chuckled quietly. The fur even matches my hair colour, she observed. I guess this look does sort of suit me. It's cute. Her ears twitched reflexively, reacting to a muffled scrabbling sound from somewhere nearby, and she grinned at the odd sensation.
Her grin faded, replaced with a puzzled frown as she realized that the noise was coming from just outside the bathroom door. It sounded like a rat skittering along the baseboards or something like that. Moving quickly, she unlocked the door and flung it open.
There was a three-and-a-half foot tall white rabbit on the other side, crouched frozen in front of the door leading out into the hall with its paws futilely attempting to grip the sides of the doorknob. It stared up at her with bright blue eyes, ears flattened and jaw hanging open in shock to expose its prominent incisors.
Cindy stifled her own shock at its sudden appearance in her room. "What are you doing in here?" She demanded, trying to keep the initiative on her side.
"Um, I was just, I, uh..." The rabbit stammered in a high, piping voice as he tried to come up with some excuse. He tore his gaze away from her and resumed pawing frantically at the doorknob, attempting to turn it with animal forepaws completely unsuited to the task. "I was just leaving! Not trying to peep, honest!"
Cindy stepped out of the bathroom, reaching out over the rabbit to turn the handle herself. The rabbit cringed away from her with a strangled "eep!" and the instant she pulled the door open wide enough he bolted out into the hall on all fours, puffball tail flagging high behind him. His soft white fur tickled against Cindy's bare legs as he slipped past.
Cindy glanced down at herself, and then slammed the door with her own small yelp of surprise. She hurriedly retreated to the bathroom to put her clothes back on. "Shit, maybe I'm a little too comfortable with this," she laughed, the nervous tension from the unexpected visitor draining quickly. Shaking her head over the display she'd just put on, she picked up her socks and shoes and headed back out into the room again. A more careful examination of the room's contents revealed a suitcase tucked under the bed, and the thought occurred to her that perhaps she had been inadvertently given someone else's room and had just evicted him.
She sighed and shook her head. "I'll apologize if he comes back. Patty needs me, I've delayed long enough." Picking up the phone and experimenting with its placement next to her head, she pulled the crumpled bit of paper out of her pocket. It was time to see about springing Patty from wherever it was that she'd wound up.
Patricia had sunk into a serious bout of depression. She had already spent an hour or two simply curled up in the corner under the shade of the tin roof, her muzzle tucked under one shaggy foreleg and her eyes shut, blocking out the outside world.
She'd heard people talking nearby a couple of times in that period but had preferred to ignore that too. She didn't like to think about the gibberish that her change into a bear had made of plain English. She didn't like to think of much of anything regarding her bearhood, for that matter, which left precious little else for her to think about.
Eventually she started thinking about food, though, and after a while that finally managed to draw her out of her shell. She grudgingly pulled her muzzle out from under her leg and sniffed at the Rubbermaid tub full of vegetables that was still sitting nearby. I guess it can't hurt, she sighed. Climbing reluctantly to her feet, she trudged over to try eating some of it.
As she ate Patricia finally began letting her mind drift back onto her current circumstances. There had been a lot of activity in the area since she'd arrived, and it was still ongoing; vehicles driving around, people talking, animals making their various animal noises. More people like me from the Con, she concluded. At least I'm not the only one. Maybe someone will figure something out. But for the moment all that the people seemed to be doing was busily dumping animals into other pens; nobody had approached her to see if she was still a person inside.
Even after her hunger was satisfied Patricia remained too restless to go back to lying in a corner. Lacking anything better to do she started pacing slowly around the pen, examining her cage in greater detail. It wasn't exactly cramped and the cement floor was clean but it was still not what she had in mind as good accommodations. There didn't seem to be much of an alternative, though. The ceiling was open, but the walls were high and without purchase for climbing. A row of curved spikes along the top looked discouraging, too.
Beyond the end of the pen that was walled off with bars, Patricia could see another row of similar pens facing hers. She paused by the bars and looked curiously across to see what sort of neighbors she had. She could see a tiger prowling fiercely back and forth in one, a pygmy elephant with bright pink skin standing forlornly in another, and a huge wild boar sleeping in a third. Tigers and bears. No lions, though. Patricia snorted and resumed pacing around the perimeter of her cell, unimpressed with her attempt at a joke.
