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The Limelight

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Wisp-touched story universe
Author: Jon Buck

"You've outdone yourself this time, Howie. I fairly jiggle when I walk." Chuck's smile seemed a little uncomfortable in the elaborate Renaissance gown. The traditional production of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew demanded that all female roles be played by men. Chuck had gotten the part, much to Doppelganger's disappointment. As always he was confined to the Costuming Department. Despite being in charge, he still wanted to act.

"I keep telling you to call me Doppelganger, not Howie. I hate 'Howie'. Doppelganger, okay? Or just Doppel for short, if you have to," he said irritably. Unlike so many costumes, the gown had taken nearly two weeks to make, and had actually been intended for himself. But since the two men were similar sizes, the alterations hadn't taken very long.

The other drama grad student's brows furrowed, displacing some of the carefully applied makeup. "Okay, okay. I'm sorry. I keep forgetting, even with that photographic skin of yours."

In response, Doppelganger seemed to change his own features into a much more credibly feminine appearance than his classmate's. Chuck knew that there was no actual physical change in shape. It was all done with color, light, and shadow, via the powers the demi-human had inherited from his wisp-touched parents. Doppelganger was well known in Stanford's Speech and Drama Department. Not only could he make himself look like any character they could have wanted, he also made the best costumes anyone had ever seen, with little apparent effort at research. With his magic, and maybe a glimpse of a drawing, he knew exactly what he needed.

Doppelganger frowned, a few pins in his mouth, wielding a needle and thread. Unlike most of the dozens of costumes the Drama Department had accumulated over the decades, this one was actually authentic. Besides, there hadn't been anything that looked feminine enough for the role in a man's size. He'd enjoyed the challenge of making a woman out of a man immensely, putting a lot of himself into the work.

His features returned to the familiar narrow face and long nose, lanky arms moving in exacting motion to repair the gown. "Five damn minutes to curtain and you go and tear the sleeve. Geez, Chuck. Barry's going to wring your pretty little neck during intermission." The Stage Manager was already breathing down Doppelganger's own neck to finish quickly.

The wisp-touched's brows furrowed as he concentrated, multi-colored swirls flickering across his forehead. The faint, whirling rainbow beneath his skin flickered and dimmed. Only a few seconds later he was finished, the tear nearly invisible even from close up. The wisp-touched sighed then gave his classmate a wry look. "Okay, 'Kate', off you go. Be more careful, you bitch."

Kate smiled wickedly and sauntered off to take her place on the stage.

Theatre requires a series of events to miraculously not go wrong. While Doppelganger had a fairly large undergraduate staff in the Costuming Department, there were always mishaps both onstage and back that required a quick needle and thread to fix. Torn sleeves, rumpled hats, and broken potmetal swords were the least of emergencies. Throughout the performance, "Kate" seemed to do very well. Even her voice sounded more feminine than normal, despite Chuck's being deeper than Doppelganger's.

But when Chuck came backstage during the first intermission, to predictably get chewed out by the Stage Manager, he moved a little oddly. There really was a jiggle in the bodice and an odd sway to the hips. Doppelganger had just used what he could find for the bust. A material resembling skin tone stuffed with cotton, then sculpted with his inscrutable powers to make them the proper teardrop shape. When they were in place as part of the proper whole of the costume, they really did move like real breasts. The hourglass was created with a corset.

His fellow graduate student had been delighted. But then, Chuck had always been a stickler for realism in his characters. He always said there was a "method" to becoming the character. On stage his ideas were vindicated; "Kate" stood out. But when he came backstage between scenes, he seemed a little uncomfortable.

Eventually came Kate's final lines. Chuck delivered them with an envious power and sincerity that escaped Doppelganger, no matter how hard he studied. "Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot, and place your hands below your husband's foot: In token of which duty, if he please, my hand is ready; may it do him ease."

After three curtain calls and thunderous applause, "Kate" finally came off stage. Chuck glowed with the appreciation, but the discomfort was still there. He marched towards Doppelganger. "Can you help me get this thing off? I feel a little strange."

Nothing seemed wrong. "What's the problem?"

The actor looked a little pale under his makeup. "I can't really describe it. Maybe I'm just feeling the character too strongly. The audience loved me, but God, I just want out of this thing. And a cold beer..."

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Only a few buildings on the Stanford campus actually had electricity. The ancient coal plant could only supply the most important areas, mostly Stanford University Hospital and the science labs. Everywhere else was back to the nineteenth century, including the theatre. All deliveries were by train to the university's central California location. Gaslamps lit the inside of the auditorium in the Drama and Speech building, where the cast members normally held rehearsals. For now it hosted a party.

Doppelganger found a quiet corner, as close to a gaslight as he could manage, a copy of King Lear in hand. Nobody saw him sit down as he sidled against the wall. His photographic skin acted like a supernatural chameleon, perfectly mimicking the wall behind him. With a bit of concentration, he could even make his clothes change color. All he really wanted was a quiet place to study, and having spent the past five years of his life at Stanford, knew all the best corners. Even during a raucous cast party.

He studied the role of the Fool. The play wasn't auditioning for a couple weeks, but Doppelganger wanted everything down pat. Not that he expected to get the part, but he always tried. Always. It didn't matter that the magic he'd been born with put him in a very natural role in costuming. He still desperately wanted to act. "Ha, ha! he wears cruel garters," the wisp-touched mumbled, keeping below the din of the end-of-run celebration. "Horses are tied by the heads, dogs and bears by the neck..."

"King Lear?" came a musical feminine voice. Startled, Doppelganger's camouflage flickered for a moment, evoking a chuckle. "I'm sorry, Doppel, did I startle you? I daresay you'd make a good Fool..."

"I'm awkward enough on stage," Doppelganger admitted, turning to face the Department's other wisp-touched. "Shouldn't be too hard to caper about."

Lux wasn't actually a student, though many suspected she had been, before contact with the magic wisp had changed her. She had literally elfin features, though she was only a little shorter than Doppelganger. Her silvery hair, pointed ears, and an otherworldly figure made her irresistibly exotic. Her features seemed ageless; the unformed power of the wisp had reshaped its human vessel into something else. But there were any number of students who had vanished over the past few years. It had been nearly twenty five years since the wisps had changed the world, bringing back creatures from mythology. All of whom, in the initial wisp-storm, had once been human.

Dancing motes of light surrounded the elfin woman's face. They were always there. It was then Doppelganger noticed the room was a little brighter. The elf's own powers manifest. She provided stage lighting, among other things, in exchange for being studied and given a place to live. Doppelganger had met her at the Magic Research Wing of the hospital, since he had a similar "scholarship".

"Reading by wisp-ward light?" she asked, pointing at the metallic wire rune affixed to a wall hanger. Every campus building was coated with them, inside and out. The omnipresent wisps might otherwise float right into a human without warning and change him into almost anything in the mythical pantheon. As well as many creatures that weren't.

"It was better than the lamps, at least until you arrived," Doppelganger replied, feeling a little silly. "Even if only we can actually see it."

Lux snorted delicately. "You know what the scientists calling us these days? Demi-humans. Perhaps it means we've made some progress. I mean, have you seen the other wisp-touched they've brought into the center lately?" She actually sounded fascinated rather than upset, with a distant look in her eyes. "Centaurs, satyrs, harpies. Even talking animals! I feel like I've stepped into Aesop's Fables!"

