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December 22, 2010
Donald Jorgenson only lived a couple hundred miles from his aunt and uncle's house. It was an easy drive even when the weather turned bad, and close enough that over the past seven years he'd managed to go to every single family gathering over the Holidays. Even the surreal Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2009, just a few months after the fact that the world was inexorably going furry had been exposed.
It was going to be even more surreal this Christmas; he was now officially the only human left in his massive family. His aunt and uncle, even his own parents, had been Changed for years. Just how did they manage to keep that from me? he wondered as the last few miles to the exit slowly counted down at thirty miles per hour. Normally at least twenty family members attended either Thanksgiving or Christmas, since everyone lived fairly close. Last year had been thirty, with fully twenty already Changed.
By last Thanksgiving because of the expanding numbers of non-August Changes the family was down to two humans. Donald and his younger cousin, Erik.
Erik changed into an elk just as the pumpkin pie was being served, though with the unusually strong Veil in the area Donald had to take everyone's word for it. Following in his father's footsteps--or was that hoofprints? His mother, Donald's Aunt Rachel, was a whitetail, so there'd apparently been a betting pool of what he'd end up. And an even bigger one, given the 1-in-100 odds, if he'd end up female. Nobody in the family had changed sex... yet. The topic had come up during Thanksgiving and Christmas 2009, though Donald hadn't paid much attention. Sooner or later someone in the family would change sex. Donald had the feeling they were focusing their plans on him.
Over the last fifty miles the snow on the ground had gone from just a dusting to over a foot deep, and still coming down. Donald had to drive very slowly, putting him well behind schedule. Predictably, his iPhone rang with his mother's ringtone and a picture of a lynx on the screen. He tapped the answer button on his bluetooth earpiece. "Hello again, Ma."
"Where are you now?" the lynx asked.
"I'm ten minutes away," Donald replied.
"You said that ten minutes ago. Is the traffic really that bad?"
"I'm just at Exit 115. I'll get off here. Should be another fifteen minutes, assuming they've gotten Highway 6 plowed," he replied.
"Well, make sure you get here soon, son. The local Bubble's finally going to expand through the house this morning and the family wants you to be here for it. No more Veil for you!" his mother said excitedly.
"So, who all is there?" Don asked nervously.
"Not as many as Thanksgiving. Rachel's relieved after that debacle, the poor doe. But... if you're worried about Vince being here, he isn't. Well..."
Donald listened as she rattled off name after name, relieved that his cousin Vince wasn't on the list. The family was so huge Donald needed a family tree chart just to keep things straight. Aunt Rachel and Uncle Frank had five children, two girls and three boys. Two of them were married and had brought their children. His sister Wendy and her husband Greg and their kids were there, too. Uncle Max was there, the eternal bachelor. A grand total of twenty two in one big house. "So, your father, cousin Erik, and grandpa David are out shoveling snow. Your Dad still has his antlers! He must be keeping them on with sheer willpower," his mother continued.
"See you in a few minutes, Ma. I'm almost there," Donald said. He hung up and sighed.
It was easy to see the border of the Bubble in the heavy snow. The slight refraction of the gray light and deflection of the snowflakes made it visible. Donald's relatives' house was on a south-facing hillside and had been built with the size of their growing family in mind, with enough bedrooms to run a Bed and Breakfast if they wanted to. The basement garage in the ranch-style house could accommodate three cars, and the circular driveway many more. As Donald came up the road he was resigned to being the last to arrive and started looking for a place to park. It was going to be a long trudge up the hill from his Ford Escape.
Three men were busy shoveling the driveway, making little headway in the fluffy dry snow that came down in waves. All three wore little more than summer weight clothes even in the near-blizzard conditions. His father waved a faux-human hand, motioning for him to keep coming. "Don! Don't stop, we saved a parking place for you next to the stairs!" he shouted.
Donald stopped next to him and rolled the window down. "Don't make exceptions on my account, Dad. You sure you're not cold?"
The sixty year-old smiled. His hair was a strange three-tone of white, dark brown, and gray. "It's nearly twenty degrees out. Very pleasant, actually."
"We'll make a stag out of you yet, Donald," his grandfather added. Donald had first suspected something was amiss when the old man's health problems had mysteriously vanished. In 2007 he'd gone from debilitating arthritis to running marathons. "Any day now! Just wait and see."
Erik paused in his own shoveling. "Grandpa, I know that this kind of work builds character, but Mom has this monster snowblower and we're not making any real progress here."
"We were keeping the driveway clear for your cousin, Erik." He nodded at Donald. "Now that he's here we can head back to the house. 'Sides, we've all got breakfast cud to chew."
Erik looked a little green. "I'm still not used to that."
After rolling the window back up Donald parked in the reserved space. The Bubble border was maybe ten feet from the house itself now. The three men crossed through it on their way up. A middle-aged caribou, a young elk, and an old whitetail became visible. Only the caribou--Donald's father--still had his massive antlers. The wind ruffled their fur, unmelted snow covering the tops of their long muzzles and broad shoulders. "Head on inside!" his father bellowed. "Your mother's got some of her hot chocolate on the stove! We'll take care of you suitcase and presents."
Donald entered the house through the garage to where he assumed he'd be sleeping for the next few days. Just inside the entrance was a very steep single flight of stairs that went up to the main level family room. Familiar voices filtered down from the living room above, and a large pair of glowing feline eyes looked back at him from the darkened guest room. "Hi uncle Don," the young, tired female voice said. "No tail yet?"
"Nope, no tail yet, Sara," he replied to his ten year old niece. "I'm sorry if I woke you."
"Just catnapping. We were playin' lolcats all morning," the young tigress replied. "Mom and Grandma are upstairs."
Once Donald's eyes adjusted to the darkness he saw his nephew's gray spotted pelt sleeping on the other side of the room, and his cousin Patrick's gray tabby teenaged daughter in yet another corner, watching a video on a netbook. The Bubble had already expanded through the far wall. Cats and deer. The whole family was either feline or cervine, except for his cousin Lisa's husband, who was a horse of some kind, or so Donald thought. It was hard enough to keep track of everyone's name, let alone species.
Someone looked over the stairwell rail. His cousin Vanessa, a snow leopard under the human guise. "Hey, Don's here! Come on up, Don! And get the kids, the Bubble's in our parents' bedroom! You're just in time for the grand reveal! We want your reaction on video."
Great. Just fucking great. Donald grumbled. YouTube was clogged with videos of friends and family members reacting to seeing their loved ones or best friends as anthropomorphic animals. "We'll be right up! Come on, kids."
"I'm watching New Moon!" Patricia complained. "Why can't I be a sexy shewolf like Bella instead of hocking furballs?" she muttered petulantly. For a moment Donald saw a lashing tail. The edge of the Bubble was steadily crossing the secondary living/guest room, which was underneath the master bedroom.
Donald trudged up the annoyingly steep stairs and found everyone in the huge family room, flames merrily crackling away in the fireplace. The room itself felt a little chilly. Going furry, especially in winter, meant that temps over fifty were actually uncomfortable with a full winter coat. It was still much warmer than outside so Don removed his jacket layer. "Hey everyone," he said cheerfully to the multitude.
Immediately his mother came over and gave him a hug. The lynx was a full head shorter than he was, so she had to stretch. "I'm so glad you made it! This weather's not looking good. How fast did you say you were going? We expected you for breakfast." Then she looked more concerned and unbuttoned the front of his shirt a little. "That bruise is still pretty livid. Vince really did a number on you, didn't he?"
In a family where pretty much everyone except him had super-sensitive hearing, there wasn't much point in whispering. "Mom, he thought I made a pass at his wife. I'm lucky those antlers of his weren't sharp or I'd have a hole in my shoulder instead."
His aunt, a whitetail deer herself, turned towards him. She'd obviously been watching, and listening. "He's very, very sorry about the incident, Donald. It was his first rutting season, and he was very protective of his wife even when he was human. It was his idea not to come for Christmas, though he might be here for New Year's. His antlers dropped two days ago. So he's not nearly as..." she searched for the words. The edge of the Bubble was crossing the living room now, though everyone had gathered on the far side.
"Hostile? Belligerent? Aggressive?" Donald's mother supplied hotly.
"Yes, Arlene, those words fit. But he's really, really sorry," his aunt replied tersely.
"Whoa, now! Just wait a minute ladies. We have a photo to take," his father interrupted. "Let's get everyone in place for the reveal. Don, go sit on the easy chair and Greg will film."
"I told you, Dad, I work in a Bubble. I see furries every day," Don complained as they herded him towards the chair.
"But those aren't your family. We are," the caribou pointed out. "Besides, you could turn five minutes from now. Folks don't get sick if they Change out of phase. Erik felt perfectly fine before his muzzle grew in."
His faux-human mother gestured at her husband from across the room near the fireplace, standing behind the somnolent form of Uncle Max, a lump wrapped in a blanket. Don knew that his uncle was some kind of feline, but nobody had said just what yet.
Donald obediently sat and waited.
Almost two dozen familiar faces. Even the children had come upstairs. They gathered as if for a family photo. People he had known all his life.
Those faces, those bodies, began to shimmer and fade, transitioning to the anthropomorphic visages. Over the past couple years Don had seen what they really looked like now, here and there. But now, seeing everyone at one, change at the very same time, it was hard to swallow his pride and admit that he felt more than a little shaken. His own mother--gray-brown fur, tufted ears--had the same kindly expression in her eyes as she had before, but at the same time she was a lynx. And Dad was tall. The splayed tips of his palmate antlers scraped the ceiling if he wasn't careful.
Caribou, several whitetails and mule deer, elk, but no moose. On the feline side there was a lynx, two snow leopards, two tigers, and one gray tabby. And wrapped in the blanket in front of them, Max rumbled and opened his eyes. He had a magnificent dark mane, and looked somewhat grumpy. "Can't a guy get any sleep around here? Jesus!"
Donald stared. "Uncle Max is a lion? How the hell did that happen?"
His mother gestured for him. "Okay, Don. Now we'll get a photo with you in the center. Come have a seat. Don't worry, we won't bite." She smiled toothily.
Out on the covered patio the grill was going. The snow had lightened up, and there was very little wind. The concrete patio had been cleared and almost everyone was outside throwing snowballs or sipping hot coffee. With the entire property in a Bubble now, the rest of the family seemed much more at ease. His sister Wendy had described being inside a Bubble as like wading into a warm, comfortable pool. Now that it was over everyone was less tense.
"New furniture, Uncle Frank?" Donald asked the elder elk. Most everything had been replaced just since Thanksgiving. All of it ergonomically designed for furry anatomy.
"Took ages to get, but yeah," he replied, one ear turned to listen to the six playing children outside. There were large scabs over the circular depressions where his antlers grew. Three children were the cats from downstairs, then there was Vanessa's male and female twins (both mule deer), and the tabby's younger brother Dylan who was a whitetail like his father. "You know, I worry sometimes. We keep their claws clipped, but we can't do anything about their teeth. And hooves can be pretty sharp too."
Don, unfortunately not having any children of his own, was taken by surprise by the topic change. He knew just how hard and tough "hoofnails" could be after the fight with Vince.
The aroma of cooking meat mingled with cervine musk and the sharpness of vinaigrette salad dressing the women were making for the herbivores. His brother-in-law Greg was grilling the burgers, striped tiger tail swishing absently. Their children started to roughhouse more earnestly. Uncle Frank started to rise out of his chair, but needn't have bothered. "You can haz cheezburger!" Greg shouted.
