|Paradise story universe|
|Works by Eirik on Shifti|
Dusty sat on the hall floor and slowly, rhythmically tapped his antlers backward into the wall. One slow tap, pull forward, another slow tap.
"Mr. Hollows!" hissed Ela as she turned the corner and saw what he was doing. "Stop doing that!"
He looked up at her, "What?"
She reached down and helped him to his feet, "What do you think normals are seeing when you do that?"
He quickly turned his head down the hall, accidentally hitting his left antler against the doorframe. "Damn it," he muttered. "Sorry about that."
She unlocked her office and let him in. "Since you're not in any of my classes, and you're clearly distracted, I assume you're here about T.A.?"
He took a seat across from her and sighed. Their kiss had been a couple days before, and he was still conflicted about what was happening. "I suppose I am," he admitted. "I'm worried about her, and I'm not sure who to talk with. I'm worried she's moved too far, too fast."
"That's not a question that I can answer," she admitted. "Personally, I think it's a good thing, at least for the most part."
"For the most part?"
She shrugged, "This isn't some kind of well defined science. She's in a strange place right now, as are you." She absently started logging into her computer. "She's moving a lot faster than most of the gender Changed. I don't know any, but what I've been hearing is that most spend years getting adapted, if they ever do. For her, it's like she's trying to break a record."
"That's what I'm afraid of," admitted Dusty.
Ela nodded. "Every situation is unique. A lot of people in her position over the last decade had no one they could be normal with, no one they could confide in, no one..." she trailed off.
"What?" he asked.
"Well, no one they could be their new gender with."
Dusty felt his mouth hang open, "But..."
"You care for her, don't you?" she asked.
He nodded vigorously, "I do. I'm just afraid that I've pushed her into this. I don't want her to be with me because of something I did."
"Tim is going to have to adapt eventually. The chances that she'll Change again are almost zero now, and if the Changes keep occurring, especially at the accelerate rate we're seeing, it won't be long before she'll have to be a woman."
"Wait, she might change again? You said it couldn't happen."
She looked crossly at him, "I know about as much as you do about this. We might all change back tomorrow."
"You didn't answer my question."
There was a long pause, "She might. I've asked a few people about it, and there is some precedent for a change after skipping a year, but it's on the odds of winning the lottery. There are maybe a dozen documented cases." She allowed herself a smile, "I'm an economics professor, I can assure you those are long odds."
"I need to tell her that," he said. "She's creating a new life for herself, as much and as fast as she can. What if she changes again in August?"
Ela regarded him carefully, "Are you trying to get out of your relationship?" she asked seriously.
Dusty shook his head vigorously, so much he knocked an antler hard into a bookcase. "No!"
Ela cut him off, "If you're trying to find an excuse to break it off right now, you're not the young man I assumed you were."
"I'm not trying to break it off!" he said, more loudly than he intended. "I just don't want to do anything we may regret later."
Ela eyed him carefully. "Have you?"
"This is nice," said Tim. After the party, she had resolved to start preparing herself for the day that she wouldn't have to hide anymore. She still had to maintain appearances, she couldn't start wearing a dress in public, but she could start doing things in private.
Sheila opened the glass door and pulled out the bracelet, handing it to Tim. "I didn't make this one, came from my supplier." It was a simple costume bit of fake silver with cubic zirconium.
"$20?" asked Tim incredulously. She wasn't used to buying this stuff. Without thinking, she started to try it on.
Sheila grabbed it off her arm and glared at her. "Remember where we are, Tim," she hissed.
Tim regarded the fox for a moment, then nodded carefully. She looked around the mall. There weren't many people there, and no one seemed to notice anything amiss. "Sorry, I should know better."
"I know this is all new for you, but I'm the one that will have to explain the weird guy that was hanging around trying stuff on," she said in a whisper. "I swear, you've been dealing with this for the last year and half. I've had a couple months. You know better." She put the bracelet back in the case. "Tell you what, pick out a few pieces that you like and I'll bring them by your place."
Tim nodded and looked over the case a bit more. "I think she's more into this style," she said more loudly for the benefit of passers-by.
Shelia grinned thinly, "Staying with the silver? She doesn't like gold?"
"She really doesn't own any, so I'm not sure," Tim said honestly. She looked over the case, using her tail to point out a few pieces to Sheila.
The fox made mental notes, but eventually stopped Tims' browsing. "I'm not wheeling the whole cart over."
Tim smiled and noted the women running the next kiosk taking too much interest in her browsing, "Sorry. I'm not used to shopping for my new girlfriend." She picked a bracelet off a display and handed it to Sheila, "I'll take that for now. When can you stop by"
Dusty stopped at the supermarket on the way back from class. He'd realized shortly after he'd grown his own personal coat rack that transportation was going to be a pain in the tail. On campus it was a non issue, but even taking the bus was tough because just getting though the doors without looking like a circus contortionist was impossible by late summer. With the help of his parents, who still had no idea that their son looked a lot like the head mounted on the game room wall, he'd bought an older Saab convertible to get around. It wasn't what he'd really wanted, and he still wasn't sure what he was going to do in the rain, but it got him around.
He closed the top and sighed. Once a few car engineers were transformed, he hoped someone would make a bubble top car.
He walked into the store and grabbed a cart. The conversation with Ela was still in his head. He really had no idea who else to talk with. Trinidad was out because nothing said to the sea lion would be kept secret. It just wasn't in his nature. Even on the special online forums, there was almost no one in his position, in Tim's position. Transgendered were relatively rare, and most of the ones out there were trying to stay in current relationships or avoiding them entirely. He'd found none that were willing to publicly admit they were in this situation.
He filled his cart with stuff from the produce section, then went for the meat department. Tim's meat really threw off their food budget. She could still stomach vegetables with ease, but the last time she'd gone more than three or four days without some red meat Dusty started to think she was sizing him up for the BBQ.
The question Ela asked had been a fair one, and he knew that the rumors locally were flying fast and furious. The truth was, the two of them hadn't done anything that couldn't be taken back. Tim wasn't ready for that, and the closer Tim got the colder Dustys' hooves got. He cared for her, deeply, but the time of year to make choices like this was lousy. He turned a corner and knocked a box of crackers with the edge of his antlers. He pretended not to notice, since bending down to get it was likely to cause more stuff to get knocked over.
The antlers, in a way, were his problem. Or what they represented. His hormones were in overdrive and would be for a couple months. There was no way he could hope to think clearly, and he couldn't afford to destroy his relationship with Tim.
He paused at the small florist near the checkout, picked a single red rose, and went to pay. He'd take it slow, but he did want to move forward. He only hoped Tim would do the same.
Sheila was at the apartment a couple of hours later with a small bag filled with fake silver and gold. "I grabbed that stuff you liked, and a few other things."
Tim smiled, "Thanks," she said as she showed her in.
They settled on the couch and she dumped out the bag. "Where are your roommates?"
"Trinidad wanted to go for a swim, so I guess he's at the beach. Dusty should actually be home any minute." She picked up some of the gold and held it against her black fur. "I don't know, I still think I prefer the silver."
Sheila nodded and separated out some of the other stuff, "How are you handling this?"
Tim didn't look at her, "Fine, I guess." She set down what she was holding and looked at Shelia, "This feels right, it really does." She fingered a pair of earring, but wasn't looking at them. "What do you think of Tina?"
Tim looked at her, "For me. I don't think I can't keep the name Tim forever."
Sheila laughed, "You do not look like a Tina to me, not at all." She looked the jaguar up and down from head to toe, "I'm not sure what to call you. Didn't Lisa call you Tea'? Like the actress? Seems a bit more exotic."
Tim considered it. Lisa had called her that since their first meeting. She was a nice woman, but the concept of a gender changed seemed to shake her a bit. She compensated by pretending it hadn't happened. It had annoyed Tim for a while, but the more feminine she got, the less it bothered her. In a way, it was far more toned down than Trinidad on a daily basis, and she put up with him. After a little though, she shook her head, "I don't know yet. I kind of like it."
They continued to go through the various pieces that Sheila had brought with her, eventually settling on just a few. "You're going to have a lifetime to figure out your style. Just in time for it to change again," she added with a smirk.
Using a mirror, Tim tried to put a set of earrings on, but couldn't figure out a way for them to look natural with her ear shape. "I suppose that keeps you in business."
Sheila nodded while adding things up, "Don't you know it." She flashed over her calculator and came up with a total. "Usually, this haul would run you about seventy five, but I suspect I'll be seeing you a lot, so I'll knock it down to sixty."
Tim sighed, "This is going to become expensive, isn't it?"
"Wait until you start getting the real stuff," she replied. She looked over the silver costume jewelry that Tim was trying on, "You really were a guy just a year ago?"
She nodded, "Good old-fashion, heterosexual, red-blooded American boy," she said as she struggled with a necklace clasp. "Strange what being turned so completely into this will do."
"Living with Dusty probably helped," she said. "Maybe it's pheromones, but since he shed his velvet he even makes my heart skip a beat."
Tim looked at her, she'd never considered that living with Dusty might have accelerated her change of heart. "He's not your type?"
She shook her head, "Not really. Believe it or not, I'm still into unchanged guys. I guess that won't last." She starting putting away the other pieces of jewelry, "I had a boyfriend when this happened, but broke up with him when I changed."
"Partly it was because I was scared, it was before Lisa spotted me and took me into the fold. Partly it was because he was a jackass when I was sick. I hope that's what he turns into," she muttered a bit angrily.
Dusty opened the front door, twisting his head as he walked though, carrying several bags of food. He spied the two of them on the couch, "Hi ladies," he said with a smile, hiding his nervousness. "What's going on?"
Sheila held up her bag of samples, "Just getting your girl some accessories," she said.
He set the bags in the kitchen and looked at Tim. She was still wearing male clothes, but decked out in silver jewelry she looked like a slightly tomboyish woman. She stood up and they hugged, "How was your day?" she asked.
"Fine, I have a project for my conservation class coming up. The professor there is going to flip when he finally changes. I think he's already half animal." He reached back and slipped the rose out of a bag. "For you," he said quietly. Tim took the flower and stared at it. She was so quiet that Dusty started to think that he'd done something wrong. She looked at him with tears welling in her eyes, kissed him, then ran to her room and shut the door.
Dusty started to follow, but Sheila stopped him. "I'll talk to her," she said.
"What happened? I thought she'd be happy," the moose asked with concern in his voice.
"You've never given her flowers before, right?" she asked.
He shook his head, "We haven't really been an item until a couple days ago," he pointed out.
"I suspect until that moment, she didn't fully realize how much she'd changed."
"You think she didn't like the rose?" he asked.
Sheila smiled, "No, I suspect she loved it, and it scared the hell out of her."
Tim sat on the edge of the bed and let the tears flow down her cheek. "What is wrong with me?" she whispered quietly to the empty room.