"You're a fable yourself, milady," Chuck said. Now that his female role was over, he was growing back his beard, already a five o'clock shadow. All of it, not just the van dyke he'd worn before, Doppelganger noticed. Chuck looked over at his classmate, gray eyes reflecting the flickering light of the gaslamp. "There you are, Doppel. Why don't you join the party? Put down your books for a change. Don't be such a square."

"But the auditions..." he protested. Without the extra concentration, his clothing faded to plaid shirt and corduroy pants, skin taking up its normal ever-changing swirl. "I have to..."

"You can't study for all of 1959, can you? It's almost October, man." Chuck replied, handing him a glass of punch that from the smell someone had spiked with whiskey. As always, he was dressed in black, which made him look like the beatnik he was. "Come on, man, auditions for Lear aren't for weeks! Lighten up already.

"Besides, Shrew would've flopped without you. I don't know how you scrounge for materials, but our budget has never looked better. The squares over at the Dean's office don't get us more than a few pennies."

Lux gave him a tug on his elbow and smiled again. With that needed encouragement, Doppelganger joined the party.

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Skin flashing with anger, Doppelganger tried not to stomp out of the theatre like a spurned child. The moment Dr. Reid had said "I'll be in touch, Howard," Doppelganger had known. He knew what his problems were. Dr. Reid had gone over them repeatedly over the years. "Your line delivery doesn't flow naturally, and you're too melodramatic when the situation doesn't call for it," the professor had once told him, though he was always encouraged to work on it. "And he keeps calling me Howard!" Doppelganger shouted to the world in general.

Fences woven with wisp-wards lined the Quad. Doppelganger headed towards the far corner, jumping over the fence to take a more solitary roundabout route that was free of normal humans. Wisp-touched had the advantage of going where they wanted to, since they had nothing to fear from the bubbles of unformed magic that floated through the world. Stanford was practically a fortress against them, as were most cities. And except for a few areas around the university buildings, there were always people. Refugees, really.

The smell of horse pervaded the area as Doppelganger closed in on Stanford University Hospital. Not only because gasoline was a scarce commodity, but because of the centaurs who made their home in the modified stable. Similar to Doppelganger's arrangements with the theatre department, the formerly mythical creatures lived and worked for the Magic Research Wing at the Hospital. Passing by the open barn door, Doppelganger heard a familiar voice.

Lux was deep in conversation with a very strange creature. It had a horse's head, but the torso was far more human in shape, and equine legs. It had hands, a swishing tail, and a voice. And it was quite obviously female. The elf-girl noticed him, then smiled and waved. "Doppel! There's someone I'd like you to meet. Come on in!"

Practically wading through the fresh wood shavings on the barn floor, Doppelganger tried not to show how nervous he was. He'd met all sorts of mythical-types at the Hospital, since the doctors there liked to examine him every few months. Sometimes they tested a new theory about how his powers worked. He only put up with it because his "scholarship" depended on it. As usual, he tried to be a gentleman and keep his eyes off of Lux's heavenly bosom. The fact that she wore a tight angora sweater didn't help matters. "Uh... hi Lux. New friend?" He tried not to stare at the horse-woman either, but she was a marvel in herself.

"Margaret just arrived on the train yesterday," Lux explained. "She's a fairly recent victim."

"The wisp-wards failed at my house," Margaret added in a rather deep, but still feminine voice. "Damn fool husband bought some nearly burned out racks from a crooked salesman. And wouldn't you know it, a whole patch hit. He's a Goddamned pixie now." She chuckled a little. "He got the short end of the stick, and rightly so. Or should I say 'she'?"

Lux asked him about how his audition went, and gave him a little surprise with a comforting hug. Cold showers, he thought. Cold showers. "I'll... I'll survive," he stammered. "Least I won't have to take time away from the costumes..."

"Going to the Hospital, Doppel?" Lux asked.

"My quarterly checkup and general poke-and-prod. I think they want me to show Bob Hope movies on my back this time," Doppelganger quipped. Margaret watched his swirling skin with obvious interest.

"Can you actually do that?" the horse-woman asked.

He shrugged. "Never tried. But I can do this." He looked at the horse-woman closely. The random color swirls started changing. They organized themselves, first flickering through some geometric figures, what the scientists who studied him liked to call a "test pattern" before his conscious mind took control. His exposed skin then changed color, darkening to a solid bay, a cartoon color at first, but then details started appearing. The illusion of individual hairs stood out, even though they weren't actually there. With a little more concentration, he pushed the field of color change outside of himself. Instinctively he fluffed out his clothes, giving them some bulk and subtly changing their shape. Light, color, and shadow coalesced.

Further out, dust swirls in the air flickered and changed shape, rotating around like a Buddhist mandala.

Margaret gasped. Lux just smiled, having seen it before. Even Doppelganger's hair had turned black like a mane, contrasting the red "fur" on his skin. His facial features seemed to have undergone a drastic change. From directly forward, he resembled a kind of werehorse.

"You've gotten a lot better at that, Doppel," Lux said.

"Er..." Margaret said. "Can I?" She reached out at Doppelganger's nod, and to her surprise felt only human skin. "That's amazing! It's just..."

"Like really good makeup," Lux said. "He's wonderful at this. And he's getting better at his costumes."

"You should see the head I made for 'Bottom' in Midsummer Night's Dream, Lux," Doppelganger said, glowing with the compliment. His disappointment from earlier had nearly vanished. Though Bottom was yet another part he didn't get. "I think I'm on to something there, actually. I just feel like I'm missing something."

"You'll find it," Lux reassured, literally glowing. "I have an appointment with the docs myself in a few minutes. Why don't we go together, mmm?"

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A town full of demi-humans lay to the west of Stanford. They were tolerated by humans for the simple reason that only they could make wisp-wards; and their magic talents were often put to use protecting from more visible dangers like the occasional dragon. Elves, dwarves, nymphs, and other creatures from mythology were joined by new arrivals like Margaret the so-called "chimera". Though that term applied to an actual creature with the head of a lion, hindquarters of a goat, and tail of a dragon, someone in a newspaper had used it to encompass any creature that combined human and animal traits, but lacked a human face.

They didn't often live near humans, forming their own little communities in the deep wisp-saturated wilderness. Chimera like Margaret were a curiosity even among the demi-humans.

"Are you sure you want to risk this, Chuck?" Doppelganger asked his classmate. "The bar only has six warded booths and they'll probably be full..."

The beatnik nodded. "It's cool. Besides, it's Jack Kerouac, man. He's a dem, like you. Been all over the country since the wisps. Poetry. I have to have a listen. Whatever he is, they won't let him on campus."

"He's a chimera, I think," Doppelganger informed with a noncommittal shrug. "Or maybe a centaur? We'll know when we get there."

The bar was a two mile walk from campus proper, but unfortunately the presence of a few sizable wisps added another half mile to the trip in order to avoid them. For Chuck's sake, of course.

The bar--called The Donkey's Head--wasn't full. There was even a warded booth left, which Chuck almost sprinted for. Doppelganger tried not to smirk. Chuck gave him a nervous look in the dim, smoky room. "You do know that the university's lost five students to this place? Five, man!"

The multicolored demi-human took a seat across. "Hey, you're the one who decided to come out here, Chuck. When's this guy supposed to be here?"

A waitress with a definite feline cast to her features and cheetah-spotted fur sauntered over to the booth. She smiled at both, though more warmly at Doppelganger. "Here to see Jack? He'll be over in the poetry pit in about an hour." She gave Chuck a look. "And you'd better stay in the booth. Do you a world of good tonight. Little wisp storm coming through."

Chuck swallowed and tried to look brave. The feline chimera chuckled, then winked at Doppelganger. "What'll you two have?"