It wasn't until the sun was well into sunset that the bustling activity of people coming and going with animals from the convention started to subside. Patricia finally forced herself to quit pacing and face facts. I'm going to go nuts like this, she grumbled worriedly to herself. Nobody's even tried to talk to me, and I'm circling around and around like a caged beast. I've got to get out before I wind up belonging in here, I can't wait any longer for Cindy to show up.
Patricia had by now examined every detail of the pen, and it all looked quite solid and bear-proof. But she also had a human mind on her side, she assured herself; there had to be some trick she could try that no bear would ever think of. She padded over to the back of the pen to explore the possibilities. There were two doors there, one human-sized and one the low square gate that her transport cage had been fastened to. Both looked quite sturdy, and an experimental shove from her forepaws confirmed that they weren't going to buckle easily. Both were locked, too, and she doubted she could pick them open even if she'd had her old hands available.
But there were limits to how strong those doors could be, and bears were very strong themselves. I'm a full-grown grizzly bear, after all, she mused. I must weigh, what, a thousand pounds? Patricia flexed her limbs, raising and lowering her body experimentally. Sure, that sounds right. I'm Browne Bear, for fuck's sake. I'm a football bear. Patricia nodded to herself, jaw set with resolve. Yeah. Let's see a defensive line that can stop me.
Patricia backed up to the front of the pen, taking a moment to glance through the bars to see if anyone was around. After I'm out I'm heading back to Xanadu, she thought to herself. That's probably the best place to look for Cindy. Lowering her head and snorting, Patricia scuffed the packed earth with a forepaw. Hutt one, hutt two...
She launched herself across the pen, charging full-speed toward the low metal gate she'd first entered it by. Grizzly bears could run at up to thirty-five miles an hour, and she was going nearly that already when she slammed into it shoulder-first. Patricia's roar of pain mixed with a squeal of bending metal and the crack of breaking concrete, and she tumbled to the pavement of the service road on the far side.
Patricia staggered quickly to her feet, checking herself for serious injury and looking around to see if anyone was nearby on this side of the wall. Both checks were negative and Patty shook herself with a certain sense of smug triumph. One hit. Not bad at all, bruises aside. Then, not wanting to stick around after such a noisy escape, Patricia turned and galloped off down the service road. She had no idea which way Xanadu lay, but she would sort that out once she'd put some distance between herself and the zoo. She needed a place to hide first.
Cindy paced the hotel room, digging her toeclaws into the carpet with frustration each time she turned. She'd been trying to work her way through the bureaucracy surrounding Patricia's capture all afternoon, and despite hours and hours on the phone she felt like she hadn't made any progress at all.
Most of the time she'd simply been met with a busy signal, which she grudgingly accepted as understandable under the circumstances. But when she finally managed to get through to one harried office-worker or another, none of them seemed to have any sort of handle on the situation or willingness to extend themselves in any way. All anyone seemed to be willing to commit to was that "some" animals had been removed from the area, and that "many" of them had wound up being taken to the Twin Hills zoological reserve for temporary holding.
Cindy glared at the telephone and the pile of scribbled notes she'd made next to it, and then forced herself to stop pacing with a sigh. "I'm not going to make any more progress like this," she growled to herself. "I should never have let them take her away alone." But self-recrimination wasn't going to accomplish anything either, and Cindy sat down on the edge of the bed to think of a different course of action.
After a little thought it was pretty clear how she would have to handle the situation from here; she would have to stop trying to find Patty over the phone and instead take the search to them personally. She put her shoes back on and gathered up what few possessions she'd brought with her, stopped by the bathroom to brush her hair back over her ursine ears, and headed down to see if she could talk her way past the police blockading the road out. She left the rabbit's suitcase and other possessions untouched, along with a quick note apologizing for the mixup for when he returned.
She was relieved to find her car sitting in the parking lot still intact; there were quite a few cars lying around by now that had been demolished in various ways, some of them quite thoroughly, but hers had apparently been spared. Cindy pulled a map of Orlando out of the glove compartment and spent several minutes seeing if she could find the Twin Hills reserve on it, finally reassuring herself that she could make it there easily enough; it was only about ten miles west of where she was.