There was a light knock at the door and Sheila came in, "Want some company, honey?" Tim shook her head no, but the fox came in anyway. She sat down at the end of the bed next to her and put her arm over Tims shoulder. "Scared you, didn't it?"
Tim nodded, "Yeah. I mean, I decided I was going to be a woman, but he gave me the flower…" she trailed off for a moment and caught her breath. "In high school, I was the one that gave flowers. They never did anything for me. I could smell them, look at them. They were just plants." She closed her eyes, "Now? Dusty gives me one red rose…"
"And you felt like melting into his arms? Like he was the center of your universe?" Sheila asked with a grin.
Tim nodded. "I guess I felt like that before, Halloween certainly. But I was in control then."
Sheila chuckled. "Dusty is a moose, I suspect he's going to take charge this time of year." She smiled and patted her on the back, "You're a jaguar, you can take charge the rest of the year."
"I guess it's just that I have to keep all this bottled up all day. I can't act like I love him outside this apartment. I can't act like a woman outside this place. The only reason I dressed up for Halloween like a woman is because everyone else would see me as a guy in a costume." She reached over and picked a fashion magazine off her nightstand. "I've been looking at this stuff. When I was a guy, I'd have been looking at the women, now I'm getting fashion tips, and getting excited about it!"
Sheila didn't know what to say. They both knew that Tim was in virtually uncharted territory. "Maybe you need to be more like a woman inside these walls," she suggested.
Tim considered it. It had been one of the reasons she was buying the jewelry to begin with. "I guess so."
The fox stood up and went to Tims' closet. "We'll need to start getting you some correct clothes," she said pulling out the white dress from Halloween, "And this doesn’t' count. You can't wear this around the house nightly. You need some causal stuff. Bedtime stuff, too."
"I can't just go shopping…"
Sheila cut him off. "Rupert Manassas manages a clothing boutique downtown. He's already told me that he's been waiting to hear from you. He'll let you in after hours to try stuff on. Just bring your checkbook."
Tim sighed, "Okay, lets do that this weekend, maybe late Saturday night?"
"I'll talk to him. He's a funny little chipmunk, too. You haven't really talked to him, but before he changed he was a big guy, about six foot five. He's a small little thing now."
Tim winced, "That's gotta hurt."
"He hasn't been thrilled, but he changed the year before you. He's used to it, even if people talk two feet over his head."
"I hadn't thought about that," she said. "I really haven't talked with him."
"One more thing, your name," she said a little dangerously.
"I'm still thinking about it," she protested weakly.
Sheila sighed, "I know, and you still need to be Tim outside these walls, and T.A. when you're with a group of us in public. But if you're going to be a woman inside here, I think you need to decide on something."
They talked back and forth a bit longer, and she was feeling better about things. Finally, she walked out with Sheila in tow to find Dusty still standing nervously near the kitchen. Trinidad had come home while she was in the bedroom and was beside him, looking about as concerned as his perpetually happy expression would take him. They had obviously been talking.
"Guys, I've been talking to Sheila and I've made a choice. When I'm here, inside this place, I'm not going to be Tim anymore. I've decided I want you two to call me Tea'."
Dusty looked stunned, but happy. Trinidad didn't waste a moment, practically leaping forward, grabbing her in a hug and kissing her all over her muzzle. "Congratulations!" he exclaimed. "It's a beautiful, bouncy girl!"
Dusty finally got over the shock and stepped over, tapping him dangerously on the shoulder and huffing loudly though his nose. "Flippers. Off. Her. Ass."
After Sheila left, Tea' and Dusty went into his room to talk about things.
"You're sure about this?" he asked her, not for the first time.
She nodded and idly played with one of his antlers. "If you'd told me I'd be in this position a couple years ago, I'd have thought you were nuts. But the fact is, for whatever reason, it's clear the universe wants me to be a girl. If the universe wants that, who am I to argue?" She shrugged, "If the universe decides it's made a mistake, I'll change back this summer."
Dusty looked surprised, "You knew it was possible?" he asked.
She smirked, "One of the first things I looked up a when I didn't change," she admitted. "I know it can happen, just the chances are so low as to be nothing." She pulled down hard on his antler and kissed him before letting go, "I really think the universe wanted us, maybe needed us, to be together. If I change male, maybe you'll be the woman next time."
"What does all this mean for now?"
"I'm going to be Tea' Anders when I'm home, and Tim to everyone else. At least until things go upside down and we can't hide it anymore. We just need to be careful, and don't invite anyone over without telling me. Eventually, I'm going to need to tell my family. That should be an interesting conversation." She kissed him again, "And maybe we can talk about other things down the road."
Dusty huffed again, clearing his nostrils. "Tim… Tea'," he corrected, "this is a lousy time of the year for me to think clearly. The more I think of you as a woman, the closer we get, the more I'm afraid I'll do something we both regret."
She smiled and lightly scratched one of his antlers with a claw, "Dusty, believe me, you won't be able to try something I'm not ready for. You may be stronger, but I've got more pointy bits."
Tea' primped herself in the mirror for a few minutes. She'd bought a lot more stuff than she'd intended, but Rupert had been a big help. He'd been working in women's clothes for so long that it was second nature to him, even with her black fur and tail.
He'd already had a great deal set aside before she'd even gotten to the store with Sheila. "I had you sized up the first time we met," he said, "Obviously I don't know your style, but I doubt you do, either."
The three of them had spent hours in the darkened store, until well after midnight. For the most part, Rupert had been right on cue. He'd selected clothes for her that were nice, but not overly feminine. "You're not going to want to be in low cut dressed everyday," he had said. "Start slow. You'll have to find what you think looks good on your body, and what's comfortable with that fur." They had more or less stuck with casual stuff that she could wear around the apartment.
Night clothes were a bit different. The store was certainly no Victoria's Secret, but there was a selection of things that Tea' had a difficult time picturing herself wearing. They'd started with a very feminine white robe made of a thin, silky material. She'd picked up a few shapeless night shirts just to keep her covered.
At Sheilas insistence, she'd also tried on something a bit more risqué. "Eventually, you know, you're going to want to show this to Dusty." Tea' had felt her ears burn, but she had to admit that she was right.
They did choose a couple of light summer dresses that she was surprised to like. Standing in front of the mirror, she'd been shocked at how she looked in a yellow sundress. Tea' had felt only a single pang of embarrassment before it passed.
Tea' was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, primping that yellow dress. She looked fabulous in it and she knew it. She heard Dusty come out of his room and stop. He leaned against the wall, his head cocked at an odd angle because of the antlers, and smiled, "You look gorgeous," he said with a smile. "You can't wear that tonight, you know."
Tea' smiled and sighed, "I know, we have time so I thought I'd try it out, dream a little." She sauntered out of the bathroom and put her arms around him, "I wanted to give you a sneak preview of the years to come."
He snorted, then kissed her. "You change, and I'll keep working on my time machine."
Tea' went back into her room and shut the door. The three of them were going to a party given by a group that Trinidad was a part of, some service club that Tea' couldn't even name. It was a pretty open affair, they were all allowed to invite a few people. Tea' hadn't really wanted to go, but it was hard to say no to the sea lion. The hardest part was going to be ignoring that she and Dusty were together.
She slipped into her regular clothes and fixed her fur. She really wasn't all that interested in going tonight, but at least she could try and have a good time.
The party was already in full swing when they got there. It was at a house a few miles from the university, and when they arrived it was already crowded. The music was pounding pretty loud, to the point where neither Dusty or Tea' could hear themselves thing.
Dusty waited a moment before getting out. His instincts were already on edge and he could feel the fur rising on his neck. This place was not exactly his idea of a good time, not anymore. He got out of the car and sighed, "This is going to be a long night, isn't it?"
He started to put his arm around Tea', but she deftly stepped back and glared at him, "Remember?" she hissed. Dusty sighed again. He'd rather have been back at the apartment, watching a movie with her lying against him.
Trinidad grabbed the moose by the arm, "Come on, big boy, lets have some fun!" he said with way too much joy. "Just watch that rack of yours on their lighting!"
They got into the place and immediately the three of them got separated. He'd tried to stay close to Tea', but the lights were dim and his eyes were a bit weak in the dark. He made his way over to the only well lit area, where someone had a keg tapped. He was still underage, he wouldn't be 21 for another year, but he hoped the alcohol would take the edge off the noise. He downed one, and another. By the time he'd been there an hour, never having moved from that spot, he couldn't have said how many he'd drunk.
He scanned the crowd looking for his girl as he drank but had a hard time finding her. Trinidad stood out, but his barking laugh was so over the top that it was easy to track him. Tea' blended in.
He finally spotted her near the far corner talking to a guy. They were both smiling and laughing. He struggled to pick up their voices over the sound of the music, but all that did was succeed in making him feel disoriented. It wasn't long after that he felt a migraine starting to build under his antlers.
Bleary eyed, he started to imagine what the two were saying. He was trying to take her away from him. This man, this rival, wanted her. Wanted her as much as Dusty did. He felt an unfamiliar rage start to build up. His breathing became faster, deeper. Slowly, his vision began to tunnel, and all he could see was the man that was trying to take his mate.
Dusty dropped his cup and started across the crowded room with rage in his eyes.
Hours later, Dusty was still sitting on the emergency room bed. The doctor had managed to stop his bleeding, but he'd needed a few stitches on his arm and shoulder.
He heard the familiar sound of claws on tile coming down the hall slowly, deliberately. Finally, Tea' walked into the room and regarded him silently for a few seconds before getting a chair and sitting down near him. "What was that about?" she asked. Tea' glanced around and noted the doctor had stepped out. "If I hadn't stopped you, you might have killed him."
"I know," he said quietly.
She was silent for a few more moments, and he wouldn’t meet her gaze. "You do realize he didn't even know? He thought I was Tim. We were talking about football."
Dusty slowly nodded his lowered head, but said nothing.
Tea' sighed, "Dusty, I love you, but you scared me tonight. For just a moment, you were more moose than man. I'm surprised you didn't try and take him down with your antlers." She reached over and held his hand, "I was afraid I was going to have to go feral to take you down."
"What's going to happen?" he asked still staring at the floor.
"Nothing, I imagine. Everyone at the party thought you were drunk." She sighed, "Good thing most of them were, too. No one seems have realized that your cuts had nothing to do with that glass coffee table I pushed you into." She paused a moment, "By the way, you're paying for the table."
"I mean with us?" he asked, finally looking at her out of the corner of his eye. "Do you still love me?"
She was shocked at the question, "I still love you, you big stupid lug. Whatever happens, I'll be there for you."
He closed his eyes and let his head hand low. He'd screwed up tonight, he knew that even through the haze of beer and hormones. He knew Tea' would stay by his side, at least for now. It was clear that he'd fallen pretty far in her eyes in just a few moments.
He turned out to be very lucky, given the circumstances.
It was a while before things got back to semi-normal around the apartment.