They nursed their beer while Doppelganger listened to his friend's animated discussion of the alchemist's shop he had seen up the street. The normally laid-back beatnik was developing a fascination with magic not shared by most normal humans. But he was also one of the first genuine friendships outside of Doppelganger's demi-human circle to develop, so Doppelganger put up with Chuck's childlike fascination. In some ways it was a breath of fresh air.

The Donkey's Head became more crowded, the door opening frequently as more demi-humans arrived. Elves, for the most part. So-called mages, sorcerers, even witches that most easily passed for human were often one of them. Doppelganger could easily look completely normal, if he wanted. But it took concentration to keep the subconsciously flowing skin patterns under control. Most of the time he just didn't bother.

Then Lux entered, keeping the halo surrounding her to a bare minimum. And behind, having to duck through the door, a very shy Margaret. Chuck, who had been very interested in the waitress before, stopped chatting with Doppelganger to goggle at the elf and equine chimera.

Lux saw them and waved a little before the crowd closed again between them. Even the demi-humans were staring at Margaret, who shifted uncomfortably under their scrutiny. "Oh, come on!" Lux admonished the crowd. "Just think of her as a two-legged centaur." She expertly shooed them along.

But when she came over to the booth, she sat down next to Chuck, whose eyes were still on Margaret. The horse-woman was nearly seven feet tall, ears twitching nervously. The chimera wore a top with a daringly low neckline. Doppelganger smelled nervous horse, and by the way the crowd reacted, so did everyone else. Behind the bar, though, the donkey-headed owner of the place lip-curled appreciatively. "Lux, I..." she nickered.

The door opened again.

The crowd went completely silent.

Out of the corner of his eye, Doppelganger saw Lux pat Chuck on the arm. The man was nervous--behind him, the luminescent wisp-ward blazed, repelling a few grapefruit-sized bubbles away from the booth. Though he knew that Chuck couldn't see them, Lux and almost everyone else could. And there she was, comforting him. Making him relax enough to see the traveling poet's arrival.

Doppelganger barely noticed Kerouac. The winged sphinx strode in with surprising humility for a feline. Doppel actually knew very little about the poet, and at the moment all he cared about was Lux. The beautiful elf sat there next to Chuck, apparently paying Doppelganger no attention at all. With no seat her size, Margaret sat on the floor.

"Good evening ever'body," Kerouac said in a voice that was a pleasant rumble, sitting on his haunches in the poetry pit. "Now I'm going to share some words... on the wing..."

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"Have you ever seen a woman like her?" Chuck raved on the way back to campus. He kept running his fingers through his curly dark hair. "Damn, what a figure!"

Doppelganger seethed, barely listening. Lux had sat next to Chuck the whole night. "Who?"

The dark-clothed beatnik kept running his hands through his hair. He always did that when he was excited. "C'mon, you know who. I got a faceful with that top she was wearing. Damn, I'd like to be..."

Ignoring Chuck the entire way back to campus, Doppelganger seethed. If Lux was all the human was going to rave about, then he didn't want to hear it. He'd quite enjoyed Kerouac's poetry. It wasn't as if she completely ignored me. But... what happened to her and Chuck between the stable and the bar? Doppel felt confused. She'd always been so friendly. So cheerful. Even with a kiss on the cheek...

Which she'd also given Chuck.

The wisp storm had passed while the sphinx-poet had told his story, and Chuck walked in relative safety. Thousands of high altitude wisps filled the sky, forming ever-shifting constellations, even when it was overcast.

"...money, man? You hear me? Cold, hard cash," Chuck was saying.

"Sorry?" Doppelganger replied. They were almost on campus now, entering the ward-protected walkway.

"Halloween, man. It's a month away, and I want a costume. Something that'll fool anyone who looks at me. And I'm willing to pay a wad of cash." There was an odd sparkle in his eyes.

All Doppelganger really got from the university was room, board, and two meals in the campus commons. "How much? And what of?"

Chuck looked around, as if to make sure nobody could overhear. "I don't flaunt it, man. But I've got it made. How's five hundred dollars sound?"

Like a fortune! Doppelganger tried to contain his delight, but it must have showed in his skin patterns. "Er... before I say yes, what of?"

Chuck told him. And had to repeat himself. "Well, can you do it or what?"

The wisp-touched thought about it hard. He thought about the "Bottom" mask he had made for Midsummer Night's Dream. "Tack on another hundred bucks, and you've got a deal."

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"Howard! Pay attention! What's wrong with you lately?" Dr. Reid's voice broke through the wisp-touched's daydreaming. Embarrassed, he reflexively tried to fade into the woodwork, but couldn't quite manage. Exhaustion was catching up with him. "I know you're still there," the drama professor continued. "If you really want to improve, you'll watch how your classmates emote this next scene."

Doppelganger paid little attention to Chuck and another graduate student as they acted out a scene from King Lear. Chuck's beard was growing in quickly, and with a little powder to gray it he would make an excellent Lear when the play opened in a couple of months. This wasn't even a proper rehearsal, in fact. Dr. Reid just wanted to demonstrate the new interpretation of the play for modern times he was working on.

Between throwing costumes together for the more traditional version opening in a few weeks and the unexpected commission, he had had little time to get close to Lux again. The elfin woman was spending a lot of time with Margaret. A lot of time. The two were close friends. Chuck was even with them, sometimes.

But he had to admit, Chuck got the role the drama professor wanted exactly right. Dr. Reid sung the beatnik's praises by the time class was over. The curly-haired grad student came down off the sloped stage in the tiny 19th century theatre where the plays were rehearsed and some undergraduate acting classes held.

By the look on Chuck's face, Doppelganger knew exactly what he was going to say. "I have a few more changes I'd like to make..."

"This is the third time this week," Doppelganger replied, reddening with frustration. "What, do you want it anatomically correct now?"

Chuck actually blushed at the obvious sarcasm. Not a red of anger, like Doppelganger. "Well... yes, actually. I'll pay you another fifty bucks."

Doppelganger gaped.

The beatnik looked around and lowered his voice to a whisper. "I want to be as real a chimera stallion as you can make me, Howie. From what I've seen I think you can do it. Hell, I really felt like Kate in Shrew, man. I felt her. I was her. You..."

If he calls me 'Howie' one more time... But the buttering up worked, and he relented.

The rest of the class had already left when the double doors at the rear opened. Lux stepped inside, pushing the light ahead of her, brightening the room with her presence as well as her powers. Behind her was the towering form of Margaret. "Charlie!" the elf called. "C'mon, we have things to do!" She also smiled at Doppelganger. "Good to see you too, Doppel."

Envy and jealousy reared their ugly heads. It was all he could do to keep it from showing up in a very loud way on his skin. "Where you all headed?"

Chuck shrugged. "Shopping. The ladies requested my presence because some human-owned stores won't let their kind in. I've been known to persuade some of the shopkeepers to bend that rule a bit." He straightened his black sweater. "At any rate, make that another sixty bucks. Okay? Thanks." Before Doppelganger could answer, he left.

The offhanded way Lux had dismissed him made his heart sink into his boots. But Chuck also seemed very fixated on this Halloween costume. There was a department Halloween Party coming up. Doppelganger was much sought-after for costumes, but had never actually accepted a commission. He'd already received some of the money, which he'd used to get a hold of some more expensive and unusual materials in the magic stores. At first he'd considered using actual horsehide, but he found the idea distasteful. White linen would have to do.

He often worked by candlelight, cutting and sewing. He was going to have to redo the entire lower body now. Anatomically correct. How am I supposed to copy that? He'd just have to expend more effort.