Assuming, of course, that the traffic and police were cooperative. She started the car and wove cautiously through the remaining cars in the lot, headed for the main exit road leading back onto the highway. There was a major roadblock set up there by now, complete with SWAT teams and even what looked like an armored personnel carrier sitting off to one side, and as she pulled to a stop in front of the barricade she put on her best innocent-young-girl face for the officer that approached her window.
"Evening, miss," the officer greeted her politely. "Have you got a pass of some sort?"
Cindy grimaced nervously. "I didn't know I needed anything like that, officer, I'm sorry." The quaver in her voice wasn't deliberately forced, she was quite worried about Patricia and hadn't considered that the bureaucratic tangle obstructing her would extend beyond the telephones as well.
But the officer smiled sympathetically. "Oh, you must be one of the convention people, then. It looks like you got off lucky, huh?"
Cindy bit her lip and nodded, squirming slightly at the discomfort her tail was in. "Yeah. But Patty, a friend of mine, she didn't. She got taken to Twin Hills and they didn't let me go with her and now I'm trying to get there and make sure she's safe. Is there any way I can get a pass or something?"
"Well, we mainly just arranged those to keep people from wandering in to the area," the policeman told her. "There are more crazies outside than there are inside, you know, even after all this. What's your name? Did you register at the hotel?"
Cindy showed the officer her driver's license and her hotel key, and he spent several minutes back at one of the police cars talking with someone while Cindy waited quietly in her car. Finally he came back. "Alright, your license and registration check out, and you look like you came through the weird shit alright to me. You should check in with the OPD tomorrow or if you're planning on leaving the city, we're trying to keep track of everyone who was here today, but in the meantime I guess you can leave the area. Make sure you contact us, you're in the database, okay? Or we'll contact your parents."
Cindy thanked the man profusely as he waved her on and then carefully wove the car between the barricades under the watchful eye of the people manning them. After she was past that there was a minor logjam of cars and trucks stopped on the road beyond, many of them obviously media-related, and then finally she pulled out onto the highway and into relatively normal traffic. She breathed a sigh of relief and leaned back in her seat, relaxing tension-knotted muscles. "Obstacle overcome," she muttered quietly. "Go team."
Once she got a short distance away from Xanadu the sudden sense of normalcy on the road around her was almost unnerving. She felt more than a little out of place herself after all that had happened to her in the course of the past day. Still, it was good to get away from all that craziness; once she got back in contact with Patty she was sure everything would be alright.
The drive was blessedly uneventful. Finding the road to Twin Hills was a bit tricky thanks to the poor map she was using and to the poor light as the sun started getting low in the sky, but after one or two bad turns on the way that were easily corrected she finally spotted a sign declaring the zoological reserve's border. She pulled up to the small gatehouse where the driveway went through a high chain-link perimeter fence.
A man in a security-guard uniform exited the gatehouse and approached the car. Here we go again, Cindy thought with a sigh and rolled down her window to greet him. "Hi, there. Uh, I'm from the convention center, I'm looking for a friend of mine who I think was brought here earlier. Her name's Patricia James."
The guard was already shaking his head. "No, no, sorry. We're not open to the public right now, you'll have to call ahead."
"I'm not the public, I'm from Xanadu," Cindy told him in frustration. "I've just as much right to be here as Patty does, and you guys took her here yourselves. Look!" She ran her fingers through her hair, pulling out the hairpins and letting her ears up into clear view. "See? Please let me in, I really need to see her."
The guard was slightly taken aback by Cindy's outburst, hesitating uncertainly. "I'll call in and ask, I guess," he told her at last. "Who were you looking for, again?"
"Patricia James," Cindy repeated slowly. "She was taken here right after everything went nuts at the convention center, around noon. She's a big brown bear."
"Bear?" The guard hesitated again. "Damn. We just had one of those escape. Do you think-"
"What!" Cindy cut the guard off urgently. "When? Where?" She fought the urge to reach through the window and seize the man by his arm, digging her clawlike fingernails into the steering wheel instead.
"Uh, about an hour ago, from the north pens. It broke a door and then went under the perimeter fence. A team went out after it-"
Cindy slammed the car into reverse gear and pulled away from the gate before the guard finished, turning sharply to the north as soon as she was back on the road. It might not be Patty, she tried to reason with herself. The guy implied there were other bears here, and you don't even know for sure that Patty was brought here in the first place.