Tea' continued to dress as a woman when she got home, but stayed more to herself than before. She and Dusty could both feel it. He'd stepped way over a line at the party, getting so possessive of her that she wasn't comfortable.
She was barely ready to be a woman, a girlfriend. She wasn't ready to be his property even for a short time.
They parted company over Thanksgiving break having not resolved this between them. Tea' was reluctant to let go of him, but even though they left to visit their families on good terms, he could tell that he didn't have much time to make things right.
Dusty had arrived back in Lake Tahoe for the break still in turmoil. He'd run things over in his head a million times, but the simple fact was that his hormones were raging this time of year.
It hadn't hurt, of course, that he'd been drunk at the time.
He pulled up to the house and sighed. It was going to be the second holiday that he couldn't be completely himself. The antlers made even sitting at a crowded holiday table a challenge. At least this year he heard that the gathering would be smaller than years past, just his parents, his brother and sister.
He walked in the door and set down his suitcase, "I'm home!" he yelled.
He could smell his mothers cooking from outside, and she emerged from the kitchen with a big smile on her face, "Dusty!" she said straight into his neck, "Welcome home!"
He hugged her, "Anyone else here?"
"Your brother is, but he went out with friends. Ellen is supposed to be in tonight."
Dusty nodded and after some more small talk took his bag up to his room. The bed was just a twin, way too small for his new body, but he wasn't about to tell his parents that. The previous year he'd been able to give up the bed to a relative and sleep on the floor. This year he'd just have to hide his size.
He unpacked and sat on the bed. All the way up to Tahoe, he'd debated telling Art. His older brother had always been a good sounding board for him, but this situation was beyond him. How could he explain that some of his problem came from being part animal?
He heard Art come in through the front door, then run up the stairs. "I thought you'd be here by now," he said coming though the door.
Dusty was unsurprised to see that he was still fully human. He'd hoped that his brother might have changed over the summer. "Yeah, got tired of eating my own cooking."
"I thought you had a girlfriend," he asked with a big smile.
Dusty was a bit taken aback. He'd taken care not to mention Tea' to anyone in the family. "How'd you know?"
His smirk got bigger, "I didn't, but I figured you'd find someone in college."
Dusty put his head in his hands, "Lord, don't tell anyone, please?"
Art sat down and looked concerned, "What's wrong? This is a good thing, isn't it?"
"It's complicated," he said quickly. "Very complicated."
Art was unconvinced. "It's only complicated if she's ugly, pregnant or a guy."
Dusty looked at him with narrowed eyes, "Thanks for the lesson in women," he said warily.
His brother hadn't expected the reaction, "Wait, she's not pregnant, is she? Or a guy?"
"Stop it, Art. I can't explain what's going on. There are things…" his voice trailed off.
"What things?" Art asked a bit louder.
Dusty felt a familiar rage building up. "Can you just drop it?" he said with his teeth clenched. "I'm not ready to talk about it."
Art didn't respond, but playfully swung one of the pillows at his brother. Dusty hadn't expected it and didn't have time to duck before it hit him in the antler and slipped out of his brothers hand. "Jesus!" he screamed and leapt up from the bed.
Dusty grabbed the pillow and threw it aside, but his brother was already backed against the far wall. "What the hell?" he screamed again. "Who are you? What are you?"
Art was still looking at his neck, so he the field hadn't totally collapsed, but he'd clearly seen something. "What? I'm your brother," he said trying to play a little dumb.
"The hell you are," he spat, "I saw… I saw some kind of animal for a second!"
"Art, I'm still Dusty," he said quietly. He let out a long breath, "But I've been hiding this for a year and a half."
It took a good two hours to convince his brother that not only was he still the same Dusty, but that he was also part animal, and a moose at that. Dusty in the end decided to ram his head into the drywall, leaving a deep antler mark on the wall. His brother had blinked a few times when he saw it, and even more at the dust that outlined his brothers antlers.
Even once it was cleaned off, he seemed to have a headache. "I can sort of see you now," he said now looking into his brothers eyes. "It's like a ghost of hovering over you." He finally sat down heavily, "So I'm going to be a moose someday?"
Dusty shrugged, "Maybe, but my sense of it is that it's random. So far, all I can say for sure is that you'll be a mammal. Like I said, there's a small chance you won't even stay male."
Art leaned back on the bed and closed his eyes, then opened them again and looked, "I still see the ghost," he admitted.
"We might have lowered the field for you a bit, you might see others now." He sighed, "Hold on, let me show you something." He reached over and pulled his wallet out and flipped to a picture of himself, Tea' and Trinidad at the beach. "What do you see here?"
"It's you and your roommates," he said, then blinked. "Crap, my head hurts. Wait, one of them is a seal, and the others a panther?"
"Close, sea lion and a black jaguar."
He blinked again then squinted at the tiny photo. Only belatedly did Dusty remember Tea' was topless in it, "Wait, this isn't right, this jaguar looks like…" He looked at his brother and rolled his eyes, "So, she's gorgeous, not pregnant, but she's a guy?"
Tea' sat quietly and looked out the window of the train, her head leaned against the glass. Her thoughts were still a swirl, and now that she could spend a few days away from Dusty she could take some time and collect them.
"Miss, is this seat taken?"
Startled, she looked up and spotted a young female skunk. "Uh, no. I'm T.A.," she said pointedly.
The skunk looked startled slightly as she sat down, "Sorry," she said under her breath, "I didn't…"
Tea' waved her off, "Don’t worry about it." She sighed. She'd hoped that this trip would be quiet and give her chance to think. "Sorry, I've got a lot on my mind. I won't be much of a seatmate."
The skunk smiled and shrugged, "Don't worry about it. I just feel more comfortable traveling with another one." She pulled out a laptop, "I'm Kate, by the way. I'm heading down to San Diego from Tacoma to visit my boyfriend. He's in the Navy. I just saw you on the platform and sought you out."
"I guess it makes it easier if I step on your tail." The skunk looked a little wide eyed at that, which told Tea' that perhaps she was touching on something that had happened. "Is your boyfriend Changed?" she asked, changing the subject.
She shook her head, "No, and he doesn't know, either." She fingered her very bushy tail, "I'm honestly not sure how he can't see this." She smiled, "If he doesn't figure it out soon, I'm going to spray him right in the face. That should lower the veil for him."
Despite her mood, Tea' giggled at that, "It would do something, that's for sure." She sighed, "Sometimes I wish I could hide all this from my boyfriend," she said before she realized it.
Kate looked a bit surprised. "But you said…"
She nodded, wishing that she'd kept her muzzle shut. "Yeah, it's complicated. We met on the day we both changed in 2005. He never knew me before. I mean, he knows what I was, just never knew me then." She shrugged, "It's complex."
"What is he?"
She shuddered a little, "That's gotta be tough this time of year," she said quietly.
Tea' cocked her head, "What do you mean?"
"I'm a vet at the Point Defiance Zoo," she said by way of explanation. "We don't have any American moose there, but we've got similar animals. They can get aggressive when they want to mate." She shrugged, "We both know we all picked up a few instincts. It's hard enough when you're like me, a good solid startle and I can spray. But your…" she trailed off and lowered her voice, "boyfriend? He has to deal with a hormone dump for a couple months of the year. That can't be easy to deal with. He must be close to losing his mind."
Tea' leaned against the window and looked at the skunk. "I know, it's already happened a couple times."
Kate looked a little concerned, "He's got to outweigh you by a bit, has he…?"
Tea' laughed it off, "Nothing I can't handle," she said letting her finger tip claws show.
The train lurched out of the station, and Tea' and Kate spent much of the next few hours talking. The pair of them became fast friends on the train. She'd found in the last year that there was a sort of shared intimacy with other Changed. Since there were so few and far between, and they almost all had unique shared experiences, it was easy to find common ground in a hurry.
Tea' almost didn't realize she was talking about her relationship with Dusty until she was deep into it. She quickly told this near total stranger more than she'd told Sheila or Ela, more than she'd done with anyone. There was a certain freedom in finding a willing ear that wasn't part of the same social group. "He scared me that night," she'd said after describing the incident at the party just a couple weeks before. "I love the guy, I really do, but how bad is this going to get?"
"Until the antlers drop? Probably no worse than that, but you said he was drunk at the time, right? Does he do that a lot?"
"No," she admitted, "That was the first time he'd done that. He's promised it would be the last."
Kate chuckled, "Yeah, right. Men lie about that stuff, so wait until he proves it."
Tea' raised an eyebrow, "Remember who you're talking with," she reminded.
She waved a hand, "Bah, doesn't matter." She looked around, aware her voice was getting a little high. The noise of the train was drowning out their conversation. "Did you ever have a girl like you to try and keep?"
"So, because I'm beautiful, guys will lie to me?"
"I don't know, are you naïve enough to think that every man you'll ever meet will be truthful with you?"
She sighed, defeated. "I don't think Dusty is like that. We were friends before we were an item."
"From what you've said, he was possessive of you from the first few months, even if it was at a low level. Maybe it helped that you two weren't similar species, he didn't go too far. You think that's gotten better?"
"No," she admitted. She let the conversation die for a few moments before looking back at the passing scenery. She thought about him driving to Lake Tahoe alone, and wished she'd stayed by his side. "But I don't know if I care."
Kate sighed and sat back. "You need to decide if you do. He is now what he is, and even in this nuts universe he's likely to stay that way for good. If you can't deal with that, then now is the time to get out, before you two settle down together."
"What about you and your Navy boy?" she asked, turning the tables. "He doesn't even know what's going on. You going to settle down before you know what he'll become? Without telling him?"
"I don't know," she said honestly. "I'm going to wait at least until August to decide. If he doesn't change, then maybe it'll be time to tell him." She folded her arms and looked defiantly at Tea', "That doesn't change what we're talking about, though. You need to decide what your next step is. To be fair to both of you, you should decide before too long."
There were more than a few moments over the Thanksgiving holiday that Dusty wished he was on a train, going anywhere.
Art had absorbed the idea that his brother was now half moose far better than he'd expected, to the point where he couldn't stop staring at or needling him. Once his sister Ellen arrived that evening, they gathered in the living room for a family photo, he made a point to position his brother under the massive moose head that hung over the fireplace. "Perfect," he said with a quiet smile earning a glare from Dusty and slightly bewildered looks from the family.
On Thanksgiving, they gathered to watch a football game while his mother and sister prepared dinner. For a while, things were normal until a crowd shot caught a horse morph in the stands. Art winced, his headache returning, but looked significantly at his brother. Dusty just nodded slightly. When they were alone, he whispered, "Am I seeing as many as I think, or am I missing some?"
Dusty shrugged, "I haven't seen all that many. A few in the crowd, but none of the players or coaches." He pointed at the screen as a shot showed a massive buffalo sitting in a wheelchair in a handicapped spot. "Smart move, if he's not really hurt. The seats are probably too small for that form."