Nearly seven hundred dollars. That was half some people made in a year!

But at the same time... Lux. Chuck and Lux, together. The image of her sitting in the booth with him festered, hovering in his mind whenever he picked up his costume-making tools.

Yet for some reason Chuck wanted to be a stallion, not an elf. Well, half the fun was guessing who was who. And by the time Doppelganger was finished, nobody would be able to tell who the white stallion chimera was.

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Doppelganger woke out of a dreamless, heavy sleep. His entire body felt sore, like someone had been using him as a punching bag for several days. But as consciousness slowly returned there was also an afterglow. Taking a deep satisfied breath, he looked up at the ceiling in his apartment's living room. Dust danced in the late afternoon sunlight that slanted in through the window.

There was a polite knock on the door. "Doppel? Are you okay in there?"

Lux! He tried to get up, but his lanky body felt like limp spaghetti. And now that he was starting to wake up, his stomach growled like a hungry wolf. "Umph..." he grunted, propping himself up on his elbows. The motion dislodged a pile of material scraps he'd somehow pulled over himself like a sheet. "Gimme a minute, 'kay?"

His memories of the past few days were foggy at best. There was just a feeling of knowing what he wanted to do, and working to make it reality. Scissors and wire, glass eyes, and the sensation of power flowing from his hands into the new form taking shape in wire, putty, and cloth. Once he pulled himself together a little more, he caught a glimpse of the results of his creative orgy.

It looked like a horse under construction. It certainly seemed too large to fit Chuck! The bottom half of the torso sat in one corner of the room, the individual hairs of the tail somehow fused into whatever composed the spine. The parts that had taken so long there really didn't bear thinking about; the jacklegs were simple compared to the nether regions. But he had done them. I'll have to make Mr. Ed a loincloth, at the very least.

The upper body was a little more complicated, and sat in another corner. It had a sort of barreled chest, caught midway between horse and human. The arms were separate, but included everything to the fingertips. There were two very thick fingers and a thumb.

Where was the head?

Another knock on the door and Doppelganger lurched to his feet. He had a small apartment near campus complete with its own bathroom. Since he didn't feel about to burst, he'd at least taken care of calls of nature in his creative fugue. Light shone through the crack at the bottom, and when he opened the door, he had to shut his eyes against the glare.

"Oh! I'm sorry, Doppel I..." she dimmed and looked at him, great concern on her face. "Oh dear. You look like me after I did those special effects for Tempest last year! I was no brighter than a candle for days. You have absolutely no color, Doppel. Are you sick?"

He shook his head vehemently. Sick? No, he wasn't sick. He felt too good to be sick. But his stomach growled again. "Just starving."

"Let me get you some food, then. What have you been doing for three days? Dr. Reid sent me to check up on you."

He didn't protest. Lux followed him back inside, brightening the place with her presence. This illuminated the disaster area that was his apartment, which hadn't been the neatest of living spaces to begin with. It looked like a fabric shop had exploded. There were all sorts of discarded dead ends everywhere, including what appeared to be the nose and lips of a horse's muzzle sticking out from a pile of linen.

Lux stared at it for a moment, then picked up one of the completed arms, mouth agape. "How did you do this? There's horse hair on this arm! It feels real, Doppel!"

"What?" he replied. "Let me see that. I didn't use real hide..."

But that didn't seem to matter. It felt real. The hair looked liked it had grown instead of being anchored there somehow. But on the inside it was clearly stiffened linen, and a strange haze clung to the interior. "Um... I don't even know what I did."

She smiled. "Well, this must be some new aspect of your power, then! How wonderful! No wonder you have no color. You've spent it all making this, for whoever. What happens if you put it on?"

Not really knowing for himself, he took the white-haired equine arm from her and slipped it on easily. Beneath his fingers, the material seemed to come to life. It became warm and pliable like real flesh, and smelled faintly of horse. He flexed the fingers experimentally before it registered that he could feel the hair-covered skin as if it was his own. "Er... that?" he stammered. The fingers didn't really have that much flexibility, and the way they could lock together was odd. He wondered why he'd done it.

However he'd done it. Whatever he'd done.

Lux put her hand on the costumed arm, then tugged on the hair. "Ow," Doppel said. "I felt that."

"You've had your wisp your entire life and you only now discovered this?" Lux said, incredulous.

Doppel shrugged. "I can do all these other things well enough. I've never really explored how far my powers go. No need to."

She gave him a triumphant hug. "Well, I'm glad to see you're not taking them for granted any more. I've had mine for two years and I don't know everything about them yet. Why don't you relax while I get you something to eat?"

Doppelganger's heart melted.

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Since he had no food in the apartment, Lux had to go to the corner store to get some staples. She bustled about the whole afternoon, clucking over Doppelganger like a brooding mother hen. She also told him, very firmly, to take a shower and put on some clean clothes. But only after he put some food in him.

Lux gasped again when he opened up the bedroom door. His bedroom had been in no better shape than the rest of the apartment. And a horse's head laid on the bed, like there was a mob hit out on him. "I thought it was under that pile," Doppelganger muttered.

But he had to admit, it was an amazing sight. Dark nose and lips, but otherwise still that same shining white, like a knight's charger. A lifelike eye looked up at the ceiling. The was mouth half-open, displaying the big, yellowed teeth. Curious, Doppelganger opened the mouth further and found a rubbery tongue. The soft, pliable lips might have been made of rubber, but the texture was more like horse's velvety nose. He felt a strange tingle when he touched the head. It felt like it was somehow a part of him already, somehow. Then he realized he still wore the equine arm. So close together, a silvery filament of magic connected them.

"You should try all of it on for yourself after you shower," Lux suggested. She raised her eyebrows and smiled dryly. "Maybe I'll introduce you to Margaret. She's been wanting to meet a stallion lately."

Doppelganger felt his face flush red. But since he was still too tired for his powers to return, it was just the normal color of embarrassment.

But despite her insistence, he didn't want to try it on for himself yet. First he wanted to figure out what exactly he had done.

The next morning, as he ate leftovers and felt more energetic, he finally put the pieces together on the living room floor. The silver filaments were all there, too. But his mind was barely on this amazing newfound power. Why, oh why, didn't I ask her out?

Because she mentioned Chuck a half dozen times, he answered himself. But always when she was talking about Margaret, too... added a little voice in the back of his mind. Doppel ignored it. He tapped his still- costumed hand on the worn easy chair. He hadn't actually removed it from the day before. What does he have that I don't?

Whatever it was, he thought, perhaps he could turn Lux off of him. He kept tapping the hoof-hand on the overstuffed arm. "But before I do anything, I'll have to see what this thing can do."

Since the lower torso was all one piece, he removed his clothing down to his underwear and then sat it up on its horsey behind with the legs out front. That done, he simply stepped inside and sat down.

The tail twitched, then the legs. He felt like a child wearing his father's pants. They were just too large, and he could feel the incompleteness. The power he had invested into the materials was linked to him, responding to him. The strange haze he had seen in the arm doubled, then tripled, until he couldn't see his own torso any more. So, picking up the upper torso, he slid it on also. The equine arm he wore easily went through the opening for it.

Seams vanished the moment his head rose above the neck hole. The muscular white expanse of his equine chest lay beneath, going all the way down between the massive thighs and the coal black nether region. His tail lashed behind him. "Er..." he stammered. This was impossible! His own body was smaller than this thing! How could his own head have risen to the right place?

Of course it doesn't make any sense, he thought, remembering what one of his doctors always told him. It's magic. You simply apply your will and accomplish the task.