Instantly his children broke off their horseplay and rushed up to the grill. "We can haz!" the young tigress and snow leopard replied together. "Om nom nom!"
Frank groaned and put his thick-fingered hand over his brown muzzle. "Oh, God! Not that again. They've been talking like that all day yesterday and this morning. What is it, anyway?"
"It's an Internet meme. 'lolcats'. Basically cat pictures with funny captions," Donald explained. His uncle gave him a blank look, both ears raised. "A fad, Uncle. It's a fad." He decided to change the subject and pointed at the elk's head. "Did it hurt when your antlers came off?"
"Like the Dickens. You better believe it," he replied. "You'll know what I'm talking about when you have your own set." He gestured at his previous two sets of mounted antlers on the far wall and the recently-shed set in bubble-wrap on the floor. "Once it happens I can get you a great deal on a Dodge Sprinter or Ford Transit Connect. They're really hard to find these days, you know. But they have the headroom we need."
"It's not headroom he'll be needing. He's going to end up a cow," Uncle Max said good-naturedly as he wandered in. The mussed lion-man was a perpetual bachelor and currently unemployed. "And I do mean a cow, not a bull. Moo moo moo," he said. "He'll have a rack of a different kind, if you know what I mean. Have you seen how well endowed the cows are?"
Donald started to blush. Max Jorgenson was from Don's father's side of the family, and it was family courtesy that the Yorks had agreed to take him in. He wore a pair of pajama bottoms only. His magnificent dark mane filled out around his shoulders just like a real lion's did. Pullover shirts probably didn't fit very well. Frank rolled his dark brown eyes. "Don't kid about that, Max. Really, don't. This isn't a joking matter. I know a couple of teachers who changed sex and it nearly ruined their careers."
"If you can't laugh about maybe waking up with tits in the morning in today's world, what can you laugh about? Nah, the lad'll probably just be a lynx like his mom. A woman, but a lynx. Meow meow. I'm sure he'll be fine."
The topic had apparently come up frequently in family discussions since soon after the family realized so many of them were Changing. They had taken on new urgency once the furries had been outed, including un-Changed relatives to prepare them for what would happen and what could happen. Donald always just left the room or turned up the music from his iPhone when sex change came up. This time he didn't have the luxury. "Okay. So if I do become a girl, what're the family's plans? Care to clue me in? I mean, how can we even tell what species I'll end up? The family's a tangle of cat and deer-types," he said, trying to change the subject to something more palatable.
Uncle Frank taught high school biology. The elk's brows seemed to furrow with frustration. The elk knew what his nephew was trying to do, but Don knew what buttons to push. "It's a modified Mendel inheritance, Don. Don't make me give you refresher."
"I think I need one too," Max added, licking the back of his handpaw. "Been a long time since I was in school."
Frank grumbled and stood up. "Let me find something to write on. Be back in a few."
Once the elk left, the lion took his seat and moved it into whisper range. "Sorry, Don. I was just kidding about the cow thing. You know your Grandpa Herman's a lion, too? Changed about six months ago, but I haven't spread it around to the rest of the family, though your father knows of course. The Change didn't do much for his dementia. Mostly he sleeps. I consider it a blessing."
Don nodded glumly. "Well, he is what? Ninety?"
"Ninety-one next month. Our parents weren't spring chickens when they had us," Max said, sighing. The man was in his early 50s himself, a self-employed truck driver with his rig mothballed until business picked up again. The so-so economy and the ergonomic modifications his rig needed weren't doing him any favors. "I wonder what Mom would've been..." he said, talking more to himself than to his nephew. Grandma Hilde had died long before Donald was even born.
"Anyway," Max continued, apparently seeing how gloomy the conversation had turned. He waved his handpaws as if to push it away. "the way I see it you'll either be a lynx, a caribou, a snow leopard, a whitetail, or a lion. 'Course there's always a chance for a wildcard. Maybe you'll be a skunk."
Don had imagined being most of those species. "A skunk?"
The lion cocked his ears. "Yeah. And if you turn female too you'll have to rename yourself Sabrina and get a job at a porn studio."
Now it was his turn to stare blankly. "What?"
Uncle Max chuckled and patted him amiably on the knee. "Old furry webcomic. Never you mind. Frank's back."
The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent socializing with his family. To look at them it was hard to believe they'd ever been human. Their furry-ness wasn't even a significant point of discussion anymore. When it did come up it was always in reference to their lone human member. For the first time since he was a child Donald felt like the kid who always got picked last to play sports. He was a singular being, alone in the crowd. By the time the family gathered to watch a movie together he was firmly wishing for a Change of his own.
He was long resigned to the fact that his humanity was on a countdown. Seeing everyone so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed rankled. He desperately wanted to join them.
Donald briefly toyed with the idea of being a female lynx. But as before, balked when the image of himself as a woman tried to form in his mind. The problem was that every time it came up, he swore he could almost hear the future echo of his ex-wife's uproarious laughter.
With the storm making the roads impassible the entire house was utilized. Amazingly Donald got his own bedroom, the smallest one that had belonged to his rut-crazed cousin Vince. Like the rest of the house it smelled like deer, cat, and elk. He was awake by five in the morning, habitually an early riser, but not this early. The skies had cleared in the night, and the moonlight outside reflecting off the snow created a soft white glow around the edges of the curtains. The only sound was the irregular clink-clink from the oil-based radiator that kept the room a livable temperature for a furless human
Some time later he'd begun to drift off to sleep again when the noise of a small gasoline engine sputtered to life. Opening one eye, he saw that it was now just after six. The sun wouldn't be up for almost another hour, but the only thing that could reasonably be was the monster snowblower Erik had mentioned. After a few minutes of that thrumming noise the rest of the house started to stir. From the muffled clopping it sounded like most of the deer were up. Then, Wendy's kids meowing at each other. Otherwise, the voices were all female.
It wasn't a huge stretch to guess that the men had already gone outside to clear the driveway down to the main road. Why hadn't they woken him? He'd helped do that more than a few times.
Then there was a knock on the door. "Donald, are you awake yet?" his father's voice came from the other side. "Don?"
"I'm up, Dad. I'm up!" he replied. "Shouldn't you be out shoveling snow?"
"We're already finished. Sorry about not waking you, but it dropped below zero last night and your mother didn't want you straining your shoulder. Those bruises almost went to the bone, remember," the caribou said.
Well, that makes sense. Sounds like Mom, Don thought. "Give me a few minutes to put my fur on, okay?"
"Fur? Oh, you mean your jacket. Right?" he replied uncertainly.
"I'm still the family's furless lackey, Dad," Don said, pulling on his clean clothes.
That phrase was met with silence for a few seconds. "Son, please don't refer to yourself that way. Furs in some circles use it the same... well, they use it as a racist, er, or maybe call it speciest term."
"Uh, that's new to me," Don replied. It was, and it put his co-worker's good-natured use of it in a rather different light. He shut off the heater and pulled on a sweatshirt, picking up his down jacket, gloves, and hat. "Okay, ready. What are we doing? The Costco Christmas food run?" A long family tradition going back long before there were warehouse stores. The men fetched the raw materials for the food while the women cleaned up the house and started making other preparations. "Time for the food run?"
"Ah, actually that's not going to happen until after lunch. Until then you and I are going to the YMCA. You still have a membership, right? I thought we'd shoot some hoops, maybe throw the football around. I'd like to see if I still have enough depth perception for it. My golf game's gone all to hell, you know. I have to re-learn everything about my swing."
Donald opened the bedroom door and came face to face with the end of his father's muzzle. The caribou backed off a little. Unlike other deer, caribou had fur between their nostrils; Don's mother had been calling him "fuzzy nose" as a pet name even before the Bubbles appeared. His father's eyes were easily as expressive as a human's. He looked down at his father's huge cloven hooves. They were covered with what looked like a handmade sneaker that fitted over the two lobes. "Deer shoes?"
"They wouldn't let me on the court otherwise, son," Michael Jorgenson said. "The hooves'll mar the floors. And with these I can actually stand on smooth surfaces."
"Can we grab some breakfast first?"
"Of course. I'm starving after all that shoveling. No cud left either."
The ball made a very satisfying swish through the net at the YMCA's inside basketball court. Unfortunately that was his father's twentieth attempt at making a basket. He'd raise and lower his head, moving very carefully. The bull caribou grumbled. He wore a pair of shorts and a button-up tee shirt. "Well, that's about what I expected. I can't see the damn ball when it's right in front of me. No damn depth perception this close! Maybe you'd be better off as a cat, Don. Eyes like mine are no great shakes in a lot of ways." He sniffed a few times then smirked. "You been eating well? You smell like you've had too much sugar. I can smell it straight from your pores."
The local Bubble was centered right over town, so everyone could see what he really was. Furries had already become ubiquitous in the media even before being outed. Since then, descriptions of altered senses ranged from smarmy poetry to a shrug and comment that they'd know firsthand soon enough.
"What else can you smell about me?" Don asked. The court was nearly empty, with only one other person--a female cheetah--attempting to do slam-dunks and failing almost as often as his father doing free throws.
I'm not doing much better, Don admitted to himself as he took a shot and missed. He hadn't been on a basketball court since leaving college. His job as a System Administrator wasn't exactly an outdoor position, and the hours often left him little time for exercise. He was as out of shape as he'd ever been, developing a small paunch for the first time in his life. He dribbled the ball, waiting for his father to answer. "Well? What else?" he repeated.
"Well, I've never been one for subtlety. How's your love life, son? I don't smell anything feminine on you that you haven't picked up from the women in the house. I realize we normally don't talk about these sort of things, but... It's been three years since your divorce."
"Did Mom put you up to this?" Don said, holding the ball. At the other end of the court the female cheetah's ears perked. She caught her ball and quickly slipped out. "Normally this is her job to badger me about Jessica. I'm over it, Dad. I'm over her. Jessica's no longer a part of my life, and I don't see any point in bringing up painful memories again. Mom's the one who won't let it go."
The caribou nodded. "This was her idea. But coming here was mine. I thought some quality father-son time was called for. Just in case--"
"Dad, it's not going to happen. I don't care what I end up, but I doubt it'll be female." Don thought his father sounded worried about the prospect of losing his son. The idea scared Don himself, in truth. "It won't happen. I'm not going to end up your daughter. Maybe next year I'll give Vince a run for his money. Grandpa David thinks I'll make a good stag." He bounced the ball towards his father.
"Well, if it does happen, your mother and the other female family members have plans for you," Michael replied. "Like the men made plans in case one of the girls joined us from the opposite direction. Be warned, Don. You'll be pulled into the female fold so fast you won't know what hit you. We want you to feel comfortable and accepted with your new, uh, circumstances. We're not the kind of family who would alienate you." He took another shot, and missed. "Damn my eyes!"
"I never heard about any plans."
"That's because you've shut them out even when they concerned you. Even Erik listened. All you do is smile, nod, and change the subject," Michael said pointedly.
Before he could retort, Don's iPhone rang. It was the emergency number from work. "Goddamn it. I'm not on call!" he muttered before pulling it out of his pocket. "I'm here, I'm here. This better be damned good, Abaeze. I'm out with family."