"I wonder how I'd look as a buffalo?" his brother asked a little wistfully.
"Buffalo?" came his fathers voice from behind them, "You thinking of taking up a new team? What's wrong with the Patriots?"
The brothers exchanged looks, then changed the subject in a hurry.
Thanksgiving dinner was mostly normal, but Dusty had to force himself to take as much turkey as he usually would. It wasn't that he couldn't eat it, but meat hadn't really interested him since he'd changed. He found himself thankful that no one noticed that he'd took seconds and thirds of the stuffing and cranberry sauce without the extra meat.
A bigger problem was his brother, who kept trying to speak to his real eyes instead of his ghost human ones. "What's on the wall?" his mother had finally asked. Dusty kept nodding his chin down to remind him.
"What are you talking about? You've got a job and a girl in Fresno."
Art shook his head, "I'm an auto mechanic, it's not like I can't find a job in San Luis Obispo."
"What about your girlfriend?" he's asked, only realizing now that they hadn't spoken of her since Art had arrived.
"Yeah, that was my big news for you, we broke up. Left my stuff out on the lawn. Your news was a bit bigger, though. There isn't much in Fresno for me."
"Why?" he asked, "What purpose would you coming out and staying with me serve?"
He closed his eyes, "Dusty, the world is changing, has been for years according to you. I think I'd like to find out as much as I can before things change for me."
"There are Changed groups all over, and they usually let Knowns in. The bigger the network the better. I can hook you up with one in Fresno, I'm sure."
He got a sly smile on his face, "Ok, I'm also curious about your new girl. I'd like to meet him…"
"Her," Dusty corrected gruffly.
"Her, of course." He got a little more serious, "Besides, I think that you're getting into some dangerous territory with her. What about if all this comes to an end next year? From what you said, she could turn back into Tim Anders."
Dusty shrugged, "We'll deal with that later, if that happens."
"And in the meantime?" he asked quietly.
Dusty glared now, "It's not really any of your business, Art. Tea' is as much a young woman as anyone, right down to her DNA. This isn't as strange as it sounds."
"Yeah, my half-moose brother is dating a woman who was a guy a year and a half ago, and is, by the way, half jaguar. She's a knock out, but almost everyone sees her as a twenty year old guy named Tim. Oh, and they both live with a hyperactive sea lion."
In spite of his mood, Dusty smiled, "See? What's so odd about all that?"
Tea' returned on the train on Sunday morning after a surprisingly uneventful vacation. No one noticed a thing during her stay, and none of her immediate family had changed. She thought, several times, about trying to tell her family what was happening. She tried telling them that they had a daughter now, but the time wasn't right.
Her parents were open minded, but it would be a lot to absorb. She really hoped that one of them would change before she had to.
Her trip back had been quiet. She'd thought about calling Dusty the entire time, but she didn't want to until she saw him in person. Her conversation with Kate was still ringing in her ears even days later. She understood where the skunk was coming from, possessive men were a problem. If Dusty turned out to be more than just a little instinctive, then she could have real issues with him later.
She spotted him waiting in the parking lot of the train station before the train even stopped. He was sitting in his car, top down despite the cool weather, and waiting patiently. Somehow, he'd managed to find a pair of sunglasses that fit his odd shaped head. She could tell that he was eagerly scanning the train for her return.
She got off lugging her bag, and despite his vigilance managed to sneak up on him. "How was your vacation?"
He jumped in his seat, but looked back and smiled, "Better, now that you're back." He clearly wanted to make some display, but they were both mindful of their surroundings.
She tossed her luggage in the car and he took off for the apartment. "How was your trip home?"
"Uneventful," she admitted, "Though I met a nice Changed on the train. She's a zookeeper or vet or something up in Washington State, a skunk," she added as an afterthought.
"That's good," he said absently. "I should warn you, I brought someone home, my brother."
"Art?" she asked a little surprised and even disappointed. "Where is he staying? How long?"
He sighed, "In our place, hopefully not long. He wants to move to SLO."
"Really?" she said, surprised. She never met Art, but she'd talked on the phone. He was always a nice guy if a bit of a slacker. "What brought that on?"
Dusty stared out the windshield. "He knows."
Tea' absorbed that. "He… crap. How much?"
He didn't meet her gaze, "Everything. He can see through the field, too. At least a little. Gives him a headache, though."
"Damn, how did that happen?"
Dusty related the tale, "It was an accident," he said finally. "But I had to tell him or I think he was going to shoot me."
"Ela is going to kill you, you know."
Dusty nodded, "I know. I'm bigger, I can take her."
They pulled into the car port and climbed out. Dusty went in first, and Tea' could hear Trinidads' barking laugh from the porch. "Break it up, you two!" he said with a smile.
Tea' slinked in behind, unsure what to expect. She spotted Art off to the side, and their eyes locked. Art actually winced slightly and started to rub his head. "You ok?" she asked, concerned.
He nodded, "Yeah, I'm fine. It's just that I get a headache whenever I see one of you people." He stuck out a hand, "Art."
"Tea'," she said simply.
He sighed, "I need to get this out of the way. Dusty tried to explain, but I think I'd rather hear it from you. What do I call you?"
She glared at Dusty, who shrugged. "Once he could see through the field, this was going to come up."
"Call me Tim outside of these walls, and in them if there's anyone here that isn't Changed. Here? I'm Tea'. And don't invite anyone without telling me," she said with a growl.
Art actually backed up a step and Dusty narrowed his eyes. It was Trinidad that stepped in to explain, "Tea' likes to be comfortable in the house, so she dresses more, well, gender appropriate. Nothing too revealing," he stammered, then looked at Tea' and sighed, "Unfortunately. But she would rather not explain to someone why he is wearing womens' clothes.
Tea' felt bad about the growl and tried to put on a happy face. "I'm sorry, I'm a little grouchy. It's been a long train ride and…"
"That time of the month?" asked Art. He looked at the expressions of the three furs, and very quietly muttered, "Crap."
Tea' felt another growl escape her lips as her eyes narrowed. Art actually blanched at the sight. Trinidad jumped into it again, grabbing Art by the shoulder and starting to pull him to the door, "If you don't mind, I think I'll drive Art around town, show him around, maybe catch a movie." He looked at Tea' and quickened his pace to the door, "Dusty, my car is in the shop, can I borrow your…" He stopped as the car keys sailed though the air and landed in his flipper, "Right, thanks. We'll be back…" He looked again at Tea', "Sometime after I pound some sense into him." Art started to say something, but Trinidad just grabbed him harder and pulled him out the door.
Tea' and Dusty just stared at the door after they left. Finally Dusty muttered, "That could have gone better."
Tea' glared at him, "Why couldn't you warn me before I left L.A. that your brother was coming up?"
"I'm sorry," he said, his own voice a bit raised, "but you didn't have to take it out on him!"
Tea' didn't say anything, but instead grabbed her bag and stormed into her room to unpack.
A few minutes later, she heard a slight tap on the door. "Can I come in?" asked Dusty.
Tea' sighed. She was still mad, but at least this was over a boneheaded guy thing and not a boneheaded moose thing. "Fine, come in."
He came in and wrapped his arms around her, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry I was an ass at the party, I'm sorry about not warning you that my brother was coming." He looked down at her with tears in his eyes, "I know this has been a hard couple of months, years really. But I don't want to lose you."
She hugged him back, feeling warm and safe in his arms. "I'm sorry I treated your brother like dirt," she said. "But he better be more careful. I've got instincts, too."
They kissed, and Tea' felt a lot of her doubts of the last few weeks slip away.
After a short time, they sat down, "Where is he sleeping, anyway?"
Dusty shrugged, "I figured he could take the couch. I'm still hoping that he'll only be here a few days."
Tea' struggled with herself for a few minutes, then decided to just let it out. "Why don't you be a good little brother and let him take your bed."
Dusty smiled, "Right, I can barely sit on the couch much less sleep on it, and I've spent the holiday sleeping on the floor because the mattress in my old room is too small."
She casually unbuttoned the top of her mens shirt, revealing a white lace bra underneath, "Well, I can think of someplace you can sleep for a few days that's a bit more comfortable."
He got quiet as his brain processed that, "Are you ready for that?" he asked.
She answered him with another kiss.
A couple weeks passed as they got used to their new living arrangements. Art had returned that evening extremely apologetic. "I guess I kept thinking with was almost like a game, that it wasn't real. I'll be more careful," he promised.
Tea' had accepted the apology, and even promised not to kill him in the middle of the night.
For their part, Trinidad and Art became good friends. Since his own Change had happened at the beginning of his freshman year, Trinidad had kept himself relatively hidden and not made any close friends in school. It helped that they had the same fun loving attitude and live for the moment philosophy of life. They started roaming bars on the weekends together, trolling for dates with no success. Trinidad even took him on a swim at the beach, but Art had come back still looking blue, "That water was freezing!" he'd said. "I'm not going back out with him unless I can find an arctic wetsuit!"
After two weeks sharing the same room, Dusty went to his brother who was still looking over room rental ads in the paper. "I can't find anything now," he said, "But a bunch of stuff is opening up at New Years."
Dusty shook his head and smiled, "We've been talking about it, and you can keep my room as long as I can leave some stuff in there. We're making this more permanent."
Art looked at his brother, a grin slowly covering his face, "You two…?" he half-asked.
Dusty put a hooved hand to his mouth and shushed, "She'd kill me if I said much more."
While he spoke, Tea' snuck out of their room and right up behind him. She put her fingers to her lips to keep Art quiet, then jumped on Dusty's back, causing the big moose to practically leap into the air. "Tell him what, sweetie?" she asked in mock anger, "that we're sleeping together? I think he knows that already. That the great hunter bagged a jaguar? Think he's suspected that since that first night," she said as she hung off his antlers.
Art started to laugh, but his head was clearly pounding. Dusty calmed down enough to look at his brother, "What's so funny?"
He held his head, but laughed, "You two have no idea how bizarre you two look right now, either as you are or especially as everyone else would see you."
Tea' stepped around the crowd at the mall, looking for Sheila's kiosk. She'd already picked up a normal Christmas gift for her moose, but she had thoughts about something else that was a little bit for her and a little bit for him.
She found Sheila busy with a couple of customers and kept herself busy looking over some silver items in the case. She spotted a few things she'd hint to Dusty about, but for now she only had one thing on her mind. Sheila finally managed to break away and stepped over, "How's it going, Tim?" she asked.
Tea' smiled, "Pretty good. Just looking for something for my girl."
They played the game mostly for the benefit of the crowds, though the din in the mall was so loud they could probably have yelled their conversation and not been noticed. "Anything in mind?"
"Well, do you still do custom stuff?"
Sheila rolled her eyes and twitched her tail in genuine frustration. "Custom? Now? You're kidding, right? You couldn't tell me a few months ago?" She fumed. "What do you want?"