But he worried whether he would actually able to get out of the thing. As if in response, the seams reappeared. "Okay..." With a little mental command, he repeated the feat. The costume really was a part of him, wasn't it?

Removing the white-haired arm, he sat himself up and looked down at the broad chest. There was no way he'd be able to put the head on with those barely-usable hands. The head itself was astonishingly light. First taking a deep breath, he shut his eyes and settled the white stallion's head over his own.

A moment of blackness... distortion... twisting...

An explosion of smells... eyes opened to a gray-green world that reeked of Lux's leftover casserole and dust, dust, dust that made him sneeze. It took long minutes before he could handle the new senses. A surprised whinny escaped his lips.

Okay... let's get those arms on.

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Floorboards creaked under Chuck's heavy hoofs as he moved carefully about the tiny apartment. The chimera's ears flicked excitedly as he opened and closed his mouth, probing his large teeth with a wide tongue. His tail whipped through the air so fast it whistled. He was so thrilled he couldn't even speak.

Then his neighbor downstairs started knocking on the ceiling with a broom handle. "What the hell is going on up there?" came a muffled, irritated voice.

"I think you should sit down, Chuck," Doppelganger said. "Careful--" the chimera's behind hit the floor with an audible crack. "--ly."

"Sorry about that," Chuck whickered.

"In fact, let me get you out of that. I'm not sure the floor can take six hundred pounds of horse." Doppelganger still wondered where all that weight had come from.

"Awwww," Chuck complained, but he obediently lowered his head. Doppelganger gripped it by the jowls and gave a tug. Then he looked at where the neck met withers and shoulders, and saw no seam. But still determined, the lanky wisp-touched concentrated a little harder and pulled again. There was a surprised nicker that became a human gasp of shock. Doppelganger teetered backwards on his heels.

"I was just getting used to that, man. That was only fifteen minutes," the beatnik complained.

"Long enough to know you got your money's worth," Doppel replied. Now that the head was off, the arms came free more easily. Seeing the puny human arms and head sticking out of an equine torso was rather comical. "Besides, I think I need to make some changes. It's not quite... natural enough."

Chuck shrugged. "Well, I can't tell any difference. But if you say so."

"We still have a week until Halloween," Doppel said. The upper torso came free, then he helped Chuck out of the lower. The entire costume seemed dead now. Just a shell with nothing to give it life. "And I wanted to run something by you."

"Oh? What's that?"

Doppelganger smiled. "What would you say to Don Quixote and his loyal steed?"

"Really?" Chuck replied skeptically. "And I'm supposed to believe you'd dress like a square after you find this new talent?"

"Sound it out. Don Quixote. Here, I'll show you."

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"Hey! You can't graze your horse in the quad!" The university groundskeeper stormed across the overgrown grass. Normally they used sheep to keep it short. But this part of the quad hadn't seen its rotation yet.

Chuck flicked his tail and looked up from his meal. "If you don't mind, I'm just having a spot of lunch," he said in his most haughty English accent, filtered through the deep equine throat. The groundskeeper practically jumped back a whole yard. Chuck flicked his ears and returned to grazing, very comfortable on all fours. "It's quite good, really," he said out of the corner of his mouth. "Your efforts are quite commendable. And delicious."

"Um... no horses on the quad," the short groundkeeper repeated, though much more weakly. He looked at Doppelganger. "That is your horse, isn't it?"

Doppel scratched himself where the donkey head's neck met his shoulders. It was only a partial costume, consisting of head and tail. The rest he took care of by changing skin tones to resemble a donkey's wiry brown hide. He flared his nostrils. "He's mine, but I never claimed to own him," he brayed. Since Chuck was in- character, so was he. "He's not doing anybody any harm."

"Just... uh... be out of here in ten minutes. And put some tack on him or something." Clearly unnerved by the talking animals, the groundskeeper retreated.

"What a square," Chuck snorted.

It was Halloween, and Chuck had arrived practically at dawn to claim his finished costume. He insisted on putting it on right that minute, intending on wearing it the whole day for what he called a "total immersion in the character". I don't think he even realizes he's been on all fours for almost an hour, Doppel thought. His own tufted tail swayed behind him. He would have made himself a full costume, but hadn't wanted to lose another week of his life. Even making the donkey's head and tail had left him exhausted for a few evenings.

He noticed a wisp coming, so motioned for "Rocinante"-- Don Quixote's trusty steed--to come closer to the ward- fence. The white stallion whuffed and shook his head, then went back to grazing. Concerned, "Don" walked over and pulled on the horse's mane. "Do you really want to find out what'll happen if a wisp gets you when you're in that thing?"

The large brown eyes blinked. He practically trotted over. "Er... right, man. I hear you."

"Enjoyed your lunch?" Doppel asked. The horse-man wuffled, nodding. Doppelganger wasn't sure if Chuck's behavior was the result of being in character or because the costume naturally came with a horse chimera's instincts. However, it was abundantly clear that walking on two feet was almost impossible for long periods. Those hind legs really weren't made for a biped, though Margaret managed well enough somehow...

Chuck had also insisted on not wearing any clothing. Is this supposed to impress Lux somehow? Doppel thought. It was either a brave statement, or just foolish. He'd even offered to make Chuck a loincloth. After all, Margaret wore clothes.

When it came down to it, Doppelganger thought it foolish. If that drove Lux away from Chuck, what did he care?

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Doppel laid his donkey ears back, irritated. "Come on, 'Rocinante'. You're the one who wanted a full saddle setup. Take it like a stallion."

The costumed beatnik spoke through clenched teeth. "Why don't you taste it for yourself first, old boy? Couldn't you at least wash it first? It tastes like metal and old grass! And it's cold!"

"Would you like me to warm it in my armpit for a few minutes? No? Don't worry, it'll come out when we make our entrance." He's really taking the 'Great Nag' part seriously, Doppel thought. That's what the name of Don Quixote's horse meant: "greatest among nags". But Doppel felt like swatting the complaining horse-man across the nose. "You only have to wear it for two minutes after we're inside and have suitably impressed everyone."

"It would help if you were more in character, man. Have you even read Don Quixote?"

Doppel shifted uncomfortably. "Well... no."

"Well, neither have I. So just maintain an even strain, man. Make it up as you go along. Ad lib. Act!" The white horse chimera nudged him with his soft nose.

"So be a good horse and take the bit," Doppel said gruffly. "Rocinante" snorted and opened his mouth.

The student guarding the front door to the auditorium stood dumbfounded. Ironically, he wore one of Doppel's costumes from The Merchant of Venice. A hat with a feather in it, pantaloons, and slashed sleeves. If they didn't have anything to wear, students often raided the Costume Department racks. "Waaait. How can those be costumes? That horse has hay breath, and you're a... a... donkey-thingie."

"Behold, yon fop," "Don" said from atop his trusty steed. He'd used his power on some painted cardboard, making it into nearly convincing rusty 16th century armor. Complete with a helmet with holes for his long ears. "Stand aside, knave, and let us pass!"

"I can't let a horse..."

Chuck couldn't speak very well around the bit, but he managed. But he also couldn't settle on a character. Now he sounded like a New York police horse. "Move it, bub. Or feel my hoof. We're students, man. Remember magic?"

Surprisingly, the voice that broke the impasse was Dr. Reid's. "It's okay. I think I know who they are, and I want to talk to them for a little while. Let them in, Trevor."