His Nigerian co-worker sounded more relieved than panicked. Abaeze was a new employee, and almost as experienced as Donald was. He'd hired the man himself. "I was just letting you know that IBM finally replaced that defective print server, but they botched the hardware reinstall and hurried out before I noticed. It'd be a simple fix for us, but..."
"'But' what? Abaeze, I'm two hundred miles away. What can I do about it?"
"I can't reach back there, Don. I think it's just one of the network cables pinched on a rail, but my horns get in the way," he said. He was an oryx who wore decorated covers on the tips of his horns for safety. "I need Steve's number. He's small enough to get back there and unjam it."
The company's ancient server racks were a very finicky setup to say the least, but the company refused to replace them. The modern servers all needed jerry-rigging to fit. Steve was the go-to guy for fixing things in small places, being a mouse. "He's not in the company directory yet? He's been with us a year! Stupid HR! I'll text it to you in a minute, so hold your horses."
His father waited patiently while he slowly and deliberately thumbed out the number manually and sent it to his Muslim colleague's own mobile phone. Then he checked his watch. "Well, it's almost ten. Should we head back?"
"I think so. Looks like we're done here anyway." He sounded disappointed with his son, but knew better than to push the issue too much.
Don thanked Providence and pure chance that Abaeze called when he did.
That afternoon the men broke into three groups, each with a different shopping list provided with some faux-caveman ceremony to the "Hunters" from the "Gatherers". Depending on how it was executed the little skit could either be very funny or very lame. This year was just strange since a lot of the Hunters were technically anything but. There was much shaking of croquet mallets in place of stone-tipped spears.
Donald went with his father, Uncle Frank, and cousin Erik to Costco.
The warehouse store seemed to be built with men in mind. Electronics were right at the entrance. The four of them made a beeline right for the HDTVs, Frank especially taken by a 65" set that he'd apparently been drooling over for at least a year. "Two thousand dollars!" he moaned, the proverbial deer-in-headlights as Iron Man played on screen. "It's dropped a full grand and a half in a year!"
"Dad you can't afford that much in cash," the younger elk said. "Don't tell me you're going to break your own rule and put it on a credit card."
"They don't take credit cards here, Erik," Frank York reminded his son.
"You already have a forty-inch set," Michael Jorgenson added. "It's barely two years old. These TVs used to last ten years before you had to buy a new one, and then because the old one broke! What a waste."
Frank looked at his brother-in-law. "You know how fast this tech is moving, Mitch? Five years ago this set would've been at least seven grand, if not more. I'll go over my finances again once we get home. I want this set!"
The other three men knew why. Sooner or later his younger brother Jack and his family would show up in their yearly new car. Jack was fifteen years younger than Frank, and his mother still babied him. Most of the family detested him, but politely tolerated him because he was Francine Nevis's youngest child who could do no wrong. The fact that he was still very wealthy after the Great Recession was either due to skill or luck.
Don's father scratched the side of his muzzle. "Tell you what, Frank. I'll chip in for half."
"What?" the antlerless bull elk said. The Costco crowd swirled around them.
"You heard me, my elkish brother. I will pay for half. I figure I owe you for taking Max in. I know he's not the easiest person to get along with."
"Put me down for a couple hundred, too," Donald said. It felt like the right thing to do. Uncle Frank's place had turned into crash space for family members down on their luck the past five years. Donald's own family had spent almost two years with them during the recession in the early 90s. Those twenty months had strained family relations almost to the breaking point, but it had also started a Tradition. And Traditions were ironclad in the family.
"Don't encourage him," Erik said. He sighed. "Fine. Put me in for a c-note."
"Guys, you really don't--" Frank sputtered.
"Bullshit!" the caribou exclaimed, a little too loudly for comfort. "Frank, your place is the go-to for every single family party. It's Tradition. Be a gracious elk and accept some Christmas spirit, will you?"
Frank looked like he was going to cry manly tears. "Thanks. Thanks a lot. I really don't know what to say."
"You get the ball rolling on the TV and we'll get the shopping list taken care of," Donald suggested. He checked his watch. "We need to be back at the house by three, and it's a madhouse in here."
"It's a fraking zoo in here," Erik said. This was the only Costco for fifty miles. It had its own little Bubble. At least one in ten customers were furry. "Let's get it done, Hunters."
Fifty pounds of red meat bought by a trio of cervids and a human caused a stir at the checkout. But the appearance of the massive HDTV at the York's place caused an uproar Donald had never seen before. Uncle Max gave Frank a careful slap on the back. "Ogg make good kill! We feast for weeks!" he said in a caveman patois. The male half of the family were similarly impressed. There was much genuine animal grunting of approval. Then the women came downstairs.
The look on Aunt Rachel's long-muzzled face, her ears folded back, made the already sub-freezing temperatures feel even colder. "What do you think you're doing? You've been drooling over that television for a year, and you buy it now? We've already spent thousands on furniture! What were you thinking! Return it now or I'll have your head for a trophy!"
"It's okay, my dear doe. Everyone chipped in," Frank replied firmly.
That only got Donald's mother in on the act. "Just how much did this cost, Fuzzy Nose?"
When he was under that gaze Michael Jorgenson's Canadian accent returned with a vengeance. "Before you get angry aboot that, hear me out Arlene. Let's go inside and I'll explain."
"It better be good," Donald's mother replied, glaring at her son. "I hope they didn't make you didn't drain your wallet for that toy."
The explanation mollified Donald's mother, but wasn't quite enough for Aunt Rachel. When Max heard he was profoundly embarrassed and offered to pay for the whole thing, but since the man really didn't have any money anyway it didn't matter. But he said it felt wrong if he didn't at least make the offer.
"You're just trying to show off for Jack," Rachel said grumpily. The old doe had her arms folded.
"I'd be lying if I said that wasn't true," Frank said. "But, come on honey. It's a family gift."
If a doe could growl, Rachel accomplished it. Uncle Frank cringed. A moment passed, then her expression softened. "Fine. Keep it. But on one condition. This one-upsmanship will not become Tradition. This is the utter limit, Frankie. And, pray tell, where are we going to put it?"
"I thought on the wall opposite the fireplace," Frank said. "We'll need a... oh." He clacked his fingerhooves together, like a human snapping their fingers. "I need a wall mount."
Donald had had enough of family drama for one afternoon. It was time to get out of here for a couple hours. "I'll get it, Uncle Frank. Don't worry about it."
The elk slapped him on the back. "Thanks, Donnie. I'll make it up to you later."
As Donald got into his SUV, his teenaged niece came to the driver's side door. "Um, can I come with you Uncle Don?"
"Um... I haven't bought my brother a Christmas present yet. Er, if you're going to Best Buy or somewhere I think I should, um... There's this PS3 game he wants, see," the gray tabby stammered.
"Do your parents know?" Donald asked. She nodded. This wasn't something he could exactly refuse. Saying no would cause the family drama that he preferred to avoid. She looked at her uncle with plaintive green eyes. "Okay kitty cat, get your tail in here."
"Yay!" she cheered.
The inside of the manager's office at Best Buy reeked of cigarette smoke mixed with vending machine food and a week's worth of crumpled Big Mac wrappers in the garbage bin. Don curled up more tightly in the corner, wrapping a tufted tail around her legs, knees up against her chest. The Change had hit in the crowded checkout line in the most embarrassing manner possible.
Now, waiting for her mother and aunt to arrive, Don wondered how she was ever going to live this down. She hadn't even looked at herself in a mirror, but could put everything together well enough. Tawny coat, white retractile claws, tufted tail, feline features and darker hair-fur that only covered her head rather than spreading over shoulders. Not a lynx, certainly not a caribou. Lioness.
Patricia sat cross-legged in front of her, going through the purse that had appeared over the new lioness's shoulder. "Want to know your new-old name?" she asked.
"Sure, why not?" Don muttered quietly.
"You're not 'Donna'. It's 'Diane'," the teenager said, her own tail making lazy sweeps over the linoleum. "That was weird. Like watching puberty in fast-forward. I wish my boobs would come in that fast. I'd like to get it over with."
There was supposed to be some kind of post-Change euphoria, but the newly minted Diane Jorgenson was overcome with the embarrassment of Changing in the middle of a crowded electronics store. It didn't help that the Lord or whatever had seen fit to change her clothes into something with a deep V-neck and no bra. Maybe God had a sense of humor.
Her cellphone rang again. Diane swallowed her pride again and answered. "Hi again, Ma. It's me. Still stuck in traffic?"
"Your aunt is, but we got close enough that I'm walking your way. I'll be there in ten minutes. These big paws are great in snow. Everything's going to be okay, Diane. The rest of the family knows already. The Gatherers of the tribe are ready for you," Arlene Jorgenson said, sounding rather choked up. "How are you? Holding together?"
"As well as you'd think under the circumstances. See you in a few minutes, Ma." Diane hung up and flexed the claws on her feet, splaying her toes. Her snow boots were the one article of clothing that hadn't changed beyond shrinking for a human foot. Apparently the Lord didn't think furs needed footwear, even in two feet of snow. She couldn't help giving her breasts a careful squeeze. With the embarrassment fading the euphoria was starting to return. Being a woman and half lion actually felt pretty good. Weird beyond words, and unnaturally natural. "Do these look as big as they feel, Patty?"
"Yes. I'd eat a raw mouse whole to have a body like that," her niece replied. "Lucky. But, unc--aunt Diane, that was really, really weird. And I went furry when I was eleven!"
"If you think it was weird to watch, remember I'm the one who actually experienced it," Diane said. After all that, the family was right. One in a hundred was actually very good odds, and they'd been due at least one. She looked down her short feline muzzle, then down at her chest, tugging on the hem of her shirt enough to make her breasts stand out even more against the taut fabric. At least she hadn't been put in a dress or a skirt. But the way her panties fit around her crotch and tail was disconcerting. "I don't believe this! I can't even describe how this feels, even to myself!"
"Well, you're a real girl. That's, like, totally obvious," Patricia said, looking at her aunt as if she was a specimen under a jar. "Wow. Just... wow. Freaky. You look pretty. But it's freaky. Pretty freaky."
There was a knock, then the door opened. Diane's mother rushed inside and enveloped her new daughter in a long, tight hug that quickly became very awkward in a squishy sort of way. "Ma..." Diane said, gently peeling her mother's arms from around her. "Ma! I get it! Please, I'm not going to panic here. I feel good, okay? Okay?"
"You're in that post-Change calm, then?" the elder lynx said. "Good. Let's take advantage of that." She smiled encouragingly and stood up. "You have a wonderful voice, daughter-mine. Need some help up?"
"I think so." The lioness extended her handpaw. Her mother took it carefully and she used the assistance to lever herself to her soft-padded feet. Her breasts made her feel top-heavy, and she had to steady herself on her toes like any other cat. Natural high heels. Diane reflexively put one arm around her jiggling bosom. "Oh, God. How do you deal with this, Mom? I feel like I'm--"
The door opening again interrupted her. Aunt Rachel stared openly. "Why didn't you say she was a lioness, Arlene?" she fumed at her sister. "You led me to think she was a deer!"
"Just funning ya, sis," Arlene replied. "Guess she takes after her uncle Max."
Diane still had the presence of mind to remember what she'd come for. The boxed wall mount for the new TV sat leaning against the wall next to the door. It wasn't cheap, just over $200. But a 65" LCD was very heavy. She'd been holding it against her chest when the Change hit. Squashed breasts were not a good first sensation. I'm not going to let this paralyze me. This happens to people every day! "I'm going to complete my purchase then we can go," she said.