But none of that was convincing enough to overcome her certainty that it was indeed Patty who had broken out, and who needed her help more than ever right now. She drove along the narrow service road as fast as safely possible.
Patricia lay behind the underbrush alongside a low wooden fence, hoping she was sufficiently concealed by leaves and darkness to go unnoticed by any pursuers while she recovered her breath.
She was panting quite heavily after the stress and exertion of the escape, breath rushing over her huge tongue to dump its heat in the slowly-cooling night air. This fur coat is just too damned effective, Patricia grumbled to herself between gasps. It certainly didn't help that Florida's climate was so hot and humid to begin with.
When she finally managed to get her breathing under control again, her pink tongue back out of sight inside her muzzle, Patty lifted her head to have another look at the terrain beyond the concealing bushes. She was on the fringes of suburbia, where city faded into country with patches of housing and undeveloped fields interspersed. Which city, though, she wasn't too sure of. I have no idea how long I was drugged out in that damned truck, I could be anywhere, she realized miserably. I guess it couldn't have been too long, it was still early afternoon when I got put in that pen... assuming it's still the same day, of course.
Patricia sighed and rose up on all four paws again. Well, whatever. It's too late to rethink this escape plan, so I might as well keep moving. I'll run into a street I recognize eventually. Stretching her limbs, she crept out of concealment and started plodding along the fence as quietly as her bulk would allow.
The sun had finished setting while she'd run, and this far from the streetlights she felt relatively safe from random discovery. Still, she knew that her escape must surely have been noticed; she hadn't done anything to hide the damage to the gate she'd tackled and she'd made rather a lot of noise in the process. There would probably be people looking for her. I'm going to have a bitch of a time getting back into Xanadu when I finally get there, too, she grumbled to herself. The convention center was located in a strip of parkland that ran through the edge of the city, but there were plenty of roads to cross between here and there.
Just keep moving and the hunters will stay behind me. I hope. Patricia shook her head and growled under her breath; the whole reason she'd broken out of that pen was to avoid being treated like an animal. I need to come up with other ideas.
The fence she was following reached a gap with a pedestrian path leading back into the neighborhood beyond. Patricia carefully poked her muzzle around the edge, sniffing intently. As with everywhere she'd been since she'd been changed into a bear, the air was thick with a welter of confusing scents; she could pick out hundreds of separate shades of odor. But she had yet to learn how to interpret these newly enhanced smells, with only a few of the strongest being recognizable from her experience with her old human nose. Patricia snorted in annoyance. Fortunately her other senses were still as acute as ever, and after a sufficient pause she satisfied herself that there was nobody lurking nearby.
It still left her with a decision to make, though. To continue along the fence in the open, or to head into the more built-up area instead? Dozens of pros and cons for each option came to mind, but ultimately she sighed and headed down the path to the houses. Built-up areas were more familiar to her from her previous life as a human and they presented more opportunities for hiding places that the open strip of land between fence and highway. She hoped there'd be less traffic in there, too.
To her delight the streets appeared to be practically deserted. Patricia stuck to the back alleys anyway, keeping alert and ducking into back yards to hide whenever she heard an engine nearby. It was fairly slow going, though, and after a while she became increasingly frustrated at her lack of progress as the night progressed. I still don't even know where I am, she grumbled to herself. Taking a chance, she turned onto a larger road at the next intersection in search of a signpost.
Once she was out on the sidewalk it was only a matter of minutes before she reached an intersection large enough to bear a sign with a street name. Patricia hurried over to it, paws padding loud on the cement as she temporarily abandoned stealth in her eagerness. She squinted, tilting her head, and gave a puzzled harrumph.
The sign was illegible, the letters meaningless patterns of lines. She sat before the sign for a long time trying her hardest to figure it out, even ignoring a couple of cars as they drove past her. Finally, a frustrated whine escaped her throat and the incomprehensible sign blurred with tears. Can't read either, damn it... I've lost language entirely. I am just an animal now.