Doppelganger ducked to go through the doors. Chuck had a very rough gait, but then he'd never actually carried anybody on his back before. But their entrance did get the reaction both had hoped for. Over fifty students turned to see them enter, whispering among themselves. Some seemed very uneasy indeed, but others actually applauded. I wonder what Lux told everybody, Doppelganger thought. Guess we'll find out.

Dr. Reid looked at the two costumed men, and settled on the donkey-head after he dismounted. "I'm sure you're Howard. Lux gave me some idea of what was going on, which is why I didn't say anything to you in class. I expect tomorrow you'll go to the hospital and finally tell them about this new talent? They'll want to study it."

"No question of that," Doppelganger replied sourly, removing the bit as-promised.

"May I?" Dr. Reid asked. At Chuck's nod, he looked the horse-man over. "You should have worn some pants, Charles. I know how you feel about characterization, but really."

"'Tis a little drafty, but also refreshing," Chuck replied.

"All the same," Dr. Reid continued. "Make him some pants using that talent of yours in the next hour. You're going to cause enough of a stir as it is. Otherwise, have fun."

"Spoilsport," Chuck snorted once the un-costumed Dr. Reid was out of earshot. But it turned out that was the last time they spoke for an hour.

Doppel's other classmates herded him away from Chuck and bombarded him with questions--and requests. For the most part they seemed mundane. They wanted to be taller, shorter, thinner. A few of the girls even whispered that they wanted some sort of enhancement. And another wondered if his costumes might shield her from wisps, and wanted one explicitly to test the hypothesis.

He refused them all, insisting that he wasn't sure just how this new power worked, that it was dangerous, that Chuck knew what the risks were, that trying to fill so many orders would leave him too exhausted for anything but making costumes. A lot of them came from wealthy families, so could even afford to pay even more than Chuck did. And one student even asked if he could make him into a woman. "You know, just to see what it's like," he said sotto voce.

All Doppel could do was look at him and go "Ummm..."

To prove he was who he said he was, he took off the donkey head several times, allowing them to gently tug on his ears. When it seemed to come alive again after he put it back on, many were amazed, but others said they wanted one. "You should've come as Bottom instead, Doppel," said one.

Through it all Chuck was subject to even more scrutiny. He sat on the hardwood floor, tail spread out behind him, with a tablecloth over his lap. People brought him food or asked questions. He switched characters with every new question, from cop to cowboy, English gentleman to the beatnik that he presented as. Then, apparently thirsty, he got back on his feet and wandered over to the punch bowl, where he dipped his entire nose in. "Whoa!" Barry exclaimed, tugging on the reins from the side. "I don't want horse spit in the punch!"

"'Whoa' yourself!" Chuck grumbled. "These hands don't work very well."

"Just because you look like a horse doesn't mean you have to act like one," Barry grumbled. The grad student Stage Director was dressed in a Renaissance outfit every bit as foppish as the doorman's. "I don't much care for your 'method', Chuck. You've contaminated the whole bowl!" The horse chimera breathed in the human's face. Barry wrinkled his nose. "Either someone spiked the punch again, or you've been swilling whiskey."

"Not a drop, jim. At least before now. It's good punch."

The auditorium was nearly full, and nobody had arrived for five minutes. Doppelganger knew there were two very important guests still missing. There was no sign of Lux or Margaret. Chuck had spoken of the chimera-mare often enough that he wondered just what the beatnik's hangup was about her. But since neither had arrived yet, he wondered if they were even coming. What kind of costume would a newly wisp-touched even want to wear anyway?

The foppishly-dressed student opened the door, then came inside. Accompanied by a few flashes outside, he bowed floridly.

Dressed in a Marilyn Monroe white dress and surrounded by a cloud of flashes as if from paparazzi, Lux made her entrance. Light wove around her in a dazzling pattern, suggesting an eager crowd of fans. Coming in behind, Margaret was dressed as a cowgirl, complete with a ten gallon hat with earholes.

The flashes mesmerized Doppelganger, and he stood completely frozen where he was, the donkey warring with the man. He had the presence of mind to reach up and pull off the donkey's head.

With a squeal and a whinny of surprise, Chuck bolted, knocking over the refreshment table. The punch bowl shattered on the ancient hardwood floor, scattering cheese and crackers all over the place. Only pure luck kept Chuck from going down on the sharp glass fragments, instead he wheeled backwards on two feet, falling heavily on his backside. The crowd scattered around him.

Stunned and hyperventilating, Chuck pawed at the air, legs twitching.

Dr. Reid reacted first. "Howard! Get the hell over here! Let's get him out of that thing!"

Frantic and stunned himself, Doppel reacted sluggishly. He left his own costume head where it was, pushing through the crowd to get to Chuck. Margaret, who hadn't been spooked by her friend's flashes, plowed her way through to the stallion. "Give him some air!" she boomed. The crowed parted before her.

Doppelganger looked for a seam. Any seam. With Margaret and a few other students holding the still- stunned Chuck down, the lanky drama student grabbed hold of the white stallion's jowls and pulled.

The only result was an equine grunt of pain. Chuck snorted into Doppel's breastplate. Doppel pulled again, and felt nothing give way. A third try.

Nothing. Dr. Reid glared at him.

Doppel tried the left arm. Nothing. The right. No sign. He even looked for the large seam that was once evidence where the top and bottom halves of the costume once met. He only found unbroken, sweat-soaked hide that smelled like panicked horse.

"I want both of you in the Hospital," Dr. Reid said. He looked at Doppel, his expression like a storm cloud. "You'd better hope this can be removed." >>

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"The human body is like a sponge," the elfin doctor lectured, pacing in front of diagram-covered chalkboards in the tiny room, "soaking up any and all wisp-magic applied to it. It doesn't matter if it's in the form of a raw wisp, or from magic-users like you and I. Humans have absolutely no resistance whatsoever, Doppelganger. So allowing your friend to wear that costume you made, when you didn't know how it would affect him, was reckless to say the least."

"I'm really concerned about where my donkey head vanished to," Doppel replied, pleased that Dr. Broward was actually calling him by the right name. "Someone stole it in the confusion."

"I imagine it will turn up soon enough," the elf said. "Once the thief finds out they can't take it off. Have you used that technique I told you to find out what's happened to your friend?"

Doppelganger shuffled his feet. "He... uh... won't let me near him." In fact, none of his classmates would. Dr. Reid had put him on academic probation pending a decision from the Dean of Colleges. There was a very real possibility the Stanford would cut him loose. Then what will I do?

"There may be a possibility of a cure," the magic expert continued. "Unlike raw wisp energy, there's a chance we can change him back. But it might take someone more powerful than you are. We won't know until you try."

The doctor started drawing a network of symbols on the blackboard. They were roughly similar to wisp-ward runes. "It would be a pity if you could only use this incredible talent of yours on yourself," Broward droned. "The exercise of magic is a function of will. All you need is some way to contain the costume energy within itself, like these runes. Without a human host to feed off of, your costumes may only work for a short time until the energy is expended. But this is preferable to the alternative, no?"

Doppelganger nodded, dutifully copying down everything.

Until the Dean made his decision, all Doppel really could do with his time was experiment. A couple of his demi-human acquaintances had come by to see what he was doing, and offer some advice, but he had never really made good friends outside of the Drama department. But now he was completely isolated, even a pariah, which made him stir-crazy.

Dr. Broward told him to experiment on himself, if he felt like taking the risk. Considering what had happened to Chuck, Doppel felt it a good idea. If he got stuck, it would only be the right thing, wouldn't it?

On his way home, he bought all the raw materials he could carry, and made plans.