Her words stunned all three relatives. "What? Are you sure, honey? I'll..." When it was clear her new daughter was serious, her mother shrugged. "Well, okay. But first thing's first. It's cold out there and you're on your bare paws." her mother asked. She dropped a bag she had carried in with her. "Here, I brought some pawboots for you. I borrowed a pair from your sister and your brother-in-law, just in case."
Her sister's were too small, but Greg's were just right. Diane bent down to pick up the wall mount and found it much heavier than before. She clutched it to her chest and got back in line. It'd been long enough that the majority of the people who had seen the incident had already gone, leaving only the cashiers. By the time she finally got up front her arms felt like wet noodles from having to pick up and carry the huge box every few seconds. She pointed a finger at the female raccoon cashier. "Not. A. Word. Just do your job."
"Oh, of course. That'll be $242.89, ma'am. Merry Christmas. And, uh, enjoy yourself, if you know what I mean," the raccoon said, wiggling her eyebrows.
Aunt Rachel drove Diane's Escape back while she rode with her mother, tail curled around in her lap, sometimes brushing the dashboard with the darker tuft. Having a tail was almost more fascinating than breasts. An entirely new appendage, it resisted her attempts to grab hold of it before she gained full control. Her mother was silent until the lynx finally got them out of the town center traffic.
"I should warn you that your father's beside himself," Arlene said. "His antlers dropped when he heard the news."
Diane felt like doing a spit take. She almost sneezed when her tail tuft brushed her nose. "You're kidding."
"One jerk of the head was all it took. They snapped off like dry branches. Your uncle Frank helped him stop the bleeding pedicles." Arlene looked at her daughter sideways. "We have a lot to talk about. All of us Jorgensons."
"I suppose so."
"You've been rewritten. I hope you realize that. That video we took of you yesterday? Human woman. Watch it when you think you can. Believe it or not, Diane's the name I'd chosen if you'd turned up a girl when you were born," her mother continued. "Of course, now that's what everything says actually happened."
Diane turned her head to look at her mother. "So, what does that mean?"
"It means, though our memories say otherwise, Donald Jorgensen never existed. I wish the Lord would do it differently, but I'm not going to second guess Him. As of today you're my daughter and always have been. That's the way it is. So that's how I and the rest of the family's going to treat you."
The enormity of that statement started to sink in as they approached the Yorks' house. Diane tried to remember the conversation she'd had with her father just that morning. Suddenly she was very, very nervous. "Um, Dad said something about plans?"
"We won't start in with that until tomorrow, so you can relax. First thing is that the four of us need to have a talk. You, me, your sister, and your father. Then you and I need some mother-daughter time. There's a lot of things you don't know. The Lord might have made you a woman-true, but you don't really know how to be, so we're going to teach you."
Everyone was very quiet when they entered the house. Eerily so. Uncle Max was more vocal. "Damn. Just... damn. I was really only kidding, Don--"
"Diane," Arlene said pointedly.
"Diane. Sorry. At least you're not a cow, right? Heh. Heh." Max folded his ears sheepishly as Arlene glared at him.
The wall had been cleared for the new TV, which hadn't been unboxed yet. There was a game of Trivial Pursuit--board games were another Tradition--laid out on the dining room table. Most of the kids were in there, teamed up with their parents for the game. Wendy's children watched her with wide, confused eyes. Nobody else looked up from their games. Old classics like Monopoly, Clue, and Connect Four. Quite the opposite of being accepted, Diane felt shunned.
Wendy and her father awaited in the bedroom at the very far end of the hall where their parents slept. Her father's expression was indecipherable, an odor Diane didn't know how to read yet emanating from him. Her sister the snow leopard, on the other hand, immediately gave her a hug. "Welcome to the fem side, sister. And the kitty side."
Diane braced herself for what was to come and closed the door behind her.
Shortly after the talk they returned to Diane's room. The lionesses' head felt stuffed full from two hours of talking and reassurance that she wasn't going to be rejected. They continually reinforced that they fully accepted her as a woman, and would teach her everything she needed to know about being one. And about being a cat.
"Diane, I'm your mother and I'm your nurse. I need to make sure you're a healthy young woman under that fur. I know this is very difficult for you, but please," her mother argued in a very familiar tone of voice, one the lioness had heard frequently during a now-vanished childhood of boyish injuries. She really was a Registered Nurse with feline cross training, so that much helped.
"Mom, I haven't even seen myself naked yet. Can I have some time to myself? Please?" she pled.
"Well, first of all you won't really be naked. You'll be 'in the fur' as we say now. Trust me. It feels much, much different not to have any bare skin when you're unclothed," the elder lynx said.
Diane unceremoniously pulled off her tight-fitting shirt, only then realizing just how long her hair was, and nearly tearing it with accidentally-extended claws. If her mother hadn't acted quickly the shirt would've been ruined. Diane sighed deeply and pulled back the dark golden mass away from her eyes, then got an eyeful of cleavage. She reached up and cupped her breasts. "Oh, oh God. These are mine? I mean, these breasts are actually mine?"
The Gender Bent Fur had already become a media cliché. From reality shows and movies that featured them exclusively to the victim in an ensemble cast. Really, one in a hundred odds were very high and Diane knew of two female-to-male on the company staff already. Everyone knew someone who had different naughty bits now. Since the Veil had given up and simply made even their human image reflect what they really were, it wasn't like the early days of the Change any more.
Which meant, outside the Bubble, there was still a human version of Diane Jorgenson.
"Yes, they're yours. And you really should wear a bra, daughter-mine." Diane's mother picked up a tape measure. "Raise your arms, like this," she said, lifting them so they went straight out. "I need to get your cup size and your other measurements. This is just one of those tedious things you need to know."
Once that was finished, Diane removed her pants and was ordered by her mother to get on the bed for a short exam. She was so used to obeying the Nurse tone of voice that she did so without thinking about it. But when her mother-the-Nurse started poking around in areas she hadn't seen for herself yet she spoke up. "Ack! Mom, your paw's cold!"
"I don't see any Change defects," Arlene Jorgenson observed, taking notes. "Your, ah, genitals are normal and your breasts are healthy. Roll over. I want to check your tail."
Diane did so, relieved not to feel so exposed any more. She quickly propped herself up on her elbows as her breasts squished uncomfortably. Her hair-fur was long enough to almost reach the small of her back. It felt heavy, awkward, and very, very girly.
"Okay. I've done what I can outside of a doctor's office. I'll give you the name of an OB/GYN where you live. So far you're off to a healthy start, daughter-mine. Not that it's unusual, mind you. Now, as for clothes..." She bent down and started looking through the two suitcases--not just one--Diane had apparently brought with her.
A half hour later Diane's claws were clipped, she'd practiced putting on a bra to her mother's satisfaction, and had put on a red dress she'd found in one of her suitcases at her mother's insistence. The pants and shorts she had brought still needed modification for her tail, so it was arguably more practical. Wendy came in to retrieve the pants and looked her sister over. "Not bad, sis. Not bad at all. I think you're ready for the rest of family. They've been ready for you for a while now. What's been taking you two so long?"
The lynx smirked. "Potty training."
"Moooom!" Diane protested, feeling her ears turn hot. "I'm... I'm a grown woman. I didn't need your help."
"I bet that's the first time you've said that in your life, sis," Wendy quipped. The snow leopardess swished her thickly-furred tail as Diane's ears felt even hotter.
From the direction of the family room there was the sound of a drill. Arlene's ears perked. "Oh dear. I guess they got tired of waiting. Wendy, go tell everyone we're coming, will you?"
After all the talking and all the preparation, the return to the family room felt rather anticlimactic. The women were mostly sitting near the fireplace with a coffee table in the center, covered in newspaper ads and print outs from various web sites of women's clothing stores. Diane's mother led her new daughter over to sit between her and Wendy on one of the couches. On the other side of the room the men were puzzling over how to attach the TV to the wall mount.
Francine Nevis, the family matriarch and Diane's only living grandmother, presided. The elderly snow leopard was in good health, but not so good that the Change enabled her to walk normally. She sat in a power chair as if it was a throne. "Now that all nine of us are here," she said, giving Jessica's mother a pointed look. "We can start planning tomorrow's shopping."
Oh, right. The Traditional last minute shopping trip. The women go shopping while the men clean house and watch football, Diane thought. She didn't like football much, but letting the women go do their own thing for a while helped everyone relax. Then it really dawned on her. This year she wasn't going to end up the unlucky male Bag Carrier. She was going to be fussed over and pushed into trying on who-knows-what.
"This year our newest member will be the one to pick the Bag Carrier's name out of the hat," Francine said. "I think we can actually avoid the appearance of favoritism this time. Welcome to our side of the family, Diane."
Across the room Diane's father solved the backplate problem, and the massive TV was finally mounted securely on the wall, to the applause of the other men. The lioness groaned inwardly and briefly gave her father a plaintive look, hoping the rest of the Estrogen Brigade didn't notice. Come on, Dad. Get me out of this.
The caribou reacted instantly and came over to their side of the family room. "Ah, ladies, if I may interrupt a moment?"
"You may," Grandma Francine said.
"I'd like to invoke some Father-Child privilege here. We could use Diane's help hooking everything up to the TV. She's the most technically-oriented. The kids want to watch Kung Fu Panda."
Michael Jorgenson was one smart cookie and knew including the children in the appeal would convince them. Francine pondered this. "Well, I suppose she can. Be mindful that you send her back once she's finished. We have battle plans to make."
"I will, Francine. I will," Michael said.
Diane felt like giving her father a hug, so she did. It gave her the opportunity to whisper in his ear. "Thank you, Dad! Thank you!"
Her father grunted awkwardly. "You're welcome."
"Basement Cat! It's Basement Cat! Basement Caaaaat!" Wendy's children shouted, running up and down the hallway. Diane half-opened one eye. During the night she had thrown off all the sheets and was stretched out across the entire full-sized bed. Unable to take it any more, and wanting some time to herself, she'd retreated to her bedroom right after dinner. The borrowed chemise she'd used for night clothes was also on the floor, leaving her in-the-fur.
"Basement Cat! Basement Caaaaaaat!" Even Dylan, a 12-year old whitetail, was getting in on the act in his bleating voice. "Basement Ca--" A roar that could only have come from Max cut him off. If the children hadn't awoken everyone already, they were certainly up now.
Diane sat up in bed, carefully moving her tail around her legs. Her mother had laid out her clothing for today, something she hadn't done since age seven. And somehow she'd found a store last night with some panties for feline-tailed furries. Well, a ton of specialty stores have opened up. Wish she'd found me a pair of pants, though. They haven't finished tailoring what I have yet.
She put on the bra, as practiced, then worked on the Velcro that closed over her tail for the panties. The problem was that the rest of the outfit was a long, goldenrod-yellow dress. "Forget it, Mom. I'm not wearing that," Diane mumbled to herself.
"What was that?" her mother's tired voice came from the other side of the door.
Ears. Remember the ears. "I said, Mom, I don't want to wear a dress. I know what you said about adapting quickly, but... well..." Diane fumbled for the right words.
"Jack and his wife are here," Arlene informed. That explained the whole uproar about 'Basement Cat'. Jack was a black jaguar and so looked the part. "Can I come in, Diane? I think you could at least use some help with your hair."
Diane opened the door just long enough for her mother, only in a robe herself, to come inside. "What's he driving?" the lioness asked.