That's when a familiar brown truck came slowly down the street toward her. Patricia blinked, and then took off running down the sidewalk in the opposite direction. The truck followed, and she began frantically looking for a good path for escape. Damn, damn, damn! She panted, galloping through front yards, clawed paws digging divots in the sod as she went. Maybe I'm an animal, but I'm not going back to that damned cage again.
Patricia lost the truck for a few minutes by cutting between some houses, but now that they knew she was so close they hunted persistently. Getting back to Xanadu was of secondary importance now, she thought to herself as she took a moment to recover her breath hiding in the shadows between a garage and fence. First she needed to shake the truck and find someplace better to hide. Patricia took off again in the direction with the least city light and background noise on the horizon, hoping to hit a park or other such area where a bear could lay low more easily.
What she really needed right now was Cindy.
Cindy's heart was pounding as she wove the car through the near-deserted streets of the suburban neighborhood. She was torn between the urge to drive faster and the need to go slowly, her senses strained in the dark to catch any hint of either Patty or the people from the zoological reserve that were also in pursuit of her. Patty was obviously trying to move both quickly and stealthily and it was a miracle that Cindy had even managed to hang onto the trail this far. She had only done it with the help of several lucky guesses so far, and she hoped her luck continued to hold.
A tuft of torn grass in someone's front yard caught Cindy's eye and she leaned out her window to get a better look at the ground as she passed. Bear claws, she recognized, flexing her own toes at the thought. She glanced around at the looming houses to see which path from here would look most inviting to a fleeing bear and sniffed at the gentle night breeze. She's headed north. Cindy had no idea where her certainty in her tracking skills had come from, but this was hardly the time for self-doubt. She pulled her head back into the car and took off again through the streets.
After crossing several blocks, Cindy reached a street that passed along a chain-link fence on one side; beyond it lay what appeared to be a golf course. Yes! She's got to be there, it's perfect. She cruised slowly along beside the fence, peering into the darkness in search of some sign of where Patty might have crossed it. So intently was she focused that she almost ran into the a brown truck parked by the curb. She slammed the brakes and dug her nails into the steering wheel again, immediately spotting the parks-and-recreation logo painted on its side; this must be the team that had been sent to bring Patty back to Twin Hills.
But the truck appeared empty, and right next to where it was parked was an open pedestrian gate through the fence. Oh, shit. Cindy put her car in park and scrambled out, running around the front of the truck to confirm that nobody was in it. They're on foot, still ahead of me. Damn.
Cindy headed through the gate. There was a paved footpath winding between the open fields of the course's fairways, and she ran a few yards along it before suddenly skidding to a stop again. No, it's too open this way she realized, turning to look to the sides and sniffing intently. "Patty?" She whispered, reluctant to call out too loudly in case the Twin Hills people were still nearby.
Another little patch of torn grass along the edge of the fairway, perpendicular to the footpath. Cindy hurried along the line of bushes following the traces Patty had left, the faint pawprints and disturbed twigs becoming clearer as she got used to looking for them. The trail was leading off in the direction of a large patch of woods beside a pond that sparkled dimly in the faint moonlight.
Cindy's ears caught a distant scuffling sound in the grass somewhere behind her, and she froze in a crouch for an instant while she tried to make out what it was. Several people walking quickly, occasionally muttering tersely to each other. Shit! Cindy started running.
The Twin Hills staff spotted her just as she dashed into the wooded patch, calling out in alarm and breaking into a run themselves. Cindy abandoned stealth entirely. "Patty!" She yelled, "Patty, they're coming!"
Patricia jerked her head up from the edge of the pond where she'd been having a long thirsty drink, caught off-guard by the sudden noise. Damnit, is no place safe? She tensed to run, then hesitated. Waitaminute...
"Patty!" The familiar voice called again, "it's me, Cindy!"
Patricia turned to run toward the voice instead, her heart seized with joy. Cindy! And I understood her! A moment later Cindy came into view through the trees and it was all Patricia could do to keep herself from leaping to hug her, catching the urge before she inadvertently flattened her friend in the process. As she skidded to a halt Cindy did it for her instead, flinging her arms around Patty's massive furry neck to embrace her as tightly as humanly possible.