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Pounding on the front door awoke Doppel from a light doze. Lux's muffled voice came from behind. "Come on, Doppel. I know you're in there!" Her voice was crisp and determined. "You can't bloody be anywhere else!"

The demi-human slowly pulled himself towards full consciousness, painfully aware of the soreness of his chest. In three nights he had not yet found a comfortable sleeping position. But this was an experiment, wasn't it? And the results so far were both uncomfortable and interesting. At least the others in his building hadn't bothered him much.

"I'm coming!" he grumbled as he stumbled forwards towards the door. Lux's voice, even with that level of irritation, was like a magnet. Silence greeted him when he opened it, but his hand was on the knob before he remembered just what he looked like.

Lux's expression transformed from anger, perhaps even a prepared speech, into shocked amazement. The elf woman looked closely at his features, then down... eyes hovering over his chest, then back up again. "You're not Doppel's sister. That's another costume, isn't it?"

"Er..." the temporary woman stammered, unable to reply. Lux was really the first to figure that little fact out. Doppelganger hastily buttoned up her pajama top to cover the deep valley of exposed cleavage, blushing furiously. "I..."

Lux gently pushed her backwards and closed the door behind. "Pink pajamas? How do you explain this one, Howard?"

Doppel was in dangerous territory now. Lux had never used her real name before. "I didn't want to be cooped up in my apartment for a week in a chimera costume, and making myself into another kind of man didn't seem different enough. Even a demi-human would get noticed. Like this I'm just another girl. Invisible, see? I wanted to see if it sticks on me after a week. I even made some clothes to go with it. It's kind of a persona."

Lux frowned, little motes of fire-red light dancing around her head in a halo, clearly trying to find fault. "If I didn't know you so well, I'd just say you were being a pervert. But despite what you did to Chuck, I believe you." A sneer did play on her face, though. "So what do you think about it so far, girl?"

Doppel chose her words very, very carefully in a strained alto voice. "I... I think you'd have to ask me again after a much longer period before I could give any real insights." She folded her arms across her chest self-consciously, flushed with bright red embarrassment down to her shoulders. One thing she had discovered was that her photographic skin could not come though the costume, so she looked like a normal, and good-looking, girl.

"Good," Lux replied with some finality. Her expression turned cold again. The light around Doppelganger brightened, as if she was about to be interrogated. "You didn't even care what happened to Chuck!"

"You didn't exactly warn me not to let a normal human wear that costume," Doppel retorted, emotions frothing. This was not a good time for an argument. After several days, she was wondering if she was starting to think like a woman. Everything felt off-balance, physically and emotionally. Now she was in a heated argument with someone she wanted to ask out on a date as a man. This isn't going to end well.

"I assumed you had some common sense!" Lux huffed.

"Can I at least get out of this thing so I can talk to you more normally?" Doppel pleaded.

"No you don't," Lux replied. "You're in a 'long term experiment' and stuck with it. At least you're doing that for your friend's sake. I'm just here as a favor for Chuck and Dr. Reid."

"What's Dr. Reid have to say?" Doppel said gloomily.

The platinum blonde elf's expression softened. "I'll get to that in a moment. First, I have something to say." She actually seemed a little flustered, as if saying it to someone who was for all intents and purposes another woman was a discomfort she hadn't planned on. "Look, I know that you like me. As a man, I mean. And I know Chuck wasn't exactly smart...

"And I know you're interested in me. Did you even think that if you asked me out, I'd be happy to have dinner with you?" She looked around the apartment. There were library books everywhere, all on magic. "As a man, I mean."

"How was I supposed to know? It's always 'Chuck this' and 'Chuck that'! I figured he was trying to impress you. He wanted to be as horse-like as I could make him. And you know what? That's what I did."

Lux looked stunned. "You want to know the irony, here? He and Margaret are very happy together. I can't hate you for that, now can I?"

Doppel's eyes widened. She pulled her long hair from her eyes. "Wait a second. Chuck and Margaret? I suppose that makes sense for him, now."

The light-elf looked at her appraisingly for a few seconds, then decided Doppel was being honest. "You completely missed that? They've been after each other since the moment they met. I should have guessed that's who the costume was for in the first place. But I didn't think."

Lux's expression hardened. "But you can't completely absolve yourself of responsibility, Doppel. You know the dangers of untried magic. And because of that, you've ruined any chance of ever dating me. Maybe even our friendship. I haven't decided yet.

"As for Dr. Reid, what happens to you will depend on if you can cure Chuck. If you can't, you're out. Expelled."

Doppelganger's heart fell into her dainty feet. "Oh..."

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After a full week, the girl-costume came off as easily as it went on. A small exercise of will, and the skin took on a waxen appearance and he was able to remove it. While he wore it, it was essentially real. But he was in no danger of becoming female permanently because the power was an extension of himself. The strangest thing was that he actually weighed less in that suit. But then, if Chuck could gain a few hundred pounds, it made sense to shave off a couple dozen. Bigger or smaller, his talent seemed to do both.

But that left other problems. Like how to apply Dr. Broward's runes so normal humans could wear his costumes, the still-missing donkey head, and the fact that Chuck still didn't want anything to do with him. It was depressing. But at least the university wasn't going to throw him out until he could make an attempt.

It was a couple days before Thanksgiving when Lux appeared at his apartment again. Once more in the female persona he had created, Doppelganger opened the door to a concerned Lux, who looked at the "Get the Fuck Out!" message painted on it. "Word gets around, I see," Lux said with a frown.

"They don't even like me in this building any more," Doppel explained. She folded her arms and sighed. "The only way I get any peace is if I become this girl. They think I'm my sister, watching the apartment. I've even put some wisp-wards around." She gestured at the conservative dress she wore. "I just hope I'm acting her out right..."

"You're motivated. Er... what do you call yourself like this? I don't want your neighbors to overhear."

Doppelganger shrugged. "I had Taming of the Shrew in mind when I made this. So call me 'Kate'." She smiled at Lux. "I am happy to see you again."

The elf's manner had changed since her last visit. Friendly as before, but still a little distant. "Don't get any ideas, Kate," Lux replied firmly. "But I am here as a friend, not because I was sent. I can see you are making some progress, so I know you're serious about helping Chuck. What's all this? Looks like you..."

"I'm going to try nesting costumes." Kate gestured at what was basically a slightly idealized version of her male self. A bit less lanky, certainly. But undeniably Doppelganger. "If I can make a 'Chuck' suit my problems might solve themselves."

She looked at the costume laid out on the floor and smiled warmly. "A man within a woman within a man? The psychology department would have a field day with this."

"They think most of us demi-humans are borderline insane as it is," Kate replied. "Care to give a girl a hand?"

Deciding to start simple, Lux helped her slip on the left arm. It felt... odd. Fingertips felt distant, as if she wore several layers of gloves. It didn't seem right.

And she didn't get the chance to try on the rest.

The arm started to throb, and a sharp pain stabbed into her chest. The skin started to blister, the then faded into the waxen appearance of non-life. "Take it off!" she shouted.

Lux instantly yanked, but the skin peeled off in strips, leaving Doppel's real, masculine arm behind. Sickly greens and yellows swirled around patches of reddened skin, the hair singed. Light swam around the elf's head. "Let's run some cold water on those burns."

"That didn't work," Doppel-Kate said, sweating as Lux shuffled her off to the bathroom. "I'm going to have to make a new arm before I go out again."

The bathroom was only a little cleaner than the rest of the apartment. Lux turned on the water and had her mostly-female friend sit with her masculine arm in the sink. The costume-maker sighed with relief. Lux smiled. "It was a good try. I'll make sure I tell Chuck all about it."