She handed over a folded paper. She opened it slyly and her eyes goggled before she closed it. "It's an interesting idea. Uh, what on Earth is she going to be wearing this with?"
Tea' smiled slyly, "Basic black."
Sheila narrowed her eyes then tilted her head as realization hit. "Damn it, you're sleeping with him?" she said more loudly than she'd intended.
Tea' glanced around, and a few eyes looked their way but no one seemed too concerned. "Sheila…" she growled.
"Oh, whatever, Tim. This is a bad idea and you should be smart enough to know it."
Tea' actually felt a bit hot under her fur. She hadn't expected this kind of reaction from the fox. "What…?"
Sheila cut her off, "Not here, not now." She took the paper and looked at it again. "I'll do it, but can you meet me someplace after I'm done here? I can't leave for a couple hours."
They agreed to meet at a coffee shop across the street from the mall after it closed. Tea' got their early and fumed. She hadn't expected Sheila, of all people, to care one way or the other.
The red fox showed up within a couple minutes of the mall closing. "Sorry, if you'd sprung this on me any other time of year, I'd have left the kiosk and talked to you," she said as she joined Tea' at her booth far to the back of the store. The waitress came over and she ordered a light dinner, then turned her attention back to the jaguar. "Are you nuts?" she asked bluntly.
"Why is this such a problem for you?" she asked. "We've talked about this stuff before. You've never been shy about your stories of conquest."
She sighed, "Yeah, I know. " She sighed and leaned forward. "Tim… Tea'. I grew up this way. I knew the consequences from day one of a relationship. I've gambled a few times."
"Dusty isn't a gamble," she said warily.
Sheila shook her head, "No, he's not. I've seen the way that he looks at you. You'll have to beat him off with a stick. A really big stick." She paused as the waitress arrived with her sandwich and soda. "Like it or not, you don't really know the consequences of your actions."
"I'm not stupid, Sheila. I know what can happen."
"In the abstract, from reading a book or…" she lowered her voice a bit more, "From two years living as a woman. You haven't spent a lifetime wondering what might happen."
Tea' didn't feel any better from talking, and started getting defensive, "Look, this is what I am now. I know what I'm doing." She fumed and sat in silence for a few minutes. "Can you make the jewelry or can't you?"
Sheila rolled her eyes, defeated. She pulled out the sheet again, "Even in costume, that won't be cheap, especially if you want it fast. You want it by Christmas?"
"New Years," she said a bit brighter.
Sheila shook her head, "I'll make it because that's what keeps me in fox kibble. I'm begging you to break things off for now, go slower."
"We're fine," she said. "Just let me know when you're done." She got up, left a few dollars for her coffee, and left.
Dusty and Tea' decided not to risk a New Years party this year, instead they were going to count down the new year in their apartment. Trinidad took Art along with him to a party, leaving the pair of them alone for the night.
They made the most of it, making as good a romantic dinner as two inexperienced cooks could manage. They watched a movie, then counted down the ball drop in Times Square. Once they had their own private moment, Tea' whispered in Dustys' ear, "Give me five minutes, then meet me in our room." The moose could barely stand waiting before he opened the door, almost afraid of what he was going to see.
Tea' was laid out on the bed, dressed only in a wild animal collar you might buy at Tiffanys, the fake diamonds glistening in the light. "Time to ring in the New Year," she said with a deep purr.
By the middle of January, Dusty's antlers snapped off at the base, leaving him feeling depressed. "I can't explain it very well," he said, "I don't feel like the same person."
Art tried to make him feel better by attempting scrimshaw on his shed rack, but Dusty had looked aghast at the idea. "It's a little like making art out of toenail clippings, really," he'd said. That had pretty much ended that.
In a morning a week into February, Tea' got up like normal and got ready for class. She had a couple lectures that day and planned on being on campus for just a few hours before meeting Sheila at her kiosk. She adjusted her sports bra underneath her sweatshirt to make sure that no one could see it, and headed out.
She and Dusty passed Art in the living room as he was trying to drink his first cup of coffee of the day. "See you later," he said, then blinked. "Whoa, something isn't right."
Dusty stopped, "What's wrong?"
Art looked ill, "I think it's this damned field of yours. I keep getting migraines or hallucinations or something. I'd be willing to turn into a rat this year if it meant ending this."
"Careful what you wish for," said Tea' with a grin.
He looked oddly at her, "Yeah. Back at ya."
Dusty dropped her off on campus before heading to the parking lot. She started out by heading to the office of her World History professor, where he had said their last quiz would be waiting to be picked up. She wasn't far, but even in a short distance she walked she noticed a few stares from guys. It was uncomfortable enough that she stepped behind a sign and double checked that her bra wasn't showing.
Confident that she was just imagining things, she headed up to her professors office. She started flipping though the exams hung by his door, finally finding hers. She looked at the name and did a double-take. "Tea' Anders?" she said reading the name written in her own handwriting. "I'm usually more careful than that."
She opened her book bag and glanced at the other papers she had. "The hell?" she muttered. All of the homework she had filed in her folders had the name Tea' on them. She dug deep enough to find her machine-printed schedule that the college had mailed her when she had registered for classes. Her heart skipped a beat. "Tea'," she said quietly.
She shoved the stuff back into her back and raced across the campus toward the business building. Her paws slipped a couple times on the tile floor, but she found Ela in her office. "Ela?" she asked plaintively. "Something's wrong!"
Half an hour later, the alpaca was muttering a string of curses in Portuguese while Tea' nervously sat by. She leaned back from the computer, "I'm trying not to dig too deeply, I don’t' want the administration to wonder why I'm rooting around, but according to all the records I can find, Tea' Anders started here in the fall of 2005. There's no sign of a Tim Anders."
She felt her jaw drop, "How can that be?"
Ela looked grim, "I'm not sure, I haven't encountered this before." She looked thoughtful, "Either this is an amazingly colossal, and specific, screw up, or…" She reached across the desk, "Let me see your wallet."
Dazed, she reached into her pocket and pulled it out, handing it over. The professor flipped it open, then sighed. She muttered something else that Tea' couldn't understand as she laid out her cards. "Drivers license, Tea', with a human female picture. School ID? Tea', with a jaguar female. Your debit card? Tea'."
Tea' picked up her drivers license. The woman that stared back was a complete unknown to her. Dark, short hair, she looked bout 16, which was how old she was when she'd gotten it. She had a strange, smoky beauty that was only slightly mellowed by her young age. "Oh my God," she said quietly. "What the hell happened? Is this how people see me now?"
Ela looked thoughtful. "How about a little experiment?" she asked as she picked up her phone. "Chad? This is Professor Dean. Can you come down to my office for a minute? No, nothing's wrong, I just need a young mans opinion on something."
"What are you doing?" asked Tea' nervously.
She hushed her as the young man walked up to the doorway. "Yes, professor?"
"Chad, what would you say if I told you this person claimed they couldn't find a date?" she asked, carefully avoiding pronouns.
He glanced at Tea', then tried to pretend he wasn't sizing her up. "Uh, I'd ask what she was doing this Friday night."
Ela and Tea' exchanged a significant look, "Thanks Chad."
He looked confused, "Are you doing something Friday?"
Tea' looked at him, still feeling numb, "Uh, yeah, sorry." He looked confused and dejected, but left. "Is something re-writing my life? I still remember being Tim. I know I didn't look like that when I got my license photo taken!"
Ela looked thoughtful. "Maybe this is what's going to happen to the transgendered," she mused. "I'll admit I haven't been looking into it. What have you heard?"
She shook her head, "I haven't. I've been so busy with class work I haven't been on the boards in weeks."
"I'll make a couple calls and find out," she said, "I know a couple of Changed doctors out in Wisconsin. They should know what's going on."
Tea' suddenly felt fearful, "Wait, no. Don't do that."
"What? Why not? We need to get to the bottom of this."
Tea' laid her face in her palms and felt like crying. "I don't want to be a guinea pig for the rest of the furred community. I want to figure out what is going on first. Can you keep this secret?"
Ela looked frustrated, but nodded, "I won't make any calls, for now. At least not until we have a better handle on what's going on. I'll do some searches on the forums. Nothing active, I'll just do some word searches and see if this has happened before." She sighed, "How about if I call Janice? I'm not sure if you've met her, she's a rabbit? Nurse at the hospital?"
Tea' nodded, "I remember her. Why do you want me to get a medical check so badly?"
"I don't know, but something must have changed for this to happen. If it happened today to all the transgendered we'll know about it pretty soon. The forums will be buzzing. If it's just you, maybe something strange is happening." She sighed, "In the meantime, go home and… well, you might have some explaining to do."
Tea' had to think for a second before it dawned on her, "Oh, my parents!"
She left the office in a hurry, but decided not to call her folks yet. The problem was that if whatever was causing this was now changing records and photos, they'd probably call her as soon as they saw the portraits in the house change.
Assuming their memories didn't change, too.
She actually hoped that wouldn’t' happen even if it would make life easier. She had left Tim behind some time ago, but he was still a big part of her. The thought that he might be whisked out of existence was hard to take.
Any doubt about what had happened ended when she got home and confronted Art. He'd been coy in the morning, assuming that what he was seeing was part of the partial loss of the field around him, but he admitted that he'd seen the change in her human body that morning. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you," he said. "It's just… how would you have known I wasn't kidding?"
She sighed and paced around the room. "What the hell is going on?"
"Isn't this a good thing?" he asked. "You're always complaining about not being able to go out with my brother as a couple, now you can."
"I know, but why now? Why with no warning? I expected this during some Change day in the future. This year, next, ten years from now. Why today? Why in February?"
The phone rang and Art picked it up. "Hello? Uh, yeah, she's here." He handed the cordless phone over, "Janice? Said you'd be expecting her call."
She grabbed the phone, "This is… Tea'," she said hesitantly. She'd always introduced herself as Tim on the phone.
"Tea'? Ela called me and filled me in. You think your human avatar has shifted female?"
She nodded even though Janice wouldn't be able to see her, "Yes, along with my photos, ID, everything."
"You were transgendered in 2005?" she asked clinically.
"Your animal form is a jaguar?"
"Yes. You know that, we've met."
She could almost hear the nodding on the phone, "Sorry, force of habit." She paused, "Tea'," she asked more gently, "Any change in your medical condition lately?"
There was a bit of a pause, "Tea', I need to ask this, but could you be pregnant?"
She started to say no, but stopped herself and sat down. "I don't know," she admitted.
"It's possible?" she pressed.
She lowered her head, "Yeah, it's possible."
There was a long pause again, "Tea', I'll come over later and get some vitals and I'll bring a test with me. There aren't any doctors around here that know about us. Anyone back home you know of?"
"No, I don't," she replied automatically. "You think that's the cause?"