"I haven't looked, but the men are going outside to salivate over it. But I want you presentable for Jack."
You mean Jack's wife, Diane thought. "Mom, please. Fine, I'll wear the dress and you can help me with my hair, but that's it. I'm not going to drown my old self in estrogen in one night of girly chitchat."
"Okay, okay. We won't push you to do anything you think you're not ready for," her mother replied primly. "Do you still want to come shopping with us today? We'll understand if you decide to hang out here with the Hunters."
Her words said one thing, her body language and tone of voice another. If she didn't come it'd be a black mark against her. "No, I'll come. I remember everyone talking about 'full immersion' last night."
"And you weren't really paying attention, were you? You've done that ever since you were a child, Diane. Even your cousin made 'Plan Erika', just in case."
"Mom, please. I'm really not in the mood for a lecture right now. I haven't done anything to deserve it. Please stop treating like a child." As she pulled on the yellow dress they both heard the sound of another car engine thrumming through the compacted snow up the driveway.
Her mother flicked back her tufted gray ears. "As a person, you're an adult. As a woman and a lioness you were literally born yesterday. I've been reading up on this for two years, Diane dear. You don't know jack about yourself. But God help me, by the time the Gatherers are done with you you'll have happily gone native."
Diane didn't like the rather ominous tone in her mother's voice. Not another word passed until her hair was done and tail tuft had been brushed out as well. Her mother even supplied some jewelry, but decided against the yellow ribbon. "I may have been born yesterday, but I'm not dressing an eight year old girl," the lioness growled.
Arlene Jorgenson dropped the ribbon on the floor. "Okay, okay. I know when I'm pushing my luck. Let's go say hello to Jack and whoever else arrived."
The newcomers added five more to the multitude. Jack and Eleanor Nevis with their twenty year old tiger-dyed jaguar daughter, who arrived in a brand new (purchased only the day before with the sticker price still on it) red with black hood stripes Chevy Camero SS. How he'd managed to come up the driveway so quietly without waking anyone was a mystery, though the children had obviously been up already.
The other two were Lisa Ross (formerly York) and her ten month old daughter, Faline. They were elk and whitetail, respectively, and the older women immediately started to squee over the baby as they had at Thanksgiving. "Sorry I'm late, all," Lisa said. "My husband has to work over the holiday."
"We haven't seen him since your wedding," Rachel York pointed out. The man had Changed soon after, since they'd been married at the beginning of August in 2008. The elder doe looked at her grandchild. "Now, why would he refuse to come out here again? Hmmm? Is he embarrassed at being a cute little pony? Hmmm?"
Lisa ignored her mother's baiting. She'd said the exact same thing at Thanksgiving. "Are we in time for the shopping trip? I really didn't want to miss it again this year!"
"Well, I'm glad you respect it that much," Rachel said tartly. "We'll go after a quick breakfast. The carnivores need their meat or they get grumpy."
Diane hoped to slip back into the house unnoticed, but her mother grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her in front of her cousin. "Lisa! Nice to see you again. You remember your cousin, Diane? My daughter?"
The elk-woman opened her mouth, hesitated, then sniffed a few times before giving the lioness a close look. She snorted in surprise. "Daughter? Holy Jesus fuck! You're Don, aren't you?"
"Lisa! Language!" Rachel York hissed, moving her muzzle in the kids' direction. The young boys were swarming all over the Camero.
The younger female elk put her free hand on her hip while the other arm held her cervine baby. "Mom, if this isn't something to swear about, what the hell is? I can't think of anything more jarring than a tits-and-tail Change." She turned to Diane again. "Wow. Just... wow. Wow! Wow. I don't know what else to say. You look great! I mean, great figure! Nice boobs and butt and all. Wow. But... I don't get it. How'd you end up a lioness? I thought you'd end up a caribou like your Pa."
Diane had always liked Lisa. She was fun to be around, the family's proverbial black sheep who basically did whatever the hell she wanted. She selectively rejected the family Traditions she didn't like, and gleefully participated in those she did. The fact that she didn't automatically hate all of them kept her from being persona non grata, though the family had only met her husband a few times.
"I'm... going back inside," Diane said. "It's cold out here. There's some coffee on if you want it, Lisa."
"Caffeine and we deer-types don't mix, especially since I'm nursing. But I'll take some of your mother's hot chocolate if there's any." She stood next to the lioness and put her free arm around her shoulders. A true comforting gesture of support she really hadn't received from her own mother yet, and her sister was just being bossy. They went back into the warm indoors together and into the guest room behind the garage for some privacy. "Look, my girly girl cousin, stick close to me, okay? I'm sure the family's genuinely trying to help you in some way, but we know them, don't we Diane? They'll overdo it, then overdo it some more, right when you really don't need it. You need some quiet time to absorb everything instead of being smothered."
"We do know them. I'm feeling just a little overwhelmed with all this."
"Let me have you hold the baby for a while. I think that's femmy enough to get them off your back for a while. The bitty doe loves you. Look." She licked her baby on her nose. "This is your Aunt Diane, Faline!"
The fawn gave her a look of pudgy disapproval. A white-spotted infant with floppy ears and a slowly-twitching black nose, she was bundled up against the cold. Newborn furries always looked the most human the first year and a half after birth. After ten months the more deer-like physical features had started to fill in. The difference in just two months was noticeable. Her feet were elongating, her toes becoming true cloven hooves, and her fingernails were more harder as well, with a strong grip. To Diane's delight, during Thanksgiving she had held the infant for over an hour while her mother helped in the kitchen with the rest of the Gatherers. Diane laughed and extended her arms. "Okay, I'll take her off your hands for a while, momma elk. I'll be a good kitty."
"I'm sure you will. But if you lick her and say that she 'haz flavur' I'll give your boobs such a pinch," Lisa replied. "I'm deadly serious here. If your sister's cubs keep doing that I'm going to..." She started laughing at her cousin's shocked expression. "Kidding! I'm kidding. She likes a good tongue-grooming, right along the top of her muzzle. Here you go."
Diane took Faline with some trepidation, but gave her a careful lick where her mother advised her to. The fawn-girl gave a little milky burp then settled in the sling carrier with a contented sigh.
Carrying Faline was like wearing a magic talisman. Through breakfast every one of the Gatherers focused on the fawn rather than Diane. Rachel York especially, since the child was a whitetail like her grandmother. Aside from that, having a baby resting against her breasts, brushing against them as she wiggled and moved her arms, was deeply satisfying. At least until they arrived at the local mall and Faline decided she was hungry. Diane felt something warm and wet clamp down on her left nipple through her bra.
"She's hungry alright," Lisa said, amused. "Here, give me."
Reluctantly, since the past hour and a half had been mercifully absent of being encouraged to "immerse in womanhood completely", she handed the infant in the shoulder sling back to her mother. On cue, Diane's mother gave her a hug from the seat next to her in the back of the minivan. "See? Didn't that feel wonderful? We all saw the look on your face. Motherhood agrees with you, Diane."
"Maybe. I suppose so," Diane waffled. There was a wet spot on the front of her dress where Faline had slobbered on it. The lioness folded her arms over her chest self-consciously. "So, what's the plan of attack?"
"We'll stay on the west end of the mall. This Bubble's been stable for six months. You felt what it was like here outside the Bubble earlier, didn't you?"
Diane nodded. Arlene had driven across the border near the house very slowly. It was a very prickly sensation, as if all the nerves in her tail had fallen asleep. Re-entering the Bubble had given everyone pins-and-needles. Faline, normally a very quiet baby, had been upset and bleated both times.
The mother elk pulled open the Velcro panel on her shirt, exposing one of her thinly-furred breasts, and held her baby up to it. Faline started suckling, a milky foam forming around her lips. Rachel stared. "Really! I know the child's hungry, but you shouldn't do that in public! Even in the minivan! It's obscene!" the old doe scoffed.
"I can't think of anything less obscene than this, mother," Lisa replied firmly. "Besides, I'm showing the new girl here that the boobs aren't just for masculine titillation. They're functional. See, Diane?"
"Um, yeah. I see," Diane stammered, for once somewhat agreeing with her aunt. But today it wasn't a good idea to disagree with her cousin.
Their parking space was at the far end of the row. The Gatherers numbered thirteen plus one male Bag Carrier and had split into three vehicles, including Grandma Nevis's handicapped-enabled van. Erik was the unlucky Bag Carrier this year and was his grandmother's chauffer for the day also. He scowled at Diane as they walked up. She'd picked his name out of Grandma's hat. "I'm going to get you for this, cousin. I'm going to find the girliest gift I can," the 25-year old said.
Diane rolled her eyes. Jack's wife and daughter had opted not to come with them. "Come on, Erik. I know you hate uncle Jack. For once I'm glad I don't have to endure that arrogant ass. Besides, I was Bag Carrier three years ago."
"I hate Jack, but I love that car. He even offered to let me test drive the Camero," Erik whined.
"He's such a sweetie," Grandma Nevis said as the van's lift lowered her power chair. The elderly snow leopardess was used to shutting out any negative comments about her wealthy son, even when the rest of the family expressed them openly around her. "He always gives such wonderful gifts! So generous!"
That's because he thinks he can buy respect, Diane thought. The man was the family's piggy bank, though she had never actually asked him for money because it always came with strings attached. Her Uncle Max refused to have anything to do with him.
Stable Bubbles were uncommon, but the local Veil was strong enough to push back enough that an equilibrium was established. This one was three miles wide, and the border roughly divided the mall into halves. As a result most of the new specialty stores that catered to furry needs were on the west side. Diane walked in the subfreezing weather between still-nursing Lisa and her own mother, with the shorter lynx holding her hand as if she was a child.
First stop was Grandma's favorite department store, Macy's. Diane only had a single goal in mind. Everyone except Grandma and herself wore properly-tailored pants. The store already had furry-tailored clothing for sale. The lioness gravitated to the "Cat-Tails" section. "All I want is a simple pair of pants."
"'Simple' and women's clothing are terms that never go together, sister," Wendy said. The snow leopardess always wore bright colors to contrast her natural gray and white with black rosettes. "Welcome to the madhouse. Mom said I should be your shepherd here. So let's see what actually fits your shapely behind, hmmm? And you'll need some new tops to go with it."
"I'm a grown woman. I can pick my own clothes," Diane argued.
Wendy waggled her finger at her. "You don't get to use that excuse this time, sister. We've got our marching orders from the General herself. So just suck up that new chest of yours and listen to your bigsis kitty. It's not just about plain solid-colored polo shirts and khaki pants any more. And just because it says 'large' on the tag doesn't mean it's going to fit you. It was bad before everyone started going furry."
Over the next few hours of store-to-store wandering Lisa tried to hand Faline off to her several times, only for the fawn-child to be taken by her grandmother or her older sister Vanessa. Erik had the foresight to rent a pushcart. Half the bags inside were "welcome gifts" from family members for Diane. Bras, underthings, shirts, pants, pawshoes, a half dozen skirts and dresses, even some jewelry. They made her try on each and every one of them. Only when Erik went to put the first "battle casualties" into one of the cars did the lioness finally get a snack break with Lisa.
"I swear if I have to try on one more camisole I'm going to roar at all of them," Diane grumbled. Wendy was the worst, insisting on approving everything her other relatives brought before her before purchase. Admittedly she had a good sense of style, but Diane still felt her family was treating her like Vanessa's twelve-year old daughter.