Patricia stood still for a moment while she clung to her, happy but confused. "God, I'm glad I found you," Cindy spoke quietly, giving her one more squeeze before letting go with a quick laugh. "And that you're not some other bear. But I just knew it was you, I'm so sorry I ran away back at the convention like that-"
A man's voice suddenly shouted something behind Cindy, as incomprehensible as any of the people back at the zoo had been, and both Cindy and Patricia jerked to face him while each reacting protectively to shield the other. Patricia saw that there were at least three of them, dressed in zoo uniforms and armed with tranquilizer rifles. Patricia growled fiercely, but Cindy put a restraining hand on her shoulder and shouted back "No, wait! It's just Patty, she's not really a bear!" The man answered with an incredulous-sounding but still-incomprehensible response.
Patricia hesitated, momentarily confused; why could she understand Cindy but not understand the others? Then it struck her that Cindy had been her 'furless lackey' back when she'd merely been dressed as Browne Bear, and so perhaps was still somehow filling that role even now. Of course! Patricia whuffed triumphantly, recognizing the link at last.
"Of course what?" Cindy asked, then did a double-take. "Patricia?"
Patricia's muzzle opened in a gasp of surprise and immense relief. "Thank god, someone can understand me!" She whuffled, again restraining the urge to seize Cindy in an enormous hug. "I've been so cut off... what are they saying?"
Cindy was completely confused, but didn't pause to figure it out. "They told me to get away from you so they can sedate you again," she translated. "But I told them you were really Patty." One of the men muttered something, and Cindy grinned. "He just said I'm crazy. But I'm not, and I'm not moving. Patty's my friend."
Patricia glared at the men, their rifles still at the ready. "But I don't want you getting hit with one of those," she objected.
"Then don't do anything sudden to startle them," Cindy suggested. "They'll see that you're not a threat, right guys?" The trio looked uncertain, and the foremost of the three once again said something to Cindy that had the inflection of an order. Cindy shook her head. "No, you're wrong. I'll show you, see?" With that Cindy climbed up on Patricia's back, perching confidently just behind Patricia's shoulders.
Patricia was caught a little off-guard, both by Cindy's action and by how surprisingly light she felt, but she made sure she didn't show it. "You sure you know what you're doing?" Patricia muttered quietly, not taking her eyes off of the armed men. They had been caught off-guard too, but on the positive side they looked even less eager to open fire on her now.
Cindy grinned. "I told them you were tame. Please don't prove me wrong."
Patricia snorted, halfway between amusement and mild offence. "Will they lay off now, though, is the important question."
"I certainly hope so." Cindy paused as one of the men spoke again, and then responded "yes I can understand her, and she's not going back to your zoo in a cage again. Come on, Patty, let's go back to the road. Carefully, so those guys won't get twitchy."
Patricia nodded and started walking slowly around the three men, Cindy still perched confidently on her back. The lead hunter spoke something to the other two, and they finally lowered their guns and stepped back to cautiously let her pass. Patricia breathed a sigh of relief; the men seemed willing to be reasonable. They followed along beside her as the two of them headed back the way they'd come.
The five of them ultimately did end up going back to Twin Hills anyway, though this time with Patricia riding uncaged and unsedated along with Cindy in the back of the truck. Going back to Xanadu instead didn't make a lot of sense in the long run, and despite Patricia's resentment of her previous treatment there Cindy was able to convince her of the zoo staff's assurances that she wouldn't be locked up again. They were apparently starting to get used to the idea of dealing with animals that had human minds.
When they finally got there it was already pushing midnight. Patricia could tell that Cindy was now feeling the cost of the day's stresses catching up on her, but she managed to gather the energy for one more brief phone call to her parents. She told them she was fine, and asked them to pass word to Patricia's parents that she was okay too. Patricia didn't push her to call them directly yet; she had no idea what to have her tell them, and Cindy was getting tired.
After all she'd been through and all Cindy had done for her Patricia wanted to let her rest. At her urging Cindy claimed a comfortable chair in one of the currently unoccupied offices for a nap, and Patricia settled down on the floor beside her to make sure nobody disturbed her during the night. Nobody seemed inclined to evict a grizzly bear, and Patricia wasn't inclined to leave Cindy's side.
She had no idea what tomorrow would bring, but whatever it was she would need Cindy's support to get through it. Together they could deal with the strange hand that fate had dealt them.