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The Dean of Colleges was not a man to cross. His eyes bore into Doppelganger like diamond drills, daring him to say something against him. Dressed in a pinstriped suit and with a head as bald a cue ball, he looked like a mobster. "Do you have a problem with this, Mr. Tuttle?"

Doppel sighed, and winced when he heard his last name. His full name was Howard Alvin Tuttle. Only a few times in his entire life had he used it. And since that was the name on his university records, that's what the Dean used. "No, sir. I know the university's spent a lot of money on me."

"Many thousands of dollars, in fact," the Dean continued. "But we can't have a dem who uses his powers irresponsibly in our University. People are talking, Mr. Tuttle. Powerful people who hold the purse strings to this University. Either you cure Mr. Stewart right in front of me, or you'll have to leave campus by Christmas. We have already put ourselves at risk by allowing you six weeks to research a cure, Mr. Tuttle. So please, do whatever it is you do."

The inside of Chuck's campus apartment smelled like horse, which was reasonable, considering. Margaret had moved in with him, intent on taking care of her equine lover. There were hoofprints in the carpet, but the floor seemed stronger than Doppel's place. The white stallion looked at the Dean. "Don't I get any say in what happens to him?"

"I'm afraid not, Mr. Stewart. It's politics, see. This isn't a matter for debate. Now, Mr. Tuttle?"

"Yes, sir." Doppelganger stepped forward, hands raised. Six weeks of effectively being a horse had affected Chuck's mannerisms, something Doppel felt very responsible for. That was the "something extra" that was supposed to embarrass him in front of Lux. Margaret had said to treat him like a nervous animal. Though he actually spent most of his time in a paddock near the Hospital stable--for the doctors and elfin wizards to study--he still slept in his apartment. Much to the annoyance of his neighbors.

After lengthy discussions with other demi-human mages, Doppelganger had a rough idea what he was going to do. He had to find the division between costume and wearer and magnify it. Failing that, he would try influencing the costume itself. If he could reshape it somehow, maybe... well, he'd solve that problem when he came to it.

Chuck gave him a surprisingly friendly look in his large brown eyes. "Be cool, okay? Don't sweat it if you can't remove it. But I would like some real hands, if you can manage. Okay?" he whispered.

"I thought you were pissed off at me," Doppel replied, equally quiet.

"Irritated, yeah. But I don't sweat what I can't change. We both screwed up. You really need to stop being so square, Doppel. You're so uptight. Just do your best and we'll make the most of however it turns out. 'Kay? I didn't want them to kick you out right away, see."

"But I've cost you your career!"

"Don't count me out there, man. Just do your thing."

Doppel put his hands on the horse-man's withers, then closed his eyes after a nod. The power he had invested in Chuck's suit had been enormous. Even creating Kate hadn't needed so much power. He wondered if what had happened to Chuck was because of this first excessive use of this talent. It's going to take years to know how all this works, he thought. But the power Chuck possessed was, to a degree, still a part of Doppel. It responded to his touch.

The swirling colors on his skin coalesced in his hands, which nearly glowed with concentrated magic. He sunk his consciousness beneath them, down into the threads of power woven into the costume. More than anything, it was these tiny lines of pure willpower that made the chimera costume real. Vibrating like violin strings, they were entwined deep into Chuck's metaphysical self, making the division between them hazy and indistinct. There were no sharp divisions. Nothing to intensify. At his core, Chuck was still Chuck. But six weeks of had changed the rest. On the outside he was nearly all chimera. "Shit," Doppel said. "I don't think there's anything I can do, man. I'm sorry..."

"It's okay," Chuck insisted. He sat down heavily on his large behind, then held out his ungainly forehooves. "It's cool. Can you do anything about the hands?"

"Do you really want me to? If I do, you'll lose all fours and you won't..."

"Look, I don't care if you have to make me all the way into Mr. Ed. These things aren't very good at being hands or hoofs. I'll be happy either way."

"I'd prefer you with hands," Margaret said. "But it's your decision, love."

"Hands it is, then," Chuck decided. "Do what you can, Doppel."

Magic pulsed in the wisp-touched's hands, and he bent his will to the task.

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Rumor had a long time to circulate around Stanford. Most of the time Doppelganger had experienced its effects were his trips to the cafeteria to get his two daily meals. People stayed away from him in fear. They whispered behind his back. A few had even threatened him. So after the relatively quiet week as Kate it made sense to pretend that Howard "Doppelganger" Tuttle had already left campus for good. Off to live with extended family in Morro Bay.

Once more, his sister was house-sitting and putting things in order: Packing steamer trunks, paying for the repairs to the floor. But five years of accumulated detritus and a physically weaker, unfamiliar female body made the task a lot more exhausting. At least she had friends to help.

"Sneaking away in plain sight," Chuck said in a low voice, stuffing unlaundered clothes into one trunk. The changes Doppelganger had made to his hands and feet were already fading. It seemed that he could only make temporary modifications. An that effort had been exhausting for both demi-human and chimera alike. "Beauty. See, you can act, girl." He smirked.

"Amazing what you can do when you're motivated," Kate- Doppel replied. While she wouldn't show up on their door as Kate, she did have real family in San Francisco willing to take her in. They weren't happy about it, but also weren't turning their nephew away. The next few months were bound to be unpleasant. "I do appreciate the tips, Lux."

"You'd be amazed what people accept as masculine or feminine," Lux said matter-of-factly. Kate had suspicious of how she knew, but wasn't willing to pursue that line of thought. Lux dusted off her jeans. "We're almost finished here..." There was a knock on the door. "I'll get it."

When the elf opened it, at first it seemed like nobody was there. But then she saw the top of a cowboy hat, and looked down. Bearded, wearing sunglasses, a flannel shirt, and dungarees, was a dwarf holding a large box. "Howdy-do, Miss," he said in a friendly, gruff voice. He removed the dark glasses and looked at the three people in the room. "Someone named Doppelganger here?"

"Who's asking?" Lux said.

The dwarf fished in his shirt pocket and handed her a business card. Lux raised an eyebrow. "Jason Powers, owner, 'Arcane Studios'. What's this?"

"Can I come in?" Powers said. "I'm certain one of you is he, but considering what I know of this man's talents, it could be any one of you. I have a proposition to make."

At Kate's nod, the dwarf trundled inside. Lux shut the door behind him. He set the box on the ground and opened it. "The head..." Kate gasped. "I thought..."

The dwarf smiled through his bushy beard. "The man--who I assume was human--wasn't fool enough to put it on. He described what happened to yon chimera, there." He nodded at Chuck. "So I imagine one of you ladies is who I seek."

"Maybe," Kate said.

"Maybe not," Lux added. "What do you propose?"

"The studio I represent is a new one," the dwarven executive said. "We're going to use magic to make the most incredible films ever. And Doppelganger has the talent I need. You can only do so much with plain illusion, after all. This mask is solid. Real."

"But who would wear it?" Kate said. "It sticks on everyone but me," she sighed. "And I can't act."

"I'm confident you'll solve the problem." He looked at Kate. "Look, Miss, take it or leave it. I can't afford to pay you much at first. But you can do as many side jobs as you like. And you'll be in charge of the whole department--which will really be just you, right now. So, what do you say?" He looked at Chuck. "We can even offer some roles to your friend, here."

Doppelganger didn't hesitate. To prove who he was, he slipped off Kate's mask and extended her hand. The dwarf stared in amazement, then reached up to take it. Doppel smiled. "You have a deal."

- End -