Patricia, the family's only other sympathetic female ear, sipped her Orange Julius through a straw. "Half that stuff they got you is for old ladies! Yuck!" the gray tabby said.
"I'm also not fourteen like you are, Patty. I honestly still have no clue about this. But I can at least tell you what a camisole is and my bra size. My head feels full of whatsits with straps and thingamabob tops. It's all blurring together into one great, pink, girly mass."
The young cat gestured at her leonine aunt with her straw. "You're wearing one now. Your bra straps are showing, too."
"How are the pants?" Lisa asked. "I hope that outfit I picked out comfortable. I'm not a cat, and I don't have much tail, so... It's a cute outfit, though. You look nice."
Diane had slipped into the restaurant's small, odorous bathroom and changed out of the dress. Her mother and sister were delighted she was wearing her new clothes, so at least that didn't cause a stir. A red camisole top and a pair of loose blue jeans with a belt. Even with the admittedly minimal top, the inside of the mall felt very hot and odorous. They were all sweating under their fur. "They're fine. I'm fine. How many stores are left in the Plan?"
Lisa shrugged. "I don't know and I don't care. You and I are going to sneak off on little cat feet. Or at least you are. I'll just go clippity clop." The elk smiled. There was enough background noise and the others were preoccupied with the baby. "I know some good places at the other end of this mall. It means we'll be out of the Bubble, but I think it'll be worth it. Think you're up to being perceived as a human woman for an hour or two?"
The lioness shrugged. "Sure, why not?"
"I'll go extract Faline from my mother. You can hold her while I shop for myself. Sound good?"
Diane nodded enthusiastically. Patty wished them luck and opted to stay inside the Bubble. One successful extraction later, they were free of the Gatherers.
There was a coffee shop at the edge of the Bubble called Half and Half, since the immobile border neatly split it. The shop itself had once been a Starbucks, but once the Bubble stabilized the company had closed the shop and it was taken over by an independent human-furry partnership. It was the site of hundreds of "coming out" videos on YouTube. The shop spaces on the upper floor and on the opposite side were all empty. Furs visibly girded themselves before crossing the border. Though their human ghosts were no longer visible to Diane as they stepped through, the results were obviously uncomfortable.
A human crowd inevitably gathered here, despite the mall's efforts to keep people from loitering. There were a number of handheld Flip HD cameras in evidence. Few furries actually ventured to cross the line, in any case. It was that unpleasant to cross here.
Diane also hesitated, remembering just how suffocating the local Veil felt. The Bubble membrane was clearly visible here, refracting light from the other side like a pane of very thin glass. Lisa marched right through it, her familiar human ghost briefly visible as the membrane shaped itself around the tall anthropomorphic elk's body like plastic shrink wrap. The lioness swallowed and adjusted Faline's carry-sling around her shoulders, protectively hugging the sleeping infant to her bosom.
It was just like walking into a wall of plastic wrap. Diane almost felt suffocated as it enveloped her, making her tail almost numb and giving her not just a prickly sensation, but the feeling of bare skin. The seconds passed as she suddenly knew firsthand of what being a fully human woman was like. Only when Faline started bawling did the naked strangeness fade into the now familiar half-lioness. Taking a moment to scowl at the voyeurs, she followed her beckoning cousin.
"Vince is the oldest and Mom and Dad gave him the smallest bedroom," Lisa said after returning home from six exhausting hours of shopping. "Frankly I think that's part of why he was so belligerent. They made him work for everything, fight for everything. Nothing was ever handed to him like it was for the rest of us. So he gets really defensive about what he does have. The Rut just magnified what was already there," the cow elk said.
The explanation didn't mollify Diane much. Vince was the kind of roughhousing cousin that as Donald she'd always dreaded meeting, because the very first thing he'd do was do a flying tackle and start tickling. She disliked him almost as much as uncle Jack. The idea that he would do that even though she was a woman now made her grit her canines.
It was now two in the afternoon. Diane yawned widely as they entered Vince's old bedroom, still carrying Faline in her sling. Before reluctantly handing her back to her mother Diane gave the little fawn-girl a sandpapery slurp down the full length of her short muzzle from front to back, garnering a giggle-bleat in return.
"You're really a natural with children," Lisa said, opening the Velcro panel again. "Even before you Changed she took to you. So I don't think it's because you're a woman now."
"It still helps, I think," Diane said, feeling an all-too-familiar longing. She watched the infant suckle from her mother's breast in envious fascination. Diane looked at her cousin's four-nipple breasts, and then her own. "It's going to take me a while to wrap my brain around being a potential mommy."
"Diane dear, after what I've seen today I think you'll be a natural at that, too. You probably don't know, but gender-changers usually adapt even faster than the rest of us. They're rather... notorious for doing certain things within a few days of their Changes. Must be the hormones."
"My Mom called me a 'woman-true'. Maybe that's what she meant. I suppose have maternal instincts as strong as my paternal ones were," The lioness felt a little dizzy. She realized that the female side of the family never actually tried to correct any perceived masculine behavior. Perhaps because there wasn't any to correct. Instead they just carried her along with what they normally did on Christmas Eve Day, as if she'd always been one of them. She wrapped her arms around her breasts and hugged them. "Oh God, I have a lot of reading to do about this." >> "You're probably right, but right now, who gives a shit? You look tired, Diane. You cats sleep a lot. Feel like a nap? You've had a big day."
The lioness felt her eyelids grow heavy and she yawned, licking her nose with her tongue. She looked at the number of large Victoria's Secret bags sitting on the floor. The Gatherers had gone ahead and purchased some things without her presence. She was afraid to even look inside. They'd assured her, smirking insufferably, that she'd love everything they'd bought for her. "Just how much do you think they spent on me, anyway?"
"Do yourself a favor and don't ask. You'll feel bad about it. Smile, nod, say thank you, then donate what you don't want to Goodwill or something," Lisa said.
"Sound advice. On the girly gifts and the nap. Come to think of it, I don't even know what's in my own closet at home. Wake me before dinner, will you?"
Lisa promised to try, but couldn't guarantee anything. "Cats sleep anywhere, anytime. And you're cat enough to do just that, cousin Diane. I'll just tell them to run the can opener."
"Hey!" Diane protested, wanting to toss a pillow at her. The protest quickly became another yawn. She sighed and undid her pants. A sharp urine odor filled the room from the fawn's direction. "Faline needs changing."
"I'll take care of her. See you in an hour or two."
The lioness underestimated her ability to nap. The other felines in the family had been that way longer and apparently knew how to inhibit the instinct to doze whenever there was nothing to do. Or maybe Diane was just more physically and emotionally exhausted than she thought. When Lisa finally awoke her it was nearly six in the evening. "Hey, sleepycat. Time to socialize and eat," the mother elk said.
Diane levered herself up on all fours. "I'm up, I'm up. I'm up and dangling." Her breasts wobbled freely.
"Wait until you have babies. That's nothing," Lisa quipped. She sighed. "Your mother wants you to dress appropriately for dinner. I volunteered because I know your sister would dress you like Lady Gaga just for kicks. You realize you've been a woman for a full day now?"
"Feels... longer." Much, much longer. More like ten years.
"I'll let you pick out everything. I don't think you can really go wrong with what's in your suitcases. I looked while you were snoozing. You've got good taste."
"So, she wants me to 'dress appropriately'? Emphasis on 'dress', no doubt." Diane put on the bra she'd worn earlier that day, almost getting a claw hooked in the elastic band. She looked at her cleavage, folding her arms under them for a little added support. Her golden eyes looked over the bags and tried to recall something she'd actually liked. "How about the... no. What about... no. Ah, crap. I'm already doing it, aren't I?"
"Yes, yes you are. So many clothes and nothing to wear." Lisa laughed good-naturedly, folding her arms. Her mother probably had Faline right now. "How about something blue? You wear a lot of blue and I don't see why that would change just because you have a different set of 'nads."
"Well, there was one..." One that her grandmother had actually chosen at Macy's, and it wasn't a cheap dress either. She'd spent some time modeling it for the old woman. A knee-length silk halter top, meant to be worn without a bra. Diane fished it out of the bag and used her claws to remove the tags, then unzipped the back. Part of her balked at the idea, but she put it on anyway. Her cousin zipped her up.
"That'll do. Yes, I'm sure that'll placate your mom. Is it comfortable?" Lisa asked.
Diane tapped her low forehead. "My mind is doing somersaults, but I'll be okay." She looked at her cousin, head tilted. "Lisa, you confuse me. Sometimes you openly rebel against the family Traditions, other times you don't mind placating them. Why?"
"I'm selective. Rebellion just for the sake of it is for disaffected teenagers and James Dean. My husband, bless him, doesn't see the point and thinks I should just ignore you all. That's why he isn't here. But... you're my family. You can't choose your parents or your siblings, can you?"
"You don't even know if you're going to be the same sex or species when you wake up in the morning," Diane said dryly.
"Exactly, Diane. Exactly that. Compared to the Change every other annoyance isn't worth a straw penny. Now, let's go eat. I'm out of cud."
Christmas Eve Dinner was Traditionally very light on effort, in anticipation of the next day's feast. One year long before anyone was Changed Uncle Jack had called a gourmet catering service and outdid anything the family could otherwise make. That caused the biggest family blowup Diane could remember, and it still had no equal. Jack hadn't welcomed back to family gatherings for a couple of years. Even his own mother was that furious at him.
Not that catering wasn't an option. Tonight's meal was Chinese with a selection of meat and vegetable dishes. The spiciness in the air overwhelmed Diane's newly sensitive nose as she walked down the long hallway. Wendy waved at her from the dining room door. "You're a little overdressed, but you look great, Di! Grandma will love it!"
"Di'?" the lioness questioned.
"Would you prefer 'Anne' for a nickname instead?"
Diane shook her head. "Let's stick with my full name for now. Once I'm used to hearing it maybe we'll discuss nicknames."
"It's a fair cop. We've been waiting for you."
Furry applause was a mix of fingerhoof clopping and the soft slap-slap of handpaw pads. Even Jack and his wife joined in. Her wealthy uncle's wife and daughter hadn't come along on the shopping trip, so Diane hadn't exchanged more than a word or two with them. She hoped to keep it that way.
"Now that everyone's up and around," Aunt Rachel said, smiling at her new niece. "Let's eat!"
The family was so large it had to divide everyone between several tables. Traditionally there was one for the "Oldsters" (over-35), the "Youngsters" (16-34) and the "Kids". The Oldsters' table was in the dining room, another one was setup in the family room for the Youngsters, and the Kids' near the foyer. The severing table with the food sat roughly between all of them at the wrought-iron rail next to the steep stairwell. Uncle Max normally sat with the Kids, regaling them with heavily-sanitized versions of his road stories as a trucker.
Being in the Family Room meant actually seeing "El Grandissimo" as her Uncle Frank had christened the new HDTV. Whether Jack York was suitably impressed by it the lioness hadn't heard, but from Frank's smugness it seemed he finally put one over on his younger brother for once.
Diane piled her plate high with Mongolian Beef and headed for the Youngsters' Table. Her Aunt Rachel stopped her. "Just a minute there, niece. We've got a spot reserved for you at the Oldsters'."
"Huh? But I thought..."
"Don't worry, it's just for tonight. You're sitting between your parents."