"You know as much as I do, frankly. You're young and healthy, uninjured. Why would your avatar change at all? It's definitely possible. But maybe it's something else. If the field is affected by gender specific issues, maybe you've got something less… life changing. Maybe it's a safety mechanism. Maybe if you'd flipped to male from female, it would be triggered by prostate cancer." She stopped and her voice got lower, "Does your family know?"
Tea' laughed mirthlessly, "No, of course not. That would make this all the easier to explain. How do I tell them, in one fell swoop, that I'm female, half an animal, and maybe pregnant?" She heard Art drop a glass in the kitchen at the mention of the last word. Then she heard a beep on her phone and glanced at it, seeing her parents' phone number. "Janice, I've got to go, the new grandparents are on the line."
Tea' paced nervously back and forth across the living room floor, a welling of emotions inside her.
"Will you stop doing that?" asked Janice after a while, "You're making the rest of us nervous."
Tea' stopped and stared a moment at the brown rabbit before finding a seat on the couch. "You're sure?"
Janice nodded, her ears falling to the sides. "About as much as I can be outside a hospital. Those tests are pretty accurate."
"They could be thrown a bit by her animal side," suggested Ela, who had arrived as soon as she could.
Janice shook her head, "I've been reading up on the forums, you're not the first after all. It doesn't seem to have much of an effect."
Tea's sighed and buried her head in her hands. "Good lord, how am I going to explain this to my parents? To Dusty?"
"What happened with them?" asked Janice. "You hung up on me pretty quick."
She sighed, "I babbled, mostly," she admitted. "My mother noticed that all my pictures in the house changed female, and she was naturally curious. I convinced her that I am… was Tim. They're driving up now."
"How did you convince her on the phone?"
Tea' looked a little ill, "My mother has a secret. When I was a kid, she accidentally ran over our dog, Oliver. He was an Irish setter my father just adored. She never had the heart to tell him, and I swore I wouldn't tell anyone. That at least got her to listen."
"What about your dad?" asked Janice.
"He'll need to see proof. I'm not sure how we're going to give it to him."
Dusty came through the door at that moment and looked surprised to find everyone. "Tea'? What's going on?"
Tears welled up in her eyes and she took Dusty into their room. "Somethings happened," she said simply at first before getting her nerve up. "Dusty, I’m pregnant."
He was stunned silent, but slowly a smile crossed his face. "That's great," he said happily. He leaned in and gave her a huge hug, "That's wonderful!"
She was confused, tears slowly soaking the fur under her eyes, "What? I thought you'd be upset! How are we going to explain all this…?"
"That's for later," he said with a smile and hugged her. "We'll work it all out." He kissed her again, "You'll make a good mother."
She sniffed and looked at the floor, "Mother? I'm barely a woman." She sighed, "There's more," she said as she handed him her wallet.
He opened it and looked at the drivers license. "Woah, what the hell?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. It's everything. Someone or something is changing all my ID to match. My school records, even old pictures of me."
Dusty looked at her, confused, then his eyes got wide. "Oh, nuts. Your family?"
"My parents are on their way up here now to get an explanation. My mother is already on the edge of being convinced, but I don't know what my father is thinking."
"Wait, if your pictures are changed…"
"People see me as a woman now," she finished nodding. "Maybe that's one bright spot, we can just be us in public."
He held her tighter, "I guess that'll make telling my family easier. They're going to wonder why I hid you for two years. Do we tell them?"
Tea' shrugged and managed a small smile, "Not for now. I can just be your secret girlfriend that you knocked up."
There was a knock at the front door and they heard Sheila come in. Tea' kissed Dusty again, "Can you go out and start thinking of a way to convince my parents that this is all real? I wanted to talk to Sheila for a minute."
Dusty nodded and walked out, with Sheila taking his place just moments later. The red fox just stood by the door silently while Tea' stared at the floor. "Go ahead; tell me I told you so."
"I wouldn't do that," she said as she stepped over and sat down. "It doesn't matter."
"This is what you warned me about, isn't it?" she asked, tears filling her eyes again.
Sheila took her hands and held them, "Just answer me this, and be honest with me: Do you want a baby?"
She sighed and thought. Once she had decided to live her life as she looked, the idea of kids nagged at her. "I did, I do," she said finally. "Maybe not this early. Not with the extra baggage."
The fox smiled and hugged her, "The baggage would have been there no matter what." She put her hands on each side of the jaguars face and forced her to look her in the eye. "Look, I'm going to be there for you. I've had a couple kids, I won't pretend this furry thing won't complicate matters, but I'll be there for you."
Tea' looked at her with tear stained eyes, "You've had kids?" she asked.
"Grown ones," she said. "They're out of the house, now."
She sniffled, "I… wait, they're out of the house? How old are you?"
Sheila smiled slyly, "I'm older than you think. One of the nice thing about the fur, it hides the wrinkles." She nodded toward the living room, "We've got to figure out some way to tell your parents all of this without killing them."
By the time the Anders arrived, the living room was filled with furs. Tea' and Dusty sat on the couch together, surrounded by Ela, Sheila, Trinidad and Janice. Art was there as the token human, even though a gathering even this size gave him a massive headache.
The knock at the door caused them all to jump, and Tea' stood up and took a deep breath, "Ok, this is it." She walked to the door, thinking that she hadn't been this nervous the day she woke up like this back in the dorms. She opened the door and forced a smile, "Hi mom, dad."
The couple looked shocked. "Tim?" asked his mother.
She nodded, "Come in, we'll try and explain what happened." They passed through the door and eyed the people sitting around, who to them all looked human. Tea' introduced them while Dusty pulled a couple of chairs over.
"Is this some kind of joke?" asked his father, looking a bit hot under the collar. "Where is my son? Give me a good reason I shouldn't just call the cops! How'd you people change all the photos in our house?"
"No one here did that," said Ela. "It's going to be a lot to explain."
"Try me," he said gruffly.
Tea' sighed. "You remember when you dropped me off at the dorms the first time?" she asked. "I was sick?" They nodded, remembering. "The next day, I woke up like this."
"That's bullshit," snapped his father. "We've seen you since then."
"There is more at work here than it appears," said Ela. "Tim Anders didn't cease to exist. For reasons that none of us understand, what happened to her was hidden from the unchanged. Nothing about what happened to her was visible,"
He picked up on what she said, "Unchanged? All of you…?" he asked.
"Not all of us," said Art.
"Everyone but him has gone though this," said Tea'. "He just has the ability to see though whatever is hiding us."
Mr. Anders leaned back, "You're telling me that you were a guy," he asked Ela, "and you were a woman?" he directed that to Dusty.
They all shook their heads. "No," said Tea'. "What she's saying is that there is something bigger going on here." She steeled herself, "I became female that day, but there's more that's going on. What else happened, what you can't see, is that I also became part animal."
To put it mildly, they didn’t seem to believe that. "What the hell are you talking about, animal?" said her father. "We don't see anything,"
"Trust me, Mr. Anders," said Art with a grimace, "It's there." He started pointing around the room, "Moose, fox, llama…
"Alpaca," snorted Ela with annoyance,
"Alpaca," he corrected, "rabbit, sea lion, and…" he paused dramatically as he pointed at Tea', "jaguar."
They looked around the room and looked more confused. "What are you talking about?" wailed Mrs. Anders. "This doesn't make any sense!"
Dusty took a step forward and motioned for Mr. Anders to do the same. "Poke me in the nose," he said.
Anders looked around the room, then slowly poked straight into his neck. Dusty took his hand and pulled it upward, "This is where my nose is," he said leaving Anders hand a good foot over his human appearing head.
Anders slowly spread out his fingers and felt, "What the hell?"
"That’s my snout," he said though the mans fingers.
The movement of his mouth caused Anders to jump back, "I felt that," he said quietly.
Janice went to Mrs. Anders side, "Feel my ears," she said with an expression that crossed between bemusement and irritation.
"Oh!" she exclaimed as her fingers gently went up and down her ear, "Oh, my you're not joking."
Sheila walked over to them and handed over her drivers license, "See the hair color?"
Mrs. Anders looked, "Black?" She looked intently at Sheila's hair, "But you're a red head."
"That could be a dye job," protested Mr. Anders.
His wife shook her head, "Not that good, not going from black to such a light red." She looked over at her child, "Which doesn't explain why your hair got darker. Aren't jaguars light colored?" she asked in a strange, halting tone.
"Usually, I got hit with a rare trait on top of rare traits. Black fur and black spots."
"It really is very nice to look at," said Trinidad before a glare from Tea' cut him off.
It took most of the rest of the evening to convince them that what they were seeing was real. They even tried to lower the field for them, but had no luck. The two of them never even caught a glimpse of what their new daughter had become.
Once they got the details, Mr. Anders asked the big question, "Why is this happening, then?" He looked around, "If the transformations occur in August, and this field of yours blocks us from seeing, why did it make her female?"
Tea' sighed again and knelt down in front of her mother, She considered giving them a few weeks to get used to the idea of her being female, but decided that she might as well go for broke. "We're not completely sure, we haven't found any other incidents yet, but it seems that I'm… well…"
Her mothers eyes got narrow, then wide. "You're pregnant?" she asked suddenly. When Tea' nodded, she drew her in and hugged her. "That's… That's…" she stammered.
Tea' smiled, "It's okay, I'm still trying to absorb it myself."
Her father looked faint. It was a lot to take, that not only was his only son now his only daughter, but that she was pregnant to boot. "I have to ask," he said, trying to find something to say, "don't get mad, but who's the father?"
It was Dustys' turn to look sick, "That would be me, sir," he said standing up.
Mr. Anders stood up and sighed, "I suppose that I should punch you in the nose for getting her pregnant…"
"Dad!" yelled Tea'.
He waved her off with a tired smile, "Don't worry, I can't even remember where his nose is." He hesitated a moment then held out his hand to Dusty, "I guess… welcome to the family."
It was late when everyone parted company that night. After hours of talking, Tea' had managed to convince her parents, even if they were more than a little skeptical and shocked, that this was all real. It didn't matter if they really believed it, it was all real.
Ela had pushed Tea' to get this information out into the open, let other furs know that this could happen to them. Tea' resisted, eventually getting an agreement from all in the room that Tea', and Tea' alone, would make the choice about who to bring into their own personal conspiracy. For the purposes of anyone outside that room, she would simply always have been female.
She had especially made that point with Trinidad. She loved the guy, he'd been one of her closest friends though all this, but his mouth was notorious. She'd backed him into a corner and held a single, long claw up in front of his eyes. "If you breathe a word of this, I will use this claw to slit you open and peel off your skin for a wetsuit of my own," she'd said in a voice that gave no room for negotiation.
Trinidad had gulped, then nodded, "When you put it that way, I'll be happy to keep this a secret."
The local furs were going to be the biggest problem, since they'd have to be told in order to act properly around her in public. She and Dusty had been a hot gossip subject and she was the only black jaguar within hundreds of miles, so she couldn't just claim to be someone else. Thankfully, the local community was still small, only about a dozen. "There are a couple I need to tell right away," Tea' had said, "The rest we'll try and get at a meeting or something. There aren't that many of us locally yet, anyway. Maybe by August this won't be much of an issue anymore."