With the grandparents at either of the table there was just enough room for her. A total of eleven people made for a tight fit, but it was just for one night. Her father pulled back her chair for her like a gentleman. Diane wasn't sure how to feel about that, but her handpaws were holding a plate full of steaming hot beef. The antler-less caribou looked glum, even a little depressed. The lioness made sure to get into the chair from the left, since that way had the tail notch.
"Dad?" Diane asked, putting her handpaw on his arm next to her. "Are you okay?"
"I'll be fine, daughter-mine. I'll be fine," he replied, sticking a fork in the small amount of chicken he'd mixed in with his vegetables. "Fine."
"He's more flustered than he thought he'd be about this," Arlene Jorgenson said, looking at her cervine husband affectionately. "All the anecdotes I've read is this is harder on family members than Gender-Changed. But, let's not discuss such intimate topics at the dinner table."
Everyone dug in, chatting about various sundry things. After a while Diane realized that there was something missing from this family meal. For the first time since 2006 everyone felt relaxed. The other shoe had dropped, she realized, because everyone was furry now. Changed family members no longer had to walk on eggshells or avoid bringing up furry topics. Even last Thanksgiving they'd been studiously avoided talking about it with the two remaining humans around. Her relatives had even let the matter of her new womanhood drop for now.
Diane Jorgenson sipped sparkling cider from a lopsided muzzle-designed glass. The long end rested on the tongue. Manheim Steamroller Christmas albums played in the background. Diane savored the moment of family harmony.
"So, Diane," her cousin Rebecca began from across the table. "Have you let Janice know yet?"
The lioness almost dropped the glass. "What? No, no I haven't," she stammered. "Why should I?"
The chatter from the others went silent at the mention of Diane's ex-wife. Her Uncle Jack licked his nose. "You know, that's an interesting question. You were married for what? Two years? What happens to a married couple when one changes sex, anyway?"
"If there's children they both change sex," Arlene supplied tersely. "The children must have two parents, so it balances out."
The black jaguar bit another forkful of meat and looked thoughtful. "But Donald--sorry, I meant Diane--and Janice didn't have any children. Though I don't recall the exact reason for the divorce, myself. Do you think Janice is a James now, Diane?"
"Or maybe our Lady Di here is a lesbian," Rebecca said with a snide tone of voice. She was a domesticated cat like her daughter Patricia, but white-furred. "If so, they might've gone off to Vermont for their ceremony. I'm sure we can find their wedding photos in one of the albums."
Diane repressed a growl in the back of her throat and calmly put her fork down on her plate, then scooted her chair backwards. "I'm not going to sit here and listen to this kind of speculation barely a day after my Change. I'll be going back to the Youngsters' table now, if you don't mind."
Rachel York's son Patrick, a whitetail like his father, looked aghast at his own wife and gave his mother an apologetic look as Diane made good on her statement. Nobody stopped her from leaving. Fortunately, though the others had undoubtedly heard the whole exchange, they didn't bring it up again.
"Run run runrunrun!" Patricia's parents chanted as their teenaged daughter ran in place on the Wii Fit board. The young cat's furry avatar on screen dashed forward through an obstacle course. The families were taking turns on the system that had been hooked up to El Grandissimo.
"Mom! I'm not seven!" the catgirl protested once she finished. It was her deer brother's turn now. She slumped down on the floor next to the couch her leonine aunt had just about taken over. Patricia smiled at her and started brushing her tail. "Why don't you try, Aunt Diane?"
Diane had changed back into a plain blue tee shirt and denim shorts with a tail sleeve after dinner. Her tail lay in a large slot where the seat and back of the couch met. She looked at her heavy breasts, giving them a squeeze. "I don't think I'm up to all that jumping around yet, Patty. I'm not used to the way my body moves any more. Besides, it could be a little embarrassing."
"Jumping jacks," Lisa suggested. "Without a sports bra. You'll get used to the boob-bounce really fast."
"But for God's sake! Stop playing with them in the family room!" Diane's mother hissed. "You don't even realize you're doing it!"
"Mom, they're sort of brand new, and..." Diane stopped when she realized there was nothing she could do to convince her mother. "Never mind. I'm sorry. I'll be a good girl."
"I want boobs like Aunt Diane's," whined Vanessa's daughter Jennifer, who was a 12-year old mule deer. She flicked her huge ears. "Then people won't be making fun of my ears. 'Cause they'll have something else to look at."
Vanessa groaned. The snow leopardess gave Diane a slightly hostile glare. The lioness shrugged helplessly, but kept her hands off her chest from then on. Her tail was in many ways much more interesting. Her muzzle, doubly so. She spent the next five minutes just staring down her nose, or consciously swishing her tail back and forth. A full stomach had left her feeling lethargic, and that Jessica had been brought up had shaken her deeply.
Diane lay down on her side, stretching herself out on the long side of the L-shaped component couch. She would have fallen asleep if not for her mother. "No you don't, young woman. I know it's hard after eating, but we're about to have the Christmas Eve present opening. Have some coffee or one of those unhealthy energy drinks."
"Can it wait a couple minutes? I think I need to visit the bathroom," Diane said.
"Don't spend too long inside. Or we'll chose which present you'll open for you," Arlene said.
That much was Tradition, too. At the moment she hardly cared. Aside from sleeping she hadn't really been alone since she Changed, now she craved as much time as she could get. "Be back in a few minutes, Mom."
After shutting the door behind her Diane took her laptop out of its bag and awoke it from hibernation. It was time to get some important questions answered. The Yorks had a broadband internet connection, at least. And last Thanksgiving she'd set up a wireless network throughout the house. The first thing she did was connect to her company's virtual private network to check her personal records.
There she was. Diane Jorgenson, date of birth June 7, 1981. Gender: Female. Date of Hire: May 9, 2005. Address, compensation history, and everything else was the same as before... almost everything.
Martial Status: Single. Not divorced. Single. No records of ever being married.
Diane would've fallen backwards if not for her tail. The lap desk kept her from going sideways. But strangely, she found this evidence more offensive than a source of relief. She'd been given what amounted to a cosmic retcon. She may have been born yesterday as Diane Jorgenson, but the document trail had been altered all the way back to her birth. "HR is going to get a huge shock when they return on Monday," she mused aloud.
She'd sworn not to check her iPhone until the 26th, but took it out of her purse anyway. She had friends back home that would take her Change a lot harder than her family was. There was only a single text message from Abaeze late on the 23rd: ^WTF? U a WOMAN now?^
She wondered if she should bother responding until Sunday, then replied anyway. Just a simple, ^Yes. Coping. Not easy.^
Surprisingly the reply was immediate. ^U gonna call in chick?^
Call in 'chick'? Chick? Diane wanted to groan, but that was Abaeze's sense of humor for you. The Nigerian was in love with bad puns. ^Funny! But, yeah. Might as well. Got a terminal case of tits. Don't think they'll go away,^ she replied, typing with the iPhone's touchscreen with some difficulty. A careless scrape of a claw could easily ruin it.
^Good luck wit that D. Mry Xmas.^
For a second she wondered how he could possibly know her cup size, then smacked herself on the head with the padded palm of her hand. D for Diane. Or Donald. "Duh!"
Sitting cross-legged on the bed, Diane adjusted the lap desk so she could see everything clearly. Her breasts weren't really in the way, they were just there in a big way. Between them and her muzzle she had to move the laptop so it was far enough away to see clearly. There were so many little things she had to change, lifetime habits that no longer applied. From sitting down to pee, to having breasts you had to reach around in order to do everyday things, and having a freaking long tail to boot. It all added up in a very big way.
But having her marriage edited out of existence felt wrong, despite now being the "wrong" gender for that sort of thing in most of the country. Diane refused to believe the Lord would have done such a thing out of malice, despite being changed into a cat-woman right in the middle of the Best Buy checkout line. Cousin Rebecca's line about being a lesbian had struck a little too close to home. One of the few things she and Janice had agreed on during the court proceedings was to be vague about the reason for their divorce to their families until they were ready.
The lioness heard hoofprints in the hallway. "Can I come in, Diane? Faline needs changing," Lisa asked.
There wasn't a lock on the door. At least not since some vague incident when Vince was a teenager. "It's still your house. I'll cover my nose," Diane replied.
"It's not my house any more," the female elk pointed out after opening the door. "And this was never my room. Couldn't stay away from the computer, could you?" She walked over to the dresser, deftly taking a new diaper out of its bag as she walked by.
"I had some questions I needed answered."
"'Needed'? You found them?"
"Some of them. There's just one more place where I can look, but..." Diane swallowed. "I don't think I should. Your sister already unsettled me enough and I don't want to--"
"They're each going to pick a present after I finish changing Faline," Lisa informed. "Then it's time for It's A Wonderful Life."
Diane felt sick to her stomach. Her meal sat in her belly like a ton of concrete. "I... I really don't think I should watch that this year."
"What? Why?" It was one of Lisa's favorite movies and she saved it for Christmas viewing. Then her eyes widened as the plot of the movie sunk in and how it applied to her cousin. "Oh! Oh, I'm so sorry, Diane. Normally I'm faster on the uptake than that. But it isn't quite the same. You still exist. A girl you, but still you. And we all remember Donald."
At a complete loss for words, Diane closed her laptop and put it back in the bag before laying down on the bed again on her side. She shut her eyes. "Go ahead and pick one for me, Lisa. I trust you and I think the family will understand if I'm not feeling very sociable right now. I'm going to try and sleep it off."
"They've pushed you pretty hard today. I'll let them know."
Diane sighed, curled up, and tried to doze.
She didn't awake again until just after midnight. Murmurs of quiet conversation from the family room filtered through the door, growing louder when she rotated her ears towards it. It sounded like the adults were playing Santa, laying out the presents for their kids. The lioness stretched and yawned reflexively, working out the tension in her muscles. At the same time she knocked a small box to the floor that had been sitting on the bed next to her.
The wrapping paper was a red-green holly pattern, and it smelled like Lisa had recently handled it. Strange how she could already identify her cousin just by scent. It was a smallish box, maybe the size of a paperback book. It was impossible to know if it'd been purchased before or after her Change. The gift tag said it was from her mother.
Diane drummed her fingers on the bed. Well, Lisa did pick it out. Might as well open it.
Even with clipped claws all it took was an index finger and a small flex to extend a single one. "So, what is it? Jewelry? Perfume? A box of tampons?"
It was none of those things. In a custom cardboard box, a pair of Furgonomics Big Cat earbuds. She must have bought them today. There was a Furgonomics store in the mall, but... stuff like this is really hard to find. Now she'd be able to listen to music from her iPhone again. "Thanks, Mom."
"You're welcome," Arlene's cautious voice came from the other side of the door. "I'm sorry, Diane. You need to talk more quietly to yourself. You're too close to the family room, and I heard you stirring. Can I come in? Are you decent?"
She'd pulled off her tee shirt as she'd slept. Her hair-mane was in a lopsided messy tangle, a mass over one eye. She combed it back with her fingers. "Just a minute, Ma. Let me get a shirt on."
Diane found the shirt on the floor next to the bed, all tangled up like her hair. The new woman quickly realized that if her cousin had come in she would have seen everything in bare-breasted glory. And her mother had seen everything already anyway. So she just lay one arm across her chest and opened the door. "Come on in, Ma."
The 62-year old gray-furred lynx closed the door behind her. "Do you want a haircut? That is rather long. It must be heavy and bothersome."
Diane cupped her breasts and lifted them. "Speaking of 'heavy and bothersome', Mom. How do you deal with these day in and day out?"
"If you'd really been Diane from birth, we probably would've had this discussion when you were, oh, fourteen or fifteen. You would've simply grown into them. There's a lot of things a young woman should know that naturally you don't.
"But... Diane, dear, Lisa told everyone why you didn't come back," her mother said, sitting next to her daughter. "I'm glad you like your gift. It was originally for your sister, but she was happy to give it up."
"Figures." She poked her mother on her near shoulder. "Mom, I'm sorry I didn't..."
"Don't apologize, Diane. There's nothing to apologize for. It's okay to break Tradition under circumstances like these. Lisa was very... explicit. We didn't watch the movie. Your uncle put on Hogfather instead. The kids loved it."
"That's good," Diane mumbled.
Her mother sighed deeply, tufted ears flicking. "Diane--Donald--your old self isn't going to vanish in a pink puff of fur and estrogen. This isn't It's a Wonderful Life and you're not George Bailey. We all remember who you were, accept what you are now, and the woman--the person--you'll become. What we're trying to do is make the transition easier for you."
"This is going to take more than a day, Ma."
"You'd be surprised," her mother said matter-of-factly. "You're already a woman-true. I don't think you realize just how naturally feminine you act already. Not that I want to scare you, but it's similar to what freshly-Changed furries go through, though for you of course it's a double-Change.
"One day later I could look at myself in a mirror, see this face, these paws, and like it. I can tell that you're fascinated with your body, otherwise you wouldn't be fondling it so much. I speak from experience--I spent days just wiggling this short little tail of mine for the sheer delightful novelty of it--so trust your mother on this one."
Diane really didn't know what to think about that statement. From her mother's tone of voice she expected her to consider how she felt some kind of blessing. Perhaps she was right, since the alternative was madness, but Diane was in a contrary enough mood to not agree with her just yet. She pulled on her tee shirt. It stretched around her breasts. "Thanks for the earbuds, Ma. I really didn't think the old ones wouldn't fit."
"Don't mention it, Diane. And I mean that. Your sister's been asking for those for over a year. I just have one small request."
"Oh? What's that?"
"Deep down I'm glad you're enjoying your new body; and I know it's natural you want to play with your breasts--that novelty value I spoke of. Just don't do it in the family room, please Diane?"
"Heh. Okay, Mom. I'll police myself better from now on."
The lioness went out to the family room just long enough to say good night to her relatives who were still awake. Her uncle Max had already planted himself in front of the fireplace on a down comforter and pajama bottoms, emulating the lion he resembled so strongly. The Christmas tree sparkled, as the parents had taken extra care to arrange the kids' presents and stuffed stockings (shaped for paws or hooves) just artfully so. After finding out that Lisa had gone downstairs to sleep with the children in the big room behind the garage, Diane returned to bed.
On Christmas morning they would all be up very, very early.
The family was so large that it was impossibly expensive for (almost) everyone to buy gifts for everyone else. Outside of the nuclear family gift-givers were assigned four people at random, and not too expensive. Though "too expensive" varied from year-to-year. 2010 had been good to most everyone after the economic chaos of the Great Recession. Even Jack had lost almost half his personal fortune in Crash of 2008, if the SEC filings were correct. Investing in the new American oil gushers and bacterial gasoline facilities had made him even richer than before, if anything.
Only poor Max had yet to find work, but being unemployed meant the "too expensive" rule was lifted if said gift was cold, hard cash.
Aside from immediate family gifts, Diane had boxes from Grandma Nevis, Rachel, Jack, Lisa, and an "extra special" one from Erik she was dreading opening.
Uncle Max was the Designated Santa. He'd created a space for him to crouch behind a veritable castle of gifts, golden eyes, alert ears, and wild almost-black mane visible over the top as he looked from person to person, like a predator ready to pounce from the tall grass. He grabbed a present, the first one of the morning. "You! Thank fast!" he tossed the rectangular box to Diane.
It was from Grandma Nevis. But the old snow leopardess seemed downcast. "Um, I don't think that's going to fit you now, Diane. But don't worry, deary, you can exchange it for something that does."
"Don't worry, Grandma. Maybe it's unisex," the lioness mused as she sliced open the green-striped Mylar wrapping. It was indeed a Macy's box. Her mother passed the wrapping down into what would become a huge pile for the kids to play in later. Then she opened the top.
It was the very same blue silk dress she'd been bought the day before. "Um. What the..?"
"Well, everything in your suitcase changed, didn't it?" Lisa said. "Stands to reason that any clothing gifts would, too."
Grandma looked puzzled. "Well, it was a blue silk dress shirt. Heh. I guess I liked that wonderful dress so much I gave it to you twice!" the old matriarch said, laughing. "Oh dear. The Lord does work in mysterious ways. You do look stunning in it. A perfect lady-cat. Shiny like a new penny!"
"So what other gifts changed?" Diane wondered, ears feeling hot at the unexpected compliment.
"We can find out quick," Max suggested, finding another box for her. He looked in askance at the rest of the multitude. "Do y'all mind?"
The grumpy looks he got in return from the children was answer enough. They did mind, and their expressions were distinctly feral. Feline tails lashed and cervine ears folded back. They didn't care that one of their relatives just turned into a lioness. They wanted to open theirs now. "Let's get the kids' gifts passed around first," Diane said. "Then we'll see how girly my other ones ended up."
Max nodded and gently tossed the next one to Patricia.
With the children mostly satisfied--there were always a few gifts that only got a terse thank you--her leonine uncle passed out the remaining gifts to the respective recipients. Most of the children had already gone downstairs to play with their new toys. The atmosphere took on a much more serious tone.
"I think these gifts will surprise everyone, Diane," Aunt Rachel said. The whitetail doe's ears raised up. "Go ahead. We'll open ours once you're finished."
Diane had four more to open from her extended family. It was only seven o'clock, but the ham was already heating in the oven for the afternoon feast. She chose the one from Lisa first. The cow elk tilted her head and adjusted Faline, switching from the left breast to the right. The fawn-girl was currently attached to her nipple, taking her Christmas breakfast. Rachel York had given up on trying to stop her from nursing openly like this. "Well, you know me and gifts," Lisa said. "Frankly I think it changed into something appropriately girly. A cat like you needs adornment, so I'd guess it's jewelry now."
"What was it before?" Diane asked.
The elk shrugged. "Does it matter now? Come on, let's see if I'm right."
It was a lapis lazuli and gold necklace in an Egyptian style. Diane gave her cousin a skeptical look. "You bought this yesterday, didn't you?"
Her cousin chuckled. "Yes, while you busy being your mother's dress-up doll in Express. Like I said, a lioness like you needs adornment. I think that will look especially regal on you. C'mon, put it on."
Diane's mother helped her with the clasp. It was a flat design with an ankh in the center. She resolved to look at herself in the mirror later.
"I'm curious if mine really changed all that much," her Uncle Jack said. The black jaguar's even darker rosettes of spots speckled his fur. Like pretty much all of the men he was shirtless this morning. The Change had given all of them a lot to be proud of, with six-packs and abundant pecs. "The box is the same size, at least. Go ahead."
Given its size, shape, and heft Diane suspected it was a laptop. Slicing through the wrapping paper proved her right. A 17" MacBook Pro. "Uncle..."
"Well, That should be a Dell. One of those mini netbook things. You mentioned your old laptop was giving up the ghost, so I--"
"That was a year ago, Uncle Jack. I replaced it just a few months ago," Diane interrupted. "I don't see how having a Mac could be construed as 'more feminine'. I'm a Gentoo Linux ma--um, girl. I meant girl."
Her uncle blinked. "Whatever that is."
"How much does something like that cost?" Aunt Rachel asked, looking at her brother-in-law with some skepticism. "Two, three thousand dollars at least?"
That was far, far over "too expensive" for this year. It was considered greedy and selfish to accept a gift like that, even moreso than giving one. Diane put it aside, still partly-wrapped. Diane suspected that the gift itself hadn't changed at all. Her Uncle Jack was only using her Change as an excuse to claim he really hadn't bought it. "Sorry, uncle. I could use a netbook, though."
Her Aunt Rachel's gift was a few extra months to her Netflix subscription. No change there. When she finally got to Erik's, her younger cousin smirked. Diane shook the box. "I'm afraid to open this."
"The Bag Carrier always gets a revenge gift for whoever picked him," Erik replied. "Oh, I'm sure you'll love it. You girly girl, you."
It was a Furry Baby Alive doll, promising "realistic eating, drinking, peeing, and pooping!" The head and face had been crudely repainted to resemble a generic feline's. "Um... thanks Kirk. Really, really cute."
"Why have a doll when you can have the real thing, cousin?" Lisa handed Faline to her. The infant gurgled and waggled her arms. "Hold her just like this." Lisa nestled the child up against Diane's breasts so that her head was resting on the left one, soft and comfortable. Cervine furry infants were very quiet compared to fully human ones, and she had very little odor.
Diane felt flushed, but not from embarrassment. She couldn't really explain it, but this felt very right. Very natural. Very maternal. She felt like curling up with the child, protecting her. It felt something like her original desire to be a father, something Jessica had refused her over and over again until it broke their marriage. It was the same melody, just with different lyrics.
Diane's mother snapped a picture. "And that, my dear daughter, is what I meant by being a woman-true. Because you are."
December 26: Epilogue
"I'm sorry I have to skip out early, Mom," Diane said, packing the last of her presents into the small Ford SUV. "But I got an emergency call from work. Abaeze is overwhelmed and--"
"That's okay dear. We'll see you at New Year's, right?" her mother said.
Diane gave her shorter mother a hug and an affectionate lick on her cheek. "Of course. I probably won't be here until near midnight, assuming the weather holds. But I will. And tell Aunt Rachel that Vince is welcome back. I'd like to see his boys again."
"You sure your co-workers will accept you like this? Weren't you going to call in sick?"
The problem with the Change these days, even if you got more than furry out of the deal, was that it was so ingrained into the public consciousness that the only day many employers would allow off was Change Day itself, since most people still changed on August 17. Unless you were one of the growing numbers of out-of-phase victims like Diane was. Since Diane had Changed during her vacation she didn't even have that excuse.
Her company's Human Resources department had weighed in already. You're a woman now? And you're a lioness? It didn't matter. No excuse. You're healthy and probably still mentally stable. Go back to work and fondle yourself on your own time.
It just went to show that humans--people, anyway--could adapt to any strangeness after a while and accept it as normal. Companies had even begun to offer a "Change Bonus" to human potential hires that they'd get money for an "adaptation allowance" once they did.
The lioness opened the driver's side door and sidled in so her tail stuck out to the right. The Escape needed new seats. It was going to be a long four or five hours until she got home. Then she would see what else had changed. I hope my motorcycle's still there.
Just as she was about to pull out, Lisa came out of the garage with her baby in hand. Diane rolled down the window. The temperature was just above freezing. The snow from the pervious storm had begun to rot, with an icy crust. The driveway had been very thoroughly de-iced for the cervids. "Can you wait a few minutes? If you don't mind I'd like to follow you home. I'm just about ready to go, and I figure you could use some help getting settled again."
"You sure? It's about a hundred miles out of your way."
"Sure I'm sure! Being a housewife has some advantages. It's not like I'm on any timetable."
Diane fished inside her purse and removed a spare house key. "See you there, cos. And thanks."