"What about people that call for you, Tim?" asked her mother, still not used to the new name. "Our memories didn't change, what about theirs?"
They eventually decided to make Tim disappear for a while. With new friends, Tea' would be a sister he hadn't talked about while Tim had gone off to work on a research vessel somewhere as part of his marine biology degree. Old friends would just be told for now that he wasn't available. "Hopefully, once this furry thing becomes more common," Dusty had commented, "we'll just be able to tell the truth."
The next morning, Tea' woke and found herself wrapped in Dustys' arms. He was slowly running his thick fingers between her ears, which didn't exactly make her any more willing to get up. She looked at the clock and gasped, "Dusty, didn't you see the time?"
He jerked his own head up, "Sorry, I haven't been up long and thought you could use the sleep."
She rolled over and gently swatted him on the nose, "We're meeting my parents in an hour for breakfast. I've got to get ready!"
Dusty followed her out of the bed, "Just throw on jeans and a shirt," he said as he reached for his own.
She sighed and rolled her eyes, "This is the first time I'm going out as Tea', even if it's just breakfast with my parents. I don't want to look half dressed."
Dusty rolled his eyes, "You were on campus yesterday that way," he pointed out.
"Not intentionally," she snapped back. She took a deep breath and calmed herself down, "Okay, I'll just go simple," she said getting a pair of women's cut jeans and a pink shirt she found comfortable. "I thought about wearing a dress or a skirt, but I'm not sure my parents are ready for that."
Dusty slipped on a button-front t-shirt, a little homemade innovation they'd finally come up with to make his time with antlers easier, and slipped his hooves into a pair of shoes that faded out. "Give them some time. You can spring that on my parents, since we'll probably ignore most of the extra stuff until they figure it out."
She finished slipping on her shirt, then stopped. "I don't have a purse."
She was suddenly confused and started rummaging though bags and boxes piled at the bottom of the closet, "I never thought to buy a purse. I never planned on being seen in these clothes, so I never got one."
Dusty shrugged, but started to get concerned by her tone, "We'll stop by the store on the way back," he said carefully. "You'll probably want to tell Rupert about this anyway."
She started to breathe hard, feeling faint. "But no one was supposed to see me like this," she said, more upset. "I mean, other than you, and a few other freaks like us." She started to feel light headed, and Dusty grabbed her before she could fall, "I'm a freak among freaks!" she suddenly wailed.
She looked at her boyfriend, tears in her eyes, "This wasn't supposed to happen! I wasn't born like this! I wasn't supposed to be a piece of endangered ass!" She felt her hand rest on her stomach, "I wasn't supposed to get pregnant."
Dusty held onto her and didn't say a word, not sure what to say. Finally, he broke the silence, "What do you want me to say?" he asked, his own voice thick with emotion.
She looked up at him and wiped away a tear, "I'm sorry, this isn't about you. I do love you, I do want the baby." She sighed, "But Tim Anders is really gone, isn't he?" Dusty nodded slowly and Tea' sniffed, "Even with everything we've done, I've been playing the part of being a girlfriend. No matter what we did, I could always be Tim the next day, if just to the outside world. That's over and done with. I can't hide behind that mask anymore."
She calmed down after a while, then finally allowed herself a small smile, "Now I become your problem," she said.
Dusty drew his head back, "What do you mean by that?"
"Starting today, I'll be drawing looks from every man on the street. You'll have to keep your infamous temper in check."
They met her parents at the coffee shop attached to their hotel. She hugged her parents, and could distinctly smell the scent of hard liquor from her father, even masked by a few hours, a shower and mouthwash. She exchanged a look with Dusty, who had nodded quietly.
They sat down in a back booth. "So, how was your night?" asked Tea'.
Her father grimaced, "Sorry, I'm still not sure what to make of all this. I can't think of you as my daughter." When she started to protest, he held up a hand, "I believe you, I just can't believe it. If you know what I mean."
Her mother sighed, "I can see it, "she admitted, "and for now I believe it. I just wish you would have told us sooner than…" she looked significantly at Dusty, who suddenly looked like he wanted to crawl under a chair and disappear.
"Don't blame him," said Tea' as gently as she could. "This has been a long couple of years for the two of us. We spent months thinking we were the only two in the universe like this, until we stumbled over Trinidad. Even then, it was months more before we found any real answers. Dusty and I spent about every free moment together. It's strange, but this transformation is complete. The longer you stay the opposite gender, the more likely it is to stick, in all ways."
They had as frank and open a talk about things as they could given the circumstances. Her parents broached the subject of leaving San Luis Obispo for now, but both of them nixed that. Starting over anywhere else would allow them to escape the issues with the now departed Tim, but they wanted to try and complete school even with the baby. Her mother started actually getting excited about a grandchild before she suddenly stopped and thought, "What is it going to be?" she asked.
"Boy or girl?" asked Dusty though a mouthful of fruit. "Way to early to tell that."
She shook her head, "No, human, moose or jaguar? Or something else?"
Both Tea' and Dusty started to answer, then stopped and stared at each other. "I have no idea," they finally said in unison.
They stopped at Ruperts shop in downtown before heading back to the apartment. They gave the poor chipmunk a heart attack when they walked in and started looking at purses. He rushed over, "What are you doing?" he asked in a hushed voice, "You're going to draw attention to yourself and the rest of us! If you need something, you can just call and I'll stay after some evening!"
Tea' smiled, "It's okay, Rupert. Watch." She walked over to a saleslady near the back of the store. "Miss, can you help me out? I'm trying to find something to hit the beach in."
The woman looked her over, "You looking for a one piece or a two?" is all she asked.
Tea' went though several before deciding on a yellow one piece that she thought showed off her fur rather nicely, and before she remembered that she'd done that just to demonstrate for Rupert. Slightly chagrined, she walked back to him, still standing next to Dusty. "Sorry, I got a bit carried away."
Rupert smiled, "Not at all. Dusty filled me in. I guess congratulations are in order," he said with a buck-toothed smile.
Tea' spent the weekend trying to do research online about furs and pregnancy. The information was still frightfully thin. Even with upwards of half a million out there, few had actually managed to get pregnant. It was clear that furs and humans couldn't interbreed. It was only in the last couple of years that there was enough critical mass for there to even be pregnant furs in any real numbers. If the numbers doubled again this year, next year would be the first big year for births.
She did learn a few things right off, the biggest that the baby would be born like them. There were rare occasions where they were born some other critter, and no one knew if they were subject yet to changing after their first August. They were also veiled, but for some reason it was a poor one. Strong enough to survive a causal look, but too much exposure and it could fail.
She sighed. She'd have to find furry babysitters, and daycare was going to be a problem for a while.
She did note that one of the experts who helped answer questions on the forum seemed familiar, and she took a look at her profile and smiled. She shot a quick email off, and less than an hour later she heard her phone ring. "Hello?"
She could hear the sigh at the other end of the line, "You know, from the way you talked on the train, I had a funny feeling that this was going to happen."
Tea' smiled, "Hello to you, too, Kate. How are things at the zoo?"
She and the vet talked for some time, after making sure that Kate would keep this under her hat. She agreed to help her find a doctor that could do the prenatal care, and even stop by once she was further along. "I take the train down every few months to visit Vince in San Diego. I can stop off the next time I'm around. Do you know how far along you are?"
She admitted that she didn't, "I hadn't been keeping track of things. I knew this could happen, but…"
She heard the skunk sigh, "I think we need to quietly try and find a way to let some of the other transgendered know about birth control. I guess when the world sees you as a guy, it's hard to get the pill from your doctor."
Valentine's Day, they decided, they would go all out.
Tea' was still feeling a little trepidation, but agreed. Dusty had been very persuasive. She put on her best dress, still the white one she'd worn just a few months ago for Halloween, and decked herself out. Dusty has managed to find a suit in his pile of clothes, and the two of them headed off to a restaurant on the water in Pismo Beach.
It was in the middle of dinner that the moose managed to surprise her when he slipped off his chair and onto one knee while pulling a ring out of his pocket. "I know this is rather sudden, but I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me?"
Tea' was dimly aware that the eyes of the restaurant were now focused on them, but all she could see was the man that she loved and the ring that he held. While he slipped it on her finger, she nodded vigorously, unable to bring air up to say yes.
After a great deal of searching, and a couple of months, they finally found a doctor that could help them. Virgil Weinstein, a changed radiologist in Santa Barbara, could at least properly see the scans of the new baby. He had managed to bring a known obstetrician, Phyllis Zeal, into the little conspiracy. With their permission, she sat in on the scan. It was then that they got their next surprise.
The raccoon radiologist pointed at the screen even as he was doing the scans. "Looks like it. We see that occasionally in Changed of animals that give birth commonly to multiples. I double checked before you got here, and jaguars can have up to four." He shrugged, "Of course, it's not exactly uncommon in humans, either."
She looked up at Dusty, "Twins? Are we ready for that?"
Even with a Changed radiologist, they couldn't figure out species or gender. He tried to manipulate the probe though the mix of gel and fur, "We'd have to shave your fur, and even then things are dicey. I'm not certain sometimes that the field doesn't mess around with this stuff. We'll check a couple more times, but frankly we're not always right even with humans. You may have to wait until they're born."
"Any idea when that is?" asked Dusty.
Dr. Zeal stood up and walked over, "I've been going over your paperwork, and the short answer is no." She held up the file, "It doesn't help that you don't know the date of your last period." She sighed, "Gestations are a little skewed because of this Change, in both directions. Your body is close to human normal, though. Best guess on date of conception is probably around New Years, correct?"
She and Dusty exchanged a look, and nodded, "Yeah, that sounds about right."
She did some more calculations, "There's usually a slightly shorter gestation for twins. My best guess is that you're going to be due right around the middle of August…" Her voice trailed off and she smiled, "Isn't that…?"
The raccoon glared at her, "Yeah, it is. As if that month isn't going to be a pain in my tail already."
Though they were still planning on getting married, they decided to hold off for now. Things were already chaotic without adding that into the mix. Besides, Tea' had thrown herself into the idea of getting married. Now that she was showing, she couldn't find a dress.
When their lease ran out in the summer, the four friends decided to reluctantly break company. Art and Trinidad, to no one's surprise, found an apartment together. The two would-be Casanovas were inseparable, so it was a foregone conclusion.
Tea' and Dusty found a good sized two bedroom apartment, and after speaking with the manager, found the perfect unit: above a carport and with the bedrooms not sharing walls with the neighbors.
Kate stopped by more than once, usually staying the night and doing some exams of her own. "I'm not a big cat vet," the skunk reminded her, "but so far things look good on the animal side. We're still trying to figure out what to make of things." Most of her care was being done in Santa Barbara, but she felt some comfort in the extra attention.
More and more, Kate had told her, Changed vets were being tapped to do supplement medical care. Though Kate was helping Tea' out for the pregnancy, she was more interested in infectious disease. "Disease jumping from animals to humans was a problem before all this. Now? It's not out of line to think a rodent-specific virus could wipe out every rat morph in a county before we knew what was happening."
As Tea' started to feel like a house, her mother managed to make time to come up frequently to help her new daughter. To her profound surprise, she enjoyed these visits. She found herself feeling gleeful over the strangest things, like the curtains they picked out for the baby's room, or bedding and blankets. It wasn't that she never cared about the way things looked as a guy, but now she was taking a great deal more pleasure out of it.
"You're nesting," her mother has said with a knowing smile. "Most mothers go through it, so why not you?"
Tea' still couldn't decide if she was doing this stuff out of some ingrained female adaptation, or simply because some part of her thought she should be acting like this. Either way, she started just going along with it. It was her new normal. Tea' had come to accept that.
Her mother was a slightly different story. She had come to accept what had happened, but the animal part still confused her. "Will the kids be actual animals?" she asked as she helped assemble baby furniture.
It had taken some time to get her to realize what was happening, and even then it was touch and go. Her father, for the time being, was a more lost cause. "He won't even call you by your new name," her mother had confirmed.
Dusty managed in that time to get part time work at a research facility in Atascadero, a bit north of town, working in the lab. The job helped fill the gap that was rapidly forming between what they could manage with student loans and parental help. It made things that much harder, he couldn't always just get away and they spent less time togher, but they did need the money.
Tea' was ready to not be pregnant anymore.
It was too hot, she was in pain all the time, and she was actually ready to start changing diapers.
August had finally rolled around and she anxiously waited for the first labor pains. At her request, Dusty was taking as many shifts as he could now before the babies were born. As they got into the middle of the month, they got another couple surprises.
Art got sick, a nasty summer flu.
So did her father.
Art was actually excited. He'd been hopeful that he'd change. Her father was decidedly less so, and in fact refused to acknowledge that he was all that sick. Her mother confirmed it, though.
It was about six am, on August 17th, 2007, that Tea' woke suddenly feeling pains, then a flood of water. "Oh, crap," she said quickly, instantly awake, then slapped the empty pillow looking for Dusty before she remembered that he was pulling a double shift.
She stumbled for the phone and called Art. She was surprised when he instantly answered, "Tea'?" he asked, "What's wrong?"
"I need a ride to the hospital," she said quickly. "In Santa Barbara. Dusty's at work. He won't be able to make it in time."
Art was quick, "I'll be right over. I kinda want to get out of the house anyway," he said nervously.
"Is something wrong?" she asked, concerned, "Did you Change?"
He sighed, and there was something wrong with his voice, but it was like he was whispering, "Not totally, but… Never mind, I'll be right over."
She next called Dusty. He promised to leave the moment he could and meet her at the hospital, and made the same call to her parents. They agreed to meet at the hospital too. She hung up without thinking to ask about her father. She almost called back, but instead called Dr. Zeals office to let her know, then called Kate up in Tacoma. She wasn't at home, so Tea' left a message.
She was barely off the phone with them when there was a tentative knock at the door. She opened it, expecting Art, but had to look down several inches. "Art?" she asked.
The otter was wearing one of Arts bulky sweatshirts, a wide tail hung down nearly to the ground. "Yeah, it's me," he said, obviously not happy.
Tea' smiled, now hearing his… or her voice in person it was more obvious. "Oh, Art," she said in mock sadness. "That's going to put a crimp in your carousing."
The otter glared at her, trying to put some fierceness behind that round, fuzzy face and failing. "Why do you think I wanted out of the house so fast? Trinidad was still asleep. Damn it, I was hoping for something bigger!"
"And male," said Tea' as she shoved a small suitcase in her arms and waved her down the stairs, "We can talk in the car, lets get going!"
It was a long drive to Santa Barbara. Art kept shifting dangerously in the drivers seat trying to get comfortable with her long, stiff tail. "I know what I'm going to design when I get back home, custom car seats for furs," she muttered.
In retrospect, Tea' kicked herself for not making arrangements further north, but there wasn't anything to do about it now. Since she didn't know what the field was going to do with the kids, she had to be seen by someone who knew what was going on.
Despite everything, they managed to talk about Arts new situation. The otter was obviously miffed. She called it a cosmic joke more than once. Tea' finally laughed him off, "Don't worry about it, you could change back next year."
The otter looked at her out of the corner of her eye, "Says the former man about to have twins."
She winced at a contraction, which were thankfully stiff far apart. "Just take it as it comes," she said. "No one says that you'll follow the same path I did. Some transgendered have gone more than a decade without really changing who they are."
"You lasted, what, a year?"
"I was living with your brother," she pointed out, "and completely confused. By the time we found the rest of the furry community, I was already having feelings for him. If I'd changed alone? Maybe if I'd had more information earlier, a bigger support group, it wouldn't have happened." She shrugged, "Water under the bridge."
She felt her distended belly and smiled, "Not a one."
She was laid up in a room, heavily monitored, by the time Dr. Zeal showed up. She checked over what she could and smiled, "I think things are pretty far along, but I gave Dr. Weinstein a call anyway. He'll be along shortly."
Almost on cue, the raccoon walked in the door and conferred with his colleague. "Dr. Zeal can't see through the field, but from what I can see things are pretty much as she sees them. I've scheduled myself to be here in the hospital today in case we catch any new Changes, so I'll be around if I'm needed." He looked at the otter who had been sitting in the corner quietly this whole time. "Mr. Hollows?" he asked surprised.
"Yeah," she said dejected, then caught herself. "Not Dusty, his brother."
Weinstein and Tea' exchanged a look, and she nodded slightly. "Ah, okay. Well…" he said, his voice trailing off. He just looked again at Tea' and took off.
It wasn't long before Dusty blew into the room himself. "Am I too late?" he asked quickly.
Tea' shook her head, "No, but Dr. Zeal doesn't think it'll be long." She jutted her head at Art.
Dusty turned and noticed her for the first time. "Hi," he said tiredly, "Dusty Hollows, the father."
The otter allowed herself a bit of a smile, "Art Hollows, the uncle… er … aunt."
Dusty froze and stared. "You're putting me on."
"Oh, how I wish I was," she said. "I blame you for this. I'm not sure how, but I blame you."
"Does Trinidad know?" he asked with a grin.
Art narrowed her eyes, "No, and I'm planning on hiding this from him, too."
The door opened again and Tea's mother came in bearing bags of stuff. "How's it going?" she asked.
"I'm tired, but I'm fine. Hopefully this will all be over in a bit." She sighed, "Where's dad?"
She shrugged, "He stopped in the ER on the way though, said he had to use the restroom." She shrugged, "He's still not sure what to do about all this."
"Wasn't he sick?" asked Dusty.
"He was, but he felt fine this morning. Even drove up."
She was interrupted by the door flying open. "You know," said her father in a sullen voice, "That this place has a raccoon running around the ER?"
"Dad?" she asked.
The donkey morph nodded as he closed the door. He stopped and just looked around the room. "Can you do me a favor and tell me what you see?"
Tea' smiled, "Probably what you saw in the mirror this morning. Donkey?"
Dusty nodded, "Donkey." Art didn't say anything, but nodded in agreement.
He sighed, "I guess this is what I get for being an ass about things."
"You spent the entire drive up here thinking that up, didn't you?" asked Tea' with a grin.
"I did," he admitted with a slight grin.
"What is going on?" asked her mother.
Tea' looked at her father crossly, "You didn't tell her?"
"I wanted some proof first," he admitted. "I've spent the better part of the last year convinced that you people were pulling my leg. Even today I thought it was the stress of hearing that the babies are coming." He shrugged, "The guy in the ER was the first one I saw like you… like us."
"Winston? You changed?"
"Into a donkey, yes," he admitted. He looked over at Dusty and allowed himself another smile, "I can see your nose now." Then over at the otter, "Sorry, miss. Have we been…"
"I'm Art!" she snapped. She stood up out of the chair, "Look, I'll be back later. I skipped breakfast, I'm hungry, I'm tired and I'm probably going to be dodging my roommate tommorow. I'll see you all later." He strode over to the door and took off.
"Yeah, dad, that was Art."
Her mother looked confused. "I still don't understand what's going on!"
Her labor was mercifully short and masked by an epidural.
The next few hours were still a haze. Eventually, Dr. Zeal stayed by her side as it was obvious that this was going to happen soon. Weinstein even re-appeared just before everything came to an end.
The first baby was born, and Tea' felt a rush of relief as Dusty cut the cord and nurse took the baby aside to clean and weigh. "It's a boy!"said the nurse.
Dusty got close to her ear, "Jaguar, normal pelt color," he whispered.
The second baby came just minutes later, "It's a girl!"
"Moose," said the proud father.
It wasn't long before both kids were wrapped in blankets and the nurse handed them over. She blinked looked at the two babies, then put her hand to her head, "Excuse me for a second, I think I need air."
Weinstein looked at her leave and grinned, "We may want to let her in on it," he said.
Zeal poked him, "Hold on, lets see first if we picked up any Changed nurses."
Things gradually calmed down. Once the babies came, there was a quick burst of visitors, Including Ela and Sheila. Trinidad, who was predictably delighted to see the babies, showed up around lunchtime. "Where did Art go?" he'd asked while holding the baby girl moose in his arms.
Dusty took him aside and told him what had happened. The sea lion actually calmed down. He handed the baby over to her father, "I'll go and find him," he finally said.
"Be gentle," said Tea' pointedly, "He's still adjusting."
Surprisingly, Trinidad got serious. "Tea', my dear, when we met I didn't know you any other way. I was still trying to figure out what I was, for that matter. Art?" he said wistfully, "Art has been my friend for many months. I'll do nothing that might make him… her uncomfortable."
"Because if you do," Dusty reminded, "Tea' can still make a wet suit out of you."
As he started walking out, he turned and smiled, "There is that, too. Any idea where he went?"
They both shrugged. "My parents didn't see him in the cafeteria."
Trinidad thought, "Cafeteria? My friend, the otter?" He started toward the nurses station, "How far is the pier from here?"
Gradually the visitors stopped. Questions about what they were going to name the babies abounded, but neither parent had made a choice. Since they didn't know for sure what the genders or species were going to be, they'd held off on making any choices for now.
Dr. Zeal decided to keep her and the kids overnight, to make sure that things were normal as they could be. Her parents went north to make sure the apartment was ready while Dusty relaxed in a chair in the corner of the room, and eventually fell asleep.
As the sun began to set, one of the nurses helped her position both the babies and she felt them suckle. As she lay there, she looked at the two bundles she held, then at her moose dozing in the corner.
"No regrets," she whispered. "No regrets."
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